Dematerialisation of art

© Ryszard Kluszczynski
Ryszard Kluszczynski

In March 2011, Ryszard Kluszczynski, a recognized theorist on media art, visited Ukraine as part of the “Open Archive” series of meetings with renowned representatives of Polish contemporary art. He gave his lecture “Strategies of Interactive Art” in three cities: Kyiv, Lviv and Kharkiv.

Yanina Prudenko: During the lecture you said that in media art the camera isn’t an artifact, it’s just a technical medium, so what can you say about art object in media art?

Ryszard Kluszczynski: There is a specific use of technology in digital art, it’s used to create traditional objects, then we can create anything that belongs to the repertoire of traditional art.

But this isn’t a deep contribution of digital technology mediums, it appears when we start to create interactive art, when we start designing a virtual space. Here the art object disappears and we’re dealing with art that disappears in the classical sense. But we should remember that art began to distance itself from real things in the 1950-60s, becoming more conceptual, more happening, performancy. Modern technology didn’t start the process of dematerialization of art – this happened earlier.

Y.P.: As a theorist, I am very interested with the subject of interactive art. I am particularly interested in the correlation between game and art in interactive art. When teaching my students about interactive net art, I heard comments that it isn’t art, it’s a game, a toy. And then it occurred to me to explore what is so bad about art being a game? Have you ever asked yourself this question and how did you respond?

R.K.: The development of art in the 20th century, from the first historical avant-garde appearances to the present, showed that we can’t form a group of basic properties that we can ascribe to art, as it was possible several decades ago. We could form an essentialist definition that would clearly define the boundaries of art. And this doesn’t become possible through the initiatives of researchers, but with the initiatives of artists that use new principles of forming artistic reality. And in the given situation, the only way to figure out what is art is through the institutional theory of art formulated by George Dickie.

Institutions determine the total of what we call art. As for the concept of game – this brings to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote about the meaning of the word “game”. He points out that the word “game”, like art, isn’t easy to define. Every time we form a definition of games, it leads us to a game that fit not only within the confines of this phenomenon. Wittgenstein proposes new categories, the concept of “family resemblances”. It means that all games can be defined by the word “game” even thought many of them have nothing in common with other events that are also called games.

I can illustrate Wittgenstein’s idea with a very interesting experience I had. The Millennium Dome was opened in 2000. This was a large tent in London where mankind’s achievements over the last thousand years were showcased in celebration of the millennium. I was there and visited the different sectors in the dome.

Y.P.: These weren’t just achievements in the field of art?

R.K.: There was everything. There were also artistic things. But there was also a sector dedicated to games, and to my surprise there were several art works that are very important for interactive art. The organizers classified them as games and displayed them in this sector. What do we consider a game and what art? But this choice is ours and it’s not binding on others. Say for example we tell someone that this is a game, and they reply that no, this is art. This is the first problem concerning the given question.

The second problem is that we talk about a game, we mean not just the simple form of a game, but a certain type strategy. A game is a category with which we can name and describe an action. A game can be military, when we try to defeat an enemy; a game of love, when we want to win over another person’s affection; a social game, in various manifestations. A game is not just the name of a particular event, but also a category by which we can describe the event, and we can also apply this to art. Art can reach certain types of strategies of behavior that we associate with games. Only this strategy is based on new goals. It’s not about winning or losing, or fulfilling a purpose. There are other processes taking place during a game. It’s not about accumulating the most points or reaching a particular score, it’s about gaining a particular experience.

Through a game we learn something else. It doesn’t apply to the game itself and its process, it is not something external or additional, but it is important in terms of the artistic dimension of this event. So, the game becomes an artistic strategy. Art can take on the form of a game, without ceasing to be art. When students tell you that media art isn’t art, it’s a game, you can answer “no”. We don’t have to treat it so literally. It’s art and a game at the same time. It’s art that draws itself in the structure of a game. It’s a game that sets itself additional goals that we identify as artistic.

Y.P.: Media art, including interactive, is an example of the modern hybridization of science, technology and art. Doesn’t it seem to you that we’re returning to elementary syncretism, but on a higher point on the historical spiral?

R.K.: It’s possible. That’s probably the case, but we’re not moving along a spiral, we’re experiencing new events that we’re trying to understand and describe using old constant categories that were used for other phenomena. We understand that we’re now dealing with totally different events that we’re trying to describe using other categories.

It’s not that obvious that there’s a spiral along which we’re moving. Instead, there clearly exist categorical characteristics – syncretism and hybridization - that we use today. We should also remember that syncretism doesn’t entirely explain the connections between different properties and elements of a game and interactive art. When we talk about this type of form, we can say it’s an organism whose components merge and unite, and we can’t separate them without causing harm.

When talking about hybrids we’re talking about organisms but the kind that exist on the level of ancient development, using ancient genetic code, guaranteeing the development of this organism. But these hybrids don’t have characteristics that unite them into one single form that before this process of hybridization held separate places in society and had absolutely different properties. Today when we talk about modern cultural hybrids we keep in mind that global communication produces a new society, organized not around particular systems of social values, not within one territory, this is a society made up of fundamentally different units. But at the same time, in overcoming these differences, new types of societies are created that require completely different attempts at explanations.

In this sense, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s concept presented in the book The Coming Community is interesting. He points out that earlier we spoke about art or a game as phenomena that can’t be described in an essentialist way, or to put it differently, we can’t assign them a common denominator for identification. Traditionally, when we think of identification, we think that every object that claims to be part of something must participate in it. So, we’re talking about a society in which every member participates in its identification and is an example of this society.

But every example can be different than all the other examples. So, if society is made up of examples, it can be made up of an endless number of individuals, completely different, that have no common goals. What are modern societies? Category of society is pushing out category of people. When we talk about a people, we think of a community that has certain common traits, goals, language and history, territory. When we say community, we’re talking about people that decided to live together, pay taxes to the same budget. They can be of different races, different beliefs, believe in different values. They create this community where there are identical identifications.

We talk about hybridization as a traditional perception of syncretism, a vision of forms. This all existentiates to itself, but at the same time signalizes the character of the world we live in. These phenomena often have a heterogeneous nature, to which we increasingly refer. Hybridity is a basic contemporary philosophical category, which so far can’t be defined.

Y.P.: During the lecture you said that the modern viewer is more interested in virtual reality than his own reality. Why is this so?

R.K.: I wouldn’t put it that way. Rather, the modern world is acquiring images that are more virtual than real. In our environment there are more and more virtual forms of simulacra, as Jean Baudrillard would say. And the more kinds of forms there are in our environment, the more we use media to find certain kinds of information. The clearer world in which we engage stops being shared directly in our circle of interests, and is more accessible with the help of media. In other words, a new form of access to reality is created.

Lev Manovich described this manner of contact with reality in an interesting way when he wrote about digital technology. He characterized this phenomenon as a cultural interface and noted that when we think about digital access to different cultural forms, we have in mind only those forms that were created digitally, such as computer graphics.

For example, we think about artifacts of traditional art: painting, carving, ceramics – forms that exist in material objects. But if we need information about them, we don’t usually get on a plane and fly somewhere. We just sit in front of a computer and see this on the screen. So, that digitalization of the world doesn’t just mean there are more and more digital forms, but also that we consider them not as digital forms, but part of our reality.

The German philosopher Welsch suggests that the more often we come in contact with virtual forms, the more real forms change, ones that aren’t virtual by nature, but simply exist with us in a world that is being virtualized. And then we start to look at usual forms of reality as if they had virtual properties. They become fluid, they don’t have lasting forms, their existence isn’t stable. Although they are material, or physical or theoretical.

What we call reality is a construct that we build ourselves based on mental experience. If part of this mental experience has a virtual character, then this is projected on the entirety of our mental experience. So, our world of knowledge is in a sense virtual and if we have a virtual digital conscience, then this strengthens our belief that the world is virtual.

For example, Polish philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman notes that in the modern world impressions about Others take on a temporary nature, like virtuality, like Baudrillardian simulacra, they don’t tell us whether this is a true representation of something, or if it just exists here and now beyond distinctions of falsehood or reality.

Y.P.: Mr. Kluszczynski, you are somewhat familiar with the media art situation in Ukraine. Compared with Ukraine, Poland has a considerable history of development and institutionalization of media art. What advice could you give us on our path of forming a theory and practice of media art? What should we begin with?

R.K.: I believe that education in this case is a very important form of activity because, first of all, you have to understand that in the art world for many years institutions have been forming that fully dedicate their activity to media art. For example, Ars Electronica, Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, ICC in Tokyo. There are festivals such as the media art biennale in Silicon Valley (USA), such as the festival that evolved into the WRO Media Art Biennale in Poland.

In art education there are departments that have been around for many years that specialize in studying the skills of students, that study the art of creating virtual and interactive forms. There are also many publishers and journalists that specialize in this field, many books are published in various languages specializing in this phenomenon.

I think that raising awareness of this among students of art universities in Ukraine and Poland is the beginning of a process. Moreover, this is easier thanks to the internet – accessing literature that isn’t available here or is expensive even abroad. On the internet there are many examples of this art, every respectable artist has his own site where he presents his works and makes them accessible.

If you were to carefully design an educational program in which you use virtual educational tools, you can say the situation is perfect. We have texts about media arts and media art itself. We even have the opportunity to communicate with media artists. They can talk with our students via skype – this is now possible. We have many opportunities, we just have to take advantage of them.

I believe that today many significant changes begin with proactive people, not decrees, government documents, not by creating a media art museum or media art academy. However, if this develops from the bottom, for example, with students, this means that at first you only need a few sources of information, and then they themselves will begin to develop the theory and practice of media art in their country.