Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis,
305 pp., illus b/w. Trade, $75; paper
ISBN 0-8166-4119-2; ISBN: 0-8166-4119-6.
Reviewed by Mike Leggett
Creativity & Cognition Studios,
University of Technology Sydney.
The genesis of this valuable contribution
to media arts literature was a database.
A 1999 website set up by Victoria Vesna
for a special issue of the British journal,
AI & Society, became the focus
for collaboratively generating the publication.
The database variety of the form as we
know it today, the blog, was yet another
example of how artists adapt tools invented
to service office-culture. As Vesna observes:
an aesthetic emerges when
artists take on the challenge of creating
works using the vast amount of information
that bombards us daily."
The organization of information is the
aesthetic and philosophical challenge
she poses both to her contributors, her
readers, and to her students. Our acquisition
of knowledge hinges on this embrace and
through Vesnas continuing use of
her website, enables the opportunity for
readers to engage with the authors. It
provides students in particular, with
a novel means of extending the use of
the valuable background coursework material
contained in the volume. Twelve of the
sixteen contributors are exhibiting artists
working in the field. The essays reflect
their concerns through description and
discussion of interactive and generative
installations both on and offline.
Data has long been a central feature of
the presentation of artefacts and art.
Identifying and selecting from the detritus
of what is found or encountered: to
keep or to throw? Moving datum into
the defined space of the database becomes
a decisive moment. A collection is formed.
What makes a collection significant?
The collection is traditionally central
to the curator, the museum, the connoisseur
and the study of art, (another variety
of data generator). The gates (and gatekeepers)
of the physical location of the art experience
are closely watched if not locked. The
experience mediated through electronic
means, online and in public, provides
navigable data space through which knowledge
creators can participate in both syntagmatic
and paradigmatic modes. Manovichs
concern here is, (like Vertovs eighty
years ago), how to merge database and
narrative into a new form. Weinbrens
extended contribution takes these concerns
forward (and appropriately, back as well),
in a discussion about concepts of editing
(duration and ordering) and the subjunctive.
Kleins aphoristic approach to playing
with the semantics of the words data is
in contrast to both Vesna and Pauls
discussions of common data models as cultural
forms addressed through meta-narratives.
The taxonomies of online curation are
also examined by Dietz and challenge notions
of permanence implicit in databases located
using ephemeral browser tools the
random and specific search engine - and
servers saddled with Cartesian back and
front ends. Daniel deftly relocates these
concerns into social practice and activism,
the materiality of informatics
that, handled imaginatively, develop within
communities an aesthetics of dignity.
Sack maintains similar concerns traced
through a valuable reappraisal of the
theory and practice of Artificial Intelligence.
Seaman describes fields of meaning
from his extensive notes on recombinant
poetics, produced over close-on
two decades and made apparent with his
several interactive engines. Nideffers
survey of game engines as a database interface
concludes Part One of the volume. The
shorter Part Two is descriptions of data
projects by artists Paterson, Legrady,
Hershman-Leeson, Kac, Klima and Peljhan.
All contributors are based in the USA
and most reference the European
schools of philosophy. This reflects
the availability of the printed word and,
in spite of all that is claimed, the tendency
for the many aesthetic databases sited
physically outside the North American
continent to remain online but in affect,
left on the distant shores of the old
world. Indeed Daniels fascinating
historical found analogue systems are
Working with databases in these contexts
is at the advanced end of media arts evolution,
often requiring collaborative and consultative
effort. Perhaps the next book in the series
on database aesthetics will include contributions
from the scientists, (with whom Vesna
is clearly familiar through her recent
nano technology collaborations), who produce
outcomes complimentary to that of media
artists, or as she describes them, context
The index is exhaustive though there is
no bibliography, surprisingly, as all
the contributors are frequently published.
Indeed several of the essays here are
based on earlier published versions. But
the footnotes are extensive, combining
partly the two functions, thereby (appropriately)
providing data, in a contextual setting.