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Portrait of the artist as a young hacker

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by yvette poorter


Start here. In the beginning there was clay. Ya, there was clay and paint and stone and marble and cont´┐Ż and tempera and wax and wood and enamel and metal and plastic and fiberglass and daguerreotype and microphones and sand. And there was a melodramatic artist with a violent temper, a black beret, a life-time supply of sunflower seeds, a studio in New York, and of course: a computer. Come on, we don t define art or artists by whether they conform to specific understood media. Naa, we call it art if it s successful in its use of the medium in defining itself - whatever that may be.

So it s just a matter of adding COMPUTER to the list of other tools and materials used by artists in the past - is that it? Yep, i guess so! The artists use what is available to them and if what s available is insufficient, they develop and create something more appropriate. It s all in relation to intention, context, and result. Certainly with each addition to the long list of tools and materials, a re-evaluation of our scales and terms is necessary to describe any new art form.

With the invention of the camera and its subsequent change in status to household item, there came an obsolescence of realistic representation in painting, drawing, sculpture, whatever. But with the invention of the camera did art cease to be or did everyone toting a camera become an artist? Well okay, so you've probably heard hundreds of people going on about wanting to get into photography and loads of them (us) probably did get into it; darkroom techniques -the whole bit! Still, how much does accessibility of equipment have to do with artistic creation? The creative person with access will likely make creative stuff but that still leaves the average person with access likely making average stuff. It only makes sense - doesn't it?

WAIT! Wait a minute, i don t mean to suggest that computer technology will only effect art in its production stage because that is by far its smallest influence. And we don t need to redefine ART or ARTIST any more than we need to redefine the word DEFINITION. There s way more to it than that. We need to re-evaluate our concepts of space because that big ol world has been reduced to fit through the wires of a computer and the new "NEW WORLD" is an unchartered place that somehow exists in/out there - somewhere. Bigger still is the weird fact that this new frontier is both conceptual and actual at the same time (kinda like money). We re talking about a global communication network here - one which has given new meaning to the words access and excess. Information and ideas can be transferred within seconds - and we thought planes were fast. Is there some, as yet undiscovered, jet-lag-like computer ailment - some sort of compensation? Or is this new technology perhaps more in tune with true time or a new dimension? Oh boy ... here we go?

Art is communication and computer technology has opened the doors of communication wide. With Virtual Reality on the horizon, it s predecessors include text oriented interactive environments such as Media MOO, where the participants actually develop the space/scene as they go along. Engaged in whimsical or serious conversation with whomever is met along the way from space to space, it s up to those involved to decide where they want to take it. It s the act of both reading and writing a story at the same time - a story in which everyone has the potential to be and meet both fictional and real people. Light entertainment but with a lot of potential for crossing paths with unique individuals world-wide and infinitely more informative and interactive than TV. I mean... if you can call sitting in front of a screen with your fingers tapping away, interactive.

Why is the book better than the movie? Ya, why is that? Will Virtual Reality perhaps be the movie adaptation of the MediaMOO book? By providing the visuals in virtual 3D, no matter how spontaneous or stimulating the computer generated images are, they are given and do not demand the imagination of the participant to the same extent as would text generated images in the mind. Sure, the cinematography in movies can excite and portray something as never imagined but it just can t portray it as imagined. In the words of Paul Saffo (from the article Hot New Medium:Text, WIRED May/June 1993), Video enthusiasts are quick to argue that images are intrinsically more compelling than words, but they ignore a quality unique to text. While video is received by the eyes, text resonates in the mind.

No doubt about it, in comparing the imagination s interplay with text versus its passivity with video, we can understand the fundamental differences of the mind's experience. Then again, without the visuals dance just wouldn't cut it! Without the visuals and sensuals, physical acts just "aren't"! Imagine venturing to compare sitting on the grass with reading about the grass, having sex with reading about it, eating chocolate with reading about it ... NOPE! Real life wins for being out there in the physical - and real life even has room for the books and the video and whatever else we invent into it! So where does Virtual Reality fit in? It would seem that virtual reality is an attempt to combine the physical act with the conceptual one.

Having myself only been introduced to computers within the last month, already a lot of apprehensions have subsided. Schooled during a time before computer access, i m way too familiar with the fear and skepticism felt by the computer-illiterate. Wanting in, wanting to resist, wanting to understand what it s all about - but from the outside not the inside. Aha, but our computer demands that i stand in its mouth to hear it speak! Well here i am, ready to climb into the belly of the crocodile i m attempting to tame. Heck, it s only a virtual crocodile anyway...

So i got lured in - so i like it - so i m dying to learn more about utilizing the networks - so i can t figure out just how it s possible to run out of space when we re dealing with something so minute (how many cans of megabyte fit on the RAMshelf? Hmmm...) - so Jaron Lanier charmed me into enthusiastic support of his Virtual Reality - so what? It s only real life and here i am in it. When it comes right down to it, it s all what my mind perceives and how it organizes its perspective. We accept the paper we call money, giving more value to a $100 bill than to a $20 bill and we take a figure on a piece of paper to represent lots and lots of bills, although we know these bills don t actually exist. All our beliefs and truths are arbitrary anyway, so why not indulge them with the virtual experience? It s not as though we re trying to fool anyone; we re just playing around with new forms of experience and knowledge. Takin in whatever is out there and incorporating it. The computer revolution has created so many new forms of experience as well as new outlets for expressing them and sharing them globally. And access - oh wonderful access!

Access of information - the latest news coming straight from the source and from a variety of perspectives! Is it really possible that through these new global networks we will be able to bypass such government censoring as we were subjected to during the 1991 Gulf War? Will this accessibility be the dawning of a true democratic era? It would seem that roaming around the network, reading files and reports written by anyone, anywhere , we will be able to truly organize as an informed populous and finally have political clout on both a local and global level. No longer will we depend upon edited news reports which are dictated by government and corporate powers. In fact, we wouldn't even have to leave our homes to organize politically. Through the networks, even the little people would be heard. Hooked up to our computers we ll be able to roam around the planet without so much as a toothbrush packed!

Excess of information - the latest news coming straight from all sources, everywhere, all the time! How much can one possibly absorb? Having the freedom to select for yourself what to believe doesn't necessitate having the free time or even the desire. Saturation will still be inevitable and weariness will still immobilize people. Those who aren't politically active now aren't likely to jump up in this new computer age and take a stance on any issues. Even if we did have the ideal computer generation , in which everyone was excited by the potential and wanting to utilize it, what about all those who aren't hooked up? So i could get in there with my little (but objective) voice and drum up support to try and get those villains out of that jungle or save that forest. I very much doubt that those villains or those laborers have a case of "computer-butt". In fact, i doubt that any of the repressed people will be given computer access and even if they are allowed up to the computer control panel they probably won t have the know-how to effectively utilize it. Just another case of insisting that the natives play by our rules and on our terms.The silent majority will remain silent and that idyllic democracy will be made up of an elite of like-minded people who think they know what s best - perhaps while the rest play virtual reality games, read their way around the network, eat at Joe s or starve because of the environmental conditions in their physical world.

Just as the automobile, air travel, photocopying, and even the written word have become common place props in our reality, so too will (already has?) the global networks of computer communication. And just as every new vehicle and/or communication device has threatened extinction or forced obsolescence of the old means, so too will the computer revolution. Simultaneously creating new needs and industries. With a state of the art TV comes a comes a state of the art TV repairman. With an increase in fragmented, short flashes of images and statistics comes a generation of people adapted to ingest it.

It would seem that efficiency is our ultimate goal. The telephone reduced the time and the paper it would take to communicate over distance. The automobile, train, and airplane reduced the time and improved the likeliness of long distance travel. The calculator reduced the time and raised the level of ability in problem-solving. The computer reduces paper waste, improves accessibility and diversity, and virtually abolishes the time of covering distance. Believe it or not, computers have somehow confounded the laws of physical space and have created their own huge world of cyberspace.

efficiency (i fish en se), n., pl. -cies. 1. the state of being efficient. 2. accomplishment of or ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort. 3. the ratio of the work done by a machine to the energy supplied to it, usu. expressed as a percentage. (Random House Webster's College Dictionary)

Although we all seem to want to run our lives in the most efficient way possible, it is the expenditure of time and effort which gives value and satisfaction to our lives. Without time and effort we would be trapped in some sort of lethargic eternity of a stagnant moment. As it is, we try to immunize ourselves towards the wiles of time by attempting to stave off the effects of aging and such. Indeed, if i don t go out there s no chance i ll get shit on by a bird or bitten by a dog, no street kid will ask me for money and i won t get salt stains on my shoes, i can t get AIDS and no propaganda will influence my choices. If i can save time and protect myself from potentially hazardous exposure by utilizing the unbiased network in my computer, why not? What is the computer synonym for couch potato ?

Idealists in the computer movement envision a society in which people are interacting, unprejudiced by the old isms and skisms of race, gender, age, etc. They believe they have abolished hierarchies and prejudices, simply by a removal of the obvious physical attributes. But judgment and classification are the basis of our personalities. What we perceive, how we judge it and how we classify it is what describes us. Already, those within this fantastically extensive network have proven their computer-sympathetic ideals simply by being within the system and they have also proven that they have both access to and literacy within this system. How equal are the voices of those doing manual labour or in third world countries or not within prescribed educational systems in our so-called open and unbiased computer network?

If we look at how every technological breakthrough which has allowed us faster, safer, slicker and easier lives, we see that although people seem to be able to do so much more, they become lazier, sicklier, and more isolated. Even though these global networks allow us to interact (or inter-express) unabashedly with others from all walks of life, we are doing so from a controlled environment. Like occupying the seat of a god, we look out from our desks and weigh the information we ve received and with our answering-machines filtering our calls and a pizza delivered to the door, we are able to avoid spontaneity of circumstance. In cyberspace we can sit idle or we can quit the program or we can find the file we need when we need it, whereas a trip to the library might mean bumping into someone you know or may find the book already on loan or may find you caught in the rain. All of which might turn out for better or worse - who knows eh?

Remember the days before the telephone? Oh those intimate days when communication depended upon physical proximity or the written word. Reach out and touch - as it were. Back then, i would have gotten on my bike and ridden over to your house to say hello and given you a big hug. Now, the slug that i am sits lazily by my stereo remote and touch-tones into the cordless, Hello answering machine... Damn, i should really get myself a Stairmaster !

No, i don t remember the days before the telephone either! And why bother anyway - it s not as if romanticizing the idyllic before will improve life. The telephone is as much a part of us and ours as a tree or the moon or (soon-to-be) the computer is. Naa, i never would have gotten on my bike to visit you; what with you living thousands of miles away as you do. In fact,if not for the ease of the telephone, i d probably have lost touch and long forgotten your name - no hug for you!

Let s get closer to something real... let s say we talk about the intimacy of a stylus stroking and tracing vinyl grooves. It s a wide shot of the room, late afternoon sun wafts through the window and past the silk scarf of a curtain. Slowly we zoom in to a close-up of the phonograph (stereophonic sound no less) we fade in the music, ...crackle, crackle... a little sax and piano... The music ends but the crackling lingers like the flavor of red wine. Slowly the arm lifts and replaces the needle to its elevated resting spot and with two sluggish rotations the record draws to a halt. If you pass me that flashlight i ll show you how the spinning CD looks through this little window here!

Technology (tek nol e je), n., pl. -gies. 1. the branch of knowledge that deals with applied science, engineering, the industrial arts, etc. 2. the application of knowledge for practical ends. 3. a technological process, invention, or method. 4. the sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization. 5. the terminology of a field; technical nomenclature. (1605-15; < Gk technologia systematic treatment = tech (e) art, craft, skill, set of rules in art (akin to tecton; see TECTONIC). (R.H.Webster's College Dictionary)

No, i don t see any reference to technology being a thief of intimacy and instigator of impersonal sterile communication. But isn't it true? Kinda? I mean, gone are the days of hand-written love notes emanating the mingled scents of perfume, ink, paper and dressed in the fingerprints and lip marks of their sender! First it was replaced with the cold type-written letter but still there were Liquid Paper swirls betraying imperfect spelling or changes of mind. Then we had the word processor whose spell-check and justified margins cleaned up those edges and whose choice of fonts feigned personalization. Heck fire, what could possibly be next?

Ah, who am i fooling here? Those turntable and love letter images are fantasies created by desire. Our imaginations sensualize and embellish our world and then we try to make the world more like the fantasy. And why not? It s that movement between physical sensations and mental sensations that makes up all that shit that s worth living for. Soaking in that music, that texture, those colours, that flavour, those words, stirring it around in your head, letting your imagination adjust the levels and coming up with something else, and then bringing that out into the world through words or images or objects or or or... How closely can you represent your fantasy in a material way? Nobody s stopping you from sending that illegible, greasy, smelly, intimate, scrawl of a letter. The first turntable must have seemed like an abominable sterilization of the musical experience. Musicians still perform live and technology seems to simply have broadened the range of what they can do by introducing shortcuts and importing sounds. We haven t replaced the live performance or quality of musician, we've simply introduced new forms to the art. Our society needs the quick pace and variety to stimulate us because we quickly tire of what s already been done.

Although technology has allowed the artist a broader range of tools and media, we can t deny that there are millions who have the money to utilize the same technology to create stuff . Does having the technology and the money make the art and the artist? At first glance, we might be impressed by the newness of its product but we are soon to decipher what is good from what is simply utilization of the tools. Artists, whether rich or poor will make things from whatever they can get hold of and it is that ability to actualize the concept which makes an artist. The programmer has an idea and if they have creativity the product is fantastic. New ideas and technologies come from creative minds who are able to bring them from their imaginations. Utilization of creative tools is similar to making a Van Gogh-esque painting - it might be kinda nice but it won t be art because its not new or innovative or exciting or expressive of itself - just familiar and easy. Utilizing the tools of the computer, the secretary might be able to do slick layouts and designs but it will take an artist to invent new methods of expression.

Whether we are hackers, programmers, musicians, political activists or scientists, we will all be easier able to actualize our ideas through utilizing programs, files, and other people/institutions which are on-line. And this, by bringing things closer within reach and making the world smaller, makes our lives more competitive. Where before the artists or mathematicians or philosophers had to be outstanding among their peers and communities, they now must be outstanding among billions of people world-wide. We certainly may be able to quickly maneuver our way through complex networks and mazes (like good lab rats) but indeed the wheel below our feet spins matching the pace.

When it comes to this new frontier called Cyberspace, we must realize that the rules haven't as yet been defined. Before this network is made accessible to the general population, the government and big business will be in there, protecting their own best interests by catering to our interests. In exchange for a service made cheap, safe and easy, we will be forced to accept commercials and and stringent controls. What now exists in its innocence as an open, interactive and uninhibitted domain will eventually be little better than TV. All our couch potatoes will be replaced by something - probably french fries.

In the words of William S. Burroughs, "We're all here to go." (The Western Lands,1987). In the words of Anton DeGiusti, "Ya, so?" In the words of Chris Wyman, "But when you average it out it's a straight line." In the words of Karin Foreman, "That wasn't a relationship, that was a phone bill." In the words of Don Macdonell, "They never did make them like they used to." In the words of Lance Blom Grin, "I was just about to think that." In the words of Stephen Collis, "Let's order pizza...and eat it!" Noam Chomsky probably had some words too but i was too busy watching TV.

...now what? After all, there was no dress rehearsal and collectively and individually we re just doin what it takes to get by the easiest and with the most enjoyment. Ahh, too much philosophizing - we all know the shape of our catch-22. We're just constantly in a battle to redefine it. As if it means as much as all that. Ya, as if!

Start here.