Our Presence in Art, Media, and Technology

We had the pleasure to learn more about new media art and technology from our guest lecturer Associate Professor Kenneth Feinstein (Sunway University) during Week 10 of AMU2146 Digital Screens this semester. First, he delivered a thought-provoking online lecture entitled “Moving Away from the Screen” which was followed by a Q&A session, and afterwards, I conducted a follow-up interview to gage his thoughts on how we experience new media works, cultural knowledge, and the pressing questions on presence, experience and new technologies.

Sangyeon Won: As you mentioned, viewing traditional works of art, with a Euclidean view of distanced judgment needs prior knowledge. Even though finding momentary meaning through the experience is emphasized in new media works, do you think that prior knowledge can still have an influence on human judgment?

Kenneth Feinstein: Of course prior knowledge is always fundamental to our ability to understand or derive meaning from art, life or learned knowledge. What is significant here is that the traditional function of viewing images, what Martin Jay called Cartesian perspectivalism, was based on the idea that we are able to pass judgement on what we see because of our separation from the image. This concept understands the framed picture plane as the divider between where we are and what we see. The framing of the image confines what is before us into its own world, which we are actually excluded from. We are disembodied from what is before us. We are not able to interact or affect what is before us, all that we are able to do is pass an aesthetic judgement on the view.

Traditionally, how we would judge such works would be through its ability to present a narrative and its beauty. Jacques Rancière makes the point that for Emmanuel Kant beauty is an agreed upon standard without content. Beauty is judged purely as a form. In contrast, for Denis Diderot, a proper image should work like a tableaux vivant, and represent a heightened moment of a narrative from which we can determine the moral presented in the work. This assumes that we are familiar with the narrative found in the image. When I was speaking of judgment through prior knowledge, I was referring to this learned cultural knowledge. This is distinct from knowledge that is acquired through personal experience. With Diderot’s tableaux we are judging an image for its aesthetics, beauty and compositional balance, and our ability to read the narrative in the work. Both beauty and the tableaux are compatible with Cartesian perspectivalism.

When we are speaking of new media art we are saying that the works created are made to be conversational in nature, they are not complete without our presence. The difference being that traditional works speak to us and new media works talks with us. Meaning is still determined through my knowledge, but that knowledge is affected and expressed through the experience I had with this work. The emphasis on presence and experience is the embodying of the viewer into the work. I am no longer just viewing the work, but rather I am entering into conversation with it. And as with any good conversation, each speaker brings their own perspective and knowledge to the discussion. So it’s not the idea that one type of work demands knowledge and the other doesn’t, but rather how that knowledge is enacted within the work.

S.W.: Besides simply acknowledging the creativity that is surface based, some people might have a hard time understanding and connecting to new media art. Is there a need for explanation from the creators of the work or should the experience be natural and interpreted as it is?

K.F.: When we assume that people may have a hard time understanding new media works ,this is based on a social construct that separates what is called high art from the general public. This was delineated by Clement Greenberg in his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Here, he makes a distinction between the academic art of the museum, popular art and rank consumerist artwork. This stratification of art reinforces the idea that works in the top strata are beyond the understanding of the hoi polloi (the people). It has been used by elites to claim ownership of an acceptable interpretation of works found in art institutions. Along with this, it claims a privileged state for accepted academic interpretations of what Greenberg called “middlebrow art” and “kitsch”. Given this situation, it is not surprising that when many people encounter new works their default position is to assume that they lack an ability to encounter the work correctly. It is this last word, correctly, that is the key to how they feel. If one thinks that they lack the ability to understand what is before them they will either ridicule it or feel inferior to it. Both reactions are ways of deflecting the experience before them. If a work is created with the idea of being experiential or dialogical, it is not demanding a specific interpretation to it. It has to allow for multiple meanings. This does not mean that the artist doesn’t have a specific intention when they make the work. But, as Maurice Blanchot states, when a work is completed it no longer belongs to the artist, it becomes an independent entity in the world. We encounter it and meaning is created though both parties, artwork and viewer bringing their knowledge and understanding to the work to find a mutually agreed upon meaning.

Some artists have made work that requires a specific set of prior information to understand their works. Some artist and museum curators present work with a great deal of text attached. I would contend that such an act is to limit the ability of the audience to experience that work and to exert a control over the viewer. Art has long been understood to possess an excess, things beyond the programmed function and meaning, that is fundamental to its nature. Artists who create works that have attached texts to limit the meaning are people who fear the nature of the art itself.

S.W.: Do you think there are differences in our presence and interpretation of new media art with those people that have a different culture, experience, or knowledge, and even to those poeple who have fewer to no access to newfound technology?

K.F.: Of course we all understand and react to events, works and experiences differently because of our cultural background. If I am making a work that assumes a knowledge of The Odyssey or The Mahabharata it assumes a degree of cultural knowledge of these works. Like a joke: if it needs to be explained, it has lost its impact. But this has been true throughout the history of art. Works presented in different cultures may have different meanings to viewers. But that is part of the relationship a work has with the viewer. Meanings are always fluid. If we look at many new media artist’s works, we can see that some are more culturally bound than others. The works that are more relational tend to be less dependent on cultural knowledge. Groups like TeamLab, make work that comes out of Japanese culture, but also has a strong enough experiential element so that most people will be able to find meaning in the work. It is not the audience’s responsibility to react in the way that the artist has intended. A work should allow anyone to find a meaning. On the technological side, it is up to the artist to decide what level of technological knowledge is required to experience a work. If we look again at the work of TeamLab, Anthony McCall or Nam June Paik, a great deal of technology has been used to create the work, but the viewer is not expected to be a technologist operating the devices which run the work. If the experience is the centre of the work, then the technology should feel peripheral.

Regarding the idea of a technological gap, I would like to point you to groups like LifePatch and the House of Natural Fiber, both based in Jogyjakarta or Green Papaya in Manila. They are media groups working with technology, science, visual art and music. Especially with the proliferation of smartphones, projectors and cheap computers, places like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand have rich new media communities. These communities are not dominated by the richest people found in those nations, rather they are ground up activist based groups. I am not saying that there is no technology gap or that it’s not easier in richer countries, rather I am stating that the desire for accessing and creating new media art can be found everywhere.

S.W.: Do you think our immersion into relatively new technologies such as interactive cinema, CGI technology, IMAX 4DX, and VR experience can delineate our relationship with the “real” things in the world and perhaps even change our own sense of presence?

K.F.: First, we need to understand that humans have never existed without technology. We have been making images tens of thousands years. 10,000 year longer than writing. We have been using images and words to make sense of Reality. We have also been confusing images and texts for reality almost as long. Technology can be used to help us communicate with each other, it can create metaphors to help us understand the world and how it works, or it can be used to anesthetize us.

Why do we invent technology? It is to help us live a better life, to make sense of the Real, to find ways of creating meaning in the world (for ourselves and others). Modern technology, from photography on, has a strong element of placing us into relation with other people. Think about posing for a photo and how that is an act of coming together to create of moment of just being with others. Such a moment is one that embodies us in a time and place with others. The recording of that moment, that freezing of time and place can be seem as preserving a moment of pure presence. The image’s meaning is as much about the being together as anything. This is the ethical side of technology.

When we talk about CGI, 4DX, VR we have to be critical of how it is used and the forces that develop the technologies. Although we can think of these technologies as being more or less immersive, instead we should think about how much they create presence and embodiment for the audience. If they are based on a theatrical experience, but just bounce us around or present a magical image in front of us how much has that technology progressed from the 18th century theatre? The tech is better, but the effect is the same. We are a passive audience experiencing something happening there. When we talk about breaking the fourth wall, we are still acknowledging that we are experiencing things through Cartesian perspectivalism. If we create work that is like a theme park ride, we know that it is safe and controlled. Our experience is out of our hands and yet we are never actually at risk. It is a thrill because it is a controlled event, one that we really don’t have a stake in. Therefore, it can be fun, but never meaningful. This is how we can think of these new technologies.

But, there are other people using these same technologies to create profound and embodied experiences. So when the Guardian newspaper creates a work like 6x9, which talks about solitary confinement in US prisons, they are very aware of how and where they place the viewer. It is an experience that can be very locative and profoundly disembodying at times depending on the narrative. Even works like Anthony McCall’s Solid Light Works are using to place us in a space where our relationship to the technology is based on presence and not just looking at that thing over there.

S.W.: Finally, could you give some tips for aspiring new wave media artists or media art pursuers?

K.F.: Don’t get hung up on the technology, don’t let it run you. Discover what are the issues that interest you and then worry about how to accomplish your goals. Technological images are as much about the concepts behind them as they are about how they function. Ask yourself what are the questions or ideas you want to raise and then from there how do you visualise them. In my own work, I have been come interested in questions of presence, and this has led me to create works that try to bring remote environments together in one space. The idea comes first, the technology follows. A good idea with simple technology is better than a weak idea with overly fancy gadgets.

Kenneth Feinstein is an artist, theorist, curator and writer. He is Associate Professor at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where he is the head of the MA in Visual Communication & Media Studies and member of Centre for Research-Creation in Digital Media at Sunway. As an artist and curator, he has exhibited internationally, including solo exhibitions at the Chelsea Art Museum, New York and the Jogja Nasional Museum, Jogjakarta, Indonesia. Group exhibitions include the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Millennium Museum, Beijing; the National Art Gallery, Malaysia; and the Museum of the World Ocean, Kaliningrad, Russia. His award-winning films have been shown at film festivals including the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Brooklyn Film Festival and Oaxaca Film Festival. He has curated new media exhibitions in Singapore and Malaysia. His writings focus on media theory and philosophy. He has published books, articles and given talks on issues surrounding the ethics of new media practice. He is the author of The Image That Doesn’t Want to Be Seen (Apropos Press).

Written by: Sangyeon Won