12 Apr 2010

Decode: simulation and art

Please note that this blog is written in an academic style, not my usual Matt-isms.

The Decode exhibit ran from 8th December 2009 until 11th April 2010 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, showcasing exploration in digital design from international artists. In this essay, I aim to apply specific work featured at the exhibition to theories of simulation in an effort to explain the added value and engagement of it in terms of digital art. I will begin by considering an artist’s work in terms of what it represents outside of the new media sphere. I will investigate how these representations resemble and differ from theorised phases of simulation and then position this work amongst others featured in the exhibition on Baudrillard’s scale of orders of simulation. This will enable me to discuss the degree of engagement and appeal within each text in terms of artistic aura.

The initial work that I have selected for analysis is Daniel Rozin’s ‘weave mirror’, an assembly of “768 motorized and laminated C-shaped prints along the surface of a picture plane that texturally mimics a homespun basket … The Weave Mirror paints a picture of viewers using a gradual rotation in greyscale value on each C-ring”. Certain properties and opportunities for interaction within this work is present in natural occurrence of mirror and, in interaction design terms, the user’s input into the digital blog is designed to simulate the affordances of the natural rendition. Considering Rozin’s weave mirror, we should observe that, at any point in time, a regular household mirror presents a referential simulation of a ‘real’ scene at that precise moment. A tapestry weave, on the other hand, may present an abstract fictitious image based on no original, effectively becoming the one true instance. The latter image is what Baudrillard terms a simulation, where “the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none.” Baudrillard (1988, p.166). Rozin’s mirror is not a representation but, at the same time, it utilises the properties of the analogue mirror. This composition grants the user a seamless and instant intuitivity to the creation of new digital art, which affords complete engagement to a casual audience.

Despite the replication of selected properties of the mirror, it must be noted that Rozin’s project is more than a representation and amplification of the preceding medium. This contrasts with other digital works such as Graffiti Research Lab’s ‘Blood Wars’. Described by Graffiti Research Lab simply as “G.R.L. Goes Over Perrier”, the piece is a video of a guerrilla image projection from the Champagne manufacturers Perrier-Jouët on the side of a building being ‘tagged’ with a projection of light-based graffiti over the top. Like Rozin’s piece, ‘Blood Wars’ is large-scale digital art, for which the generated output is completely dependent on the input of the user. It is a referential representation of paint graffiti and its accompanying connotations. In this respect, ‘Blood Wars’ is unlike the Weave Mirror, which is a true simulation and non-referential.

Baudrillard (1988) describes simulation – “Simulation starts from … the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference.” He believes that the concept of representation aims to falsely assign reference to simulation and deem it an abstract mediation of the ‘real’, whereas simulation, as a construct, is able to encompass representation and determine it a subset and a simulacrum in itself. Baudrillard describes representation as the first of four phases of an image. This first, symbolic, order encompasses predetermined ideologies such as the values communicated by and historical relevance of graffiti as an art form. Whereas Graffiti Research Lab’s work is positioned at this first, representational level, Rozin’s work is not. The second phase of the image, or ‘the first order of simulacra’, describes a perversion of reality. The Weave Mirror could perhaps be assigned this phase because, although its mediation is based around the input of the user, the reference to the input in the ‘mirror’ is not a direct representation, rather an abstract, reasonably distanced interpretation. There are shared attributes between the original, the user, and the artwork – Specifically the shape of the user’s shadow, which is factored into the algorithm within the artwork’s computer that manifests the output. The reference that this output bears to the original, however, is almost beyond recognition and is far removed from the obvious reproduction of image that occurs with the use of a conventional mirror. That said, the presence of the referential original limits the engagement of the artwork by exposing it as a copy.

The final two phases of an image, the second and third orders of simulacra are where several of the artworks featured in the Decode exhibition are mapped. Most of them either mask the absence of a basic reality or embody the hyperreal. Opto-Isolator by Golan Levin shows the mechanical reproduction of an eye that reacts to an audience in immediate proximity. “Among other forms of feedback, Opto-Isolator looks its viewer directly in the eye; appears to intently study its viewer’s face; looks away coyly if it is stared at for too long; and blinks precisely one second after its visitor blinks.” Levin (2007). More complex than a mere representation, the eye truly sees but is nonetheless a mechanical reproduction. Despite this, considering its function, it is as real and true as its biological counterpart. Baudrillard would categorise this mechanical reproduction within the second order of simulacra, masking the absence of reality. Levin’s eye is just as real and valid as a biological eye in terms of sending signals to a brain or processor. It is in no way inferior in this respect.

Baudrillard’s final phase of simulation, the third order of simulacra, addresses the ‘hyperreal’ – “the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” Baudrillard (1988). He speaks of synthesis without association to an authentic precedent. Aspects of the Exquisite Clock by Joao Wilbert comply with this criteria. The work consists of a digital clock utilising user-submitted number images. Whilst the clock itself is, without doubt, in reference to an original, the actual art is determined only by user-submitted image data held on the application’s database. Therefore, the value of this art can be seen as being derived purely from the participation of its users. This can be likened to Benjamin (1936)’s concept of cult value. “By the absolute emphasis on [an artwork’s] cult value, it was, first and foremost, an instrument of magic. Only later did it come to be recognized as a work of art.” It is important to assign the hyperreal art director or artist figure of this artwork to the role of the perfectly real, yet intangible, instrument of magic, rather than the clock itself which, indeed, as Benjamin specifies, comes to be recognised as art at a later time. Benjamin (1936) goes on to describe the concept of exhibition value – “In the same way today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.” In relation to Decode, the perhaps incidental artistic functions of artworks such as Levin’s Opto-Isolator would cease to exist without exhibition, much like those of any artistic presentation or performance. More generally, it can therefore be interpreted that Benjamin’s concepts of exhibition and cult value can be applied to second and third order simulacra respectively.

Benjamin speaks of the value of art in terms of aura. This is where the concept of representation becomes allegedly inferior to ‘pure’ art. “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men.” Benjamin (1936) makes this statement in relation to physical mechanical procedures of representation, which can be closely tied to Baudrillard’s first two image phases, the symbolic order and the first order of simulacra. Both of these phases are based around a preexisting reality, be this an artistic object or theme. Bearing in mind, the application of the second and third orders of simulacra to the works at Decode made earlier, it may be possible that they are exempt from Benjamin’s criticism and produce aura in a way that Benjamin could not have been expected to consider in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in 1936, being written at a time before digital artwork existed. This exemption is chiefly demonstrated in Benjamin’s text where he speaks, in the context of natural objects, of the strength or amount of their aura being directly related to the distance that they are from their audience. “We define the aura … as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” Benjamin (1936). In terms of manufacture and the representation of static art, both analogue and digital, the value of the replication is reduced. This is not because of any kind of deterioration in the quality of production but in the audience’s sense in knowing that they are not experiencing original art. As addressed earlier, they are experiencing, by definition, a ‘re-presentation’ of what both Benjamin and Baudrillard consider the original art. A basic example of this concept is a live music performance. There is often a technical decrease in sound quality at a live performance compared with a digital recording because of factors such as the acoustics of the venue or a potential reduction in the musicians’ technical ability caused by several inevitable stresses of live performance. Despite this, with live music, the audience is in closer proximity to the original. The mediation of the recording distances the listener from the performer.

To conclude, hyperreal art is a kind of unscripted performance. The name of the artwork comes to refer an original artwork at any particular time and place. “Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept.” Baudrillard (1988). In an audience’s interaction with a hyperreal artwork performance, each instance of the work, sampled at any point in time, is unique. Benjamin (1936) mentions that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space.” However, if the art is deemed a single unique performance at any particular time or place rather than a fixed representation then its value is not held in the physical replicated objects that comprise the work, but instead created in each user’s interpretation of their exclusive experience. If this is the case then the concepts of simulation and hyperreality have considerable influence on a possible explanation for the engagement and gratification that modern interactive digital art can offer.

Academic references

Baudrillard, J. (1988) ‘Simulacra and Simulations,’ in Selected Writings, [Online], Available at: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-simulacra-and-simulations.html (Accessed 19 April 2010).

Benjamin, W. (1936) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, [Online], Available at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm (Accessed 19 April 2010).

Project references

Levin, G. (2007) ‘Opto-Isolator’, [Online], Available at: http://www.flong.com/projects/optoisolator/ (Accessed 20 April 2010).

Rozin, D. (2007) ‘Weave Mirror’, [Online], Available at: http://www.smoothware.com/danny/weavemirror.html (Accessed 19 April 2010).

Wilbert, J. (2009) ‘Exquisite Clock’, [Online], Available at: http://www.exquisiteclock.org/ (Accessed 20 April 2010).

[Online], Available at: http://graffitiresearchlab.com/projects/projection-beef/ (Accessed 20 April 2010).