01 Jun 2010

The human user vs the digital image

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

This blog investigates ways in which ‘embodiment’ challenges our understanding of the relationship between digital images and ‘real’ human users.

Lalya Gaye is a PhD student based in Sweden specialising in research on mobile media for urban space. Her biography states that she works “research projects exploring the convergence of art, technology, and design.” Debatty (2010). An example of this is the ‘Tap-n-Bass’ project, in which she has taken part in a live tap dancing performance where the performers’ tap shoes are equipped with microphones in order to “produce booming bass and fast syncopated rhythms.” Gaye (2010). In this essay, I aim to analyse ‘Tap-n-Bass’ in terms of the cohesion that it provides between digital sound and the human acts of dance and performance. I will begin by considering the digital art as a representation of its analogue counterpart before looking at the way in which artwork utilizes technology in order to produce otherwise impossible originals, rather than simply acting to reproduce.

Hansen (2006) speaks of the Krauss’ theory on ‘the post-medium condition’ where she highlights a dilemma already raised by Benjamin – “the “work of art designed for reproducibility” correlates with a minimal aesthetic rooted in the simple act of “framing pieces of the world through the camera’s lens.”” Krauss states that the comparatively effortless reproduction of an artwork (through digital means for example) results in a loss of authenticity. The digital version is, by definition, a copy, which means that the gratification Benjamin states the audience experiences through aesthetics is destroyed through lack of originality. He describes this gratification as being based on the object’s ‘aura’. The aura is defined as the artwork’s “status as a unique object tied to a single time and place.” Hansen (2006). So, to have meaning, the work must bear some kind of significance in terms of the situation in which it was created, in order to play on the audience’s memories, beliefs or prior knowledge. The work’s situation also represents its difficulty in the way that the natural art of dance is considered a greater work of art that a video recording of a performance. Benjamin theorises that any remediation of an artwork could be deemed a deterioration of its original on the basis that the reproduction is simply easier to construct. Krauss’ example of a camera lens shows that this can be considered a meaningless representation of its ‘real’ source, despite replicating the appearance of the source almost perfectly.

Of course, a clear distinction can be made between the value in Gaye’s work and that of live dance. Rather than being simply remediated by digital technology, Tap-n-Bass would not even exist without it. On a larger scale, the drum-n-bass music genre upon which Tap-n-Bass is built would not exist if not for digital technology. In the context of digital creation, a great paradigm shift occurred during the 1990s – The development of the ability of digital technology from replication to ‘disembodiment.’ With disembodiment, digital art is able to remove itself from the constraints of the natural world, inheriting temporal value as the original version of itself. As much as drum-n-bass music represents and samples acoustic performances of ‘natural world’ instruments into the genre’s constituent parts, the artist is equally able to create sounds based on discrete data entry into a computer or similar digital technology. If not samples, these sounds are generally based on algorithms that are rendered by digital technology as audible waveforms, unlimited by the artist’s performance speed, technical ability and achievable pitches in the analogue world. Unlike the medium of dance for example, digital art is built from arbitrary data without the temporal and spatial meaning attached to Benjamin’s aura theory, yet it is the rendition of this data as sound without reference that demonstrates the value of disembodiment.

Digital technology allows data to be rendered in different ways, yet it is this data that provides art. There is no fixed reference or medium for the data. It is a formless object that would, in the case of drum-n-bass instrument synthesis, be classed as parameters to shape the sound, yet could just as feasibly be is subject to any kind of algorithmic pre-processing. The originality and aura is created from the lack of a need to identify a derived medium. The music is given meaning in the brain at the time of cognition, accounting for the spatial and temporal reference required by Benjamin’s aura respectively. This affords a deeply personal experience unlike the more generic experience of tap dancing, which although equally universal, is confined to meaning and identification through movement and the natural beat of the body. “The responses to rhythm and rhyme, melody and tune, are so basic, so constant across all societies and cultures.” Norman (2004, p.115).

Hansen considers the disembodied mind superior to the perception of natural static media because of this. The body is deemed a burden and an inconvenience to the experience. Hansen (2006) adopts a “neo-MacLuhanesque” perspective – All media become an extension of the human senses originating from the central nervous system and therefore the human brain. The brain can therefore be deemed the original medium.

Gaye’s work features aspects of several examples raised so far, including the natural performance of dance and the disembodied performance of electronic music. It is, however, differentiated from all examples by the empowerment of the human body through digital performance. This is ‘embodiment.’ Hansen (2006) describes embodiment as “a renewed investment of the body as a kind of convertor of the contentless act of framing into a singular experience”. This can be related to the original analogy of the camera lens where, as with disembodiment, the aura remains with the digital. Embodiment, however, uses the human body to dictate the rendition of the medium, therefore becoming the frame controller, rather than the remediated original. In this sense, the body is given control and power. “Correlated with the advent of digitization, then, the body undergoes a certain empowerment, since it no longer selects from a set of preconstituted images according to its own constitutive singularity (affection and memory), but actually en-frames something (digital information) that is, from a material standpoint at least, entirely without form.” Hansen (2006).

The act of framing that the body provides in an embodied artwork supplies the audience with a tangible reference to the virtual data. A form of materiality is given to the disembodied virtual world described above and the body is promoted to the medium through which the digital technology is enabled. The analogue audio from the physical tap dancing is modulated using the disembodied and formless data, making the digital element of this artwork completely seamless and ubiquitous, yet referential and therefore accessible to its audience. The active nature of the body in an embodied artwork is the element that gives the overall artwork its form.

Hansen contradicts the classic theory of Gilles Deleuze, who prescribes the automatic nature of representation. Hansen argues that the dynamic nature of the framing of embodiment means that the automation, and therefore loss of aura, is not applicable to embodied work. He states that “this new cinema of the digital image undoes the correlation of the cinema with the image, insofar as the image can no longer be appealed to as an “objective” frame and, beyond that, following Deleuze’s trajectory, as a frame autonomous from the human body as a center of indetermination. Hansen (2002, p.56).

The new mode of framing, which opposes the representational model that Benjamin theorises, means that the digital elements of the work can exist without reference to the natural physical environment, in effect remaining new and original whenever it is experienced without being fixed in relation to a particular time or location. The digital aspect of the artwork is directly linked with the body and the artwork as a whole would not exist without either of these parts. For this reason, Hansen considers the digital part of the work a process rather than a representation – a process that, rather like modulation of the analogue sound, converts the input of the tangible pre-referenced body into original digital artwork that still affords decoding and understanding on the part of its audience, much like a disembodied work. “Whether the message emerges out of a prefabricated ensemble or requires specification of an ensemble, the receiver’s

internal structure performs the crucial function of converting incoming stimuli into “internal symbols.”” Hansen (2002, p.76). So it is only with the actions of the human body to frame the experience that the apparently meaningless data of the digital medium becomes image, art and, indeed, drum-n-bass synthesis. The body acts as a perspective or view on this art by modulating the data given in the digital environment. The fact that the body’s role in this configuration is to essentially assist the audience’s perception of the art eliminates its potential to assume the role of the original art.

Hansen introduces the term “digital image” which he uses to comprise the complete embodied art. Despite the fact that Gaye’s example is also based around sound, the concept is still completely relevant. Hansen (2006) states that “the image, then, can no longer be restricted to the level of surface appearance (though it includes this), but must be extended to encompass the entire process by which information is made perceivable through embodied experience.” So the image, or what this essay has termed the artwork consists of the input along with the entire ‘modulation’ process that defines the final user experience. Any discussions around aura, engagement or value should treat it as such.

As an advantage over disembodied works, embodiment provides the potential for more refined personal expression via intuitivity and direct control using in the generation of each user’s personal experience of the work. Generally, with small amounts of practice in the manipulation of the digital medium using the code.

As you learn how to control and manipulate the interface, it becomes an EXPRESSIVE and personal experience. “We might say, then, that this new cinema of the digital image undoes the correlation of the cinema with the image, insofar as the image can no longer be appealed to as an “objective” frame” Hansen (2002, p.56)

By using media to extend the body’s functions, we encounter a medium that is universal and limitless.

For the purposes of experiment, I have intentionally chosen an example that I have not experienced. Anyone that has tried the technology or witnessed Gaye’s live performance may offer a contrasting viewpoint and could ultimately confirm or contradict Hansen’s theory.

References

Debatty, R. (2010) ‘Interview with Lalya Gaye’, We make money not art [Online]. Available at: http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/2006/11/interview-with-2.php (Accessed: 21 April 2010).

Gaye, L. et al (2010) ‘Tap-n-Bass’, timebend.net [Online]. Available at: http://www.timebend.net/?tap_and_bass (Accessed: 21 April 2010).

Hansen, M. (2002) ‘Cinema Beyond Cybernetics, or How to Frame the Digital Image’. Configurations. 10 (1), pp. 51-90.

Hansen, M. B. N. (2006) New Philosophy for New Media. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Norman, D. (2004) Emotional design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York: Basic Books.