Andrea Ackerman 2004

Liquid Pixels


The unifying idea of this essay is to link an emerging form of digital art with a new concept of the self. The new self may be called a "post" postmodern self. It is postmodern in the sense of being multiple, but rather than being fragmented, decentered, or split, it is integrated horizontally and vertically; that is, it is integrated in its surface multiplicity as well as from its inner emotional core to its surface. The new concept of self has been described by Turkle in Life on the Screen:Identity in the Age of the Internet, Lifton in The Protean Self and Gergen in The Saturated Self. This new self is in continuous state transformation. It is fluid, flexible, resilient and permeable. It has the capacity to integrate a multiplicity of identities and is able to relate them to a multiplicity of realities without becoming enduringly overwhelmed, confused, fragmented, anxious, lost, alienated, rigid or reduced; instead it is able to work through these states to new levels of integration; an integration which is fluid and perhaps structured as a nonlinear hierarchy. The new self maintains these fluid connections (connections which can break and be repaired) in a context of a fluid but meaningful ethical structure or value system.


While digital technology has facilitated the transformation of the unitary self (the self associated with modernism) into the postmodern self, it has also been experienced as a threat. One could interpret the aesthetics of postmodernism, of surface, style, simulation, fragmentation, and appropriation, with its predilection for irony, parody, and other attenuated emotional forms, as a reaction to the threat to the self posed by (digital) technology (with its capacities for transformation and multiplicity). But digital technology has itself undergone a transformation from what has been called "the age of calculation" to "the age of simulation"; from a rule driven, logical, top down hierarchical, text based or "hard mastery" style, to an intuitive, nonhierarchical one which emphasizes visualisation and manipulation of virtual objects or "soft mastery" style (Turkle). Hard mastery favors abstraction and imposition of will. Soft mastery favors playful exploration and experience of continuity between user and technology. How has the transition from the postmodern self to the fluid self, from the age of calculation to the age of simulation been reflected in digital art? In the past, and even currently, most sci-fi books and movies, computer/video games, and much digital and internet art allude to an anxious or aggressive relationship to technology both in form and content. A recent of survey of digital art by Christiane Paul reveals that much of new media art is (somewhat solipsistically) preoccupied with its uneasy relationship to technology even when it is attempting to address other or broader themes.**(see below for examples) Often this type of art is linked with the "hard mastery" style of creation and audience/user experience. A sense of a self that is fragmented or threatened by the very technology that it is creating is communicated. However a new trend is emerging related to the growing concept of the fluid/protean/multiple self. The new fluid self shares three homologous and essential characteristics with current "soft mastery" digital technology - transformation, connected multiplicity and recursive development. Together the fluid self and current digital technology form a natural working alliance.


The digital new/media artworks discussed here will reflect the fluid self and its allied relationship to the new "soft mastery' style of digital technology;  They have some or all of the following characteristics:


1.) The technology disappears as the main focus in the experience of the art work, i.e. becomes transparent.
2.) The disappearance of the technology communicates the sense that the artist is utilising the technology as an extension of her/himself, and is not dominated/intimidated by it (evidencing a sense of mastery).
3. Technology is used to integrate/connect deep and complex inner/emotional/ psychological experiences with outer experiences rather than to emphasize the discontinuity of these poles of experience. (i.e. evidence that interior and exterior experiences are permeable to each other.)

4.) The artwork offers the possibility of integrating/connecting the digital with the body, rather than emphasize a hostile antagonistic, threatening or anxious relationship.
5.) The artworks communicate (however indirectly or subtly) a knowledge of the artwork's place in the history and traditions of art i.e. have a perceptible intelligence in this category.
6.) The artworks are visually complex (maybe beautiful), in a rich compelling way.
7.) The artworks are humorous.
8.) The artworks exhibit a sense of play, playing, or playfulness

*Many examples of hard mastery digital art are mentioned in  Christiane Paul’s book Digital Art. One example is Color Panelv.1.0 by John F. Simon, Jr.  This work is a “ time based study of color theory, in which the artist-written software explores different possibilities and “’rules’ for color  (as proposed by early 20th century painters such as Klee and Kandinsky. The electronics consist of a recycled remains of a laptop computer, while the housing is custom made acrylic. Another example is Digital Scores III (after Nicephore Niepce) by Andrea Muller Pohle. ”Muller-Pohle translated the oldest known photograph, Niepce’s view from his study, into digital form. He digitized the image  and converted the 7 million bytes into alphanumeric code The result, transcribed onto eight square panels is indecipherable, yet contains an accurate binary description of the original”.


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References cited:

Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, New York Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation T, New York, Basic Books, 1993.

Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, New York, Basic Books, 1991.

Christane Paul, Digital Art, London, Thames and Hudson, 2003.