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Some Objections to Interactive Computer Art

1 November 2017 / general

Below is a list of objections to interactive computer-based art (e.g. such as the kind I create). These are notes I scribbled during a conversation over beers with the great David Rokeby sometime in 2010; they are his thoughts. If I recall correctly, David was sharing some stories about how his work was the target of all of the claims below. I just rediscovered these notes in an old sketchbook and thought they were (still) worth sharing. 

  • It can’t be art if it uses the computer, because the computer is intrinsically anti-humanist. (This critique was particularly common in the first two decades of computer art, roughly 1965-1985. See Taylor quote, below.)
  • Computer-based art is “not urgent”. In October 2008, Ekow Eshun closed the London ICA’s department of Live & Media Arts department, saying the form “lacks depth and cultural urgency”.
  • It’s “all about effects”.
  • Interactive art is impossible to evaluate with any objectivity, because it forces its participants into a subjective experience.
  • It’s always broken.
  • It can’t be conserved.
  • It’s not finite; therefore it’s not [completely] accessible, and can’t be evaluated.
  • There’s no “genius”, because the work is realized by the public.
  • It can’t be “eternal” because it’s slippery, changing and contingent. Often, each time an interactive artwork is presented, it must be recreated from scratch. Real art must be inert.
  • Art whose subject is pure sensory experience entails no depiction—it has nothing to “read”, no symbols to “decode”. It is not legible as art to critics and historians whose habit of working centers around deciphering (for example) narratives of power in figurative painting. (Doing so is a mainstream modus operandi in art history.)

Some readings came up during our discussion. These included:

  • Marshall McLuhann, “Through the vanishing point
  • Michael Naimark, “First Word Art / Last Word Art
  • Grant David Taylor, “When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art 1963-1989
    • “The anti-computer response came from several sources, both humanist and anti-humanist. The first originated with mainstream critics whose strong humanist tendencies led them to reproach computerised art for its mechanical sterility. A comparison with aesthetically and theoretically similar art forms of the era reveals that the criticism of computer art is motivated by the romantic fear that a computerised surrogate had replaced the artist. Such usurpation undermined some of the keystones of modern Western art, such as notions of artistic “genius” and “creativity”…. Many within the arts viewed the computer as an emblem of rationalisation, a powerful instrument in the overall subordination of the individual to the emerging technocracy.”

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