Essay by Margarete Jahrmann about the artist-in-residence and software project "Nybble-Engine-Toolz", developed with Max Moswitzer at the V2_Lab (2002).


Nybble Engine Toolz

"A bite is a combination of 8 bits. Each bit contains either a 0 or a 1, so that is has either one of two possible states. Each of the two digits stands for a tetrad (also: a nybble) of a byte, i.e. 4 bits. 1 tetrad is enough to represent any number."

Nybble-engineering refers to a method that starts at the programming level of real-time tools. Here it is primarily their replicating components that represent a technical artistic challenge. The AV products generated from these, so-called nybble-engine-movies (NEMs), are structurally interactive real-time network films. Nybble-engine thus stands for both the entire program framework and for the action-bots in their function as non-linear emergences. In addition, a freeze frame is extracted on the basis of nybble engineering and sintered via a "3D printer": the data-objectile. This object represents a functional equivalent that is not analogously conceptualized, but rather in terms of problem orientation. The nybble-engine-project is generally presented in a pop-coded form as a live modular lecture.

The Tetrad is a conventional idea in the natural sciences. It must be imagined processually as a coiled rotation. For this reason, the tetrad is highly suitable for spatializing the theories intended to "depict" a self-organizing system. As soon as a system begins to modify that from which it has emerged, as soon as it organizes itself, the unambiguous cause-effect relationship becomes a confusing cycle, in which the beginning is not only the beginning, but also a derived, subsequent entity, beginning and result, multiply allocated, without orientation, coiled, twisted, altogether complex. The situation represented here also describes the framework conditions for dealing with non-linear software tools, as in the case of the nybble-engine-project.

nybble engineering

An aesthetic message is usually the deconstruction of a conventionalized text form or a media text. It is recoded by destroying semantic portions in order to increase the aesthetic information. Nybble engineering applies this method at a basal level. This is less a matter of the interrelationship between semantic and aesthetic information, than the interrelation between uninterpreted and interpreted programs.

To better understand this, let us look at an example from biology. The notion of a living cell as an automaton, a machine, has come to be taken entirely for granted in scientific thinking today. So-called replicases, for example, corresponding to a duplication apparatus, use programs in two ways. In terms of molecular genetics, a distinction is made between transcription and translation. In one case it is a command resulting in a sequence of activities: the program manipulates the machine. In the other case, as an object it is passively subjected to the routines: the program is manipulated by the machine. Thus when the program is uninterpreted, it is merely raw material for the duplication. When it is interpreted, on the other hand, the program controls this duplication. On the one hand, the behavior of any machine can be formally described with a list of transition rules, and on the other hand, any list of this kind can also be understood as a potential machine.

First of all, nybble engineering needs existing material, to which the engineering can be applied. In the case at hand, this is real-time tools, such as so-called first-person shooter games, which represent a technical, artistic challenge with both their 3D surfaces and their replicating program components.

Structurally, nybble engine movies (NEMs) are real-time network-movies, AV-products resulting from nybble engineering. NEMs are based on certain program configurations that process, when they are executed, between interpreted and non-interpreted components, and are calculated on the respective human/machine interface (PC) in real time. The NEM is an interactive program, the course of which can be influenced by players and bots equally; it can be used as a multiplayer environment. The nybble engine thus stands for both the entire program framework and the action bots in their function as replicating program elements. A NEM show a demo run through non-linear program architecture, a kind of digital road movie.

Our understanding of the term "machine" is oriented to its current state of differentiation and must always be considered in conjunction with the term "coupling". Norbert Wiener introduced this term with his ground-breaking work on cybernetics, published in 1948, and it is a formalism that makes it possible to link previously incompatible orders of the micro and macro level. Since then, the term "coupling" has grown tremendously in complexity and differentiation with Second Order Cybernetics, General Systems Theory and Radical Constructivism.

When the tetrad is considered within the given framework of structural coupling, it is logical that the various generative factors, which are based not only on biogenic but also on technical programs, have an impact in socio-technical ensembles, starting at the program level, for instance action bots, game engines, authorship of the machine, continuing at the level of specific social contexts, as in the case of the "modular lecture", which is executed in the interrelations of different media levels.

data objectile/Problem Orientation Instead of Analogy

The data objectile is determined by complex factors. Its physical presence not only stands for "stable substance", but also for an unstable set of interactions, which are processed under the aspect of a multi-level conception (Varela 1990; Dupuy/Varela 1991) through self-descriptions, self-observations, and self-amplifications. And as with every articulation of art, it is a viewer arrangement, in which, in this case, humans interact with humans, machines with machines and humans with machines. At a certain degree of abstraction, it may be also said that trivial and non-trivial machines interact with one another. Generalizations, however, often tend to deteriorate into banality. In order to avoid this, the selected method must not be oriented at the most general level to characteristics or to differences in genre or to similarities, but rather to problems.

First of all, it should be stressed that the data objectile results from the data generated through nybble engineering. To be more specific: it is formed through a data extract and sintered via a 3D printer (SLS method, Selective Laser Sintering). It is a 3-dimensional "freeze frame" of a real-time environment. The data objectile consequently has no reference of any kind to an object in real life. As the reference to problem orientation already indicates, the data objectile is not developed by way of analogy. Instead it is based on considerations that, contrary to classical subject-object epistemology, seek to negotiate a far more complex understanding of the object. This opens up the option of a functional equivalent that is generated in the reference to software objects and their implications in a dynamic, complex context. This, however, requires the terms "specification", "generalization" and "respecification".

Like every social context, art also evolves conventionalized expectations, orders and concomitant norms. With a problem orientation, we can specify the norm more clearly by specifying the reference problem as a risk of generalization that is immanent to meaning. Shifting the norm concept to the concept of generalization puts the data objectile into a more complex understanding of the object. This is already achieved through its status of being an articulation in a communication context, where expectations always make up an important factor. These are expectations, in other words, that are guided by norms and are, to a certain extent, dependent on a factual event; thus they are "generalized expectations", which leave the content of what exactly is expected more or less undefined.

Although generalization stands for indeterminacy, it does not stand for the unknown, because what defines its functionality, is that it requires respecification in order to reach reference points. In this way, it is possible to evoke an interest in intensification, which addresses cognitive expectations and thus makes generalization a precondition for learning. Of course, it is also true in this case that one must know something in order to acquire knowledge. For it is only in an open combination of knowledge contents that remain constant and the willingness to modify and alter knowledge that generalized cognitive expectations are treated as knowledge.

With the definition of understanding art as an interdisciplinary coalition under specific system-immanent logics, the data objectile is targeted to the dimension of cognitive expectation in conjunction with specification, generalization and respecification. And as it is in science, the proportion of indeterminacy is made productive through the requirements of theory and method and thus referred to structures, which only apply to a specially differentiated functional system in society: in this case, the art system.

In the selected method, relating problems to one another is not an end in itself, but rather serves as primary orientation in seeking possibilities, or more precisely, seeking functional equivalents. This approach makes sense, when we define the historical art context as a relation of system problems or as a way of relating them to one another. The so-called anomy of (modern) art is only one striking example of this. In fact, however, every change of paradigms only represents the establishment of another ("new") function installation in the art system. In terms of system theory, this is part of the differentiation of function installations. In art discourse, the "new paradigm" stands for a problem construction, to which further constructions - in other words, functional equivalents - are conjoined. Orientation to function tends with appropriate complexity to higher problem specification. This applies not only to the art system as whole, with all its subsystems, which are structured through orientation to function, but also at the level of art praxis, which articulates/topicalizes/reflects/problematizes these system/environment differences.

The employed method represents a special horizon of the world of life for specific intentions, which places that which happens whenever information is processed - specifically the probing of differences - under certain conditions, thus putting them into a certain form. From this perspective, the data objectile is a functional equivalent. Its functional equivalent relationship, however, does not only refer to the source text (the nybble engineering data extract) that gives it its physical form. Rather, the data objectile circulates in a functionally equivalent relationship to a cluster of art discourse types and mutual system/environment relations, which have become differentiated in the course of the historical art context in the art system. This representation is based on a premise of the General System Theory, namely that every social contact is to be understood as a system. What is essential to the functional method is its orientation to the problem of complexity and not at all to the problem of maintaining what is already there. This is simultaneously its claim to the preservation of complexity. Since the functional method is self-referentially founded in its basic complexity preservation, it identifies its semantic forms as problems of reference, which only follow their own system logic. This means that they do not mirror constructions of other realities, but rather seek to understand an ordered social reality as a form of order in relation to this social reality.

The data objectile does not rely on a principle of l"art pour l"art. Essentially it is socio-technical ensembles of humans and machines that form current realities. Biogenic programs, which virtually regulate the operation of agency in the constitutional context of person, role and expectation, conjoin with programs of a technical nature. Survival means preserving complexity in a cybernetic media world.

The methodological framework of orientation for the nybble engine project is a radical/re-constructivist meta-art.

"Meta-art" (cf. Art & Language 1972) is an evolutionary achievement of the art system, and its emergence is inseparably linked with aesthetic Modernism. In its final evolutionary stage, meta-art is a reflection-theoretical endeavor as a form for observations, in order to observe oneself as a second-order observer. This kind of art marks the end of the aesthetic era of the self-description of the art system.

In order for the communication of the form to succeed, however, the socially constituted expectations of art must be taken into consideration in terms of the aspect of viability (following Ernst von Glasersfeld). This means that a reflection-theoretical art that claims to preserve complexity must still articulate itself in forms that are still identifiable as art. In this way, meta-art processes along the system/environment difference, at the very edge, so to speak, within which the intensification of art"s ability to dissolve and recombine can still reproduce art. It is not the aim of meta-art to explore existence in any form for the purpose of attaining insights with artistic means and methods, but rather to discursivize questions that relate to the how and the viability of art in its respectively current social context.

Of course, not every developmental step proves to be viable. "A sociology that regards modern society as a functionally differentiated social system, does not maintain that all functions succeed equally well when functionally differentiated. It has doubts with regards to religion, and with regard to art it can raise the question, whether differentiation is beneficial to this functional area..." (Luhmann 1984).

The current approaches of "meta-art" only have little in common now with those of the sixties (cf. Art & Language 1972). The forms of current meta-art are now completely integrated in the post-autonomous art that has been developing for about twenty years. Just as the orientation to function serves both self-simplification and evolving complexity, the autonomy of art can be both weakened and strengthened through heteronomy. From the perspective of differentiation theory, the issue of autonomy and heteronomy is never an either/or question. Rather, both of these terms are conceived as a relationship of mutual escalation, whereby differentiated systems combine an increase of autonomy with a greater amount of dependency on a plurality of other systems.

The tendency of art in the last twenty years sufficiently affirms that pure, non-purposeful art no longer offers a motivational basis for aesthetic agency. An idea of this kind is no longer tenable in the plurality of an (ultra-) modern society. In contemporary art, therefore, it is much more a matter of initiating communicative fields of production via articulations. Under the "frame phenomenon" art, these fields create various horizons of meaning for as many participants as possible. From this perspective, it is understandable that the nybble-engine-projects integrates elements borrowed from the dramaturgy of marketing and accordingly has three pillars: 1. the "theme phenomenon", calling to mind "narratives" from science, for instance; 2. the "frame phenomenon", which is clearly given here through the art reference; and 3. the "ensemble phenomenon", which provides for the participants to retain ensemble status beyond mere reception.

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