Unstable Media

First half of one of Arjen Mulder's essays for the publication "Book for the Electronic Arts" (2000).

Unstable Media

Book for the Electronic Arts

Shared rejoicing

There are nine Muses, but not one for the visual arts. There is a Muse of epic poetry, philosophy, rhetoric and science; a Muse of history; of music or flutes; of comedy; of tragedy; of dancing and light poetry; of lyrical and love poetry; of mimic art; and of astronomy. In ancient Greece these were all performance and declamatory arts, narrating or singing, oral culture. The visual arts were the domain of Hephaistos, the limping god of craftsmanship. The Muses have to do with all art forms based on movement, rhythm, repetition, ephemerality, onceonly- ness: unstable media.

No one has defined the difference between stable and unstable media better than Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens. Here’s a long quote: “How totally different from the ‘Music’ arts is the effect of the visual arts. The architect, the sculptor, the painter or draftsman, the potter, the decorating artist in general inscribes his esthetical impulse in the material by diligent and sustained labor. His creation will last and remain visible. The effect of his artwork does not depend on it being deliberately shown or performed by others or by himself, as in music. Once finished, it exerts its effect, still and mute, as long as there are people feasting their eyes on it. Lacking a public act that celebrates the artwork and brings it to life, the realm of visual art does not seem to favor a frivolous element. However much he is possessed by the creative urge, the artist seriously and intensely labors on, like a craftsman, continually testing and correcting himself. His rapture, so free and untamed at its conception, during execution has to be subjected to the skillfully shaping hand. Where in the creation of the artwork the frivolous element seems absent already, in beholding and enjoying it, it is absolutely not expressed at all. There is no discernible action.”

This explains not only why a visit to a museum can be boring, but also why art lovers’ faces go pale when you declare one of their revered paintings to be “charming.” Huizinga: “The ‘Music’ artwork lives and prospers in an atmosphere of shared rejoicing. Not so the plastic artwork.” Unstable media, playful. Stable media, serious. Unstable media, mass culture. Stable media, high art. Or, in another twosome: Unstable media, time sequence; stable media, spatial structure (“his creation is permanent”). Unstable media, time; stable media, space.

In order to enjoy a painting, drawing, etching or photograph, a sculpture, ceramic or building, to really get to the heart of it and make it give all it has to give, you have to enter into a one-on-one relationship with it. What does this image, this work, mean to me and me alone? The more personal the reaction to a stable image, the more authentic the experience becomes; the more you do it justice, the more you let it do justice to you. To understand this art means to develop an utterly personal definition of it during a prolonged, never-ending probing of the images for their potential to unlock, within you, the world. You and you alone are the gate they open. Behind it lies everything, at least everything within human’s grasp. The religious experience evoked by stable art is concrete, worldly, “secular.”

Once you have developed this very individual view of art it becomes interesting to find out other people’s definition of it. Then it pays to visit museums, exhibitions or galleries. What effect did this work have on them, the curators and directors of museums, to make them call it art? What did it do to the artist to present this work as art? What does it do to me? You read a catalog, a book, a newspaper article, an interview and gradually you start to understand: ah, that’s why. No matter how many people come to look at a painting, or how many people see a photograph in a magazine or pause to admire a sculpture or a building’s façade, they are all unique individuals reacting in a unique way (if at all). And these people are not aware of each other, unless they’re in each other’s way in a crowded museum or street. They never react as a crowd, as a mega-organism that has direction and will.

How different things are at a concert, a performance, a movie or a speech. These are real mass media events. All members of the audience are connected to the same energy source on the stage or in the public square. All the properties Elias Canetti ascribes to crowds can be expressed here. Those present crowd close together; they start to feel equal to each other as they face or move in the same direction. And they pursue a form of release, the moment when they will truly be a crowd/mass, each and every one of them losing his or her individuality, drawing more and more bystanders and sucking them in to become a larger and larger crowd. Growth, equality, density and direction are the characteristics of a crowd.

Television has been called a mass medium because it reaches so many people at the same time, but it rarely leads to the manifestation of crowds, except perhaps occasionally, in a bar or in the streets after a victory by some sports team. And this is only after the television has already been switched off. Television is rather the opposite of a mass medium, isolating viewers in their living rooms. With each round of innovation over the past hundred or two hundred years technology has become more introverted. While stage drama and street theater were truly mass media, film was much less so as the comfort and darkness of the cinema reduced one’s awareness of one’s own and other people’s bodies. Television subsequently eliminated the unknown co-viewers, leaving only family and friends to share the experience. Surfing the Web, finally, is a totally solitary activity, even in an Internet cafe.

True mass media aim to give the user an experience that is characteristic of festivities: the merry excitement of taking part in something for which performing artists provide fuel but not content. This content is what Canetti calls the turning point of the fear of being touched, the moment when the natural aversion to being touched by strangers turns into the pleasure of rubbing up against each other. It doesn’t really matter how many people make up this mass – three’s a crowd – what matters is that they get the chance to lose their individuality by connecting to an external energy source. This loss of individuality as a goal in itself, this transgression of the aura of untouchability surrounding every person is the opposite of the individualization “high art” strives for. This makes all mass media culturally suspect. At the same time it makes all unstable media suspect, because all unstable media are potentially mass media, just as all stable media are potentially art media. Television is an unstable medium, which is why it is regarded as a mass medium.

Television evokes the idea of an abstract crowd which is imaginary because it gives the lone viewer the notion that many more people are watching elsewhere, as proven by the ratings. The banners and counters on websites perform a similar function.

Stable media confront their consumers with their own mortality. Everything depicted in paintings and photos, in sculptures and ceramics, is gone; the people have died, the landscapes have been swept away, the objects have been broken. Even the creator of the image is not there any more while the image itself has remained in existence undiminished. This is seriousness: the need to create something durable in the face of the transience of life on Earth. The content of stable media consists of the instability of their consumers (both those depicted and those watching). Unstable media on the other hand are themselves transient, time-based, once-only. They do not deliver a durable structure; they initiate a process. They transfer their consumers to another realm or space or mentality than that of mortality, of ordinary life. They are playing a game in the sense Huizinga defined.

The game of unstable media is played in a parallel world, and if there is any stability there, it is that of the rules one obeys for the duration. Play – the beauty of this world lies in its transience. However heavy the materials of unstable media are, they are characterized by a certain lightness, a freedom from care, a non-tragical stance, a cheerful optimism. The realization that the party will be over within a few hours heightens its intensity and the vigor of the dancing. Unstable media allow for wild parties; stable media prevent them. Any mass popular festivity can get out of hand and lead to chaos – as is time and again illustrated in the violent eruptions of fascist hordes blinded by orators, and of hooligan mobs agitated by soccer. Such disturbances are not likely to occur at an art museum. The only excitement there takes place when someone slashes someone else’s work: individual protest.


Media as motor of history

Besides being a means to evoke desired or unexpected experiences, media have always also been controlling technologies, devices of discipline and instruments of civilization. They provide coherence and dynamics to a society. Stable media last a long time and thus can provide a monopoly of power for the group that controls them: traditionally scholars and priests dealing with an illiterate people or – more contemporary – critics and art connoisseurs in a nation of philistines. The elite guarantees the stability and continuity of political, economical, religious and cultural structures. According to Harold Innis (The Bias of Communication, 1951), the Byzantine Empire held out for a thousand years and Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich lasted only twelve years, because the first was founded on the use of the enduring and expensive medium of parchment in the hands of a political-religious hierarchy, while the second founded its power on loudspeakers and radio.

Stable media facilitate longer-lasting empires; unstable media make for spatially vast but short-lived ones. The Byzantine Empire replaced the Roman Empire, which itself had owed its continuity to a bureaucracy that used the more or less stable medium of papyrus (when the production of papyrus collapsed, Byzantium rose). By the fact that all Germanspeaking minorities in the neighboring countries could be reached by radio, the Nazi Empire replaced the Weimar Republic, which depended on printing presses, as soon as that nation’s borders became unstable. According to Innis, the arrival of new means of communication inevitably leads to a disruption of the power of the elites. This may explain why literary people – printed text being the instrument of power for centuries in the West – have been announcing all through the 20th century that everything was going to the dogs (“all things of value are defenseless”), with the arrival of radio, television, comic books, computer video games and the Internet. Literature saw itself being demoted from expression of the highest to just another form of entertainment amongst others. In the domain of technical images the stable medium of photography was only accepted in the temples of art after having shed its mass-cultural aspects. Video, a halfstable medium, was also allowed in as long as it reflected upon its own tragically transient status, depicted within the stable environment of the video installation. A perfect example of this is Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha (1974/1982), in which an ancient Buddha statue stares at its own image projected on a monitor through closed-circuit video.

The rapid introduction in the twentieth century of unstable technical media such as telephone, radio, electricity, television and the World Wide Web resulted in accelerated economic processes and continually shifting monopolies of power. The “empire of the media,” to paraphrase Innis, now encompasses all of the Earth’s space but has shrunken to real time. Paul Virilio, the French “speed” thinker, has devoted his complete oeuvre to the consequences of this development. Time, social continuity, has become an increasingly shadowy element to users of the new media. Long-term planning in large corporations now covers a three-month span; Internet companies have to be successful within a week or forget it. Looking further ahead than a couple of days or weeks is considered unrealistic. If one would wish to assign a function to unstable art at all, it would be that of learning to cope with this universal ephemerality and elusiveness, this instability of the modern world. Not by idolizing it in a melancholy or heroic way or by rejecting it, but by cherishing it and exploring it to see how livable it is, what its “Music” potential is.


© 2000 Arjen Mulder / V2_

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