Machine Aesthetics

The program series "Machine Aesthetics" reflect on the possibility of a new aesthetics of the machine. Does digital technology make it possible for the machine to develop aesthetic behavior, to create art, and to become an autonomous agent? How can we live in a world of intelligent machines, and how can machines live in a world of intelligent men?

Machine Aesthetics

Nicolas Anatol Baginsky: Three Sirens

Jun 1997
Jul 1997
location: V2_, Eendrachtsstraat 10, Rotterdam


The machine is beginning to talk back. The machine can learn, act and create. Computers do meaningful things that we no longer understand, they communicate amongst each other without human interference, and they develop structures, objects and plans that no human would ever think up. Machines are no longer mere passive instruments of human will, they are becoming partners of our everyday existence.

Artists are exploring the machine as an independent agent, they are questioning the relationship between the machine and the human body, its perceptions and actions, and they are developing models for new forms of interaction between humans and machines. Are we entering larger, machinic environments in which we cooperate with machines, rather than contolling them? And what will the social and cultural relations in such machinic environments be? How are we going to live in a world of intelligent machines?



Remove the Controls - Machine Aesthetics, essay by Andreas Broeckmann (1997)

Today's social environments are fully permeated by technical apparatuses, tools and infrastructures which form complex assemblanges of objects, spaces and behaviours. Our bodies are fitted with cyborgian extensions (glasses, walkman, car, elevator, pace-maker), and the way we work, rest and play is intertwined with our machinic environment. We are ourselves part of the machinic assemblages that surround us.

Machine art has, for quite some time, dealt with the technological apparatus as something that is exterior and 'other' to the human body. Here, the machine is an autonomous object (SRL, McMurtie), or a tool for working on or representing the human body (Hobijn, Sermon).

The principle of the 'machinic' relates not so much to particular technological or mechanical objects connected to or independent from the human body. The `machines" can be social bodies, industrial complexes, or psychological or cultural formations, such as the complex of desires, habits and incentives that create particular forms of collective behaviour in groups of individuals, or the aggregation of materials, instruments, human individuals, lines of communication, rules and conventions that together constitute a company or institution. These are examples for 'machines' which are assemblages of heterogeneous parts, aggregations which transform forces, articulate and propel their elements, and force them into a continuous state of transformation and becoming.

As an aesthetic principle, the machinic is associated with process rather than object, with dynamics rather than finality, with instability rather than permanence, with communication rather than representation, with action and with play. The aesthetics of the machinic does not so much concern itself with the intention or result of artistic practices, but with the translations and transformations that occur within a machinic assemblage. For instance, it is not so much interested in the drawing as a representation, but in the transformative processes (cognitive, neurological, anatomical) that occur in a drawing human body and in the drawing as one of the potential results of those processes.

Artists are exploring the machinic in a multiplicity of ways. In Gebhard Sengmüller's TV Poetry (1994), a computer programme scans television images for representations of words, records and re edits them, and replays them as a stream of 'poetic' statements. Daniela Plewe's Muser's Service (1996) is a multi-dimensional database of logically interlinked concepts which, on request, produces a sentence as an apparently random, though logically derived pathway through this associative meshwork of words and ideas. Nox's Soft Site (1996) translated the activity of visitors to the DEAF96 website into mutating, ever-changing 'soft scrapers' growing over a representation of the city of Rotterdam. In Ulrike Gabriel's Terrain (1994) the intensity of the brain waves of a user steers the intensity of light sources which 'feed' the light sensors activating artificial bugs. Seiko Mikami's Molecular Informatics (1996) traces the movements of the user's eye and translates them into virtual molecule structures which the user can see as they evolve. For the project Anonymous Muttering (1996), Knowbotic Research have designed an assemblage in which a computer set-up, users at several locations in the urban space, and users on the Internet, can collectively manipulate and perceive a continuous live stream of digitised audio signals. In the project Refresh (1996), a large group of net artists created webpages which were linked together in a loop by means of a 'refresh' command built into each page, so that any visitor of the project would automatically loop through the entire ring.

All these projects make use of the forces and parameters of the machines and limit the aspect of interactivity and control to an input function and the reception, while the actual creative process is delegated to a complex and heterogeneous disposition of forces, codes and functions which are partly determined by the material quality of certain machinic elements (friction), while others result from given programmed or planned processes. The outcome of these machinic processes is characterised by a high degree of unpredictability, although they are seldom random. The heterogenic logic of the machinic creates unpredictable, yet organised results, to which the human user can contribute as one agent among others.

The forces operating within machinic assemblages are not chaotic, but can be described as tendencies. Knowbotic Research claim:

One should not try to control these tendencies from the outside by discovering their regularities or by evaluating them otherwise. Instead one could develop modes of agency which are based on the understanding that one forms part of the machinic assemblage. Then it is possible to decide whether one wants to cooperate with the dispositive or whether one wants to resist, whether one wants to pick up the tendential forces, amplify or divert them. Obviously one never has full control but always acts in relation to things happening elsewhere in the assemblage. (...) One never rules the system and will never reach a position from where it would be possible to overlook the entire system from the outside. (interview, Jan. 1997)

Artistic practice in this sense is not so much directed at particular results, but describes an attitude which is aimed at the creation of open, operative zones, at preparations towards the facilitation of a process during which temporary events and experiences can take place. Machinic art acts as the facilitation of aggregations of bodies and forces in which no meaningful differentiation can be made between human and machine. The functionality of the machinic itself becomes the core of the aesthetic force it exerts, creating a phylum that does not distinguish between human and machine agency.

In practical applications of the machinic, such as in interface design, computer agents or the development of interactive multi-user environments, the challenge is to devise strategies of coexistence with other forces within the assemblage, of understanding the tendencies of territorialisation and self-organisation which are present in any machinic environment. It is one of the great challenges of artistic practice that deals with such dispositions, to design the integration of machinic tendencies, of aspects of collective creativity and social processes, and to determine the possible and productive degrees of agency and of intervention.

The social and psychological effects of the implied negation of the anthropological and the anthropomorphic monopoly are not to be underestimated. However, as Maturana and Varela argue, it is an important way of acquiring a better understanding of the individual's position in the world. If we apply an open notion of subjectivity to the complex of the machinic, the combination of radical processuality and machinic integration bring us to a conception of human existence as a form of continuous transformation or becoming. The principle of becoming (i.e. becoming different) allows for an understanding of being as a process and reconciles the experience of relative permanence with that of heterogeneity and continuous change.

We could draw out this line of thinking onto a terrain where this multiplicity of becomings is further radicalised and is an actual, meaningful, subjectifying force that brings about new forms of being: we arrive at the prospect of an ethics and an aesthetics of 'becoming machine'. McKenzie Wark writes: The being-as-becoming, the "chaosmosis", as Guattari calls it, is a world of potentials... Subjectivity in this context is not restricted to the 'self-conscious human being' but can be extended to what Guattari has described as the 'proto-subjective', autopoetic dimension that characterises every machine. Wark continues: Let's take "the net" as a plane of immanence, where a quite particular set of flows of pure difference articulate. Flows of electricity, of copper, of code, of language - we can image these things as they might exist in a pure state, and then imagine the way the net selects, relates and articulates these flows in a certain way, as a certain kind of consistency. Out of that consistency arises the production of certain kinds of desire. (...) The autoproduction of desire produces itself out of itself, always differentiating itself from itself. This, I think, is the aesthetics of the net. And, one could add, it is the aesthetics of the machinic.

Accepting the autopoetic dimension of the machinic allows us, as Knowbotic Research have pointed out, to raise the question, whether perhaps, by means of technological machines, it is possible to develop new ways of dealing with one's desires. What the machinic as a tendency shows is that one does not steer one's desires, but that they are set free in a structured field where one can observe their non linear evolvement. (...) It allows us as artists to target this point and deal with the multi-layered desires by generating operative fields in which it is possible to test the forces and relationships, both individually and collectively. (1997) This work will, as the examples mentioned above also show, always be most interesting where the tension between machine and individual, between separation and dissolution, between reflexion and experiential flow is played out effectively and held in a critical balance. Knowbotic Research: By constantly moving back and forth in this intermediate field, by having the personal appear and disappear, specific forms of, perhaps, machinic processes of subjectification are possible.

Wark emphasises a similar point when he claims that an art committed to the machinic ought to be looking for those moments, those forms, those planes of consistency where auto-production emerges of its own accord. Or rather, constructing such zones, watching and waiting for it to happen - the way it can happen on the dance floor, or on a listserver. Not pure chaos, which tends in the end to be rather uninteresting, but chaos articulated on a plane of consistency, selected and articulated, so that complexity arises of its own self-organising accord. (1997)

When we look back into history, we can see that the machinic is not an entirely new aesthetic principle. The commitment to the machine of the Futurists, the ecstasy of écriture automatique and of some of the painting of the art brut, the Situationists' practice of derive, Fluxus, musique concret, mail art - all these are examples of practices that emphasise the machinic over the intentional, representational, expressive. In the present situation, an important question will therefore be what the specific role of digital technology and networks in the evolvement of machinic art practices may be, and in how far they bring forth particular forms of the machinic whose aesthetic effects are related to their structure and organisation.

Remove the Controls - Machine Aesthetics, essay by Andreas Broeckmann (1997)

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