Computers Spark New Renaissance

Artists, technicians, and philosophers work together to craft new images and realities

AT the end of his essay on computer-generated images, Florian Rotzer relates the late 20th century to the Italian Renaissance.

During both periods, he argues, artists, technicians, and philosophers worked collaboratively.

In the Renaissance, they devised an elaborate system of perspective that has held firm for hundreds of years.

In our time, science and art are participating in the creation of an equally profound and long-lasting theory and practice of visual representation: virtual reality.

Rotzer's optimism recalls the unfulfilled forecasts for the telephone, radio, television, cable, and satellite communication systems.

Yet despite the ardor of advocacy that pervades ``Iterations: The New Image,'' its collection of essays persuasively reviews the repercussions computer-based imaging has had on recent art.

Timothy Druckrey, editor of ``Iterations'' and an early historian of digital media, observes in his essay that electronic imagery has the capacity to alter our connection to the world of everyday experience.

Before the computer, the camera recorded traces of optical reality. However blurry or abstract, the object in a photograph had to have been before the lens. In an important sense, the photograph assured us of the natural world's reliability.

But with computer images, that well-rehearsed relationship to reality changes. Where the camera took pictures, the computer makes pictures through complicated mathematical procedures. Reality need never be consulted.

Likewise, the computer images generated through what is called virtual reality, that is, optical experience keyed to eye and body movements, challenge the relationship between what we know and what we experience.

Put on the virtual reality helmet and glove, and feel yourself accept as real what the eye appears to glimpse and what the hand seems to manipulate. In its advanced forms, interactive experience allows one to create fluid movement within the alternative reality. The images do not appear outside oneself, like optical illusions in a fun-house.

With computer-generated images, perception no longer guarantees what is real and what is not. Seeing is no longer believing.

To proponents of computer imagery, the idea that virtual reality may soon have the palpable presence of the most convincing dream is far from ominous. Druckrey argues that interactive computer work parallels the emergence of multiculturalism. Where others envision an entertainment excess, Druckrey conceives a richly diverse plurality of experience.

Few would dispute the continuing influence of computers on artists, who find that digital technology allows them to mix image, text, and sound in a new form of montage. Among the artists in ``Iterations'' is MANUAL, a Texas-based team that uses computer technology to underscore the false autonomy of nature and humanity.

Interactive media often encourage viewers to become participants, creating works rather than passively viewing them. Each person's result is different; there is no final version of the art object. For example, Rocio Maria Goff's sculpture, ``Weaving Histories,'' frames a computer within a loom. Users are encouraged to push the loom's pedals to make stories appear on the computer screen.

It is not necessary to have an electronic address to learn from the art and essays in ``Iterations.'' But a little computer networking would add to the appreciation of ``Imagologies: Media Philosophy.'' The book is a 1992 international classroom experiment undertaken by American philosopher Mark C. Taylor and Swedish philosopher-media critic Esa Saarinen to link their seminars via the internet, in the hope of generating a philosophy for contemporary media, especially computer communication.

Although the book has topical sections, the text reads more like an academic bulletin board crowded with anonymous aphorisms, dense haiku, shreds of term papers, and snatches of computer-generated graphics. The effect is a virtual (puns intended) conversation collage that readers may enlarge by responding (via computer, of course) to the authors.

The point of this book - or ``antibook'' as one of its advocates has dubbed it - is not conventional page-after-page reading. Channel surfing is closer to the mark. Open it anywhere. Read up and down or across adjacent pages. Move from ``room'' to ``room'' as in a computer-network chat. Shift from serious discussion to capricious gab. Or just behold pages compiled by authors who proclaim that ``in our era, we must philosophize with images rather than concepts.'' Regardless of such hyperbole, the look of the book figures so greatly in its effect that Marjaana Virta, who designed the volume, should be credited with authorship.

What one cannot do with ``Imagologies'' is take notes. The book has been printed on glossy, pencil-defying paper and repeatedly runs its text to the margins.

Throughout these assembled writing fragments (textoids?), heavy hitters ranging from German philosophers Kant and Hegel to contemporary French thinkers like Jacques Derride and Jean Baudrillard are regularly referenced. Yet continuity is so splintered in ``Imagologies'' that it is not helpful to those unfamiliar with the central issues.

Ultimately, ``Imagologies'' does not yield its promised media philosophy, and ``Iterations'' is flawed by its untempered enthusiasms. But if you want to sample what it feels like to be ``wired,'' check out these books.

* Mary Warner Marien teaches fine arts at Syracuse University in New York.

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