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Beyond Humachines

At this point technology has brought us beyond the ideological limitations of Andy Warhol, who wished to reconstitute humans as machines, becoming one unified entity and operating perpetually, as well as beyond Futurism's worship of industrialization and the aesthetics of mechanization.
Avi Rosen

Issue #18, January 1995

I want everybody to think alike .... Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we're getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine...because you do the same thing every time. You do it again and again... It doesn't matter what you do. Everybody just goes on thinking the same thing, and every year it gets more and more alike. Those who talk about individuality the most are the ones who most object to deviation, and in a few years it may be the other way round. Someday everybody will think just what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike.....
— Andy Warhol

Warhol's words interrogate human and artistic roles when we live in an industrial era, surrounded by consumption commodities, swamped by the production of endless production lines, and brainwashed by the electronic media. For one, Warhol apparently found his peace and identity by total identification with the doctrines that stand behind this way of life. This is an attitude that might be understood by regarding Warhol as part of a group born in the United States during the Depression years. A generation that knew shortage was exposed to great wealth, to abundant possibilities, and sought to compensate for past shortages. Warhol expressed part of a generational impulse to merge with the system, unite with wealth, feed from the system and feed it in return, till they became one. Warhol described a consumerized existence, its cultural heroes and myths, writing 'I paint this way because I want to be a machine. Everything I do is done like a machine, because this is what I want to do. I think it would be great if everybody is like that. Machines have much fewer problems. I'd like to be a machine — wouldn't you?'

Warhol drew on a twentieth-century tradition of adulatory relationships with idol machines and their dynamism. In the 1909 Futurist manifesto, Marinetti made explicit his embrace of this aesthetic: 'We declare that a new beauty was added to the glory of the world: the beauty of speed. A race car whose chassis is decorated with large snake-like pipes whose breath is about to burst....a roaring car that looks as if it were chasing a burst of bullets, this car is more beautiful than the statue, 'Vittoria di Samotracia.'' Yet this paragraph also evidences the cultural shock typically caused by progress and industrialization among a generation whose feet remain unaccelerated, still astonished by industrial phenomena. Such phenomena cause social and conceptual turnover, and a worship of the new idols: industrialization, speed and power.

The bizarreness of the new captures an imagination and thrusts it forward into visionary experience. Marinetti's car worship thus resembles Ezekiel's prophetic vision: 'As I was looking, there came a stormy wind out of the north, accompanied by a great cloud, in what was a mass of fire with a brightness around it, while out of its center something gleamed like shining metal. Then out of its center emerged what looked like four living beings....and every one had four faces, and every one had four wings....' (Ez. 1, 4-28). Ezekiel's vision has been repeatedly cited by alien contact theorists as an eyewitness report of aliens emerging from a flying saucer, even of the Bible itself as an extension of extraterrestrial cargo cultism. What the passage argues more strongly is a human tradition of imaginative merging of mechanism and furious, mutant Nature. In these instances, a meeting with technological progress causes bewildered 'primitives' to change their lives as a result of this stunning clash. The resulting terminologies constantly lack a fully developed vocabulary for the observed phenomena. Instead, they draw their metaphoric concepts from the world of animals: Marinetti's 'snake-like pipes,' or Ezekiel's divine messengers with the synthesized features of eagles, oxen, lions and men.

Pop-art and the Futurists both tried to represent new conceptions of art as redefined by the industrial machine and reshaped by self-acceleration. Perhaps their weak point lay in too extreme and emotional reactions, which assumed theatrical dimensions. Warhol wished himself a machine, and an eyewitness described Marinetti visiting Florence as inhabited by the same demon of speed that he worshipped: '[It resembled] the falling of a meteorite in an old palace garden. Telegrams, urgent phone calls, wild riding, violent and vulgar taking over of respectable restaurants.' Thus an artistic life itself emphasized and recapitulated an aesthetic theory traumatized by industrialization; it rendered artists as 'serious' in their lives as in their art.

More contemporary artists do not suffer from the same symptoms of change and transition; their artistic symptomatology has changed to incorporate the possibility of visual impossibilities. Industrialization and computerization routinely produces miracles: 'miracle-ization' has become an industrial process in its own right (viz. Industrial Light and Magic). Phenomena that rendered previous generations incoherent have become banal, even trivial. 'Miracle-ized' art continues to dissestablish older artist-audience relations and establish once-unrealizable panoramas as a norm. Since computerized artistic tools are far more powerful, visual ideas gain easier expression. Indeed, the use of these means dictates and creates a language different in some aspects than what has been acceptable within artistic communities, a language with different ideological grammar and syntax because these means did not originate in the context of artistic creation.

The computer and multimedia convert the world into one: time and distance concepts change. Whatever is created here and now can be transferred at the speed of light to any place in the world. An artist's creation breaks through studio borders and reaches an online viewership that is broader than ever. In 1992 in my exhibition 'Frames,' a connection was established between an art gallery in the small peripheral town of Yavne and the electronic archives of my artwork at the Technion computer network in Haifa. A computerized image was selected and transmitted by modem to the gallery, where it was displayed on-screen and printed by a color printer. With a few keystrokes the socio-geographic distance between the periphery in Yavne and the 'center' was minimized to zero space and time. These new possibilities in the social distribution of art find their ideological parallel in the modernistic preoccupation with what David Hockney has called 'the removal of distance' in representation. Looking at late Picasso paintings, Hockney found himself asking ' far am I from the figure? It is not something you can even measure any more......,' whereas in Pieros paintings, by contrast, perspectives could be literally modeled. The feeling of closeness to a subject, as in the flat photomontages of my own works, is a leading characteristic of electronic art. A screen display becomes the focal figure itself, rather than the spatial lines within the artwork. So both viewing mode and representation itself act to control, override and erase distances.

An artwork that matches this form of cyber-distribution is necessarily synthetic and interdisciplinary in order to take advantage of multimedia potentials. Artwork can include simultaneously any number of video channels and audio channels where every component of the work can be filterized and processed, thus changing shape, color and tone simply and easily. Internet viewers can already choose a desired artist and artwork, download and store it, change it, merge it with other works, print it, etc.

These altered modes of creation and consumption of art will necessarily bring changes in the structure of the artworld. The role of museums, galleries, collectors, dealers and art critics will perforce change. Some functions will survive; others will have to change in order to meet the requirements of the new situation and its language. The fundamental change will lie in the demise of centralized mediations between artists and audiences, between derecognized 'centers' and once-scorned peripheries.'

The threshold of stimulation has continually risen during the twentieth century. Traditional plastic art methods won't suffice any more to reach and retain viewerships. New means are required in order to grasp through a screen and seize the attention of an audience. While in the past artists might be judged as talented based on manual creation or brushwork, or their skill in creating those stylistic illusions that were considered to define acceptable art, these are insufficient criteria today. A virtual sculptor working with mathematical language has no less an aesthetic claim than does a chisel sculptor working in stone. The languages of plasticity are changing no less than the materials.

At this point technology has brought us beyond the ideological limitations of Andy Warhol, who wished to reconstitute humans as machines, becoming one unified entity and operating perpetually, as well as beyond Futurism's worship of industrialization and the aesthetics of mechanization. In both ideologies the machine is a dominant ideal, while humanity only desires to achieve mechanized perfection, denying itself. However, art that seizes control from the machines and uses its capacities to enhance creativity is an art that dominates machines. This contradicts the concepts advanced by Warhol and Pop Art which ultimately suggest that the machine threatens humanity, and that human self-abnegation is the answer.

It's time to change a situation in which, on the verge of the twenty-first century, artists are still using fifteenth-century technical means, with consequently anachronistic ideologies and achievements. Given this new technological reality, contemporary artists should master computers and their peripherals, communication equipment, and multimedia tools. Some will find here a dark vision of a high-tech 'hostile takeover' of art. But is there some fault in challenging the status of plastic artists as perennial outsiders, cut off from mass audiences by the nature of their media? The greatest danger to humanism lies in ignoring technological potential.

Avi Rosen is an electronic artist who lives and teaches in Haifa, Israel.

Copyright © by Avi Rosen 1995. All rights reserved.