When the love affair of the mind with the body is over, when reason and imagination are in love with each other and have no eyes for awkward flesh, when the hardwiring of the brain into the nervous system is overtaken by its prosthetic connections to the telecoms system, art has a new function. With or without bodies, we have been moving as a technological species into the human universe for a hundred and fifty years. Now we have to decide what luggage to take with us on the journey, and what has to be left behind. Will we need space? Will we need time? Will we need the distinction between them? Will we need our human senses to register the old certainties, when there are new uncertainties to survive and challenge? This is, in large part, what the new media arts exist to understand: a kind of Research and Development laboratory for the next phase of human evolution.
In Simon Biggs' online, multimedia and installation work over the last decade and more, questions about the kind of human that exists and will exist, and about how they will relate together, have peppered a diverse invention of art practice. Because, even if the phonograph, the photograph and the telegraph already had redefined the global processes of empire, trade and exile by the 1870s, and though electricity, cinema and the car had begun that acceleration and fragmentation of experience that has remained the hallmark of the modern world by the beginning of the century, the processes of accelerated modernity have now taken us beyond a certain horizon from which it might still have been possible to look back at a Nature untouched by human activity. Our ecology is no longer nature's: it is ours. Our destiny is no longer that of a natural species, and our sense of who we are and what we are feeling is cut off from the wellsprings of instinctual life. Instead, we inhabit our own world, sensitive, a little, to our responsibilities, hungry now for the shocks of the modern that have powered our emotional lives since the 19th century invention of advertising. Invention and diversity: the rules of capitalist trade, but also a not unreasonable summary of Darwinian evolution's tactical route to survival and escape. The new media artist works with the tools of evolution as they now exist for a wholly artificial species.
Moving into one of Biggs' spaces, you are always aware of the flexibility of the dimensions, the permeability of the materials. Statistically we tend nowadays to live in cities, more than houses: we live in mobile spaces like buses and cars, in streets and malls as much as in rooms, our eyes illuminated by street lamps and TV screens, passing walls of glass as much as concrete and wood. And all over the surfaces, penetrating the solidity and layering in palimpsests of neon and billboards, the city has become a legible space. Of course, cities are immense and immensely social, products of a billion accidents of policy, greed, whimsy and error. You cannot ask of a city what it is 'about', and to some extent it is difficult to ask it where it is, or what it looks like. Cities are never finished, and any boundary tends to be confounded by the constant toing and froing across it. A city, today, is a variable space through which vast numbers of processes travel on their paths, transports of technical, financial, juridical, political, physical and human material. Flexible and permeable, the city gives us a sense of Biggs' spatial ambition.
Biggs has worked directly in big urban spaces with interactive projections that do much more than challenge the hegemonic claim of advertising to the city's walls. They also take the logic of the billboard and move it a step further, making their art out of the interplay between the physical presence of the wall and the immateriality of light and sound. His ceiling-projected work Heaven in the cathedral at Osnabruck traces histories of that dialectical play of light and monumental masonry back into the Gothic period of European art, but his installations in the UK have more often turned towards the future, most literally in the wonderful Document first shown in the portico of the new British Library building on London's Euston Road, where the figures of elderly dancers respond to the gestures and movements of onlookers. This respect for age, as a destination we can hope for, and for dance as a habitation of space, pair sup with the scale of the UK's premier copyright library, receptacle of the nearest thing there is to the totality of human knowledge.
If there is a competitor for the title of total knowledge accumulator, it is the internet. The net now holds as much knowledge as a hundred lifetimes could hope to amass, just in the public areas, let alone in the guarded citadels of government and corporate databases. Here Biggs' Great Wall of China, with its sentence-generating engine, performs an allegory out of Kafka's short story of the making of meaning in the space of infinite data. The net realises the urban sprawl in every desktop, the same human geography of constant building and tearing down, of frauds and freak shows, of gossip and sublime discourse. Of course it houses too its ateliers and museums, but Biggs' net piece, like almost all the best web art, speaks, if obliquely, about the net itself, its functions, its capacities, its techniques and its unpredictably creative ecology. The net, as anyone who has surfed it more than once will recognise, is in a period of extravagant growth, defining the spaces it moves into, creating them out of nothing. Here at last is a spatial expansion without colonialism or ecological catastrophe, and more than that, a space that can redefine what we understand by human space.
When Einstein began the long slow haul into the quantum world, light achieved a kind of materiality only dimly perceived in Newton's Optics, an energy equatable mathematically with matter, and whose activities, especially that spatial attribute of speed, could also, as universal constant, reset the parameters of the space-time relationship. Curved space, four dimensional space, the space that melds into non-existence at the limits of scientific cosmology or quantum theory: how much of our century has been spent assimilating the concepts of relativity, as living metaphors, into the cultural life of peoples?
In more familiar mode, light is that illumination which defines the perceptual dimensions of place, for contemporary culture perhaps more so than any other sense. Sound informs us, but we are less informed by its reverberations or its deadness than we are by vision, even knowing, as we have since Goethe and Helmholtz, that the eye is as much a source of vision as a receiver of it. Now Biggs' installations offer us that most intimate of lights, the light which, in Rembrandt's portraits, bathes the model -- son, wife, artist -- in vision. In Biggs' work there appears a vision which belongs to no other period of history, that could only emerge in the age of the panoptic, surveillance society, the age of the end of privacy. Now we are bare, and we have become visual creatures, whose clothes and body language, internal organs, everything, have become the food of a new publicity. What light will illuminate that nude skin but the electronic fall of pixels in a dimensionless space, looped around the recreation of the body, not as representation, but as object, in the sense computer programmers have of the object, as self-organising programme capable of working with other software objects in virtual environments and, in Biggs' case, with the tactile world beyond.
In these projections, light falling on the wall illuminates us too, brings us into the field of the visible, inscribes us into the work, and its space, chiming against the pealing of the real in subtle harmonies. Not only the virtual space of the screen suddenly unfolds into vertiginous openness onto an endless potential space: we too are confronted with the fall into the light, the phenomenological realisation that as we see, so we are seen. The looping taped figures describing their circuit of behaviours in shifting patterns, the harmonies, again, the dancers in the dance, embrace the movement of another space and double it, as recording doubled, at a stroke, the number of sounds in the world. Our movement, the motion in us of space and time, is written into this artifice, this vista of a supernatural, where gravity and direction are in question, and the lonely solipsism of European culture finds its escape, nested inside itself like a Russian doll.
Bloody programmers: never giving the rest of the universe a glimpse. This time, the word 'object' is visited on us in an entirely new meaning, without reference to the old. When you say, perhaps, that bodies have become objects, you might be making a feminist statement. Feminists first understood the cultural upshot of the separation of mind and body philosophised by Descartes and embodied in modern medicine, the whole of modern culture for that matter. As the mind ascended from mere beauty, a physical delight in the physical world, towards the high mountains of the sublime, where nature ended and God began, beyond words, as pure mentality, so, at the same time, the body was ejected down through the level of ugliness, the physical repulsion of physical things, into the level of disgust, abjection, the chaotic materials beyond the order of reason. Of course, beauty and ugliness are socially defined, and what one society or culture lusts after, another finds jejune or barbarous. But that is exactly what is precious about them: that they are social, and do not seek some ultimate, ideal and godlike stance from which to judge the world from beyond its boundaries. The mind and the body: sublimity and disgust: the true story of reason is the damnation of the flesh (and women would bear the brunt, tied by their oppression to the weary cycles of pregnancy and ignorance).
There is no going back. Just as we cannot return to the instinctual life, to untutored seeing, or to the old private sphere, we cannot condemn ourselves to nostalgic yearnings for an integrated body and mind. Again, the new media arts work in the futurology of the material life. The fact is that the mind now is a distinct function, severed more and more from the bodily sensations that assail us. Experience is as difficult a category of thought as it is possible to imagine. And in the opposite direction, thinking feels increasingly irrelevant to the onrush of sensation, the extremities of sex, sport, spectacle. That separation is engineered into the very technologies of film and television, technologies of distance, of the objective viewer, of the representation.
What object-oriented programs offer is a way of speaking in, through, with, the division of mind and body without falling into the fruitless dialectics of representation and its objects. To represent is necessarily to falsify: that is the core belief of poststructuralism and deconstruction. But what Biggs undertakes is not an attempt at reconciling the seer and the seen, but to attract both into the same space, a space where what is important is not the production of bodies or representations as objects for the viewer, but where both the viewer and what she views are subjects, circling each other in anticipation of a communication which, though it may never come, can be hoped for. That hope creates a future into which it is possible to evolve.
The only future worth travelling into is the one you have not foreseen. If we already knew where we were going, there would be no point going there. Corporate culture is about planning the future, making the conditions under which the future will be the same as the present, only more so. Artistic culture is about creating the conditions for a future that is different, unimaginable, unadministrable. Making those conditions, opening those grounds of possibility, is also the shape of language which, as contemporary linguistics argue forcibly, is a device for producing endlessly different sentences. The same language Chaucer used to describe 'This worlde, which that men say is round' at the dawn of the 15th century is available to us, to say things that we cannot yet believe, which are not yet true, but which will be. Biggs' text-generating devices are celebrations of that boundless generosity of language, the splendid cornucopia of recursivity.
We have to think about language less as a clumsy sort of picturing, and more as a mode of mathematics. Just as there is no end to the combination of our little rows of numbers and symbols, just as we have discovered, in this little tool for administering contracts an oceanic beauty of symmetries and patterning, not only unexpected but utterly unforeseeable and still profoundly mysterious, so in language we have an engine that, like a programmer's object, interacts with the world, but also enters into the world on its own terms, according to its own rules, with its own agendas. There really is no reason why the obscure if elegant equations of an Einstein or a Mandelbrot should have any bearing on the conduct of atoms billions of light years away. And yet they do. That is the mystery. Math is a wonderful tool for describing the universe. Language is equally wonderful for describing, not the world, but relationships we have with it, and through it, with each other. Language is the first interaction, the commonest, in some ways the most precious. Language is the tool through which, in speech, in writing, we live the material union of mind and body, and live it socially.
The angels that have inhabited some of Biggs' most impressive recent works, those towering messengers, are suddenly frequent in contemporary art, not least in the monumental video installations of Bill Viola. The angel, let us say, is the essential allegorical figure, the creature who, as the Word of God, has never existed outside the world of imagery, and is always a relation to some other thing which the angel is. The angel is the perfect androgyne, the perfect figure for a transfigured humanity, not least because it does not exist. Its very whimsy is a tribute to the theology of hope. The angel always comes to speak, to bring words, to deliver messages, perhaps to bring the unspoken, the unspeakable, to bring images for poetry like Yeats' visions, or models for architects, saints and dreaming biologists. In the angel we can aspire to a further conception of art, as visual language, but only when language, visual or verbal, is understood as a kind of mathematical process, a mathesis in which the making of visions is the making of relationships with others, much more than an attempt to colonise the world by describing it.
Resistance is futile. To resist is to recognise the domination of the powerful: to make that power your only interest is to devote yourself to its service. The rhetoric of cultural studies is full of subversion, as if there were nothing left to do but refuse the crumbs of comfort from power's table. Art is a practice of making new, of making other, the relationships between people which are now the entirety of our world. If it is true that those relationships have become technologised to the point at which mind and body no longer meet, and everyone is looking out for number one in a hyperreal whirligig of unreal simulations, then that is still more reason to work at the most intensive level of the media, their role as mediators, not between things, but between people. This is what the interactive artist does most rigorously, unpacking and slowing down the interface between people and their machines. Sheer speed elides human relations in favour of relations between things -- data, bytes, information, commodities, corporations, regulations. Penetrating that hardcoded channel to release its potential is a work for angels.
At a certain moment, the art historians say, art gave up the task of
depicting reality in order to work at the level of art itself: paintings
about painting, films about film. It matched a certain belief in the primacy
of technology: the medium is the message, in MacLuhan master-phrase. Biggs'
asserts a new aesthetic, one still embroiled in that ground, but discovering
fruitful ways of mulching down the old as compost for the new: what is
important is neither the information content, nor the medium in and of
itself, but this process of mediation, in which, in our evolving technosphere,
we may take control of the conditions under which we can relate to one
another and our sisters, the machines.
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