EMPAC Lecture Series - Michael Century: "Extraordinary Freedom Machines: Vignettes in the History of a Multimedia Century"

EMPAC Lecture Series - Michael Century: "Extraordinary Freedom Machines: Vignettes in the History of a Multimedia Century"

EMPAC, Theater

November 29, 2011 12:00 PM - 1:00 PM

"Virtuality to Virtuosity, 1974-2011"


In this lecture I move beyond what some have termed the crisis of new media art today—its relegation to "cool obscurity" by the institutional art world, and its simultaneous co-option by the information industries—by sketching out an anti-anti-utopian view of the potential of experimental artworks as "extraordinary freedom machines."  

By framing the future of art and technology in terms of creative freedom, this concluding lecture weaves together and synthesizes strands from the first two.  The argument unfolds in two parts, examining in turn the micro-temporality of specific media art works, and the macro-temporality of aesthetic systems designed to enable future creativity.   In the first part, "virtuality" is explained as an intensification of time; selected works by David Rokeby, Bill Viola, Steve Reich illustrate the potential in art to vitalize and open new horizons of experience.  The second part embraces political philosopher Hannah Arendt's notion of freedom as "virtuosity", entailing the creation of a sustainable public space for creative dialogue and collaboration.  Examples are drawn from video art in the 1970s (Dan Sandin's Image Processor), computer music in the 1980s (the invention of the MAX programming language), and recent new media art (Loops by the Open Ended Group, "relational architectures" of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer).  


This is the final lecture of three surveying the multimedia arts in the twentieth century.  The method has been to present what I have called "vignettes" – artworks, institutions, individuals, movements -- not attempting any kind of systematic survey.  A unique conceptual framework was given for each lecture, unifying the treatment of each vignette.  In the first, covering the years 1913-47, I introduced an approach to the study of cultural history as polychronic – drawing on philosopher Michel Serres' notion that

"'E]very historical era is … multi-temporal, simultaneously drawing from the obsolete, the contemporary, and the futuristic. An object, a circumstance is polychronic, multi-temporal, and reveals a time that is gathered together, with multiple pleats."

I used the Ballet Russe's signature piece, The Rite of Spring, the theater workshop at the Bauhaus, the experimental animation techniques of Norman McLaren, and the early compositions of John Cage, to specify this idea of polychrony.  Here I examined history at the large scale, but no longer as linear and progressive; rather as cyclical and complexly entangled.  I concluded with a matrix of content/technique, formally presenting four distinct ways in which the new and the old in art and technology can be combined. 

In the second lecture, 1947-75, I concentrated on the inter-relations of art and technology in this turbulent, often revolutionary period.   I presented the seminal artworks created in E.A.T's Nine Evenings of Theater and Engineering, early scenes of experimental computer animation in the U.S. and Canada, and the techno-art philosophies of Glenn Gould, showing how in different ways, there was in this period a certain disconnect between the aspirations and practices of artists and engineers, a kind of lag-time between art and technology.  Drawing on a phrase from art critic Jack Burnham, I called the idealized unification of art and technology the "panacea that failed". 

In my introduction I also explained that the first and third lecture would form bookends in the way they treat the theme of temporality in art, the first dealing with the macro scale of historical logic and directionality, and the third – this lecture – dealing with the micro scale of time, the time of subjective immediate experience.   More specifically, the central theme of this concluding lecture is the fate of creative of freedom in our age of so-called intelligent machines.  The title of the series as a whole is "Extraordinary Freedom Machines"; for those who have attended the first two, which never mentioned it, you may now be wondering, what is behind this title?

The phrase comes from an open letter written in 1971 by the Surrealist poet, Louis Aragon, addressed to his former comrade Andre Breton, the author of the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924.  With this apparently oxymoronic phrase, Aragon was praising the theatrical work of American designer and director Robert Wilson. Aragon writes:

"I have never seen anything more beautiful in all the world.  Never, never has any play come anywhere near this one, because it is at once life awake and the life of closed eyes, the confusion of everyday life and the life for each night, reality mingled with dream...not Surrealism, but it is what we others, who fathered Surrealism, dreamed it might become after us, beyond us... [t]hat strange proximity of science and art, which is precisely the key to this freedom Robert Wilson demands for his art.  There are lots of people, and not necessarily fools or monsters, who fear that science may come to take the place of art, who fear the 'robotization' of humanity in its sublime particularity, and in a certain sense I understand this fear of change in what they love.  Like all those who shed tears because the moon just lately has lost its mystery.  I understand them, but don't approve. […]  Man starts each day beyond himself, beyond his past, his errors and his discoveries.  I say that for cybernetics, computers and the use of the atom, and for this still nameless beauty of which, with no doubt in my mind, the spectacle I am writing of is the first dawning.  Man moves away from his inventions.  And it isn't the perversion which can be made in the use of machines which should turn us away from them, just as at the time of the first scientific revolution, some unhappy men were driven to break and destroy machines which weren't their enemies but the point of departure for their freedom.  A play like Deafman Glance is an extraordinary freedom machine."


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