by Sylvie Parent
A few months after Cartographies, The General Assembly on New Media Art (organized by ISEA), another gathering of interest to the technoart comunity, Rhétorique des nouvelles écritures, took place in Montreal. The conference was organized by Louise Poissant, who teaches at l'Université du Québec à Montréal and is director of the media art research group GRAM. Cartographies was essentially of a forum for producers, disseminators, and artists, and therefore encompassed the current state of the creation and presentation of works in this sector of activity. The majority of the participants in Rhétorique des nouvelles écritures, whether researchers, theorists, or artists, are also professors. Their presentations were therefore of a more academic nature, related to research in progress and offering fresh analytical elements and a critical reflection on this aspect of contemporary art and its context. In this sense, the two events were mutually complementary.
On the first morning, presentations centered on two main perspectives. On one hand, Pierre Lévy and Jean-Claude Guédon offered historical and anthropological readings of cyberspace and the question of collective intelligence, while Dominique Scheffel-Dunand and Michel Sénécal called for a re-examination of the university's role in the transmission of knowledge via the new information technology—a subject of current concern.
The pre-eminent cyberspace theorist Pierre Lévy, who had also participated at Cartographies, demonstrated the evolving processes of culture and language, from the organic structure of DNA, via the nervous system, the development of language, the alphabet and writing, through to computer technology. Mr. Lévy's optimistic position, based on a resolutely positive philosophical overview, is that human evolution is progressing towards the interconnection of individuals, and therefore towards a collective intelligence and consciousness. Jean-Claude Guédon took us through another fascinating trip through the eons in his discussion of Stephen Mithen's book A Prehistory of the Mind, which establishes parallels between the archeological evidence and the development of human intelligence. He reminded us that the complexification of social organization has encouraged the development of specialized intelligence for greater efficacity. More cautious than Pierre Lévy, Jean-Claude Guédon's conclusion is that specialization and diversification do not necessarily lead to the achievement of collective intelligence, as individuals have their own "local" viewpoints, even in the context of cyberrspace.
In a change of focus, Dominique Sheffel-Dunand gave us the benefit of her viewpoint as a professor in her discussion on the profound changes taking place in universities—in the transmission of knowledge, in hierarchical relationships, and in the ideological discourse of higher learning. The sharing of data bases in interinstitutional partnerships constitutes a countertendency to the fierce competition among universities to attract more students/clients to jusitify increased financing and to maintain their academic reputations. It subverts the concept of the university as a hermetic fortress. Cybertools such as listservs and forums also challenge traditional concepts of who gives and who receives knowledge. Moreover, the free circulation of information made possible by new technologies erases the boundaries between authors, editors, readers, and users. Michel Sénécal, who has worked in distance learning for several years, gave panelists and the public an update on the institutional presence on the Net, based on his experiences in different geographical and cultural spheres. He summarized his observations on the diversity of attitudes towards the Internet, which range from adulation to anxiety, with mistrust and bias persisting in the institutional milieu. Attachment to a particular geo-political entity, culture, or field of expertise strongly influences people's approach to this support. Mr. Sénécal also underlined the overwhelming domination of writing on the Net and that fact that, for most univeristies, the Web remains a window or a vehicle for the written word, and in consequence, many of its possibilites are ignored.
The discussions in the afternoon on the first day of the conference concerned the multiple dimensions of new media. The participants' varied expertise and interests made it possible to explore a wide range of creative cyberspace topics, i.e., telematics, interactivity in net art, identity and collective work, and interactive multimedia.
Aspects of Roy Ascott's investigations are close to Pierre Lévy's ideas, in his reference to extended identity and the expansion of consciousness through cyberspace. Works by Ascott and other artists in telecommunications and telematics may be better able to achieve the meeting between art and philosophy that Lévy, often criticized as a utopian, is aiming for. Roy Ascott envisions a "moist" convergence of the "dry" world of virtuality and pixels with the "wet" world of biology, of nature, a position that he has arrived at after years of research and artistic production.
In a survey of artworks on the Web, Anne Sauvageot identified four major categories of net art, each defined by the relation of the work to the user:
• exploratory, in which the user goes from link to link without the possibility of transforming the work
• contributory, in which the user's participation influences the work
• alterative, in which the user is invited to work directly on the material, and
• alter-actional, in which there is collective participation in real time.
Ms. Sauvageot's interesting analysis is the fruit of an inquiry that she carried out among creators, most of whom are based in France. She has been instrumental in drawing attention to works by French net artists; at the same time, she has contributed theoretical reflections to the field.
Sara Diamond, in a performative presentation, raised at the question of collective identity, the fluidity of identity on the Net, and the formation of communities. She is interested in the emergence of new languages produced by the rapidity of exchanges, writing in common, and new vehicles such as listservs. She gave examples of numerous initiatives by artists to appropriate the Web by the creation of software tools, placing this in the context of the diverse forms of activism in the arts.
Louis-Claude Paquin the last speaker on the first day, presented the results of his research on the network and interactive multimedia, with an emphasis on the spatial structures of cyberspace, the user's position and the effects that these structures can have on the user. In particular, he explored the true possibilities of immersion and interactivity in VR spaces. He made the point that usually only one user can integrate a virtual environment, and that the changes available to the user are, finally, very limited compared to analogous experiences in real life. His presentation reminded us that the success of these technologies is relative.
The first panel of the second day focused on writing—texts, publishing, and the visualization of writing in cyberspace. Roger Malina, editor of the journal Leonardo, contrasted two modes of operation on the Internet: the aggressive conquest of Net space by financial interests and electronic marketing as opposed to collaboration and the constitution of collectives, and data bases that are available to researchers online. He condemned the intimidating tactics of Transasia Corp., owner of Leonardo Finance, which has launched a suit against the non-profit organization, and has been waging an absurd and painful war to force Leonardo to give up the name it adopted in 1967, so that it will no longer appear first when search engines are activated by Net users. Mr. Malina contrasted this very heavy-handed attitude to that of scientific journals that present research results and give access to stored material on the net.
Pierre Robert,editor of the e-journal Archée, identified a form of expression on the Net that he calls gribouillis (scribbling) and suggested that it constitutes an archetype in cyberart. An integration of writing and movement, "scribbling" characterizes several important examples of net art, for instance, works by JODI, Sawad Brooks, and Mark Napier. Mr. Robert said that gribouillis, as well as constituting a strong tendency in net art, represents an evolutionary stage of cyberart. He compared it to gestual painting, the Automatiste movement and Abstract Expressionism in the context of art history, and also drew parallels with the developmental stages of childhood, and stages in human evolution.
David Tomas presented elements of his research in the history of technology. This artist, theorist and teacher is particularly interested in devices which transform human vision and, by extension, our perception of the world and of knowledge. He showed his most recent artwork on the Net, The Encoded Eye, the Archive and its Engine House, the theme of which is the relationship between image and text, of the reader's experience, in a metaphorical allusion to cyberspace.
Hervé Fischer presented a critique of the present state of cyberspace, questioning the desire for universality. He compared the network to the tower of Babel, emphasized the cacophony and incoherence that characterizes the Internet, and said that it is time to go back to the drawing board and systematize cyberspace over again, using ecologically and culturally-based paradigms. Fischer's sociological approach to new media phenomena developed during his years as a producer and practising artist, a teacher, and an originator and coordinator of events. His reflections on communication technologies and their relation to the creative imagination are presented exclusively on the Internet, in his book/site, an ongoing, constantly changing text subject to input from the public.
Christian Vandendorpe,author of the acclaimed book, du papyrus à l'hypertexte, summarized his interpretation of the transformation of the written support, from its origin until today. The author explained his concept of the "ergonomics of the hypertext," presenting counter-examples of Web sites that reveal a lack of understanding of this new support and how it can be used. Mr. Vandendorpe concluded by saying that over time, the written support has given readers greater freedom by increasingly prioritizing visual points of reference, facilitating orientation and choice.
The last panel of Rhétorique des nouvelles écritures consisted of creators and people engaged in highly individual explorations in new media. A selection of works presented and commented on by Annick Bureaudgave us a fascinating glimpse into the world of Web art. Using works by Masaki Fujiyata, Ricardo Iglesias, and Michaël Samyn as illustrations, Ms. Bureaud pointed out practices that are rigorously defined by their support yet are highly inventive. Her presentation had the merit of allowing the works themselves to lead to reflections on the medium, instead of the other way around...
In a completely different vein, Charles Halary 's investigation of the relationship between computers and clothes revealed a quasi-futuristic world in which computers become fashion accessories, or are integrated into clothing. He gave an update on the evolution of these devices, some of which are already being included in designer collections. His presentation underlined the increasing invasion of computers into personal, even intimate space.
Ginette Daigneault talked about her experiences in a number of telecommunications and telepresence events. What she and other participants discovered was the importance of sharing and the possibility of exchanging during events of this kind. For her, the act of transmitting and sharing takes precedence over the content, or message. The desire for community, for "communion," not only comprises the motivating force in these works, but also contributes to their meaning.
In the last presentation, Eduardo Kac offered a survey of his bio-telematics projects, works involving technologies that can transform nature by actions occurring at a distance, using telepresence devices. Kac's work dovetails with Roy Ascott's exploration of telematics, in its confrontation between nature and technology which leads to a heightened consciousness of natural phenomena and of the relationship between man and his environment.
There was a fruitful exchange of ideas among the participants in the discussion period after the final panel. Hervé Fischer, in spite of his admiration of many of the artists working in the medium, expressed a degree of disappointment in electronic art, in that most creators are content to work with the tools that already exist without actively proposing a new aesthetic for the medium. Roy Ascott responded that as the structures are coming into place, the formation of a new language is in progress. Annick Bureaud pointed out that the works are there; that the analytical framework has not yet been elaborated and that the discourse is waiting to be developed; let the critics go to it! The conference ended on this stimulating note.
To sum up, the Rhétorique des nouvelles écritures meeting exemplified the wide diversity of research and exploration angles that exist in new media art. The views presented during the two-day event brought out the divergence between an idealistic approach based on philosophy, in which new technologies are seen as a step in human evolution towards a closer interconnection between individuals, and a more pragmatic approach, which takes into account the huge disparity between the industrialized West and poor countries whose populations do not generally have access to these technologies, and, which also acknowledges in addition, the rapid domination of cyberspace by commercial interests. The participating artists and theorists tended to be grouped within one or the other of these two approaches, depending on their respective interests.
Finally, one aspect to be deplored was the scarcity of members of the public who attended the event, considering that it featured so many groundbreaking artists and thinkers in the field.
See the text presented at the Cartographies conference
For aninterview with the philosopher (in French) during the conference
Dominqie Scheffel Dunand teaches at the Dept. of French of the University of Toronto.
See her text « Les études françaises valorisées par les nouvelles technologies d'information et de communication » presented in collaboration with Derrick de Kerkhove at the Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences conference, held in Toronto on May 12-13, 2000.
Jean-Claude Guédon interviewed by Chantal Pontbriand in Archée.
Professor of comparative literature at Université de Montréal, Jean-Claude Guédon is editor of the magazine Surfaces.
See the research report, "Culture visuelle et art collectif sur le Web," available online, which discusses the study carried out by Anne Sauvageot and Michel Léglise for the Délégation aux arts plastiques of the (French) Ministry of Culture and Communication.
Sara Diamond is director of the Media and Visual Arts Department, and Executive Producer for Television at the Banff Centre for the Arts Banff Centre for the Arts.
She also participated in Cartographies; for an interview with her at that event.
Jean-Claude Paquin is a professor at the Dept. of Communication at l'Université du Québec à Montréal
Web site for the undergraduate course in communication at U.Q.À.M., Rhétorique du multimédia interactif.
For asummary of the court case involving Leonardo.
The text presented at the Rhétorique conference is published in Archée, the magazine edited by the author, entitled L’archétype du gribouillis et sa rhétorique dans l’art électronique et le cyberart.
Hervé Fischer's book/site publié par Hervé Fischer : Mythanalyse du futur.
David Tomas is Professor in Fine Arts at l'Université du Québec à Montréal.
L’oeuvre The Encoded Eye, the Archive and the Engine House
For comments see this issue of the Magazine.
For a study by the author, "Pour une typologie de la création sur Internet:": Pour une typologie de la création sur Internet
Charles Halary teaches sociology at l'Université du Québec à Montréal and is a contributor to the Cyberculture magazine.
research at MIT on computer clothing.
Website of the artist.
Translation: Darcy Dunton