Screaming Screen and Binary Idealism
by Johannes Auer
On 13 January 1997 the following news was propagated in the internet:
"If you want me to clean your screen, scroll up and down"
Below this sentence an internet address
was given and the name of the artist: Olia Lialina. If you call up the
given address an opened hand appears on the screen and when the scroll-bars
are moved up and down it actually seems as if a hand was cleaning the
screen from the inside.
Of course in this work of the Russian net-artist Olia Lialina it is important
that she announces herself by e-mail, of course it is important that the
click on the given address, the click that calls up the work, is made
before the visual sensation and remains the only click-possibility.
However, I do not wish to discuss this in detail now; nor do I want to
stress that in net-art apart from the visual effect, that is the effect
which we see on the screen and which I will speak about during my talk,
that in net-art still two further levels, a technical (the programming)
and a social level (the interaction of the user) are added. This important
idea comes from Reinhold Grether, the literary scholar and net-anthropologist
from Konstanz. He distinguishes the three levels in Desk, Tech and Soz.1
But what I do want to stress, first of all is that when we look at computer-art,
strictly speaking pc[personal computer]-art, 2 levels operate together
and Olia Lialina´s hand makes this particularly clear: Firstly there
is the visual surface on the screen and secondly there is the surface
on which I move the mouse in order to interact with the visual level.
Let me give you another example:
Mouchette's "Kill the Cat" [www.mouchette.org/cat/]
Here, you must hit an fast-moving button with the mouse. The button is
placed in front of the wide open jaws of a cat which fill the whole screen.
This is a fairly tricky task of hand-eye co-ordination. If you succeed
with the click you are "rewarded" by the question "why
did you kill my cat?" And with a further click you must promise never
to do this again ("Never do it again.").
Normally, the link is regarded as the most important interaction possibility
between mouse-level and screen and it is very interesting that Olia Lialina
places this link before her work of art.
A link or a hyper-link is a word or a picture in the so-called hypertext
which gives me a new information when I click on the screen with the mouse.
The hypertext is the basis of the www, is the method to surfing in the
www per hyperlink. And it was the hyperlink that in the first place inspired
art and literature in the www and perhaps even more the theoretical reflections
In fact it seemed as if the hypertext would at last enable the reader
or the person looking at a work of art to become a co-author or a co-creator.
Michael Böhler goes a step further in his reading of the necessary
working together of mouse and screen: he sees it as a transfer of the
creating imagination onto the mouse-action-level, in other words, as an
externalisation of the imaginary.
"If regarded aesthetically hyperfiction is not so much a new literary
textform as a new way of reading and a new text-reader-relationship. Here
the place of the literary "theatre" is moved from the inner
brains of mental processes into the outer room of interaction, where sensorial
perception and haptic acts of selection take place."2
Lately the euphoria of "the-link-is-everything" has, however,
dwindled and its meaning is critically queried. Let me list a few causes:
Bernd Wingert notes a possible shift of attention in the reading of hypertext
from the text to the actual click, which he quite correctly characterizes
as the "centrifugal force".3
That is the reader is much more interested in where the links take him
than in what he actually sees on the screen. And so it is quite right
to speak about a hypertextual zap-mentality.
Even more important, however, is Uwe Wirth´s argument. He says that
the degree to which hypertexts dispense with a structure that is an internal
coherence which was thought out by the author in order to be open for
the reader´s fondness for clicking, I repeat, that without such
a deliberate structure the text in the end becomes optional, without content
and sense.4 This means that in a fictional
text the possibility to decide will always have to be restricted by producer
or author. And so we have an interesting discussion at the moment: Digital
literature is increasingly discussed in the relationship of text and picture.
"The next generation of hypertexts will have to be visually pleasurable,
and hypertext will be a work of design and orchestration as much as a
work of writing" 5, Marie-Laure
[At this point a disgression on the death-wish in net-art was actually
planned since everything started lethally with the "death of the
author" caused by the hypertext. Now the hypertext as a means of
aesthetics will have to cop it (why actually, I would like to ask) and
with it the whole of www- and net-work art. Here you may choose if the
decline of net-commerce will lead to the end of net.art (Tilman Baumgärtel)
or the lack of a chance to make money with net.art will eventually lead
to its end (Mark Amerika). That is, if net.art hasn't already been swallowed
up by business and entertainment as shown by Ars Electronica. But what
can you expect from a medium which was originally invented thanks to war
and is based on the 1 and the 0, that is, on to be or not to be
I already said at this stage I wanted to tell you something about all
this but at the mention of "to be or not to be", literature
came back on the scene like a phoenix from the ashes...]6
But of course there is still the other camp which sees net.art exclusively
embedded in the code and brushes the optical result on the screen aside
as only secondary. Let us call this "binary idealism" for the
As an example of this let me mention the latest Jodi-project, called "Wrong
Here again, it´s all about deconstruction and, yet again, about
making people aware of the fact that behind the computer-picture you actually
see is something completely different, namely the programming, the code.
As one of the representatives of this "theory" let me mention
Tilman Baumgärtel who says (with Kittler) that the hackers are the
real artists; and there is also Florian Cramer who categorically demands
that authors of net-literature should write poems with the programming
language. I do not say that this is uninteresting or even wrong; however,
I feel slightly irritated by the almost messianic rigour with which the
"essential", namely the programming code is drawn up against
the supposedly mere surrogate and by-product, the screen event. I have
a déjà-vu feeling: Let´s go and grab good old Plato
from our analogue book-shelf and open the 10th book (please note: ten
is 1 and 0!) of "Civitas".
Here we learn with the bed as an illustration that the artist produces
only a copy of the copy. The carpenter at least produces a useful copy
of the pure "sleeping-place-idea" whereas the artist just paints
the reproduction already made by the carpenter, that is the artist produces
only a useless copy of the copy , he just daubs a 3rd grade reality. The
binary idealists argue quite similarly when talking about the computer:
Given is the pure idea, the 0 and the 1, the binary code. The craftsmen(-women)
of the age of computers, namely the programmers take up this absolute
of the machine-code. Everything else, that is what we ultimately get to
see on the screen, is only a visualisation of the programming of the machine-code
carried out and therefore just as useless and inferior as the dull, boring
piece of art in Plato´s ideal state.
And yet, the binary idealists have already lost their case, if we listen
to Flusser who praises the surface:
If we are able to write a poem in the programming language it must be
true that this language is not merely "formal" and so a pure
means of the "arithmetical awareness" but at least as a language
is quite strongly contaminated by elements of lineary writing. This would
mean that programm-"texts" are the expression of a process-orientated,
logical consciousness, and therefore conventional. Flusser calls it a
fact that pictures are existentially stronger that this conventional text.7
In other words: everything that appears on the screen is much more impressive
than the actual causal code.
Or just to sum up the whole discussion in simple "flusser-free"
words quite radically: I quote Dirk Paesmans from Jodi: "Media-art
is always on the surface. One must grap people as quickly as possible."8
But looked at like this, isn't there the danger that the "tyranny
of pictures"9 as Virilio calls
it or even "Image surfing"10
as Robert Coover says will reduce the "essence of a work" to
the mere surface, to a mere "show"?
Do we, like Virilio, have to call for the script as a last hope which
will take up position against the TV-screen; should we therefore, preferably
with a sharpened quill-pen, write as an act of resistance against the
"power of the pictures"11
on the screen?
I like these apocalyptic moods - they are so powerful and clear and
very helpful. I say this, even if I, too, declare myself in favour of
the script, the text and the concept as necessary correctives against
the mere picture which only too easily degenerates into design.
Let me remind you of Marcel Duchamp.12
Duchamp always rejected the exclusively "retinal" work of art
as he called it, that is the work of art that commits itself only to the
visual. He demanded instead that a picture must refer to a concept, an
idea. A significant means of breaking up the idea of the pure picture
is for him the literary title of a picture. Even before the ready-mades,
Marcel Duchamp saw in the picture title an important co-creating purpose
and wrote his titles directly on the canvas. Thus: for Duchamp word and
picture form a unity which, however, must point beyond itself to an artistic
If we then believe in a fertile screen-symbiosis of picture and word,
the concept which goes beyond it offers the possibility for a general
reconciliation. The "concept" has a big heart and includes all
forms of unmasking - even basic lessons such as: Behind everything that
happens on the screen there is always a programming code, or isn´t
Translation: Gabriele Keltsch
Bernd Wingert: "Kann man Hypertexte lesen?" In: Literatur im
Informationszeitalter, hrsg. von Dirk Matejovski und Friedrich Kittler,
Frankfurt/Main u.a. 1996, S. 202
to be continued...
Vilém Flusser: Lob der Oberflächlichkeit, Schriften Band 1,
Mannheim 1995, S. 240
Tilman Baumgärtel: net.art - Materialien zur Netzkunst, Nürnberg
1999, S. 109
Gespräch mit Paul Virilio. In: Michael Jakob: Aussichten des Denkens,
München 1994, S. 129.
Robert Coover: Literarischer Hypertext Abschied vom Goldenen Zeitalter.
Gespräch mit Paul Virilio, S. 125
Ausführlich s.: Johannes Auer: Text im Bild // Marcel Duchamp, http://www.s.netic.de/auer/solothurn/solothurn.html#duchamp
Frieder Rusmann: Ein Dada ohne Hoffnung oder wer sind die Daddies des