13Prosthetical Bondage and Mechanistic Mimesis
In engaging the computer as an artistic tool, the artist must consider the potential conflict of interests between the value systems reified in the architecture of the machine and the logic of the software; and the interests of artistic practice. The very existence of artistic practice with the computer must be seen in the context of these ideas as a kind of 'intervention' which brings into question issues such as those I have been discussing: the conflict of world views inherent in digital art practice, the demise of bodily knowledge, etc.
Freedom and Liberation are catch-phrases of cyber rhetoric, but what price do we pay for the liberty of the virtual? Bondage of the physical! In order to make conquering strides across cyberspace, we sit, neck cramped, arms locked, tapping a keyboard, our vision fixed on a small plane 50cm ahead. As the image becomes more mobile (VR) the viewer becomes less mobile. Held in a bondage of straps and cables, the question: "are you a man or a mouse?" acquires new relevance!
As digital media artists, we are continually reminded of the fact that when making digital artworks we are building virtual machines. Any tool (soft or hard) is a mechanistic approximation of a narrow and codified aspect of the body's complex behavior. On a day to day level, the task that confronts us is how to 'shoehorn' the kind of cognitive fluidity we enjoy in our interaction with the world into the proscribed and proscriptive language of the machine. This dilemma is no different whether writing code or building a washing machine. The computer is as pedantic and rule bound as any other mechanical contrivance. Tasks which are simple and open to variation for a person must be specified and constrained when embodied in a machine.
All technology is prosthetic, contrived according to mechanistic approximations of specific task domains which optimize a particular function. This is clear in the case of a chainsaw: it cuts wood fast, but is useless for anything else. A Scanning Tunneling Electron Microscope, though it extends the range of human vision, is a chainsaw in this respect. Cognitive prosthetics such as robot vision systems, unlike human vision, are to a greater or lesser extent, task specific. Computer programs are virtual machines, indeed they are referred to as 'engines' in the computer science community. The same compartmentalizing reductive process is at work. Such a method can never reproduce the holism of body experience, it will remain just an accumulation of parts. By contrast, certain human activities, among them the production and consumption of art, integrate human faculties in a way that resists reductive compartmentalization.
Machines, hard or soft, are codifications of solutions to problems. Often the sorts of problems artists deal with are as yet uncodified, or are uncodifiable! It is still a fair question to ask: "What (if any) artistic practice is possible using computers?" It has been observed that although CAD systems allow architectural design projects to be completed more quickly, they reduce the possible range of variation. The same may be said for any software package.
In 1990, Marvin Minsky proposed that we should "go beyond these VR instruments and implant a little computer in the brain and send signals back and forth from it, which would give us the ability to extend our motivation and the signals inside ourselves to cause things to happen in the outside world". Although this sentiment is a familiar one in technological discourse, it is nonetheless peculiar: I thought thats why we have arms and legs and eyes and ears! Minsky went on to say of this implant idea: "Maybe most of us who are not artists could be artists if we could express our subconscious wants". I have to admit to being deeply offended by this pronouncement. Minsky, like many scientific celebrities, presumes the right to make pronouncements outside his field of expertise. Its interesting to learn from him that artmaking is simply a matter of subconscious 'self-expression' without the intervention of either skill or intellect! Seemingly (according to the perspective of traditional artificial intelligence) the complex bodily practices and sensibilities which define art practice can be easily dismissed as insignificant motor skills, hardware problems. According to his pop-psychoanalytic approach, our 'subconscious wants', once encoded as digital data, could be realized by some mechanical prosthetic. This, according to Minsky, would result in art! (I doubt if Minsky would allow that a similar implant would enable us to be famous Artificial Intelligence experts.)