May 30, 2007

Digital Art Beyond Expression

by Nick Montfort · , 5:51 am

José Manuel García-Patos, who is at work on the interactive fiction system Gesaku, called my attention to a fascinating article about player freedom by Stephen Bond, author of Ramses.

Bond points out that the camp that expects IF to provide a more or less completely blank slate upon which the player’s experience can be realized (so that IF becomes simply a “a text-based vibrator for the imagination”) is quite distant from those who expect IF authors to supply treasures, dragons, puzzles, and conventional pleasures. He offers a third idea, that of “interactive fiction as a kind of art form,” allowing expression. In Bond’s view, artmaking is “egotistical” and “[a]n artwork is a reification of the artist’s self, a subjective consciousness made objective, bravely put forth and held out for admiration.”

The ideas of pure player choice may be as uninteresting as the cave-crawl, but I don’t think this concept of art is the only alternative.

While Bond’s comments in this article are compelling in many ways, they really encompass only the most lyrical, romanticist artworks. “Art” as put forth here is something very limited. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain has been called many things, including the most important artwork of the 20th century, but is it really “a reification of the artist’s self, a subjective consciousness made objective, bravely put forth and held out for admiration”? Is it best thought of as being expressive? To turn to the literary arts, what about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie, Steve McCaffrey’s Carnival, Doug Nufer’s Never Again, and Charles Bernstein’s “Let’s Just Say” (excerpt, mp3)? I don’t mean to suggest that the creation of these works was egoless or that subjectivity has been entirely erased in all of them. But it seems like it would be missing the point to think that these works mainly serve as embodiments of the author, that they mainly sing the particular selves that wrote them. It seems to me that, while they are individual creations, they mainly offer ways of working through various systems of language and narrative as they are shared by whole cultures.

The problem with an exclusively “expressive” concept of art may point to a limitation of one of Michael’s terms, a term I actually like quite a bit: “expressive AI.” Hugo Liu’s phrase “computational aesthetics” is more welcoming and covers the artistic use of computation without requiring that the system convey an author’s or artist’s expression, or that it be expressive itself. On the other hand, if Michael is less interested in marking off the interesting from the uninteresting and more interested in adding a particular capability to computer art – in saying “let’s have computers capable of expression as well as conceptual manipulation” – it makes sense to specify that. I just want to suggest that we not collapse all of what art does into the “expressive.”