Aura, Computed

The Objectification of Image

The objectification of image is closely associated with the rise of of scientific method in the early eighteenth century. In order to produce scientific account of nature that avoids idiosyncrasies to its best abilities, statistical methodologies were established to systematically compare, and judge numerous individual observations, in order to produce the most “average”, “representative”, or “normal” image of nature. In seeking the best represented “truth to nature”(Daston, Lorraine, Galison, Peter (2010)),  images that depicted exactly what was seen and felt were replaced instead by images that represented reasonable judgements based on systematic evaluation. The emergence of mechanical objectivity in nineteenth century further introduced devices such as wax molds and cameras as scientific instruments to visually measure “what truly is” (Daston, Lorraine, Galison, Peter (2010)).

Both mathematical and mechanical measurement cannot help scientific objectification avoid being subjected to interpretation. The nuance of cultural, social, and personal experiences inevitably found their ways through the pursuit of nature. Today, in the field of computer vision, the use of Lenna image has been recognized as one of the most important events in the history of electronic image processing. According to professor and president of Rochester Institute of Technology, David C. Munson, in the early Seventies, a Playboy centerfold named Lenna was scanned in by an unknown researcher at the University of California to use as a test image for digital image compression research. Over the next two decades, similar images of the Playmate have been frequently used for testing pixel  manipulation, transmission, and more recently image recognition technology. It was not until the 20th century, with the ubiquity of handheld camera, that diverse digital image makers started to realize that people of darker skin tone generally experience noticeable difficulties when being captured and recognized through digital devices. Due to profound over-reliance of scientific research methodology, Lenna – first lady of digital image and her covet influence was not discovered until two decades later.

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The Ambition to See

In The Power of Money, Carl Marx questioned the nature of our assumed knowledge about objects. If human feelings has “ontological affirmations” (Marx, 1866)  towards objects beyond the narrow anthropological and biological evolution, the manner through which we interact with object must reflect these distinctly different characters of our existence. When the affirmation of object is dependent on our own gratification, we mistake our own pleasure(eating, drinking, entertained) as the knowledge of the object, which in its totality, must has a presence independent from the observer’s existence. Marx claims that one, and one’s feeling, is “human”, in the sense that the affirmation of an object is based on one’s own gratification. Contemporary human relationship to things are manifested through private property – the existence of object for man, “as objects of enjoyment and activity.” Therefore, science, the pursuit of natural knowledge, is therefore a product of “man’s own practical activity”(Marx, 1866).  By possessing the power to purchase, own and appropriating any object’s existence according to one’s own purpose, money becomes a “procurer”(Marx, 1866) between man’s need and the object. It irradiates the difference between the object and the self. Turning man itself into an omnipotent, godlike being, bounded inside a world where all others become a copy of the self, losing the ability to reflect and learn.

Media Theorist Donna Haraway argues that objectivity in science and philosophy is a kind of disembodied “conquering gaze from nowhere.” She argues that in contemporary culture, everyone hides behind digital device, gazing at others, while at the same time try to escape from being subjected to digital representation ourselves. The result is the creation of opinions, results, evaluations, a kind of representational objectivity directing towards the Other, in which the subject is disconnected and disengaged from the object. It is an impossible “illusion, a god trick.”(Haraway, 2006). She invites audience to critically examine the politics behind objectivity. While offering faithful account of personal perspective about the real world, acknowledging the limitation of our individual perspective and take responsibility for our positionality to others and the environment around us. Objectivity, she argues, is always the specific instrumentalization and partial representation about the truth, not the truth itself.

Death of Aura

In the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin depicted a process by which each new wave of media technology brought along with it lower cost of reproducing artwork. As a result, a mental distance that’s needed to reflect on art disappears. Art gradually loses its aura, authenticity, uniqueness, catharsis, and is reduced down to destructive noises.

Reviewing historical progress of art making, Benjamin stated that prior to mechanical reproduction, the function of art was manifested mainly through its creation process. Mechanical reproduction destroyed the unique art making process, and the function of art is exercised through a social viewing experience. The value of art transformed from ritualistic value to exhibition value, from magic to social. The social value of art motivates the promotion of distribution, rather than concept of artwork. It in turn creates an illusion that, in witnessing an artwork, everyone becomes an expert of it. “Anyone today can lay claim to being filmed”(Benjamin, 1935).  To Benjamin, similar to how dadaists created mental shocks by subjecting art to the center of social outrage, media technologies like film took away space for contemplation and imagination and replaced it with physical shocks to our visual sensation. The focus is shifted from quantity to quality. A viewer, who used to enter into an artwork, now “consumes” and in turn, “being consumed” by it. Mass media distribution also allowed viewers to sit in the position of art critiques, which further reinforces the tendency to seek for shock value of modern media technology.

Benjamin concluded the essay by stating that technology reproduction results in human losing the time and the space to contemplate. The result is aesthetics entering social arena – the artistic gratification of social conflict and warfare. Mankind, by gaining self conscious, deviates from being subject of contemplation of greek gods and goddess, to independent objects of Self, whom then “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order”.

In the essay, Benjamin supported his argument by drawing an important comparison between magician/surgeon versus painter/photographer. Because the main function of surgeon and photographer is to objectively render highly detailed immediacy, Benjamin argued that the contemplative distance needed for a magical, cathartic experience no longer exist.

Originality vs. Authenticity

In today’s digital culture, there no longer exists a originality from within the creative process. However, conditions for a reflective and distant contemplation within art creation and art appreciation. The distance does not lie in creation but rather a systematic composition of elements, which may not may not be traditionally associated with traditional art making process. In the age of digital reproduction, the authenticity of a piece of artwork lies in not the original creation of a single imagery, but rather how artists curates, arranges and appropriates a wide array of elements to express a systematic thought through aesthetic means – what Ploacci refers to as the hermeneutic value of the artwork.

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Ian Cheng is a simulation artist who program aesthetic indegames that “Plays Itself”. In 2011, artist Ian Cheng commissioned 3d modelers, performers, and computer coders to recreate a real life scenario he encountered on a pedestrian walkway intersection –  a taxi stopping a tad too late and gently hitting a coupe passing the street, and the dramatic conflict that ensued afterwards between the driver and the couple. The artist, a cognitive scientist turned visual artist, was fascinated by the intertwined human rationality and chaos displayed through the conflict, and set out on a path of new aesthetics and visual inquiry. The artist first commissioned 3d modelers to re-create 3d models of the protagonists. He then attached motion capture data generated by performers, as well as programmed computer procedure to each model, thus allowing these 3d models to arbitrarity switch between a partially humanistic, and partially uncanny behavior – a new cybermen aesthetics as precisely how the artist felt witnessing the original event.

From an original production sense as described by Benjamin Walter, not a single element in Ian Cheng’s project is personally created by him. He commissioned the model from 3d artists, the humanistic behavioral data from performing artists, and the procedural simulation scripts from computer programmers. The final product – essentially a weird video game that plays itself, is also packaged and distributed similar to commercial software applications, which can be reproduced with a click of a button.  However, by systematically reconstructing these elements under a unified aesthetics and concept, Ian has rendered a new voice, identity, and perspective to contemplating today’s condition of human existence that’s deeply profound and authentic. The artist’s role transitions from a creator of a single object to a new role that’s somewhat similar to  a script writer plus director of a small independent film, except that additional computational elements were introduced alongside visual elements created manually by visual and performing artists. The result is an independent, autonomous system, with human and machine(computer) equally sharing the aesthetics decision making process of a final narrative that’s not dictated by either. Every simulation performance of This Papaya Taste Perfect is generative – with each turn of the human/cyborg behavior chance determined externally from the will of the original creators.

Aura, Computed

In the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin argued that since a photographer’s role is to faithfully document objective details about immediate reality using newly available media technology, there is no longer distance between the immediate and the magical, thus no room for contemplation. From an art-making perspective, whether an artist choose to work with traditional or more recent medium alone cannot determine the creative value of the artwork. It is to what extend the medium serves a higher aesthetics, conceptual, or expressive purpose that really matters. 

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Coming into Being

The boundary of eastern spirituality and western science seemed so clearly exclusive of each other, until the discovery of quantum physics in the 20th century. The boundary of easter spirituality and western science seemed so clearly exclusive of each other, until the discovery of quantum physics in the 20th century. In experimental observational studies of the wave theory of light, it is discovered that a free electron’s state of being cannot be defined as a definite state as previously presented in classical physics, but rather an arbitrary weave of interconnected events, the outcome of which is partially determined by the observer’s perspective. In short, in the world of quantum reality, the state of being at any specific given moment of observation, is indeterministic and stochastic by nature. This description echoes the New Media Interactivity –  the reciprocal exchange between the viewer and the artwork – the ability to manipulate media and objects intuitively and with immediacy. The discovery of Quantum Theory also alerts us to the hint of cultural transfusion McLuhan pointed out, in which “Electric circuitry is Orientalizing the West”(McLuhan, 1964). The progression of New Media and Quantum Physics is pointing towards a fundamentally different path of thought, where the “constrained, the distinct, the separate – the Western Legacy”(McLuhan, 1964) – is being replaced by the “flowing, the unified, the fused – the buddhist Metaphysical view on Being”. 


A New Playground

Contemporary culture is full of computed acts of creatures, simultaneously man and machine, beast and deity, embodying an alternative space that’s both familiar and foreign, broken yet shamanic. It is a fictional home for our ontological identity that has been unseen by the capitalism society. People can create their own personality and belief online, resembling to little interactions in the real world, and live in a cyber version of the self that they intentionally choose to separate from immediate reality. With this new space comes with new affordances that we may or may not have been bestowed with. It’s a space where the material give way to the imagined and computed. Through memes and encoded languages, an invisible wall allows the discourse of a new awareness beyond the confine of both materialistic affirmation and scientific objectification. The binary mode of Self vs. Other gives way to an ever expanding, never concluding science fiction of the man-machine, the man-meme, the man-ghost, the man-noman, a world that reaches for a radical unity without surrendering autonomy. A non-linear, non-binary, multidimensional place where the boundary can be defined for elements at all levels, but breached

In Diamond Sūtraone of the most influential buddism teaching, it is said that Buddhist ancestors realized that to achieve the perfections of wisdoms, one must embody a non-discriminatory basis for knowledge. It implies a didactic framework of education that demands the emancipation of the attachment of the self and the rejection of the other. Western philosophy, strongly influenced by western mathematics, science and politics, has found it difficult to translate the core ontological concept of the Diamond Sūtra – Śūnyatā. It has been most commonly translated as emptiness or voidness. In western literary definition, empty means lacking, missing on the level of material representation. However, in eastern buddism teaching, it does not represent a definitive material outcome, but a state of meditative being or an ontological quality of reality, which liberates the being of Self without forgoing the Other.

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Marx, K., Engels, F., Engels, F., Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1987). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books.

Daston, Lorraine; Galison, Peter (2010). Objectivity. Zone Books. ISBN 9781890951795.

Haraway, Donna. (2006). Situated knowledge. In B. Warf (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human geography (pp. 430-431). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412952422.n263