In/compatible Imagi(ni)ng – Ideal reproduction and discrete signals

Thomas Bjørnsten Kristensen
Different ideas of in/compatibility constitute an obvious inspiration to many artists working within the field of electronic and digital media.

This would be the case, for instance, with the experimental productions promoted by labels such as Raster-Noton or Touch that deal with sonification and visualisation, and which often gain both aesthetic effect and semantic strength from references to the in/compatibility of formats, media, and diverse data material. One such example is EXP by Frank Bretschneider; an engaging ‘music-visual’ work that orchestrates statics and noises generated from “feedbacks, impulses, clicks, the sound of mechanics, electricity, magnetism, light and other radiation,” combined with corresponding visuals described as “an exact reproduction of the audible occurrences” (Bretschneider). Thus, the black and white animations consisting primarily of separate dots and pixels apparently reflect the chopped and repetitive character of the music, producing flickering abstract patterns.

The quotes above, taken from the EXP release, express a general assumption about the inherent potential of compatibility of the digital. The ambition of visually reproducing sound has posed a significant challenge to a number of artists during the 20th century (Daniels and Naumann). But not until the coming of computational technology could this, seemingly, be realised properly – given that the coding of any material into digital bits makes possible the transcription of data from one format to another. However, this process is fundamentally arbitrary depending on the specific coding of the applied interface. Such a transmedial reproduction should, thus, necessarily be considered as the result of an ideal of compatibility rather than one of genuine ‘exactitude’, as EXP claims to be.

Past models

Historically, similar negotiations on compatibility stood central to artists of the 19th century, a period during which previous models of western art were abandoned as new scientific theories informed artists’ notions of both the limits of media-specific representation and the novel possible compatibilities between different art media (Gage). This entailed radical changes to the earlier ideals of artistic reproduction based on ”a field of knowledge whose contents [were] organized as stable positions within an extensive terrain.” In the 19th century these ideals instead “became incompatible with a field organized around exchange and flux” (Crary 62).

The acknowledgement of this fundamental incompatibility of past models of reproduction stimulated a range of artistic explorations. Notably, within the visual arts which turned toward a new aesthetics of conceptual systematics for the production of images; something, that emerged parallel to contemporary imaging technologies, but had no interest in illusory effects. Instead, what was initiated with, for instance, the phenomenon of pointillist painting – which atomised or in fact digitisedthe picture plane into tiny separate dots – was a radical move from continuity and conventional signs to an aesthetics of disruption and floating units. This is evident also when looking at examples of futurism, cubism, and constructivism of the later decades. Pointillist painting thus marked a position from which the construction of images became a process of assembling or coding discrete signals through systematic methods.

The logic of reproduction that followed from this was not concerned with imitation but with creating an interchangeable matrix for the structural distribution of units within a field of flux; a logic which implied the potential exchange and arbitrary compatibility of images across different formats, independent of indexical relations to phenomenal objects and medium-bound materiality. From this historical perspective, the ideals of compatibility expressed in digital works such as EXP can be considered in the light of a preceding aesthetics of discrete signals and quantisation – an aesthetics to be investigated further as an important parallel to histories of technology and engineering sciences.

Works cited

Bretschneider, Frank. EXP. Audio + data cd. 2010.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. 9th ed. 1999.

Daniels, Dieter & Naumann, Sandra (ed). See This Sound: Audiovisuology 2. 2011.

Gage, John: Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. 1999.

Posted in in/compatible Research Category