Programming abstract machines – the artist’s role in mediation technologies

Cesar Baio
In a culture of computer ubiquity, of “cybrid” networks and all sorts of transformations that unfold from technical mediation processes, what is the artist’s role when dealing with mediation technologies? It is a question with no unique or ultimate answer, but it’s essential in every aspect of artistic and theoretical practice.

With the exponential increase of interdisciplinarity between the fields of arts and media engineering, methods and theories used in the field of technology are progressively incorporated to the art field, which confuses the differences between artistic propositions and those made by the media industry. According to Arlindo Machado, among the greatest challenges posed to artists, is how to deal with the advanced state of mediation technologies. In fact, it is very common to find in media art events a great number of works that are focused on technical and instrumental aspects of the development of media devices. Even though they might seem interesting at first sight, it doesn’t take long until you notice that these works are just one more functional update, instead of an attempt to explore aesthetic or critical possibilities.

These dynamics create a tension because a large part of these procedures seem to be incompatible with the subversive and deconstructive attitude of artists, who, up to the 1990s, were involved in criticising industrial patterns and mass entertainment while operating through the deconstruction of TV equipments, videotapes and other media devices. This context produces a lot of questions when you consider contemporary media art production. Could we consider that artist’s and engineer’s methods and attitudes are merging, thus leading artistic practice to search in the same way for the development of new media devices? Contemporary production should be evaluated for its critical component, its technological quantum, or could there be other criteria sufficiently established for that? These questions allow us to investigate the compatibility between the models of art and media technologies in terms of knowledge production.


Vilém Flusser’s idea of ‘apparatus’ allows us to approach these questions from a privileged point of view, by delineating art and engineering as two distinct fields, from which different problems emerge. This happens because technology is displaced from the position of an instrument to the perspective of media engineering, and thus becomes a way for the artist to bring tensions to vectors of political, ethical, economic, epistemic dimensions, which are encoded in the abstract layers of mediation technical devices.

In this way, it would be possible to consider the hypothesis of a displacement of the artist’s position, who would then begin to be understood as a programmer of abstract machines, considered in terms of the Flusserian apparatus. Accordingly, the art of the apparatus could be considered an effective integration of art, science and technology, in compliance with the recovery of the Greek idea of technè, as questions proceed to concern matters beyond functionality and instrumentation, ascending to the speeches that make it possible to conceive the world, the politics of images and sensitive experience.

Works cited:

Flusser, Vilém. O universo das imagens tecnicas: elogio da superficialidade. São Paulo: Annablume, 2008. Print.

Machado, Arlindo. Arte e mídia. Ed. Jorge Zahar. Rio de Janeiro, 2007. Print.


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