The Aesthetics of Algorithms: An Interview with Carolyn L. Kane

Chromatic Algorithms coverThe Aesthetics of Algorithms: An Interview with Carolyn L. Kane

 

Carolyn L. Kane & David Beer

 

This interview focuses upon Carolyn Kane’s recently published book Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics After Code. Although the interview focuses centrally upon the book it covers a range of issues including algorithms, design, aesthetics, art, Heidegger, Benjamin, Kittler and the future of the social sciences.

 

David Beer Your book ‘places color at the centre of media studies’ (p. 2). This general approach is probably a good place to start. Perhaps you could give a little explanation as to why color is so important to media studies. I also note that your book is beautifully produced and visually striking; did you actively try to make your exploration of color a visually colorful experience for the reader?

Carolyn Kane Yes, Chromatic Algorithms places color at the center of new media studies. Because this had not been done before, it gave me the opportunity to bring together two historically distinct fields: visual studies and new media history and theory in a unique way. My exceptional editors at the University of Chicago Press loved the project and, in turn, were supportive in helping me produce this beautiful volume.

To address the theoretical aspects of your question, histories of media and technology have for the most part completely ignored the role of color. So ultimately the question is why. Why has color been ignored in media studies and the history of technology? Fortunately, in recent years a select group of scholars have begun researching this. In so doing, the first thing that must be acknowledged is color’s long-standing and problematic relationship in Western culture.

In almost every field from art to science and psychology, color is a problem. Always on the move, changing, transforming and escaping the conventions, rules, and protocols that attempt to order and contain it, color is fundamentally strange and estranging, inconsistent, unreliable, ephemeral, and for some, a deceptive simulacra. This fear and distrust of color, Jacqueline Lichtenstein has noted, dates back to the origins of Western metaphysics, to Plato, wherein sophists, rhetoricians, and painters (those who write and communicate with color) were seen to be “creator[s] of phantoms” and “technicians of ornament and makeup.” But by far the most poisonous of simulacra was color: a cosmetic and false appearance that, like the sophist’s “gaudy speeches” and “glistening words” seduce the listener with their ambiguity and sparkle.

This primarily Western “chromophobia,” as David Batchelor refers to it, has held sway for centuries and continues to direct studies and research in diverse fields, including media history and theory. This is why bringing color into the center of new media studies has been a fruitful tactic, one that is also much needed to think through the history of computational technology in conjunction with visual art and aesthetics in new and original ways.

DB You have chosen to adopt media archeology as your means of analysis. This is an approach that has been gaining some traction in recent years, particularly in its association with a renewed interest in materialism. I wonder if you could say a little about the version of media archeology that you work with in the book. Also, do you see any limits or potential problems with media archeology based upon your experiences of researching for the book?

CK Yes it has. Defined as the archival examination of the materiality of media objects, media archaeology is one of my core research methods. The field derives from both Foucault and Nietzsche’s concepts of archaeology and genealogy–– a set of relations that run horizontally, and in opposition to, official, chronological histories. In media archaeology, “perception” is therefore not only about looking at images, things in the world, or even about vision. Rather, it is historically mediated through a set of power and knowledge relations that are often invisible, concealed, and unconscious. Commonly associated with the field are scholars from Bernard Stiegler to Siegfried Zelinski and Friedrich Kittler, and in the US: Lisa Gitelman, Alex Galloway, John Durham Peters, and Mara Mills (to name only a few).

In my work, media archaeology is held as distinct from “new materialism” or object oriented philosophy (OOP). The danger with these latter approaches––to my mind–– is that we are humans and this fact always plays a significant role in everything we do and think. For example, if all objects are equal, then how do we analyze the merits of a human life versus the life of an ant or a rock, not to mention assessing the merits of an artwork or a poem? At the end of the day, media archaeologists from Nietzsche through Kittler are humanists. That is, despite biting critics of anthropocentricism, they nonetheless seek to understand the human condition and the ways in which it changes, reconfigures, or expands and contracts in various historical and cultural moments.

DB Alongside the above, I notice that you make fairly frequent use of the work of Heidegger and Benjamin – which you sometimes track through into Kittler’s work. I was wondering if you felt that these particular theorists have yet more to offer media studies? In addition to this, and more broadly, what value do you think can be found in returning to pre-digital theories to understand something like programming and algorithms?

CK Yes, and I have already begun to note this above!

To paraphrase Benjamin, perception is historically mediated. Or, to paraphrase Heidegger, the question concerning technology is never technological. That is, it is a question about questioning which is predicated on the historical conditions of possibility for knowing and being.

All three of the philosophers you note use history to think through such questions of existence and technology.

Understanding history, and not just official histories, is the key tool to better access who we are and what we are doing in the present. Take the example of the “digital,” a word used frequently today. It is used so frequently today it is not only vernacular, but in many ways has been emptied of integrity and meaning as such. To understand this, however, requires that one think about the digital from an historical point of view. Before the so-called digital age, people used analog technologies (turntables, eight-tracks, chemical-based photography etc.), and before that printing, writing, and before that, people necessarily relied on face-to-face communication using sounds, words, facial expressions, and their hands and fingers, which are in fact our original digits! So even this very brief history of technology shows how contemporary jargon can be used in very misleading ways. Just because something is digital does not mean it is newer or better.

Material history is, to my mind, the cornerstone for critical and conscientious aesthetic interpretation of the present, for creating future art and design worlds, and for understanding the ways in which the history of computation continues to play a role in contemporary media aesthetics.

DB The value and potential of visualization and data visualization emerges in your book. At one point you say that ‘the solution is not simply to embrace “data visualization” trends as the new automated intelligence of the humanities’ (p.138). Perhaps you could say a little more about this contention. What are the problems of these visual forms? How else might we get at the ‘underlying issues at the heart of media aesthetics'(p.138)?

CK As I analyze in the chapter, “Infrared, or the Algorithmic Lifeworld,” the contemporary visual field is increasingly mathematical. What does this mean for vision as it has been classically defined? In some ways vision has been mathematical and mechanical for centuries. In other ways it has been considered a romantic aspect of subjective perception and sensory experience. I cannot get into the nuances of either side of this debate here.

The algorithmic image that I analyze in my book is an image that uses mathematics to program and set the conditions of possibility for the perceptual field. Three core traits characterize this algorithmic model of perception: informatic data reduction, predictive scanning, and the allegorical presentation of data. Statistics and algorithms determine what can or cannot be seen and therefore known. Already this raises a few eyebrows, especially for those concerned with the relationship between visual imaging and truth, or the role of automated machines in the production of human knowledge.

Another problem arises with claims for a new automated intelligence in the humanities, contingent on phenomena like “Big data” visualization. These algorithmic images often fail to take into account the larger context, history, or nuances that condition their appearance. The ways in which algorithms are used to program or compress and reduce important bits of seemingly superfluous information, and by whom and for what purposes, must be analyzed alongside their visual output.

DB The central concept in your book, ‘chromatic algorithms’, brings together colour and numbers in a variety of ways. One particularly notable section on the ‘2.0 look’ vs ‘dirt style’ seems to suggest that this is a highly political set of relations. In this instance colour becomes a means of cultural resistance and ideological distancing. Is this connection between colour and number the site of a new aesthetic politics or do we need a new conceptual language for understanding the connections you discuss in your book?

CK That is a great way to put it, thank you. Certainly artists, designers, and media makers have turned to obsolete media forms to critique dominant discourses on technology. This has also been an aspect of the avant-garde from Dada and Surrealism through glitch art today (the topic of my next book). So when an art collective like Paper Rad––analyzed as “dirt style” net art versus the smooth and streamline “2.0 look”––decidedly appropriates 8-bit color palettes and retro graphics, yes, it is in part political, insofar as the avant-garde can maintain a critical position to structures of power and industry. If such a critical position is still possible today, then social media is no doubt one of the most concentrated receptacles for this critique.

DB We’ve already briefly discussed the format of your book. The use of images of various types really gives the book a bold aesthetic and a highly visual dimension. The implicit suggestion seems to be that more visual analysis is needed in work on new media. Have I interpreted this correctly? If so, where might such an attentiveness to the visual lead us?

CK I don’t know if I would say more visual analysis is necessary, versus historical, cultural, sociopolitical, or other forms of analysis. Analysis in general is necessary but one analytic lens does not need to be privileged over another. One chooses the right method depending on context, training, and topic. My training is in the history and philosophy of new media, coupled with aesthetics and visual studies. This was the perfect preparation and background for this book’s analysis of electronic color in the development of new media aesthetics after 1960. (And I must thank Alex Galloway at New York University for his excellent guidance through this process.)

DB Finally, where will this work on chromatic algorithms take you next and how should it be developed. You suggest that the focus should be on aesthetics rather than social science. Do you plan to develop this project further and how might others use the core ideas that you discuss?

CK Well again, my research “should” focus on (media) aesthetics versus social science because I have training in the former and very little in the latter! People should take advantage of where they come from, what they know, what they like, and of course, what they are good at. Social scientists have made different yet equally valuable inroads in to contemporary color studies. Brown University’s researcher Karen Schloss, for instance, is doing fascinating work on color psychology.

My current research temporarily departs from color. Tentatively titled, “High-Tech Trash: Beautific Failure on Junkyard Earth,” the project engages questions of glitch, noise, and failure in contemporary media art and culture. The project draws on media aesthetics, alongside strands of environmental studies and the history of technology. As a researcher committed to media archaeology, my concerns lie with finding the variants, offshoots, and aberrancies in media art and culture by looking horizontally across fields, methods, and practices. I resist following prescribed and well-trodden disciplinary paths, topics, or methods, which tend to produce boring, cliché results that I am not interested in.

Carolyn L. Kane writes about the history, philosophy, and aesthetics of electronic media. She earned her PhD from New York University. Her book Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics After Code was published by the University of Chicago Press.

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. His most recent book is Punk Sociology. He also co-edits the TCS open access website theoryculturesociety.org

Readers may also be interested in Carolyn L. Kane’s TCS article on colour and computer art:

 ‘Programming the Beautiful’: Informatic Color and Aesthetic Transformations in Early Computer Art’

Theory, Culture & Society, January 2010; vol. 27, 1: pp. 73-93.

http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/27/1/73.abstract

Or similar material in TCS, such as:

Michael Taussig’s ‘Redeeming Indigo’

Theory, Culture & Society,  May 2008;  vol. 25, 3: pp. 1-15.

http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/25/3/1.full.pdf+html

 

Daniel Neyland’s ‘On Organizing Algorithms’

Theory, Culture & Society,  January 2015;  vol. 32, 1: pp. 119-132., first published on May 23, 2014

http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/32/1/119.abstract

 

Paolo Totaro and Domenico Ninno’s ‘The Concept of Algorithm as an Interpretative Key of Modern Rationality’

Theory, Culture & Society,  July 2014;  vol. 31, 4: pp. 29-49., first published on March 17, 2014

http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/31/4/29.abstract

 

The TCS Special Issue: ‘Codes and Codings in Crisis’, edited by Adrian Mackenzie and Theo Vurdubakis

http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/28/6

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