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submitted by Kytherian Art World on 20.01.2007

Techno-utopianism in Video Art and the Digital New Media: From the 'Psychedelic' Sixties to the 'Cyberdelic' Nineties

By John Conomos
John Conomos lectures in film and new media studies at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales and at the Sydney College of the Arts, University of Stydney. He is currently engaged in writing a book on electronic art for Craftman House (Sydney) and his recent major autobiographical/performance video Autumn Song was recently selected for competition at the Locarno Video Festival, Switzerland.
MESH film/video/multimedia/art #11,MESH is the journal of Experimenta Media Arts

"The title means exactly what the words say, NAKED Lunch - a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork." William Burroughs
"In Annaherungen Drogen und Rausch, Ernst Junger, who had turned Heidegger on to technology, writes about the drug-drive. While he begins to ask how the prosthetic subject is constituted, his thought is not all that remote from what Benjamin writes on hashish, or, even De Quincey on opium. It sometimes resembles Marguerite Duras's alcoholizations: this is a saturated text, pushing beyond the materiality of the book, though not into any ideality. Drugs, for which Junger effectively writes a manifesto, are the site of an allotechnology: technology's intimate other, sharing the same project as historical desoeuvrement. Junger explores the right to drugs as well as the supplementary interiority that they produce. It is widely alleged in Freiburg that the "philosopher" with whom Junger drops acid is Martin Heidegger." Avital Ronell

Today though we speak of the new media arts in a more informed, self-critical spirit then we use to do - say, five or ten years ago - there is still a lamentable tendency to discuss their concerns, histories and effects in ahistorical, non-experiential terms. Moreover, anyone using critical theory and desires to examine our emerging online world of cyberculture and its related techno-utopian rhetorics is engaged, as Frederic Jameson recently observed, in a risk-taking speculative act of "telling the future, with an imperfect deck." [1] To put it bluntly, contra the explicitly optimistic 'Whig Theory' of high tech media technology as represented by the airy fin-de-siecle prophecies of Alvin Toffler, John Nasbitt and Terence McKenna nor the so-called anti-technologists as exemplified by Jacques Ellul, Herbert Marcuse and Lewis Mumford, no-one knows what will endure into the next century in terms of the visual arts, interactive media and everyday culture. It is anybody's guess. No-one knows. To say that you do is tantamount to futurological nonsense.

Thus, today we are surrounded by spiralling specious millenarian prognostications about the virtual rewiring of the subject and the world and how the emergent media forms of contemporary 'techno -textuality' - CDROMs, cyberpunk fiction, computer animation and graphics, virtual reality, video games, the Internet, etc - are meant to irrevocably represent the 'future' of textual production rendering the more established analogue media obsolete then how do we theorise about the complex dialectic existing between old and new media in the Information Age? How do we make sense of the intricately highly mediated interaction of the new computer technologies and contemporary cultural production? And how do we effectively critique and ironicise (let us not forget William Gibson's cautionary observation about the necessity of self-irony when speaking about the airy techno-transcendentalism and electronic Platonicism of cyberspace technology) the ubiquitous notion of America as a potential Utopia, America as Tomorrowland, that is embedded in the global discursive environment that surrounds postmodern technology. This means deconstructing the cultural and ideological fictions that the personal computer ha spawned in our postwar technoculture - seeing it, as Mark Dery does in his thorough "white-heat" look at the digital sub-cultures that both affirm and criticise our "terminal identity" world of millenarian techno-utopians, cyber-hippies, New Agers, techno-pagans, Extropians, and rogue technologists, as a "Janus machine, an engine of liberation and an instrument of repression." [2] What this indicates is that numerous works of electronic art are constructed as "a boy's own narrative" based on the belief that the computer "suggests a dialogue with the infinite" (Iain Chambers) avoiding significant aesthetic, cultural and phenomenological issues related to a post-humanist critique of the human-technology-power relations that are anchored in the materiality of everyday culture. [3]

What is challenging for anyone who is concerned with the elaborate chore of defining a cultural cartography of the new audiovisual media is the hermeneutic task of formulating a critical discourse that is flexible enough to identify their mobile aesthetic, cultural and technological characteristics. Arguably, this means the critical necessity to apply the discursive concerns of post-critical thought to the spurious ideas, premises and technologies that inform the military-industrial-entertainment complex. These discourses help foreground the shifting dialectic between culture, gender, spectatorship and technology. Too often artists, educators, curators and technologists refuse to question their own cultural mind-sets when using computers and their prevailing techno-futurist myths.

Therefore, if we are to see multimedia as an expression of alterity, identity, subjectivity and temporality then we are obliged to be constantly interrogating (what Nietzsche called) our own armies of metaphors which colour our thinking fields. This is particularly so given Virillio's recent remark that with technological art "there is virtually no critical theory" - a rarely examined complex issue in itself (not withstanding Sean Cubitt's and Gregory Ulmer's recent significant attempts to address this issue) - and, perhaps equally as important, we are living in a "culture of amnesia" (Andreas Huyssen). The proliferating 'inbetween' concepts, forms, textures and narratives that are emanating from the intertextual collision between the more established traditional and new computer-inflected art forms that speak of the dynamically expanding virtual life of simulation,high speed information and global networks also reflect Huyssen's realisation that "the struggle for memory is also a struggle for history and against high-tech amnesia" is grounded in the museum's new expanding mediamatic role in late-capitalist culture. This critique of amnesia as a mass-mediated malady of capitalist culture is not new in itself - witness Adorno's, Benjamin's and Heidegger's inter-war writings on culture's obsession with memory and the fetish character of mass-cultural forms - but Huyssen's shows us how today's cybernetic virus of amnesia is threatening to consume memory."The more we live with new technologies of communication and information cyberspace, the more our sense of temporality will be affected." [4]

What I wish to do now at this juncture is to think aloud in open speculative terms, to make no more than what Avital Ronell once termed "scratch noises on the public record" concerning the seldom charted, complex and uneasy dialectic between video art, digital new media and postmodernity. More specifically, to analyse the intricate thematic, formal and technical links between video art, cyberspace and the emerging cyborg culture of today apropos of video art's marked genealogical trajectory emanating from the European avant-garde, Fluxus, conceptualism, television and experimental cinema (both the various genres of early European modernism and the American 'underground'/independent cinema of the sixties) in the context of the unfinished project of expanded human consciousness. I say 'unfinished' because one of the underlying tenets of this essay is the key notion that a cursory examination of video art and its utopian legacy and fictions in the light of the mutating complex developments of contemporary electronic media, literature and culture (Philip K.Dick, William Gibson, virtual reality, the Internet, multimedia, interactivity, etc), shares a critical project with the evolution of drug culture and 'the altered states of perception'adventure of our century. Critically, as Ronell points out in Crack Wars, a suggestive post-Nietzschean look at the role of addiction, intoxication and pharmacology in Flaubert's Madame Bovary and, in Western media and literary representation of reality, the developing connected trajectories of computer and drug culture should be interpreted in terms of Blanchot's and Jean-Luc Nancy's sense of desoeuvrement. [5]

What this means is, as Ronell reminds us, that it is an unfinished project without an as yet visible end or program to it but which is nevertheless unfolding and whose critical features we are starting to read. This is doubly significant when we are talking about video art and new computer technologies of immersion and extraction because, contra our residual critical proclivity to ahistorical universalising when it comes to utopian and dystopian diagnostic or therapeutic thinking about electronic media (our lingering regressive Edenic sentiments, so to speak, predicated on spurious Project of Enlightenment teleological values), we need to remind ourselves that the video technologies are transitional media and that this should be an integral aspect of any sustained attempt to de-mythologise virtual culture and its role in our psychic and social lives.

In order to achieve this, to create a new media histiography that is 'untimely' in the Nietzchean sense, we are oblige to rethink (in a self-questioning lateral and non-binary manner) video art's elaborate reliance on dominant cultural and textual tropes stemming from the historical avant-garde, postwar American experimental artforms (happenings, installations, expanded cinema, the mythopoetic traditions in the visionary film [Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Harry Smith, the Whitney Brothers, Jordan Belson, and Paul Sharits], performance, minimalism, etc), and the 'counter-cultural revolution' of the sixties with its LSD-inspired 'ecstasy of politics' sub-cultures like the hippies, the Beats, the surfers, the Free Speech Movement, Esalen, EST, ET and cyborgism and the neuro-consciousness frontier of the eighties and nineties which are a retooled version of the psychedelic movement of the sixties.

The histories of video art and new media are still to be written, - and let us, for the moment, put aside the more obvious problematics of video arts enshrined in the museological 'white-cube' star system, its ghettoisation and its more naive utopian elements so accurately discussed by Martha Rosler, Marita Sturken, Sean Cubitt, amongst numerous others, and the recent exchange between critic/curator Regina Cornwell and American video artist Gary Hill who corrects Cornwell's observation that video did not come of age but that the contemporary art/museum world has - we still have to do a lot of hermeneutic and historical spadework about the actual genres, formations, effects, and (in)visible histories of these two intricately related aspects of our media arts and culture. [6] Something akin to Dery's comprehensive archeological excavation of the developing ideas, artforms and digital sub-cultures of today's informational culture (and its flawed 'context-free' post-revolutionary romanticism and metaphysics of its attendant critical literature) as an expression of American utopian thought, technology and the sixties counterculture, or the underlying diacritical rationale that informs Michael Renov and Erika Suderberg's long awaited anthology Resolutions (1996) which strives to look at video art and activism, the new technologies and electronic culture in terms of a dynamic series of questions and relationships between artistic and social practices, popular culture, and politics.

Any materialist definition of media technology - including the often maligned or misunderstood complex histories, generic complexities, themes, and cultural agendas of video art that still occurs in the more technophilic forms of contemporary debate on cyberspace, virtual reality and new media - necessitates a mercurial interdisciplinary approach to the exact and human sciences resembling Michel Serres's multifaceted comparativism that is based on the flight pattern of a fly. [7] Meaning having the inventive ability to traverse across many spaces of interference located between many things making different connections. Serres's distinctive indifference to temporal distances signifies that he can make unpredictable connections (all within the same time frame) between numerous authors, texts, genres and myths.

Essentially then, for Serres, the past is never out-of-date nor is an artform like video art: like Hermes (the operator who brings diverse things together), Serres's provocative concept of theory as a rapid reflexive time machine scanning texts and signs across different artistic, cultural and temporal contexts implies a fluid capacity to treat complex subjects conceptualised to be the result of noise, chaos and chance with lightness, speed and simplicity (echoing similar hermeneutic values in Italo Calvino's invaluable posthumously published Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1993)).

When we examine particularly American video art's pronounced representations of Blakean romantic abstractions, mandalic structures, the phenomenology of mental imagery, collaged imagery of expanded human consciousness, synaesthesia and McLuhanism and its continuing impact on electronic media - something that is easily observed in the various popular utopian visionary accounts of cyberspace as a transcendental salvation from our imperfect reality or as a form of electronic Jeffersonian democracy or as a post-Darwinian desire to leave our obsolete bodies behind on earth as we soar towards extraterritorial silicon bliss - then we should take heed of Lyotard's cautionary advice (after Stiegler) that in negotiating media technology as a spatialisation, as an "objectification", as a form of tele-graphy, we should conceptualise it as a self-reflexive remembering and not as habit. [8] This means questioning the hyperbolic rhetoric that heralds the new technologies and their limitations, closures and premises in terms of the First World masculinist, technicist and utopian myths of technoscience as an expression of Western binarism and the Enlightenment project. Of course, this suggests situating the relatively unexamined legacy of video art in the continuing narrative of analogue and digital media since the late beatnik/hippie culture of the fifties and sixties, the freewheeling lifestyles, cultural forms and preoccupations of the psychedelic, rock and roll and youth cultures of that enormously turbulent era (vividly chronicled by Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Acid Test account of novelist Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters) and the subsequent sixties redux of the eighties and nineties known otherwise as cyberdelia - an eclectic, messianic amalgam of the mind-expanding transcendentalism of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture intersecting with the high-tech infomania and New Age mysticism of Silicon Valley.

The convergence of the LSD-inflected Dionysian impulse of the sixties psychedelic movement with the ahistorical 'end-of-the-millennium' transcendentalism of nineties cyberculture shaping today's postmodern technoculture can be located in the millennial writings and polemics of such central cyberdelic figures as Stewart Brand (a former Merry Prankster and founder of The Whole Earth Catalog), the late Timothy Leary (who , as Dery points out, argued that the personal computer was the LSD for the nineties), on-line/virtual reality advocate Howard Rheingold, virtual reality gurus Jaron lanier and Brenda Laurel and John Perry Barlow, Grateful Dead lyricist and electronic frontier citizens' rights. All of them, in their respective enthusiastic rhetoric, suggest a central indebtedness to the transcendental utopianism of the sixties counterculture. As utopian visionaries they are (historically speaking) part of the popular Californian tradition of LSD and the subsequent generation of psychedelics such as Ecstasy, Adam, Intellex, Vitamin K and 2CB. By the same token they also belong to Walt Whitman's mind-expanding millennial evocation of the American Dream as "the flashing and golden pageant of California". [9]

The neo-McLuhanite speculations of the new digital media suggest, quite clearly, the unmistakable legacy of the 'cyberscat' rhetoric (David Antin) of the video and television debates in the sixties and seventies around such key video figures as Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Paul Ryan, Ed Emswhiller, the Raindance Group (Ira Schneider, Frank Gillete, Beryl Korot, et al), Douglas Davis, Woody and Steina Vasulka, Nancy Holt, and Juan Downey, amongst many others, thereby indicating the various utopian moments in the continuing histories of American video and digital new media. There is a marked resemblance between the techno-transcendentalism of the McLuhanesque discourse that Antin so graphically diagnosed in the mid-seventies and the high-tech utopianism of the early nineties digital media rhetoric.

It should be pointed out that Antin's 'cyberscat' discourse of sixties and seventies American video is a combination of McLuhanism and the cybernetic/communications ideas of Norbert Weiner, Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver and John von Neuman. And, as Antin correctly suggests, it's a discourse that would occasionally intertwine with the other prominent discourse at that time in the relevant video manifestos, articles and polemics of the era: "the formalist rap" which dealt specifically with the aesthetic formalism of the art world. [10] The cyberscat rhetoric that is evident in the Raindance Group's notable short-lived publication Radical Software calls for nothing short of a grass-roots revolution in art and communications. Characterising much of the alternative video movement in the sixties, as David Ross recently observes, would be the phenomenon of communes and communities taking up the cause of access/documentary video that pivoted on the critical concept of actively questioning and taking responsibility for alternative communications systems. [11] Underlying this communal phenomenon of alternative lifestyles and communications systems was a visionary transformation taking place on the cognitive level of human consciousness. Undeniably one can concur with Ross's observation that it was artists, media activists, poets, and musicians, who stretched the television/video medium and helped to define its grammar and major aesthetic innovations. Today video has become, as John Baldessari once predicted that it would, common as a pencil.

Visionary states of consciousness is therefore a central focal point between experimental film, video and the digital new media discourse of the nineties. As we have seen there are many intricate aesthetic, cultural and technological facets to this significant aspect of the evolving media utopias that have featured in the postwar avant-garde arts. The metaphor of vision is central to the works of numerous avant-garde filmmakers, video and new media artists. For instance, Brakhage's oeuvre is guided by Paul Klee's suggestion that "art does not reproduce what we see, it teaches us how to see." [12] Brakhages's films are concerned with the possibility of giving, in Brakhage's own words, "eye's-mind a chance", consequently his work features intense lyrical representations of "eye-thought": in other words, an aesthetic phenomenology of closed-eye vision - hypnogogic imagery, hallucinations, afterimages, dreams, and entopic images. [13]

Paikian video, on the other hand, exhibits a marked neodadaist impulse that is suggestive of Paik's playful McLuhanesque discourse featuring his hyper-kinetic collaged imagery of Western and Eastern cultural influences. The two most decisive encounters in Paik's career of exploring the new communications media had an immense legacy on his very prolific and diverse works (videotapes, installations, sculptures, robotics and performances): the first, in 1958, when he met John Cage, thereby appreciating the value of chance, entropy and an Emersonian transcendentalism in art; and the second, in 1961, when Paik met George Maciunas, the tireless polemicist for the Fluxus movement. Like his contemporaries Les Levine, Wolf Vostell, Terry Fox, Nancy Holt, amongst others, Paik's art represents a life-long effort to de-mystify and decontruct broadcast television. Further, with Paik's key manifesto video Global Groove (1993) with its vivid fast paced and chaotic mix of television images (commercials, music and dance programs), homages to Allen Ginsberg (a pivotal figure in the Beat and LSD narratives of postwar American art and culture), The Living Theatre, and earlier fragments like TV Cello (1973), Paik created a vast ecstatic imaginary /psychedelic landscape that spoke of McLuhan's 'global village'.

Not only have Paik's satellite experiments of the eighties presaged the conceptual and formal basis for today's so-called 'information superhighway' of our post-TV era, but with Global Groove the artist presents his significant ideas concerning the three experience levels of human life. According to Ross these three levels need to be balanced in order to achieve the desired stabilised human life and they can be characterised as "Normal wakefulness is represented by real time - representational imagery - while sleep and the dream state are represented by less rational constructions often involving compressed or extended temporal rhythms. These two states, which account for the majority of the work/life-cycle, are supplemented by the third state, the heightened levels of consciousness associated with all forms of ecstasy, induced physically, chemically, spiritually or however." [14]

Another important video artist who utilises complex formal and poetic investigations into the different levels of human perception and consciousness in his alluring lyrical videotapes and installations is Bill Viola. For this artist, video is a medium that primarily allows communication with the self: from his early minimalist-stucturalist videos to his more recent works which specifically deal with the outside world, Viola has intricately deployed early Christianity, Islamic, Buddhist, and Zen mystical ideas in his art to explore (through the video medium) what the visible world may hide from the human eye. In other words, in such major contemplative works as Chot el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat) (1979), The Reflecting Pool (1977-79), I Do Not Know What It Is I Am (1986) and The Passing (1991), Viola's mystical and visionary thematics and stylistic concerns centre around his chief interest in using video to make the invisible world visible. The video camera is an eye which literally translates the Latin definition of video ('I see') to a heightened poetic reality. Viola's metaphysical project with video is to enter Blake's 'doors of perception' to realise a luminous world beyond our apparent reality. Video, for Viola, constitutes a transcendental experience which involves voyaging between the rational and the subconsciousness, the microcosm to the macrocosm and the main entry to the self is through the world of Nature (which includes the world of animals, plants and the human psyche). Video allows us, so Viola argues, to produce a critique of reason, as Marie Luise Syring notes, to produce unseen, unknown images which necessitate a transcendental experience. [15] Self-knowledge entails a visionary poetic investigation of human cognition as an expression of meditative synaesthesia that goes beyond the binary closures of rational vision. Individual awareness only takes place when the self is a part of Nature and sees itself in a constant state of transition.

The current popular cultural, literary and technological discourses concerning the more utopian seductive self-fulfiling apocalyptic fantasies of computer-mediated 'transcendental' ideology emanate considerably from similar debates in the sixties and seventies concerning the yet comprehensively charted narrative of experimental video. It is, therefore, crucial to see how the analogue media utopias of the countercultural Zeitgeist of that era (which is critically indebted to various modernist avant-garde artforms of the early decades of this century) are precursively linked to the more recent transcendental visionary impulses of our present computer culture. Central to this important subject is the future necessity to investigate in critically-informed reflexive manner the complexities of the continuing psychedelic adventure of American postwar avant-garde arts and culture. More crucial to our own local needs, this critical chore needs more elaborate scrutiny: exactly what do we know about the various shifting cultural spaces, institutions and figures (back then almost thirty years ago) who were responsible for participating in the diverse themes, styles and iconographies in film, video and the visual arts relating to altered states of perception issues?

If we are to articulate a new media criticism that is in tune with a much needed critico-historical thinking about the digital artforms of today, then we have to be critical of the ruling ethos of our technological society by criticising technology outside its characteristic existential and hermeneutic frameworks as institutions of explanation and everyday living. We need to become more empirical, light and inventive in our capacity to talk about technological creativity's perennially changing presence in our everyday lives.


1. Frederic Jameson, The Seeds of Time, New York. Columbia University Press, 1994. p.14.
2. Mark Dery, Escape Velocity, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1996, p.15.
3. Iain Chambers, Migrancy, Culture, Identity, London and New York, Routledge, 1994, p.61.
4. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories, New York, Routledge,1995, p.9.
5. Avital Ronell, Crack Wars, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1992, p.68.
6. See Martha Rosler, 'Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment' in Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (eds) Illuminating Video, New York, Aperture/The Bay Area Video Coalition, 1991 and Marita Sturken, 'Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form' in Hall and Fifer (eds) ibid; and Sean Cubitt, Timeshift, London, Routledge, 1991 and Videography, London, MacMillan, 1993.
7. Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1995, p.70.
8. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman, Standford, Standford University Press, 1991, p.47.
9. Cited in Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven, London, Paladin, 1989, p.481.
10. David Antin, 'Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium' in John Hanhardt (ed) Video Culture, New York, Peregrine Books/Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986, p.147.
11. David Ross, 'Radical Software Redux' in Lynn Hershman Leeson (ed) Clicking In, Seattle, Bay Press, 1996, p.345.
12. Quoted in Edward Small, Direct Theory, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994, p.50.
13. See Small, ibid., pp.51-52.
14. David Ross, 'Nam June Paik's Videotapes' in John Hanhardt (ed) Nam June Paik, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982, p.107.
15. Marie Luise Syring, 'The Way to transcendence - or the temptation of St Anthony' in Marie Luise Syring (ed) Bill Viola, Dusseldorf, Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, 1993/94, p.24.

© John Conomos

John Conomos lectures in film and new media studies at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales and at the Sydney College of the Arts, University of Stydney. He is currently engaged in writing a book on electronic art for Craftman House (Sydney) and his recent major autobiographical/performance video Autumn Song was recently selected for competition at the Locarno Video Festival, Switzerland.
MESH film/video/multimedia/art #11,MESH is the journal of Experimenta Media Arts

This issue of MESH was financially assisted by the Australia Council through its New Media Fund, Experimenta Media Arts gratefully acknowledges this support.

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