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<<< The End of the Iron Age - documento di Franco Torriani  [Arslab Archive]  dell' Aprile 1997 >>>

The End of the Iron Age

1. A founding technology

In the Thirties, Turing designed an impossible machine, a sort of mechanical computer. It was not feasable to build that impossible machine, taking those days' technological level into account. However, some years later, Turing's prophetic project became reality; other predictions by the same author, for instance the replacement of human intelligence by computer within the year 2000, seem luckily to be still far away.

At this point, we are not so much interested in the history of computer, but in the technological revolution which it brought about, thus becoming itself the 'founding' technology of our epoch.

In a sense, computer is the contemporary equivalent of ancient times potter's wheel, of Middle Ages clock, as well as of the XIXth Century steam engine, and, as David Bolter, Turing's admirer, wrote, a founding technology develpos, together with different aspects of a given culture - sciences, philosophy, etc. - links which are not only metaphorical.

A founding technology is at the same time a metaphor, an example, a model and a symbol (I). In fact, any founding technology helps to re-difine the human being in connection with the nature and the world.

I do not subscribe to Bolter's conclusions, who, being a real Turing's man, identifies computer science with the most complete integration ever realized in Western culture between humanity and technology.

However, apart from the mythical memory of alchemists, who projected to create an analogue of human being by means of technology, it must be underlined that the transition from one founding technological system to the other (from mechanics to electronics) took place during a historical period where arts, as well as all systems of knowledge, tended towards a greater complexity.

It is actually this growing complexity, which art shares with other systems of knowledge, that would cancel the long established symmetry between art and its historical interpretation. This is why, as Hans Belting put it, the history of art is just beginning (II).

The change of founding technology has a strong hold on the field of ancient relations, the same where connections among arts, sciences and technologies get together. It is nevertheless important to notice how, within all expressive linguistic systems including arts, people have tried to deprive symbols of every connotation, referring the question of their meaning to the relations with other symbols. Bolter is right when he says that with the appearance of computers logic has prevailed on poetry.

Following a path of language philosophy, which includes Leibniz, neopositivism and computer, one reaches a crossing-point in the field I mentioned above, where symbols (speaking as Bolter would do) get their meaning in virtue of their initial definition, or because of the syntactical connections they have with other symbols.

On the way that leads towards the dematerialization of matter, we are not only going "against" the preminence of mechanics, as theorized by Giedion (III), but also towards a different way of understanding industrial production.


2. The two triangles

Are Art, Technology and Science the top of a triangle? Yes, if we take this triangle as a model of complex interactions among different disciplines. However, this triangular model has a broader significance when combined with another model, equally triangular, which relates to the individual, his space and his objects:


These are then two intersected and superimposed triangles, which are suspended in the space, speed and time of history. And this peculiar figure glides between memory and technology. Here memory reveals all its power of symbolic arsenal, where symbols, even though they rest their capability to communicate on a convention, suggest something... Their function is to suggest, and it can be represented.

Artists, alert to new technologies, work with different frequence and intensity on two basic axis: multimediality and interactivity. They enter consciously, not accidentally, the above mentioned frame. And of course, they utilize the various degrees of freedom of this ever so complex and somewhat contradictory model.

These artists, more than others, suffer from nostalgia, because of uniform behaviours, scientifically noticeable (but I think that most of them do not like to ackowledge it). Nevertheless, this famous general rule, the search of uniformity, which is at the base of science (Karl Popper), is not an artistic problem. If it is true that the word 'machine' derives from the Sanscrit mah, which means power, challenge and exorcism would not be alien to our model, but statistically - as far as I know - they do not seem to be predominating attitudes.

New technologies (let us call them so) not only make new languages possible, often related to some understanding between computer science and electronics, but allow paradoxically "new uses" of previous technics. It is like saying that the new adds analysis' tools that are used for reinterpreting the Iold.

Here I think that a lot of artists make an epistemological reconnaisance, as meant by Bachelard. That is to say, the relationship between art and technology goes (or can go) through an attribution of value to science. According to Bachelard, an epistemological reconnaisance is "an enterprise provided with sense".

I do believe in a sort of sliding, more than in an alternative or inverted use of technologies, that many artists work at the level of language related to certain media, which are themselves no longer new, or even better to new tecnologies. This concept of sliding (d&eacuterapage) is important for at least two main reasons: the first being that this movement enables artists to 'lose of height' as regards the appropriate... orthodox... use of technology or of media, as well as to go straight to the latency of expressive languages which media and advanced technologies possess. The second reason is that this sliding stirs up a strong interaction between that model which, symbolically, puts art, science and technology in touch, and that other model which "relates" the individual to his space and to his objects. Here comes out the epic charge should we say the perversity, of the oscillation we live between technology and memory.

Nowadays Babel is only partly horizontal, it is, up to a certain extent, a wired city; it is no longer, as in ancient times, "God's gate"... Moreover the redefinition that has been made, in recent years, as regards both the concept of space in general, and, more precisely, virtual spaces, leads us to live in a world where the centre is, generally speaking, everywhere...

The famous tower, more than a linguistic disaster, has been reconsidered a suggestion to communicate, therefore a symbol... in short, an antenna. In this Babel, human beings "reisist" changes precisely thanks to their memory. Man is a repetitive animal, inhabited by a locked-up mind, even though he can be the least repetitive of all animals (Silvio Ceccato).

Babel, on the other hand, has some peculiarities... it has the problem of difference between two speeds, a fast one, referring to technological progress, and a slow one, having to do with cultural mutations, those where human beings "resist" changes...

Babel is a territory where, with a somewhat rough reference to Merleau Ponty, virtual behaviours oppose themselves against concrete behaviours, that is to say where linguistic and symbolic elements get together with non-linguistic elements; for example: the physical relation between individuals and objects. It is here that what we conventionally define as dematerialized, devoid of physical matter, becomes again matter, it re-materializes itself: it can be seen, it can be heard.

Finally, Babel is the place where the big challenge of future is being played, given that researches and applications on human-beings/computer interface intersect with reseraches and technics of Artificial Intelligence. Babel is also a place where some artists, and not only them, design interfaces between men and computer which grant a privilege to the human part of the 'dialogue'. Ambiguity, after the manner of Merleau Ponty, is here more appropriate than ever: reason cannot lose its existential dimension.


3. The end of the Iron Age

Technology and its products present themselves in our society as an excess in an economical sense (redundancy of offer), but , because of their relative 'independence' in comparison with other systems of values, they become an exogenous variable which is practically uncontrollable. A great deal of the XXth Century artistic quest is characterized, both in a negative and a positive sense, by the confrontation of arts with constructive aspects that technology has propagated, first in industrial societies, then in the post-industrial ones.

In a way, the ideology of this century artistic avant-garde is the fading time of the Iron Age. The following epoch, ours, asks for an approach to the excess of technological reality, which cannot be simply seeen as enthusiastic acceptance or radical criticism.

Technology has been, and still is, both a powerful hybridization vehicle, and a tremendous transformation factor. The human species, whilst resisting to mutations, expresses a 'scientific' behaviour in the constant quest of permanence, that is to say in the search of values of a long, extremely long period which we try to identify in any phenomenon surrounding us. Today more than ever artistic creativity, having gone beyond any form of external observation of the physical universe, presents itself as an interpretation of the world, moreover it appears as a linguistic deconstruction which invests the relationship between art, science and technology, too.

One of the important questions to be raised is whether and how scientific metaphors are conveyable into the fields of artistic disciplines. A possible evolution of the drifting concept is right here: for how long can we accept culturally as 'art' something that results from one or more scientific metaphors (for instance, the quantic metaphor)?

At the end of the Iron Age, Marcel Duchamp's essential deed would make any object become an art work, that is the everyday metaphor. From bicycle wheel to TV-set, the object - placed in the museum, in the "Indian reserve" (Vittorio Fagone) - became art work; it intended to re-enter the system of artistic languages. Computer, taken into an "Indian reserve" remains a computer. Like first graffiti, like first ideograms of our computer history, at the end of the Iron Age we are at the point where any type of writing, more or less technologically advanced, brings about a reality deconstruction in order to fix our memory. Human beings, back in the darkness, cannot but study the conditions of invisibility in order to make plans for their view. Arts are a sensitive part of communication, a constant sensual, visual, auditory and tactile search.

Franco Torriani

I - J. D. Bolter, Turing's Man, Western Culture in the Computer Age, 1984, Chapel Hill, U.S.A.

II - In a commentary to Hans Belting's book La fine della storia o la libertà dell'arte, 1990, Einaudi, Turin, Italy, Cesare De Seta, after having written that contemporary art has developed so much in its form and essence "that it put in a critical position the symmetry established between art and its historical interpretation", upholds the thesis according to which the methods used by the history of art are no longer appropriate in front of the "landscape of contemporary communication broken up by new media". In order to enter the field of sociology, namely the one which is known as inquiring, we refer the reder to Hervé Fischer's book L'histoire de l'art est terminée , 1981, Balland, Paris. The end of history of art, Fischer says, does not involve the death of art itself; on the contrary, avoiding the Promethean and mythical illusion of progress, we shall rediscover the links which connect art and Faustian myth: art would be a clear-sightedness experience's limit, capable of clarifying the image of the world.

III - Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization takes command, 1948, Oxford University Press, New York, U.S.A.