Light and Dark Visions:The Relationship of Cultural Theory to Art That Uses Emerging Technologies

Stephen Wilson, San Francisco State University, 1993


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Critical theory and cultural studies are increasingly being used to understand the function of the arts in contemporary technology- dominated, postmodern culture. This essay examines the relevance of these analyses to the work of artists who use emerging technologies. The first section reviews core concepts that are useful for understanding art/technology linkages from post-modernist, post-industrialist, and post-structuralist writers. Concepts discussed include the rejection of the modernist idea of a single dominant cultural stream, the demarginalization of diverse voices, the increasing importance of information and the impact of mediated image and representation on ideology and behavior, and the emphasis on deconstructing the language systems and meta- narratives that shape culture.

The essay then identifies several limitations in these theories that become apparent in the consideration of art that uses emergent technologies. First discussed is the divergence of world view between postmodern, deconstructive sensibilities and the essentially modernist perspectives and self-representations of researchers and technologists who believe they are working on inventing the future. Next considered is the tension between the high value the arts have traditionally placed upon real things and immediate sensual experience and the postmodern emphasis on the primacy of mediated images and signs. Finally, the essay inspects the uncertain basis for validity and justification of artistic production in a deconstructed environment in which the art world is seen as one limited discourse, and individual genius and vision are seen as illusory.

The essay suggests that some of the critical confusion about the field of art and technology derives from the variety of stances an artist can take in regard to these issues. It describes three: a practice which rejects much of this critique and seeks in a modernist sense to assimilate technological art to the mainstream art world as it was historically constituted; a deconstructionist practice which uses the skills, tools and familiarity with the technology world to critically analyze the meta-narratives of contemporary life; and a practice which seeks to enter into the heart of the inventive process to help elaborate the culture transforming possibilities of the new technologies.