Discovered in a digital universe
like me, you are wondering what is happening to the world
you may occasionally turn to art for answers, writes Haydn
Deprived these past two decades of meaningful politics, an
increasing number of us turn not to art but to science, especially
to populist science writers such as Richard Dawkins, for new
Recently, science and art have begun to converge and their
new partnership may turn out to be exactly what we've been
searching for - a new way of seeing.
The Festival Della Scienza, in Genoa, which opened at the
weekend, is designed in part to showcase this new partnership.
The festival is not alone in highlighting the way in which
science and art are creating a new digital aesthetic.
part of a network of such events funded by the EU.
There appears to be no corresponding initiative in Ireland.
Nonetheless, our understanding of the particularly profound
changes we are experiencing in the early 21st century has
here a new point soldier.
One of the highlights of the festival is the first European
exhibition of Katinka Matson, an artist working within the
digital aesthetic, whose work is attracting attention and
praise in the United States.
The "digital aesthetic" is
a powerful idea, one that deserves not to be pinned down
too early. The fecundity
latent in the capacity to transgress physical rules is one
reason for suggesting that this aesthetic is more than
and can indeed provide new perspectives that help us understand
the world better.
Change of a dramatic nature, and the arrival of new epochs
signalled by events such as 9/11, can often be described only
in retrospect. Human engagement with initially unknowable
currents of change takes strange forms that can themselves
In the long shadow of the first World War, the philosopher,
Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrestled with the boundaries that language
places around the imagination. He attempted his own curious
linguistic breakout in quasi-formulaic aphorisms that were,
in the end, poor proxies for understanding rather than the
profound insights he hoped they would be.
Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, joined the same attack on language's
invisible restraints, more with a sense of accomplishment
than with the frustration that isolated Wittgenstein. But
Joyce left us no more enlightened. As with Wittgenstein's
work, the message of Finnegans Wake is ultimately that we
are not sophisticated enough to understand beyond our linguistic
The Katinka Matson exhibition gives a clue as to where we
might look for answers today. Matson's exhibits are visually
compelling still-lifes, produced not through the physical
application of materials (painting, drawing, printing) or
photography. Matson uses a flat-bed scanner to create eerie,
detailed images of flowers.
But what is the role of the artist when a machine does the
The question was asked, of course, of photography at the turn
of the 20th century, but the unique perspective of each photographer,
the documentary technique, the use of light, lab techniques
and many other factors have long since helped to win the argument
in favour of the snapper as artist.
scanner is less artistically malleable or open to environmental
influence than the camera. The uniformity it produces might
be visually arresting but should give rise to suspicions.
Uniformity and art are hardly synonymous. Nonetheless,
Kelly, former editor of digital style bible Wired, declares: "When
I saw Matson's images I was blown away. Erase from your mind
any notion of pixels or any grainy artefact of previous
digitalisation gear. Instead imagine a painter who could,
like Vermeer, capture the quality of light that a camera
but with the colour of paints . . . She is at the forefront
of a new wave in photography."
Matson herself argues that the use of uniform light, without
a lens to distort images, and the use of Photoshop software,
creates 3D-like images of unusual clarity. These features
are constant, regardless of the scale of the printing surface.
Huge reproductions of startling detail are possible.
The artistic involvement, however, in Matson's description
of her work appears more mundane than it might be, involving
familiar attributes such as time and rhythm. In a recent interview
she argued that modern technology brings into question our
established notions about seeing, vision, and perspective.
I would put it differently. Working with computing technology,
artists become explorers who discover not just new facets
of life but also new perspectives. The digital aesthetic is,
above all else, revealing.
Arguably, though, digital artwork has no place in the analogous
world we routinely inhabit. Created virtually, it should be
able to stray no further than our screens. It exists because
it has no physical presence, surely a protean licence for
a new aesthetic. At the same time, the digital confronts reality
more directly than any representative, humanly constructed,
form of art. In the work of, for example, Masaru Emoto, of
whom more later, we see everyday substances in an entirely
new way, literally beyond vision.
argument about place and exhibition is not an idle one.
Digital art, apart from blurring our sense of reality,
to have a dynamic element in which images transform in response
to our interaction with them. So, for example, the Guggenheim's
online exhibits of John Simon and Mark Napier's work are
by the fact that the digital "sculptures" change
depending on visitors' clicks. Meanwhile, the WWW artworks
of Lisa Jevbratt are constructed automatically from the millions
of uses of the Internet each day. They are a visual representation
of activity over time.
But in each case of a digital artist working in a surprising
way, the relationship between object and artist, or process
and artist, is fundamentally changed. The artist is exploring.
Art is becoming discovery and, as such, is better able to
challenge our perceptions of the world than are conventional
Matson's exhibition is being staged at Palazzo Rosso, a museum
with an art collection that includes the work of painters
such as Van Dyck and Caravaggio. She is one of a new breed
of artists who are utilising technology in ways that alter,
and perhaps diminish, the artist's role - but to great effect.
Masaru Emoto, like Matson, focuses his technological explorations
on nature. Using magnetic resonance imaging, Emoto photographs
the crystalline shape of water at a microscopic level. The
Japanese scientist is an advocate of a new relationship with
the elements and is part of a movement that more or less worships
water as our ancestors worshipped the spas and lakes of Europe
and the holy wells of Ireland.
Leaving aside their spiritual content, Emoto's photographs
are not just visually intriguing. When water is found at deep
levels and has settled over centuries, Emoto shows that its
crystalline shape is uniform and symmetrical, sharp and aesthetically
pleasing. Photographs of rushing spring water show it to be
visually impure. The contrast illustrates that life suffers
and rests even at the cellular level.
These changes in perspective, found in disparate projects,
add up to an important big picture. They are dimensions of
a new world in which the human body and our knowledge of organisms
and the living environment are transforming, along with our
relationship to technology.
Apart from its increasing grossness, the body is now equipped
with new elements, from fake knees to cosmetic implants, Botox
to breasts, from pacemakers to microchips, and these will
soon to be supplemented by implanted software that expands
The mind and its moral competence are evolving at a frightening
rate. In place of human memory, miniature memories of vast
efficiency now remember for us. In place of open landscapes
children now inhabit their bedrooms and relate to behavioural
forms invented for the screen. Like the rest of us they engage
with heroic narratives in which the bad man is frequently
The social world is being rebuilt as races intermingle and
as we debate the prospects of a post-American vision of global
Alongside these changes the physical world can now be transformed
every 30 years or so as housing estates (collections of what
we used to call homes) are dismantled and reassembled with
In this new world the digital aesthetic moves us on, helping
us discover new perspectives. Digital art is part of the flood
of information and connectivity, though, arguably, it has
not yet responded to it adequately.
Yet digital artworks are transformative. The spooky, almost
artist-free atmosphere of the new images is perfectly appropriate.
They speak to a world where people and their concerns used
to be at the centre.