Technology IV: Art on the web - 2

With the world wide web, we can combine and interpret, gloss as we never could before. We can have people who are looking for something cheap & tawdry stumble across our work, although this might not continue to be true. We can present art or information to as many people as want to look at it, with minimal publishing expense, although this might not continue to be true either, as the price of quality advertising-free server space rises. I am back to the advertising question. Art is not only the things we create and present, but the trappings with which they are presented. Here we have it on the computer screen, the glaring computer screen which burns the eyes, surrounded (even in "full screen mode") by techno-style buttons and icons and pointers, and increasingly framed by deliberately obnoxious advertising. That these items play a huge role in the apprehension of visual art online goes without saying. They are still right there, maybe moving around in an attempt to draw attention to themselves, when reading literature. They must be navigated in order to begin hearing a musical selection. At least in the case of music, one need not look at the computer while listening, and we can hope that this continues to be true.

For visual art, or to some degree literature, we are faced with a couple of uncomfortable choices: Ask people to "tune out" half of what is before their eyes, or play with these objects by way of parody. The latter is fine, as far as it goes, but is only one slice of artistic production, and one whose dominance will undoubtedly lead to more unhealthy cynicism. The former, especially as combined with the lack of human contact involved in this setting, may be more dangerous, as it asks people to withdraw even more from what they experience. The computer screen is also a pale reflection of real visual art, a pale reflection even of print reproductions. Musically, the trend is similar: less sonic detail for people who increasingly tune out much of what they hear anyway. In principle, I say, a cause should be its own undoing, and so the intensification of these very real social issues on the web should somehow suggest their resolution. Such a resolution is unclear to me at present. More video on the web can bring a greater semblance of human interaction, but like the reduced graphic or sound quality, it comes with nothing close to the dynamism of the real thing. It seems it will only serve to dull people's apprehension of what it means to experience their fellow man. Again, such a scenario calls loudly for art, somehow.

Music is immediately at the crux of stealing online, partly because packaged performances are such a shift in its nature, and partly because the idea of glossing & interpreting via links does not touch the sound itself. This need not be so. We could run existing computer-stored sound through filtering programs, one after the other, to link & "interpret" the raw sound itself. Indeed, formats such as MIDI make this possible already, and it has already had its controversies, with one person taking another's MIDI interpretations and changing a few parameters to claim them as his own. We might call this stealing, depending on how many changes are made, but even more: Do you necessarily want to be credited with something someone else has distorted outside your conception? There are two sides to this issue. Moreover, although the web provides many opportunities for interpretation in general, does it provide a way to restore music to its former composer-performer interpretive dichotomy? Perhaps this is not what we should ask. Does it provide a way to enrich conception by involving multiple layers of creativity? I mentioned the idea of collage some time ago, and so reiterate the idea of combining various individual sound items into different satisfying wholes, whether through combinations with other forms of art, sequencing, or even simultaneity. The latter idea goes back at least to Ives, and the possibilities do seem ripe, even if they also seem vulnerable to information overload and creeping historicism. The idea of "purity of expression" is a fundamental problem here.

Does any of this mean anything, does it suggest how one might take advantage of the creative potential of the web? The idea of anticipating the future is treacherous enough, but one must not constrain it too much via proclamation; one must leave space for experiment. The idea of "interpretive space" here is evidently revolving around experiments using other people's material, presenting or combining it in different ways. This is also causing discomfort, for me among others, but cannot be legally proscribed in haste. There must be some freedom, but there must also be respect, and that element does seem to be missing at present. Perhaps historicism eliminates any need to respect contemporary creators of "pure" expression, as it means they are no longer needed. This seems logical to me, and so as always, suggests that they are needed even more. I feel that medieval music can be a basis, and that innovation & continuity in Machaut can be an example, for some new form of sound fusion, one which somehow yields purity of expression. And I feel we can accomplish such a thing buoyed by the enormous amount of creative energy released by establishing the web itself, despite its serious problems. We have, one might say, a singular opportunity based on "negative entropy," something which is dissipating rapidly due to both greed & evolving social convention.

The web provides an opportunity to ask what precisely is "the medium" in music. Is it the sounds themselves, ephemeral or committed to a technological container; is it the written score, if one exists; or is it the medium of production itself, whether orchestra or computer? The number of people who view "classical music" as synonymous with the orchestra is non-negligible.... Computers already challenge what it means to do something. We have programs for "one click composing" which generate music according to certain conventional styles. Between ideas of collage & arrangement, and computer generation, what it means to compose is sure to change, if it has not changed irreversibly already. Our ideas on literacy, whether musical or otherwise, are also bound to change. Fundamentally, we can take the medium itself as an artistic parameter, and vary it through the course of a piece. We can also depend dynamically on listener feedback. Perhaps we can revolutionize improvisation on that basis. What we must first do, in order to somehow transcend the limits of the "web medium," is grapple with the entire chain of experiences involved, somehow taking expression outside of a technological box and into people's living rooms in such a way that they can feel connected to each other. That cannot be done by mandating that everyone use the same computer or software. It must accommodate the diversity of interface which is a natural strength of the web, yet somehow unite that diversity into one overall experience. The web provides a redefinition of medium per se, one which must be taken to its full conclusion and not stymied by forced correspondences to magazines or television, or isolated by confining it to "active plug-ins" and other control-freak gadgets. The simplicity achievable here must be embraced as well, so that after internalizing its nature and inverting it, the computer can be made to seem superfluous to the chain of communication. That would be the first crucial artistic statement on the web today.

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Todd M. McComb