[spectre] The Zombie of the Author - In memoriam Remko Scha
(September 15, 1945 - November 9, 2015)
epk at xs4all.nl
Sat Nov 21 14:34:01 CET 2015
Geert Lovink asked me to write something about the passing of our dear friend, colleague, machine artist and researcher Remko Scha for the Institute of Network Cultures blog. Instead of personal memories I was reminded of a period in the early 1990s when Remko and I were working on an unrealisable idea (though not pataphysic in nature), which captures his spirit and aesthetic ideals quite perfectly and I also wanted to share this curious story here.
The Zombie of the author
In memoriam Remko Scha (September 15, 1945 - November 9, 2015)
Amsterdam, November 20, 2015
Yesterday afternoon a large group of family, friends, colleagues and co-travellers in free spirit said goodbye to Remko Scha, distinguished professor in computer linguistics, machine artist, composer and co-founder of the Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam (IAAA). A dreary day at the ‘Nieuwe Ooster’ cemetery befitting for this sad occasion.
It was only recently that I had found out that this old friend and admired co-spirit in intellectual freedom had contracted a lethal disease that would inevitably curtail his existence here on Earth, always too early. We had not been in close contact for many years, as these things happen so often, so when Geert Lovink asked me to write something for the blog of the Institute of Network Cultures, I hesitated, as I could not write something personal, legitimately - others spoke at his memorial service more befittingly, yesterday. I can however write something about his artistic and aesthetic ideals, which in their aspiration to ‘universality’ are highly idiosyncratic, singular, and specific.
In the early 1990s, fresh out of university studies into the Arts and following my involvement with the first two editions of the International Symposia on Electronic Art (ISEA 1988 / 1990), I was asked at a conference to consider writing an essay for the British Journal of Aesthetics about the ‘aesthetic implications of digital media in the arts’. This produced a dilemma. How to write something for a journal that was an ‘institute’ in its field, though not necessarily in the field of interest I was primarily pursuing. Honourable, established, but also deeply entrenched in (Academic) tradition, and seemingly entirely at odds with the experimental cultures I became increasingly involved in. What’s more, what could a youngster like me (at that time, 1991) possibly suggest to such an ‘Institution’?
At that time I was involved in an intense discussion with Remko Scha about machine art, its conceptions, its practices, and indeed its aesthetics. As so many people recounted at the memorial service yesterday, intense discussion about such topics was what Remko was all about . When we debated this Remko was already well established as professor in computer linguistics at the University of Amsterdam. But beyond that he had an extended history and background in the arts and music, including in machine art. His performances with The Machines, a live installation / performance set up with a construction of electric guitars and basses played by household construction tools (fitted with ropes activating the guitar-strings, drills, barn machines and more), had hit famous rock and performance stages around the planet. So it seemed that teaming up with Remko would give sufficient weight to take on the challenge of British Aesthetics.
We decided to take the aesthetic idea of what Remko called Artificial Art, art made by machines, to its ultimate consequence, the complete and utter abolishment of the human Author in the work of art, and then proceed to question how this ideal could be approached by means of digital media. This proposal was, to some surprise by the both of us, accepted by the journal editor who had originally invited me, and so we set out on a joint intellectual journey to pursue not the death but the annihilation of the Author.
To explain this artistic / aesthetic position it is necessary to go back to the classical Kantian understanding of the aesthetics of beauty. For Kant the aesthetic experience of beauty is characterised by a disinterested free play of the cognitive and sensual faculties, producing a sensation, an experience, that is finally subjective and pleasurable. These words must be qualified. Disinterested reflection is a reflection that is not predicated on a specific concept. The aesthetics of beauty involve the cognitive faculties, but not to fix them on a particular concept, to make fixed judgements. That beauty involves the senses needs no explanation.
Then the experience is ‘finally subjective’, this refers to the fact that we can experience beauty and be aware of it, but we cannot transfer this experience itself to others, it remains subjective. We can only say that we experience something as beautiful, and by comparing this vague statement to the vague statements of others about supposedly the same thing (though we can never be sure as we do not have access to the other’s subjective experience) we can get some approximate confirmation that some things are indeed beautiful (and maybe others not or less). And what makes matters even more complicated is that such judgements about beauty, what is commonly referred to as ‘taste’, are cultured. The capacity for aesthetic reflection and experience is a given for every human being, but its specific deployment is subject to external (non subjective) conditioning.
The crucial hinging point for Remko was the issue of ‘disinterestedness’. To achieve disinterested reflection a concept or an intention is actually a burden - it takes the observers out of the free play of senses and cognitive faculties and fixes them on a concept, a meaning, an intended effect, message, or any other irrelevant artistic aspiration (fame, sex, money) - irrelevant that is to say to the pursuit of the aesthetic experience of beauty.
We find this position actually also in Kant. For Kant aesthetic reflection is learned from ‘nature’ and only transferred in a secondary sense, and always inferior, to human art. “Nature’ in this understanding of Kant has no ‘Author’, thus the spectacles of ‘nature’ can be observed disinterestedly, no concept or idea needs to be inferred from it, and with this ‘nature’ offers the supreme canvas for disinterested aesthetic reflection. (Now obviously we know that the concept of ‘nature’ is itself deeply contested, argued not to exist, on an argumentative level considered equally vacuous as the notion of a ‘God’, which itself as a concept was not entirely abolished by Kant in his transcendental experience either. So there is lots of room for debate and contention here.)
The conclusion that Remko drew from this, and which he considered absolutely inevitable, was that the author was always in the way of aesthetic reflection and experience, because the author would always follow a certain aspiration (embarrassing or not), have intentions, require and sometimes impose concepts, or apply any and all of those unconsciously even while desperately trying to avoid them. Machine art, if it were to become entirely autonomous from its creator, could however offer an escape from this desperate situation so that we could seek recourse to the arts, instead of over-maintained and ‘cultured’ nature (certainly in The Netherlands where an unauthored ‘nature’ does not exist), to rescue the possibility of a completely free aesthetic experience.
The consequence of this was that we should not celebrate the death of the Author (though we had other reasons to do so), but we should instead strive for the complete and final elimination of the author. And that in turn meant that the true challenge for machine aesthetics was to create machines, in essence formal systems, in which the presence of the author was entirely eliminated.
So after quickly writing down this starting point of the exploration (and being very giggly about it), Remko and I set out to come up with formal systems / scenario’s that could live up to this task. We considered random procedures, following on from a variety of random art experiments in the 20th century (Duchamp, Tinguely and others). However, since we were discussing this in the context of digital machines we quickly ran into the problem that true randomness does not exist in a digital machine - in fact randomising functions were simply complex mathematical formulas that would take a timed event in the computer as the seed value for a series of computational cycles to produce a specific output, which then would be more or less unpredictable depending on how successful a given algorithm and its underpinning mathematical function would be - but NOT entirely random. Thus in digital quasi-randomness the Author’ (of the algorithm) perseveres.
What’s more the ‘outputs’ generated by such quasi-randomness were largely unsatisfying. ‘Nature’ itself may be without intention, but it is not without structure, and thus offers a greater sensorial richness.
Remko came up with the idea of generative visual and auditory grammars - sets of rules picked up quasi randomly by the software machine to generate outputs, where meta-rules could modify outputs further, creating more unpredictable results, but not without structure. And indeed, the Institute for Artificial Art has produced a series of such generative software machines in the visual, auditory, muscular and architectural domain, which can be explored at the Institute’s website ( www.iaaa.nl ).
We soon realised that these generative grammars constituted simply a deferred authorship. The author was still there, no longer with a capital ‘A”, but present nonetheless in the code of the software, the structure of the algorithm, still infected with the biases and preconceptions of its author. Remko tried another idea, meta generative grammars - so systems of rules that would generate other systems of rules (visual and auditory grammars) that in turn would generate outputs - to bring further unpredictability into the game. However, also this procedure would not meet our requirements as it would simply constitute a ‘second order deferred authorship’, nothing more, and so the author would still persist, even if not immediately perceptible / intelligible (which would count as progress in this account).
We continued for a few months writing scenarios (using stock images as industrial digital ready-mades modified by second order generative grammars for instance), sending them back and forth, discussing them in face to face meetings - in his university office, in bars, at cultural events, whenever we had a chance to connect. But we never were able to come up with a procedure, as scenario, a formal system, that would once and for all eliminate the author, not even with a lower-case ‘a’. The author would always come back to haunt us a zombie of intention, preconception, bias, and interest - a continuous threat to unfettered aesthetic reflection.
Until finally we gave up...
We concluded that within the digital the author could not be eliminated and thus our endeavour had proven to be senseless. We felt that it would be a facile and empty gesture to then write a text for the journal that would draw this conclusion, as our set aim was to achieve the opposite. And so, we ended the exploration, thanked the editor for his generous interest and invitation, and never wrote or published the paper (despite having extensive notes).
Remko did continue his quest for an aesthetic ideal, which we now knew was unattainable, with the Institute for Artificial Art. producing a variety of wondrous artistic interventions in years to come. In this he was inching ever closer to a ‘universal’ aesthetic language freed from subjective debasement, culturation and the abominations of taste. And exactly with this singular quest he became a unique idiosyncratic voice, somewhere in this shadowy land between the arts and the sciences.
He will be deeply missed, by many, certainly by me.
Amsterdam, November 20, 2015
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