Frank Popper and Virtualised Art

This is my unedited original draft of the article Frank Popper and Virtualised Art which was published Winter 2004 in tema celeste magazine: issue #101, pp. 48 – 53 (English and Italian – 4 illustrations)

The handsome 84 year-old Parisian-based art historian Frank Popper is without doubt something of a scarcity. Anyone who takes a look at the historical record of the juncture of art and technology finds Frank nearly unaccompanied when it comes to documenting this historical record between the years of the late-1960’s up to the early 1990s. Basically there is Jack Burnham's book Beyond Modem Sculpture (1968), Gene Youngblood’s reference work Expanded Cinema (1970) and Frank’s books Origins and Development of Kinetic Art (1968), Art, Action and Participation (1975) and Art of the Electronic Age (1993). All are indispensable research tools in helping us figure out how art got to where it is today - in Frank’s terms “virtualized”.

In his books Origins and Development of Kinetic Art and Art, Action and Participation Frank showed how Kinetic Art played an important part in pioneering the unambiguous use of optical movement and in fashioning links between science, technology and art relating to the notion of the environment. This expanded approach has led Frank into showing us how technology is – or can be – humanized through art in his latest book From Technological to Virtual Art: the Humanization of the Machinic through Artistic Imagination – which I have read in its manuscript form – now being prepared for publication by MIT Press. This is his long awaited update of the art and technology component in art – an increasingly important factor in that technological-informational change is consistently cited as the splintering element which instigated mainstream modernism mutating into what has been called, for lack of a better term, postmodernism. So it is illuminating to study Frank’s intellectual evolution and how he sees the technological influence in art arriving at what he now calls the virtual situation. Or what I call Virtualism.

Key to Frank’s initial thinking and activities as an aesthetician, an art theorist, an art exhibition organizer, teacher, and art critic was his encounter in the early 1950s with the kinetic artist (and author of the book Constructivism), George Rickey and Frank’s discovery of the subtle technical movements in Rickey’s mobile sculptures. Subsequently Frank encountered the artists Nicholas Schöffer and Frank Malina, whose works were based on some first or second hand scientific knowledge. Also Op Art in the early-1960s had a powerful affect on him. Indeed Op proved to be a strong predecessor to what he is calling Virtual Art in that Op Art called attention to the spectator's individual, constructive, and changing perceptions - and thus called upon the attitude of the spectator to transfer the creative act increasingly upon him or herself. Op beckons forth a consideration of the enlargement of the audience's normal participation; both in regard to the spectators ocular aptitude to instigate variations in the perceived optic, as well as his or her capability to produce kinetic and aggregate exchanges on or within the work of art itself. Frank’s personal encounters in Paris with the GRAV group, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Yaacov Agam, Jesus-Rafael Soto and Victor Vasarely proved to have had a substantial impact on his view of art and art history.

Following this inclination he took interest in the works of Piotr Kowalski, Roy Ascott and many others working with the early concept of networking. These artists confirmed his interest in spectator participation, which brought him to the late 1980s and the 1990s when virtual art began to establish itself. To explain and illustrate the globalization of virtuality and the emergence of a techno-aethetic Frank in his new book stresses the panoramic and multi-generational aspects of virtual art by tracking its present condition and historical roots. As regards virtual art, openness is stressed both from the point of view of the artists and their creativity and from that of the follow-up users in their reciprocating thoughts and actions. The point Frank makes in From Technological to Virtual Art is that this openness implies a certain amount of liberty and freedom for action and creation but not at all a radical destruction of what came before. This commitment to the teeming openness found in virtual art can be traced to the theories of Umberto Eco and other aestheticians as regards the openness of the work of art - and more recently Eco’s consideration of the computer as a spiritual tool.

Technically speaking, virtual art, according to Frank, includes all the art made with the technical media developed at the end of the 1980s (or a bit before, in some cases). One of its aspects, at the time, was that interfaces through which exchanges passed between human and computer - for example: visualization casks, stereoscopic spectacles and screens, generators of three-dimensional sound, data gloves, data clothes, position sensors, tactile and power feed-back systems, etc. - allowed us to immerse ourselves completely into the image and interact with it. The impression of reality felt under these conditions was not only provided by vision and hearing, but also by the other bodily senses. This multiple sensing was so intensely experienced, at times, that one could speak of it as a Virtual Reality. Thus his use of the word “virtual” signified that we were in the presence not only of reality itself but also of the simulation of reality in the communications landscape. Yet his analysis differs radically from what I see as typical of French apocalyptic-chic negativism. Take for example recent proclamations by the skeptical - now famously reactionary - technophobe Paul Virilio concerning virtuality (not to mention the eminent Monsieur Baudrillard).

Aesthetically speaking, virtual art, as Frank sees it, is the artistic interpretation of the contemporary issues of communications, not only with the aid of the above mentioned technological developments but through their integration with them. Such an integration - or combination - allows for an aesthetic-technological logic of creation which forms the essential part of the specificity of virtual art.

From an ontological point of view, contemporary virtual art represents a new departure from technological art since it can be realized as many different actualities. This can also be a useful way to understand the self in as far as the self is truly virtual: it has many potentialities. Thus the virtual self can be transformed into an actual, living personality. We are here close to Edmond Couchot’s interpretation of virtuality and of the virtual as a power opposed to the actual, but whose function, technologically speaking, is a way of being (un mode d’être) of digital simulation which can lead towards a certain expression of the subjectivity of the operator. This ontological tendency of virtual art can be clearly observed in the works of a good number of artists described in his new book who have been using telepresence and virtual reality devices. As Frank sees it, virtual art can even play an ethical role in the present development of globalization by stressing more than any other previous art form human factors - both as regards to the artists and the multiple-users of the art. So he believes that it could have an impact in a critical and prospective way on globalization.

Indeed something exciting happens when one looks at a familiar subject not as a closed conceptual system, but to find an opening conceptual edge – in this case the increasing humanization of technological virtualism. That is what I detect again in Frank Popper’s work as an art historian and what I detect in his expansive research for From Technological to Virtual Art: that opening edge. Certainly I think that this conceptual edge is ever more important today after we have learned that both fundamentalist and modernist reductionist assumptions are not easily changed by mere postmodern negations. What seems to be needed globally are mutating conceptual models to think differently with; connectivist conceptual models that are never just the completed or inverted objectivity of the common conceptions.

The virtual model that Frank observes and equally proposes for art has its epistemological, ontological and ethical connotations. But it has also its aesthetic and philosophical humanist sides that should allow us to better understand the multiple existential changes that our society and every individual undergo at the present historically accelerated moment of globalization. This is demonstrated as he takes one step further from what Oliver Grau and Christine Buci-Glücksmannn define as the social implication - or the aesthetics - of the virtual. According to Grau in his book Virtual Art, media art, that is, video, computer graphics and animation, net art, interactive art and its most advanced form of virtual art (with its sub genres of telepresence art and genetic art), is beginning to dominate theories of the image and art. With the advent of new techniques for generating, distributing and presenting images, the computer has transformed the image and now suggests that it is possible to enter it. Thus, it has laid the foundations for virtual reality as a core medium of the emerging information society.

Christine Buci-Glücksmann approaches the aesthetics of the virtual through the idea that the development of the new technologies of the virtual has caused a major historic transformation that touches all the artistic practices: the passage from the culture of objects and of stability to a culture of flux and instability. Thus the premises in both art and architecture can be established that lead to an aesthetics of transparence and of fluidities.

Popper accepts and incorporates these points of view in his own theoretical approach of virtual art by taking an additional theoretical step by assuming that our wider consciousness – which is affected by technological advancement - permits us to better assume both our intellectual and our emotional human status at the beginning of the 21st century. He does not believe, as many technophiles do, that technology is making us less and less human and more machinic but rather adheres to ideas of humanity closer to those of Michael Heim in his book Virtual Realism. Here Heim has identified a transhuman attitude which consists of artistic and psychological strategies contrived to break through well-worn perceptions as his notion of the human is not linked to the classical heroic idea stemming from the Greeks and Romans. Rather, the humanist notion symbolizes for him our basic human needs and personal achievements. This does not preclude this idea from also being connected to wider - even universal – issues. For Frank, virtualism enters the current anti-human and post-human dialogue - a context fraught with the most explosive anti-human and post-human dangers - precisely with the intention of humanizing technology by taking into consideration the need for human survival: a survival concerned with biology and freedom. A virtual artist’s activities can deal with these fundamental issues while preparing a blue-print for some working solutions of both personal and universal dimensions.

This basically neo-humanist attitude was originally informed by the thought of philosophers like Nietzsche, Hegel, and Adorno and the literature of Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hasek, Elias Canetti, Vladimir Nabokoff and Primo Levi. These authors anticipated or described, each one in their own manner, the basic events that made up 20th century tragedy - a tragedy which combined bureaucratic obsession, widespread persecution and outright murder with the misuse of technology. This explains Frank’s positive attitude as an alternative art historian who takes a completely different stance than does Paul Virilio. Monsieur Virilio’s attitude is based on the assumption that accidents and other catastrophic events are inevitable and which can only be recorded by the artists who are unable to propose other possibilities or virtualities. According to Virilio, the work of artists cannot have any impact politically or intellectually on the course of events. For Frank Popper rather, technological and virtual tools (and ultimately consciousness) provides the substructure from which the new art is emerging.