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Reviewed by:
  • Sonic Acts: The Art of Programming
  • Stefaan Van Ryssen
Sonic Acts: The Art of Programming edited by Frans Evers, Lucas van der Velden and Jan Peter van der Wenden. Paradiso, Sonic Acts Press and de balie, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2002. 177 pp., illus., with DVD and CD-ROM. ISBN: 90-6617-279-7.

The Art of Programming conference was held during the 9th edition of the Sonic Acts Festival, which took place 6-9 December 2001 at Paradiso in Amsterdam and at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague. The conference covered a wide range of subjects concerning recent developments in digital art and digital music. A quick look at the names of the contributors already gives us an idea of the general direction the conference has taken: Roy Ascott, Paul Berg, Robert Henke, Michael Punt, Casey Reas, Robin Rimbaud, Joel Ryan, Thecla Schiphorst, Chris Speed and Adrian Ward. With those presenters, we can expect that some provocative questions about the interconnectedness of, and advances in, biology, consciousness studies and technology will be asked. And indeed they are, but the nice thing is that the editors—and the organizers of the conference to begin with—have confronted those innovative ideas with actual practice in Dutch art schools and universities.

Let us reconsider the basic question: if the rapid advances in computing and digital technologies have changed the way we organize our daily lives, the economy, the media and the way knowledge is produced, transformed and used, don't they have an impact on the very stuff we humans are made of as well? We understand ourselves as conscious biological structures, thriving and surviving in a physical and social environment that defines the limits of our acts and in turn is transformed by those acts. By this definition, and by some others that include metaphysical elements, a person is a nexus of processes in several fields, neither determined by one single set of conditions nor entirely free from their limitations. The conditions, processes and limitations themselves are forever recreated by the very acts that emerge from them. What is special about humans is that this makes sense, that we understand, through discourse, what it is to be human—up to a certain point at least. We are what we do and what we think, individually and socially. The individual emerges from its social, technological and biological conditions and, at the same time, the biological and social fields are reified by the individual: "What a piece of work is Man!"

Artists are not neutral bystanders in this process of redefining humanity. This is, in a way, the theme of "Digital Art," the first part of this book. In art, the apparent borders between the technological, the biological and the social can be easily trespassed, reinterpreted and even obliterated. Roy Ascott's concept of moist media expresses exactly that potentiality: they are "moist" because they combine bio and techno, they are "media" because they exist as interactions rather than final and unchangeable objects. Michael Punt argues that all this does not mean that artists are doing science and vice versa. Rather, contemporary evolutions in bio-electronic art are making a contribution to the debate on the future of science and history. Thecla Schiphorst and Chris Speed are exploring and experimenting with navigation in time and space and how it affects the body and the relationship between mind and body.

The second part of the book, "Digital Music," contains contributions by Paul Berg, Joel Ryan, Robin Rimbaud, Robert Hencke and Kent Clelland. Most of them talk about their work and their views on the relationship between the living and the digital performers, and between music and software or code.

In the third part of the book, Dutch educators and students talk about their experiences in the domain of teaching and studying digital art. It is mostly interesting for other students and educators because it clearly shows what questions and uncertainties arise when dealing with these relatively new media in a highly institutionalized social context such as an art school. Most of these talks, however, are not much more than anecdotal reports of partly undigested experiences. They lack critical reflection and systematic...


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