Interview with Anna Munster

Essays into Digital Aesthetics

Anna Munster is one of Australia’s distinguished media theorists. Besides her critical writings she is also a digital artist. She works with digital imaging and audio to make still, interactive and online work. Her work is concerned with digital and baroque spaces and the placement of bodies within these spaces. In 2000 she produced Wundernet (, a website on wonder, curiosity, the digital and baroque, the topic of her PhD that she is currently turning into a book provisionally titled Disturbing the Machine: Embodiment, Aesthetics and Technology in the Time of the Digital . In 2002, while living in Sydney, I became familiar with her probes into the terrain of digital aesthetics and got inspired by her passion for new media arts. After studying philosophy and digital aesthetics Anna Munster obtained a PhD in digital media theory and production from the University of New South Wales. She has exhibited in Australia, Japan, America and online, written for publications including M/C, Photofile, Artlink, Australian Feminist Studies, and contributed to various anthologies. She lectures in Digital Media Theory in the School of Art History and Theory at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales in Sydney. Since 2002 Anna Munster is member the Fibreculture facilitators group, the Australian network of new media artists and researchers ( ). She is currently working on a book together with Elspeth Probyn, editing Body-to-Body: A Corporeal Reader. In this interview we talk about the ins and out of digital aesthetics, the arts-meets-science rhetoric and the economic reality of the digital dream .

GL: Would you describe digital aesthetics as one of your main fields of interest? You got a background in philosophy and then moved on to new media theory. For Kierkegaard aesthetics meant that the present could only be perceived in a reflexive manner. How would one achieve this when the ‘object’ of contemplation constantly transforms and mutates?

AM: Yes, I’d say that digital aesthetics is currently of primary interest to me but I need to qualify that by saying that I am not especially interested in formalist, systematic or expressionist articulations of the digital as a medium for artistic production. For me, aesthetics is about modes of perception and sensation and how these are made possible by and develop in response to certain social and technical arrangements. The idea that one requires reflection and distance to understand these sensory modes of producing, engaging with and being engaged by artefacts would also imply that its possible to step outside of life, outside of living within and with contemporary culture and technologies. On the contrary, it’s by engaging with changing modes of sensing and perceiving, whether this be through theoretical or production work that makes it possible to gain a kind of grip on the mutations through which the digital seems to operate. I guess that also means that you have to throw out the idea of a grand scheme for theorising digital aesthetics, and for that matter, new media. Either you attempt an ongoing typology or else you experiment with smaller, modular ideas about the directions a particular area of say digital graphics might be heading. Perhaps the move away from pure philosophy towards new media theory has to do, for me, with this impossibility of grabbing hold of an entire system that might mark out the contours of contemporary moments. However, I don’t think this means you have to simply swim with the tide and try to stay abreast of everything new with digital technologies. That puts you fairly and squarely within the desire for the digital to be constantly new and constantly changing and that is itself a nonreflexive position about our current culture.

GL: Your style and topic is close to the ‘media archeology’ approach of Zielinski, Virilio, Kittler, Ronell, Manovich and others. Yet, you seem to prefer the Benjaminesk style of essay writing. You neither write from the film perspective nor do you take the literature/hypertext approach. How do look at the use and misuse of history in media theory? You seem to position yourself ‘outside of history’. How do you relate speculative thinking with critical writing? Both postmodern pessimism and euphoric techno-optimism seem over. Where would you take media theory? I know, these are big questions, but I thought you’d certainly be the person able to answer them.

AM: Although those you mention above have influenced me at various stages of thinking about and with media, I suppose I’d say that my approach is more genealogical rather than archaeological. That is to say, I’m interested in the forces that shape the writing of media histories, forces such as political pessimism and the market hype that celebrated technology in the wake of postmodern cynicism. To what extent did these forces join up with older currents in Western thought – transcendentalism, disembodiment, futurism, fascism? And why do these forces grab hold of each so-called technological revolution? I’m not simply suggesting that history repeats; I’m also interested in the genuine ruptures that can and do happen when media materialities cut across cultural directions. This tends to happen in small ways and occurs laterally and unpredictably – the failure of interactive television in spite of hype, the persistence of minidiscs in spite of both hype and then prediction of failure, the sudden resurgence of the mobile phone and peripheral technologies.

I’ve sometimes referred to my relation to media histories as nonhistorical but probably what I mean more is to suggest that there are different ways to do this history. A lot of new media critique and cultural commentary has tended to take Cartesianism, rationalism and then the Enlightenment, progress, modernity, postmodernity trajectory as part of its unexamined teleology. I’m not claiming a new set of antecedents but rather seeing what kind of resonances are set off by tracing through other kinds of histories. It’s become apparent recently, for example, that spatial negotiation, navigation and objects in 3D, virtual and immersive visualisations have less to do with the Cartesian grid and more to do with topological spaces. There’s a very interesting history of geometry that comes out of the seventeenth century experiments with differential calculus and then begins to bear visual fruits in the nineteenth century with topology. Recently people such as De Landa and Massumi have indicated that virtuality may have less to do with what is seen and represented through digital visual technologies and more to do with a kind of immanent trace that is mapped out as space is topologically deformed. Of course, it’s a stretch of the imagination to historically link differential calculus, topological geometries and contemporary digital aesthetics, but it’s also potentially productive. This is particularly so when the aesthetic potential of a digital form, such as VR, starts to become static.

To rethink the writing of technological and media histories in this kind of genealogical manner necessarily engages a critical perspective upon the present moment but one which is productive. It’s also possible to enrich historical events by understanding them from a new media perspective. Bruno Latour has a nice view of this kind of history, which he describes as a spiral rather than a line: the past is never surpassed but is repeated in refrains and revisited through loops. If we follow the spiral in a linear fashion things seem unrelated but if we look at how the spiral loops on top of itself things appear closer together.

GL: One of the elements in your writing that keeps coming back is your fascination for baroque—not the historical period and its usurious style but rather as methodology. This metahistoric reading of baroque comes from Gilles Deleuze, I suppose. How do you read today’s technologies through ‘baroque’ eyes? Would that first of all be a critique of modernism or is there more under the sun?

AM: I like the idea of putting new media, computational thought and digital aesthetics up against Baroque natural history, Leibnizian calculus, for example. I’m not claiming a new set of antecedents but rather seeing what kind of resonances are set off by doing this. You are right to suggest that I’m not especially interested in baroque as style or epoch. But in fact I came to Deleuze through the baroque rather than the other way around.

When I began to research the archive and storage mania that accompanied the upsurge in digitisation projects in the early 1990s (in museums but also scientific projects such as the Visible Human Project, Human Genome Project), I noticed the chaotic and idiosyncratic nature of classification that accompanied these. Although these kind of projects like to pass themselves off as encyclopaedic, you don’t have to look very far to find the strange and bizarre premises upon which they rest! In this sense, they share a sensibility with baroque scientific projects, which went to great lengths to construct elaborate parameters and premises for their systems of classifying, collecting and representing the natural world. As I began to research baroque natural history I realised that I needed to reassess the critical dismissal of the hierarchy between science and ‘nature’, technology or machine and body that I and many others who grew up on a postmodern diet levelled against the beginnings of modern science. In fact, the relations between early modern science and organic matter, particularly as these manifested themselves in visual culture and display, were complex. Baroque classification of the organic world proceeded not simply through system but also via anecdote, hearsay, narrative and was intended to incite a passionate reaction from its viewing audience. What happens, then, if we rethink so called disembodied information in digital contexts, in terms of these nonexclusionary but rather differential relations between matter, contingency and system and that populated baroque science? Could we come up with some more interesting archival projects for contemporary digital visual culture? I think the answer is yes, and that a number of artists are already doing this: George Legrady, Chris Marker, for example.

Furthermore, there seems to me to be something important about digital objects and entities that have to do with differential series; we see this manifested through clones, samples, and variables. I wanted to have a look at the history of the differential itself and this is how I became interested in Deleuze’s reading of the Leibnizian fold. As you say, this is a metahistorical move: one rereads some conceptual machinery from a particular period or from a philosopher in order to say something different about the contemporary moment. And so, if there is a baroque methodology that I am using, perhaps it rests upon the importance of the work that I think the concept of differentiality can do now. It seems unproductive to continue to debate the opposition between the original and the copy to think about the digital when what we have in actuality are series of differential relations between many originals. But it is precisely these relations that come to produce a kind of network or hub in which digital artifacts and technologies sit and in which they acquire value and meaning in the social context. So it is not simply the differential that is important for thinking contemporary culture but rather differential relations. Of course, this project has also marked the thinking of someone such as Castells. This is a long way from the baroque but nevertheless some of the operative concepts continue to resonate with the ways in which baroque relations between science, matter and the arts were conceived.

GL: The encounter between new media arts and science that you discuss in your essays to me seems rather like a desperate monologue, a cry for help, not a dialogue. Artists may seem to be interested in science, its approaches, research methods and most of all, its opulent funds, but there is little response from the other side, so it seems. In the recent past, artists and activists were much more critical of science. These days there are no longer efforts under way to deconstruct the agenda of science and its relationship with power. Instead everyone begs for a minute of attention, so it seems. This is even the case with the unequal relationship between artists/critics and the ‘geeky’ programmers that write the code.

AM: It’s clear that in spite of all talk about collaboration, intersection and convergence, there exists a deep asymmetry between art and science and relations between artists and scientists. This asymmetry is most prominent in the funding arena, which leads many artists grabbing at the opportunities for money rather than anything interesting artistically that might come of working with scientific paradigms.   And yet scientists also seem to be eager to paint themselves as deeply aesthetic. The classic examples at present would be in the odd areas of self-consciously proclaimed genetic and nanotechnological art produced by scientists themselves . I think Natalie Jeremijenko is r ight when she states that science needs art as a way to access the public imagination. But this of course begs the question, why does science require aestheticisation? Obviously something creepy, if not fascistic is going on in the lab! On the other hand, much of the art/science output is just dull – marking bacteria with dye so that they can draw as they grow etc, who cares? There are, however, artists, such as Jerimijenko,, who have worked within the biotech arena and are incredibly critical of it, and my feeling is that this will increasingly become a place for artistic contestation. We are also faced with the issue that science itself is now such a massive enterprise supported by and entwined within so many relations to power. There is not just one agenda but many competing ones. But it would certainly help if, as artists and critics, we bothered to inform ourselves more about the different debates within science itself over, for example, how genes work, before we plunge into bed with science or take it to task. There’s a lot of work to be done though – you need to understand the territory and its debates first, before working in relation to it in both a critical and artistic manner.

GL: Isn’t it a weak position to ‘sell’ art as being creative, fantasy-oriented and imaginative? Isn’t that exactly its weakness? What makes (new media) art so special? What do you think of the multi-disciplinary ‘creative industries’ approach? Would you agree that new media arts has moved itself into a marginal position? On the other hand, technology has never been so widespread. That’s such a contradiction.

AM: Let me address these questions in two ways. First, I think you may have in mind a recent article I wrote about the role of new media visualisations and images within science and art/science collaborations. In that article I suggested that some new media artists have in fact revealed the extent to which fantasies about technology are at the heart of scientific agendas; some of Patricia Piccinini’s work does this, particularly her pieces around the SO2, or synthetic organism 2. This does constitute a kind of deconstruction of the truth status accorded technologies of visualisation within the scientific enterprise.

Second, new media art(s) have diversified so much in the last 5 years, especially after, that it’s no longer possible to attribute to it one or even two roles. Perhaps in the early 90s new media art could have been said to be either celebrating technical wizardry and cyberculture or critically intervening into the modernist fetishization of technology. There are ways in which both these approaches have become marginal. The big hi-end dedicated new media installations do not really travel and became exercises in building insane customised machinery that dates quickly. On the other hand, many of the new media arts organisations, particularly in Australia, curate and show experimental work that keeps it firmly placed within the new media art/audience ghetto.

But some new media art has conjoined with contemporary political issues, particularly globalisation and postcolonial politics. I think there’s some really vital and vibrant work being done here and it tends to use off-the-shelf technologies and work between online/offline spaces: Shilpa Gupta’s web and installation pieces, Heath Bunting’s ‘BorderXing Guide’ and Alex Rivera’s ‘Why Cybraceros?’ are only a few examples. Trying to assess the marginality of this art is difficult in a postbroadcast context. The issues dealt with are not marginal—this art deals with questions of displacement of people and labour through global information restructuring. And yet, its mere presence on the net does not ensure an audience. However, I think the intersection between new media technologies and global economies of information becomes an important point of intervention for new media art. The flipside of this, though, is an extremely bland aesthetic disseminated in web and street visual culture that might be called ambient new media art. In no way is this aesthetic marginal! In fact it’s everywhere.

Perhaps the ubiquity of both this aesthetic and of technologies generally has provided fuel for the popularity of the creative industries approach. I find myself feeling ambivalent about this field. The use of catch phrases such as innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship is just marketing hype. And yet it’s a fact of life that many of us – artists, theorists, cultural workers – dip into or sustain ourselves with commercial practice in new media areas. I suppose that one problem with the creative industries as a sustained approach is the reliance on a notion of ‘industry’ to sell academic courses. This conception of industry is hyperbolic in an Australian context. What industry is being referred to here? The Australian film industry is small and hardly an employer. We all know why Fox Studios etc. have set up shop here—cheap labour and locations—but this is not the story that is being sold to university graduates. I think more support should be given instead at an educational level to student or graduate initiatives in new media and to showing how people can work across a range of areas, commercial, arts industry, art, activist, writing and policy work rather than ‘for the industry’ which quite frankly, does not exist. But this kind of education requires supporting independent and critical thinking among academics and students and indicating how one makes lateral and tactical connections in the world. I’m afraid there’s not too much of that around.

GL: You are part of the ‘academic arm’ of cyber feminism, if I may say so, an international circle of new media artists, theorists and activists. It is a movement that took off in the early-mid nineties. If one looks at the free software movement and the engineering culture in general, radical cyber feminism is still badly needed. What is the state of the art within cyber feminism? Is it still debating the relationship between technologies and the body? What should be its agenda?

AM: I don’t really consider myself to be a cyberfeminist although I have always been and still am interested in the relations between bodies and technology. I feel that cyberfeminism became a bit stuck with certain configurations of femininity during the 90s – abject, slime, guerrilla girl style tactics that opposed the ‘clean’ techno-body. This was important at a particular time but I think has served its purpose. However, you’re right in pointing out that equal gender representation remains uneven within technoculture generally. If anything we perhaps need to go back to feminist issues such as equal access and representation in these areas and support for skill building. I don’t have the answer for how this can be achieved in a massive way but continue to support small initiatives where I can.

GL: You have suggested that we’re moving away from the digital as effect. However, the digital in itself is not becoming a medium. Rather, so you write, we are moving towards the possibility of digital affects. Now you teach at a department called ‘digital media.’ Regarding ‘affects’ what do you teach your students?

AM: I’m not always happy with the nomenclature of the places I work and teach in—
one has to take what one can get, and make the best of it! It’s still the case that many students are caught up within a mainstream visual and digital culture and are impressed by special effect magic such as The Matrix. But you have to start with what is accessible to students and part of their world and then show the way in which Hollywood cinematic experience relies upon certain kinds of perceiving bodies. I think the best way to do this is via the work of someone like Huhtamo and of course also Virilio. You can then point out a history of techno-induced sensation and of the way in which certain kinds of architectures – from wide screen cinema complexes to IMAX and OMNIMAX – converge to produce certain kinds of affective experiences via the special effect. Having moved from the effect to focus upon larger questions of technology, sensation and perception within an historical and social context, I then ask: what new affects do digital technologies make possible, if indeed they do at all? And in what contexts, spaces and architectures could these happen? At the same time, it’s important to continue to look at media histories and theories through the lens of McLuhan and ask about their relations to the digital without consolidating a notion of the digital as a medium. The main point for me is to ask students to think about whether engagements with digital technologies affirm the thrills and spills of the military-entertainment complex or whether some new affective engagements are happening or could happen. Occasionally I see student work that does the latter and for me that’s really exciting. It’s difficult to ‘teach’ a theory of affect per se but it is possible to shift discussion of the digital to the arenas of corporeality and embodiment, and away from simply the sensational and /or the disembodied.

(The interview was conducted as a part of the critic-in-residence program of Artspace, Sydney.

A selection of Anna Munster’s texts available online:
Digitality: Approximate Aesthetics (Ctheory)

Interfacing Art, Science and New Media

Text on Linda Wallace’s Eurovision

The Image of New Media within the Art-Science Nexus