Interview with Peter Lunenfeld

Enemy of Nostalgia, Victim of the Present, Critic of the Future. Californian media theorist Peter Lunenfeld

Peter Lunenfeld eaches in the graduate program in Media Design at Art Center College of Design. He is director of the Institute for Technology & Aesthetics (ITA), and founder ofmediawork: The Southern California New Media Working Group. He lives in Los Angeles and is the author of Snap to Grid: A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Culture (MIT Press, 2000). Snap to Grid provides us with a broad and accessible introduction into the topics of electronic arts and new media culture. Lunenfeld hardly ever addresses the insider. As a contemporary cultural critic, he manages to create an overall context for the somewhat self-referential, isolated new media art world. Peter Lunenfeld edited The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media (MIT Press, 1999), writes “User,” a column for the journal artext, and is the editorial director of the Mediawork Pamphlets series for the MIT Press, which he describes as “a collection of intellectually sophisticated, visually compelling short works that will unite contemporary thinkers with cutting edge graphic designers to create theoretical fetish objects.” Utopian Entrepreneur, written by Brenda Laurel and designed by Denise Gonzales Crisp was the inaugural title. This interview grew out of e-mail exchanges, and public and private conversations spanning the years 2000 and 2001.

GL: What direction would you like to see new media culture go?

PL: I don’t think there’s such a thing as a single new media culture. There may have been a decade ago, but by now digital technologies have so infiltrated advanced industrial societies that we have to speak of new media cultures.. What I see today in all facets of cultural production is a kind of ferocious pluralism.

GL: The subtitle of your book is “A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media and Cultures.” Imagine if someone were indeed to read it as manual for an Internet startup? What recipes and tips do you come up with?

PL: I can’t say I wrote Snap to Grid (S2G) with the thought of someone else taking it as a manual for a start-up, but that’s provocative. So, what might the entrepreneurially inclined get out of the book? For one thing, they could get a deeper understanding of the aesthetics of demos, of how to communicate in real time whatever it is they’ve invented, or decided to bring to market. By running through some of the myths about interactivity, connectivity and virtuality, S2G might help them craft things and systems that people actually want. There’s quite a bit in the book that amounts to what I’d call “understanding now.” I don’t know if understanding one’s moment actually contributes to the bottom line and in fact, it may be the exact opposite, with those who most willfully ignore the present making the most money off of the future. Be that as it may, S2G does try to discuss emergent technological aesthetics in the light of the historical importance of the end of the Cold War.

GL: Do you see any possibility of a critical art praxis and the profit-driven network economy shaking hands?

PL: Art and economics are symbiotic, even when they are seen to be in opposition, so I can’t see why a networked economy shouldn’t spawn networked art. I think that this is still a fertile time for those with visual skills to be handsomely remunerated for certain kinds of design work, to take ideas, images and sounds and build products out of them, and even to create lasting equity in commercial enterprises. On the other hand, I’ve never thought that info-tech capitalist enterprises would enter into a direct payment system for artists’ personal explorations – except, perhaps, as isolated public relations efforts — much less support fully politicized critique. Getting back to your earlier question, S2G offers a way to think about culture in general after the wide spread of information technologies. It strikes me that we are all forced to engage with vastly broader ranges of reference than ever before, and that part of what we expect from the next generation of digital appliances is precisely the tools and methodologies to help us render meaning from the flux of information. Artists working in these areas may well be able to shake hands, as you say, with industrialists, but I’d recommend the artists bring intellectual property attorneys along with them to the meetings.

GL: In one of the best parts of the book, “Demo or Die,” you portray the digital artist being crushed between their machines — inherently unstable digital platforms — and their clients — ruthless transnational corporate capitalists. Instead of dismissing the demo as an unfinished attempt you are arguing that “the demo has become an intrinsic part of artistic practice.”   Have the art establishment and their critics discovered this genre?

PL: I think that artists understand better than one might assume the intrinsic importance of the demo aesthetic today. As I note in S2G, the demo is closely aligned with the “crit,” that staple of art school instruction in which students have to stand up and “defend” their work with colleagues and instructors. The contemporary art world has been dealing with the impermanence of performance for years, since at least the Happenings movement of the 1960s. As for design culture, I think that the expectation for commercial messages is so short that a demo aesthetic is almost built in: if the message sells, it stays, if it doesn’t, that message is gone.   Commercial culture has always lived by the Oulipian motto “prove motion by walking,” even if the average advertiser could care less about Parisian literary experiments.

GL: Could we compare the status of the demo with, for example advertisements and other commercial short films? What happened to web design? And what will be the faith of the current Flash craze and their demo artists?

PL: I think that Web design calcified incredibly quickly, but that had a lot to do with bandwidth-backwards compatibility. Once an entire generation gets on-line with DSL or better connections form the home, I think you’ll see another surge in Web design. I’m usually not so technologically deterministic about aesthetics, but in this case I think that the linkage is so strong between vision and bandwidth that the broadening of the pipe will bring about more design innovation. One of the utopian hopes that we all had for Web design was that the huge number of new voices entering the media would engender radical stylistic departures. On the other hand, the fact that so many of them are new to visual culture’s rich and dense history means that too many of them are repeating – often pallidly — other people’s proven strategies and successes. Too few Flash animators know enough about the history of animation beyond Disney films and last year’s motion graphics to sustain faith in anything beyond the “new.” I hope that S2G can remind people that it’s not enough to keep up with the tech, you truly have to love the art and its history (even if that love turns rabidly Oedipal and you want to set out to destroy all that came before you).

GL: Criticism and texts in general could as well have reached a “concept or die” level. Perhaps all texts are de facto hypertext, because they are read as such. Could you talk about this disintegration into “nano thoughts”?

PL: Like almost everyone who comes out of any kind of sustained discursive tradition, I’m wary of the ever more amorphous nano thoughts that fill the infosphere. But I strive to see if there is something to do about this besides keening for the lost era of 400-plus page books and well crafted essays. The Latin rhetorical term, “multim-im-parvo” or much-in-little, seemed to be one place to start. Like so many of my generation, I saw myself as a rediscoverer of McLuhan in the 80s and 90s, after his fall into obscurity in the 70s. He was fascinated by aphorisms, seeing them as probes that the reader needs to unpack and as a vastly more active than essays. It takes a sure hand to craft a compelling multim-im-parvo, though, and as I note in the book, even McLuhan – who was a master – flopped at least as often as he soared.

GL: You read this development in two ways: the first is the potential for increased density, as demonstrated with the aphorism or directed slogan, but the shadowside of this is the rise of vapor theory. Can you say something about the danger of vapor theorizing and at what point texts transform into neologism and sales talk?

PL: The failed aphorism is only one small part of the overarching category of what I came to call “vapor theory.” Vapor theory is a gaseous flapping of the gums about technologies, their effects and aesthetics, usually generated with little exposure, much less involvement with those self-same technologies and artworks. Vapor theory is one result of the historical condition in which new media emerged. There was an almost fully formed theoretical context for digital art and design even before they were fully functional as media technologies. This certainly did not happen with film, radio or television (though there are some parallels with artists’ video of the 60s and early 70s). The late 90s moment of overwhelming, and overweening, hype for the Web seems at last to have subsided, so perhaps that will temper the vapor theory as well. The increasing institutionalization of “cyber-studies” may sustain vapor theory, though, due to the ever-increasing velocity of academic job hunting and publishing for advancement.

GL: In your writings, body-centered bio science metaphors are remarkably absent. Nor do you criticize them.

PL: I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t want to live forever, so the central attraction of bio-blather – immortality — leaves me cold. I don ‘t want to have an endless dialogue with Extropians and associated noospheric hangers-on about the religious fervor that they bring to these issues, nor have I been particularly impressed by the work that artists have done in these areas. Too much of it falls into the “when we have the tools, the work we’ll make will be wonderful” school of mediocre art/tech. I’m fascinated by what Matthew Barney is doing with biology in his Cremaster films, but that’s far removed from what you’re asking me about. Perhaps my relative silence in this area is simply intellectual modesty. Just because digital technologies, about which I know something, have moved into the bio-sciences, about which I know little, should I venture cavalierly into this arena just for the pleasure of expressing an opinion?

GL: You just mentioned “art/tech.” Why do you think so many electronic artists are fascinated by this “arts meet science” discourse?

PL: I’m wary of the notion of the artist as research scientist prevalent in new media circles. At conferences, I hear artists going on about how they are now validated in their choice of art as a profession because scientists and engineers respect their “research,” and the fact that they are getting money from Intel. This attitude is incredibly odd. Collegiality is a wonderful thing, but in the final analysis, why should artists give damn about what engineers think about them? This “scientific method” is growing rapidly with the megaversity structure, in which artists who can create a practice that apes the forms of scientific research get hired and funded. They hire and fund others like themselves, and thereby build a peer network to evaluate the “results” of their work. This has gone hand in hand with the development of the arts practice-based Ph.D. in the UK and other parts of Europe. Most artists have some sort of “research” component to their own practice. But this research is generally only important as it relates to the work to which it contributes. There are some, select artists for whom the research is the work, but quite often they are working within a specifically conceptual framework and what they tend to explore ends up being the idea of research itself, rather than a specific topic (a metacritical project that is more ontological than empirical).

GL: Is this then just opportunism, an attempt to bring the artist to the level of the so-called neutral laboratory engineer/inventor, in effect to “increase” the perceived utility of art in an ever more technologized society?

PL: This gets straight to the heart of the matter: art can be “useful,” but the glory of it as a sphere of cultural production is that it does not have to be. Researchers and scientists are trained differently and have a different set of expectations for their work – there is an expectation of utility, and often of clarity (avoiding the detours of postmodern science wars for a moment). This whole artist-cum-scientist confusion reminds me of the 1980s when what we saw, especially in the United States, were artists-cum-social workers. For every innovative effort like Tim Rollins and KAOS there were a thousand dreary “community-based collaborative projects”   that existed for one reason and one reason only: to get money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) or local funding agencies. Originally, by putting in some vague pro-social rhetoric, artists could get some support for the work they really wanted to do, but then they came to see the funding scam as their whole reason for being. What began as something of a scam turned into an entire aesthetic. Then, during the “culture wars” of the late 80s and early 90s, conservatives in the U.S. Congress neutered the NEA and this entire brand of practice died out – though now I see some of the same people who went after the social work funding going after money and tech from hardware and software companies.

GL: Now that we’ve covered some of the movements you don’t like, what about the ones you do? The 60s and 70s avant-gardes – in art, cinema and literature –are very important to you. For decades, we have heard that the avant-garde was dead. Has this category risen up and returned in the figure of the digital artist?

PL: I’m very careful about using the term avant-garde, even as I spend a great deal of time looking at what other generations did indeed term avant-garde art and media. The very phrase “avant-garde” needs to be given a rest, like a good horse that has been ridden too hard for too long. When stylistic and technical “advances” come from all spectra of digital media production – commercial, artistic, scientific, academic, etc. – the notion we have inherited of a singular, oppositional avant-garde serves little purpose anymore. If our softwares, music videos, computer games and WAPs are all to be termed “avant-garde,” then that phrase has indeed been reduced to a marketing phrase like “revolution.” I do not see the digital artist as being an avant-gardist in any classical sense of solidarity or shared artistic destiny; and, in fact, too many mediocre talents have hung on to just such exhausted tropes to support their own, weak brands of practice.

GL: I like the way Snap to Grid treats 70s structuralist film as being of central concern to contemporary media art. One chapter is devoted to the work of Hollis Frampton. Do you see any continuity twenty five years later?   Or similarities compared to current digital media developments?

PL: I wrote about Frampton for a number of reasons. The first is simply out of admiration for his life’s work. He was able to meld rigorous art practice with far ranging and vital theorizations of his media, from photography to film to video to digital media. Like his contemporary, the protean conceptualist Robert Smithson, and those who followed this path like painter Peter Halley and video maker Gary Hill, Frampton offers theoretical texts that are supported by, and support in turn, a body of important artwork.   These kinds of artist’s writings offer ways out of and around the dead ends of too much mainstream, contemporary media theory. One of the things that drew me to digital media in the 90s was that same sense of artists creating the contexts and explications for their own works, on listserves, in catalogues, on conference panels, and – perhaps most of all – in bars around the world.

GL: One way that you have been working to develop context is by establishing Mediawork Pamphlets, a new book series for the MIT Press. You’re pairing writers with designers to create what you’ve called ‘zines for grownups. The first title is Brenda Laurel’s Utopian Entrepreneur, designed by Denise Gonzales Crisp. Is Laurel saying that access to venture capital is the latest human right?

PL: Not at all, the focus is less on how to get funding than what you should do after you’ve got it. Brenda’s trying to carve out a space within capitalism for social aspirations that go beyond personal ambitions. She’s proposing the term culture work as a description of the socially positive activities that take place in the huge chasm between the autonomous artist and the anonymous corporate hierarch.

GL: As I remember, Laurel was involved in more than her fair share of beautiful failures, but maybe that’s the utopian side, making the book an obligatory dotcom statement about the right to bankruptcy. In what sense do you see that new media artists’ involvement in tech venture has changed? Isn’t the well-praised synergy between “industry and the arts” a bad New Age dream?

PL: Utopian Entrepreneur wrests the language of commerce away from business people, who tend to write that turgid, self-promotional prose that we associate with “management manuals” like Who Moved My Cheese?. She discusses culture work as an antidote to precisely the fuzzy thinking that allowed us to imagine that there was so much surplus in the “new economy” that industry and the arts would become the same thing. This bad dream, as you call it, manifested itself in lots of different forms during the 1990s. Within the technology boom it was indeed New Agey, but in the art world, it had a distinctly Romantic flavor. A “beauty camp” — led by Las Vegas-based critic and curator Dave Hickey — began to demand that artists should embrace entertainment, and turn away from the mandarin complexities of conceptualism and theory.

GL: I feel that new media discourse is really at the crossroad now. The tech-driven downturn will force the emerging forces within new media culture to come up with sustainable models, beyond all the ups and downs of the IT-industry. What can we mine from the past decade of thinking about these issues to move forward? Are there aspects of ‘techno realism’ that we should embrace? What elements of the Wired‘s cowboy philosophy should be defended?

PL: It’s almost an exercise in mid-90s nostalgia to discuss “techno realism” — I can barely remember who went to what conference in which city to sign what document to decry what excess. As a movement, it offered neither the adrenaline rush of the machine fabulists or the humanistic reassurance of the neo-Luddites. Techno-realism was simply inert.   Talking about the Wired cowboys after the dotbust moves us from trivia to forensics. Rather than pick through the corpse, I’ll focus on one positive impact the magazine had: Wired’s founders looked at the media sphere and decided that none of the magazines they were(n’t) reading featured the people they were interested in, so they set out to create their own celebrities. They established an alternate world in which roboticists, game developers, and even Extropians were the “commodities” that drove the magazine.

GL: What about the libertarian dotcom philosophy? Is it still intact after the bubble has burst?

PL: Techno-libertarianism was never intellectually robust enough to merit being called a philosophy, it is more of an attitude. As long as there are successful loudmouths who believe that they owe nothing to the infrastructures by and through which they develop and market their products, we’ll have libertarians bloviating on talk radio. In 1994, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote Green Mars, the middle volume of his magnificent Mars trilogy, and offered a pointed description of libertarians as “minimalists [who] want to keep exactly the economic and police system that keeps them privileged… anarchists who want police protection from their slaves.”

GL: What do media theorists in recession do?

PL: I see the big tent metaphor dissolving. In flush times, there’s always the possibility that money alone will paper over fundamental differences. So artists and intellectuals did a kind of dance to get money from chip makers and design consultancies, and industrialists kept hoping that an “aesthetic dividend” would accrue to their bottom line if they let artists hang around. The big tent is fun while it lasts (I’ll admit to more than own share of junketeering), but when the circus moves on it encourages people to relinquish their fantasies of mutability and omnipotence. By this, I mean the way in which during the boom people began to believe the hype that the computer allows everyone to become everything. Under this digital alchemy, only those fools who don’t “get it” discuss limits.

GL: Do you see any counter-cyclical activities spurring up?

PL: The most important social movement of our time — the protest against globalization – is precisely an attempt to come to grips with limits while at the same time encouraging hope for the future. The culture in general seems to be more aware of the need to support infrastructures of all kinds. For close on three decades, people were promised that privatization could solve all their ills, but many of those ills still exist and new ones have emerged. I was impressed by a recent proposal by Rana Dasgupta out of the Indian Sarai new media institute. To develop a public domain audit for various countries, a counterpoint to the obsession rankings of GDPs and GNPs.   We need precisely this kind of alternative categorization of “the good” in order to move beyond the myopia of markets.

GL: Can we talk about the preoccupation of new media theory with “the” future? One thing I’ve noticed about your writing is that it tends to be encapsulated within existing reality. Is there such a thing as “Californian dreaming” which would take us to yet unknown places? Is it out of context to talk about and prototype media-driven utopias? Would dreaming be the opposite of nostalgia? Is there only an intensification of the present possible, and desirable?

PL: I don’t think I’m preoccupied with the future. I know I’m an enemy of nostalgia, and I’m pretty sure I’m victim of an obsession with the present.   My first “User” column for art/text magazine was called “Permanent Present,”   and concerns the way in which – for all the hype – our visual culture is not that much different than it was in the mid-80s, after the advent of the Mac’ s GUI and the impact of Blade Runner’s retro-deco aesthetic. I happen to loathe the idea of “futurism” as a discipline, and find myself much more interested in explicating “now” rather than the “next.” I prefer to encounter other people’s fantasies of mutable environments and interactive nanotech in science fiction rather than science-fictionalized discourse. I tend to keep my daydreams to myself.

GL: With Kodwo Eshun you are saying: everything still needs to be done. What is the role of the critic in all of this?

PL: I approach criticism as a way to elucidate that which I admire about art rather than simply trying to fit it into a preconceived straightjacket. I’d like to think that I’ve been able to explore that ferocious pluralism I mentioned earlier which so characterizes our era. This is disconcerting to those who pine for the certainties of movements, schools, or avant-gardes that marched in lockstep, one after the other. These days, you’re on your own, it’s up to the individual user to craft his or her own frameworks. Part of the job of the critic is to offer models for this process.

GL: Let’s go back to Californian dreaming. What about the specificities of Southern California? Is there a critical mass of new media theorists, artists and critics in LA-San Diego region? If so, how are they supporting themselves, is it mainly through institutions?

PL: Southern California has a tremendous wealth of resources for both the creation and the investigation of visual culture, especially as that visual culture becomes more involved with electronic, digital and networked technologies. Southern California has three of the top five film schools in North America (USC, UCLA, AFI); three of the top five places to study animation (Cal Arts, UCLA and USC); three top rated architecture departments (UCLA, USC, Cal Poly Pomona); the best independent architectural school in North America (SCI-ARC); and North America’s most concentrated high quality training in design and the fine arts (including Art Center, UCLA, CalArts, UCSD, UCI, Otis, and UCSB). All these institutions are within driving distance of each other. There is, therefore, already a body of visual intellectuals here – people making, thinking about, and writing on visual culture. Even more, these institutions and those who work in them are engaging ever more seriously with the relationship between the technologies of media production and their aesthetics. I founded mediawork: The Southern California New Media Working Group back in ’95 to enable theorists — Lev Manovich, Norman Klein, Phil Agre, Steve Mamber, Vivian Sobcheck and N.   Katherine Hayles – to come together with scientists –Ken Goldberg, Danny Hillis, Paul Haeberli, and Mike Noll; architects — Tim Durfee and Marcos Novak – mixed it up with curators like Carole Ann Klonarides; and graphic designers – including Rebeca Mendez and Somi Kim – shared a space with industrial designers like Lisa Krohn and artists ranging from Bruce Yonemoto to Jennifer Steinkamp to Diana Thater. LA is a place where you have to plan spontaneous events, so it’s both more complex and more rewarding to spark such interactions.

GL: In the context of discussing digital media, could we then speak of a renaissance in Southern California?

PL: Naissance, rather than renaissance, perhaps. When Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron wrote “The Californian Ideology,” it was a bang-up analyses of a certain brand of Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism and the mush of ideologies offered up in the pages of WIRED (remember when that magazine mattered?). But for some of us who were working here, the tone of the article rankled: “So far, the Californians have proved to be better at making virtual machines than social analyses.” This is a typical European attitude – the New World makes, the Old World thinks. This is as ridiculous coming from London as it would be from Paris (though I always felt that Barbrook and Cameron had a better sense of humor about their characterizations than did many of their readers, both in Europe and the US).

GL: You’ve talked in the past about the emergence of a SoftTheory in Southern California. Can you explain what you meant by that?

PL: SoftTheory attempts to build a methodology that critiques and explicates the present and that grounds its insights in the limitations as well as the potentials of these technologies. SoftTheory is the product of and producer of a high electronic culture. It engages with popular culture in all its forms, but does not attempt to become popular culture. It builds a fluid discourse about visual culture that is broad but rigorous, that has shared concerns but no totalitarian central meta-discourse. On the other side, this is not a high electronic culture built entirely around renunciation.   SoftTheory lives in, with and through these technologies in a particularly immersive Californian way. We are not deluded into thinking that 19th century analyses of industrial capitalism are sufficiently supple to engage with the post-industrial, interconnected world.

GL: How exactly is SoftTheory particularly appropriate for the West Coast.

PL: Let’s go through the stereotypes again. If Paris thinks and New York does (the French equation going back at least to de Touqueville), and New York characterizes itself as hard charging while demeaning LA as laid back (the popular image of SoCal crystallized by Woody Allen in Annie Hall), then SoftTheory is a pointedly ironic term for what we are doing. It allows us to preempt both the European criticisms of theoreticism and the East Coast’s condescension towards us as entertainment-addled victims of the spectacle. I ‘m hoping that a few years down the line, people realize how remarkable the body of work coming out of Southern California is. In addition to Heim’s prodigious thinking on VR, Agre’s monumental Red Rock Eater news service, and Hayles’s already renowned How We Became Post Human, look for Sobchack’s collection Metamorphing, and forthcoming volumes from Manovich on the language of new media and Klein on scripted spaces.

GL: We’ve been talking about institutions in general, but how would you program a digital Bauhaus today, what would it look like if you were to open such a school?

PL: I hope it would look like the department I’m already in. The Graduate Program in Media Design at Art Center College of Design develops professional design practice in the context of diverse media technologies. We investigate interactive design theory, tools, user experience, and cultural context. While developing core design competencies, we try to be flexible enough so that the curriculum responds to evolution in the field and prepares students for careers of continuing innovation. It is a two year program. During the first year, students engage with the history and theory of new media in seminars, hone their production skills in studios, learn directly from visiting designers and artists, and devote a large percentage of their time to the Super Studio, a team-oriented group project. During the second year, the seminars and studios are devoted to more specific issues that dovetail with the students’ own research interests. The Super Studio serves as both preparation and model for the student’s individual master’s project, facilitating a connection between group and personal work. I’d like to think that the students will be able to distinguish themselves as practitioners, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and even design intellectuals.   That’s what we’ve been building towards for the past five years, in fits and starts. One of my contributions is to try to keep the enthusiasm flowing.

GL: How would you summarize your approach, then?

PL: In the end, what I try to do in my classes, in writings like S2G, and through public discourses like mediawork, is to combine the object and artist specific discourses we inherit from the criticism and history of art with the more systemic analyses that developed in the study of media like film and television. When I was a kid, I read a series of tall tales about a small town boy named Homer Price. In one story, a nefarious con man came to Centerburg to sell an invisible powder that when sprinkled on anything made it “ever so much more so” whatever you liked about it. Donuts would taste ever so much more so like donuts, bikes would ride ever so much more so like bikes, etc. (I was too young at the time to think about its immediate application to sex, but that’s another story). I always loved that powder, even though, or perhaps precisely because, it was bogus. Paul Foss, the publisher of art/text, has said that there is an underlying theme of faith to my “User” columns – faith in art, faith in faith, faith in something, even if as ineffable as the invisible powder. Overall, my work runs counter to the nostalgia of both left and right. I prefer to spend my critical capital figuring out what makes right now so compelling. I am forever in search of the strategies, media and artists who will make what I think of as our future/present “ever so much more so.”