Conversations on Digital Aesthetics
Synopsis of the Erfurt Discussions
This essay was first published in: p0es1s. Ästhetik digitaler Poesie/The
Aesthetics of Digital Poetry, ed. by Friedrich W. Block, Christiane
Heibach, Karin Wenz, Ostfildern 2004, pp. 37-56. This version has been
slightly modified in the notes and the references.
Discourses on the significance of the new media and their aesthetic
implications—how they are manifested within interactive media art, computer
art and literature, and net art and literature—have developed in recent
years in different groups: a common occurrence with regard to humanities
discussions. These groups are often not at all related to one another,
especially if they form within different cultural contexts (i.e., countries).
In addition, at least in Germany, there is a division one could almost
call traditional between theorists and practitioners, between those
who try to describe, interpret, and comprehend art and literature scientifically
and the artists who conceive and carry out aesthetic projects. The aim
of the p0es1s symposium that took place in 2001 at the University of
Erfurt was to resolve these divisions and bring together artists and
representatives of different theoretical schools, and get them involved
in a common discourse. The symposium was thus conceived to allow sufficient
time for conversations. Short blocks of presentations were followed
by lengthy discussion periods. These very intensive discussions were
fundamental in nature. The productive heterogeneity of the participants
led to a dynamic that developed in almost every block from specific
to general themes to fundamental issues which, on the surface, often
did not at first have much to do with classical aesthetic issues of
the literary and art sciences. This trend to get down to basics is easy
to explain; it clearly demonstrates why academic discourse on media
theory and aesthetics today can still offer hardly any satisfactory
models for adequately describing the effects of the cultural media shift
from a book culture to an informational society and the media substantially
involved. Only in very rare cases are one’s own perspectives and the
related basic assumptions and phenomenon models made transparent, and
hardly any effort is made to define the basic terms.
These problems made up the focus of the Erfurt discussions and consequently—as
is possible only in face-to-face conversations—all participants had
to be very clear about their own terms and basic assumptions. Despite
the diversity of positions, this led to an atmosphere that encouraged
fruitful conversations. Although the discussions did not lead directly
to any solutions, they did reveal potential directions and dimensions
in registering the complexity of the phenomenon of the new media and
their aesthetic characteristics, whether through art projects or theories.
But how can the essential themes and issues—as well as the positions
that crystallized during the course of the event—avoid the fleetingness
of the moment, which is inevitably part of face-to-face conversations?
As organizers of the symposium and editors of this book, we decided
to transcribe the discussions that had been taped and summarize their
main points in this article. However, my own perspective also flows
into this summary, not least because of the structure I use here, which
is based on a theory presented in greater detail elsewhere.
I think digital poetry and net art and literature can be viewed from
three perspectives: ontology (structure of the medium), epistemology
(processes for generating, displaying, and processing information),
and the networking of communicators (Heibach 2003).
These three perspectives also determine the essential topics of discussion
(without their having been systematically formulated in that way).