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Roberto Simanowski  (Brown) Against the Embrace. On Phenomenology and Semiotics in New Media Aesthetics

In In his 1990 essay “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?”, British artist and self proclaimed “visionary theorist” Roy Ascott updates his concept of “Behaviorist Art”, proposed more than 20 years before, stating: the traditional artwork, which “requires, for its completion, the viewer as, at best, a skilled decoder or interpreter of the artist’s ‘meaning’ […] gives rise to the industry of criticism and exegesis, in which those who ‘understand’ this or that work of art explain it to those who are too stupid or uneducated to receive its meaning unaided.” As the quote reveals, what is at stake in behaviourist, interactive art is not only the work of the artist but also that of the critic. While the ‘democratization’ of the production of the work in modern media art seems to fulfill old utopian expectations regarding new media, Ascott’s utterance raises two central questions: Why should an interactive work not be the subject of criticism and exegesis? Does interaction automatically supply its viewers with education rendering the assistance of critical and pedagogical professionals dispersible in any attempt to understand the meaning of a work? Ascott represents a particular point of view that is manifest in many approaches to interactive art, one that is marked by the unconditional ‘embrace’ of the event and materiality of the artwork and the resulting rejection of the critic. Interactive art is often conceived as a turn from content to event, from the communication of a message to the production of a space that inaugurates dialogue, or from the private symbolic space that traditional art provides to a period of experiential time that asks to be lived through. Yet such an approach often neglects that the inaugurated dialogue and lived through time itself embodies a symbolic space on which we may reflect. Meanwhile, the abandonment of reflection is in line with certain statements of aesthetic theory, which object to an overemphasis on content or to the exclusive role of hermeneutics in Western culture, favouring an attention to the materiality of the signifier over any examination of its deeper meaning. Such a move “against interpretation,” such a “farewell to interpretation”--to invoke the titles of two relevant essays by Susan Sontag and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht--can be understood as a corrective, opposed to a hermeneutics that weaves every element of an artefact into a net of meaning, taming the work of art through rationalization, as Sontag puts it in her essay. The response to the dominance of the Cartesian paradigm – which is also a response to the experience of the “postmodern condition” – resulted in an aesthetics of the sublime (Lyotard), the performative (Fischer-Lichte, Mersch) and the presence (Gumbrecht), which all more or less favour the quod (event) over the quid (meaning) and partly lead to a quasi-religious exultation of the moment. My essay discusses this development in aesthetic theory with respect to digital media art. I hold that especially interactive art requires attention to its phenomenological materiality and the event of its production. I also hold, however, that an approach to art beyond interpretation is not a particularly promising way to develop the discourse of a new object of critical attention such as interactive art within new media. I argue that the formation of media literacy eventually requires a move from phenomenology to semiotics, from description to interpretation and exemplify such move with respect to one or two works of new media art.