michael naimark




Artclass Presentation, Universities of Paris

Michael Naimark


(Logging in from Paris, where today it's springtime but it still drizzles.)

This afternoon I gave a two hour presentation organized jointly by Ann-Marie Duguet of Université Paris 1 and Jean-Louis Boissier of Université Paris 8, both from their respective schools' art departments. Ann-Marie is currently teaching a class on the role of the spectator in tech-based contemporary art, Jean-Louise on the aesthetics of interactivity. They requested in advance that I should feel free to discuss theoretical topics as well as show my work.


I did show the basic "Naimark video," long version: short documentations of 14 projects over a 15 year period (ending with a rough video of the Banff kinetoscope system), but began with a provocation.

I asserted that from where I see things, there are currently three fundamentally different views of representation (at least as it relates to presence) and that I will intentionally frame these distinctions from a Northern Californian perspective (the students, I said, are encouraged to consider how this compares to their European philosophical groundwork):


Seminal paper: Ivan Sutherland, "The Ultimate Display," 1965.

Belief that representations can be indistinguishable from their subjects and that it's merely a technological problem to do so. Abstraction and artifacts are bad. Solution is more bandwidth. Very Western. Assumes an objective reality. Self (as producer) is to be minimized; gets in the way.

Communities include: VR community, Silicon Valley, MIT, Siggraph, etc.

Pros: well, HDTV DOES look "realer" to most folks when asked, as does 3D over 2D, IMAX over TV, etc.

Cons: abdicates artistic and editorial responsibility of the producer. You hear it in VR and multimedia circles "I didn't have to make any decisions, it's ALL there for YOU to chose." The fact is this is almost never true. The reply is "but some day . . ."


Seminal Paper: Alan Watts, "Zen and the Arts," in "The Way of Zen," 1957.

Belief is it's never possible so why bother? The goal in representation is always "knowing when one said enough." Abstraction and artifacts are good. Very Eastern. Assumes a subjective reality. Self (as producer) is interpreter.

Communities include: anyone happily working in traditional media: poets, writers, most painters and sculpters, some filmmakers, etc.

Pros: contentment with current means, not constantly frustrated with inadequacies of the medium. The result is often obvious and elegant (e.g., Sumi-e ink landscapes).

Cons: most folks can't deny a jaw-dropping impact from highest-res media, be it IMAX or Onyx, or the special-venue theaters at Worlds' Fairs and theme parks.


Seminal book: Marshall McLuhan, "Understanding Media," 1965.

Belief that it's nonsense to separate medium from content. Some abstraction and artifacts are good, others are detrimental. It all depends.

Communities include: high-tech folks who respect content and high-content folks who respect tech.

Pros: synthesizes the two opposing views above.

Cons: it's tough getting both sides to lighten up.

OK, I knew this crowd reads VR books and Wired, so the first zinger was laying Watts on them. It was a close call between early cyberneticists (many of whom made references to Eastern Thought) and Watts (who explicitly discussed how cybernetics was similar in spirit to Zen) for the same point. I chose Watts and elaborated: San Francisco, East-meets-West, beatniks, Esalan, hippies, ecology movement, mind drugs, the counterculture.


(Compiled from live questions and discussion afterwards, leading into dinner.)

Not sure they bought my assertion that Eastern Thinking plays an important role as alternative views to pro-tech/pro-VR. Then the discussion turned toward cultural comparisons of the word "abstract."

I started scribbling notes on the paper placemat.

"Abstraction," several French students insisted, means "to take something out," as in "'X' is abstracted of meaning" (meaning "'X' is no longer recognizable"). I was surprised, since its common usage here is "X" is the abstraction of "Y" (meaning "X" is the important essence of "Y"). They further insisted that "an abstract," like at the beginning of a paper, is rare in traditional French culture, and when it exists it's usually referred to as a "contraction" or a "resume." When I asked about "abstract painting," they said yes this is an ambiguous meaning.

Then we discussed the word "artifact." I asserted that artifact has a positive connotation when referring to art and culture and a negative one when referring to, say, computer graphics. They said there really is no equivalent in French, that it is a "very English" idea.

(By the way these students are not shoot-from-the-hip "art students" who lack academic rigor and just talk about art, but well-read philosophy-leaning grad students.)

Then we discussed the word "artifice." I said my only recollection of its usage in recent memory was in a Wired article by Stewart Brand ("Creating Creating"), where it's use was definitely negative. They said it's commonly used in French to mean "illusionistic" and "scheming," e.g., "a woman full of artifice" (their example). But they also said it can be used to mean "calculating" in a positive sense, and is often used in the context of art and technology, particularly simulation. The French translation of "fireworks" is "feu artifice," for example.

Exhausted at this point, I asked them what they thought of Beavis and Butthead. They hadn't a clue what I was talking about. They get MTV, but a European version, apparently programmed differently (which they do watch). I said it was so popular it's now on MTV nightly, and amply used in mainstream American culture.

They started scribbling notes.