Practices of Construction

This year I have been doing a lot of listening to the now all-inclusive field of “digital media art.” I regularly read the blog HTMLGIANT for insight into how fiction and poetry writers are adapting to the changes digital culture brings to literary form. In a recent conversation between Blake Butler and Matthew Simmons about David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Blake had this to say:

“… while I enjoyed Shields’s book, and could see it bringing benefits to those who haven’t thought so much about escaping the undoubtedly dead scene of traditional narrative lit, I’d much rather have seen the book act less as a manual or a ‘manifesto’ and more as the kind of amorphous, transfixing objects that he calls for. This is more a syllabus, less an art….All that said, a syllabus can be a great thing. I wish there’d been more feelers that escaped the book, transcended it, rather than a kind of diatribe. ” -Blake Butler

I was also (sadly) underwhelmed by Reality Manifesto. It traces only part of the history of constructing art from contingent reality. Shields hardly mentions the de-mythologizing influences of cinema and networked culture on narrative form. Hasn’t blogging and video blogging done it’s share of breaking down our sense of reality into bite-sized, multimodal fragments? What really surprised me was Shields’ dismissal of fiction-making as a still vital and powerful art. Just ask BP about the power of fiction. It is not the fabrications of fiction vs. contingent reality that is the issue. It is how artists arrive at the structures of their creations that is changing.

In his Poetics of Cinema 2, in a chapter called Structure and Construction, Raul Ruiz writes:

“Structure relates to the creation of the work, taken as a singular entity; while construction concerns the film in relation to the many circumstances that interact with it, throughout its making; during the many processes that will allow it to surface. That is, its relation with that which is near and far.” -Raul Ruiz

It is this “near and far”, the othernesss that intrudes on “the plan,” that is so hard to pin down in an artist’s statement or teach in the classroom, much less welcome inside the creative process. So much of our training in making things is industrial: pre-production, production, post-production; outline, draft, final draft. And yet, our lives have become more and more influenced by Black Swans.

I get great pleasure in contemplating the structures of art – videos, paintings, novels, poems, movies. So when I embark on my own art project, if structure isn’t clear, I start doubting my choices and the project stumbles. But then sometimes, something happens. I let go of my own plans and start listening for the works’s own desired shape. I start constructing. Good structure is grown inside the contingent circumstances of the work’s construction. It is a dynamic of mind, body and materials.

If we give up worrying about structure and all that that it implies – mediums, genres, markets, audiences – and instead look to practices of construction, we might find that digital art wants to be something very different than most models of (popular and high) art in the industrial age.

For example, we know digital art wants speed. It wants to be free or cheap. It wants to be social so that it gets attention. It wants novelty so that it acts like an eddy in the rush of information. It may even want to alter our senses with “mutant percepts and affects” (Guattari), or at least do something that a steady diet of information bits cannot do.

If we abandon knowable forms in favor of hybrid monsters, where do we look for models? Avant-garde and modernist practices, barthesian fragmentation and delluezian rhizomes – where to start? The history is there and will be (re)taught in schools and universities as economies (once again) shed 19th century models of mind and reality. But let’s not mistake storytelling for structure as we create new digital forms.

I’ll leave you with the constructions of Michael Robinson. He has taken remix art to a different level by building improbable and beautiful enigmas of sound, text and image. His cinema is made of the shells of past structures and re-purposed into hybrid monsters. But instead of being diatribes against the mythic past, they weave stories from an inhuman future. Dark and good. Enjoy.

VICTORY OVER THE SUN from Michael Robinson on Vimeo.