DIGITAL ART AND MEANING: Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations

Roberto Simanowski
University of Minnesota Press ($25)

by Chris Funkhouser

Digital Art and Meaning begins by responding to Roy Ascott’s concept of “telematic embrace,” challenging the general proclivity to assign production of meaning solely to an artwork’s audience; to the contrary, this book boldly proclaims how it “embraces the advances of the critic.” In various ways, Roberto Simanowski precisely uses his pro-critical stance to assemble a rejection of the common notions of “embrace” that occur as media and art are blended, establishing a polemic that privileges a “methodology” of close reading that resists its more imposing or absolutist implications.

Simanowski bestows high expectations on his subject, which he scrutinizes with intellectual rigor. His knowledge of the foremost issues of digital expression, explored through chapters focused on Digital Literature, Kinetic Concrete Poetry, Text Machines, Interactive Installations, Mapping Art, and Real-Time Web Sculpture, is global. Simanowski successfully addresses the main concerns of digital artistry and writing, using examples of relevant works such as Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv’s Text Rain, Eduardo Kac’s Genesis, and Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s Listening Post (to name only a fraction of works explored) to illustrate how new aesthetic possibilities serve to make meaning for audiences. Further, while outlining the interpretive skills necessary for approaching contemporary works, he cultivates cognitive methods readers can use to develop competency in reading mediated expression in a range of forms. If that isn’t enough to attract attention to the book, Simanowski’s personal passion for tango also plays a small but interesting role in the narrative.

Digital Art and Meaning accurately proclaims the importance of paying attention to, “what can be done on the level of code to understand and assess the semantics of a digital artifact” as well as “to the specificities of particular works.” Readers interested in both succinct articulations about finite creative details and theoretical considerations of the subject will be pleased. Simanowski, while offering insightful practical observations on artworks, also builds larger historical frameworks; for instance, the chapter on Concrete Poetry dwells on its relationship to thebaroque. Likewise, beyond examining semantics on a linguistic level, this book proceeds to examine the “semantics of the link” and other aspects of artistic exchange, providing a deeper understanding of mechanisms many readers (or viewers) may not be mindful of. “Digital literature,” writes Simanowski, “is only digital if it is not only digital”; today we must “read not only the words but also what happens to them.” As do several other high profile critics, he delves into how bodies play a role in the reception of work—ostensibly because a culture of meaning has become a culture of presence, which we bodily occupy—yet by acknowledging “bodily sensation and experience must not be our final consideration,” and touching on many other issues (including erotics and the avant-garde) he successfully expands discourse on the subject.

Simanowski displays an exemplary ability to connect process and result in digital artworks. At its most theoretical moments, his arguments become less tangible (and perhaps lose importance) for a general audience, and the work necessary to traverse these sections may not be rewarded by relative substance for everyone. Nonetheless, with regard to its perspective on the performance of language—a primary concern in digital and electronic literature—the book introduces valuable new perspectives. It would be impossible for a single observer to right, in hindsight, the critical wrongs (or misconceptions) of those writing before him, but Simanowski’s overall expansion of the methodological framework, in every discussion attending to multiple levels of inquiry, without question has the positive impact of beginning to point the critical fields in digital art and writing towards a more pluralistic, comprehensive orientation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012