The Observer's Role in New Media Art Work
New media works of art present a unique opportunity to change the mode and position of the observer. In many ways this action mirrors the constructivism approach in Cybernetics, that is, a “philosophy in which models are not passive reflections of reality, but active constructions by the subject” (Heylighen and Joslyn 2). It is this ability to question or control ourselves and others' observational position which is metaphysical, and drives one to discern where and why we might be placed in works of art. My intention in this writing is to make clear that time can be 1. instantiated within new media, which is an affirmation of second-order effects by the observer. And 2. allows for the position of an observer to be non-passive, meta-affirmative, and ascendant of democratic power in value.
The Non-Passive Observer
New forms of media are containers for earlier ones. Novels derive from oral histories, radio from live music, and cinema from theater. We should expect nothing different from new media works of art as derivatives of traditional works of art. What once was static and fixed can now be remixed and delivered in massively diverse ways. Their modularity, openness to automation, variability, and transcoding produce the variant of time that we have been missing from traditional art. This missing link formally aligns as a reflection of second-order cybernetic systems, or ones that embed the observer into active participation.
Historically having been focused on new control and technologies, the system designer determined what the cybernetic system will do. This approach was lacking in mechanistic controls for self organizing cognition and the role of the observer in modeling a system (3). A painting hanging on the walls of your local museum are representations of what the artist has designed, many times with the observer's expected position and response in their control. Despite any interpretation the observer may have over this work, it continues to provide only one observational stance, that solely of the designer.
We must not get too eager to assume that all new media works take advantage of breaking away from this entanglement. Consider Nam June Paik's “TV Buddha”, see fig.1, in which at least one of the observers is the object observing itself. While the artist has forsaken traditional media it still sits awaiting the observer's presence and despite any prejudice those observations may bring upon it, we are still only looking at a model which can not react to the human observer. Paik has successfully created a feedback loop, but the work has remained a passive thing. This is not a critique of Paiks work, but a clarifying point. It is not that the work forgets to display itself as a system and agent into itself, but that it lacks clear change to one that also interacts with the agent observer (4).
Given that new media can transcode over time, even unto itself, it has the ability to allow for active participation. Beeples recent installation of “Human One” - the first human born in the metaverse, see fig.2, is a prime example in utilizing time within the artistic design. The artwork continuously evolves over the course of the artist's life. There is also an element of discovery made available to the observer. Beeple hides visual clues that unlock new Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT). These NFTs are keys that bind moments of change and time in the sculpture. This is in stark contrast to our perceptions of traditional artwork which may certainly change over time, but those works of art can not change because of our perceptions.
Metaphysics of the Observer
There is something imperative to reveal about second-order involvement with observer positioning in both cybernetic systems and new media works of art. In Cybernetics, the level of complexity that system-observer interaction creates ultimately leaves us presented with a meta entrapment, where the observer and the observed become one. The systems become cybernetics of cybernetics. In art, the works become inseparable from the observer who must assume the arduous task of being with the artist and their art. They are allowed to be dismissed from an introspective agency without penalty and thus required to decide on participating or not participating. Both of which have equal representation in the outcome of value.
In the public talk given by Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1946, a solution is proposed to avoid further nested observation by adding perspective to the artist creator as an adept orchestrator that builds stimulants for introspective observations. This form of discovery for Krishnamurti is necessary for self-awareness and creates a path to "intelligence that can resolve any of our problems and sorrows.” I don’t think this is explicitly perceived in “Human One" right away. Parallel to the participation element is an obvious presentation - but one that displays an intelligent system within an infinitely designable world. This world lives safely outside of our vulnerabilities and thoughts. It is a place where we can change our entirety while remaining untethered to our need for continuity. A desolate wasteland of emptiness without fear of being anxiously alone.
At one point in the lecture, two questions are asked. Is there any difference between awareness and that of which we are aware? Is the observer different from their thoughts? This line of thinking would likely direct you to arrive at a strong consideration, even if the observer denies participation they are making a choice of passive participation. One that may be a dismissal from the artwork's intended design. However, if the observer recognizes the possibilities of a world outside their own and has a desire to successfully connect with it, perhaps they find themselves as not just observers of a design, but as part of that expected position that has effect on the work.
Active participation in unlocking the visual keys through the “Human One” experience is only a fracture of recognizing the powerful ability to take effect in a metaverse world. This is a container world that derives from our own, but one that has infinite possibility of creation without problem, without sorrow. Therefore, it should be of concern that If cybernetics fails to do what it set out to do, which is to regulate our governing systems, who’s to say we won’t and shouldn’t leave this system for another. After all, who doesn’t prefer unprejudiced enlightenment and euphoria over civil scars and environmental despair. Change is made available in new media, but only as the representation of time and in some instances the observer's participation in that change.
The Observers Power in Artistic Value
I want to talk about the trust economy, because I think it ties into the next container of cybernetics which is the metaverse (derivative from the physical environment). More recently with artists like Beeple, we have seen an increase in digital art and artificial intelligence value perception, backed by the Non-Fungible token. This signals a pivot to recognize that contemporary observers of new media in fact do find within it an aesthetic value, an artistic value, and an economic value.
Not everyone is behind NFT currency, but this likely is not a reflection of judgment against those observers of the work, but simply a line on the ground in front of cryptocurrency in general. In the published article, The Artistic and the Aesthetic Value of Art, Thomas Kulka proposes that the value of art goes beyond its aesthetic value, for when we evaluate a work of art we consider a great deal more than its aesthetic merits (Kulka 336). Let’s use this to un-package this important consideration, change as a reflection of time democratizes value through the observer as a participant. Trust markets rely on empowering people to make meaningful connections. In the past we have placed our trust in conservators, curators, and historians to tell us what valuable works of art should be on the walls of our museums. Society is showing trends that we may be walking away from that paradigm. Dismissing art historians for the democratization of artistic value, and likewise, the stock market for the crypto market.
Many works that could be in museums are masterfully graffitied on the side of abandoned buildings. So much value was democratized around those types of work by the general public, which eventually changed the minds of the mainstream echelon of museums and collectors. Ripping works out of the walls in which they were created only to sell to other collectors at a gain - sometimes without the artist's permission. The historical artist gives no contemporary permissions to the values which develop from the sell offs in the future art world. Certainly those gains do not return back to the artist that built the value to begin with. NFT decentralized this model. Greatly due to the capability of new media works in the art world. Yes, we limit or govern some of that mass producibility within new media art, but the power that is returned to the creator and the observer by marking a ledger at a specific time of interaction is worth acknowledging.
Beeple’s “Human One” explicitly awards active observers who discover keys within the evolving work with ownership of that value. He is not splitting aesthetic value from economic value, rather he is ledgering that the two are in fact woven together. Value has always been looked at as a principle or standard that is important or desirable, or that of some relative estimate in worth. In our economics it is often the value in an open market of supply and demand. NFT takes this a bit further to include subjective quotient, utility, and provenance (Ibrahim, “How to Assess the Value of an NFT (Non Fungible Token)?”). Objective values separate from those subjective values in which belief or perception could be part of the model. But, how are we to move past philosophical study of standards if we can not include our subjective beliefs with objectivity? Traditional cybernetics and works of art remain in that state of objective systems. While new media and second-order cybernetics are proven relative from value by being transmitted through the NFT currency. This value can change, but will not come unlocked from the work of new media itself. It is consistent enough in contracting the connection of the observer's value to the work of art that we create trust as a reference to a specific moment in time.
Course Correcting Cybernetics
Art reflects our society and culture. It looks at paradigm and opens conversation shifts through demonstration and thought exercise. This is something cybernetics also aspires to accomplish. The problem with traditional cybernetics, as we discussed earlier, is that they are passive reflections of reality. Second order perspective is now firmly ingrained in the foundations of cybernetics overall (Heylighen and Joslyn, 4). Similarly we can look at how traditional art works differentiate from new media in which gain of readily available and instantiated time is significant.
These works are particularly good at showing observers in positions of active change, introspection, and value ownership. In other words, they are a desired model for second-order cybernetics. The observer and the observed cannot be separated. In new media, the observer's role is a result of observations that depend on their interactions which allow the observer to recognize its own position and effect within the system (4). These systems provide certificates of time to our observers and simultaneously precedent new opportunities for an economy of trust within the art world again.
Heylighen, Francis, and Cliff Joslyn. “Cybernetics and Second-Order Cybernetics” Encyclopedia of Physical Science & Technology, 3rd ed., Academic Press, 2001, http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/Cybernetics-EPST.pdf. Accessed 2022.
Krishnamurti, Jiddu. “The Observer Is the Observed.” Ojai, California, 6th Public Talk. https://jiddu-krishnamurti.net/en/1945-1948-observer-is-observed/krishnamurti-the-observer-is-the-observed-46-06. Accessed 22 May 2022.
Tomas Kulka, The Artistic and the Aesthetic Value of Art“The Artistic and the Aesthetic Value of Art”, The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 21, Issue 4, Autumn 1981, Pages 336–350, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjaesthetics/21.4.336
Ibrahim, Afzal. “How to Assess the Value of an NFT (Non Fungible Token)?” The Artist, 2 Apr. 2022, https://www.theartist.me/art/how-value-of-nft-explained/.