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Cinema as a Cultural Interface


The following is an attempt at both a record and a theory - of the present. Just as film historians traced the development of film language during cinema's first decades, I want to describe and understand the logic driving the development of the language of computer media. It is tempting to extend this parallel a little further and to speculate whether today this new language is already getting closer to acquiring its final and stable form, just as film language acquired its "classical" form during the 1910's. Or are the 1990's more like the 1890's, because future computer media language will be entirely different than the one used today? In either case, by trying to understand which cultural forces are shaping the development of this language, we may be in a better position both to predict its future course as well as to offer different alternatives. For just as avant-garde filmmakers throughout cinema's existence offered alternatives to its particular narrative audio-visual regime, the task of an avant-garde computer artist today is to offer alternatives to the existing language of computer media. This can be better accomplished if we have a theory of how "mainstream" language is currently structured.

Does it make sense to theorize the present when it seems to be changing so fast? It is a gamble. If subsequent developments prove the theoretical projections of this text to be correct, I win. But, if the language of computer media develops in a different direction than the one suggested by the present analysis, this does not mean that I automatically lose. Rather, the analysis presented here will become a record of possibilities which were heretofore not realized, of the horizon which was visible to us today but later became unimaginable.

We no longer think of the history of cinema as a linear march towards only one possible language, or as a progression towards more and more accurate verisimilitude. Rather, we have come to see its history as a succession of distinct and equally expressive languages, each with its own aesthetic variables, each new language closing off some of the possibilities of the previous one - a cultural logic not dissimilar to Kuhn's analysis of scientific paradigms.

Similarly, every stage in the history of computer media offers its own aesthetic opportunities, as well as its own imagination of the future - in short, its own "research paradigm." This paradigm is modified or even abandoned at the next stage. In this paper I want to record the "research paradigm" of new media during its first decade before it slips into invisibility.

Article  1997