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FleshFactor: virtuosity



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A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"
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Richard Brown concluded his latest article with:

>FleshFactor lapped up the "can machines think, are we machines" debate -
>can this in itself be interpreted objectively?  It's the why's and
>wherefore's that are not being addressed - looking at the expressions we
>are making via the medium of machines may be more revealing - a mirror of
>our times and an indication, a litmus of our possible futures, errors of
>our ways, counselling for all. 

The dialogues of FleshFactor have taken place accross several overlapping
dimensional latices.  At the end of his text, Richard notes that the topic
of living vs. animate mechanical systems has been a recent favorite.  Tom
Sherman and a few others, on several occasions, have addressed notions of
transparent vs. conspicuous technology.  At the beginning, there was,
relatively speaking, much more play given to the hierarchical vs.
horizontal social implications of networking technologies.  Of course
these are not the only concepts to which FleshFactorians have dedicated
time and processing power.  There are many many more dimensions subtly
nestled into this long ongoing dialogue/publication.  But I am currently
surprised by a lack of discussion engaged across one particular dimension: 
virtuosity of tool usage vs. endeavors of democratization. 

Back in the pre-techno days of industrial dance music, Al Jorgenson (sp?)
of Ministry (and many other WaxTrax projects) repeatedly told interviewers
that "[his was the future of music.]"  He envisioned a day when anyone,
including the most old-fashioned of schoolmarms, liberated by samplers and
the personal computer, could and would be making (industrial) music.  My
formal art education which followed reinforced these notions of
democratization of the creative arts. 

Several professors described video arts as cheap and easy to use.  One
need only point and shoot.  As long as you pointed the camera in the right
direction, you were sure to get something.  Meanwhile, the desktop
publishing revolution was in full swing.  Fanzines, stickers, and fliers
were coming out of our ears.  The web was just beginning to branch and
blossom--but already, much was being said about its potential to liberate
broadcast media production into the hands of the masses.  Almost
immediately, people started posting pictures of a personal nature--like
those of family picnics and pet iguanas.  (I wonder how this fervor
compares to the one experienced in the Americas over 16mm cameras at the
end of World War II.)  Even in the painting department, schools of thought
butted heads over why, where, what, and how one should paint in this
image-coated society.  Central to all these discussions was the felt
presence of new and available imaging and distribution technologies.

In the wake of all this, especially in painting, there was a lot of
discussion of "Why engage the practice of the hand?"  Why explore
virtuosity?  (Additionally, in the early nineties, waves of hype regarding
contemporary studio systems with artists as directors and assistants as
craftsmen began washing over the student community.) The message from one
side was strong and clear: decide what to shoot and let something or
someone else record it.  Throughout my college years, the intricacies of
this dialogue excited me. 

Up until college, my experience of contemporary art was rather sheltered. 
Since my late childhood, I had lived in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Ann Arbor is an educated community with a lingering liberal reputation.
But as it is in so many mid-western American locations, a majority of
contemporary art forms and practices are hard to come by.  Here, there is
a lot of cultural pressure for decorative arts.  Paintings are to be
either majestic and/or rendered.  Sculptures are to stand as evidence of
skillful labor.  Ansel Adamesque photography gets a lot of attention.  For
many members of the community, video has yet to prove itself as an art.
Meanwhile, digital multimedia has leapfrogged the galleries straight into
shopping mall kiosks and onto "enhanced [music] cd's."  In general, art is
expected to be as interactive as an elevated altarpiece.  (I find all this
in Ann Arbor, in spite of what is usually a pretty good 16mm film
festival!)

Needless to say, I found collegiate dialogues of exploration,
experimentation, and the ultimate democratization of the arts quite
liberating.  It wasn't that I couldn't do the kind of work people back in
Ann Arbor expected.  An adept and gentle illustrative hand is what brought
me to art school in the first place.  But by my second year in college, I
was downright bored with rendering.  And by my third year I had altogether
abandoned my initial touch in favor of a cruder and harsher hand.  My
reasoning was two-fold.  First off, art school had truly "liberated" me. 
For years I had found powerful beauty in many aesthetic moments that lay
outside the realm of "pretty."  Second, with a bit of encouragement, I had
convinced myself that macho displays of virtuosity only detract from the
democratization of the creative arts, and ultimately from the
democratization of society.  Though holding back my hand has become second
nature for me, I continue to struggle with the role these ideals play in
my work and my career. 

Ironically, it is not art which has inspired me to contemplate virtuosity
today.  Instead, it is my golf game.  This is my first season golfing. 
Only now, after a couple months, am I beginning to physically understand
the sport.  When I make a good drive ("good" for me is still just over 200
yards and straight), I now feel it before it happens.  The moment is
difficult to describe because it is without words.  My head is clear. 
Though I am not exactly "one" with the golf club, I do feel in my arms, my
hips, my calves and wrists when the club will strike the turf.  I know its
reach.  I know its weight.  There is a familiar grove for each club being
worn into my motions.  I visually know where to line up the head of the
club with the ball to counter inaccuracies in my swing.  I know all this
and much much more--but I know it only with my body--not with my verbal
mind.  In fact, the minute I think a word--any word--I lose it all. 

When I first began feeling this, it struck me how similar this felt to
when I used to paint, draw, and sculpt.  Out there on the green, walking
between plays, I began thinking about FleshFactor.  I contemplated the
differences between understanding something as a tool versus as a machine.
When my swing was on--my club was just a tool.  I began to consider
others' relationships with technology.  I thought about pro-sports and how
there is no option for democratization there.  A pro-athlete without
virtuosity is soon to be out of work.  Then my mind turned to navy pilots. 
A pilot without virtuosity landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier is
soon to be dead--along with a dozen or so deck crew. 

Virtuosity is not a transparency or an invisibility of technology.  Nor is
it a "smart" device that does the entire job for you at the push of a
couple buttons.  Rather it is a state of simultaneously active and
meditative physical awareness during which one responds in real-time to
sensory input that exists at or below the threshold of conscious
perception.  I think one of the stumbling blocks toward achieving this
sort of relationship with a device is when one remains focused on its
nature as a machine rather than its use as a tool.  (There may be an
inverse proportion at play here.  The more complex and "out of our hands"
the workings of a tool are, perhaps the harder it is to achieve virtuosity
with the device.) 

Though I am intrigued by this whole notion of virtuosity and its role in
the formation of our perceptions of technology, please don't get me wrong. 
I do not mean to imply movement towards an art with giant obvious displays
virtuosity.  Quite the contrary, I desire to continue reaping the benefits
of my current artistic enterprises.  I just find it exceptionally ironic
that virtuosity, which was once the mainstay of western art, now sits at
the back of the bus. 


"-j."  <jleonard@cyberzone-inc.com> 

Ann Arbor



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