Interfacing Knowledge: New Paradigms for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

March 8-10 2002, University of California Santa Barbara


Visual Intellectuals and Networked Ideals


Peter Lunenfeld

Media Design Program, Art Center College of Design

(all rights reserved)





My talk this afternoon is titled "visual intellectuals." But Iıve come to find that putting together the visual with the word intellectual without a comma between them is a pretty rare syntactic construction. The two are almost always divided by a comma, and are usually to be found in a longer string.


Visual, intellectual, and technical

Visual, intellectual, and social

Visual, intellectual, and emotional

Visual, intellectual, and cultural etc.


But today, Iım going to use the occasion of this weekendıs investigations of the digital in the context of the arts and humanities as a way to conjoin these two usually divided realms.


Letıs face it, even when intellectuals aren't talking about words, they express themselves through, by, and with them to such an extent that what they generate can never be truly seen as a discussion about anything other than them. This explains the way that no matter how much art history, architectural criticism, or film studies claim to deal with visual and spatial systems, these discursive modes tend to resolve themselves finally around, well, around discourse itself. This is not to say that this text-based intellectual work is in the end consecrated to the craft of writing, as anyone who has valiantly pushed through reams of turgid academic prose can attest (word processing aside, Truman Capoteıs chestnut, "that's not writing, that's typing," still holds). But something new is brewing. I would claim that we are about to witness the wide-scale emergence of visual intellectuals--people simultaneously making, pondering and commenting on visual culture, but in a way that doesnıt perforce adhere to the primacy of the word.


These are the people creating the visual culture that surrounds us, a culture which over the course of the past hundred years has essentially supplanted text's preeminence. It would be easy enough to write this development off with the cliché about the triumph of the mute image over the expressive word. But we're long past that narrative now, willing to lift our "downcast eyes" (to cite historian Martin Jay) to look into the lightbox.

Although the utopian promise that will allow people to "write" with audio-visual media often recedes with each new advance (at least on the part of dominant broad-, and even narrowcasters), there is a growing body of work that proves that complex argumentation, sophisticated critique, and even languages of praise are being generated outside of purely text-based discourse.


The World Wide Web is the obvious place to go looking for such multi-mediated ways of thinking. This is, after all, a medium in which the object, that of which it is composed (the source code), and any commentary on that object all exist contemporaneously and conceptually in the same place/non-place of the network. The ability to scale windows within windows, to create instantaneous linkages, and to comment on the development of an art movement using an identical mode of production and distribution--all of this has led to the particular flavor of visualized, hyper-coded meta-commentary. The first such instantiations were admittedly sophomoric--i.e., sites like  <> (Web pages that suck, get it?)-- but things improved as the net.arts evolved, and it became obvious that the art and the discourse about that art were contextually and constitutively indistinguishable. There was also a willingness to explore meta-structuring of data as art, as with IODıs remarkable deconstruction device Webstalker, or to use the structures of the digital media to actively intervene into longstanding debates, as with the pseudo-gaming model of Lev Manovich and Norman Kleinıs Freud Lizzitsky Navigator.


Too often, though, the Web breeds a techno-solipsism, an unwarranted confidence that computer networks are generating something entirely without precedent. This is nonsense, of course, as avant-garde film and video offers a long history of audiovisual essays and meta-critical production (see, for example, Tom Tom the Piperıs Son of 1969, Ken Jacobs's reframing at varying speeds and in different sections of an example of early cinema, and Trouble in the Image of 1996, Pat OıNeilıs magnum opus of optical printing, as well as videos stretching from Joan Jonasıs structuralist intervention Vertical Roll (1972) to the hypertheorizations of Gary Hillıs proto-interactive Site Recite: A Prologue of 1989).


Perhaps better understood by thinking netizens is the debt to graphic design. Although some ardent youngsters (and not-so-youngsters, unfortunately) protest that something as commercially "tainted" as the professional practice of design has nothing to say to artists like themselves, the impact of contemporary graphics is indisputable. While modernist masters like Paul Rand promoted the ideal of the designer as refining reagent, the substrate through which someone else's message could be filtered, contemporary designers no longer feel obliged to make a show of such modesty.  Randıs model was already being dismantled when desktop publishing exploded, radically dropping the price of sophisticated visualization tools (programs like Photoshop, Typesmith and Pagemaker) and fostering an efflorescence of  style for styleıs sake. More self-conscious designers also woke up to the complex challenges to "clarity" accumulating under the rubric of postmodern theory, and began to conceptualize how digital technologies could allow them to develop their own signature styles.


The best architectural publications have long been examples of visual intellectuality, and the 1344 page collaboration between architect Rem

Koolhaas and designer Bruce Mau that is S,M,L,XL  (1995) was rightly lauded. In S,M,L,XL, the point is neither to illustrate words nor to caption pictures, but rather to create a synergistic matrix of images and texts.


No one has ever accused Peter Halley of an inability to read the zeitgeist, so itıs instructive to see how he has reacted to the emergence of visual intellectuality. Back in 1988, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger published Peter Halley: Collected Essays 1981-87 (designed by Anthony McCall Associates) which, like the Semiotext(e) books so popular at the same time, was an elegant, understated, monochromatic text that announced its seriousness and modesty to the point of having a brown paper cover. Contrast that approach to the overwhelming seduction of the recently released  Peter Halley: Maintain Speed  (Distributed Arts Publishers, 2000). Edited by Halleyıs studio director Corey Reynolds and designed by COMA (Cornelia Blatter and

Marcel Hermans, who also design Halley's magazine Index), Maintain Speed is a Peter Halley production from exploding pink cover to incredibly detailed colophon. Like S,M,L,XL, it offers a new (if incredibly expensive) model for the visual intellectual.


One of the things that distinguishes this volume from other catalogues is that the reproductions of paintings, the installation shots, and the incidental photography of the artist and his milieu are all subtended by a delirious grid of parenthetical and relational databases. Many of the paintings are, of course, grids, so there is an immediate relationship between the content and the form. Continuing this is a motif is what the editorial and design team refered to informally as the "information bar": a row of ten, postage stamp-sized boxes, delineated by pink, perforated lines, running along the bottom of the page.  These "stamps" are filled only occasionally, sometimes in blocks of two or three, and can be images, diagrams, captions, or quotes. This allows not for a single parallel, but a multiplicity of argumentations and contextualizations of the work under discussion.


This strategy is taken to its utmost when the rows of stamps becomes pages of them, with a ten by ten grid of the pink, perforated lines defining the field for a postal-sized Halley retrospective. The first double page spread is devoted to the year 1981, and features just five painting on one page and two on the other.  By the time you get four spreads deeper, those original seven paintings have been augmented by 42 more, and their spatial relationships have remained consistent, though theyıve been compacted together towards the y axis. Turn the page, however, and the planar development of chronological sequencing is challenged abruptly. A series of blue, curvilinear arrow are overprinted on the exact same grid from the previous spread, but this time creating a flow chart that indicates the conceptual and stylistic linkages both forward and backwards in time. Along with the subsequent spreads, this offers as beautiful a double mapping of the diachronic and synchronic (to appropriate the theoryspeak of which

Halley was so enamored in the Œ80s) as you are likely to see anywhere.


By discussing S,M,L,XL and Peter Halley: Maintain Speed, Iıve obviously stacked the decks, as these projects were masterminded respectively by an architect and an artist.  How might historians of music, political scientists, demographers, or feminist legal scholars spin their tales, fabricate their theories, or illuminate their causes in commensurately dynamic ways? Could the turn towards the visual extricate us from the mire of formulaic structures of knowledge with which we are all familiar to the point of sheer apathy? Perhaps first we need to let go of the notion that language is the sober way to truth, and put the visual's intoxicating powers to use doing something other than simply selling sex, stuff, or (as with so much of today's art) simply itself.