Andreas Broeckmann

Towards an Aesthetics of Heterogenesis

The notion of 'media art' is frequently criticised for suggesting a specificity of content or
aesthetics which cannot really be deduced from the use of electronic media. However, I
still believe in the heuristic applicability of the term and will here use it to describe art
that deploys digital media. Media art thus has a pre-history in practices like mail art or
experimental film and video, but the fact that digital media are based on the semiotically
indistinct unit of the bit mean that, more than those other practices, it has to work with
the inherent non-specificity and instability of its primary material. Media art has to
consider time as a crucial constituent factor and is necessarily process-oriented and
aimed at the triggering of singular, irreversible events. The potential openness of
working with the digital material also offers the possibility of interactivity and the
dissolution of the border between artist and audience, between producer and user. Very
often the artists are now the (first) users, and the users are the producers proper.

Obviously the term 'media art' does not describe a single practice, nor is it
fundamentally separate from other art forms. Yet, similar to architecture in the 15th
and 16th centuries, graphic art in the 17th and 18th centuries, or photography and film
in the 19th and 20th centuries, media art does pose a number of particular questions.
Which means that it may not necessarily require the formulation of a specific aesthetics,
but that there are particular working conditions which have particular aesthetic effects.

This essay continues an argument which was begun in the 'Tactical Media/Media Ecology'
text which was partly printed in ZKP1. It will first discuss a few examples of
contemporary media art practices in order to describe the context and the means and
conditions of production of such practices and will then try to suggest some theoretical
aspects of an aesthetics of media art. These suggestions are prescriptive insofar as I feel
there is a need to work towards a more critical understanding of the way in which media
art intervenes into existing cultural and social processes.

Since 1992, the Polish-American artist and industrial designer Krzysztof Wodiczko has
been developing prototypes of the 'Alien Staff', a portable instrument of a size and shape
not dissimilar to the Christian bishop's staff, or the staff of a sage. The Alien Staff is a
mobile communication system and prosthetic instrument which facilitates the
communication of immigrants and aliens in the countries to which they have migrated
and in which they have insufficient command of the language to communicate on a par
with the native inhabitants. It consists of a hand-held staff which has a small LCD video
monitor and loudspeaker at the top, both of which are connected to a video player that the
operator carries in a bag around the shoulder. Video recordings are made in which the
operator narrates episodes from her or his migrant life, and experiences with the
'natives'. Parts of the shaft of the Staff are transparent containers in which the operator
can store important documents, papers, souvenirs, etc. The Staff is offered to migrants
in temporary projects so that they can take it out into the streets or other public places
where they can confront the local population with their personal, mediated stories about
a life which is often all but ignored in everyday culture. This can trigger conversations
which will give a public space to the communication about, and awareness of, the context
and backgrounds of the migrants' lives.

Mediafilter, a World Wide Web site which was first brought online by the media artist
and activist Paul Garrin in the winter of 1994-95, combines a variety of political and
artistic initiatives that are here brought together in a shared environment. One
emphasis lies on projects which deal with the former war zones of ex-Yugoslavia, like
the Zamir-network which still provides a vital channel of communication with and
between peace and opposition groups in the different republics, or the independent
Zagreb weekly, arkzin, one of the few remaining critical voices in the region whose
articles have been made available in English on Mediafilter. Paul Garrin is particularly
concerned with keeping the Internet open for independent users and to allow for as much
freedom in choosing protocols and encryption tools. This is why his recent activities,
like the name.space project which challenges the current, centralised system of domain
name allocation, are all aimed at reclaiming sections of the 'digital territories'.
Information pages, discussion forums, visual and text-based commentaries on the
situation in the public war zone make Mediafilter exemplary for the support function
that the network media can have, and for a form of media practice that is not concerned
with its classification (or not) as art, and that draws a particular, perhaps 'aesthetic'
dimension from this indifference.

The work of the Cologne-based group Knowbotic Research + cF frequently leads to
complex spatial installations which function as interfaces between the computer's world
of data and the human experiential world. The project Dialogue With The Knowbotic
South uses and transforms scientific data about Antarctica, a 'natural space' about which
humans have an almost exclusively mediated knowledge based on such abstract de- and
recoded data. For the installation, knowbots, a type of computer agents, collect data
related to Antarctica from the Internet and translate them in to a series of experiential
interfaces: zones of cold air, light pads, projected pixel formations, interfaces which
allow the visitor of the installation to experience the content of the data in a both
abstract and intuitive manner, to explore them in greater detail, and to partly
manipulate them. Our conception of Antarctica is that of a 'Computer Aided Nature'
(CAN), and DWTKS can be seen as a presentation of the process through which we
appropriate a world experienced through media. A more recent project by KR+cF,
Anonymous Muttering, to which I will return presently, emphasises the aspect of
manipulability and the joint agency of human and machinic agents.

Tactical media like Shotgun TV, the Austrian group Contained's mobile video weapon, like
Mediafilter or the Alien Staff, do not operate on a broad, strategic level, but aim at the
triggering of singular events, they create limited turbulences in public spaces and link
up with broader, political strategies only a secondary level. As another example, we can
point to the work of the net-workers of the Viennese Silverserver, where groups like
Mamax (Margarete Jahrmann and Max Moswitzer), Etoy and others develop a network
environment full of friction which deals with the technical and political dimensions of
the Internet. The production of network weapons and digital surveillance tools, the
'hijacking' of other people's data and the revelation of economic relations are not so much
presented as a self-reflexive political critique, but as a cheerful kind of activism in the
tradition of Situationism.


Most of these practices are based on an almost natural tendency to work collectively.
Artists in the more narrow sense work together with programmers, with technicians,
with disk-jockeys and curators, forming new collaborations which, moreover,
intentionally aim at an extension of the network of producers. For these media workers,
dispersal and transversality are key operational categories, and authorship is no longer
a necessary parameter of their work, even if it is sometimes still used for practical,
economic or systemic reasons. We should not underestimate the degree to which envy,
fame, sex, money and power still play their roles, but in the described area of media art
practice, authorship is no longer a necessary condition, but a method that is chosen or
rejected more or less consciously.

These circumstances are directly connected to the development of permanent or
temporary 'shared workspaces' on the Internet where users can work together on visual,
textual and accoustic projects in two- and three-dimensional representations. (For
some examples, cf .) At the same time, the
emerging forms of networked discourses are less oriented towards a continuation of
exchanges as one knows them from academic journals, but rather resemble fast and
engaged conversations in bars or salons. (cf )
In this discursive environment, it has become virtually impossible to lay a claim to the
property of ideas, an issue that is anything but unproblematic for the intellectual and
publishing class.

The social sites of media art practice, located somewhere in the twilight zone between
gallery, Net, street, private homes and festival venues, remain precarious and often
contradictory, maybe because, more so than modernist art forms, current media art
engages with the contradictions not only of its own practice, but also with the
contradictions of its social environment. In this context it is interesting to note the
direct and indirect references that are being made to historical precedents, which are,
on the one hand, the anti-art attitude of Dada and Situationism, and on the other hand the
hybrid strategies of Futurism and Constructivism that mainly sought to undermine the
autonomous position of art.

A fundamental question for the evaluation of media art remains that of the significance
that is ascribed to the technological dispositive, a question which arises regarding the
use of programming languages as well as in the face of large installation works such as
those of Knowbotic Research who require large, powerful computers and yet maintain a
critical and reflective attitude towards the ideological or epistemological potential of
technology. In this context, Knowbotic Research have formulated "a plea for the
establishment and preservation of unspecific fields of experimentation, discourse and
critique, which are aimed at initialising and reworking uninhibited processes which can
be fed back into other systems. The transdisciplinarities that emerge, the hybrid zones
between theory and practice, performative fields etc., have always been projects
supported by apparatuses. It is not the use of technologies, esp. of 'high-end computers',
that makes them mutate into ethically and socially problematic events. This is where the
arguments of the techno-critics fail, whether they attach to themselves the prefix 'art',
'culture', or 'social'. The critical and conceptual energies which the new technologies can
spark should not be cemented in separatist (aesthetic and ethical) theories, but should
be allowed to unfold in an uninhibited approach of all those active in the field, whether as
theorists, articts or critics."

Aggregates of power

The critique to which KR allude here is based on a fundamental questioning of all art that
uses high-technological means. It argues that this practice always already plays into the
hands of an industrial-technological dispositive which can only be approached critically
from the outside. An aestheticisation of technological functionality and its deployment in
artistic contexts is claimed to be neither ethically nor politically acceptable.

This type of criticism has been widely rejected as insufficient and as unproductive. It is
doubtlessly important to question media artistic practice as to how it deals with the
social and political power that is aggregated in the apparatuses it uses. In this sense
media must indeed be understood as aggregates of power, as complex assemblages of
bodies - electronic hardware, production cycles, networks, humans, etc. - which
together form larger, productive and powerful machines. 'Technology' is a bearer of
social power on the level of industrial production as well as with regard to
communication structures and discursive formations, and a critical media art which
makes use of high-technological means will have to deal with these strata of meaning.
However, to refute any bio- or otherwise technological experiment off-hand and to
insist that one can only deal with these contemporary phenomena with a negating
attitude, seems to be an indirect acceptance of defeat. Rather, this critique must accept
that the boundaries between art, technology, industry and society are not that clear and
obvious, but they form fractal infoldings, "a never-ending differentiation of being along
folds which continuously merge into one another." (Lévy, p.102)

The 'tactical media' referred to earlier show that the dimension of power can also be
understood in a productive sense and employed where, rather than affirming
homogenising, molarising structures, a critical artistic practice deals with the inherent
forces of technology. A good example for such a practice is the 'breeding' of Techno-
Parasites, an initiative of the Berlin-based artist Erik Hobijn who had thought a lot
about lack of attention for, and the precarious invisibility of, many of the technical
aspects of our everyday environment. Classical examples of this are the system of street
lamps or the electricity network - who would give as much thought to a plug in the wall
or to a lamp as we do, for instance, to computer modems? The self-evidence of the
former is not only due to the fact that they have been around much longer, but also
because they work much better and more reliably. The Techno-Parasites attack
precisely at this point where there is a lack of alertness and become parasitic on these
apparatuses which have become invisible and which the Tps use, disrupt and ultimately
destroy in order to procreate and to make themselves larger, stronger, and ever more

This type of artistic practice will not let itself be paralysed or entangled into discursive
correctness, but tries to turn the forces of the technological dispositive in on itself. The
apparent ethical ambivalence becomes a necessity where no power centre, no enemy
system and no 'correct' political practice can be identified. With reference to Manuel de
Landa's analysis of the machinic phylum, Thomas Brandstetter has recently remarked
that "today the power structures may themselves have become nomadic and rhizomatic."
For artistic practices this must imply not to adapt to the technical and stylistic
conditions of technology, but to consciously read their power aggregations and to employ
their forces against the grain. The most interesting works in this context are directed at
allowing for an experience of the machinic, at the corporeality and the physical
perceptability of the processes through which the technical and human apparatuses are
linked together.

The commercial and semi-commercial, scientific research and development institutes
like to talk about the need for the development of intuitive interfaces between human and
machine, between physical and virtual reality. Their work aims at the 'smooth' linking
of real and virtual actors. Instead of such intuitive interfaces we should work towards
developing counter-intuitive interfaces, interface which make the differences between
the clashing systems visible and open them up to human experience. As Hobijn puts it:
"The message should not be: don't feel the pace-maker, but: feel the pace-maker!" The
task of artistic practice should not be to smooth over the breaks, but to highlight the
cracks and breaks, which allows for the unbounded unfolding of multiplicities, a practice
which works towards what Félix Guattari has called 'Heterogenesis', "i.e. a permanent
process of re-singularisation. The individuals have at the same time to become ever
more solidary and ever more different. - The multiple practices should not only not be
homogenised and interconnected through some kind of transcendental guardianship, but
they should sensibly be led into a process of the generation of dissimilarity." (Guattari
1994, p.76, 49)

The strategically important points of intervention for this lie in the concrete, in the
corporeal, in the local, while the black holes of the heterotopias, the virtual and the
transterritorial contain the points of effective and passionate subjectification. Radical
virtualisation makes art ineffective, while the tension of the 'and', topos/heterotopos,
identity/non-identity, virtuality/actuality, re-/de-/territorialisation force the flows
into new turbulences.

Strategies of heterogenisation can make use of the method of 'granulation' of their
material, i.e. the separation into singular elements and fragments which together form
the multiple 'felt' of the artistic material, and which can also be isolated as individual
elements carrying meaning. The concept of granulation is based on the potential of
transformation offered by digitisation: each digital 'granulate', each byte can, in a
multiplicity of different contexts, be transposed from its state of potentiality into a state
of actuality. Margarete Jahrmann uses this concept when she talks about a multiplicity
of small-scale servers which, given their flexibility and the generative potential that
lies between them, can lead to very interesting synergetic processes. In their latest
project, Anonymous Muttering (1996), Knowbotic Research analyse more directly the
effects of granulation. Sound material from different DJ events is fed in real-time into
an operational loop, where this material is digitally granulated. Individual users in
special, local zones in public urban spaces, users on the Internet, and the networked
computer set-up can, with their respective interfaces (a bendable silicon membrane; a
shockwave interface on the WWW; random algorithms) manipulate and transform the
output of the granulated material. The output can be experienced in special light and
sound stations in the urban space as well as via the Internet (RealAudio), while it
becomes impossible to distinguish the interventions of any one of the operators.
Granulation here means not only the digital separation of sound material in order to
activate its multiple accoustic and visual transformational potentials, but also the
dissolution of individual acts into a meta-individual process of agency. This kind of
collective work which does not distinguish between interventions by apparatuses and
human agency, points towards a machinic aesthetics which is not primarily concerned
with leaving behind authorial traces, but which seeks to explore the machinic principles
of aesthetic production.

Machine aesthetics - aesthetics of the machinic

The fascination with the machinic and its artistic elaboration in the late-20th century
can easily be traced back, as Mark Dery has recently shown once more, to historical
predecessors from the 17th and 18th centuries. Even then it was the potential autonomy
of the machinic being created by human engineers, which made the strongest, if not
sublime impression on the beholder. Modern computer technology pushes this
phenomenon a bit further by executing processes which are virtually incomprehensible
both due to their speed and their complexity. Irritation is also caused by the fact that, as
Friedrich Kittler has remarked, the 'Net' does not really consist of humans
communicating via computers, but that it is made up of computers which communicate
with computers: machines which are permanently online and which send each other data
packages, optimise processes, whether humans are involved or not.

The aesthetics of the machinic which is currently taking shape is, however, not only
based on the aesthetic qualities of the more or less independent agency of machines,
understood as technical hardware. Machines can also be understood in another, more
conceptual sense as apparatuses which aggregate and transform forces. Guattari and
Deleuze have dealt with this concept extensively with regard to the 'desiring machines'
which participate in the formation of psychic dispositives, yet, they have also pointed
out that the notion of the machinic can be understood in a much wider sense.

"A machine organises the topology of different flows and draws the meanders of the
rhizomatic switches. It is a kind of attractor that bends the world around itself. ... In
the first instance a machine can be understood as belonging to a physical, biological,
social, technical, semiotic, psychic, etc., stratum, but in a more general way it
transgresses the strata in a heterogeneous and cosmopolitain way. A machine does not
only produce something in the world, but it also contributes to producing, reproducing
and transforming the world in which it functions. A machine is a disposing disposition, it
tends to turn back, to return to its own conditions of existence, in order to reproduce
them." (Lévy, p.106-7)

These machines realise and transform potentialities and thus circumscribe the points at
which the vectors of heterogenisation can multiply - or be reterritorialised into
petrifying, molar formations. Machines are not dead objects, but they always have a
proto-subjective stratum and a tendency towards teleology and thus towards reflexivity,
which ties them immediately to processes of subjectification (cf Guattari 1995, Lévy
1995, and Sengers 1996).

Dealing with the aesthetics of the machinic, then, means to shift from the level of
fascination with technical hardware to the level of movements, of processes, of
dynamics, of change. The power and the beauty of the knowbots, as they are for instance
deployed by KR+cF, are no longer judged according to their function as bearers of a
specific technological culture or logic, but looks at their behaviour and at their ability
to intervene into transformative processes. This interpretation does not mean an
uncritical embrace of the machinic as an aesthetic principle. Rather, dealing with the
machinic in this way confronts its ambivalence and works towards making visible its
territorial orders, dispersing and transforming them.

It might in fact be possible that the question of power can really only be posed
productively with regard to such machinic formations. Foucault made the successful
attempt at describing power as a constructive force, and at showing that subjectification
is not the opposite, but a product of dispositives of power. We probably need to further
elaborate this thinking in order to become able to develop an analysis of the functioning
of power in non-linear environments. What would it mean to learn to describe power as
a line of force in the machinic phylum, as a multiple line of force passing through a
socio-technical aggregate? And what would a critique of specific aggregates look like that
does not focus on particular sensitive themes, facts or products, but on these machinc
lines of force? If this is a useful model for thinking about medialised power, it might
also make it possible to develop from it an analysis of the tactical deployment of
knowbots and other machinic agents.

A war machine about which we care ...

The approach towards a critical media aesthetics presented here remains speculative. It
refers to an ongoing process for whose observation these considerations may help to
develop further tools. There remain open questions which will in part be tackled on an
artistic level, and which will in part require further theoretical and interdisciplinary
analyses. A question that arises from Guattari and Deleuze's analysis of semiotic regimes
is, which types of granulates are most appropriate for different strategies of
transgression and dispersion: whether these should remain to be monadic carriers of
meanings belonging to 'significant' or 'post-significant' semiotic units; or whether their
granulation should go so far that the material is brought back to pre-significant
particles which are brought into new stratifications by diagrammatic, abstract
machines. The question follows, in how far the contemporary medial environments with
their political, technological and aesthetic determinants might actually 'always already'
form machinic dispositions which are closer to the ambivalence of the war machine
(more about this term in a moment) than to the deterritorialising tendency of abstract

The inquiry into the pragmatics of the machinic suggested here also points us at another
area which deserves more attention, i.e. that of subjectification. The challenge might lie
in the attempt to develop the concept of the war machine in a way that elucidates it as a
practical model for an aesthetics of the machinic, without taking away the moral
irritation that it causes. The war machine as Guattari and Deleuze describe it in Mille
Plateaux only turns into the fascist institution whose aim is total war, when it is
appropriated by the molar order of the state. Viewed in a historical perspective, the war
machine is of nomadic origin and strives for deterritorialisation and a permanent
mutation of flows. "Its aim is not war," as Guattari and Deleuze write, "but grooving a
creative line of escape, the formation of a flat, smooth space and the movement of people
in this space. ... War can indeed coincide with this machine, but only as a synthetic and
supplementary aim which is directed against the state and the global axiomatics which
the states express." (p.584)

The nomadic groups, movements and minorities who appropriate the war machine in this
manner, "can conduct war only under the condition, that they build and create something
else at the same time" (ibid.): a vector that is directed at the dissolution of fixed
subjectivities and that seaks to bring forth what Deleuze has called 'pre-individual
singularities' and 'non-personal individuations'. Strategies of delaying, of slowing down
and of diverting have to make it possible to conceive subjectification as a transitory
rather than as a teleological process Subjectification as temporally determined and as an
irreversible process of becoming, of transition and of singularisation: herein the ethical
dimension of the aesthetics of heteronenesis seems to crystallise. For artistic practice,
the adaptation of the model of the war machine can mean that, in order to enhance the
transversal tendencies, insecurities have to be triggered, anti-production has to be
initiated and parasitic behaviour has to be developed as a series of inversive strategies:
infoldings at the boundaries.

"Interface machines and parasites come to take care of the gaps and abysses or deep folds
which separate the worlds of subjectivity, their temporality, their spaces and their
signs. A machine preserves the event of the fold from which it emerges (by betraying it
at the same time). It inscribes the initial clinamen into the mechanosphere, makes it
continue, re-emerge, and by doing this it becomes the source of new folds." (Lévy,

These folds can be made productive wherever they imply a moment of transgression and
where the synergy (or the separation) of human and machine, or the identity (or non-
identity) of cognition and computation is not affirmed but treated as an unstable
boundary, as a fold which one can always only slip out of and which knows no inside, no
secure territory.

Bibliography and hypertext-references

Thomas Brandstetter: the power structure itself may be rhizomatic. Rhizome Digest, 30. Juli 1996
Gilles Deleuze: "A Philosophical Concept." In: J.L. Nancy (ed): Who Comes after the Subject? New York, London: Routledge, 1991
Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari: Tausend Plateaus. (1980) Berlin: Merve, 1992
Mark Dery: Escape Velocity. Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Groove Press, 1996
Brigitte Felderer (ed): Wunschmaschine Welterfahrung. Eine Geschichte der Technikvisionen seit dem 18. Jahrhundert. Wien, New York: Springer, 1996
Félix Guattari: Die drei Ökologien. (1989) Wien: Passagen Verlag, 1994
Knowbotic Research: "Developer Kit." In: Medien.Kunst.Passagen, 3/94: Nonlocated Online.
Knowbotic Research: Anonymous Muttering (1996)

Manuel de Landa: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books/Swerve Editions, 1991
Lévy, Pierre: "Fraktale Faltung ...". In: Schmidgen 1995, p. 95-114
Next 5 Minutes
H. Schmidgen (ed): Ästhetik und Maschinismus. Texte zu und von Félix Guattari. Berlin: Merve, 1995
Phoebe Sengers: "Fabricated Subjects: Reification, Schizophrenia, Artificial Intelligence" (ZKP2, 1996)
Siegfried Zielinski (1995). für Paris Revue Virtuelle,

Rotterdam/Berlin 1996

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