Do not Return to Sender – Why post-digital aesthetic research should actually distinguish between artist, critics, and audience

By Lotte Philipsen

One significant advantage of moving from a digital to a post-digital paradigm is that a post-digital paradigm enables us to approach art in a more open and critical way than what has been practiced in the digital paradigm. Specifically, a post-digital paradigm

allows us to conduct aesthetic research in contemporary works of art that make use of digital technology in ways that are not automatically identical to what technological or cultural research would do. Carsten Strathausen has termed the latter a ‘rational’, ‘info-‘, or ‘techno-‘ aesthetics, whose ‘heroes are Boscovich, Boole, Turing, and Bense instead of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, or Adorno.’ (Strathausen, 59) The following will account for the neglect within the discursive framework of the digital paradigm to thoroughly address aesthetic dimensions of new art forms before moving on to investigating one primary requisite for doing so: (re)establishing an awareness of the different subject positions of artist and audience, respectively.

Techno-essentialism in a digital paradigm

In a digital paradigm analyses and debates on the role of new technology in art have had an overall essentialist character in the sense that questions asked basically centred around ‘what is “interactive”, or “networked”, or “digital” (etc.) art?’ These are good and highly relevant questions, but they lack one important component that it is now appropriate to investigate in a post-digital paradigm, that is: According to whom? Or in other words: from which specific subject position are such questions asked? From the position of the artist, the curator/critic, the user, the implied audience or the actual audience? By not explicating which subject positions are addressed when carrying out analyses of new art forms, the results of those analyses are staged as virgin born truths radiating from the works of art.

The confusion between these different subject positions results from the fact that, in the digital paradigm, academic theory on so-called new media art has tended to interpret the works of art according to technological features. Survey books on new media art or digital art are organised either as descriptions/analysis of individual artists or works or according to technological subgenres like ‘video art, ‘network art’, ‘interactive art’, ‘telepresence’ etc. (see Rush, Giannetti, Tribe & Jana, Paul, and Shanken) As a result attempts to critically investigate tendencies across different works of art do not distinguish between the specific technical features applied in a work of art and what is actually encountered by the average member of the audience.

Art404: "Five Million Dollars 1 Terabyte"

Art404: “Five Million Dollars 1 Terabyte”

Consider, for instance, the work “5 Million Dollars, 1 Terabyte” by Art 404 (exhibited at Transmediale 2012), which consist of a black terabyte hard drive exhibited in a vitrine. No matter how hard we look, smell, taste, listen or touch the hard drive, we will never be able to extract the most important feature about this work of art – the decisive factor that transforms the terabyte from a dull object of everyday life and that potentially gives rise to aesthetic experience for the audience: The fact that this particular hard drive contains illegally downloaded material worth five million dollars. The only way of becoming aware of this crucial piece of information is by reading the catalogue text or visiting Art 404’s website. Thus, in reality there is a gap between the experience gained from actually encountering the work in the gallery and from reading about it – a gap that is not really addressed in aesthetic research of the digital paradigm, but which may be taken into account in a post-digital one.

Especially the subject position of the audience seems to have been neglected in the digital paradigm insofar as audience experiences were assumed in aesthetic analyses to be identical to artist’s intention, curatorial/critical framing, or theoretical accounts of technical characteristics and potentials of new art types. If, for instance the use of a specific technology in a work of art was considered to have interactive, or critical, or alienating potentials it was more or less automatically assumed that the audience/users’ experience would correspond to those potentials without paying much attention to the fact that different contexts and subject positions invite different aesthetic considerations. In this sense aesthetic research within a digital paradigm is governed by essentialism rather than contextualism.

Requisite for a post-digital aesthetic research

The post-digital turn paves the way to, once again, consider the genuinely aesthetic potentials of works that make use of new media and technology – without automatically subjecting aesthetic experience to technology. Hence, we may now ask the ‘naïve’ questions of a radical aesthetics of reception to the field of contemporary art, such as: Are new media of aesthetic relevance in a work of art if they go unnoticed by the audience? How do we elaborate on the fact that the same work of art potentially gives rise to different kinds of aesthetic experiences depending on which subject positions (artist, curator/critic, user, audience) engage with the work and in what manners (as intended by someone else or not)? And how do we consider the aesthetic appeal of works of art whose medium is not accessible to our physical senses? In order to investigate such aesthetic questions thoroughly it is necessary to insist (once again) that the subject positions of artist and audience are separated.

But why should we still insist on a separation between the artist and the audience when the field of so-called new media art in many cases is characterised by crowd creation and interactivity that urges co-creation to the extent that such a distinction might seem irrelevant? For instance, the Ars Electronica Prix category of ‘Digital Communities’ consists of works in which such a distinction may seem absurd, since the digital communities function collectively in the participants’ everyday life.

An example could be the 2013 Golden Nica winner “El Campo de Cebada”, the name of an enclosed city square in Madrid, where residents and the council work together – on the physical place and via online social media – to define the use of the square. (Fisher-Schreiber, 200-203) No artist or artists group is credited for this ‘work’ since this is genuinely a collective project. However, when considered from an art (or at least cultural) institutional point of view – as it is the case with Ars Electronica – the prime purpose of “El Campo de Cebada” is to prompt aesthetic reflection rather than immediate function – even if it is the functional dimensions that prompt reflection.

Whereas in Madrid the square is inhabited, in the context of Ars Electronica it is ‘exhibited’, and this sole act of exhibiting automatically installs “El Compo de Cebada” as an object for reflective aesthetic judgement by others than its producers. As Thierry de Duve puts it with reference to Duchamp’s readymades: ‘[T]he sentence “this is art,” by which a readymade is both produced as a work of art and judged to be one, ought to be read as an aesthetic reflexive judgment with a claim to universality in the strictest Kantian sense.’ (de Duve, 320)

Now, participating in “El Compo de Cebada” may (or may not) result in aesthetic reflective judgements among the individuals who engage in the project on an everyday basis in Madrid, but the moment the project is framed by the Ars Electronica as an outstanding work belonging to the ‘Digital communities’ category a non-participating audience is created for the project, and it becomes an object for potential aesthetic reflective judgement to that group of people too.

Estrangement from, in Kantian terms, determined purposes, is basically the definition of art. Furthermore, any work of art (whether it makes use of digital media or not) has at least two different subject positions: the creator and the audience. The DNA of a work of art is its presentation to someone, somehow. Otherwise it is not art. Therefore, the subject position of an audience is crucial – not just to art, but also to aesthetic reflection, since, according to Kantian thinking, the latter resides in this subject position.

Futhermore, especially in the realm of so-called new media art, there are more than one audience subject position. As described by Dominic Lopes, in interactive art we may distinguish between ‘user’ (who explores a work by generating displays in a prescribed manner) and ‘audience’ (who explore a work by watching users generate displays by interacting with a work). The difference can be illustrated with reference to the work “OCTO P7C-1” by the Telekommunisten group (exhibited at Transmediale 2013). The exhibition of this spectacular ‘Intertubular Pneumatic Packet Distribution System’ was, tongue in cheek, described by the Telekommunisten as a demonstration to ‘potential investors and partners’.

OCTO at Transmediale 2013

OCTO at Transmediale 2013

In the exhibition Lopes’ term ‘users’ describes those visitors who engaged actively with OCTO by, for instance, writing/drawing/crafting messages for the postal tubes or sending/receiving such messages by communicating commands to the OCTO-staff working the distribution centre. The distinctive sound accompanying each packet’s travel through the tube system, the messages, the conversations between users and OCTO-workers etc. are all different kinds of audible, visual and sensual displays by which the user gradually explores physical and semiotic dimensions of the work (and potentially gets involved with aesthetic relations with it).

In addition to the user, who acts in accordance with a prescribed manner staged by the creators of the work, the subject position of what Lopes terms ‘audience’ are of relevance when investigating aesthetic implications of a work like OCTO. The audience do not engage directly with the work like the users do, but they watch how users interact with OCTO and they observe how displays are generated as results from this interaction. As such, the audience explores the work, too, albeit in a different manner than users (and may enter in aesthetic relations with the work).

The reason that the subject position that Lopes calls ‘audience’ has been left out of the equation in the digital paradigm, is that the potential aesthetic reflective judgement with this subject position does not fit a techno-essentialist view on new media art. An audience may experience what in the digital paradigm might be described as an ‘interactive, networked installation’ in a very non-interactive, non-networked manner. To be honest, how many of us have engaged actively, ‘face-to-face’ with all the works of art that we know and even value for having provided us aesthetic experiences? And even ‘users’, who do interact actively with a work, may have aesthetic experiences that differ from the technologically defined ones governing a digital paradigm. After all aesthetic experience is a matter of individual judgement of taste.

Towards a radical aesthetics of reception

In conclusion, post-digital research of contemporary art’s aesthetic dimensions should take as its point of departure what we may call a radical aesthetics of reception – not to be confused with what is traditionally known as aesthetics of reception of the Constance School. The difference between the Constance School’s aesthetics of reception and a radical aesthetics of reception lies in the fact that the former, as accounted for Peter Hohendahl, seems grounded in a formalism that centres on the work/phenomenon, whereas a radical aesthetics of reception would take more profoundly into account the aesthetics of Immanual Kant (aesthetic experience results from individual, subjective feelings and not from a concrete object/phenomenon) and the subject position that Roland Barthes termed the ‘reader’. Hence, in a radical aesthetics of reception there is no such thing as aesthetic meaning in the artistic texts – there is not even blanks (calculated by the artist or accidental) in the text – since all aesthetic qualities of a work derives from the receiver of the work, which therefore, ultimately becomes the work’s aesthetic (but not technical) producer.

Especially when it comes to works of contemporary art that make use of new media and technologies, which may not yet be fully culturally established, it seems obvious that the technical and cultural uncertainties surrounding the works may work to boost the potentials of ‘readers’ gaining aesthetic experiences from encountering such works due to the lack of an overall concept by which the works might be comprehended rationally. It seems, therefore, paradoxical when survey books within a digital paradigm attempt to account for the aesthetic characteristics of such works of art by subsuming them under determined technological categories. A post-digital, radical aesthetics of reception acknowledges that art’s receivers  – whether in the subject position of user or audience – may encounter works of art in ways not even imagined by the artist or the curator/critic, and that such encounters may lead to aesthetic experience (just as it may not).



Barthes, R.: Image, Music, Text, 1999 [1977], Noonday Press. “The Dearth of the Author” pp. 142-148 and “From Work to Text”, pp. 155-164.

De Duve, T.: Kant after Duchamp, 1996, MIT Press.

Fischer-Schreiber, I. (ed.): CyberArts 2013, 2013, Hatje Cantz.

Giannetti, C.: Ästhetik des Digitalen, 2004, Springer.

Hohendahl, P.: ”Beyond Reception Aesthetics” in New German Critique, no. 28, winter 1983, pp. 108-146.

Lopes, D.: A Philosophy of Computer Art, 2010, Routledge.

Paul, C.: Digital Art, 2008, Thames & Hudson.

Rush, M.: New Media in Art, 1999 + 2005, Thames & Hudson.

Shanken, E. (ed): Art and Electronic Media, 2009, Phaidon.

Strathausen, C.: ”New Media Aesthetics” 2009, in Koepnick & McGlothlin (eds.): After the Digital Divide?,  Camden House.

Tribe, M. & Jana, R.: New Media Art, 2006, Taschen. (visited 6 Oct. 2013)