Pre-post Internet: the art history of cybernetics

(block seminar in english)


It is said that it has taken ages for digital art to make an impact on contemporary art. This is a dubious claim, however, if one looks to cybernetics: seen through the lens of cybernetics, art has had a productive relationship with the domain of the digital for a long time.
As ‘the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine’ (Norbert Wiener 1948), cybernetics developed a template for today’s digitally networked society and for the relation between human being and machine. In this way it can be argued that it is one of the most important premonitions of the way our contemporary world works. Today, cybernetics is thus not only present as an echo in words such as ‘cyborg’ and ‘cyberspace’: One can arguably trace an art history back through the 20th century, revisiting artists that have been working with machinic imaginaries, paradigms of communication, and aesthetics of the nervous system, long before the Internet and the computer as we know it.
Cybernetics was never a ‘proper’ science. Around 1945 it was proposed as a genuinely interdisciplinary knowledge form, discussed by biologists, social scientists, architects, mathematicians, environmentalists – as well as creatively misused by artists and countercultures. Importantly for our artistic perspective it was always a speculative science: the computers that cybernetic researchers speculated about didn’t exist at the time, and their ultimate goal was to figure out the workings of the human brain. In the words of Ross Ashby, cybernetics “…takes as its subject-matter the domain of all possible machines, and is only secondarily interested if informed that some of them have not yet been made, either by Man or Nature.” (1956)
In the seminar we will search for evidence of the artistic-scientific relation that can be connected to the cybernetics as a speculation, rife with futurity, on ‘all possible machines’.