Review of Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds by Timothy Murray 2008; University of Minnesota Press Kim Lacey, Saginaw Valley State University
(Published: September 29, 2014)
“Digital” and “baroque” are two words we would not normally see next to each other. On the surface, these two terms represent large concepts separated by centuries of aesthetic and intellectual development. As individual concepts, “digital” and “baroque” indicate an artistic perspective as well as a categorization. We stick websites and other electronic stuff on the digital team, while baroque might get the heavy handed, ornate, analog pieces. Timothy Murray recontextualizes these two terms by examining their interconnectedness in his book Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds. Murray’s analysis draws upon the Deleuzian concept of “the fold” (which I will get to in a moment) in order to suggest digital and baroque are legitimately and intimately related.
In Digital Baroque, Murray suggests that digital art (e.g., CD-ROMs, installations, interactive websites) is a representation and reinvention of the Baroque for a few reasons. First, just by the nature of the examples he reviews, Murray highlights the homage the digital artworks show to the Baroque period, a period that he characterizes as “cross-cultural interaction, accumulation, and intensification” (23). This homage signals a connection (a cohesion, if you will) spanning centuries of development. Second, unlike art of the Baroque period, patrons are capable of interacting—rather than simply passively viewing—a piece of digital art. This interaction is where the fold really comes into play. The “communication between” digital artwork and its user is not simply a hyperlink to another website or page within a page (although this does appear in some examples). The communication to which Murray is alluding is his reasoning for coupling digital with Baroque to begin with. For Murray, the digital Baroque “reflect[s] on the historical and ideological complexity of the ‘new’ apparatuses of digitized electronic arts in relation to their critical and ideological reconfiguration of historical methods, literary authorship and authority, artistic icons, cinematic memories, and most of all, new world communities” (9). For Murray, these new apparatuses represent a contemporary reinterpretation of Deleuze’s fold. In other words, the conversation that occurs between two texts (either explicitly or implicitly) succeeds because it is not a matter of opposition (i.e., “this text is what that text is not”), but rather complements, adds too, and extends the original piece. The result is, of course, more folds.
So what is the fold? For Deleuze, the fold represents the following:
A flexible or an elastic body still has cohering parts that form a fold, such that they are not separated into parts of parts but are rather divided to infinity in smaller and smaller folds that always retain a certain cohesion. Thus a continuous labyrinth is not a line dissolving into grains, but resembles a sheet of paper divided into infinite folds or separated into bending movements, each one determined by the consistent or conspiring surroundings. (6)
These “flexible bodies with cohering parts” are not to be seen independently from—or exclusively for—each other. Instead they are each designed to branch out beyond their shared “between” and create other “betweens” with other ideas. Thus, by applying the Deleuzian concept of the fold to digital art, Murray suggests, “the fold is the machinery of intersubjectivity and inter-activity” (6). In this sense, we can see the intricacies of the Baroque becoming clearer. Murray’s use of the Baroque is less a literal suggestion of “Baroque-ness” and more a suggestion of the fold representing how participants are included in and become a part of art itself: “Digital baroque will be discussed as enfolding the user in the energetic present, as articulated in relation to the analog past while bearing on the digital future” (7). Instead of passive gazing, Murray argues viewers are ‘folded’ into the art itself via participatory necessity, stating that, “rather than performing the annihilation of subjectivity or the transcendence of self, the viewer is here positioned in the undulating fold of the in-between” (54).
Murray begins Digital Baroque with two complex questions: “Does new media stand forth as the memento mori of cinema? Does the Baroque function as a marker of the death of cinema in the twenty-first century as an energetic carrier of the figures of mourning, melancholia, and even ascesis so fundamental to the Baroque?” (ix). While the former does not seem to bear as much weight as the latter, they are both absolutely fundamental to understanding Murray’s thesis. Murray divides his text into four sections: From Video Black to Digital Baroque; Digital Deleuze: Baroque Folds of Shakespearean Passage; Present Past: Digitality, Psychoanalysis, and the Memory of Cinema; and Scanning the Future. Each section focuses on a specific temporal mode (past, present, and future) which “positions the user and the critic within the force of time’s flow through which the past and its divergent epistemologies call on the future for their inclusion, whether as haunting articulations of visions previously unmaterialized in the baroque past or as critical revisions of those dialectical and romantic new media paradigms on which modernism so confidently relies” (6).
The difficulty with digital art is often its lack of materiality, a crisis Murray addresses in the chapter titled “Digitality and the Memory of Cinema: Bearing the Losses of the Digital Code.” The material of the image is bound up with its material production, or, as Murray puts it, the “code” of the image maintains a kind of relation with the “craft” of its production. These concerns are reminiscent of N. Katherine Hayles’ essay “Traumas of Code,” in which she reminds us of the instability of code by stating, “Nothing is more difficult than to decipher code someone else has written and insufficiently documented” (137). Insufficient documentation leads not only to the inability to locate a digital artifact (in this case, a piece of art), but it simultaneously deletes the memory of its existence.
Continuing, in response to the question of where we can locate the lure of new media, Murray offers that the “lure” of digital art is derived from its interstitial quality:
[...] might the promise of digital art dwell somewhere in the in-between, in the interstitial zone between the binaries that are shared by our cinematic, critical, and digital heritages: code and craft? While the code has moved, in the digital context, from the stuff of theory to the matter of computing, it could be said to maintain a continued binary relation to the craft of artistic production. (141)
If Murray’s code-craft binary is a compelling framework for thinking about new media art, it is because digital artifacts live in this “interstitial zone.” Digital Baroque art cannot function outside this zone; it is neither code nor craft. Rather, it is both code and craft, and the spaces between—between the frames, on the web page—and within the frame recall this tension, over and over again.
This tension produces serious problems for the viewer’s understanding of the relationship between the code and craft. As Murray argues, new media art challenges our notion of art owing to authorial invention alone:
If even only a proximation of the weight of such an intellectual code continues to impinge on the critical practice in the digital age, then we also might wonder about corollary binarism, cinema and new media. Does cinema provide the code of new media’s craft? Is cinema, or the idea of cinema, what provides the reference for the free-floating hallucinations of new media’s art? (142)
What I think Murray is questioning here is the role of interaction—why are we limited simply to the spectacle-spectator binary? To more deeply consider interaction, Murray might benefit from the work of Paul Dourish. In Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction, Dourish argues that “interactional approaches conceptualize computation as the interplay between different components, rather than the fixed and pre-specified paths that a single, monolithic computational engine might follow […] Human computer interaction (HCI) considers interaction not only as what is being done, but also how it is being done” (4). In what he calls “tangible computing,” Dourish is concerned with how “to get the computer out of the way and provide people with a much more direct interaction experience” (16). For Murray, however, “tangible computing” (although not explicitly stated) is a key aspect of digital art—we should feel like we are interacting with something. When Dourish argues that, “[with other examples of tangible design], there has always been a distinct ‘seam’ between the computational and the physical worlds at the points where they meet,” Murray might suggest that the seam is critical to digital art in general and the digital Baroque in particular (43). With the digital Baroque, this seam, at least the point where humans and computers are complementary agents, must be visible—we have to know we’re interacting in order for the fold to be enacted.
In conclusion, Murray’s project is commendable. His exhaustive examination of digital art is a new contribution to the field, one which expands on Hansen’s work while also providing an exciting reinterpretation of Deleuze’s “fold.” Although this text is not explicitly rhetorical, rhetoricians will find it impressive at least for the consideration of how we understand technological participation.
Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Liebniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. Print.
Dourish, Paul. Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.
Hansen, Mark B.N. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
---. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. Print.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “Traumas of Code.” Critical Inquiry 33.1 (2006): 136-157. 22 October 2009. Web.
Murray, Timothy. Digital Baroque: Mew Media Art and Cinematic Folds. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.