One-Bit Implosion, or Why Digital Minimalism?

[Patrick Lichty / DNA Generator for the Creation of Unspecified Monstrosities, processor driven video / 2005]

Since the turn of the millennium, I have been thinking of a set of ideas put under a general category called digital minimalism. Digital Minimalism has to do with the use of low-resolution aesthetics, “glitch” sound, minimal use of code, minimal electronics, and so on in the communication of concepts through digital media.  The development of this idea comes from a series of observations regarding the use of digital technologies in the creation of art, their history, and the place of those technologies within contemporary culture.  The problem with discussing these ideas is that to cover the whole spectrum of concepts from cultural effects to formal concerns to historical referents is beyond the scope of a single essay.  In consideration to both the author and reader, this text will cover only a few points regarding the general topic to expound in some of the key concepts regarding the general topic of Digital Minimalism, its rationales, and methods.

The first question one might raise is whether digitally minimal works might not have been around since Pong, the Atari 800 computer, and Pac-Man. The answer to this is, “not really.”  One of the core tenets of Digital Minimalism is that the use of the technology is a cultural choice rather than one of necessity. In the era of the first personal computers, and the aforementioned arcade classics, the limitations of the machines (low resolution, etc.) necessitated the use of low-resolution art and sound. Now this is not the case.  Creating artworks that foreground digital methods and culture is now a matter of style and choice, rather than one of necessity, as digital media are able to approximate the qualities of many traditional media.  Therefore, when one chooses to show a pixel or a glitch, it suggests a sense of self-reflection because of the level of development of digital techniques in art, as the glitch and the pixel are no longer a byproduct of technical constraints of the equipment.

Aside from the freshness and excitement of new media, where we are astounded by the grand narrative of the technologic, we must come to wonder how these complex systems lack and limit us, and in this process, produce something supplemental and other- disjunctures like the symborg or cyborg, phantasms abandoned in an exponentially changing new media wasteland. For it is only a brief time span before the mobile device is too big or the computer is too slow and our avatar is just a simple caricature that cannot support our folding self.

Newer media and technologies want to play around with difference and otherness as pleasurable attire, as commodity. There are varying intensities of otherness that vacillate by degree. For example, the intensities in user/avatar relations- “I control the avatar,” “the avatar and I are one and the same,” “I am using an avatar of the opposite sex.” Otherness is also produced in the manufacture of false profiles or shrines to celebrities or lost loved ones in social software like Facebook or My Space, practices which call on virtualities to merge with artificial intelligence or the simulation of personalities. New media like these, such as networked simulated worlds or metaverses, which are collaborative, meta-design systems and community/communicative practices, foster these multiplicities and differentiations. Even their names signify the otherness they foster- Second Life (in addition the first), There (in addition to here), or Active Worlds (extending the notion of a plurality of worlds to inhabit.) The safe, manageable practice of wearing the guise of the other is apparent in the pleasurable act of role-playing environments and is also seen in the frequency of gender flipped avatars. What are we becoming with such an impetus to otherness, alternative or difference and is this really such an open, idealized space?

Integration and Emulation

Since the turn of the millennium, media that approximate traditional methods, emergent digital print technology, greater processing speeds, and more accessible/ubiquitous use of digital tools in cultural production has created two effects in culture. First, the availability of those tools to artists whose chief area of interest is not digital art in itself has meant that there is a wide-scale integration of digital processes into contemporary practice that the mode of production is no longer linked to the concepts of those works.  For example, digital video is going to 24 frames per second, simulating film, and many photo labs are shutting down in favor of digital forms, and even artists like Chuck Close briefly experimented with digital techniques in the late 90s1(although I am told that digital printmaking didn’t suit his purposes, and chose not to pursue it).  The folding in of new technological methods are what I call an “integrated” method of art/technological practice, and the use of digital forms to mimic previously extant forms of media are what I call emulationism.  This particular shift of the use of technology in cultural production means that the mode of production is no longer as apparent between forms after certain representational abilities in digital media are available.

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