An Introduction to Electronic Art Through the Teaching of Jacques Lacan: Strangest Thing by David Bard-Schwarz


I began this book by asking some simple questions: How can one understand works of electronic art? Do they rely on the same aesthetics as traditional art? If so, how? If not, what are the implications of its new media elements such as computers, software applications, and the web; how can one consider these technologies as elements of art? How can one understand the various kinds of sounds and noises in these works? Is it possible to respond emotionally to electronic art? Is there any body of knowledge that be useful in understanding electronic art?

Current scholarship helps answer some of these questions. Mladen Dolar's A Voice and Nothing More provides a theory of voice that explores the spaces between sound and signification in a wide variety of contexts; Dolar's work is a beginning step in the development of a theory of sound art. But Dolar offers no precise, technical evidence in sound or music to support his claims. Mark Hansen's New Philosophy for New Media situates new media among the contemporary media and communications discourses in the modernist traditions; this book is quite helpful in exploring ways of perceiving works of new media that are visual as reflections of these discursive practices. But Hansen says little about the acoustic dimension. Hal Foster's The Return of the Real is a psychoanalytic reading of new media art in its infancy in the early 1990s.

I write Strangest Thing seeking adjacency with these three books. Like Dolar, I hope to contribute to a general theory of sound art; unlike Dolar, I insist that readers learn to explore some technical details of sound and music. I hope that this will be empowering and exciting to readers, as I help them use a few very simple tools to hear and understand much more in works than they might ever have thought possible. Like Hansen, I will explore a large body of works and suggest ways of apprehending them based on existing, scholarly traditions; unlike Hansen, I will emphasize a single approach--Lacanian psychoanalysis. Like Foster, I will approach new media through Lacan; unlike Foster, I will theorize the present as it manifests itself at the present writing, and I will support my claims directly through citations of English translations of Lacan's major works.

My approach is Lacanian because I have a history of inquiring into art from a Lacanian point of view. More importantly, I find Lacan particularly applicable to electronic art of the current era. The reason has to do with the kinetic nature of Lacan's account of the psyche and its effects in culture. For me, everything in Lacan is about what comes into view as thresholds are crossed and enunciated, from the subject, to the signifier, to language in social space, to art, and to history. For the past few decades I have approached Lacan through his interpreter, Slavoj Žižek. The advantage of such an approach is that one reaches the thought of the difficult master through a writer who makes Lacan accessible and very clear; the disadvantage of such an approach (as it occurs to me now) is that one misses the precision of the language of the master himself.

Reading Lacan has been at times exciting, difficult, and exasperating. Lacan is famously difficult to read, and I ask the reader to join me in exploring the meanings that I cite throughout this book from translations of his original sources--the seminars he gave in Paris in the mid twentieth century. Here are four reasons that Lacan is difficult to read:

  • 1) Lacan implicitly knows that we can have no direct access to experience. For him, meanings emerge in the margins of thought, in the unstated assumptions we make when we speak, in the ways in which we misunderstand the world and our experience in it, in the transformations that consciousness undergoes in dreams (after Freud) and in the language we use to negotiate the world. In short, Lacan looks at the world awry (to borrow that term from one of Žižek's books). And looking, listening, thinking awry is one of the central metaphors of this book. By looking at, listening to, and thinking about electronic art awry, and by grounding that approach in the writings of Lacan, we can gain access to new ways of experiencing and understanding electronic art.

    Since Lacan thinks awry, he rarely defines anything in a straightforward manner. Instead, his language strikes glancing blows at ideas; he much prefers to approach and then veer around an idea rather than expound on a conventional rhetorical definition or exposition. For me, Lacan's writing oscillates between two poles: it is either elliptical, allusive, and evasive, or (usually towards the ends of his seminars) it narrows in an almost pre-Socratic intensity to concise, poetic and packed sentences that compress several terms and approaches into one epigrammatic utterance. Just as the expansive, evasive, and allusive language veers around an idea and is therefore quite difficult, so, too, are the sentences of compressed and multi-layered definitions.

  • 2) Many of Lacan's seminars have not been published, and of those that have been published, not all have been translated into English. A few have claimed that to really understand Lacan, one must read him in French. And while translators have taken great care to discuss how translation from French to English has affected Lacan's thought, not reading him in French is a liability. Lacan loves word play, homonyms, and puns. For him they bring out the arbitrary nature of the signifier and its over-determined status. There are certain quirks of the French / English translation that additionally put up a barrier to an apprehension of Lacan. To take just one example, the word "regard" has been translated as "look" and as "gaze"--a binary opposition that has had enormous influence in criticism. It would certainly be illuminating to read Lacan in French and read "regard" as both "look" and "gaze," depending on the context.
  • 3) Lacan's famous return to Freud was motivated by a desire to get away from the positivism of ego psychology that was popular in the mid twentieth century. With his desire to return to the kinetic and asymmetrical structures of the psyche described by Freud, Lacan also implicitly sought to avoid simplistic one-to-one correspondences that put discourse into neat packages.
  • 4) His audience was members of the French psychoanalytic society, those sympathetic to his work, as well as those less sympathetic to it, in addition to psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, academics, and scholars either attending his seminars regularly, or dropping in as guests. His tone in addressing this audience is one of the master, at times affectionate, at times humorous, at times poetic, at times crusty.

It is not my intent to offer a complete reading of Lacan, to assure the reader that every aspect of every key issue in Lacan will be touched upon at some point in this book. And yet, I hope that through reading this book, the reader will gain a clearer sense of many of Lacan's crucial contributions of psychoanalysis and culture. Specifically, I hope the reader will emerge from this book with a clearer sense of the triad Imaginary / Symbolic / Real, the difference between reality and the Real, the acoustic mirror stage and its relation to the (visual) mirror stage, the relationship between the signifier and the subject, of speech (the fides and the feint), of the body and its relationship with signification, the distinctions between look and gaze, the nature of jouissance, the objet petit-a, the relationship between the other and the Other, the relationship between symptom and sublimation, the relationship between metaphor and metonymy, and much more.

I also cannot claim always to offer an account of a direct, immediate, and unmediated experience of the works under examination. There is something fleeting about these works of art, and their temporary status may remind some of Fluxus. Many of these works are Fluxus-like in that their contours are fluid; the images, sounds, information may come and go depending on user input, environmental conditions, or other factors. Many of these works are assembled for exhibition and then taken down, to survive in pieces in studios, basements, archives, as traces left on audio-visual documentation on line. And since the writer of this book lives in one place in America and the works are / were / will be in locations all over the world, access to them can occur only through vestiges of documentation that exist on line. Referring to still shots, reproduced in black and white, from on line sources provide a sober reminder of just how mediated scholarship can be. To refer to a dynamically-generated work of electronic art through such a remove seems not only to see the world as through a glass darkly but to barely see at all. Still, I offer these analyses as a first step toward a Lacanian understanding of electronic art in general, and an introduction to the works themselves. I have no doubt that readers who are able to experience some of these works "live" may have a far different, more nuanced sense of the work than I have been able to offer here. Still, with the reader's indulgence, I hope to offer a mode of understanding these works that can be enriched through direct, immanent experience. I know that this is possible. To give one example, I began working on the last work in this book, Bill Viola"s The Greeting from online resources. Then I realized the work was on permanent display at the nearly by Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art. At the museum, watching the work for almost an hour, I noticed the embedded "little theater" that I write about. That portion of the work is invisible in on line documentation, and had I limited my discussion to the on line documentation itself, I would have missed it. So be it. I invite readers to experience as many of these and other works of electronic art "live" in order to deepen your understanding of the various registers at which they signify.

Throughout the book, I make connections between works of art (with which I always begin), and Lacan (and others). Sometimes this connection is logical (an aspect of an electronic mirror is connected to Lacan's mirror stage, for example); sometimes this connection is associative (an installation rendering speeches of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Roosevelt leads to a discussion of "speech" in Lacan, for example). I ask the reader to let me make these connections freely along a continuum of the clearly logical on the one hand, and the more associative on the other. Having introduced a work and made a connection (logical or associative) with Lacan, I will cite a passage or two, with some commentary, analysis, and synthesis.

By "Strangest Thing" I mean to acknowledge the oddity of many of these works and the materials of their construction. But aside from writing about strange objects, I seek, in fact, to de-familiarize familiar objects and to make objects that might seem normal, seem strange. This is a variant on looking, listening, thinking awry that I mentioned above. I like to find things strange because it is precisely through strange seeing, strange listening, and strange thinking that new objects and new attributes of familiar objects can appear. "Strangest Thing" also refers to a very common phase that people say when they experience something as in déjà vu--a memory that almost comes clear, a sensation at once familiar and unfamiliar. This suggests another metaphor that underwrites this entire book and its method--the uncanny.

Psychoanalysis, particularly Lacanian psychoanalysis assumes that what we experience as adults piggybacks in ways to which we barely have access to early childhood experiences, of our own body formation, of our positions with regards to siblings and parents, to the primal scene, to the ways in which we acquire language, to the ways in which we interpellate ourselves as subjects in social space. The uncanny is one particular modality of barely remembering something--at once unfamiliar and familiar.

I write this book for those interested in the arts and humanities, with perhaps some academic study and / or interest in music, the visual arts, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, new media, and developments in contemporary philosophy. I am particularly interested in reaching readers who love and / or are interested in music but who may have little or no formal training in music. From those readers who are well-versed in elementary matters of music theory, I beg indulgence; for those readers who have no training in music theory, I beg patience; I will throughout this book explain in terms as clear and straightforward as I can make them some basic concepts of sound, noise, and music. I ask that readers who are well-versed in such matters, let themselves pass through such discussions to ponder the implications of the examples at hand beyond the terms I have used to describe them. I ask that readers who may have little or no formal training in music theory attempt to grasp the concepts, the sounds that I am describing in the hopes that the discussion can close the gap between the relative silence of signifiers such as these that you are reading right now, and the sounds to which they can sometimes point.

Overview of the Chapters

The chapters of this book very roughly parallel in their linear progression developing subjectivity; I begin with "Bodies" (evocative of the earliest stages of subjectivity in which we find ourselves in our own flesh), followed by "Voices" (evocative of the sonorous envelope and acoustic mirror stage), followed by "Eyes" (evocative of the (visual) mirror stage), followed by "Signifiers" (evocative of language acquisition). I will elaborate on the implications of these parenthetical phrases in due course. This characterization of the linear progression of chapters and developing subjectivity is more true than false, but it is also misleading. The very explanation above concerning the linear progression of developing subjectivity is a retrospective fantasy from the position of language acquisition; pre-linguistic stages of developing subjectivity can be apprehended, at best, as through a glass darkly. So it is perhaps better to imagine the progression of chapters as at once running along a left-to-right progressive chain of phases of developing subjectivity, and, at the same time to imagine that the chapters that significantly overlap with one another.

In the first chapter called "Bodies", I explore three works in connection with the abject: 2X2X2X2X [no date provided] by Michael Rees; Anima (2009) by Paula Gaetano Adi; Hippy Dialectics (2010) by Nathaniel Mellors; and Model 5 (1994-1995) by Kurt Hentschläger and Ulf Langheinrich. The abject is that category of experience in which something has been rejected, expelled, cast off. The abject often signifies bodily function in general and women in particular. References in the critical literature are from Julia Kristeva and Georges Bataille.

I will then explore three works about (dis)pleasure: Red no. 3 (2000) by Yue Minjun; Untitled (L'Origine) (2008) by Yael Kanarek, and Cluster (2009-2011) by Kurt Hentschläger. Pleasure in these contexts will range from the pleasure principle in Freud to more ambivalent forms of enjoyment in Lacan and others.

I will then discuss two works that deal with violations of bodily integrity: The Killing Machine (2007) by Janet Cardiff and Georg Bures Miller; and Rainbow (1998) by Xu Zhen. These violations take the forms of corporal punishment, forced exile, and sado-masochistic enjoyment. The theoretical support for the discussion of these works will come mainly from the writings of Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Lacan. I conclude the chapter with a look at two works that evoke the body in very different ways: Edunia (2003-2008) by Eduardo Kac, focusing on ethical and psychoanalytical issues concerning technological interventions into biological organisms, and Richard Beaudoin's Black Wires (2009)--a work of music that re-composes a performance of a work by Chopin as articulation of the body, awry.

Abjection, pleasure, boundary breach, and the nature of flesh itself; these are the dimensions of the body explored in this chapter.

In the second chapter called "Voices," I begin with two works that embody the sonorous envelope of early childhood subjectivity: Zee (2008) by Kurt Hentschläger and Acousmatorium by Hans-Joachim Roedelius; I then discuss two works that deal with the cry: Deaf-Mute Chorus [no date provided] by Oksana Chepelyk and Vena Cava (1993) by Diamanda Galâs; I then examine two works that suggest a mutual interdependence between the body and how it processes sound: a spatial asyndeton (2009) by Seth Cluett, and Acoustical Visions of Venice (1999) by Bill Fontana.

I then discuss four works that deal with feedback loops and noise: Rumour (2007) by Seth Cluett; Inside the Oscillator (2004) by Edo Paulus; NoiseFold by Cory Metcalf and David Stout [no date provided], and Current Disturbance (1996) by Mona Hatoum.

I conclude the chapter with three works that deal with three different kinds of music as raw material: Hilo Noon (2003) (on a popular song recorded originally on a wax cyliner); Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on "Ode to Joy" for a Prepared Piano (2008) by Allora and Calzadilla (a performance piece based on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony); and Lowlands (2008 / 2010) by Susan Philipsz (an installation based on a Scottish folk song).

The sonorous envelope, the acoustic mirror, noise, feedback, and music; these are the dimensions of sound explored in this chapter.

In the third chapter titled "Eyes," I begin by discussing three works that invite the reader to question what we see as images become transformed before our every eyes; the subtitle for this section of the chapter is a question mark: Still Life (Vanitas) (2009) by Jason Salavon; Empire (2010) by Claudia Hart; and Portrait of a Man (2007) by Birthe Blauth.

I then move on to nine works that can be understood as mirror fantasies; this portion of the chapter is sub-titled "what mirrors see and show." The first few of these works are literal mirrors; they become subsequently more figurative, interactive, and transformational. I begin with Daniel Rozin's Wooden Mirror (1999). The more figurative, interactive, and transformational works include: The Company of Colors (2009) by Raphael Lozano-Hemmer; Eyecode (2007) by Golan Levin; Reface [no date provided] by Golan Levin and Zach Lieberman; Blow Up (2007), Make Out (2009), Surface Tension (1993) by Raphael Lozano-Hemmer, and External Measures (2003) by Camille Utterback.

I then examine two works that deal with surveillance: Wandering Eye Studies (2006) by Ed Osborn; and Your Lips are No Man's Land But Mine (Laura) (2008) by Jenny Vogel. The theoretical support for these discussions will be from Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan. I then discuss a work that evokes woman as object of desire--Tiller Girls (2009) by Louis-Phillippe Demers. I conclude the chapter with Peripheral Rhythm (2006 to the present) by Jim Campbell, exploring relations between the gaze and the objet petit a.

How an image behaves in slowly evolving animation, how images appear in mirrors, and surveillance; these are the dimensions of seeing that are explored in this chapter.

In the fourth chapter called "Signifiers", I begin by discussing three works that deal with the signifier in relation to the subject: Drawing Machine 3.1415926 vol. 2 by Fernando Orellana, Temporary Printing Machine (2007) by Random International, and The Directives (2008-2009) by Jill Magid. I then discuss two works that represent layers of signifiers: Firebirds (2004) by Paul de Marinis, and Love Letter (2010) by Yael Kanarak. I then explore the signifier as glitch in four works: Moviestorm Machinima Audition Tape (2010) by Jon Cates; mimicking lofi aesthetics (2011) by Rosa Menkman, Nothing Further Happens (2011) by Rebeca Méndez, and Friendly Fire 2.0 by Shane Mecklenburger. I then examine five works that represent the signifier at the edge of the Real: Pica by Paula Gaetano Adi, SSB/2008 by r. luke dubois, Still Life at the Speed of Sunrise (2005) by Jason Salavon, Moving Objects/no. 485 (2010) by pe lang, and Empire (2010) by Claudia Hart. I then discuss My Little Violin (2009) and Clock (no date provided) by Arthur Ganson in which machines embody drive. I conclude the chapter with a look at two works: Claudia Hart's Caress (2011) from the point of view of jouissance, and Bill Viola's The Greeting (1995) that articulates a threshold between the Symbolic and the Real.

The signifier and the subject, layers of signifiers, glitch, signifiers at the edge of the Real, and jouissance; these are the approaches I explore in this chapter from the point of the view of the Lacanian Symbolic.

The Imaginary

Lacan discusses throughout his career the mirror stage as a quintessential component of the Imaginary. The mirror stage occurs in children from around six months of age to about a year and a half; it would be a mistake to think that thereafter the mirror stage disappears. It certainly does not; it becomes transformed and subsumed by the Symbolic, becoming in fact its core, like the initial ring of a tree around which other rings grow. For Lacan, "it suffices to understand the mirror stage in this context as an identification [emphasis Lacan's] in the full sense analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image--an image that is seemingly predestined to have an effect at this phase, as witnessed by the use in analytic theory of antiquity's term, 'imago'" (Lacan 2006: 76). The quintessential moment of the mirror stage is holding a small child up to a mirror or the face of the (m)other and seeing his / her extraordinarily delightful pleasure. For Lacan that pleasure is one of assuming an image as one's own, and it is at the heart of our ego formation through which we at once identify with an ideal image of the other and begin to form a sense of ourselves as independent of that other.

For Lacan it is crucial for human subjectivity that the jubilation of this assumption of the image of the other involves misrecognition: "[f]or the total form of his body, by which the subject anticipates the maturation of his power in a mirage, is given to him only as a gestalt, that is, in an exteriority in which, to be sure, this form is more constitutive than constituted, but in which, above all, it appears to him as the contour of his stature that freezes it and in a symmetry that reverses it, in opposition to the turbulent movements with which the subject feels he animates it" (Lacan 2006: 76). This means that we enter the mirror stage and experience its jubilation at a stage of human development in which the prematurity of our birth is manifest. Once we learn to stand up and begin to master the movements of which our bodies are capable, we realize that what we had thought was our ideal image in the mirror of the other was simply a flat, two-dimensional mirage. Thus for Lacan there is an inherent ambivalence to the mirror stage as it resonates through our entire psychic development and maturity; there is, as it were, a tain in the mirror that will never go away.

To summarize: the Imaginary is the world of mutually exclusive, one-to-one binary oppositions of visual, acoustic, tactile, and corporal identifications with the other. The other (with a lower-case "o") is that strange replica of ourselves that we see in the world, at first the mother, other adults and siblings, and then others as we meet, imagine, remember and project them.

The Symbolic

For Lacan, "we have here nothing more than an illuminating insight into the entrance of the individual into an order whose mass supports him and welcomes him in the form of language, and superimposes determination by the signifier onto determination by the signified in both diachrony and synchrony" (Lacan 2006: 35). In other words, we are human as we speak language. Lacan knows that children babble and that language develops throughout the Imaginary in terms of the acoustic mirror, its cries, and the developing orientation of the self as an entity inside a body that both contains, emits, and receives sound. Lacan focuses in the citation above and elsewhere, in the signifying chain set in motion by the signifier. The Symbolic with its quintessential feature of language acquisition grows out of and grows around, as it were, the Imaginary. It can be seen as an answer to the gradual flattening of the mirror and the misrecognition it brings to the developing subject. That is, the mutually-exclusive binary opposition of presence and absence, plenitude and lack, of "black" and "white" becomes mediated through a world of "grey" in which we never have the object of desire completely, but we always have something incompletely--the signifier. Freud discovered precisely the same thing in his fort / da game that he observed his nephew playing. For Freud (the peekaboo game in English is an equivalent) when a child plays at tossing away a toy (fort) and then pulling it back (da); he / she has already made the crucial leap into language and the essence of culture--the ability to actively master through language an experience of loss that all children experience passively--the loss of the ubiquity and permanence of the mother's presence (Freud 1961: 13-17).

For Lacan, "[f]ounding speech, which envelopes the subject, is everything that has constituted him, his parents, his neighbours, the whole structure of the community, and not only constituted him as symbol, but constituted him in his being. The laws of nomenclature are what determine and channel the alliances from within which human beings copulate with one another and end up by creating, not only other symbols, but also real beings, who, coming into the world, right away have that little tag which is their name" (Lacan 1991b: 20). The Symbolic is the world of language, of law, of social convention, and the names we have not only for things and ideas but for each other. And just as names are given to us at birth, we are born into the Symbolic and acquire the means to circulate in social space from it.

The Symbolic changes our relations with others. We relate to the other with a lower-case "o" as other in the Imaginary; we relate to this other in mutually-exclusive binary oppositions of presence / absence, plenitude / lack, black / white. It is a point-to-point system of binaries. We relate to the Other with an upper-case "O" as Other in the Symbolic; we respond to the call of the Other in ideological interpellation in which we are hailed into a wide array of social institutions; we enter into the world of speech with the Other. We speak the language of the Other as bits in a random coin toss form patterns: "[o]ne can grasp in its very emergence the overdetermination that is the only kind of overdetermination at stake in Freud's apperception of the symbolic function. Simply connoting with (+) and (-) a series playing on the sole fundamental alternative of presence and absence allows us to demonstrate how the strictest symbolic determinations accommodate a succession of coin tosses whose reality is strictly distributed 'by chance'" (Lacan 2006: 35). The (+) stands for a signifier; the (-) stands for the difference between one signifier and another in a signifying chain. I introduce this potentially confusing example to make a point, and that has to do with the nature of binaries in the Imaginary and the Symbolic.

To summarize: in the Imaginary, binaries are one-to-one forms of identification; in the Symbolic, binaries are one-to-many signifiers distributed in punctuated series (plural). The Imaginary with its quintessential mirror stage inaugurates the developing subject into mutually-exclusive binary identifications of presence / absence, connection / separation through senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing and seeing in which the developing subject locates its being within a gradually forming boundary of skin, enclosing his / her body. As the Imaginary wanes, as the developing subject seeks relief from its relentless and unforgiving binaries, we enter the Symbolic in which we embrace the language into which we were born, hear ourselves in the call of the Other, and find ourselves in a network of signifiers.

The Real

Throughout his writings, Lacan sometimes refers to the real, to reality, as we might refer intuitively to situations, conditions of experience that are actual and to which we need to accustom ourselves in order to function; he does this particularly in reference to the reality of the therapeutic situation in which one must, whether patient or analyst, deal with transference. Elsewhere, in his writings, he refers to the real much more in the special meaning it has acquired. I will refer to this meaning as the Real with an upper-case "r" to distinguish it from the more anecdotal reality with which we are more or less familiar. In reference to Freud's dream of Fliess giving his patient Irma and injection, Lacan suggest the following: "[t]here's a horrendous discovery here, that of the flesh one never sees, the foundation of things, the other side of the head, of the face, the secretory glands par excellence, the flesh from which everything exudes, at the very heart of the mystery, the flesh in as much as it is suffering, is formless, in as much as its form in itself is something which provokes anxiety. Spectre of anxiety, identification of anxiety, the final revelation of you are this--You are this which is so far from you, this which is the ultimate formlessness [emphasis Lacan's]" (Lacan 1991b: 154-155). The Real is associated with the pulp thingness that supports Imaginary and Symbolic; we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell in registers of Imaginary binaries; we speak and respond to the call of the Other in the Symbolic, and as we do so the Real lurks just out of reach, beneath. For Lacan, the Imaginary always flips its binary identifications that range from jubilant assumption of images to feelings of abject abandonment; the Symbolic is a network of perpetually sliding signifiers; the Real, on the other hand "is that which is always in the same place" (Lacan 1997b: 70).

To summarize: the Lacanian Real is rather like the Kantian sublime--a pure thingness that underlies experience and surpasses our ability to describe or name it. It is the absolute, irreducible kernel of substance that supports everything we know. It is absolutely never seen, heard, tasted, smelled, touched, felt, or named in any way. By looking at the world and our experience awry, we sometimes get a glimpse of it, as Imaginary and / or Symbolic components of our experience are under sufficient strain. One can glimpse the Real as the Freudian uncanny, a sense that an experience, sensation, thought has been there before, displacing the epistemological security of things being where, when, how they should be, both in experience and in memory. If the Imaginary is the world of the other (with a lower-case "o") and the Symbolic is the world of the Other (with an upper-case "O"), then the Real is the world of alterity writ large as such that supports the two.