Stephen Wilsons Information
Arts, is a monumental encyclopedic collection of the theories and productions
that exist at the intersection of art, science and technology. With
contemporary technologies, Wilson argues, the distinction between art and
science is not so clear-cut. Whether dealing with computer-generated models,
interactive web pages, or gadgets constructed in terms of aesthetic as much
as technological goals, the alliance between, if not the mixing of, art and
science has created a wide, no, an incredibly expansive array of information
I have to admit that the book was a
bit overwhelming. On the one hand, it is primarily an encyclopedia summarizing
thousands of art installations, software projects, technological developments,
and human-computer experiments. Trying to read the book from cover to cover did
not work there were just too many examples following in quick succession.
Instead, the book encouraged the reader to flip between pages. Nonetheless,
however, insofar as the books goal is to create in the reader a sense of the
vastness and complexity of the collection, the book was successful. With over
900 pages of samples, organized in a rough thematic way, the examples keep
piling up and expanding, with web pages and further reading allowing the reader
to follow any number of different topics.
While the book includes a wide array
of different topics, one thing that I was surprised to not see was any
discussion of the electronic book or the digital library. While topics in this
field probably do not have the gee-whizness of many of the examples that are
discussed, there are nonetheless important artistic and technological questions
that are raised when the possibilities of digital reading are discussed. Here,
I think, may be another limitation with the encyclopedic and celebratory format
of the book. The debates focused the electronic reading are actually debates.
While it would be possible, and interesting, to collect together various
artefacts and software that could hint at the possibilities, none of them
really have the same clear and distinct idea, the same smell of newness, or the
same artistic impact that the book tends to focus on.
As an encyclopedia of what is
happening in scientific art, I found that the pictures were generally
disappointing. None of the pictures are in color, and many were too small and
poorly reproduced to enhance the readers appreciation of the work. While the
book is presented as an art book, it is unfortunately laid out as a computer
manual. Part of this may be that the topics being covered were so diverse, and
so difficult to capture in a two-dimensional static media, that color would not
have added much to the book. Readers can go to the web pages, after all. But
this only works for a limited number of the instances.
On the other hand, the book is also
an attempt to demonstrate a specific philosophical point: that the distinction
between science and art is no longer tenable: scientists have become artists,
and artists have become scientists. And behind this connection is an array of
key theoretical questions, questions that are raised in the book, but almost
never dwelt upon. The book thrives on examples, both theoretical and artistic,
and offers very little in the way of overall analysis. The discussion of the history of science and
art that begins the book, for instance, suffers from being too simplistic, and
from relying on an eclectic, all but random, set of historians of science.
Francis Bacon is at the beginning, as a way to separate art and science, and
Barthes and Baudrillard are at the end, as a way to put them together again.
But were art and science ever that far apart?
While the celebration of the newly
refound connection between art and science is a useful foil to begin the book,
in the end, rejecting this history as it is offered in Information Arts
should not detract from the remaining 800 pages that summarize so much recent
technological creativity. As with any encyclopedia, however, Information Arts
suffers from the limits and issues of any large-scale collection. The perspectives and the data (the books
own information art), are very western, very establishment, and soon to be very
dated. Most of the examples in the book are from the last decade or two, and by
the authors own intellectual commitments, there is every reason to believe
that there will be more and quite different examples very soon. And with the
inspiration for diversity that Information Arts provides, the increase
in variation will likely be that much greater. In short, the books value is
less in its theoretical discussions or the shelf-life of its examples, and can
be found more on the simple, but crucial, sense that so much has been done
already, and so much more can be done, at the intersection of art, technology,
© 2002 Brian Richardson
Brian Richardson recently completed his
Political Science dissertation at the University of Hawaii, on the voyages of
Captain Cook and 19th century understandings of empire. He is now researching
the morality of reading in a digitizing world, focusing in particular on key
moral arguments from the history of western philosophy.