Art and technology have different ways of thinking and produce diverse images of the body. The two cultures have long been in fundamental conflict as their ways of thinking are moulded by very different traditions and methods. Every designer using technology and every technologist involved in designing comes up against this. This was the case with the physicist and information aesthete Max Bense (1910-1990) who worked in depth on this area of intersection and carried out significant basic research. The fogpatch project is an attempt to reconstruct a traumatic body experience that came out of two encounters of this German scientist with San Francisco.
The threads between head and body are worn, but not snapped.
Only consciousness is a distinct state.
Max Bense in Existence Statement from San Francisco, 1970
At the age of 60 the cybernetician Max Bense experiences the onset of the irrational in his own body. During a four-day stay in San Francisco in August 1969 he misses the bus in Sausalito. As the physicist Bense walks back to the city over the Golden Gate Bridge, he encounters a highly complex system of particles. A fog bank rolling in from the Pacific causes the temperature to fall by 15°C in an instant; the fog envelops the parabola of the steel construction and drives the power of speech out of the word and gesture generator (9). The shock causes Bense to experience a nasty renal colic and mortal fear the following night. He makes his first attempts at articulation and coming to terms with the experience in the Existence Statement from San Francisco. This contains two contrasting observer roles in alternating methodically varying writing styles. On one side are Bense's subjective feelings, and on the other his sober rationalising of the situation. Switching between concrete and abstract style, between semantic and syntactical techniques, as the author has explained elsewhere (1). The longed-for state of the body is entirely nerve-free. While Jimy Hendrix merges with his guitar in Woodstock Bense only wants to be like hair, strong and fine, sensitive, word-free and pain-free (3). The pretentious text appears in 1970 as a collector's edition of 100 copies with original etchings by the artist Helgart Rothe.
An aggressive defender of the modern, Max Bense was vigorously concerned from the 1940s with the predictability of the world. His vision was the establishment of a new aesthetic as an exact and empirical science. The metadisciplinary analysis of the processes of control and feedback were the way to overcome the split between the "two cultures" of technology and science on the one side, and art and the humanities on the other side. (5) In pursuing the "Mathesis Universalis" of Leibnitz, Bense starts with a categorial unity of aesthetical and mathematical forms, as do many of his contemporaries in art and architecture (8). Fascinated by the possibilities of discrete digital models and early electronic brains, he experiments in the field of creativity, but without doing any programming himself. Continuing from the Birkhoff formula that calculates aesthetic value as the ratio of order to complexity, he develops the format of concrete poetry in the 50s and works on the theory of painting. From the position of existential rationalism, Bense attempts to apply Shannon's notion of information to creative processes and for this he introduces the idea of information aesthetics. According to Bense, the quality of works of art, depending on their internal relationships of order, is somewhere on the scale between banality and chaos and can thus be calculated.
Max Bense on the Golden Gate Bridge
This modern kind of aesthetics is not an aesthetic of interpretation, but rather an aesthetic that attempts to presuppose that our description of something as being, for example, "beautiful", "not beautiful", "ugly", "not ugly" can be objectively determined. It is thus a kind of aesthetics of determining; this is intended to mean that what we state about works of art or designed objects can be determined in the same way as the composition of a mineral is determined, not interpreted, by the mineralogist.
Max Bense in 'Einführung in die Informationsästhetik', lecture in Recklinghausen on 6 July 1965 (2)
The failure of this approach was already predictable when, in the Summer of Love, the philosopher walked across the bridge. Only a few months later, in February 1970, a televised debate with Joseph Beuys led to a confrontation with the post-modern. The ardent collector of mineralogical objects encounters the artist of fat, felt and fog. In the heated discussion Bense attempts to destroy his opponent's anthroposophical view of man by flourishing a slide rule but this is not successful. Looking back at this fascinating showdown, Bense clearly loses on points.
The comprehensive ideas of cybernetics about feedback, that provisionally came to an end in the 1970s, are once again of current importance thanks to the enormous reach of digital technologies at the start of the 21st century. Not quite as expected, because in the age of Ubiquitous Computing and the Pervasive Internet, computers are no longer simply information technology equipment. Rather, wireless signals and networked miniature devices are pervading real space and in their recognisable forms they are receding ever more into the background. People's routine and the worlds they live in are enveloped in dynamic computer data, globalised multinational processes and the digital omnipresence are leading to the standardisation of places and space. In art and design too, the old fascination in feedback processes is returning. Software applications such as processing.org and M/M/J, link gateways like dataisnature.com and lifestyle magazines such as de:bug are again suggesting an analogy between mathematical and aesthetic structures, serve to propagate the interrelationship of code and design, algorithms and form. The Web portal Second Life naturally requires its visitors to accept their symbolic representation in the Net; with daily use the signifier and the signified grow closer together.
The approaches of cybernetics from the 1950s are being discussed again, as shown by numerous publications, symposiums and university seminars , and modern brain research connects to the well-known concepts with its models. The discoveries of neurobiology show that humans run a highly complicated communications system, not only with the external world but also within their bodies. Every movement expresses something and is fed back for the coordination of further movements (4). This principle of proprioception is a fundamental in the works of Joseph Beuys, such as in his coyote performance I like America and America likes me of 1974. This is also the way to understand his assertions like I think with my knee anyway, complemented by the cause lies in the future from the cyberneticist Heinz von Förster. The once-more fashionable swarm intelligence picks up such thoughts in the form of "crowdsourcing" in Google, Amazon and Wikipedia in Web 2.0. The emerging particle swarm is becoming a promise of an intelligent collective body.
Coastal fog reaching into the Bay will burn off by late morning,
then clear skies late afternoon, fog rolls in again.
Typical weather forecast in San Francisco
The place where these models and their software have been under full-speed development for decades is San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. Max Bense also makes a stop, indeed twice, in this place - firstly fictitiously and then for real. For there, where the walk over the bridge in the fog was the end of the creative period, lie the roots of the technological utopia of the cybernetician. From January 1942, the young physicist Bense worked in Dr. Hollman's laboratory for high-frequency technology and ultrasonics in Berlin-Lichterfelde. There, in the context of research in communications technology for transmitting image and sound, he speculates about the possibility of soon using a raster scan for transmitting the human body from Germany to California. This raster body would then be able to go for a walk in San Francisco (10). A futuristic dream for bodies similar to that of the radar thinker Gottfried Benn, that arose in these early days of cybernetics. Hans Erich Hollmann then came to California in a quite normal way; he was hired by NASA in 1947 as a researcher in radar. From there, two years later, he sent Bense a copy of the 6th edition of Norbert Wiener's "Cybernetics or control and communication in the animal and the machine".
These two models of the scanned body and the body of fog can be seen as a biographical link in Max Bense's life. The fogpatch project interprets these alternative concepts between technological noise and sensory buzz (4) as a dance performance in an interactive environment.
01 Bense, Max (1967): die zerstörung des durstes durch wasser. Köln