top of page

White Columns Lecture

As I understand my charge here, it is to provide some kind of deposition on the interrelated subjects of: (1) cybernetics, (2) the thought and influence of Gregory Bateson and Marshall McLuhan, (3) the nature of the ambience around the introduction of, in the mid-60's, time-based media, particularly in installation formats, and (4) how, in the 90's we are confronted with an ethos similar to that of the 60's, in the sense that both share a technological quantum thrust as backdrops for the making, consuming, criticizing and ruminating about visual art.


Cybernetics derives from the Greek kybernetes, which means steersman, pilot, controller, or governor, and is generally defined as the study of feedback mechanisms (the thermostat being an example of a simple one). Also and primarily of communication systems and controls, or restraints, found both in living organisms and machines...further, as the study of adaptation and the systems, both organic and mechanistic, that exhibit self-regularity features, and which display purpose to other functions assigned to the activity of a mind.


Although cybernetics emerged in the 30's with the work of Weiner, Ashby and Shannon, work which was driven by the specific necessity to devise a way of comprehending the world to facilitate the creation of thinking machines (which we now know as computers). It became, however, by the late 40's, a generalized epistemological and methodological worldview characterized by a sweeping scope, aspiring to link together a philosophy of mind with a new, radical epistemology, methodology, evolution, ecology, anthropology and aesthetics, even...This expanded scope of cybernetics was established by a series of conferences in the late 40's, the Macy conferences. Bateson was a central figure as well as a commanding force at the conferences.


The key lexical markers for a cybernetic explanation of any phenomena are feedback/feedforward, circuit to loop, restraint, difference, information (as opposed to data), context, redundancy and command. In cybernetic methodology, a symptom, an ideology, a superstructure or any equivalent metastatement is a mapping or a transform of some proposition or communication, behavior implies an information processing network in which messages, borne by energy, pass along mediated and unmediated channels disturbed by noise or entropy), information from this perch can be distinguished from both signification and meaning...and can be defined as a mapping between sets of structured variety. To paraphrase Bateson's logic: Outside cybernetics we look for explanation but not for anything that would simulate logical proof (which is something new) thus that explanation by simulation of logical proof is expectable. The subject matter of cybernetics is not events and objects, but the information carried by events and objects...We consider objects and events only as proposing facts, propositions, messages, percepts and the like...thus the subject matter, being propositional, it is thus expectable that cybernetic explanation will simulate the logical.


Now, how does all this relate to art? In several critical ways...In brief, Bateson saw the function of art in any culture as providing a unique kind of information directly linked to its survival, in that it supplies the given culture with a sense of grace, and that the experience of, or attainment of grace is the critical motive for making and consuming art. McLuhan's thought impinges upon the same subject matter but derives from a wholly different take of the world. Although they were roughly contemporaries the origins of McLuhan's revolutionary ideas reside in the notions generated by the literary school known as the New Criticism, which emerges in the 30's with E.r. Levas, William Empson and I. A. Richards at Cambridge, where McLuhan was a student.


McLuhan referred to his ideas or propositions as probes, which released him from the usual restraints of logical or even rational development and exposition in articulating them. The jest of these ideas goes something like this: Cultures are governed and shaped by sensory ratios, usually the ratios extent between the visual and the auditory. He argues, for example, in the Guttenberg Galaxy, that western culture was predominantly auditory, being based in an essentially oral tradition up until the invention of moveable type and the widespread availability of the book as a means of communication and transmission of ideas...and that the oral tradition represented a certain kind of stability which was destroyed by the introduction of print...and that by extenstion the new visual culture ushered in an entirely different comprehension of the world. What was once heard was now seen, and this sensory ratio shift established its own kind of stability which prevailed up until the introduction of electronic media...which represents a shift back to the auditory and introduces a novel sort of instability and upheaval.


Beginning with the introduction of the light bulb, which McLuhan refers to as pure information, to thesubsequent entries of the radio, the phonograph, film and finally and most importantly television, which completes the transition to the electronic-oral age...while it diminished importance of print media and the

stability it sustained. Beyond TV, of course, unfolds the PC and all its extensions up to Virtual Reality systems, whose existence McLuhan predicted. That is, he foresaw, the gradual decentralization of such media to the extent that their general availability would become widespread, even ubiquitous; and that this developmental trend would granulate all the values inherent in print-based culture, and thereby introduce a new kind of barbarism — a Clockwork Orange-esque world of illiterate punks raging about with hi-tech menace.


As an antidote to this condition, McLuhan believed, perhaps optimistically, that art and artists should function as interceptors of the decentralizing media and turn them to explicitly aesthetic ends. What is so striking about McLuhan's prognostications is their paradoxical mix of foreboding and promise, of future gazing and nostalgia for the past.


Returning to McLuhan's foundational notion of sensory ratios, a pivot around which all else circulates, an ear was exchanged for an eye with the arrival of print. And the eye was then reexchanged for an ear with the electronic onslaught, but with this rather obvious difference: the new round of sensory imbalance is accompanied by a synesthesia, and is thus a more complex phenomena heretofore experienced by humanity. This time around the effects of the shift are global...turning the planet into a global village wherein the universal is local and the reverse...thus, the shift is asomtotic, relatively sudden and without precedent. There exist no prior models to prepare us for the changes to come.



Frank Gillette


Oct 1990 / NYC

bottom of page