For a new kind of aesthetics


Mario Costa.

"Professore Ordinario" of Aesthetics at Salerno University and "chargé de cours" of Ethics and Aesthetics of Communication at Nice Sophia-Antipolis University

Department of Philosophy , Salerno University (Italy)




In the month of May 2004 the dott. Pericle Salvini, an italian researcher works in England to the University of Lancaster, proposed me a long interview destined to an English Magazine "on line". The interview was realised in the two following months but then it was not published for technical motives. With a series of essential and pertinent questions Salvini had succeeded in making me expose, in synthesis, all of my thought related to the art, to the aesthetics and the new technologies. The interview, as I have said, has never been published neither "on line" not on any other support. . Therefore, I bring it here as my theoretical contribution to the 7th  Generative Art Conference 2004. 


1.Pericle Salvini - A large part of your book L’estetica dei media ([1990 ]1999) is devoted to the theoretical investigation of the relationship between art and techno-science. What are your findings?


Mario Costa - By techno-science I don’t mean anything more than the fulfilment of the essence of technology. The origin and developments of science aren’t independent of technology, they happen within its logic. It isn’t true, therefore, that technology is the application of a basically ‘pure’ scientific research, but that science is elicited and put into action by technology in order to respond to its project and comply with it. By understanding it in this way, techno-science dominates our way of being in the world, radically changing and reshaping it. According to my hypothesis, it was extremely unlikely that things would only remain the same in that field of human experience which we know as “art”. This is why I’m trying to reconsider this area in light of the interferences and changes brought about by the current domination of techno-science.


2.P. S. - Another important theme of L’estetica dei media looks at the role played by the avant-garde movements in the history of art. Could you explain what your thoughts are on that?


M. C. - Really true avant-garde movements – and therefore I exclude those, like, for instance, expressionism and surrealism which in some ways are connected with the past and ultimately try in a rather old-fashioned and useless effort to revive it – true avant-garde movements have felt the meaning of breaking with the past; they’ve recognised the impossibility of placing themselves on a continuum with the history of art and have represented on the whole the first, often conscious, response to the emergence of techno-science and the invasion of new media. Obviously, I can’t develop my arguments further, here.


3.P. S. - On many occasions you’ve talked about the importance of technique and materials in the artistic process, finally claiming that ‘art is mainly an aesthetization of the tools of its own production’. Moreover, you’ve drawn up “a logic of media” consisting of competitions, survival strategies, hybridizations, metamorphoses, in which media seem to have a life of their own and are autonomous… like primed nuclear reactions. What is the role of the artist in this landscape, then? Is it the artist who “moves” art or does art  move by itself through an inner logic of media and remediation”?


M. C. - The artist, or rather the subject, represents and is only valuable as a superficial effect, destined to fade and disappear with the passing of time.

Bernard Berenson - the greatest expert on the Italian Quattrocento and Cinquecento, who attributed doubtful paintings to one painter or another, and  had to deal with artistic personalities who were anything but feeble - often acknowledged that he never truly knew where one artist finished and the other started. What is left in art, if anything, is a certain historical atmosphere or, from my point of view, nothing less that an aesthetization of technique, which is pursued, moreover, according to a sequential order and a becoming of the forms which is completely objective and necessary.


4.P. S. - In your books and writings, you’ve often attacked the current aesthetic research. Which direction do you think that research should move in, then?


M. C. - I’m not attacking all current research, but just those which want the new media to work like the previous ones, setting them to work in order to activate obsolete and antiquated poetics. Today artists must work on the aesthetization of new technologies in a way that corresponds strictly and fully to their potential.

However, if by aesthetic research you mean the kind carried out by aesthetic disciplines, I must confess that, over the last decades, it has often behaved like two animals: the tortoise, due to its speed, and the ostrich, because it tends to bury its head in the sand. However, I see, at last, that the theme of the next conference held by the International Society of Aesthetics, in Rio de Janeiro, will be “Changes in Aesthetics”.


5.P. S. - According to you, we’re now experiencing an “aesthetic-anthropological change” brought about by new technologies. One of the consequences of this change is the appearance of what you define as “aseity” or “self contained epiphanies” (entities in and of themselves). What do you mean by this expression?


M. C. - The first time I used this expression was in 1982 when I talked about the synthetic image. Even at that time, I was saying that this kind of image ‘does not penetrate the subject but stays outside it, flowing autonomously and living like a self contained epiphany. The image/imaginary symbiosis is broken for ever’. Later, I found that these things were repeated in various ways in Italy and abroad. What I meant by that expression is that digital technologies and networks – above all, but not only – are completely new and radically different from the old techniques and technologies of imagery, sound, writing, spatiality, communication and so on. This is due to the fact that the new technologies and their products can no longer be managed or assimilated by the subject, but are completely detached from it, and from the world. Now, it’s easier to understand why I distanced myself from those artists who believe that modernising the equipment is enough to move forward, monotonously, as if nothing had truly changed; it’s like using a revolver to smash nuts.


6.P. S. - Aren’t your notions of “aseity” and “self contained epiphany” perhaps similar to those which Baudrillard and Virilio call “simulacra” and “substitution”, respectively?


M. C. - The notion of “simulacra”, which we owe to Klossowski and which Baudrillard and Virilio use in more or less the same way, as well as the completely Italian attempt to apply it to a contemporary art that is generally understood, is a philosophical concept and as such is abstract and only true on a theoretical level. On the contrary, my notions of “self contained epiphany” and “aseity” are firmly rooted; they refer to an exact physiology of machines and to what it represents for art and aesthetics.


7. P. S. -  I must say that I’m fascinated by your notion of “self contained epiphany”. However, how can we relate it to the current tendency to make artworks interactive and participatory? I mean, if you, on the one hand, see autonomous art forms taking shape which live like “aseity”, how, on the other hand, can today’s artists propose open works which require the user’s participation and activation? Don’t these two ideas seem to clash?


M. C. - I consider the issue of interactivity as one of the last possible mirages or self-deceits of human-centred imagery. The notion of “interactivity” has been enthusiastically used and abused in so much of today’s talk about new technologies. According to this notion the subject of fruition is actively called into question by the ways in which new technological artworks exist, and prompted to participate in them, if not in their construction: the user is provided with the role of manipulator and master of the devices at work.

Elsewhere, I’ve tried to show and prove how the ‘weakness of the subject’, brought about by new electronic technologies of communication, also affects the very moment of fruition.

One should realise that the dull interactive procedures, especially those on the web, are only good for the physiology of a medium whose control escapes everything and everyone, only calling upon the user to act and prove that “it works”.


8.P. S. - In 1990 you wrote a book, actually it was a treatise, called Technological Sublime - A short treatise of the aesthetics of technology (1998[1990]). Could you explain what “technological sublime” is?


M. C. - It seems to me that, for many years, the artistic and the aesthetic categories which are historically related to it - like beauty, expression, meaning and feeling which become image, symbolic, genius, style and so on, due to the current domain of techno-science - are being replaced by a new epoch which is connected to that other strong aesthetic notion: the “sublime”. New technologies, therefore, constitute a new extreme, creating conditions for a new kind of sublime to manifest itself. As a matter of fact, after being “rethorical” in ancient times, “natural” in the XVIII century, and “metropolitan-industrial” in the modern era up until the dawn of the present age, the sublime has now become “technological”. “Sublime technology” is a new aesthetic era – the only one possible after the now evident decline of art – characterized by the acute weakness of the subject and the unfeasibility of its world of meanings.


9.P. S. - In 1983, together with the French artist Fred Forest, you founded the movement of the “aesthetic of communication”. What is the “aesthetic of communication” and what are its main features?


M. C. - Today, we are witnessing a burst of new-technologies. In my opinion, the technologies of telecommunication, among others, seem to constitute the propulsive centre as well as the true historical sense of our times. As early as the ’70s, I thought it appropriate to consider new telecommunication technologies in aesthetic terms – which meant something completely different from what certain television broadcasts were doing in those days. The meeting with Forest, which took place in the early ‘80s, confirmed my idea, and I’ve continued to work closely with that extraordinary artist since then. The “aesthetic of communication” – which now has a vast international bibliography and as a whole is very difficult to cover  – tends to theorise and carry out communicational events in which the aesthetic value has nothing to do with the contents of communication, but is completely set aside from them, and lies in the formal and functional aspects of the device in action, as well as in the new temporal-spatial dimensions produced.


10.   P. S. - In 1988, Jean Baudrillard in L’Autre par lui-meme speaks of the ‘ecstasy of communication’ in far less positive terms. Is there any connection between the “aesthetic” and the “ecstasy” of communication? Aren’t these two very different points of view…?


M. C. - The aesthetic of communication doesn’t mean a celebration of communication at all; on the contrary, it explicitly sets itself against any communicational ideology. This is a misconception that has accompanied this notion from the very beginning. It’s the result of a partial understanding of the aesthetic of communication, which stops at the name and ignores the actual technical work behind it. Recently, and again to dispel any misunderstandings, I’ve written: the "aesthetics of communication" has nothing to do with art as language, with artistic communication, semiotics, hermeneutics, information theory, inter-personal psychology, reception theory, and doesn’t compromise in any way with the symbolic. ThTh  Therefore, it’s necessary to point out a few things with the utmost clarity:


·   the “aesthetics of communication” has absolutely nothing to communicate, and at the same time communicates nothing at all, neither intentionally nor unconsciously;


·   the communication of the “aesthetic of communication” is absolutely empty and without information and consists entirely of the connections and machinic relations between the various parts of the communicational device’.


It’s like saying that the “aesthetic of communication” puts aside and overcomes all matters generally associated with the theme of communication.


11.P. S. - However, I can see some similarities, namely the interest in the bid-directionality of media, between Baudrillard’s thought and those of artists belonging to the aesthetics of communication. I’m referring, for instance, again to Fred Forest who in 1972 placed a completely blank 150 cm2 page in the French newspaper, Le Monde. It was meant to be a space for readers to answer back. A way to force, subvert the mono-directional nature of print and turn it into a dialogical medium. Many artists working with telecommunication technologies - like Eduardo Kac and Roy Ascott to name two - today, as yesterday, along with Bertolt Brecht’s “radio theory”, seem to stress the importance of bi-directionality in media, and the possibility of creating open systems and more dialogical models. Therefore, in this sense, telematic art is also a political art, because it deals  with the instruments of power. What do you think about that? And how relevant is this to your notion of aesthetics of communication?


M. C. - I’ve recently been working on the concept of the ‘communicating block’. Technologies of communication tend to work as “blocks”, in that they proliferate and then close in on themselves, incorporating and absorbing everyone in whatever way he or she enters the “block”. Therefore, every “reciprocity” with the media of communication is purely illusory and ends up with us playing its game. The only possibility – which is also political - is to make them work to no purpose. This is what today’s artists are doing, especially those who are inspired by the notion of “sublime technology”, rather then those belonging to the “aesthetic of communication”.


12.P. S. - As you’ve clearly stated in L'estetica dei media theatre has gone from being representational, due to competition from the cinema and television, and become presentational. However, you claim that the present time initiated by the theatre in response to the dead time of technology “is none other than the present-continuous of an anthropological establishment to which all technology aspires”. So, how can theatre emerge from this impasse? Would giving the body a prominent role, in a world increasingly disembodied, abstract,  free theatre from its gloomy fate? Is this one of the three strategies belonging to the “logic of media” that you define as “research of specificity”?


M. C. - I don’t see how theatre can move from this impasse or avoid its fate, as you say, especially as theatre was already involved in the search of its own specificity in the first half of the last century. We have, however, to make some distinctions. Vitality and the up-to-date sense of an aesthetic form is one thing, consumption is another. As for the vitality and up-to-date sense of theatre, to me, they seem to have been definitely exhausted - I have no doubts about this. However, as for the consumption of theatre, there will probably be more and more theatres, as there will always be more and more art, more and more pizzerias, more discos, museums, and so on. There exists, today, an endless, omnivorous public that digests everything and enters a pub or a concert hall, indifferently. This is about the sociology of free time and mass consumption.


13.P. S. - You say that art forms rooted in a place - one of which is the theatre, either in its traditional form in a theatre hall, or in its more experimental manifestations in a physical space like in a street, a supermarket, an apartment etc. - are “condemned to decay and disappear” due to new technologies of communication that allows the production of events “which are everywhere and nowhere”. Could a movement towards non-space, or cyber space, as some artists are trying to do today, be a solution for the theatre ( I’m referring to those artists who put on performances using chat rooms, the internet, MOO etc.)? Could this perhaps be compared to another of the strategies you propose, namely that of a transfer from one medium to another?


M. C. - Certainly, but all this has nothing to do with theatre or with its most extreme experimental forms, as it would mean returning completely to that phenomenology of communicational events which I’ve been trying to theorise and solicit for years.


14.P. S. - As early as 1936, Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction, understood how human perceptions and its existence in the world not only change because of nature, but also as a consequence of more contingent factors, such as techno-scientific developments. You maintain that today new technologies change ‘the way presence manifests itself’ and therefore – I suppose – the traditional notions of body, space and time.  Could you tell us how these notions have changed?


M. C. - Today, it’s no longer possible to make the distinctions and separations as before, when they were obvious and spontaneous: interior and exterior, mental and physical, near and far, natural and artificial, here and there, duration and technological time and so on, all merge together and become blurred. It would take too long to explain all this, here.


15.P. S. - In a previous interview you claimed that referring to the “aura” of artwork today is nonsense. Yet, at the same time, you seem to go beyond what Walter Benjamin said, about the “withering” of the “aura” due to the mechanical reproduction, by claiming that the notion of reproducibility itself is outdated. In fact, you’re talking about a shift away from mechanical reproduction to the technologies of electronic production in real time. However, in this new situation, is it not possible for the “aura” to return in some way, no longer ruined by the endless reproduction of copies, but restored by telepresence or enabled by what you call the “aseity” of the image, by escaping every kind of reproduction?


M. C. - An event of telecommunication can be repeatable, at most, but not reproducible as it would not know what to reproduce. A computer set up with a random program can generate a series of images that are different from one another, so they are original and unique, but also machinic. It’s possible to experience virtual reality, but not reproduce it. I could go on with other examples. I don’t think this has anything to do with the “aura”. As for the “aseity”of image, this doesn’t mean that the image will escape reproduction, but it shows how the image is constructed, its physiology and its essence.


16.P. S. - In your opinion, what is the function of art today?


M. C. - I think I’ve already answered this question. Art, as we’ve known it and as we still continue to love it, in my opinion, hasn’t anything left to say; of course it can grow and multiply in order to feed a relevant sector of the market, but it has lost every vital function, every social utility and above all every possibility of research and experimentation. However, these possibilities are still valid for those artists working with new technologies in the ways I’ve already mentioned.


17.P. S. - Leaving the world of art and media for a moment. What does Mario Costa think of humanity’s future and of scientific and technological developments?


M. C. - We probably need to differentiate between the long and short term. The clash between possibilities provided by new technology and the archaic logics of economics and power will still continue to cause conflicts; techno-science will continue its de-humanising process; culture will play a weaker and weaker role; the false coin will still dominate in the historical world, and so on. What will become of humanity in the long run, due to the combined effect of information technologies, networks, bio-technologies, nano-technologies and who knows what else, no one can know that yet.