color Beyond Kandinsky: Analogue versus digital

The year 2011 marks the centennial of the publication of Wassily Kandinsky's classic text, On the Spiritual in Art. Inspired by this anniversary, this project set out to explore the place of the spiritual in contemporary art and to propose a challenge to the current devaluation of the inner life that prevails within the art world in our market-driven era.

Beginning on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011, a ten-day virtual symposium moderated by Taney Roniger and Eric Zechman was held in this forum. The symposium closed on the evening of Friday, April 8th. Below is the full record of the proceedings.

Panelists invited to participate were: Suzanne Anker, Laura Battle, Connie Beckley, Anney Bonney, Deirdre Boyle, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jeff Edwards, James Elkins, Max Gimblett, Tom Huhn, Atta Kim, Roger Lipsey, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Joseph Nechvatal, Daniel Siedell, Charlene Spretnak, David Levi Strauss, Alan Wanzenberg, and Pawel Wojtasik. For participant biographies and other project details, please visit our site:


March 30th–April 1st: Session I: The Spiritual Then and Now

April 2nd–April 3rd: Session II: The Changing Shape of Art

April 4th-5th: Session III: Art and Its Audience

April 6th–April 7th: Session IV: The Artist in Society

April 8th: Conclusions


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Analogue versus digital

In light of the recurrence of the subject of digital technology in our efforts to delineate a “new spiritual art,” I thought I’d pose more directly a question that was only implied in the initial set—namely, is there something inherently spiritual (i.e., conducive to a sense of connectedness to a larger whole) about digital representations that their analogue counterparts lack? I’m thinking about the increasingly pervasive computational model of the universe, wherein nature is understood as a vast digital computer (which to some is merely metaphorical but to others not at all so). Another way to put the question is: Is there something more *real* and accurate (because more accurately reflective of the inner workings of nature) about digital that analogue cannot attain? Or, alternatively, are analogue representations more real and accurate in their reflection of a continuous rather than a discrete world? Or, finally, is the question of digital versus analogue merely a passing trend that will be rendered irrelevant in years to come?


  1. On this topic the work of Nathaniel Dorsky, whose films we'll be showing next week in New York in conjunction with this project, seems relevant. Although Nathaniel's films are emphatically analogue (he doesn't allow digital copies to be made), he has written about intermittence being an essential quality in film. Analogue films are actually anything but seamless; what we see are discrete frames separated by split-second periods of blackness, and although we may think what we’re seeing is continuous, the somatic effect of film is one of a subtle rhythm that “mirrors” the human metabolism. I hope he might say something about this himself in this forum.

  2. One of the things that fascinates me about digital information technology is the way that it allows for mixing across mediums that was impossible before. I think I first came across this idea in some writings by Lev Manovich I discovered online a couple years ago, and it's fascinated me ever since.

    For example, text, images, and sound can all coexist within a single web page or digital artwork, and can interact in ways that were inconceivable a couple decades ago. Similarly, hypertext allows documents to interact and cross-cut within a reader's mind, thereby opening up things a lot. Some people seem to think of this kind of lateral reading as a bad thing, because it seems to threaten the traditional experience of focused, close reading, but I think it can be very liberating and creative. It can help break apart the hypnotic allure of traditional rhetoric that Plato was so scared of (see the Phaedrus), and also bring into being the kind of ergodic (or necessarily reader-completed) text that Espen Aarseth has written about. (The rhetoric argument also comes from Manovich.)

  3. Excuse my insufficient pool of terminologies, I want to know what the analogue is. As I'm considering the digit in the sense that: a number is represented by an ordered(implies the position) collection of digits, a digit is a basic element in the representation of a number. If I think in this relatively broad sense, the digital can be traced back to the ancient cultures. for example, the golden ratio has a unique and elegant representation by the continued fraction (all entries are 1's). It inspired the faith in the existence and uniqueness of God. And the modern digital was enriched indebted to the invention of computers and the binary representation system. If we talk about the "*real* and accurate", we have already assumed an ideal system in comparison. so that we will now how accurate our digital approximation is. From this perspective, I do accept that a transcendental view is inevitable. All physical realities (understood in a process), described by some models, are idealized. You have posed many good questions/insights that make me ponder the digital much richer than before.

  4. Interesting, Jeff. I myself find that very thing -- the collision of text, image, and sound -- absolutely crazy-making, and as such directly antithetical to the spiritual (often it feels more like a collusion than a collision -- like a vicious assault on my senses -- but that's just my particular cognitive make-up). That said, I know others who find it liberating and are able to navigate multi-sensory environments with great deftness. On this note, I remember when hypertext first came out; did that ever really take off? I've not seen much of it since the early 2000s. In theory I find it fascinating -- I can imagine the possibilities for an altogether unprecedented reading experience -- but in actual practice I've found it clunky and awkward.

  5. I think old-school hypertext has never been used to its full potential, but even in the much less extensive way that it's used across the web today (in the form of hyperlinks) it provides opportunities to open up texts and read them in parallel in ways that change the experience of reading significantly. I often find myself starting a news story or scholarly article and either pursuing existing links in a dizzying trip away from the home text, or creating my own on-the-fly hypertext by googling terms as they come up and then following the search until it's exhausted itself and I'm ready to return to where I started. I'm pretty comfortable with that, though I admit that it's probably done some strange things to the way I read more traditional printed texts.

  6. Yuting, am I correct in inferring that you are a mathematician? It's great to have your perspective. When I say "digital versus analogue" I'm primarily referring to, of course, digital and analogue technologies (e.g., digital photography versus darkroom photography), but also, in a more general sense, to processes that occur by way of discrete jumps or units (as in binary code, where it's either 0 or 1, and never 0.5 or 0.6 on its way to 1) versus those that occur by way of a continuous, seamless, "gapless" slide. The example usually cited is the discrepancy between how the world *appears* to us -- i.e., as more or less solid shapes that move continuously in space from point A to point B -- and how physics tells us the world *actually* works (i.e., on the subatomic level, where electrons "leap" between orbits without passing through the intermediate space). So that the world appears to be analogue, while we know that on the subatomic level it's digital. If we want our representations to be "real and accurate," in the sense of reflecting how the world is objectively, which approach do we choose?

  7. Ahh, it's embarrassing. I failed to hide that I'm still doing math. Yes, now I get a clue of the digital and analogue in this context. I go for the digital of course, that's what happens in this century. If we choose the analogue, we could use it in a counter/ironic way. So the intention is still the unification through the decomposition into the smallest unit of representation.

  8. Having given the matter a bit more thought, I'm going to retract my use of the words "real" and "accurate" in connection with artistic representations. In one sense, accuracy is for science and not art, but in a more interesting sense, representations, being representations, can *never* be accurate. Representations are illusions. They can be truthful, but they don't traffic in accuracy. I therefore think "truthful" is a better word.