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digital practices

Digital Practices: Aesthetic and Neuroesthetic Approaches to Performance and Technology

by Susan Broadhurst
Palgrave Macmillan, New York, Hampshire,USA, UK 2011
232 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Paper, $31 USD
ISBN: 978-0-230-29364-9.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This book is an excellent addition to the rather sparse scholarly literature concerning digital technology as used in conjunction with performance art. Broadhurst analyses digital performance from both pragmatic and theoretical perspectives. A detailed discussion of a number of “case studies” helps her explain clearly her premise of the importance of “the exploration and investigation into the physical/virtual interface so prevalent within the digital” (p. 186).

This interface between the physical and virtual is the critical phase space for Broadhurst, and it underpins her analysis throughout the book. “It is my belief that technology's most important contribution to art is the enhancement and reconfiguration of an aesthetic creative potential that consists of interacting with and reacting to a physical body. For, it is within these tension-filled (liminal) spaces of physical and virtual interface that opportunities arise for new experimental forms and practice” (p.194).

The book has a smattering of black & white photographs, mainly to help the reader visualize the performances Broadhurst is discussing. There are eight chapters, together with an excellent Index and Bibliography.

Chapter 1 – The Digital: A Preliminary View gives a brief, useful introduction to digital performance and the issues involved.
Chapter 2 – Selective Aesthetic Approaches discusses very briefly, and somewhat superficially, the theoretical views of various philosophers including Merleau-Ponty, Lyotard, Derrida and Deleuze. This chapter left me completely underwhelmed and did not, in my opinion, add much to the rest of the book.
Chapter 3 – Neuroesthetics, though necessarily brief, is an excellent introduction into this nascent discipline. And a good starting off place for those with great enthusiasm and little knowledge of this subject.
Chapter 4 – Live Performance and the Digital discusses, in detail, three fairly well known art pieces: The Jeremiah Project, Blue Bloodshot Flowers. Cunningham's Biped. Stelarc's, Obsolete Body.
Chapter 5 – Digital Sound, New Media and Interactive Performance analyses and describes three main pieces: Optik (Contact, impulse and electro-acoustic sound). Palindrome (Intermedia, collaboration and interaction). Troika Ranch's (An electronic disturbance)
Chapter 6 – Digital Film looks in some detail at The Matrix Trilogy and the various Star Wars prequels. Broadhurst reveals some fascinating, not commonly known facts about these films, their creators and the technology involved in their creation.
Chapter 7 – Bioart, again three works are analysed in fascinating detail. Kac's Transgenic Art. Critical Art Ensemble's recombinant theatre. De Meneze's Aestheticizing of Evolution. Even though I was familiar with Kac's work, Broadhurst's analysis of his radical science-art transgenic creations broadened my understanding considerably.
Chapter 8 – Conclusion: Digital Practices is more or less a summary of the preceding chapters.

This book goes a long way in helping us better understand the process of experimental, digitally underpinned, performance and interactive art. “It is my belief that digital practices, as experimental artworks and performances, both serve as critique and have an indirect effect on the social and political...” “In this sense, the digital does what all avant-garde does; it is an experimental extension of the socio-political and cultural of an epoch” (p. 185), Herein lies the importance of these contemporary art practices.

As I mentioned earlier, chapter two does not, in my opinion, add a great deal to the rest of the book. The first edition of Digital Practices: Aesthetic and Neuroesthetic Approaches to Performance and Technology was published in 2007 in hardback and, now, this soft-cover edition published in 2011 is available. A lot of electrons have flowed under the digital bridge since 2007, and we are now, according to many, into the post-digital era and certainly the post postmodern. I would have liked to have seen in this edition, chapter three expanded considerably, and chapter two deleted. Neuroesthetics is a fledgling field of enquiry and promises to answer many previously unanswered questions concerning the making and appreciation of art. I have often wondered why representational and narrative style artwork stand the test of time and are still so popular world wide, cross-culturally. I believe Broadhurst answers this question in her neuroesthetic investigations. These show that many more areas of the brain are activated when we experience these works than in more abstract or conceptual works: “Non representational works of art activate fewer areas of the brain than representational and narrative art” (p. 116-117). Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt here, regardless of whether we are creating traditional or digital art?

Last Updated 2 August 2011

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