James Hugunin

Unlike the conquerors of the past, technologists are
relentless proselytizers, insisting that everyone must
become like them and bow down before the World
Wide Web. They often appear puzzled when others
find their precepts threatening or oppressive.
--Robert Hirsch

Technocultures do not employ technologies for pragmatic
reasons,but for social (or class) status and the 'spectacular'
effects that shape experience.
-- Michael Menser and Stanley Aronowitz

There is a growing awareness that there is something intrinsically
wrong with the very nature of contemporary science and technology....
Reductionism, the dominant method of modern science, is leading
on the one hand, in physics, towrds meaninglessness, and on the
other, in biology, towards 'Social Darwinism' and eugenics.
--Opening lines of The Third World Network's Declaration:
"Modern Science in Crisis: A Third World Response"

Naturalized Knowledge.

What has been the gist of the discussion of science and technology in terms of digital photography? To answer this one needs to probe broader questions concerning the widespread claims for science. The dominant global player in the cultural milieu, science as well depends for its development upon technologies; however, this doesn't mean technology determines social organization or cultural production either. More accurately, it is techno-science's use of universal concepts that has come to dominate our practices as well as our narratives for the laws of science are perceived as unquestioningly. J.-F. Lyotard has pointed in The Postmodern Condition, science is ultimately a narrative on just how things stand and, hence, cannot be privileged over other narratives on some special objective basis. Therefore, the disciplinary rules of scientific discourse form a discursively constituted regime of truth interwoven with power. French critic Michel Foucault's borderland concept of knowledge/power and Donna Haraway's postmodernist concept of situated knowledge are both attempts to encompass this postmodern awareness of the social production of knowledge, naturalized knowledge is what the philosophers call it to distinguish it from its older metaphysical sense where knowing can be objective and absolute.

In terms of discussing the Internet, Menser and Aronowitz's conception of technology means that we must see that the Net's rhizomatic interconnectivity may offer a different sort of counterculture to emerge in the West; but what happens if the milieu shifts from the West to China, ask Menser and Aronowitz, where the term "network" has been associated with the government network of spies and informers, a government that will own the new technologies? "What good is the Net if the purveyors of power are the only ones who have access to it?" [32]

The End of Photography as We Know It?

Again, I ask: What has been the gist of the discussion of science and technology in terms of digital photography? The discussion has been filled with notions of "progress" and "determination."  In the February 1998 issue of the photographic monthly, Afterimage,  a report titled "Bay Area Photography" is typical. Therein, art-writer Terri Cohn synopsizes various responses by Bay Area art world notables to the impact of the new digital technologies on art photography, its practice, exhibition, and collecting:

Appropriating Science.

But back in 1997, the Society for Photographic Education's official publication, Exposure (31:1/2), featured a more astute and critical look at the intersection of art and technology. Article titles such as "Techno-Dystopia" by Gary Nickard and "Points of Friction: Artists Critique Technology and Science" by Robert Hirsch set a tone in sync with that of Cook's NO CARRIER wherein technologies, nature, and culture are understood as all intertwined, knotted up together. Hirsch, the Director of CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, New York wrote that critique of the new techno-sciences may not always be best done using such technology:
"One purpose of this issue is to provide an alternative view not only to the generally euphoric atmosphere which continues to surround the invention of human-made technologies, but also to introduce the possibility of other ways of addressing the issues surrounding digital image-making. Thus, not all of these artists use the new technologies as part of their critique. More interested in a conceptual approach than in mastering PhotoShop, they relate more to subject than to process." [34]
 The seemingly traditional, objective-looking photographic work of Catherine Wagner seen in her photobook Art & Science: Investigating Matter (1996) would appear to fit Hirsch's parameters. On disc two of a CD-ROM titled Photography in the 1990s: fifty porfolios (Wright State University Art Galleries, Dayton, OH,1996), Wagner claims her intent in recent work has been "to demystify science." In her book, Wagner photographs a myriad of laboratory apparatus from experiments involving AIDS research to the Human Genome Project. The latter is an eugenics-based endeavor to describe and sequence all the human genes so as to introduce the technological into the very production of humans. Sadie Plant in Zeros + Ones, sees this as "holding out the possibility of organisms purged of their aberrations and mutations, wayward genes or peculiarities"; yet this intervention into nature, I counter, also holds out the prospect of transgenic or morphed creatures which people our sci-fi novels and films these days. As machine code has permitted sound, imagery, and text to interact on the common plane of digital technology, so the unlocking of the genetic code will permit a promiscuity and entanglement of once separate entities on the biological and bio-machinic levels.

Given the official setting for these endeavors, these are projects might appear to be impartial biological research. But, of course, they are also vitally linked to socio-political issues in the areas of insurance, law, and the military. So as to point this out, Critical Art Ensemble's lecture/performance Flesh Machine critically addresses the myths of reproductive technologies. But how does Wagner's work deal with the issue?

Flesh Machine (1997) Critical Art Ensemble:
Blood sample being taken from certificate holder in Vienna.
The blood was used to extract a DNA sample.

An essay in this catalogue for an exhibition of the same name at St. Louis's Washington University Gallery of Art by Helen E. Longino observes rather mildly that: "Catherine Wagner's photographs invite us to reflect not just about the effects of scientific research on us, but about the ways in which the sciences express the common culture we all participate in making." Is this is a diplomatic way of detouring a more critical reading that would suggest that Wagner's imagery visually exposes the eerie, positivistic world of science, medicine specifically; to be more direct might endanger Wagner's future access to these facilities. Afterall, scientists are very concerned about the declining public support for science and the demythologizing of their discipline by "science bashers" as evidenced by a conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, "The Flight from Science and Reason," held on May 31, 1995 (also see Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition, 1995).

The term "sterile" becomes a double-entendre in these photographs as Wagner's lens reveals the "sterility" of sterile environments. Are we viewers to then extrapolate to the belief in the "sterility of thought" at work in these environments? As many of these environments imaged have to do with genetic research, has Wagner set out to document our own "Brave New World?" Or, rather than adversarial, are we to see a true interdisciplinary collaboration here between artist and scientists? Afterall, technology is intertwined with culture: photography is a science and science is an art.

Definitely Not Sterile (1995, gelatin silver
print, 30-in. x 40-in.) Catherine Wagner

Joseph D. Ketner, Director of Washington University's Gallery of Art, thinks so and detours our reading too much criticism in Wagner's vision; his appeal is to the collegial exchange of disciplinary perspectives: "The scientists whose laboratories she visited welcomed her into their world," he writes, where "synergy" between artist and scientist occurred, resulting in "a body of photographs that not only exposes her [Wagner's] questions regarding science, but simultaneously provides a means for scientists to step back and reconsider the context of their research." But is this synergy an idealization? What Ketner doesn't address are the issues of gender and the "clout" of science itself that must have arisen for Wagner.

In another collaboration between scientists and a cultural fieldworker -- a comparative study of physics labs made by Sharon Traweek, Director for the Center for Cultural Study of Science, Technology, and Medicine at UCLA -- Traweek mentions the unequal power relationships that obtained between herself, an anthropologist, and the international high-energy physicists that were her subjects: "The Asian, North American, and European physicists -- mostly men -- I study are obviously in a position to resist the attentions of this white woman. I 'study up,' to use Laura Nader's graphic phrase. We all know that physicists have more power -- intellectually, institutionally, financially, politically, and socially -- than anthropologists and historians." [35]

Meanwhile, photo-historian Cornelia Homburg's essay in Wagner's book puts her photographs into the historical context of photography (the invention of, and preferred tool used by, science). She mentions Thomas Eakins and Eadweard Muybridge's nineteenth-century photographic atlas of animal and human locomotion, Precisionist Charles Sheeler's heroic factories rendered both as paintings and photographs, Werner Mantz's mid-1920s photographs of an X-ray clinic, and gives a modernist, pro-science spin to Wagner's efforts by suggesting that: "Like [Bernice] Abbott, Catherine Wagner undertook her project of photographing science because she realized the fundamental impact of science on contemporary life." But Wagner has visually ignored the key fundamental impact of technology on contemporary science. Surprisingly, her book is devoid of any image showing a computer. This is especially odd given her focus on the Human Genome Project, since in gene research much is done via computer simulation and the "transgenic" potential of today's biology has already been imaginatively accomplished in computer "morphing." Hence, both Wagner's own apparatus (the camera) and the science's key took (the computer) have become the "blind-spots" of her gaze.

It seems to me that Wagner's imagery is intentionally ironic, indirect. One will choose to understand Wagner's work from any of the following points of view, depending upon what attitudes the viewer brings to the work and the textual context surrounding it:

The work contains all three possible readings and the accompanying essays gently nudge us toward each. I can imagine the exhibition opening back in 1996 with pro-science and anti-science, artist and non-artist, members of the audience looking at the same work, yet decoding the show in very different ways. Because of this, I am reminded of the clever, playful photobook Evidence (Santa Cruz, CA: ClathworthyColorvues, 1977).

Anonymous photograph, Evidence (1977)
compiled by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel

Here San Francisco Bay Area artists Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan collated and decontextualized a hodgepodge of imagery culled from various corporate, city, and state photo archives. Left with no firm hook to hang a specific meaning upon, you could read the imagery in Evidence as aesthetic or utilitarian, as critical or complicit.  The work in Wagner's book as analogously conflicted; contextualizing commentary from the artist, curator, and catalogue essayists don't jive; the work, it seems, can't be reduced to a single reading. On a practical level, this strategy permits her to continue accessing restricted sites which would fast become closed to her if her visual commentary (and the accompanying textual support) were to become more stridently "demystifying." Interestingly, this indeterminancy mimes the epistemological problems faced by science in the era of quantum mechanics and Heisenberg's Uncertainly Principle, as well as asserting its place in our postmodenist cultural arena where, when several possible readings are presented simultaneously, it is left to the reader/viewer to supply the unifying text.

The Will to Virtuality.

The issue of indeterminacy (pro or con? or both) also plagues the debate over the new technologies today. Traditional "difference feminism" has taken science and technology to task for its masculinist bias and rationality and opposed to it feminine nuturing and intuition. Whereas the type of cyber-feminism voiced by Donna Haraway  in "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1991) ("I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess") and  by Sadie Plant in Zeros + Ones ("these are the barriers [art versus science] which the new syntheses and collaborations spawned by digital machines now undermine") claims that feminism cannot afford to be an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology. Thus Haraway and Plant, attack the logocentric binaries of natural/artificial and emotion/reason that have supported the earlier feminist antipathy to science.  All this is even made more confusing when it is claimed by techno-enthusiasts that we are already beyond good and evil, a state where there exists, as Kroker describes it in "Virtual Capitalism," a "perfect equivalency between the will to virtuality and the will to the (virtual) good." But maybe it's less an issue of being pro- or anti-technology, more a problem of "developing a critical perspective on the ethics of virtuality," as Kroker suggests. Our bid to escape our bodies into cyberspace, to sit in the ejection seat and pull the lever, he astutely observes, "does not relax the traditional human injunction to give primacy to the ethical ends of the technological purposes we choose (or the will to virtuality that chooses us)." [36]  Moveover, as Martin Heidegger has argued in "The Question of Technology," there is "good" technology and a "bad" technology; in ancient Greece the poetic aspects of both the fine arts and technology in our sense of these concepts were subsumed under the single Greek term techne. Heidegger suggests that art is "good" technology, an "enframing" that lets what presences come forth as truth (i.e., an encoding that lets Being emerge as truth), rather than the "setting-upon," "regulating," and "securing" (i.e., the rape of nature and dehumanization of its inhabitants) that characterizes the "bad" techne. Art -- understood now as a form of postmodernist aesthetic practice as prefigured by Bakhtin and touted Barthes, Foucault, and Lyotard -- may bring us hope in the form of complexity, multiple meanings and voices. As the poet Hölderlin (cited by Heidegger upon making his point about technology's Janus-face) wrote:
But where danger is, grows
The saving power also [37]
I see the various essays and artworks included in this issue situated "where danger is," striving to be "the saving power also."

---The End--