an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, July 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




Landscape Painting of the Information Age
or Romanticism In Media Art


Armin Medosch



In England, France and Germany during the age of rapid industrialisation a new direction in art emerged, romanticism. While the first modern factories were built the children of the middle class played out Arcadian fantasmagories dressing up as shepherds and shepherdesses in an idealized Greece.[1] By playing those Arcadian games they did not only imitate and mock the aristocracy, they also asserted themselves as the rising new class. Angry young men stomped through the Swiss and German mountain forests writing revolutionary poems and plays.[2] It was a time of great social upheaval. Working classes were formed by driving peasants off common land. Owning neither land nor capital, the only way of making a living for the rural poor was moving to the cities and selling their labour to capitalist factory owners.[3] Over the very same period of time landscape painting was 'discovered' as an art form. A 'naturalistic' approach to landscape painting had never before played a big role in European art. At the very time when the countryside vanished behind the smoking chimneys of the Industrial Revolution art reconstructed Nature as a mirror for the aspirations of the noble mind.

As the schizophrenia of modernity settled in, nature became a very fertile ground for the imagination. Romanticism emerged from the contradiction of trying to be one with nature and feeling to be fundamentally separated from it. Nature was being objectified by the making-doing of the industrial revolution and its loss at the same time mourned in the arts. The search for nature contained also a political question. When the romantic youth contemplated nature, they could see, in the shape of the mountain ridges, in this frozen moment of time, the powerful forces at work that were reshaping the world. In romanticism wild nature symbolized the political changes of the time. Could nature give an answer to ethical questions, could there be a 'natural' form of government, was then the theme of many debates? Rousseau constructed a noble savage, externalizing the European confusion, as a type of human more in tune with nature than the urbanized citizens of France. As a psychological entity, the noble savage is very much in effect still today, having gone through all the clichés of Hollywoodization and advertisement treatment.

European intellectuals turned away -- in a move they will repeat again and again -- from the city. The dirty and overpopulated cities were conceived as the seat of all evil. This is where political struggles and revolutions were fought, where the police state was enforced, where new diseases were bred and could spread rapidly because of the proximity of people living so closely together. The city was the place of new forms of social coercion, of alienation, of being repressed. Only in contact with nature, suitably refashioned and aestheticized, the citizens of the 19th century could get in contact with the true, the divine self. Romantic landscape painting created nature as a window to the self, a subjectivity that is transcended by opening itself up to nature.

Nature and society, the city and the countryside were at odds with each other. The English Enlightenment produced a compromise solution. On the relatively small and relatively overpopulated part of the British Isles that is England, 'natural' countryside had almost ceased to exist. The English park was invented, a nature that is better than nature, an idealistic version of it, combed and groomed to look natural in a desired way. Nature survives as an artefact, a theme park of itself, which reflects the taste of rich landowners.

Romanticism has never really left the arts, even if it, as an official movement, petered out somewhere at the end of the 19th century. But the basic attitude of the romantic hero -- her or his fundamental opposition to bourgeois society, which they were also so deeply part of -- survived, and so did the trope of 'wild nature' as a mirror of psychological and socio-political conflict. The romantic hero is a tragic hero because he or she has not understood the contradictions of the society s/he is part of. A repressive social situation will always trigger escapist fantasies. Rejection of society as it is and idealistic protest either leads to death, which salvages the hero status, retreat into Arcadia = the hippie commune or the third way solution of getting a post in academia. There were very few traditions in the contemporary art of the last 100 years that were not romanticist or did not have a romantic streak, namely those, which were explicitly revolutionary and analytical. The romantic hero survived in the art system as the artist-genius driven by individual creativity and having access to knowledge which is exclusively their own.

In media and net art survives a romanticism noir inspired by the Mary Shelley tradition of sci-fi Goth literary fiction. From there, via the noble savage of the pulp fiction Western novel, it is a short jump to cyberpunk and the hackers with Mohican haircuts. Since the 1990s the noble savage has a keyboard. The aesthetic paradigm of cyberpunk fiction is circumscribed by the dystopian city; Chiba City in Gibson's Neuromancer, or the Blade Runner City. The dystopian aspects of the cyberpunk city illustrate the failure of the technological society.

Data Mining

Media and net art increasingly turn to aestheticization of information flows via sonification and visualization. Thereby they encounter the unresolved contradictions of capitalist technosocieties. Science fashioned nature as its object and learned to study it ever more closely. Properties of electromagnetic waves are used for sophisticated communications systems; space probes are being sent out, the Hubble telescope scans the depth of the universe; the particle accelerator gives us insight into the smallest particles that make up matter. While we are learning more in the depth of the detail about outer space and the micro-organisation of matter, science encroaches on the inner core of nature. Will its very object vanish behind all the numbers and formulas once everything is satisfyingly explained? Or is there a part of nature that withdraws itself from us?

The scientific instruments of our time have opened rich pipelines into the data sources of nature. With the constructivist instruments of mathematics and engineering the datanauts are diving into oceans of information that represent the physical materiality of the world (oceanography, climate change research, GIS). Now, nature is becoming quantized and quantified, it is being dematerialized and turned into information. The ideology of the information age fetishizes information as a sort of 'divine' substance. Analogies are constructed between the brain as a computer and life as a code - the genetic code. Everything is information in the beginning and is turned into information again at the end of its life cycle. As artists are getting hold of the techniques of information processing, landscape painting of the information age emerges as a major theme in the early 21st century.[4] It shows us nature distilled into information 'flows'.

Artists reinterpret nature along the lines of the noir thread in romanticism. Networked urban culture is experienced as a second nature. The social relationships in networks become the raw material. Network scientists are looking for biological patterns in the information flows produced by networked communities.[5]We are craving for natural explanations in the mess of the social to absolve us.[6] New deterministic answers discovered in those networks would let us off the hook and avoid politically unpleasant questions. Can pure data[7] be the source that stills our thirst for the natural, the divine, and the transcendent? Can we use those data flows to enter into a dialogue with nature again?

Back to the Bios?

In a discussion of Herbert Marcuse's view on technology and science, Jürgen Habermas asks what we could expect from a nature opening its eyes. What he means is that science has dealt with nature as an object. Is it possible to develop a fundamentally different type of science and technology? Would it be possible to have an open dialogue with a nature that is not an object anymore but a lively animated subject? How to start this dialogue without repeating past mistakes? Or, to ask the question in a modern way, what is the interface? Scholars of science studies tell us that our dialogues with nature are obstructed by age-old dichotomies that burden our thinking, such as the dichotomy between nature and society, between subject and object. What would it mean to move beyond those dichotomies? Wouldn't that open the doors for a sweeping relativism? Of course nature and society are not completely separate entities that are in binary opposition to each other -- the standard definition of dichotomy. By putting nature to work in the shape of technology, societies have long become technosocieties, societies in which the technical - the controlled transformation of the forces of nature  - and the social are linked to each other in many ways so that they evolve together, mutually influencing each other (in which ways exactly, in a causal or linear way, for example, would be a point of further reflection). If we try to understand the co-evolution of the techno-social would it help to introduce, just for a moment, the metaphor of the BIOS? In computer systems the BIOS is the computer interface code that gives access to hardware on a low level. Would it be possible to have something like a Bios of the information society, an interface between the hardware and software of reality? Could we construct such an interface where the biological is integrated with the BIOS and where the concepts of the technical and the political mesh?

Art has traditionally had a very good way of opening itself up to nature. This way was called 'contemplation'. To contemplate means more than just to reflect on something intellectually. It means to look and think at the same time which goes often hand in hand with the experience of feeling calm and balanced and a heightened expectation at the same time. All the senses are razor-sharp while the mind is racing. In contemplation we can find ourselves being part of and standing out of nature. The dichotomy, which maybe will never be solved theoretically, is transcended temporarily in the mind. The oppositions of the dichotomy may turn out to be the wheels of a dialectical history. In a best-case scenario media art can come to some understanding of those axial connections between society and nature through its actual practice.


Out of contemplation of the forces driving history and society, media artists can move into action by building working technological assemblages. I am using this slightly odd phrase to emphasise the systemic aspects of this type of artwork. A working technological assemblage might well have a picture as an end-result, but what makes it really interesting are the inputs and outputs and the processes that happen in between. If we look behind the picture, we find the process. There is modeled a complete world-view, an image of the world and its workings. This image, which is of course not a realistic 'picture' but a constellation of forces, of energies and motives, is constructed as a montage of information flows. Work of this type becomes applied critical theory. It exposes the underbelly of the romanticist beast; it looks into Godzilla's stomach and counts the cars; it shows us the bios of the information society, the bios-political.

This is the chance and responsibility of media art. Too often media art just sails in the slipstream of the consumer electronics and IT industry, providing excuses for commodity fetishism, guiltily snacking on the fruits of technological determinism. Could media art rid itself of the image of the romantic hero, single handedly fighting the evils of expansionary technocapitalism? Can media art, as a 'science of the imagination,'[8] employ contemplation and critique to overcome the repressive current social order? The information flows that are increasingly governing our lives on many levels are understood only by a minority of people. The artists can tap into the dataflows and make connections that would be 'illegitimate' for scientists. They have the ability of rendering visible how the mutant cyber-society emerges. The data artist is providing a mirror to society by giving data eyes and ears. At least in theory, meaningful representation of data leads to meaningful participation of the individual. But what does meaningful mean? Artists dealing with information flows have the not so trivial task of establishing the ontological status of the data objects. To which extent are we dealing with numerical fetishes, with fact or fiction (or factishes, Latour[9] would want us to say)? What are the sources of information and which transformations have they gone through?

The artist's work can only be done properly, if there exists open access to the data. As the privatization of knowledge, the expansionary tendency of intellectual property progresses, the free-libre open source software (Floss) movement keeps pushing the boundaries and provides artists with the tools to host their own data landscapes to play with. The liberating potential of the access provided by Floss developers cannot be underestimated. At the same time this networked ecology is always under threat of collapsing for a number of reasons. There is not only the pressure of the market and the coca-colonialisation of the net, there are also the internal contradictions, for example, between the expectations that techno-utopianism creates and the reality in which our cyber-romantic heroes find themselves.

The digital Arcadia today presents itself either in its same old post-cyberpunk clothes or in a slightly more glamourized candy pop version. Which possibilities are there, beside nihilism and consumerism, for the data gardeners of the near future? Taking information flows and materializing again what had become dematerialized, the landscape painting of the information age feeds data back to where it has taken them.  Landscape painting is of course only a metaphor, and a slightly misleading one too. The landscape is not static, it contains the whole loop, the circulation of data from one ontological status (matter/data) into the other,
and back again; it gives nature eyes and ears; our eyes and our ears, by sonification or visualisation. Would this be the new type of nature Marcuse dreamed about? Can we speak to it/him/her? Can we close the loop and create complete cycles? This question must be left for a later date. For now we can say we have enough work to do by learning to be able to listen when nature speaks. Once we have made substantial progress in that then the next question will be whether or not nature might be politically high-jacked again, as the weapon of objective knowledge. Or is it possible for a number of 'natures' to peacefully coexist? Media art can provide a specific layer of access to this complex of questions. It does not need complete theoretic knowledge to proceed to praxis. It provides experiences by using the bag-of-tricks of technology with a critical consciousness. The open question is if media art can only surprise once (like someone providing a novelty or a trick) or can create a legacy with types of expression that are particular to it and compelling enough for a wide range of people.

Acknowledgements: This text benefited from
comments by Shu Lea Cheang and Felix Stalder.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, July 2005, ISSN 1552-5112


¨ This text was written for the catalogue of the
'open nature' exhibition, NTT
InterCommunicationCentre, April - July 2005. The
catalogue is published by NTTICC Publishing,
Yukiko Shikata, Shigeki Kumira, Yui Yoshizumi,
Shunichi Shiba (eds), ISBN 4-7571-7028-9


[1] So called 'Schferidyllen' or 'Schferspiele'
which were popular in the pre-romantic period of
classicism; Goethe's Werther and other works of
that period were greatly influenced by it.

[2] I am referring particularly to Georg Buchner
and Heinrich Heine


[3] Das Kapital, Karl Marx, deutschsprachige
Ausgabe, Wien 1929, Krner Verlag

[4] The only artist, as far as I know, who
literally creates landscape painting of the
information age is Wolfgang Staehle. He is quite
conscious about his references to art history.
But I am actually speaking about other types of
work that are not so aware of the references and
connotations, from the early work of Jodi to and many other examples which I could

[5] Duncan Watts, Laszlo Barabasi and others follow
this path with the relatively new strand of
'network science'.

[6] Richard Dawkins, with his meme theory, conquers
culture through evolutionary determinism


[7] Pure Data is the name of a software that allows
real-time processing of information flows,

[8] The term 'science of the imagination' is
borrowed from The One-dimensional Man by Herbert

[9] Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope, Harvard
University Press, Boston and London 1999