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Snap to Grid: A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures

Author: Peter Lunenfeld
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000
Review Published: December 2000

 REVIEW 1: Bryan Alexander

Writing about current computer-mediated art runs the risk of several overlapping, nearly contradictory discourses and audiences. Digital art requires the explication of technological problems and mediations, necessitating a pedagogical stance itself fraught with problems of professionalization, condescension, and specialization. An audience immersed in contemporary art internalizes a historicity of interactivity (to pick one contested term) that antedates, by some readings, the first file transfer for ARPANET. Due to its cross-disciplinary heterogeneity, critical theory mobilizes very different keywords (in Raymond Williams' sense) and sense of antecedents. The very term "digital art" competes with others -- networked art, e-media, Web art, etc. -- without settling. More than a field in flux, but rather a cross-weaving of disciplines, instabilities, and nomad practices, digital art presents unique discourse challenges. Peter Lunenfeld's new book, Snap to Grid: A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures, moves into, and helps shape, this weaving carefully and usefully.

The strategy of Snap to Grid combines several approaches. First, it presents a snapshot of contemporary (late 1990s) digital art and thinking. Second, it embeds these images in an active historical sense, combining selected antecedents and predecessors with a critical situation of each towards the future, a "hyperaesthetics . . . shifting between three temporalities" (37). This temporal arc is dynamic and culturally cross-located: "I suffer from nostalgia for the future" (27). Third, Lunenfeld combines a sense of shared concerns and concepts across media with a materialist sensitivity towards genre and form. The image application metaphor from the title is more complex than a quick political reading (creativity driven to commercial axiom) suggests. In a clearly (and welcome) post-Deleuzian manner, Lunenfeld positions critical theory as the titular grid, then multiplies the grids into complexity and grid-undoing (xvii). "So many grids sit uneasily atop each other" (xviii). In other words, rather than offering a novel conceptual body (as, say, Espen Aarseth does in hissuperb reimagination of hypertext, Cybertext) or a sustained application of one theoretical grid to technology (cf. the Critical Arts Ensemble's use of contemporary autonomism to the Internet), Lunenfeld presents a contingent, critical survey. Given its successes, Snap to Grid deserves reading both as a historical document, as well as a fine provocation for teaching and creating digital art.

Given the carefully programmatic nature of the book, divided into three progressive, developing sections, this review will address each unit in turn. The first section of Snap to Grid, "Culture" (although better thought of as "Applications"; see below) analyzes contemporary (American) new media culture, termed tongue in cheek as "TechnoVolksgeist" (8). Its focus on tools and software rotates through several analytical categories. Lunenfeld places applications in the context of a hyperactive market, allowing linkages between commodity release/upgrade rhythms and style. Unfortunately, this section doesn't progress theoretically beyond the somewhat canonical application of Marxian exchange value to the software world (see Resisting the Virtual Life [1995] for one effective version of this move). However, Lunenfeld does develop this analysis as a counter to the Mauss Lite of some current open source as gift economy arguments. "[C]ybernetic tools . . . are not simply consumed; instead, they produce new commodities and new work . . . This exchange relationship grows out of but remains distinct from the so-called 'high-tech gift economy'" (5).

"Cultures" develops this tool-fetish culture through an uneasy mix of Nicholas Negroponte and Donna Haraway. Applications appear in the cyberculture first as demos (the reference here is to a Negroponte-source MIT lab slogan: "demo or die"), rather than as a portfolio archive exchange (17). A career-driving performance ritual has grown up around this moment, complete with suggestive improvisation, stage magic (25), electrified audiences, Wagnerian grandiosity, and Freudian "techno-anxiety" (23). Combined with the reactive development of demo criticism, the energetic combination of application and artist/critic becomes, perhaps inevitably, a cyborg relationship (21ff). This last is somewhat tantalizing, linking Haraway and Stelarc as Mary Dery has done [Escape Velocity, 1996]. Lunenfeld's concern with time progresses here, linking realtime performance and demos to the cult of the cutting edge. Here Snap to Grid does good service by rapidly linking together critical discourses and histories: the imbrication of analogue and digital, the crucial role of military technology in the digital arts, media exploitation of techno-panics, and utopianism, no matter how cliched. Lunenfeld returns to his previous book's method, what he there labels "the digital dialectic," to call for the temporality-sensitive, future-gazing, materially-grounded method he embodies in this book (34ff). One sign of this method is its all-too-rare argument for listservs, as opposed to the more gaudy and recently-developed Webzines, as really productive sites for composition and criticism (38-41). (One weakness to this argument is its neglect of discussion boards beyond Usenet.)

The second section shifts ground to genre and theory, sketching out current developments in a series of discrete media (digital photography, hypertext, VR, Web-based art) while outlining some active historicity within each. The presence of historical antecedents and determinants within this section bodies forth Lunenfeld's temporal strategy. Instead of drawing out canonical links from the Web to Vannevar Bush and Julio Cortazar, these chapters situate new media strongly in terms of becoming, facing (yet creating) the future in liminal, pointillist terms.

The hypertext and photography chapters are exemplary. In both, Snap to Grid sketches out key historical moments and processes (the New York Times Robert Coover hypertext review; the shift from mechanical to digital image reproduction), refers to well-known creators and critiques (Ted Nelson, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes), then ends with principles of aesthetics. For hypertext, Lunenfeld recommends a neat duality of the ancient multum in parvo and mise en abyme as ways of thinking about lexia. For photography, the text urges an understanding of the developing work of photographic art as energetically interactive, integrating the audience into the process of image recreation. A parallel discussion of architecture also suggests such audience-implicate design. Subsequent discussions of virtual reality and telephony shift the temporal ground somewhat, more energetically emphasizing the role of historical antecedents: telephone history (riffing back to Martin Heidegger through but a taste of Ronnell) and film pornography. As N. Katherine Hayles points out, such preceding technological forms continue to play roles within successor genres (How We Became Posthuman, 1999: 17ff).

Snap to Grid's final section moves further into instantiation, identifying and representing a group of current new media artists, including Hollis Frampton, Sara Roberts, Diana Thater, Jennifer Steinkamp, Perry Hoberman, Garry Hill, and Adam Ross. Most of this section is narrative, reporting experiences of digital art to the reader, mobilizing and altering the performative style articulated previously. This representation field is cross-laced with concepts first structured previously. Historicity appears in underground films' determination within digital cinema (121-3). Georges Perec and OuLiPo lead into video art (146). Audience interaction returns, but almost to the point of narcissism (150). Ultimately Lunenfeld addresses contemporary painting's engagement with e-media's design applications.

Snap to Grid presents a useful methodology, developed from the author's previous edited volume. Lunenfeld's digital dialectic is here both well described and articulated at length through multiple examples drawn from heterogeneous fields. His time-anchored model is one of the most successful integrations of historical sensitivity with a perspective on futurity -- a rare feat in cybercultural writing, often caught between vaporware analysis and an isolated focus on the recent past. The book's historicity is also complex through its dialectical structure, allowing representations of preceding media forms as imbrications, persistences, and partial determinants. This renders his critique and model of interactivity richer than most. Further, Lunenfeld's insistence on text (within) media is especially welcome within a GUI-directed cyberculture.

The work's evidentiary limitations frustrate, however. Its emphasis on visual e-media strikingly neglects Flash and Shockwave work, which is increasingly vital in experimentation and implementation. Web art in general is understressed in Snap to Grid, appearing briefly in discussions of high profile projects (jodi.org and Mark Amerika's Grammatron); it is all to easy to generate other examples deserving of scrutiny (Alan Sondheim's Internet Text in its complexity, for one, or the mindfuck project). As mentioned earlier, the convincing arguments for listservs fail to take into account conference software in its variety and uses.

However, Lunenfeld's method is useful and productive enough to connect to other work. His accessible style and presentation, combined with the outlines of historical media arcs, should attract and energize many students and burgeoning creators. His presentation of new media work may illuminate the understanding of a very large audience. The linkage of cultural studies (part one) through genres into media cases will appeal productively to literary and art critics. At both levels of content and method, as a survey, in other words, the book is a fine one to teach. As a historical document, with all the meanings that term implies, Snap to Grid is, as its subtitle claims, a fine manual to have to hand.

Bryan Alexander:
Bryan Alexander is an Assistant Professor of English at Centenary College of Louisiana, where he teaches computer-mediated classes on the Gothic literature, cyberculture, critical theory, and the experience of war. He is currently working on Haunted Spaces, a project exploring connections between cyberculture and the Gothic. Through classes on topics ranging from the Vietnam War to Gothic novels, Bryan has experimented with, and publishes on, innovative approaches to distance learning, including computer-mediated writing, interdisciplinary studies, and writing across the curriculum. 

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