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by Stephen Wilson
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Brian Richardson, Ph.D. on Sep 24th 2002

Information Arts

            Stephen Wilson’s Information Arts, is a monumental encyclopedic collection of the theories and productions that exist at the intersection of art, science and technology. With contemporary technologies, Wilson argues, the distinction between art and science is not so clear-cut. Whether dealing with computer-generated models, interactive web pages, or “gadgets” constructed in terms of aesthetic as much as technological goals, the alliance between, if not the mixing of, art and science has created a wide, no, an incredibly expansive array of information art.

            I have to admit that the book was a bit overwhelming. On the one hand, it is primarily an encyclopedia summarizing thousands of art installations, software projects, technological developments, and human-computer experiments. Trying to read the book from cover to cover did not work — there were just too many examples following in quick succession. Instead, the book encouraged the reader to flip between pages. Nonetheless, however, insofar as the book’s goal is to create in the reader a sense of the vastness and complexity of the collection, the book was successful. With over 900 pages of samples, organized in a rough thematic way, the examples keep piling up and expanding, with web pages and further reading allowing the reader to follow any number of different topics.

            While the book includes a wide array of different topics, one thing that I was surprised to not see was any discussion of the electronic book or the digital library. While topics in this field probably do not have the gee-whizness of many of the examples that are discussed, there are nonetheless important artistic and technological questions that are raised when the possibilities of digital reading are discussed. Here, I think, may be another limitation with the encyclopedic and celebratory format of the book. The debates focused the electronic reading are actually debates. While it would be possible, and interesting, to collect together various artefacts and software that could hint at the possibilities, none of them really have the same clear and distinct idea, the same smell of newness, or the same artistic impact that the book tends to focus on.

            As an encyclopedia of what is happening in scientific art, I found that the pictures were generally disappointing. None of the pictures are in color, and many were too small and poorly reproduced to enhance the reader’s appreciation of the work. While the book is presented as an art book, it is unfortunately laid out as a computer manual. Part of this may be that the topics being covered were so diverse, and so difficult to capture in a two-dimensional static media, that color would not have added much to the book. Reader’s can go to the web pages, after all. But this only works for a limited number of the instances.

            On the other hand, the book is also an attempt to demonstrate a specific philosophical point: that the distinction between science and art is no longer tenable: scientists have become artists, and artists have become scientists. And behind this connection is an array of key theoretical questions, questions that are raised in the book, but almost never dwelt upon. The book thrives on examples, both theoretical and artistic, and offers very little in the way of overall analysis.  The discussion of the history of science and art that begins the book, for instance, suffers from being too simplistic, and from relying on an eclectic, all but random, set of historians of science. Francis Bacon is at the beginning, as a way to separate art and science, and Barthes and Baudrillard are at the end, as a way to put them together again. But were art and science ever that far apart?

            While the celebration of the newly refound connection between art and science is a useful foil to begin the book, in the end, rejecting this history as it is offered in Information Arts should not detract from the remaining 800 pages that summarize so much recent technological creativity. As with any encyclopedia, however, Information Arts suffers from the limits and issues of any large-scale collection.  The perspectives and the data (the book’s own information art), are very western, very establishment, and soon to be very dated. Most of the examples in the book are from the last decade or two, and by the author’s own intellectual commitments, there is every reason to believe that there will be more and quite different examples very soon. And with the inspiration for diversity that Information Arts provides, the increase in variation will likely be that much greater. In short, the book’s value is less in its theoretical discussions or the shelf-life of its examples, and can be found more on the simple, but crucial, sense that so much has been done already, and so much more can be done, at the intersection of art, technology, and science.


© 2002 Brian Richardson

Brian Richardson recently completed his Political Science dissertation at the University of Hawaii, on the voyages of Captain Cook and 19th century understandings of empire. He is now researching the morality of reading in a digitizing world, focusing in particular on key moral arguments from the history of western philosophy.