Semiotic Redefinition of Art in a Digital Age

Mel Alexenberg

In Semiotics and Visual Culture: Sights, Signs, and Significance. Debbie Smith-Shank (ed.), Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 2004

The semiotic classification scheme created by Charles Pierce a century ago is a valuable starting point in redefining art in a digital age.  He identified three classes of signs: icon, symbol, and index.1 These categories can describe how significance is created in representational art of premodernism and modernism.  They are insufficient, however, in describing postmodern presentational forms of art emerging in a digital age. 

Representational art forms show after-the-fact signs of what was. Presentational art locates art in the present and future in contrast to representational art that locates art in the past.  Presentational art forms invited me to propose an expanded semiotic taxonomy.  I identified three classes of presentation: identic, prioric, and dialogic.2 Identic art gains meaning by presenting what is.  Prioric art presents what can be.  And dialogic art gains meaning through dialogue, collaboration, and interaction in dynamic responsive processes.    

Iconic Art

Iconic art represents the external appearance of things.  It gains meaning by looking like something that we see in the real world.  Computer users know the word “icon” as the blank sheet of paper with its corner folded down, the floppy disc, the file folder, the printer, and the scissors icons on the toolbar of computer screens.  Redon’s painting of a vase of flowers, Michelangelo’s Adam reaching out to touch the hand of God, Picasso’s Three Musicians, and a road map are all icons with different levels of iconicity.  Iconic art can range from the Greek art ideal of creating an illusion so great that birds are fooled into eating painted grapes, from trompe d’oeil still lifes, and from photorealist cityscapes, to abstracted objects and schematic drawings. 

Computer simulations can render icons so realistically that they create a virtual world visually indistinguishable from the real world.  When I was at the 1984 SIGGRAPH computer imaging and animation convention in Minneapolis, the film The Last Starfighter had just been released.  It starts with high touch images of a backwater California trailer park, a warm, friendly, black, elderly gentleman and sleepy basset hound.  Even the neon sign announcing the name of the trailer park had a high touch glow in contrast to the high tech dazzle of the sleek, shiny, metallic spaceships that we see later. New digital technologies make the old electric technology quaint.  The park’s teenagers’ major source of entertainment was a videogame, The Last Starfighter.  One of the kid’s making a perfect score in the game was the big exciting event in the laidback trailer park.  The teenagers had no idea that the videogame was placed in different places on planet Earth to identify naturally gifted starfighters for an intergalactic war.  The trailer park videogame hero was recruited for the good guys in the war.  When he arrived at the distant planet under siege, all seemed lost.  There was only one starship remaining to save the defenders of good against the evil armada.  The Earthling teenager protests being put into the cockpit of the high tech starship, claiming that he only knows how to drive a pickup truck.  He is assured that flying the real starship is identical to playing the videogame simulation at which he proved to be the very best.  With amazing skill learned on the flight simulator in the California trailer park, he destroys the enemy armada with his single starship and saves the entire galaxy.

Computer graphics images that imitate photographs have become more realistic than the photographs themselves.  In the film Jurassic Park, the computer animators made the dinosaurs so perfect that they were too real.  Lev Manovich explains what needed to be done to icons with such a high-level of iconicity that they become unbelievable. “Typical images produced with 3-D computer graphics still appear unnaturally clean, sharp, and geometric looking.  Their limitations especially stand out when juxtaposed with a normal photograph.  Thus one of the landmark achievements of Jurassic Park was the seamless integration of film footage of real scenes with computer-simulated objects.  To achieve this integration, computer-generated images had to be degraded; their perfection had to be diluted to match the imperfection of film’s graininess.”3   

Symbolic Art

After icon, the second semiotic class in symbol.  Symbolic art represents things or ideas through signs that are assigned meaning maintained by convention, by the agreement of community.  Unlike an icon that bears a likeness to what it signifies, a symbol bears no direct or necessary connection to what it signifies.  A red traffic light, for example, signifies a command to stop while a green light signifies go.   These are assigned meanings agreed upon by community consensus.  Had the opposite assignment been made, green would signify stop. I have shown a slide of Larry River’s painting, Last Civil War Veteran, when I lectured in Israel, Holland, and Japan. No one could identify the subject of the painting that shows the Confederate and Union flags behind an abstracted figure in a bed.  They all recognized the Union flag as the flag of the United States of America, but none could recognize the flag of the Confederate states.  On the other hand, when I showed this same slide in the U.S.A., everyone could identify the subject of the painting. 

The supreme symbol is the word.  Only if you know the language, can you read and understand the word.  If an artist makes a painting of a man walking on the beach that clearly looks like a man walking on the beach, it is iconic art.  However, if an artist paints the words EEN MAN WANDELT OP HET STRAND in blue letters on an ochre background on a large canvas, they are semantically meaningless unless you understand Dutch.  They mean: “Man Walking on the Beach.”

 Paper money has symbolic value.  It has no intrinsic value.  It represents value by consensus of a group of people who agree that it can be exchanged for commodities.  The Dutch in Rembrandt’s time made art, like money, a symbol of economic value.  Portable paintings on canvas could be traded by merchants in a free market economy instead of immovable painted walls commissioned by clergy or aristocracy for church or palace.   Svetlana Alpers documents Rembrandt’s role in transforming artworks into commodities in Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market.  Rembrandt chose the exchange system of the marketplace to free him from having to seek honor in the courts of patrons.  “He pursued honor not in the sense of honors that others could confer, but in the sense of what art itself could confer, the value that his art itself brought into being, and this was registered in the money values of the market….  His paintings shared with money – a piece of metal or paper, marked with certain symbols – a quality which economists refer to as abstract: though nothing in itself, it is accepted as the representation of value.”4 He would have been amused at the Dutch committee of Rembrandt experts, more than three centuries later, ruling that the famous Rembrandt painting, Polish Rider, owned by the Frick Collection was not a real Rembrandt after all. Because of this de-attribution, The New York Times reported that its value fell to one-sixth of its initial value in one day.  The painting, although unchanged materially, lost symbolic value. 

Andy Warhol went one step further in his 1962 money pictures in which he silk-screened images of dollar bills on canvas.  He enjoyed selling his artistic symbols of U.S. Treasury symbols for more money that the face value of the bills.5 In the electronic age, symbolic money is further abstracted from atoms to bits.  Atoms of gold with some intrinsic value have changed to atoms of printed-paper with only symbolic value, to bits of electronic information that can flow around the planet as a Visa card is swiped through the digital reader of the magnetic strip.  We are witnessing the trend Lucy Lippard calls “the dematerialization of the art object,”6 paralleling the dematerialization of money.  With the click of a mouse, we can make our bid for a Rembrandt etching at an Internet art auction.  Bits buy atoms.

Indexic Art

The third class of representational art is indexic. If we return to our example of a man walking on the beach, we see that a painting that looks like a man walking on the beach is iconic art, and that words painted out on a canvas are symbolic art. The actual footprints in the sand indicating that a man had walked on the beach can be perceived as indexic art.  Indexic art represents occurrences by presenting direct physical evidence that they occurred.  The word “index” is used as in its original derivation from Latin indicare, meaning to indicate, to point out as an index finger does.  Indexic art documents events in real space and in cyberspace.  Unlike painting that obscures the brushstrokes that indicate the process of painting, Van Gogh’s vigorous brushstrokes are indexical documentation of applying impasto paint with a paintbrush.  He made his brushstrokes, evidence of process, an integral part of his artistic statement.  Although indexical signs are felt strongly in Van Gogh’s paintings, he continued to maintain iconicity in them.  The full abandonment of the icon in painting and its replacement with pure index occurred most powerfully in action painting.  A Jackson Pollack painting is indexic art that displays symptoms of the artist’s having dripped paint, as well as a documentary map and after-the-act choreographic score of the movement of his body over a canvas floor.  There is a direct physical connection between the artist dripping paint and the dripped paint on the canvas.  George Segal’s sculptures are indexic art.  His forming plaster-soaked cloth over an actual human body is a documentation process. Indexic art represents by correspondence, directly connecting what was to what is.

Kim Abeles invented an indexic method of creating images from smog in her Smog Collectors series aimed at raising awareness of environmental issues. She cut stencils, placed them on porcelain plates or Plexiglas sheets, and exposed them to LA’s smog-filled air on her studio rooftop for a month.  Images cut out from the stencils selectively exposed the surface to the air.  “As the particulate matter from the smog accumulated over time, an image ‘developed’ on the exposed surface or plate.  Thus, the invisible becomes visible…the polluted air authors its own image.”7     

Both chemically and digitally produced photographs, at first impression, would seem to be the epitome of iconic art, the zenith of iconicity, since they represent the most accurate visual likeness of an object or event.  On closer scrutiny, however, it becomes clear that the very high iconicity results from the photographic image being produced by point-to-point correspondence between light rays coming from what is being represented and a chemically or electronically sensitized plane.  From this point of view, photographs are indexic art forms, documentary records produced by direct physical connection between what was and what is.  Cinema and video are indexic forms that add motion and sound to photography.  Indexic pictures that render the invisible visible play a vital role in contemporary science.  The work of many scientists involves reading symptoms of natural occurrences from X-rays, MRIs, electrocardiograms, spectrograms, scintigrams, seismograms, voiceprints, and numerous other technologically generated indexic pictures. 

Conceptual art, earthworks, site-specific installations, and performance art rely on photography, video, and film for documentation.  Often these indexic records of time-based and temporary art works are presented in galleries and museums and are viewed as the art itself.  Art critic Carter Radcliff, in Out of the Box: The Reinvention of Art, 1965-1975, traced the deliberate instability of these works as a reaction to the stability of the minimalist object.  “Performance pieces vanished as they were seen.  Lines drawn on the desert floor disappeared more slowly, yet they too made the argument that works of art need not be permanent.  It’s enough for them to survive in their documentation, and sometimes a piece did not come fully into being until a record of it went on view…. Documentation is primary: the work itself, not a reference to work elsewhere.”8 Patricia Novell recorded the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of the artists who were redefining art in 1969 by interviewing them.  In response to the renewal of interest in conceptual art, the transcriptions Norvell’s interviews were published in 2001 in Recording Conceptual Art.  One of her standard questions was, “How does documentation function in your work?”  She found that the redefinition of art centered mainly on the role of the object in art.  “For many artists the object as art is obsolete.  In their work, either the object is eliminated entirely or, if it is employed, its formal elements are subordinate to such concerns as material quality, natural phenomena, natural forces, location, process, or system.  Where the art object is eliminated, some documentation of the art idea is usually substituted.  Thus what is presented to the viewer may be photographs, written documentation and descriptions, or spoken information.”9

A high tech example of indexic art is one of the Four Wings of America pieces I created in celebration of Miami’s centennial.  An electronic documentation was generated of the multiple branching pathways of a cyberangel traveling via the Internet between the four corners of America: Miami, San Diego, Seattle, and Portland (Maine). With a scanner, I dematerialized a Rembrandt drawing of an angel transforming it into a digital cyberangel.  The Internet transported the cyberangel, restoring the sense of geographical space lost when surfing the web.  Did you notice how a web page that you are receiving does not appear all at once on your monitor?  It comes up on your screen in parts until the whole finally comes together.  The full cyberangel image does not fly out through the web at once.  The web server sending the digitized image to the requesting browser breaks the image up into data packets.  Each packet is assigned an ID number and routed by routers from one corner to the next through the available telecommunications pathways.  Hence, the single image is deconstructed and routed through cyberspace between Miami and San Diego along multiple pathways.  When the data packets reach San Diego, they are reassembled in the correct sequence based on the ID numbers that were assigned in Miami.  The transmission control protocol (TPC) ensures that all the packets get to the requesting computer with no pieces missing as the whole cyberangel is rematerialized.  One angel packet can fly from Miami to New Orleans to Houston to Albuquerque to Phoenix to San Diego, while another angel packet flies from Miami to Atlanta to Nashville to St. Louis to Tulsa to Denver to Las Vegas to San Diego.  Visualize the documentation of hundreds of routing paths plotted between the four corners on a map of U.S.A.  The erratic pathways drawn from Miami to San Diego, from San Diego to Seattle, from Seattle to Portland, and from Portland back to Miami appear to possess electric energy.  The indexic record of the cyberangel flight around the U.S.A. perimeter resembles flashes of lightning.             

Identic Art

Categories of representational art signify what was by illustration, symbolization, and documentation.  Presentational art forms signify what is, what can be, and what is becoming.  It does not look like something else, nor does it symbolize or indicate something other than itself.  It is form and color presented as form and color; it is a real thing presented as itself, it is a real time electronic transmission of an event, and it can be an everyday event that is presented as life being lived.  Allan Kaprow suggests that all of these identic trends evolved from Cubist explorations.  “Mondrian saw in Cubism the precursor to a nonfigurative, transcendent formal language.  This lofty sense of abstraction continued to resonate through Newman and Reinhardt and well into Minimalism.  In contrast, Duchamp picked up from that same Cubism’s collages and constructions the ironic possibility that the artist’s selective appropriation of commonplace materials and mass-produced images might replace the artist’s traditional skill and individual creativity.”10 Duchamp’s Readymades led to Assemblage, Events, Earthworks, and Kaprow’s own work from Happenings to ordinary life performed as art/non art, lifelike art rather than artlike art.

Kandinsky aimed for a pure identic art in which form and color has an abstract presence like music that does not represent anything other than its own sounds.  He was critical of Cubism “in which natural form is often forcibly subjected to geometrical construction, a process which tends to hamper the abstract by the concrete and spoil the concrete by the abstract.”11 We can trace the development of identic painting discussed in Kandinsky’s 1911 book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, to Kasmir Malevich’s 1918 non-objective painting White on White, which presents a white square hovering diagonally on a white ground of a slightly different hue. The Dutch de Stijl movement purified this identic direction in the 1920’s.  Its leading proponent, Piet Mondrian, limited his artistic vocabulary to black and white and the primary pigment colors – red, blue, and yellow – painted on a vertical and horizontal grid that seemed to open out into the space surrounding them. 

In America of the 1960’s, Ad Reinhardt created a series of paintings in which black squares of slightly different hues gradually reached the limit of human ability to discern the difference between them through visual perception.  Josef Albers, Kandinsky’s younger colleague at the Bauhaus, painted his Homage to the Square series and published his Interaction of Color while heading Yale Art School.  Albers set solid colored areas in relationships that challenge our perception of color and space.  An extension of this identic formalism and minimalism from painting to sculpture can be seen in the work of Donald Judd.  He ordered boxes from a sheet-metal shop and had them delivered to an art gallery.  These commercially built sheet metal boxes were exhibited.  Judd set them equidistant from one another to evoke awareness of boxes.  He had no intention of representing anything, only presenting the boxes as themselves.12

Real objects and events from non-art contexts can be transformed into identic art.  A San Francisco collective called Ant Farm upended ten Cadillacs along Route 66 near Amarillo, Texas.  Artists Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, and Doug Michels partially buried these 1948 to 1962 vintage cars in a row, front end into the ground at 45 degrees with tail fins pointing skyward.  John Beardsley in Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape described this flamboyant gesture as “a requiem for the golden age of the American automobile.”13 To explore natural processes, Hans Haacke created an identic artwork titled Chicken’s Hatching.  He presented real chicks hatching out of real eggs by installing working incubators holding fertilized eggs in the Art Gallery of Ontario for a month.  California ecological artists Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison create living ecosytems as works of art.  One of their collaborations was Portable Fish Farm: Survival Piece #3 (1971) in which they installed six, 20 foot long, rubber-lined tanks containing an ecosystem of catfish, brine shrimp, and lobsters, at the Haywood Gallery in London.14 

In 1982, Agnes Denes created a public art project, Wheatfield, Battery Park City – A Confrontation, which honors the tenacity of life against the encroaching city.  Barbara Matilsky describes this monumental work of environmental art in Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions: “On landfill near the World Trade Center in New York City, Denes cleared debris and garbage from an unused 4-acre parcel, brought in 225 truckloads of earth, and planted 2 acres of wheat in 1 inch of topsoil.  With two assistants and some volunteers, the artist created an irrigation system and maintained the field for four months.  During the summer, gleaming green stalks of wheat, which eventually turned glowing amber, were seen swaying against a fortress of skyscrapers.”15

Allan Kaprow contrasts artlike art with a lifelike art that is purely identic, identical with life’s daily routines.  Lifelike artists can be found playing at living life with awareness.  “They find life’s meaning in picking a stray thread from someone’s collar.  And if that isn’t it, they find in just making sure the dishes are washed, counting the knives, the forks, the cups and saucers as they pass from the left hand to the right.  How different this is from ‘artlike artists,’ whose art resembles other art more than anything else.  Artlike artists don’t look for the meaning of life; they look for the meaning of art.”  Kaprow decided to pay attention to brushing his teeth alone in his bathroom, without art spectators.  He brushed his teeth attentively for two weeks becoming aware of the tension in his elbow and fingers, the pressure on his gums, and the slight bleeding that made him think he should see a dentist.  Kaprow describes the awakening of his awareness:  “I began to pay attention to how much this act of brushing my teeth had become routinized, nonconscious behavior, compared with my first efforts to do it when I was a child.  I began to suspect that 99 percent of my daily life was just as routinized and unnoticed; that my mind was always somewhere else; and that the thousand signals my body was sending me each minute were ignored.”  In response to his question of the relevance of his brushing to art, he traces art’s shift away from objects in a gallery to the real body and mind, communications technology, the real urban environment and natural regions of the ocean, sky and desert.  “Thus the relationship of the act of toothbrushing to recent art is clear and cannot be bypassed.  This is where the paradox lies; an artist concerned with lifelike art is an artist who does and does not make art…. But ordinary life performed as art/not art can charge the everyday with metaphoric power.”16

Real time electronic transmission of events provides opportunities for artists to create identic digital art. A web cam opens a window for voyeurs around the globe to view an actual event as it occurs. In The New York Times article, “Seen My Sock Drawer Lately? Check Out My Web Site,” Tom Zeller reports of the Ebay Internet auction of a non-working, waxy-white Krups ProAroma coffee machine.  It seems the Trojan Room Coffee Pot, as the appliance is known, had been under the steady gaze of a video camera in the computer lab at Cambridge University in England.  In 1991, enterprising workers set up the system and distributed three images per minute over the local network, to spare them the long hike to what might be an empty pot.  Two years later, a new camera was mounted and the images were linked to a nascent, global network called the Internet, the world’s first “Web cam” – an entire sub-genre of Internet culture – was born. People around the world could then check if there’s coffee in the pot.17 Although the Coffee Cam has been switched off because the Cambridge lab is moving, we can monitor the growth of corn in an Iowa field in real time on-line at or check out the traffic at Russia’s Vaalimaa border crossing point in Finland at   Or we can watch in Jerusalem as little slips of paper on which Jews have written their prayers are being pressed into crevasses between the massive stones of the Western Wall standing since biblical times at

Prioric Art

Iconic art, symbolic art, and indexic art are past oriented; identitic art exists in the present; prioric art is future directed.  Prioric art is the presentation of a proposal or plan for a potential event, an a priori statement of what can be.  It often employs iconic and symbolic modes of signification for presenting itself.  The prioric form is more common in art forms other than the visual arts.  It can take the form of scores in music and dance, scripts in theater and film, or architectural plans.  Like these forms, the visual artists can propose art works that they do not make themselves. Musicians perform music created by composers, dancers move to choreographers’ notations, actors enact a script written by playwrights, and building contractors convert architectural drawings into buildings. Visual artists act more like composers, choreographers, playwrights, and architects in creating prioric art.  Sometimes the proposal or plan can be presented as the work of art itself.  John Cage has exhibited his musical scores as works of visual art.  One of his scores is presented as a standard-looking title page of sheet music from without, but within it is blank with the exception of a few words printed on it: “A work of piano consisting of total silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  The work, however, may be performed by any instrumentalists or combination of instrumentalists.”18 Christo’s lithograph showing the entire Whitney Museum of American Art wrapped with cloth and rope is a work of prioric art that is a proposal for wrapping the museum. 

Lawrence Halperin created scores for the interaction of individuals in a group with each other and their environment.  “What differentiates scoring from other arts ultimately is that scoring is a means to make other people creative.  The measure of the success of a score is how much it achieves for others – not how creative or beautiful or amusing the score is in itself.  Scoring, therefore, is an art form devoted to sharing and participation, and the scoring artist is an energizer and catalyst for collective creativity.”  Halperin prepared one of his scores by superimposing a calendar grid for the month of September on a map of San Francisco.  He proposes that the performers of his score create events in the geographical area corresponding to a particular day in the calendar’s grid.  For example, if the calendar box marked with the number “29” falls over a portion of the map marked “Ocean View Park,” then the performers enact their September 29th events in Ocean View Park.  Each of the other day’s events is planned to take place in another part of the city determined by the calendar/map matrix.19

Dialogic Art

Dialogic art comes into being through dialogue.  It exists as the interrelationship between people, and between people and their environments – natural, man-made, and electronic.  It can extend to inter-species dialogue.  The difference between identic and dialogic forms of art can be described by Martin Buber’s two primary words: I-It and I-Thou.  I-It is the experience of something; it describes identic art.  I-Thou, however, is not the experience of something, but rather an interrelationship that has its own existence.  I-Thou comes into being through dialogue, the interactive shared sphere between people, a sphere of spiritual intensity. “The participation of both partners is in principle indispensable to this sphere…. The unfolding of this sphere Buber calls ‘the dialogical.’ The psychological that which happens to the souls of each, is only the secret accompaniment to the dialogue.  The meaning of this dialogue is found in neither one nor the other of the partners, nor in both taken together, but in their interchange.”20

The digital age shift in art from representation to presentation, from object to system, from icon to dialogue, represents a shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of Western culture.  In his seminal book, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman writes: “If Israelite thinking is to be characterized, it is obvious first to call it dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind; correspondingly Greek thinking is static, peaceful, moderate, and harmonious in kind.”21

Rather than the Hellenistic concept of art as imitating nature by creating images and objects, the Hebraic concept of art is engaging in dialogue to create spiritual significance in our everyday lives.  A powerful example of this dialogic art derived from the deep structure of Jewish consciousness is Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ interaction with New York City sanitation workers.  She spent eleven months shaking the hands of 8,500 men who collect garbage on the streets of New York.  In Linda Montano’s interview with her in Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties, Ukeles describes her dialogic artwork: “It involved facing each one bodily and saying, ‘Thank you for keeping New York City alive.’  It was a ritual and a discipline for myself because I intended to mean exactly that as I faced and spoke to thousands and thousands of people.  That was my own private goal: to watch myself very closely so that I wouldn’t turn it into a mechanical thing.  And I didn’t.  I proved to myself that I had ritual strength.  It was not even hard because there was so much response from those people that I met, and that carried me.  It was a very positive energy field that I was in.”22 She discusses her learning to engage in ritual that continually renews itself from her father and brother, both rabbis, and from her mother who set her free to engage in creative play.   

Dialogic art sets Vision in Motion, to use the title of the book written by Kandinsky’s Bauhaus colleague Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.  It breaks down the duality between object and subject, between producer and consumer, between inside and outside, and between time and space.  These dyads are grasped simultaneously.  “Simultaneous grasp,” Moholy-Nagy writes, “is creative performance – seeing, feeling and thinking in relationship and not in a series of isolated phenomena.  It instantaneously integrates and transmutes single elements into a coherent whole.”23

In his 1980 solo exhibition, Beyond the Visible, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Yaacov Agam included two types of art works to evoke dialogue: “polymorphic” and  “transformable.”  In the polymorphic works, one interacts with the work by moving oneself; in the transformable works, one interacts with the works by moving parts of them.  The polymorphic works are paintings on a series of vertical, attached triangular prisms.  As the participant in the dialogue moves from the right to the left side of the prism, the painted forms on the right side disappear as the colors and shapes on the left side gradually become visible.  In contrast with Cubism, where the artist experiences the many perspectives of reality and unifies them in a single image, Agam creates art works that invite each participant to unify the enormous number of perspectives that can only come into being through dialogic interaction.  One of the two major polymorphic pieces in the Guggenheim show, Panoramagam, was attached to the interior wall spiraling 360 degrees around the museum atrium.   The other is a 65-foot polymorphic tower, Aenaitral Tower, reaching from the floor of the atrium up to the ceiling.  As we walk up the ramp, we continually see the changing facets of the vertical tower and spiraling polymorph from different viewpoints, with each view presenting a different image.  His transformable, Beating Beating Heart, is a nine element stainless steel floor sculpture of heart forms.  When touched, each element moves independently.  When all nine are set in motion simultaneously, a waving movement of heartbeat is established.  Agam, son of a rabbi, states: “A work of art which captures a specific moment and eternalizes it in a painting or sculpture is expressing a static view of existence.  Authentic Jewish art must capture and communicate the very dynamism of life’s flowing, changing quality…characterized by diversity, newness, aliveness, activity.”24

Eduardo Kac collaborated with Ikuo Nakamura in creating Essay Concerning Human Understanding, an artwork of inter-species dialogue in which a canary dialogues over a regular phone line with a plant 600 miles away.  At the Center for Contemporary Art, University of Kentucky, a canary lived in a cage on top of which circuit boards, a speaker, and a microphone wired to the telephone system were located.  In New York, an electrode was placed on the leaf of a philodendron to sense its response to the singing of the bird.  The voltage fluctuation of the plant was monitored through a Macintosh running Interactive Brain-Wave Analyzer (IBVA) software that played out sounds controlled by a MIDI sequencer.  The order and duration of the sounds were determined in real time by the plant’s response to the canary’s songs.  Interaction with humans standing near the bird and plant altered their behavior.  The artists explain: “By enabling an isolated and caged animal to a have telematic conversation with a member of another species, this installation dramatized the role of telecommunications in our own longing for interaction, our desire to reach out and stay in touch.  This interactive installation is ultimately about human isolation and loneliness, and about the very possibility of communication.”25

Artists who create interactive artworks using computer systems need to consider relationships between content and interface.  Manovich proposes that old dichotomies content-form and content-medium have become content-interface in dialogic e-art.  We are all familiar with mouse, keyboard, touchscreen, or joystick as common interfaces.  Through the interface we hold a dialogue with the content of the computer software.  In fine art of the past, the forms and media selected by the artist are related to the content of the artwork. In new media art, the choice of interface, rather than form and medium, is motivated by the artwork’s content. The interface becomes an integral part of the expression of content.  Content and interface merge into a single entity and cannot be perceived as independent of each other.26 

The dialogic artworks of artists Laurent Mignonneau and Christa Sommerer create natural interfaces to transport the content of life, variation and personality as the user interacts with a virtual space.  In their collaborative artwork Interactive Plant Growth, the interface between the user and the computer is a living plant.  Approaching or touching the plant wired to the computer triggers reactions in a virtual world of simulated plant growth.  In their interactive computer installation A-Volve, visitors interact with artificial creatures that live, mate and evolve in a water-filled glass pool.  The creatures not only interact with each other but also react to the visitor’s hands in the water. The artists installed a camera detection system that measured the visitor’s hand positions and communicated the data to the artificial creatures.  The creatures react to the visitor’s gestures; they can stop moving when caught by the visitor’s hand or act afraid when touched too often.27 

Artists invent alternative interfaces that are conceptually and experientially linked to content in dialogic art systems such as biofeedback interfaces through which internal body processes generate computer images, infrared sensors that respond to body heat, animated laser-projections activated by human speech,28 and technologies that enable blind people to “see” computer images thorough their fingers and interact globally through the Internet.29   Art flowing through the Internet can connect surfers through dialogue.  It can “allow us to share knowledge – spiritual knowledge – with each other, empowering and unifying individuals everywhere.  We need to utilize today’s interactive technology not just for business or leisure but to interlink as people – to create a welcome environment for interaction of our souls, our hearts, our visions.”30 


1  Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960).

2  Mel Alexenberg, “A Semiotic Taxonomy of Contemporary Art Forms,” Studies in Art Education, vol. 17, no. 3, 1976, 7-12.

3  Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), 201, 202.

4  Svetlana Alpers, Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 105, 110.

5         Kynaston McShine, ed., Andy Warhol: A Retrospective (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 160-167.

6         Lucy R. Lippard.  Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972.  New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973.  p. 122.

7         Susan Ressler, “Women Artists of the American West: It’s All About the Apple, Or is it?” html.

8         Carter Ratcliff, Out of the Box: The Reinvention of Art, 1965-75 (New York: Allworth Press and School of Visual Arts, 2000), 240.

9         Alexander Alberro and Patricia Norvell, editors, Recording Conceptual Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 17.

10     Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 223.

11     Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M.T.H. Sadler (New York: Dover, 1977), 52, 47.

12     Anna C. Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 1, 45.

13     Don Judd, “Specific Objects,” in Arts Yearbook: Contemporary Sculpture, ed. J. R. Mellow (New York, Art Digest, 1965).

14     John Beardsley, Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), 31.

15     Charles Green, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 100.

16     Barbara C. Matilsky, Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artist’s Interpretations and Solutions (New York: Rizzoli in association with the Queens Museum of Art, 1992), 51.

17     Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 232, 221, 222.

18     Tom Zeller, “Seen My Sock Drawer Lately? Check Out My Web Site,” The New York Times, Weekly Review, August 19, 2001, 8.

19     G. Woods, P. Thompson, and J. Williams, Art without Boundaries (London: Thames and Hudson, 1972), 9.

20     Lawrence Halprin and J. Burns, Taking Part: A Workshop Approach to Collective Creativity (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974) 89.

21     Maurice S. Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 85, 241.

22     Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, (New York: Norton, 1970), 27.

23     Linda M. Montano, “Mierle Laderman Ukeles,” Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 454-459.

24     Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1965).

25     Yaacov Agam and Bernard Mandelbaum, Art and Judaism (New York: BLD Limited, 1981) 22, 23.

26     Eduardo Kac, “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,”

27     Radcliff, Out of the Box: The Reinvention of Art, 1965-1975, 191.

28     Laurent Mignonneau and Christa Sommerer, “Designing Interfaces for Interactive Artworks,” IEEE KES 2000 Knowledge Based Engineering Systems Conference Proceedings (Brighton, UK: University of Brighton, 2000), 80-84.

29     Mel Alexenberg and Otto Piene, LightsOROT (New York: Yeshiva University Museum and Cambridge: MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, 1988).

30     Mel Alexenberg, Ari Alexenberg, and Miriam Benjamin, “Cybersight,” Virtual Museum of Responsive Art,

31     Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom     of the Rebbe, adapted Simon Jacobson (New York: William Morrow, 1995), 191.

About the author

Mel Alexenberg is Head of the School of the Arts at Emuna College in Jerusalem and

Professor Emeritus of Art and Jewish Studies at the Ariel University Center of Samaria. He was formerly Dean of Visual Arts at New World School of the Arts in Miami, Professor and Chairman of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute, Associate Professor of Art and Education at Columbia University and at Bar-Ilan University, and Research Fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  His artworks exploring the vibrant interface between digital media, global systems, and Jewish consciousness are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide.