Postdigital Art, Science, Technology and Kabbalah 

in Art, Science and Technology: Interaction between Three Cultures, Proceedings of the First International Conference. ORT Braude College, Karmiel, Israel, 2011. 

Professor Menahem (Mel) Alexenberg

If we google "postdigital art" the first listing is Wikipedia's definition in my new book: "In The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age Mel Alexenberg defines "postdigital art" as artworks that address the humanization of digital technologies through interplay between digital, biological, cultural, and spiritual systems, between cyberspace and real space, between embodied media and mixed reality in social and physical communication, between high tech and high touch experiences, between visual, haptic, auditory, and kinesthetic media experiences, between virtual and augmented reality, between roots and globalization, between autoethnography and community narrative, and between web-enabled peer-produced wikiart and artworks created with alternative media through participation, interaction, and collaboration in which the role of the artist is redefined."

In the 21st century, not only is the role of the artist changing, but art itself is being redefined. We are witnessing a redefinition of art in our postdigital networked world that is confluent with the Hebraic roots of Western culture rather than its Hellenistic roots.  The 20th century was a century of modernism that broke down the Hellenistic definition of art that dominated the art world since the Renaissance. This Hellenistic definition is reflected in the words for art in European languages: art in English and French, arte in Spanish, Kunst in German and Dutch, and iskustvo in Russian.  The roots of all these words are related to artificial, artifact, imitation, and phony.  In contrast, the Hebrew word for artist (oman) is spelled (alef-mem-nun) AMN with the same letters as the word amen which means truth.  Its feminine form is emunah, faith, and as a verb l’amen means to nurture and educate.

The Hellenistic definition of art as mimesis, imitating nature, arresting the flow of life, has become obsolete as new definitions of art are arising from Jewish thought and action that explore issues of truth, faith, and education as they enrich everyday life.  In the classic book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Hebraic thought is characterized as being “dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive" and Greek thinking as "static, peaceful, moderate, and harmonious.” It is the Hebraic rather than the Hellenistic roots of Western culture that is redefining art in a networked world in which digital technologies are being humanized through participation and interaction.

I will explore the confluence between emerging forms of postdigtital art and Jewish consciousness through a conceptual model for creative process at the intersections of art, science and technology derived from kabbalah. The kabbalistic model is a metaphorical way of thinking derived from the deep structure of Jewish consciousness.   Kabbalah provides a symbolic language and conceptual schema that facilitates understanding the dynamics of the creative process in postdigital art that explores the interplay of art, science and technology with creativity and spirituality. 

I will apply this model of creative process to my development of a biofeedback-generated visual imaging system at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.   In interaction with this biofeedback system, a person generates digital self-portraits through internal body changes detected as brain waves by electroencephalograph or blood flow in capillaries by plethysmograph.  At New York University and Columbia University I analyzed my in-depth interviews of prominent scientists (Nobel Laureates and members of the US National Academy of Sciences) and prominent artists to develop a model of aesthetic experience in creative process using psychological, biological, and mathematical methodologies.  Through my research on art in Jewish thought at Bar Ilan University and Ariel University, I came to see how kabbalah provides a dynamic schema that colorfully integrates these other methodologies.

The kabbalistic model of creative process reveals a progression that draws inspiration down into the material world from a higher source where originality emanates.  It demonstrates how inspiration is drawn down into our everyday world in ten stages called sephirot (sephirah in singular) that are derived from biblical passages describing both the artist and God as creators of worlds (Exodus 35:31 and Chronicles 1:29).

The first stage in the creative process is the sephirah Keter/Crown.  Keter is (ratson) intention to create, (emunah) faith that one can create, and (ta'anug) anticipation that the creative process will be pleasurable.  Without this will to create, self-confidence, and hope for gratification, the creative process has no beginning.  Keter sets the stage for the sephirah of Hokhmah / Wisdom that requires (bitul) a selfless state, nullification of the ego that opens gateways to supraconscious and subconscious realms.  When active seeking ceases, when consciously preoccupied with unrelated activities, when we least expect it, the germ of the creative idea bursts into our consciousness.  We need to become an empty vessel in order to receive (l'kabbel) a sudden flash of insight that kabbalah calls Hokhmah.  It is the transition from nothingness to being, from potential to the first moment of existence.  In biblical words, “Wisdom shall be found in nothingness” (Job 28:12).  When I asked prominent scientists and artists where they were when they had their most profound insight, none said they were in their laboratories or studios.

In synagogue on Shabbat, I was absorbed in the rhythm of the chanting of words from the Torah scroll following them with my eyes.  I was far removed from my studio/laboratory at MIT when I suddenly realized that the word for face panim and for inside p’nim are written with the same Hebrew letters.  I sensed that I needed to create portraits in which dialogue between the outside face and inside feelings become integrally one.  When I told my son what had just dawned on me, my mind left the sephirah of Hokhmah for the sephirah of Binah / UnderstandingThe shapeless idea that ignited the process began to take form in Binah.

The first three sephirot represent the artist’s intention to create and the cognitive dyad in which a flash of insight begins to crystallize into a viable idea.  The fourth sephirah, Hesed / Compassion, represents largess, the stage in the creative process that is open to all possibilities, myriad attractive options that I would love to do.  Hesed is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Gevurah / Strength, restraint, the power to set limits, to make judgments, to have the discipline to choose between myriad options.  It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon. 

I thought of a multitude of artistic options opened to me for creating artworks that reveal interplay between inner consciousness and outer face.  As an MIT artist with access to electronic technologies, my mind gravitated to creating digital self-generated portraits in which internal mind/body processes and one’s facial countenance engage in spirited dialogue.  As I felt satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the sephirah of Gevurah to the next stage, the sixth sephirah, Tiferet / Beauty.  This sephirah represents a beautiful balance between the counter forces of largess and restraint.  It is the feeling of harmony between all my possible options and the choices I had made.  The sephirah of Beauty is the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure is experienced as loveliness, splendor, and truth.

The seventh sephirah, Netzah / Success, is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance.  I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork.  The Hebrew word for this sephirah, netzakh, can also mean “to conduct” or “orchestrate” as in the word that begins many of the Psalms.  I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a moist media artwork that would forge a vital dialogue between dry pixels and wet biomolecules, between cyberspace and real space, and between human consciousness and digital imagery.    The eighth sephirah, Hod / Gracefulness, is the glorious feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the movements of a graceful dancer.  The sephirah of Netzah is an active self-confidence in contrast with the sephirah of Hod, a passive confidence that all is going as it should.

The ninth sephirah, Yesod / Foundation, is the sensuous bonding of Netzah and Hod in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea.  It funnels the integrated flow of intention, thought, and emotion of the previous eight sephirot into the world of physical action, into the tenth sephirah of Malkhut / Kingdom, the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space.  It is my making the artwork. I constructed a console in which a participant seated in front of a monitor places her finger in a plethysmograph, which measures internal body states by monitoring blood flow, while under the gaze of a video camera.   Digitized information about her internal mind/body processes triggers changes in the image of herself that she sees on the monitor.  She sees her face changing color, stretching, elongating, extending, rotating, or replicating in response to her feelings about seeing herself changing.  My artwork, Inside/Outside:P’nim/Panim, created a flowing digital feedback loop in which p’nim effects changes in panim and panim, in turn, effects changes in p’nim.