Technology and Art by Terry Orletsky
A colleague recently asked me how I managed to reconcile my long career in Information Technology with my even longer tenure as an artist. As a serious painter, dilettante guitarist, and a technologist it may seem that the worlds of art and technology are oxymoronic. I have been doing all of these things for more than 50 years, which is a long time if what I am fostering is some kind of schizophrenic behavior. Has anyone been effectively schizophrenic and functioning for more than five decades?
Just how do the humanities connect with technology and modern times? The humanities study what it is to be human. Unless you are living and working as an automaton in the world of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, the connection between technology and humanity is today explicit and real – and has been for the last century; radio, telephones, the phonograph, electric light, television, motion pictures, computers – all technology. The great Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan discussed the phenomenon of electricity and its impact on culture in the 60s and 70s. He even predicted the Internet 30 years before it became a reality. He talked about an “electrically configured” world; “it is a world not of wheels but of circuits, not of fragments but of integral patterns.” Describing the psychic state of literate people, McLuhan writes, “With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man….” Let us assume then that high tech and humanity are wedded – we know that the brains of young people today are “wired” differently. The impact of technology is directly affecting the way we think and work. “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face.” – Visions of Johanna by Bob Dylan.
What then is the interplay between “the medium as the message” and classical humanities- art and literature? Almost 100 years before McLuhan the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who is credited with inventing surrealism, wrote about the study of “self”. In his words, this study involves the “rational disordering of all the senses”. This is central to the generation of poetry and art. Isn’t it curious that McLuhan talks about our central nervous system being “strategically numb” and Rimbaud speaks of the “rational disordering of all the senses”? To Rimbaud, the disordering of the senses is “rational” – he is the first non-metaphysical visionary. McLuhan says that the “tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man” (my emphasis).
Rimbaud said that “one must be absolutely modern” in the middle of the 19th century; McLuhan says we have arrived. To be modern one must welcome the intensity of the moment – that single instant of illumination in which time seems to stop.
The flow of ideas from the surrealism of Rimbaud to the electricity of McLuhan leads us directly to the work of the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. He studied Rimbaud intensely and was certainly familiar with McLuhan. Rimbaud practiced in the tradition of “visionary literature”; Dylan has described his work as “vision music”. His ideas of tradition and time – of the past, the present and the future – flow from Rimbaud’s poetry of the moment and the need to be “absolutely modern”.
Dylan recently said that his work existed to inspire. Dylanesque inspiration leads us back through McLuhan’s electricity and the Beat generation of Ginsberg and Kerouac and Ferlinghetti through the folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and the poetic tradition of T.S. Eliot to the existentialists and the surrealists; even further to Petrarch and Dante and then to Vergil and Homer’s Odyssey. Dylan’s great work “Blood on the Tracks” is layered with centuries of ideas and the back beat of electric rock and roll.
One of Dylan’s great masterpieces is Mr. Tambourine Man, a song about the liminal state between wakefulness and sleep; he describes the state of “sleep paralysis” with the words “my senses have been stripped” – a direct connection to Rimbaud and McLuhan. In this song the past, present, and future seem to exist simultaneously. The transition state between consciousness and sleep is a metaphor for his leaving the early sixties invention of himself behind. He is in the process of transcending himself and those around him; it is a natural process of reinvention. Dylan often brings transitional states into his work – doorways and keyholes and the line between the beach and the sea. In another of his masterpieces – “Tangled Up in Blue” he describes the song as "Past, present, and future - all tied up in a single room." -When I paint I am acutely aware of the sense that the “past is close behind”. I am able to conjure up a vision from my memory that appears to me instantly - it is just as close as the moment behind. My paintings exist suspended in time – in the moment. The scene becomes universal in its impact; timeless. The landscape exists forever on my canvas - immutable. It looked that way just a moment ago - even though the moment captured in my memory is 60 years in the past. It will look like that in this moment and then the next. The universe becomes fractal. Dylan said “Hang onto your memories. You can’t relive them.”
Dylan’s poetic visions provide enough inspiration for a lifetime of paintings, and his commitment to being “absolutely modern” overlays our technology with the humanities.
I will leave you with the last line from Mr. Tambourine Man - "Let me forget about today until tomorrow." I would say that would be distinctly impossible – somewhat surreal.
One more thought. Rimbaud said "Je est un autre". “’I’ is somebody else.” He expresses the idea of duality being a universal state of being. "It is not the fault of the wood that it becomes a violin". My existence as an artist and as a technologist perhaps reflects this idea as well. I was an artist before I was a technologist. I didn't paint for more than 20 years while I mastered the craft of technology. I am still an artist. I was that; now I am this. Repeat ad infinitum.