Visions of Technoromanticism - The Digital Prometheus

From December 1st 2020 to March 1st 2021 Electric Artefacts is exploring the theme of romanticism within contemporary new media art, and while ‘Technoromanticism’ was coined in the nineties with slightly varying definitions, it is only fair to start this journey at its very roots. To anchor Technoromanticism in the context initially envisioned by curator Aleksandra Artamonovskaja and assistant-curator Nina Lissone, we turn to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, introducing classical romanticism as a possible lens through which to view digital art.

Stepan Ryabchenko, Tranquil, 2020

In the beginning of the book, the creator of the monster reflects on his disappointment at the promises of modern science, and his consequent shift to more occult learnings:

I had retrod the steps of knowledge along the paths of time, and exchanged the discoveries of recent enquirers for the dreams of forgotten alchymists. Besides, I had a contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was very different, when the masters of science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand; but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded.

Dr. Frankenstein describes his disillusionment at discovering that the state of science in the early 19th century does not align with the sense of wonder he felt when contemplating the world that surrounded him as a child. He seeks the shock and awe of the mountains of his native Swiss landscape, to be mesmerized by the endless possibilities and adventures that the natural world offers. Instead, he is forced to face how the laws of science and physics bind us. Over 200 years later, however, there are ways of reconciling what is possible with what is impossible.

Achille Etna Michallon, Waterfall at Mont-Dore, 1818

Digital art finds itself in the unique position of being facilitated by the most advanced technologies of today while being able to portray things to which none of the limitations of the mortal world need to apply. It can defy the scientific knowledge without which it wouldn’t exist. In this paradox lies the relevance of romanticism for new media art, however hostile the relationship between the romanticist movement and technology was at its conception. Romanticism watched the scientific advancements that the Age of Reason brought with scepticism, and decided that the Western human should return to the wisdoms of yesteryear: “the untaught peasant beheld the elements around him, and was acquainted with their practical uses. The most learned philosopher knew little more.”

Notwithstanding this sceptical eye, industrialization marched on to bring us into today. Our many clouds and screens are a direct result of the disciplines and practices brought into existence from the dissection table on one dreary night in the Enlightenment era. From deep fakes to fake news, climate change and the current pandemic; the allegory of Frankenstein’s monster haunts us. Increasingly our lives are lived online out of necessity, and an echo of the romantic return to nature can be heard in the various environmental movements.

Wednesday Kim, Heap up ashes #1, 2020

At the same time, we might ask how much more we know today than that ‘untaught peasant.’ It is difficult to romanticize things very close to us, and so perhaps part of its charm lies in the unknown. Though we all have heard about algorithms, Machine Learning or even blockchain, how many of us could explain their inner workings. And in some cases, these inner workings are developing by themselves in ways no longer controlled by our hands once programmed.

It is certainly not the world once envisioned by romanticists. Nevertheless, the digital existences we embrace today in an attempt to escape analogue reality offer the opportunity for fantasy that they so esteemed. Lush virtual landscapes sparkling with holographic waterfalls, flowers the colour of chrome and algorithmic creatures prowling the tundras now lie within the realm of the possible. Frankenstein bemoans that he was “required to exchange chimaeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth,” yet those realities of little worth now have the capacity to create chimaeras of boundless grandeur.

Cover image by Juan Covelli, Ocaso, 2020

W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature, 1831
Written by
Nina Lissone
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