The ASCII Museum of Unreal Art: Exploring the Digital Image and the Database


The nature of today’s Internet is overwhelmingly visual. The typical website is littered with photographs, logos, ads and graphics, designed to appeal to the Internet user who would rather “see” content than “read” it. Sites such as Tumblr.com facilitate picture, video, and GIF-based microblogging in which large quantities of images can be “consumed” in one sitting by a user who then “reblogs” his favorite posts to create a socially-networked gallery of digital content. Museums have created online galleries in which one can view an entire collection of artwork in a matter of seconds, while art databases allow users to comb through the millions of available catalog entries through the use of a simple search term such as “woman” to reveal a selection of artworks that would never be seen side-by-side in reality (Fig. 1).[1] Using these sleek interfaces, it can be easy to forget that the database—that functions primarily to organize and store images and information for easy access—also acts as a mediator between the viewer and the art, and in varying degrees controls our experience of art in its digital form. In a culture that is rapidly digitizing its old and new media, one must question the ways in which our visual culture is converted, categorized and presented by the online institutions and databases that store them. For this project, I have created the ASCII Museum of Unreal Art (AMUA), a virtual art museum located in the text-based Multi-User Dungeon, Final Realms. Inspired by the ASCII-based works of Net.artist Vuk Ćosić, the AMUA is a commentary on the mediated mass consumption of the digitally translated work of art by the Digital Age database, as well as an exploration of the didactic possibilities of a customizable virtual museum within the context of a multi-user, dynamic, interactive, and participatory environment.

For the AMUA’s collection, I chose “essential” works of art, which span a 30,000-year history of art, and translated them into ASCII code by using an online ASCII image generator. I then constructed a series of rooms in which to house the works of art, placing them as “objects” to be “viewed” within the object-oriented code of the game. The presentation of these works is not informed by their position in the narrative of art history, but instead attempts to mimic database logic, matching items by medium or subject matter.[2] The player, who chooses his character, becomes immersed in the didactic narrative of the AMUA that combines art historical context and information with the second-person stylistic conventions of MUD game writing to create a database directed viewing experience. This area is interactive, as the player can not only navigate the museum’s galleries by making a series of directional choices (forward, left, right, back), but can also chat with other players, commenting on their customized experience of the museum and its objects and performing their character through roleplaying.  The inherent irony of translating an overwhelmingly visual space of a museum into a text-based game addresses central issues of experience of art in the Digital Age such as digitization, the role of the database, and the digital image and virtual space as new mediums for expression.

With its origins in the basements of the tabletop gaming enthusiasts of the seventies and eventually evolving into its digital form as a Multi-User Dungeon, fantasy role playing games—such as Dungeons and Dragons—provided a structured yet open-ended fantasy game that enabled players the freedom to create and control a single character within the context of an imaginary world constructed through thorough and verbose descriptions. The digitization of these games into a text-based “chatroom” was made possible by the early Internet, and allowed users to not only play with parties all over the world, but also expedited and deepened the depth of character development possible by automating the more tedious aspects of game play such as training and experience. In this way, incredibly large and complex MUDs were created and played by millions of role-players during the eighties and nineties. However, with the improved bandwidth and graphical possibilities offered by video gaming platforms, their players, leaving scores of rooms, areas, and worlds vacant, have abandoned many of these MUDs in favor of flashier role playing games such as Oblivion—but not all of them.[3]  As a platform for the AMUA, I elected to use the Multi-User Dungeon, Final Realms, a text-based online fantasy roleplaying game. Though Final Realms experienced its heyday in the late nineties along with other MUDs, the game is still played regularly by a small community of dedicated users in the United States and Norway, and is the ideal platform for a coding novice as it is based on fairly simple object-oriented code.

The MUD is a database-controlled virtual world implemented by a computer that simulates an interactive environment for multiple users to affect simultaneously over a networked connection. Each player creates her own character to exist within the virtual world; this character is often defined by a fantasy race, such as Dark Elf, and is developed by gaining experience points in a number of categories such as alchemy and swordsmanship that are improved through gameplay. Unlike “adventure-style” video games, MUDs are not goal oriented. Instead, a player develops her character through interacting with the virtual world, gaining experience points, and roleplaying by chatting with other characters. This “virtual gathering place” is constructed and mediated by its players who add areas, objects, and non-player characters to the virtual world’s database, creating detailed spaces to explore with other characters.[4] The MUD player is allowed control over the space in which his character inhabits.

Though a MUD is a computer-simulated environment, MUDs are not considered to be a form of virtual reality.[5] The gameplay is not facilitated by mechanisms of computer-simulated reality such as skins and gravity engines, but instead by a text-based database, which is navigated using typed commands. The nature of the MUD interface renders every room and object in terms of a highly illustrative textual description, removing the immediately visual aspect of the experience of exploring the area and translating it into colorful lines of code and text.[6] Instead of seeing a computer generated representation of a hallway, the player types “look hallway” and the database returns a description, “The hallway from the west continues to the east here, but the way is blocked by a purple-velvet rope stretched across the hall. There are doorways leading to the north and south. You see a sign hanging from the middle of the rope here.”[7] The player can then choose to “look sign” or move on to another area. Despite the fact that the space is not rendered visually, a player forms his own visualization of the space through the descriptions, a customized game experience.

Though it seems counterintuitive to create an art museum in a decidedly nonvisual space, I selected the MUD because of its dynamic, customizable, interactive, and participatory attributes as a spatially-oriented game and chatroom. Many MUD-based museums were constructed during the late nineties, giving visitors the opportunity not only to experience a didactic digital gallery space but also become immersed and invested in the experience by creating and interacting with a character.[8] In creating the ASCII Museum of Unreal Art, I wanted to explore the arguably outdated medium of the MUD in order to demonstrate the database-mediated experience of art in the Digital Age. By presenting works of art in the form of crude ASCII code representations with a database mediated art experience, the AMUA critiques the database model of accessing digitally reproduced works of art on the Internet. However the AMUA also proposes a new way for digital art to be experienced, allowing the players to “perform” their roles along with the art, and ultimately customize their experience of the art space within a character-driven fantasy world.

As an Art History Graduate Student, I view almost all of the works that I write about as a reproduction, either photographic in books or digitally on art indexes and databases such as ARTstor. These art historical databases are invaluable to my research, as I am able to access vast collections of images in mere seconds; they allow nearly any image deemed historically relevant to be accessed through an Internet connection. However, the locus of control over the experience of viewing is ceded by the viewer to the database, as it dictates the conditions and context in which the work is viewed virtually, just as a museum creates a curated experience for its visitors. These conditions controlled by the database include image resolution, search interface, and quality of photographic reproduction of artworks, but most importantly the database decides what works are selected for digital preservation and how they are presented in their digital format. Though many of these factors are controlled by human entities that own the original works such as museums, databases such as Google Art Project ultimately mediate the viewer’s interaction with the digital work of art. The ASCII Museum of Unreal Art emphasizes the voice of the database as an omnipotent narrator that not only curates the presentation of work, but can also tell the player what he sees, hears, and feels.

Many of the art image databases painstakingly scan every inch of an artwork using the most cutting-edge photographic technology; by visiting Van Gogh’s Starry Night on the Google Art Project one can observe single brushstrokes of the painting under magnification (Fig. 2). Despite the ability of digital reproductions to convey such a high degree of detail, the online images are copies; the “here and now” experience of viewing an authentic artwork within a physical space is replaced by a vast, digitally translated database of copied images.[9]

Walter Benjamin’s 1935 seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” discusses the disparity between an original work of art with its “unique existence in a particular place,” or “aura,” and its inauthentic reproduction, which lacks this aura.[10]  Through the mechanical translation from singular work of art to mass reproduction, he argues that the consumption of the artwork shifts from an immersive experience in which the artwork absorbs viewer, to a derivative, incidental encounter where the viewer absorbs the art.  The mechanical reproduction reduces the “cult value” of the artwork to “exhibition value,” and the experience of that artwork from a ritualistic contemplation to a politicized distraction.[11]

Although Benjamin’s essay raised relevant questions about the logical future implications for art and its mechanical reproduction during the twentieth-century, a more contemporary analysis of art and its reproduction in the Digital Age is required. Douglas Davis states that “the work of art in the age of digital reproduction is physically and formally chameleon,” and there is no longer a “clear conceptual distinction” between an original artwork and its digital counterpart.[12] Davis assumes a more optimistic view of this phenomena of mass reproduction than Benjamin’s “proclamation of doom for the aura of originality,” and argues that this aura is not destroyed, but expanded into the virtual realm in which “the aura resides—not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise.”[13] Though modern society continues to value the original or authentic masterpiece as evidenced by the persistence of the art auction, an artwork’s translation into a digital form and subsequent reception by the viewer often deconstructs, rearranges, and transmogrifies the original into a dynamic entity that allows for mutual “performance” between the artist and its viewer.[14] A wide range of activities common in the Digital Age can be considered a performance in this way; simple acts such as creating an online gallery of user selected images or manipulating a photograph in Adobe Photoshop succeed in transmitting the aura from the original to the “individuated copy” through digitalization.[15]

The semiotic theory of Ferdinand Saussure and its later expansion into the arts by Roland Barthes can be applied to further elucidate this relationship between a digitally reproduced work of art and its original by applying the terms “signifier” and “signified” in the context of the Digital Age. Though a work of art in itself inherently assumes the form of the signified, in that it renders an artist mediated representation of a signifier object/subject, I have appropriated these terms to analyze the conceptual shift that takes place in the conversion of an authentic art object into its digitally translated form and to provide a theoretical framework for the ASCII Museum of Unreal Art. The work of art, or “sign” is composed of the “signifier,” representing the form that the artwork takes and “signified,” or concept the artwork represents.[16] Through this process of translation, the work of art is separated into two parts: its physical signifier form containing the aura, and its digital form, which inscribes its concept through virtual representation. Digitization forces a conceptual split between form and content, ultimately creating a new image that defies the artwork’s previous function as a singular art object and specific intersection of syntagm and paradigm within the history of art.

According to Barthes, the meaning of the sign is derived from the binary concepts of the syntagmatic relation—the linear, narrative combination of signifiers in a “linguistic unity”—and the associative or paradigmatic relation—“a combination of signs, which has space as a support.”[17] The construction of the sign, or work of art, from its constituent semiotic parts of signifier and signified—representing physical form and conceptual content respectively—becomes disassociated through the contextualization of the artwork in a digital form. Traditional forms of artwork, “old media”, such as paintings, involved the assembly of visual forms by the singular human artist into a particular sequence informed by specific syntagmatic or paradigmatic relations; once assembled, the sequence is permanently stored in that medium and cannot be challenged or reassembled.

Digital art, or “new media,” according to Lev Manovich, opposes the traditional creator model and also challenges the notions of syntagm and paradigm through the possibilities offered by the characteristic “automation and variability” of the digital medium, inherent in the structure of the database.[18] In the essay, “Database as a Symbolic Form,” Manovich reverses the Saussurian intersection of syntagm by paradigm, thus materializing the paradigm, or database, and dematerializing the syntagm, or narrative. Digital media and images succeed in exemplifying this semiotic reversal, as it is presented within an interactive, variable interface that favors choice through the trajectory of decisions offered by the database rather than through a constructed narrative.[19] For example, a simple Google image search for an artwork, such as The Scream by Edvard Munch (Fig. 1) returns images of the digitized artwork along with various permutations of the signified content that have been deconstructed and reassembled to represent a new paradigmatic and syntagmatic intersection. A new narrative (syntagm) for The Scream is assembled within the protocols of the Google Image Search, which organize the returned images in terms of algorithms instead of cultural relevance; alternate associations (paradigm) or references found in The Scream are reformed by the viewer-performers who appropriate the content of the image for their own means of expression, exchanging the screaming face for pop culture figures such as Homer Simpson and Ace Ventura. The artwork is often removed from its original context (syntagm and paradigm) within the history of art, and is appropriated in the new systems of categorization and dissemination informed by methods such as the statistical analysis of a Web 2.0 search technologies. This disassociation from artwork’s original semiotic intersection into that of the Internet, common in the Digital Age, in turn, affects the paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships, thus changing, subverting, or updating the original conceptual aims the artwork to serve the needs of the digital image consumer. The meaning of the work is no longer constructed from a linear narrative, but from the database logic of the Internet, and finds new meaning through its reproduction in digital form.

Database logic and the encoded structure of the networked Internet were concepts explored by the Net.art movement of the late nineties and early 2000s. United by the Nettime mailing list, the Net.art movement utilized the early Internet as the medium for their work, exploring its formal, abstract qualities and ultimately creating “a space that offers itself up as art.”[20] In other words, the Net.art movement rendered the Internet itself as a new form of low-bandwith conceptual art in which the protocols and network structure of the Web were employed as tools for expression over aesthetic ones. Exemplified in the work of Net.artist Vuk Ćosić, ASCII code is employed as a means to visualize the transmission of data over the Internet artistically, focusing specifically on the translation of the image into a form of digital data to be “read.”[21] Inspired by the abstract visual qualities of the ASCII coding language and the Internet’s digital translation of the image into readable “discrete samples” such as ASCII code or pixels, Ćosić translated images, films, and even three-dimensional spaces, into ASCII code, deconstructing the aesthetic elements of old media forms “into numerous sequences under program control” of new media.[22] In his most famous series titled, ASCII History of Moving Images, Ćosić developed his own software to convert scenes from popular films such as Psycho and Deep Throat into moving ASCII images (Fig. 2). Employing this “retro-futuristic aesthetic,” in which the visually rich medium of a film is rendered crudely in the obsolete ASCII system, Ćosić subverts the representational qualities of film in order to make the largely hidden “metalanguage” of an encoded digital image ultimately visible.[23] By merging the recognizable film images with the abstract ASCII code, Ćosić’s ASCII films “perform the new status of media as digital data” and explore the digital image as its own medium.[24]

These dual images created in the ASCII films become readable in that they visualize Derrida’s assertion of the conflict of “writing and orality” in which the text can become a universal, readable image separate from its inscribed, language-specific meaning.[25] The artistic exploration of the “reading” of the image in its encoded digital format in the work of Ćosić, not only informs the concept of image translation behind the ASCII Museum of Unreal Art, but also further supports Davies’ notion of the relocation of an artwork’s aura through digitization. The ASCII translation of the image reveals the conceptual separation between signified and signifier that takes place when a work of art is translated into a digital form; the work’s “aura” is displaced from its physical form onto its “readable” digital form. Through the film’s conversion to ASCII code, the narrative of the films (syntagm) are dematerialized, becoming secondary to the visually referenced, materialized database (paradigm). Ćosić’s ASCII History of Moving Images, visually represents this transformation, exposing the “tension between digital and analog formats, and between code and culture” that defines the position of art in the Digital Age.[26]

Though Vuk Ćosić’s ASCII History of Moving Images created a new way to experience visual data over the Internet, it lacked interactive and participatory elements that engaged the viewer beyond passive observance. However, his later work, ASCII Unreal (Fig. 3), translated the three-dimensional virtual space of a video game into ASCII code, thus removing any visual references to concrete elements in the game, and replacing them with surfaces and objects constructed from the Cyrillic alphabet. The player could navigate this space as in any regular first-person shooter, but by eliminating the three-dimensional virtuality that defines the graphic gaming experience, Ćosić’s ASCII Unreal critiques the pursuit of realism and perfectionism in computer-generated graphics by creating a game that deliberately rejects its use in favor of symbols that encode the most fundamental aspects of computing. The ASCII Unreal game is entered through a link that states, “this is unreal, ” a statement that symbolizes the threshold the gamer unconsciously transverses between reality and the virtual (un)reality of a video game.  He further subverts the graphical interface of modern games, replacing simulated reality of video gaming with the low-tech aesthetics of the early text-based games, such as MUDs and MOOs that required the translation of the virtual space into a readable format.

It is the intersection of Ćosić’s work between the translation of the image and the translation of the interactive space into their most basic, formal representations as code that has inspired the aesthetics and narrative of the ASCII Museum of Unreal Art. The AMUA becomes a metaphor for the digitization and distribution of art in the Digital Age. The painting of the Mona Lisa, an icon of visual culture, is translated digitally into ASCII and represented as an object in the database of the Final Realms MUD, just as brushstrokes are converted into pixels, and categorized and accessed by Internet databases (Figs. 6-9). However, the MUD platform offers more than just a metaphorical significance in that it allows for “real time” interaction, “the trend toward instantaneity in contemporary culture, involving increasing demand for instant feedback and response” between art, viewer, and gallery space that is difficult to produce in a physical setting.[27] The real time response of the virtual museum fulfills a curatorial model for digital art that goes beyond the “white cube” gallery, and towards creating an alternative museum exhibition that offers an “ever-changing data flow” that demonstrates different aspects and outcomes of each project, customized for specific audiences.[28] In this way, the presentation of digital and digitized art, both in physical spaces and on the Internet, should incorporate all four aspects of digital art as “interactive”, “participatory”, “dynamic”, and “customizable” in order to serve the needs of a new media audience.[29] The AMUA, though deliberately limited in its graphical capabilities of image and spatial representation, presents an alternate model for the modern web-based museum database that attempts to fulfill these four needs of an increasingly digital culture.

Notes:

I received help with the coding for the AMUA from Final Realms administrator and player, Dennis Wiggins, who helped me understand the protocol for object-oriented coding as well as access the directory of data files upon which I based my area. In order to update the AMUA, I would like to place it in an immersive virtual reality, such as Second Life, to make it more accessible to users within a graphical interface. In a virtual reality, the works of art could appear as high resolution images with which visitors could interact and comment. I would also like to expand the customizable features of the AMUA by allowing users to create their own database gallery.

Fig. 1. ARTstor database search for term “woman” (accessed November 25, 2012).

Fig. 2. Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, detail view from Google Art Project database, http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/moma-the-museum-of-modern-art/artwork/the-starry-night-vincent-van-gogh/320268/ (Accessed November 25, 2012).

Fig. 3. Google Image Search for “The Scream,” (accessed November 21, 2012).

Fig. 4. Vuk Ćosić, Deep ASCII from ASCII History of Moving Images, ASCII-converting software, http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/ascii/film/ (accessed November 14, 2012.

Fig. 5. Vuk Ćosić, ASCII Unreal, 2000, online game, http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/ascii/unreal/ (accessed November 14, 2012).

Fig. 6 Screenshot of Mona Lisa in “Woman Room” of AMUA

Fig. 7. Screenshot Arnolfini Marriage in “Woman Room” of AMUA

Fig. 8 Demoiselles D’Avignon in “Woman Room” of AMUA

Fig. 9. Screenshot of narrative from ASCII Museum of Unreal Art, “Woman Room”

[1] By searching ARTstor’s database for the term “woman” it returned one thousand results sorted by “relevancy.” How does a database “know” what results are most “relevant” to our queries?

[2] For example, Demoiselles D’Avignon, Mona Lisa, and the Arnolfini Portrait are all presented in the same area because the respective subjects of the paintings fulfill the search term “woman.” The paintings are decontextualized from the history of art and are recategorized by the database into a new digital form.

[3] Pavel Curtis, “Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities,” Conference on Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing, (Berkeley: Xerox PARC Technical Report CSL-92-4, 1992).

[4] Curtis, “Mudding.”

[5] Richard A. Bartle, Designing Virtual Worlds, (Berkley: New Riders Publishing, 2004) 2-3.

[6] Curtis, “Mudding.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lin Hsin Hsin, “Conceptualizing a Digital Media Museum,” Museums and the Web, November 2010, http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw98/papers/lin/lin_paper.html (accessed November 15, 2012).

[9] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” In Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, edited by Vicki Goldberg, 319-334, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1935) 320.

[10] Ibid., 321.

[11] Ibid., 330.

[12] Douglas Davis, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995),” Leonardo (MIT Press) 28, no. 5 (1995): 384.

[13] Ibid., 386.

[14] Ibid., 384.

[15] Ibid., 385.

[16] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris), (London: Duckworth [1916] 1983), 67.

[17] Lev Manovich, “Database as a Symbolic Form.” In The Language of New Media,  (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 223.

[18] Lev Manovich, “Cinema by Numbers: ASCII Films by Vuk Ćosić,” Vuk Ćosić: Contemporary ASCII, 2000, http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/ascii/lev_eng.htm (accessed November 15, 2012).

[19] Manovich, “Database as Symbolic Form,” 232.

[20] Alexander R. Galloway, “Internet Art.” In Protocol: How Control Exisits after Decentralization, 208-246, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 217.

[21] ASCII is an abbreviation of “American Standard Code for Information Interchange” It was first adopted in the 1960s for computers, and later used in the 1980s to create dot matrix print-outs of ASCII-rendered images before the output of digital images were possible.

[22] Manovich, “Cinema by Numbers.”

[23] Sandra Araújo, “Deconstructing Vuk Ćosić: Data as Language,” Art and Education. http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/deconstructing-vuk-Ćosić-data-as-language/ (accessed November 15, 2012).

[24] Manovich, “Cinema by Numbers.”

[25] Araújo, “Deconstructing Vuk Ćosić.”

[26] Vuk Ćosić, “3D ASCII: An Autobiography,” Vuk Ćosić: Contemporary ASCII, 2000, http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/ascii/vuk_eng.htm (accessed November 15, 2012).

[27] Charlie Gere, “New Media Art and the Gallery in the Digital Age.” In New Media in the White Cube and Beyond: Curatorial Models for Digital Art, edited by Christiane Paul, 13-25, (Berkley: University of California Press, 2008), 23.

[28] Sarah Cook, “Immateriality and Its Discontents: An Overview of Main Models and Issues for Curating New Media,” In New Media in the White Cube and Beyond: Curatorial Models for Digital Art, edited by Christiane Paul, 26-49, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 33.

[29] Christiane Paul, Digital Art, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008) 67-68.

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