A Privileged Source of Information

The Nature of (Digital) Being

Ewa Wójtowicz


While tapping the backspace or delete key is a familiar act for every computer user, the question arises: where do all the letters (signs, images, pixels) go? Were they ever ‘here’ at all? What hides behind the deletion?

The enigma of disappearance in the digital world is the subject of Album (2005), the project by Aneta Grzeszykowska that makes use of the Polish artist’s archive of personal photographs. These images depict Grzeszykowska’s past yet we cannot identify her in any of the pictures, which have been digitally altered to delete her figure. In some photographs we ‘see’ the artist through her non-existence: a man hugging an empty space, an anxious gap in an orderly row of school children. Other pictures, however, depict places and things, such as an empty lawn or a vacant car seat, that are at the same time familiar and ambiguous.

The gesture of erasing oneself is relatively easy in the digital medium given the fluid nature of images made up of countless pixels, each of which may be modified or eliminated. A digitally-created world may be defined as artificial, but on the subject of the phenomenology of media worlds, the professor of philosophy Wolfgang Welsch differentiates between levels of artificiality.
The notions of artificiality and naturalness are in any case relative, as they do not describe objects, but rather points of view or particular perspectives.

In the 1970s, artists explored the act of withdrawing from the art world and the deliberate abandonment of artistic activity as a form of creative expression. The difference between earlier investigations and those discussed here, however, is that today’s artists are exploring virtual departures rather than actual removal from the real world. Aneta Grzeszykowska’s personal past becomes the story of ‘a woman who wasn’t there’, and in this way, her work resembles a series of pictures by Christan Boltanski that are meant to be his childhood photos but in fact feature anonymous strangers. These artists seem to suggest that it does not matter if one’s story is real or fictional.

Welsch raises the question, “But what does the ‘real existence’ mean? Can we preserve the difference between a phenomenon and a being in an electronic sphere?”; and concludes that the difference is cancelled out: “In the electronic world the difference between a phenomenon and a being is invalidated. The existence on a monitor and existence in memory are completely unified.”

While in digital photography deleting is strongly connected to the medium itself, in the context of net art, erasing can become a collective experience. This is what is proposed by the Slovenian artist Vuk Cosic, one of net art’s pioneers, known for many subversive activities, some involving plagiarism. Web’s First File Extinguisher (2005), a website created for Cosic’s show at the ICA’s Digital Studio in London, encourages internet users to upload their unwanted files or delete sites at their whim. The deletion is promised to be permanent. The whole idea is based on an infamous incident involving Paul Baran, one of the original developers of the internet’s data communications technology. Baran affirmed that the last line of defence of any distributed network scheme was a “file extinguisher”, indicated by a red dot in his diagram. Unfortunately, this illustration was reproduced in black and white in Baran’s seminal publication, On Distributed Communications, rendering this key function invisible; an ‘omission’ that is considered to be the source of many of the internet’s vulnerabilities. Cosic’s website, which to an inexperienced viewer may seem like a kind of bizarre online service similar to file sharing spaces, features an image of a colourful network (recalling other attempts to visually map the structure of the internet) in the middle of which there is a tiny red icon of a fire extinguisher. At the time of this writing, the number of deleted files reaches 334 (most of them .jpg files) and 1102 websites. Although this does not make Cosic’s File Extinguisher a mass tool, the idea of resurrecting the history of the gap in the net, an oversight that nearly had tragic consequences for the web as we know it, is intriguing.

Under some circumstances, deleting may be a form of hacking, or as it is sometimes called, reverse engineering. With Super Mario Clouds (2003), Cory Arcangel explores deleting as a reductionist approach to art: works that gain in meaning through the process of elimination. By modifying the program chip in a Nintendo Super Mario video game cartridge to erase everything but the blue background animated by a few rough images of clouds moving slowly across the screen, Arcangel transforms this popular children’s toy from the 1980’s into an almost surreal work of art. This piece is not complete without the erased content, and the process by which it is removed, both carefully documented by the artist.

These examples demonstrate how digital art, with its changing nature and lack of core, offers itself to all manner of remodelling and reshaping, processes which are typically characterised by the act of deleting. One might ask what would happen if the identity of a real person, an established presence with a solid physical foundation, were submitted to a process of deleting or remodelling? This query is raised by the Polish artist Oskar Dawicki, who looks for his own identity as reflected in the mirror of others. Dawicki poses a single question: “Does Oskar Dawicki really exist?” The answer has been pursued by a private detective, and by a hired writer who was supposed to prepare a master’s thesis on Oskar Dawicki. The question was asked literally during one of the artist’s performances at the Zamek Ujazdowski gallery in Warsaw,
where Dawicki personally interrogated visitors about his existence, often receiving a negative answer even if he was standing right next to them. In a way, Dawicki was deleted democratically during this performance; if the majority say so, you do not exist.

As Welsch concludes, examining the nature of vanishing in the digital realm: “The completeness of this disappearing is extraordinary. What will be left after us is a body, after a cigarette – an ash, after a petrol – a smell. Here everything is absolutely pure. The whole substance was the phenomenon, there is nothing behind it and after it. There is only the opposition of being and non-being. But even this opposition is temporal.”

The decision to delete content may have a variety of effects on the ontological framework, the very nature, of a work of art. Is digital existence different from the ‘real’ one? How many times can we remodell our history and how is our personal story reflected in the eyes of others? Will someone notice the disappearance, or is removal the only choice in a world filled with too much of everything? While browsing through comments on the works of Aneta Grzeszykowska on the internet, I found a remark by an anonymous user, saying that you can delete yourself from a picture; but how to delete yourself from Google? The strategy of reduction has always carried a double meaning. It can reveal a hidden visual code or spark a chain of questions: over what is real, and how, as electronic functions take on more and more in daily life, our identity is dangerously close to digital data.




Grzeszykowska, Aneta. "Album”. 2005. www.obieg.pl/index1.php

Welsch, Wolfgang. “Artificial Paradises? Considering the World of Electronic Media - and Other Worlds” 1997. www2.uni-jena.de/welsch/

Cosic, Vuk. “File Extinguisher”. 2005. www.file-extinguisher.com

Opte www.opte.org

Arcangel, Cory. “Super Mario Clouds”. 2003. www.beigerecords.com/cory/Things_I_Made_in_2003/

W. Welsch, "Sztuczne raje", in Nowe media w komunikacji spoecznej w XX wieku, Ed. M. Hopfinger, Oficyna Naukowa: Warszawa, 2002. s. 467