Toward a Universal Theory of Convergence: Transcending the Technocentric View of the Multimedia Revolution

Toward a Universal Theory of Convergence: Transcending the Technocentric View of the Multimedia Revolution

Niranjan RAJAH <>
Universiti Malaysia Sarawak


This paper attempts to excavate the rudiments of a history of “multimedia” and to identify the fundamentals of a general theory of convergence. It contextualizes the new multimedia technologies within a postmodern view of art, culture, philosophy and theology. Finally, with an emphasis on artists who use the Internet as a medium for their work, this paper discusses significant examples of multimedia (ISDN, Virtual Reality, Multi-user Domain, Bio-electrical interactivity) art.



Beginning with the inspired realization that the computer’s facility for numerical manipulation could be applied to expedite what we have come to refer to as “word processing,” all categories of representation have ceded to the digital domain. The differences which arose from the physical particularities of the materials of analog representation have been leveled in the reductive and integrative logic of digital media. The new technologies are introducing an unprecedented degree of integration and interpenetration in all arenas of human endeavor. Indeed, it appears that human civilization is at point of inflection.

The end of modernism

At the turn of the 20th century, the modernist “avant-garde” united aesthetic revolt with political radicalism. They replaced an earlier concern for representation in the arts with revolutionary formal innovation. Towards the end of the same millennium, however, we are witnessing the demise of the politics of the left and the rise of global capitalism. It can be said that, today, formal innovation has been sublimated in the unreflective cycles of fashion and in the calculated product obsolescence of the dominant technological monopolies. In all areas of cultural production, critical formalism has been eclipsed by the reflexive and ironic play of context. Parody, pastiche and even plagiarism proliferate as the recontextualization of pre-existing material has become the conventional manner of generating new content in postmodern culture.

The blurring of categories

With the contemporary disregard for form, the categories of cultural production have lost their definition. Technology aside, the various disciplines of the arts are in the process of “converging.” In the visual arts, for instance, the traditional categories of “painting” and “sculpture” have been extended to incorporate text, performance, video and an expanding range of media and approaches. In contemporary installation art, the space and architecture of the gallery or other site as well as the social, political, historical, theoretical and critical contexts of the work are all treated as objects of the presentation. While, in contemporary performance art (a branch of the visual arts), live bodily gestures are employed to take formal and conceptual ideas directly to the audience, outside the confines of museums and galleries.

The relativity of meaning

In the postmodern theory of representation, individual words, images and gestures gain their meaning in relation to their context. This relativity of signification has led to a methodical analysis of “systems of signs,” and ultimately, to the dismantling of these systems in a theory of “deconstruction.” Meaning is no longer to be found in the intentions of the author but in the interpretations of the reader. The reading of any representation is not a passive consumption but the active writing of another. With this “death” of the author, authority passes from the sender of a message to its receiver.

The instantaneous transaction of representations

As a consequence of increased computing power and high speed computer networks, the new “multimedia” messages can be conveyed instantaneously and with an unprecedented fluidity. Indeed, with the instantaneous connectivity of the Internet, the totality of information can be said to exist in virtual proximity, transforming our very understanding of “representation.” What has, thus far, been essentially a question of the “receiver” interpreting messages that have been “sent” by their “author,” is fast being transformed into a dynamic and interactive exchange of representations. Indeed, as the various communications media coalesce into one multivalent and interactive hypermedia, the esoteric theories of postmodern culture are rapidly turning into everyday sensibilities.

The Rupture of a traditional unity

In must be noted, however, that it is only the modernist legacy of the purity of the forms of representation and the cult of the “artist” that make contemporary convergence appear so revolutionary. Indeed, in traditional society, art was inseparable from manufacture and use. When a thing was produced for any given purpose, it was “by art” that it was properly made. This harmony was ruptured when the modern system of manufacture gave rise to two different kinds of makers of things. First the privileged “artist” who works from “inspiration” and then, beneath him, the laborer who makes things that other men (the artists of course) have imagined. While functional things, now made by labor, are reduced to barren utilitarianism, “works of art” are elevated to serve as objects of pure aesthetic contemplation. [1]

The return to an integrated art

In Eastern cultures, the role of art has been, quite simply, to articulate a symbolic order ordained in scripture or set in tradition. The expression of individual personality or perspective is the least of the “artist’s” concerns. Today, as multimedia goes online, fluidly articulating image, moving image, text and sound the ‘stand alone’ art object will be displaced. The interactivity of representations will undermine the status of the ‘artist’ and empower the ‘viewer’ in a new participatory mode of artistic experience. Further, as what were previously separate material processes are now converging on to the ‘multimedia’ platform of digital technology, the categories of ‘art’ and ‘industry’ are merging. It can be said that we are returning to an integrated creative practice in which there will be no detached aesthetic contemplation and no separation between art and craft, art and industry or art and design.

The demise of the artist

It seems that technology is returning us to a mode of artistic production that began to decline in the West with the renaissance. Of course, postrenaissance European art has had its arts and crafts movement, its constructivism and its Bauhaus school, but it is to the art of the East that we must turn for a precedent for full integration. Indeed, in the information era, the artist will no longer cut a romantic profile. He or she will, most likely, operate as a humble “art worker” in the dynamic and multivalent work environment that is, even now, taking shape. Even today, artists are already working very closely with industry and exploring the latest technologies. Designers, in turn, are finding a more creative role as expression in the new “multi-media” is a far cry from the personal expressionism and individualism of modern art.

Economic and cultural convergence

The technological transformation of the role of the artist is occurring in the context of the economic and cultural convergence we have come to call globalization. Geographical specificity is being displaced by global scenarios in all areas of human activity. The ascendance of multinational capital and global news and entertainment media in our “new world order” constitutes a convergence of the world’s political economy. The immense pressure on developing countries to “liberalize” their markets has created a “level playing field” in which the strong “play'” against the weak on “even” terms. Indeed, nationalist economic and cultural policies, the world over, are rapidly giving way to the imperatives of transnational capital and the aforesaid media.

American hegemony

Just like national economic and financial systems, local cultures cannot resist the onslaught of information that constitutes cultural globalization. Satellite television and Computer Mediated Communication are opening domestic leisure markets to international marketing. Cultural differences are receding as a transnational “media machine” homogenizes the values and tastes of audiences around the globe. An assessment of information flows on the Internet reveals a heavy movement out of the United States, in contrast with a less voluminous flow in, consisting mainly of requests. The discrepancy is so great that some solutions to bandwidth problems involve separating down and up traffic. Indeed, a study of the computer network infrastructure of the world reveals the centrality and supremacy of North America in this era of global communications.

A history of multimedia

As ubiquitous as they are today, the technologies of the multimedia revolution are laden, as all tools are, with the values of the milieu from which they have emerged. Nevertheless a consideration of the history of “multimedia,” might yield the basis for a more universal comprehension of the “new” communications paradigm. Contrary to the reductive interpretations of modern art, the African mask is not mere sculpture but an integral constituent of a multidimensional communal performance tradition. The medieval illuminated manuscript can be said to merge painting and writing on an integrated “platform” — the book. The Gothic cathedral is a monument to “convergence” in which stained glass images and sculpture are seamlessly integrated in what is arguably the pinnacle of European architectural achievement. Of course, film and television are convergent technologies, albeit analog and not digital.

Painting and performance

In the course of his study of the Chinese Pien Wen or “transformation text,” Victor Mair has revealed the global development of the ancient tradition of story telling using pictures. To “perform” a Pien Wen, the narrator makes use of a “transformation picture” or a “turning transformation” (picture scroll). Mair’s thesis is that this tradition of picture recitation originated in India, spread to East and West Asia and the Middle East and then on into Europe. It is in this integration of “painting and performance” — wayang beber in Java, par in Gujarat, etoki in Japan, parda-dar in Iran and so on, that we will find the roots of the multimedia tradition [2]. Indeed, history provides the basis for a universal theory of convergence — one that will transcend the present technocentric, Eurocentric view.




Wayang Beber

These images are reproduced with the kind permission of Victor H. Mair from his book “Painting and Performance’, University of Hawaii Press, 1988

Beyond the technocentric paradigm

Those who are accustomed to enunciating their ideas with the aid of PowerPoint projections will empathize with the argument that the Asian picture recitation is the primordial form of multimedia. Perhaps it is in a consideration of this ancient tradition as well as other analog precedents that we will find the insight to comprehend the wider implications of digital multimedia. Indeed, it is essential that we construct a theory of convergence that is not technology centered. Such a theory will help us ensure that the new medium is not deployed in the service of the economic imperatives of the technologically dominant few but in the cause of a cultural transformation based on universal human needs.

A spiritual rapprochement even!

In his reconciliation of the transmigration of souls with the scientific theory of evolution, Ananda Coomaraswamy quotes Erwin Schrodinger, “Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown.” This is, in fact, a restatement of the position enunciated in the Upanishads, “That art thou . . . there is no other seer, hearer, thinker or agent.” [3] As we approach the next millennium, bedecked with our imaging and communications technologies — from head-mounts and motion capture vests to ISDN, TCP/IP and Moods and Moos, it may be that we are on the threshold of a shift in human consciousness. Technological augmentation of mental process could bring about the rapprochement of science and religion. Technology might even alleviate human alienation and return us to an undifferentiated state of being.

An information environment

Human advancement may be attributed to the complex relational nature of our languages. Nevertheless, it may be language that is the very origin of our painfully alienated world of objects and subjects. Gregory Bateson has theorized that cetaceans have developed a direct, emotive, non-linguistic communication akin to music. In their high frequency transmissions, dolphins may be communicating numerous delicate feelings and relationships that cannot be expressed in human language.[4] Toshiharu Ito speculates that this “bio-technology” may evidence a culture of pure communication that is superior to our own. He envisages that, with the structures emerging in our new media society, humanity may also be evolving such a culture — a “culture without objects.” Ito believes that human beings, immersed in an “information environment can be compared with the dolphins or whales in a new kind of sea”.[5]

Mind and body in multimedia art

As contemporary artists engage with multimedia technologies, it can be said that they are returning to the integrated practices and procedures of their analog predecessors. From virtual reality to ISDN connectivity, from the integration of image and text to the deployment of sound and motion plugins and online blue screen video interactivity; from VRML Multi-User Domains to bio-electrical connectivity, artists are exploring and revealing aspects of convergence that lie beyond the technocentric view. It can even be said that they are charting the return to a traditional ontology in which the body is conceived of as action, and being “as an act”[6].

Telematic communion

In “Telematic Dreaming”[7] Paul Sermon extends the span of the body through ISDN projections of its image. In this work, there is meaningful contact across two and three dimensions — an interaction between the artist as an image and the “viewer” in “the flesh.” From the third person’s “point of view,” this electronic communion is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. As Sermon himself observes “watching the hands of two people move towards the point of touch is an event in itself. The senses of sight and touch are exchanged.” The work creates a “cause and effect situation” that enables “the rapid fire of consciousness back and forth between the remote and the local body.”[8] Edward Shanken writes how, in Sermon’s Telematic vision, he felt rejected and even violated by persons at remote locations who sat next to him virtually on a sofa.[9] It can, thus, be argued that the body is situated wherever “its effect is.”[10] Alternatively, it can be said that the mind has merged with the image in an interactive “outer-space.”

Multi-user domains

If the metaphor of the body was initially applied to the organization of business, in “Bodies INCorporated”[11], the metaphor of business organization is used to structure a virtual community. This multi-user environment, produced by Victoria Vesna, investigates the social psychology and the group dynamics of virtual bodies interacting in a networked community. “Bodies,” built from predetermined parts, are given identities and operated by their owners in a public space forged via live Internet links. This interaction of cyber “avatars” is subject to “corporate” regulation and is said to “have implications in the material and the symbolic realms.” The bodies can be put on show, put on hold, killed and even altered outside of the owner’s control. The emotional responses that emerge from the intercourse of these meta-corporial projections of ego are revealed in online forums, and chats that evidence our need to create, direct and vicariously experience the human self as a simulacral other.

The puppet complex

The anthropologist Margaret Mead notes that the little girl trance dancers of Bali dramatize a paradigm of involuntary learning, in which it is not the will of the learner, but the pattern of the situation and the manipulation of the teacher which prevail. She describes this sacred dance as a fantasy of the human body made of separate independent parts, informed by the notion that it is pinned together at the joints like that of a puppet. Coomaraswamy commends Mead’s observation but criticizes the condescension of her terms — “complex,” “fantasy” and “notion.” He explains that “in forsaking her own will . . . the Balinese dancer in her rapt ecstasy is not a product of any peculiarly Balinese ‘complex’ but of the universal Philosophia Perennis” that was common to all humanity before the rise of humanism in the renaissance. To elucidate the symbolism of the puppet he makes one speak — “if I seem to move of my own will, this is only true to the extent that I have identified myself and all my being and willing with the puppeteer’s who made and moves me.”[12]

Bio-electrical interface

In the performance of Stellarc’s “Ping Body” [13] the artist’s “body” was wired up to the Internet so that a portion of its musculature would be stimulated into involuntary movement by the “ebb and flow of Internet activity.” At the “Fractal Flesh” event, an Internet audience was able to remotely view and actuate the artist’s body. Stellarc severs a portion of the body from individual will and extends agency over it, telematically, to other minds or even to the great mind of minds that is the network. In “Para-site,” information, in the form of jpg images, is gathered from the Internet by a search engine and projected onto the artist’s body, while the image data is translated into bodily stimulation. The body’s own nervous system becomes part of a feed back loop. It generates information for the Internet, while being automated by information from the Internet. The artist declares that via an “extended virtual nervous system” the body becomes “enmeshed within an extended symbolic and cyborg system mapped and moved by its search prosthetics”!

Immersing the viewer

Most virtual reality environments present a visually oriented illusion of space. The familiarity of the Cartesian terrain causes the virtual traveler to loose touch with his or her corporeal being as he or she is consumed by the impinging optical illusion. “Osmoses”[14], by Char Davies, is an interactive immersive environment which “resists” the visual affirmation of conventional virtual realms. This work presents a womb-like, feminine, even feminist, experience of space as it attempts to heal the rift between mind and body and the consequent estrangement from nature. If the body emerges from this immersion as the reintegrated site of being, it is because the perspectival cone of vision, that index of the Cartesian “self,” is undermined. Augmenting, even amplifying, this visual reorientation, is the “aurally ambiguous” and “hauntingly emotional” interactive sound component of the work. This specialized soundscape was generated from samplings of a solo male or female voice. It reaffirms the presence of the human body.

The end of geography

In the 1970s the artist Robert Smithson offered a theory of postmodern sculpture in his opposition of “site” and “non-site”[15]. Modernist sculpture “occupies” the physically empty, semioticaly blank and ideologically neutral “non-site” of the gallery while postmodern work actually “constitutes” its “site.” This ontological distinction of “site” and “non-site” is no longer possible as “here” and “there” have been brought together in the palm top “now” of fiber optic connectivity. By virtue of Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) all the representations contained in the multitude of ‘sites’ on the Internet exist in virtual proximity. Geographical distance appears to have been eliminated. In “La Folie de la Peinture” [16], Niranjan Rajah (the author) reinvests photographic documentation of his past “site-specific” installation work with an online interactive presence.

Virtual reality

As the Internet enables photographic representation along with sound and text to be ‘piped’ into our homes, as easily as water, electricity or gas and as digital simulacra proliferate, the very distinction of an actual place, person or thing, from its image will be dissolved. Not withstanding its apparent objectivity, photographic representation has, from its inception, had its own hallucinatory aura. As Rosalind Krauss observes, in spite of being ‘the quintessentially realist medium’ photography became the vehicle of a dream oriented documentation in the Surrealist movement[17]. As bandwidth increases and multimedia technology goes online, fluidly articulating the remote experience of image, moving image, text and sound in an interactive ‘virtual reality’, it will become difficult to differentiate the actual from the oneiric and humanity will begin to experience a new sense of being.

Online interactivity

Keith Roberson’s [18] experiments with videoconferencing reveal how image-based interactive systems are changing the contemporary notion of self. In his interactive online performance works, video signals from different locations are combined or “keyed” together creating one “location” where both images coexist. Projections of the participants’ bodies interact, intersect and recombine in the dissipated, dispersed and delayed interactivity of the online “composite image.” With prolonged interaction, participants begin to immerse their sense of being within the ontology of the “image.” As the artist notes ” When I am participating, the fact that I must look at the image to gain feed back about the bodies movement’ places me in a similar position to a puppeteer’s. I transfigure my body into my image and myself along with it. I am an image. And in projecting myself into an image, I am subject to the constraints and freedoms comprising my image.”

Time creator

Starting from the premise that time is perceived differently by different societies and individuals, Aharon Amir investigates the construction of time in an online interactive VRML environment “Time Creator” [19] consists of three interfaces. The first is between a participant and his or her environment as it allows for the construction of individualized “clocks.” The second is an interface between participants who are operating with their different time frames. And the third is an interface for conceiving time itself as it allows the participant to link with the very conceptual elements used to create the three interfaces. This highly theoretical exercise that is nevertheless presented to the user as experience. “Time Creator” raises the paradoxical possibility that in the future, we might be able to construct and inhabit separate realities and nevertheless, continue to interact.


“Suppose we told you about a machine that receives live images from Heaven — would you believe us? And if we said you can connect to this machine via a CU — seeMe reflector — would you try it? Can you believe in a machine that connects you with the globe any more than a machine that connects you to heaven? HEAVEN  [20] by Paul Sermon and Joachim Blank involves the use of a CU-see me reflector and a World Wide Web site running off the same server. This work addresses the question of veracity in a “frictionless” information machine. When all information equally available, how do we distinguish truth from falsity? Is there “really” someone there beyond the image on your screen? In “Heaven,” there are two “CU-see me bot” permanently logged on to the reflector who appear to be engaged in intelligent conversation and who engage with new visitors. The Internet may engender a new ontology in which mere on-screen “presence” fulfills the criteria for truth. A new reality, indifferent to the Platonic distinction of “origin” and “copy,” in which there will be a proliferation of simulacra.


Beginning with the recognition of the simultaneous emergence of Hypermedia technology and conceptual art,  Dew Harrison explores the nonlinear aspects of both. Hypermedia allows  for the linking of independent but related segments of information in different media to be connected in accordance with the choices of the “reader” rather than those of the author. This is of course the approach taken by Marcel Duchamp in his “Large Glass” and its accompanying “semantic key” — the green box. “4D DUCHAMP” [21] is a collaborative web project coordinated by the artist which involves the transposition of the “Large Glass” into 25 interlinked hypermedia sites on the world wide web. Each element of the ‘Glass’ has its own site for gathering relevant information in various media. The elements are then structured in what the artist calls the fourth dimension of the Internet. This work not only uses new media to reveal the prescience of Marcel Duchamp’s art, it allows Duchamp to reveal the esthetic potential of the new media

Mondrian in action!

Modernism withdrew from painting the function of representing visual reality and gave it instead the role of constructing pure aesthetic order. Painting became the “high” art form of an initiated intellectual elite. Each artist was considered a genius and each painting a unique object of aesthetic veneration. Mondrian represents the epitome of modernist aesthetic obsession and intellectual alienation. “Mondrian in Action!” [22] deconstructs this great icon in a simple online engagement with the “viewer.” “Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue” is extended into the third dimension and rendered interactive in VRML. As we pan, rotate and zoom in and out of the now sculptural copy, we overcome the passivity with which we would have approached the original. Indeed, we are able to manipulate the image from what ever remote location we happen to occupy. The “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH” of modern painting is undermined in the ‘PLEASE INTERACT’ connectivity of the Internet.

My 12 friends

“My 12 Friends: Representation Less Reflection” [23] by Tham Chee Chong uses the of the Internet to present images of boxes whose contents index the personalities of his friends. Initially the friends were invited to put something of theirs, something of themselves even, in the boxes. These were then marked with the names of the friends and installed in a grid in a public space in the community to which the friends belong. The shift from intimacy to the public sphere and then on to the anonymity of the Internet is an abstraction of sorts — from the meaningful to a situation in which reflection would yield no meaningful result. We are left with signifiers for personality without specific referents. Tham uses some of the particularities of the interface to engage the viewer in a playful movement from box to box that yields no conclusive result.


1. Ananda Coomaraswamy. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, Dover Press, New York, 1956.

2. Victor H. Mair. Painting and Performance, University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

3. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. “Gradation, Evolution and Reincarnation” in The Bugbear of Literacy, Perennial Books, Middlesex, 1979.

4. Gregory Bateson. Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1971.

5. Ito, Toshiharu. “The Future Form of Visual Art” in Art and Design: Art and Technology, Profile No. 39, Academy Editions, 1994.

6. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. “Gradation, Evolution and Reincarnation” in The Bugbear of Literacy, Perennial Books, Middlesex, 1979.

7. Paul Sermon.

8. Niranjan Rajah. “Locating the Image in an Age of Electronic Media” in Seventh International Symposium on Electronic Art Proceedings ed. Michael A. Roetto, ISEA96 Foundation, Rotterdam, 1997.

9. Edward A. Shanken. “Virtual Perspective and the Artistic Vision: “A genealogy of Technology, Perception and Power” in Seventh International Symposium on Electronic Art Proceedings ed. Michael A. Roetto, ISEA96 Foundation, Rotterdam, 1997.

10. Johan Pijnappel. “Paul Sermon Telematic Presence” in Art and Design: Art and Technology, Profile No. 39, Academy Editions, 1994.

11. Victoria Vesna. Bodies Incorporated,

12. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. “‘Spiritual Paternity’ and the ‘Puppet Complex'” in The Bugbear of Literacy, Perennial Books, Middlesex, 1979.

13. Stellarc. Official Web Site,

14. Char Davies. Osmoses,

15. Robert Smithson. The Writings of Robert Smithson, New York University Press, 1979

16. Niranjan Rajah. La Folie de la Peinture,

17. Rosalind Krauss. The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The MIT Press, 1986

18. Keith Roberson.

19. Aharon Amir. Time Creator,

20. Paul Sermon and Joachim Blank,

21. Dew Harrison,

22. Ling Siew Woei, Mondrian in Action,

23. Tham Chee Chong. My 12 Friends: Representation Less Reflection,


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