[ISEA94] Paper: Lev Manovich – The Labor of Perception: Electronic Art in Post-Industrial Society


Electronic artists rely on technologies developed by disciplines which did not exist just a few decades ago: computer graphics, image processing, computer vision, human-computer interface design, virtual reality and so on. The paper traces the history of these currently prominent image disciplines. My analysis begins in the 1920s when avant-garde artists, inspired by modern engineering, tried to systematically apply its principles to visual communication. To engineer vision meant to be able to affect the viewer with engineering precision, predictability, and effectiveness. Thus, Dziga Vertov championed montage as the most economical kind of communication while Sergei’ Eisenstein searched for units to measure communication’s efficiency.

In its desire to engineer vision, the avant-garde was ahead of its time. The systematic engineering of vision took place only after World War II with the shift to post-industrial society.
In post-industrial society, the mental labor of information processing is more important than manual labor. In contrast to a manual worker of the industrial age an operator in a human-machine system is primarily engaged in the observation of displays which present information in real time about the changing status of a system or an environment, real or virtual: a radar screen tracking a surrounding space; a computer screen updating the prices of stocks; a video screen of a computer game presenting an imaginary battlefield, etc. In short, vision becomes the major instrument of labor, the most productive organ of a worker in a human-machine system. The research into human-machine interfaces — from first computer graphics displays of the late 1940s to today’s VR — can be seen as attempts to make the use of vision in this new role as efficient as possible.
The importance of information processing for post-industrial society also leads to the necessity to automate as much of it as possible. The ultimate aim is the complete replacement of human cognitive functions by a computer, including the substitution of human vision by computer vision. This is the second trajectory of image research in post-industrial society; from pattern recognition systems of the 1950s to today’s computer vision systems.
In summary, most of the new research into imaging and vision after World War II can be understood as following two directions: on the one hand, making human vision in its new
role of human-machine interface as efficient and as productive as possible; on the other hand, transferring vision from a human to a computer. Why should this historical analysis be of concern to electronic artists? The notion that the artist functions outside of society, history, and industry is a modernist myth. Modernist artists were not only the pioneers of the utilitarian
aesthetics of modern industrial design and the techniques of modern advertisement and political propaganda, but they have also pioneered the post-modern engineering of vision,
the integration of human and machine in human-machine systems, and the replacement of human vision by computer vision. Today, computer graphics industry is one of the sites of
this engineering. Whether computer artists acknowledge or ignore their relationship to this industry, it exists. Acknowledging rather than ignoring this relationship is the first step toward
a critical computer art practice.

  • Lev Manovich is an Assistant Professor of Imaging and Digital Arts at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, USA. His writes on visual culture of the electronic age. He has published articles in “Afterimage,” “Design Issues,” “Machine Culture” and edited “Textura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture” (University of Chicago Press, 1993)