Excerpt from Jessica Helfand, "Space: The Final Frontier." Eye, 6:26 (forthcoming, Autumn 1997) 8-9.

In 1905, Albert Einstein revolutionized 500 years of quantum physics by suggesting that energy and mass are interchangeable, and that space and time share a kind of uninterrupted continuum–proving, quite simply, that the only true constant is the speed of light.

Today, as we sit illuminated by the glare of a billion computer screens, we are living proof that he was right. The computer is our connection to the world. It is an information source, an entertainment device, a communications portal, a production tool. We design on it and for it, and are its most loyal subjects, its most agreeable audience. But we are also its prisoners: trapped in a medium in which visual expression must filter through a protocol of uncompromising programming scripts, "design" must submit to a series of commands and regulations as rigorous as those that once defined Swiss typography. Aesthetic innovation, if indeed it exists at all, occurs within ridiculously preordained parameters: a new plug in, a modified code, the capacity to make pictures and words "flash" with a mouse in a nonsensical little dance. We're all little filmmakers, directing on a pathetically small screen–yet broadcasting to a potentially infinite audience. This in itself is conflicting (not to mention corrupting) but more important, what are we making? What are we inventing? What are we saying that hasn't been said before?

Where's the avant garde in new media?

What Einstein did was challenge a fundamentally logical supposition. And looking back, what was particularly striking was the aesthetic response that paralleled his thinking over the next quarter of a century: from cubist fragmentation, to surrealist displacement, to futurist provocation, to constructivist juxtaposition--each, in a sense, a radically new reconsideration of spatial paradigms in a material world. And while there was dissent, there was also concensus: streamlined shapes, a rejection of ornament, an appeal to minimalism, to functionalism, to simplicity. A response to the machine age--not just to the machine.


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