Digital Pleasure
Feedback Loop: From Utopia to Dystopia

“…We have palaeolithic emotions, Mediaeval institutions and God-like technology.” 

– Edvard O. Wilson, professor at Harvard and father of socio-biology

From the first important step in the development of digital technologies during the World War II, when the digital electronic computing machines were created, it took forty years for the personal computers and digital devices to become a part of the people’s everyday life. The digital revolution has begun. Networking, i.e., commercialisation of Internet, came soon afterwards, followed by the appearance of smart digital devices and the Internet becoming wireless. The world has become a “global village”.

Development of digital technologies unquestionably yielded numerous benefits for the humankind, as well as misuses. Speaking of the positive sides, new technologies enabled precise processing, storing and distribution of a large amount of numbers and data, as well as automatization of numerous processes in everyday life, science and economy. In the context of social relations, the Internet enabled people and businesses to connect on a global level. 

The rise of digital technologies and the Internet inevitably led to the reset of capitalism. Regarding the changes that took place, French economist Jean-Paul de Gaudemar said “actually, we now live in the age in which it has become clear that the capital must now reconquer the entire social space from which the previous system strived to separate it. Now, it must once again try to incorporate this social body in order to dominate it now more than ever.” Digital technologies have become inseparable from the Internet. Giants of information technologies have become the most important and the most dynamic actors in capitalistic democracies—structures that control the production and the use of digital technologies. This situation has, more or less, been unchanged for the past thirty years or so. Internet environment has become a global symbol of the omnipresence of capitalism, its greedy accumulation and excessive use of resources on the way to a completely networked world with 8 billion inhabitants and electric energy that is available 24/7. 

“Pyramidal scams of the global financial capitalism, as well as its illusions, are transforming into a personalised form of a romance.”

– Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War

Hints of a Revolution

“The object of Art is to give life a shape.” 

– William Shakespeare

Since the 1950s until the end of the 20th century, in parallel with the creation and development of digital hardware, programming languages and necessary software, different software packages and tools were also created and developed and they transformed and impacted the analogue media, culture, art and entertainment, and by that, the people’s lives as well. In that sense, it is possible to trace the lines of development and impact of the digital technologies, which often intertwine and complement each other. One of them begins with the development of video (computer) games as part of the entertainment industry, which would in one of its transformations, together with other media, such as AR and VR, come gather around the Internet and offer a digitally augmented reality. 

The first phase in the development of video games covers the period from the creation of an interactive electronic game with an electronic screen in 1947, through the first video games in the early 1950s, to the rise of the arcade games in the 1970s (Pong and creation of the first generation of video game consoles). The next phase begins in 1974, when Steve Colley and Howard Palmer from NASA developed a multiplayer game called Maze War, which was played online using avatars. It was played on the ARPANET, predecessor of the Internet developed by the Ministry of Defence and several American universities. 

Due to its sudden popularity, DARPA cancelled playing the game online. Avatars were also used in the American interactive multiplayer computer game Avatar from 1979, stored at PLATO system of the University of Illinois, which borough forums, bulletin boards, online testing, electronic mail, chat rooms, picture language, instant messaging, remote screen sharing and multiplayer computer games. After 1979 begins the phase of commercialisation, hardware and software become more accessible, personal computer enter homes and computer games begin to rapidly develop, as well as computer art and software entertainment contents. The impact on the popular culture continues to grow and the first popular avatar characters, such as Max Headroom, appear.

1990s mark the key phase in the development of the digital media. Further development of the digital revolution brings new hopes and perspectives. During that period, computer technology quickly develops offering new possibilities to programmers to create innovative software. Internet becomes commercialised and the world gets connected into one global network. The future coloured by techno-fetishism promises a revolution—new freedoms, transparency of information, as well as creativity and art, which will together make the world a better place. 

New technology ant digital media also brought in new aesthetic categories and practices. The first virtual idols were created. In 1994, avatar Shiori Fujisaki was created for a computer game – dating simulator Tokimeki Memorial. After that, in 1996, Agency HoriPro launched the first virtual pop star Kyoko Date. 

Around the same time, first-person shooting computer game Doom  was launched and it had a great impact on the further development of computer games, from 3D graphics and multiplayer online games to game styles, terms of authorship and public control of the game contents (WAD files). It caused a great controversy due to graphic violence.  

Rave culture gained its momentum around the same time.
 It is mostly connected to the dance music scene of the 1990s, when the DJs “spun” the music at illegal events in music styles dominated by electronic dance music. The focus of the meaning of this movement was new awareness and experience of togetherness that happens in the mutual interaction between humans and technology. At the beginning, the rave movement culturologically included various social phenomena based on techno-fetishism concentrated around a wide spectrum of music subgenres. The above-mentioned togetherness became crucial for the development of the Internet and its services. Digital technology concentrated around a new medium—the Internet, required new software tools that enabled exchange and creation of contents, as well as those who would massively consume them, i.e., the users. At the beginning, the pioneering development of rave and the Internet had common goals to which they strived: freedom, togetherness, creativity, openness, support and respect for individuality. 

The virtual star Kyoko Date announced the rise of various vocaloids, the term used for 3D computer-modelled avatars that sing, because human voices were given to them. 

Among them, the most popular was Hatsune Miku. Her appearance was inspired by anime comic books and a base of real human voices was recorded. In the mid-2010, team HoriPro created a virtual tuber (Vtuber), a computer-generated avatar entertainer which remained an international Internet phenomenon until 2020, and initiated the rise of new Vtubers. He used the YouTube platform, and later, Internet platforms Niconico, Twitch and Bilibili as well. Video games, virtual stars, vocaloids, Vtubers and the rave itself, are phenomena whose very appearance announced the birth of augmented digital reality in which the domination was taken over by social networks, “smart” mobile devices, AR and VR.

Parallel Reality

“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs, he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.”

—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)

The start of the process of creation and development of technology for virtual reality can be traced back to 1838, when Charles Wheatstone first described stereopsis, while researching binocular vision, which inspired him to construct the first stereoscope. More than one hundred years later, cinematographer Morton Heilig created Sensorama, the first VR machine. 

He combined several technologies in order to stimulate all the senses: 3D colour video, sound, vibrations, scent and atmospheric effects. The key moment happened in 1966, when Thomas Fernes, military engineer, created the first flight simulator for Air Force. In the following years, US military recognised the practical importance of the invention and invested large funds in order to create more advanced versions of the flight simulator. 

In 1969, computer artist Myron Krueger created a computer-generated environment using computers and video systems offering the experience of “artificial reality”, which would lead to the creation of the first interactive VR platform, Videoplace, which was exhibited at an art centre in Milwaukee. The platform used computer graphic, projectors, video cameras, screens and position detection sensors, and it was placed in a dark room with large screens that surrounded the visitor. 

The very start of the 1980s brought us stereo vision goggles and two years later, the first networked gloves were created. Their commercial production began in the 1985. In 1991, the first VR system—VR arcade machine (Virtuality), which enabled playing computer games in the 3D environment, appeared on the market. 

At the same time, apart from the various SF writers who had similar ideas, the novel by Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, from 1992, gave the closest description of today’s virtual worlds. In his novel, he described a vision of escape to a place where digital has replaced the physical and he named it—Metaverse. 

A large step towards the development of today’s virtual worlds was made by Philip Rosedale who in 2003, with his Linden Lab, develop a computer game called Second Life, which is a multimedia online platform that enables creation of a personal avatar that moves around the world the user can make up to their own will. In that way, for the first time, the users became the editors of their own virtual destiny. Several years later, this platform gathered between 800,000 и 900,000 users. 

In 2007, Google presented Street View, a technology that provides interactive panoramas from positions along numerous streets in the world, and three years later, they presented a stereoscopic 3D mode for the Street View. In 2012, a kick-starter campaign was launched for the production of VR goggles Oculus Rift. The company was bought by Facebook two years later, which was a turning point in the development of VR goggles. The same company launched MetaVRse, a 3D platform for creation of the future of human communication, cooperation, culture and trade. 

In parallel with the development of the VR, came the development of a system that enabled a combination of the real and the virtual world—AR (Augmented Reality)
 in real time. The first AR technology was developed in 1968 at Harvard, when Ivan Sutherland created a system of display with an AR headset. In the following decades, universities, companies and agencies additionally improved AR for portable devices and digital displays. In 1999, NASA created a hybrid synthetic system for monitoring its aircraft X-38. The system used AR technology in order to help provide better navigation during the test flights. In 2014, Google presented Google Glass devices, glasses with AR, while two years later, Microsoft present a similar device, HoloLens. Development of hardware for smart mobile phones enabled AR to become an option on the phones as well. Computer game Pokemon Go, which uses the possibilities of augmented reality, achieved increadible success and gathered over 45 million users. In that way, AR became a part of the mainstream culture. The first commercial AR application for mobile phones appeared in 2008.  

The idea behind the creation of AR is to make the experience of sensation in the real world interactive. Objects in the real world are supplemented by computer-generated information (sometime with other sensory modalities as well). This kind of supplement to the reality can have two goals: upgrade or supplementation of the reality with different information or its cover-up. 

With the AR, the perception of the reality in real time changes, while VR completely replaces the user’s surroundings with a computer-generated environment. In VR, the user’s perception of reality is completely replaced by digitally processed information. In augmented reality (AR), the user gets additional computer-generated information as part of the data collected from the real life that improve or interfere with their perception of the reality.

Merry-go-round of Networking: (Omni)presence and Absence

“All that is not saved shall be lost.”

Nintendo message when exiting a game

The rise of the Internet and its rapid expansion started the processes of reduction of freedom and transparency of information—political-economic regression. In parallel with these processes, the functioning of the future digital technologies became inseparable from the use of the Internet. It became a synonym for the digital—a network that is a mediator between people, people and digital technology and digital technologies themselves. In the meantime, a large number of layers of digital technology embedded themselves in the everyday lives of the users. On one hand, it brought it a lot of positive things, and a lot of challenges and problems, on the other. 

We often feel that the challenges have prevailed over the positive sides. Because, today, everyday activity of the users on the Internet is recorded by accepting “cookies”, while certain applications start audio-video sensors on smart digital devices themselves. Various services offered on the Internet are advertised as free, but actually, the users pay for them with their attention and data, the main raw material of marketing. “You’re not a Google client”, warned senator Al Franken, “you are its product”. 

In that way, the most intimate details about person’s life are gathered. It is not known exactly to whom the data is distributed nor for how long they are saved.  Financial corporations trade with money, while leading Internet companies do it with attention, which they try to direct towards certain ideas, products and services, controlling and directing the everyday lives of the users—they determine what they’re going to watch, buy or how they’ll think. The final decisions are made based on the non-transparent algorithm analyses of the accumulated data—a computer software. “Philosopher Samir Chopra and lawyer Laurence White called these programs ‘autonomous artificial agents’ (AAAs)—agents, because they act on someone else’s behalf; artificial, because they are neither persons nor animals, and autonomous, because they can perform actions without previously checking with the person who programmed them or started their actions“. The way in which large technological companies get into interaction (and conflict) with other actors on the market, such as public bodies, is also not transparent. In his book Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson pointed out that “Facebook defines who we are, Amazon what we want and Google, what we think”. 

The complex Internet system has become quite the opposite compared to its promotive slogans and possibilities: it artificially generates appetites and desires, envy and economic inequality. This situation strengthens our prejudice and hardens our opinions. Instead of enabling easier connection, it brings social disintegration. It is fascinating how, for a short period of time, from “free” network and technologies, we’ve arrived to non-transparency that rules the lives of a great number of Internet users, without proper supervision and legislative. 

However, the situation does not have to be so grim, which is supported by the existence of possibilities and the choices. One of them, probably the most important one, is the possibility to access public space in which an individual can achieve the sense of togetherness. But that is not enough. He must also become an engaged consumer of quality information and aware of the services that have been designed to distract him, with the goal that his choice must always be based on facts. 

Dystopian Walk around the Neighbourhood

“You and I have seen it all. So much pain. Perhaps they shouldn’t exist. But should we be the ones who decide on that?  […] At first, I was angry. Torn between two impulses. We can destroy them.  Or we can demolish their world […] in hope of building a new one. Which would truly be free.” 

– Android Dolores in TV show Westworld

It is really true that “the cold Universe of the digital absorbs the worlds of metaphor and metonymy, while the principle of simulation triumphs over the principles of reality and please”,  as Jean Baudrillard claims? Either way, what happens with our (self)satisfaction in the digital weave of technology, augmented reality and virtual worlds? 

With the digital media (digital film), at first, we have overcome the difference that existed between real and unreal, organic and synthetic. Now, with the Internet, AR and VR, we have taken a huge step forward. Countless layers of the digital tissue are all around us and in us, every day we create digital identities and constructs, we have the possibility of unlimited interactivity, we transcend time and space, achieve digital immortality, think we are invincible, etc. 

The digital has moved into the inner layers of our minds and it filtrates, directs and shapes our thoughts and desires, as well as the pleasure itself. This kind of recreation of the material world in the digital has brought back into the focus the old questions about the duality of the mind and the body and the possibility for a man to free himself from the ballast of his own body. However, the virtual (digital) is inseparable from the material infrastructure, the same as human are inseparable from their bodies. Our re-presentation in the digital is a life transformed in bendable data. The concepts of presence and absence have been replaced with changeable patterns and digital errors (glitches). The result is a memory paralysis. Our everyday presence online makes the history even more incomprehensible and unreal. We think that everything we need can be found online and in the digital devices and that they infallibly record our experiences and memories. But, in fact, our history depends on digital devices and services that quickly become outdated and become a digital waste. 

And where are the limits in the digital?  Current digital AR and VR technologies can further direct us towards the levels in which there are no limits, where the possibilities for manipulation are endless. The aim of these technologies is to present contents in the form closest to the natural, to unnoticeably integrate simulated sights, sounds and feelings in the tissue of reality and our experience of the real world around us. This means that they have the ability to change our sense of reality, influencing the way in which we perceive everyday experiences. Thanks to the simulation of social relations in an online environment, we can get stuck in the closed circles of thinking that we create and rule our lives, that we are not dependent on other people and that we can arrange our lives the same way as we arrange our accounts on the network. This can make us even more isolated. 

This state is confirmed by what the social theorist Elena Pulcini called “narcistic apathy” of an individual. In fact, in an online environment, behind the simulation of social relations, there is only monetisation.

From the early relationship with the digital technology, filled with emotional excitement, in the new omnipresent environment, it appears that we have reached the sense of “being tied-up in a familiar straight jacket of fetishism—whether it’s the fetishism of a mental request/desire/need, with its foreseen sadomasochistic rituals of a master and servant, humiliation and sacrifice, or even compulsive cycles of endless commodification”. Just like a dystopian walk around the neighbourhood. 

 What Does S.U.T.R.A. Art Want

“We are capable of so much more. Beauty.Search for final truth. Rejection of body.” 

 – From the sixth episode of the fourth series of the TV show Westworld 

Given that the digital technology includes, breaks down and constitutes subjects, digital art can be a mediator in these processes. The same as pictures, it also has the function of awakening desires; of creating, not satiating, thirst; of producing the feeling of longing, offering us an apparent presence of something and then, in the same way, taking it away. This happens in the moments when we get immersed in the digital technology while overcoming the usable value, when the processes of self-realisation, self-knowledge and self-advancement are completed and every trace of self-awareness is erased. This is one of the ways to find the exit from the algorithm-monetised “vicious” psychological circle. 

That is the reason why the art works presented at the festival are realised using various techniques and technologies to include a very wide spectrum of reactions to digital pleasure. The work of Darija Medić #računari_144 in the form of photograph scenography is a re-interpretation of the cover page of the magazine Računari, which was published during the 1980s and 1990s, when the digital technology had begun its revolution. The magazine was famous for its controversial covers, marked by photographs of mostly women in unusual relationships and situations with digital technology of that time. Mostly filled with eroticism, today, their relationship with the technology seems quite inappropriate and sometimes, comical. Digital pleasure on the cover pages was achieved by physical touch with the computer housings, peripheries and monitors. 

Combined drawing on paper by Maja Obradović My Attempts brings back in focus the question of original and copy, and shows that the form of expression is not important. The figures in her work have no faces, they are petrified in their attempt to realise desire, tied-up in a straight jacket of fetishism in an empty vacuum of virtual spaces without the possibility to achieve communication. Just like the bodies of two people to whom digital technology failed to provide adequate bodily contact. 

The question of corporality in the digital environment is also the focus of Arpad Pulai’s work Is the Digital Tactile? The surface on which the video work is projected is made of wool and it was manufactured using the traditional weaving technique, while the inspiration was the geometry of nature. A human body is projected on an organic surface and it tries to establish contact with the surface and exchange the original experience of the real with a digital simulation. 

Video triptych by Nataša Teofilović Autobiographies consists of three “autobiographies”: “Autobiography |Silence”, “Autobiography |Breathing”, “Autobiography |Healing”. The works were created during the period marked by the pandemic of COVID-19 virus and its consequences. This situation made us dive more deeply into ourselves, as well as digital communication. Living space has become our only safe space, the same as the space of the Internet. Starting from the personal ant the intimate, which she transposes into the public, Nataša points out the possible ways to “heal” the living space through three autobiographies. All three platforms of expression (video work, public appearance and digital reconstruction) indicate different ways of constructive processing of the personal and the intimate. 

Three works by Nina Teodorović from the cycle Diary of Discontinuity were made of a series collages supplemented with video and animation, as well as a sound background. It combines material from the Internet and photographs and video recordings that the artist made herself. A dominant motif in all three works are visual representations from the Greek mythology. The works depict the experience of being in a virtual space: encounter with fake profiles and self-ideas, poor communication, aggression, disinformation, lack of tactile, as well as the sense of helplessness, because rejecting digital communication may lead to isolation. 

Art installation by Dejan Vračarević Co. URSOR was inspired by the arrow (cursors) using which we surf the virtual worlds of digital technologies every day. The arrows were physically made with attached magnets so that the visitors could move them by hand on a metal surface. Each movement leaves a visible trace on a specially prepared surface, just as we leave a digital trace each time we use digital devices. We often think that our pleasure of being in virtual spaces is not recorded, but in fact, it is quite the opposite, which is demonstrated by this installation. 

Light installation by Milan Ličina Fibra is a work of digital generative art in real time and it relates to the phenomenon of consummation of information on the Internet without the source check. This kind of attitude of the user gives digital technology a status of “higher power”. That is the reason for the presence of a prophetess in the digital part of the work. The second part of the work consists of a distaff with a spindle showing that the choices offered in the browsers are exclusively automatically generated. The work questions and indicates our bad choices in terms of leaving our own lives in the hands of the autonomous artificial agents. 

The work by Uroš Krčedinac Versatile is an artistic-technological project for which the artist wrote a program that can endlessly generate flags and different microidentities, as well as a Twitter bot. The work questions the relationship between technology and ideology and raises the questions in relation to automatically generated symbols. Also, it reinvestigated the issue of freedom of choice, whether we choose ourselves or are we only choosing or accepting already prepared algorithm options. And finally, the question that the artist wishes to ask is: Are there aesthetic solutions for structural problems? 

Generative animation by Stevan Kojić randomSeed was written using p5.js programming language. Under the influence of gravity, the particles free fall through the empty space, colliding and depositing. This action is repeated every ten seconds, achieving naturality using the randomSeed function. The work indicates the ability of the digital technology to simulate natural behaviour and that the principle of simulations still triumphs over the principles of reality and pleasure. 

Work by Predrag Terzić Open Invitation has been made for VR. The artist began working on the image and the space in a traditional manner and then he transported then to a digital medium of VR. In this way, he indicates a similar process that happens when an image is transported into our memory. The image in our memory is subject to changes and we often change it consciously or unconsciously. A similar process took place during the creation of this work in the VR. The work indicates a still clear and tangible difference between the real and the virtual presence. 

Tanja Vujinović is presented with three works. The Core is a series of audio-visual works inspired by events dedicated to electronic dance music and social engagement of people using avatars, which take place in a social VR hub. The work poses the question how we imagine the process of creating an artificial life, our upgraded avatars, and how the consciousness would change under their influence. The Center is a VR world stored in a VRChat. Using the artificial intelligence, the artist created works located at the entrance, and there is also a series of AvantGarden works that reveal additional details in relation to the history of the centre using sculptures, drawings and music. Labs & Playgrounds is a compilation of the works from the AvantGarden series. It presents a series of worlds filled with proto-machines and other accompanying actors from the Internet of Things network. 

We hope that with the presented art works we have managed to scratch the surface of human existence in the virtual spaces of the Internet and to present a piece of what happens when we try to transfer, manifest and consume most of our everyday lives using he digital technology, as well as the existing software and contents. 

To dive into the sphere of the inner and the interpersonal, and to, at least for a moment, shed some light on what happens in the field of the digital between an individual and another and what emerges from that interaction. And perhaps, we can answer the question if loneliness, sense of invisibility and unfulfillment are just a point on a spectrum of interpersonal relationships that are being moved to the digital in search of a more active listener for its analogue “autistic symptom” that mumbles on, misunderstood. 

Ivan Stanić