Ron Mueck, <em>Head Space</em>, 2022, augmented reality. Courtesy of Ron Mueck, Acute Art, Fed Square, NGV, ACMI & Koorie Heritage Trust supported by Creative Victoria.<br/>

Augmentation of the Senses
(or The Machine Becomes an Idea that Makes Art)

By Yuk Hui

Let’s start by raising a general question: What is the relation between digital art and its medium? We know that art is highly dependent on its medium, as historians and artists have been telling us this for centuries. We also know that advances in technology are changing art media all the time, and that this will only accelerate in the future. The relation between digital art and its medium, however, remains unquestioned. In the future, academicians might have conferences called ‘Digital art in the age of x’ almost every year, or even every few weeks, because ‘x’ will change rapidly. If this is true, how then can we address the relation between digital art and its medium?

Medium specificity is self-evident, but it doesn’t tell us much about digital art, it only returns us to a nominalism of art. For example, the kinetic artwork and computerised music created in the 1950s and 1960s has largely been lost as there are no machines left that can play it. Similarly, if you were today given a floppy disk containing a digital artwork from the 1980s, you would have difficulty finding a drive or computer capable of reading it. Because digital art is so dependent on its medium, it is always already dead. Medium specificity is the name of the cemetery. Looking back, we don’t see many cadavers of digital arts because their deaths are silent. They disappear into a black hole of information: the faster the media develops, the quicker it will head towards death. New mediums arise and new works appear in the same way that gadgets update every season. Is this the destiny of all digital art?

In order to examine the relation between digital art and its medium, it may help to first examine the relation between art and its medium in general, especially art since the twentieth century. We can generalise that in modern art, we observe a phenomenon. That is to say, art resists against its medium and the limit imposed on the medium. In this process, art augments our senses so that a new reality can be revealed to us. This reality, in so far as it is beyond the limit of the conventional understanding of art, is always spiritual and mystic in nature, a common feature we find in modern painters from Kazimir Malevich to Wassily Kandinsky. If we follow Clement Greenberg that modern art starts with Édouard Manet, it was because Manet resisted against academic realism and painted a flatness, which started what is now known as Impressionism. And if Paul Cézanne is considered another pioneer of modern art, it is also because Cézanne always searched for a depth of being through his canvas. This gesture of resistance culminates in Marcel Duchamp’s readymade, his Fountain, which acts both as a scandal and a new possibility for art. Duchamp’s work resists the limit of medium and negates the concept of art. Art doesn’t disappear in this negation; instead, art is enlarged through Duchamp’s work – that is to say, it is augmented. Therefore, one can understand that Duchamp remains one of the pioneers of modern art and conceptual art. As Joseph Kosuth suggests, in Duchamp one sees ‘art as idea’, and no longer ‘art as art’ like Ad Reinhardt. Kosuth stated in his famous Art After Philosophy and After: ‘All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually … Artists question the nature of art by presenting new propositions as to art’s nature.’1

Modern art paved the way for conceptual art, or post-1963 art. In 1964, Andy Warhol exhibited his Brillo Boxes in Stable Gallery, on East 74th Street in New York City, indicating the end of modern art according to art critic Arthur Danto.2

Conceptual art is probably the most intimate friend to philosophy since Plato who, as we know, opposes philosophy to art. In conceptual art, we see another form of resistance originate from philosophy but also attempts to go beyond it and be its successor. Art aligns itself with idea, for idea is that which develops. Idea is not limited to the canvas, and the idea moves in time and space. Idea is always an ekstasis. An idea becomes a machine that makes the art, like what Sol LeWitt wrote in his famous essay ‘Paragraphs on conceptual art’, in the sense that the idea constructs and continues constructing the reality of the observer. The artwork no longer represents an object or an idea but rather the machine is identified with an idea that constantly actualises itself.

So, what is an idea for the conceptual artists? It is not the Platonic idea, meaning that which is in the other world. Even though the conceptual artists were largely inspired by the analytic philosophy of language, especially that of Alfred Jules Ayer, they are probably closer to the idealists, especially Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, though perhaps unconsciously. This is because they are all concerned with idea, and the idea is not a representation but rather a movement. This movement is necessarily recursive,3 be that a koan (a paradoxical anecdote like one finds in Frank Stella), a tautology (as in Kosuth), or dialectics. For Hegel, the concept unfolds itself dialectically in time towards its universality and concreteness, and the life of the concept is called idea. Hegel became furious when his contemporary Wilhelm Traugott Krug provoked him by asking if the Idealists could deduce a pen from thinking.4 Krug sees an opposition between idea/form and matter, while Hegel insists that the Concept (Begriff) is concrete and real. Conceptual art could have been material proof of this.


One may compare the abstract painting by Malevich, Black Square, 1915, with the Black Paintings of Frank Stella. The black square of Malevich resists the medium as representation of an objective reality. On this, Malevich once said ‘up until now there were no attempts at painting as such, without any attribute of real life … Painting was the aesthetic side of a thing but never was original and an end in itself.’5 By resisting canvas as a medium which depicts a thing, Malevich makes the painting itself a thing. He reinvented a new language of form, one that is more intimate to poetry and feeling than to rational thinking and objective reality. In The Non-Obective World, he stated:

Suprematism has opened up new possibilities to creative art, since by virtue of the abandonment of so-called ‘practical considerations’, a plastic feeling rendered on canvas can be carried over into space. The artist (the painter) is no longer bound to the canvas (the picture plane) and can transfer his compositions from canvas to space.6

In Stella’s painting we see the reminiscence of Malevich’s black square, but Stella sets the images into movement. The idea becomes a machine that constantly produces a reality through the intuition of the spectators. The black square is set into movement recursively, and it is in this sense that we can associate with a machine or an algorithm today. This is significant for our understanding of digital art, and I think is somewhat underestimated, because the statement that ‘the idea becomes a machine that makes the art’ means precisely a repetitive process of production. Otherwise, why is it necessary to compare the idea with a machine? In the Suprematism of Malevich, we see the striving of feeling against the objective reality assigned to the canvas, and the limit of time and space by the canvas as medium. In Stella, we see this priority of feeling replaced by ‘the idea’ which, like a machine, constantly produces a reality which is beyond the canvas. Retrospectively, we know that Stella has been regarded as a precursor to Systems Art, an art form inspired by cybernetics and coined by the art critic Lawrence Alloway in 1966. It is also via Stella’s work that we can move on to the question of digital art.

The difference between digital art and painting or other kinds of analogue art is that the medium of digital art is digital in nature. It varies according to different protocols and levels of abstractions, but the fundament of the medium is digital. But what do we mean by digital? We often think of it as 0s and 1s, however, this binary representation is only one level of abstraction, or which I prefer to call an order of magnitude. For example, a cup of water consists of billions of particles, but when we drink water we are not feeling the bouncing around of these particles in our mouth, instead we are sensing a cool and tasteless liquid running into our throat. The microphysical and the phenomenological situate in different orders of magnitude. Therefore, if we simply say that digital means 0s and 1s, then we commit a theoretical mistake. Looking from two different orders of magnitude, one can claim that we live in a digital universe, since everything is digital. We can find examples of this in theorists such as Edward Fredkin and Fredrich Kettler. Or, one can claim that the digital doesn’t exist; instead, what we experience are things, like some post-Heideggerian philosophers such as Graham Harman might claim. However, one commits an ontological mistake if one dimension is taken as entirety.

As we have established, the medium of digital art has changed dramatically since the first appearance of computers gave rise to computerised music and then the emergence of computer networks, which gave us Net Art in the 1990s. But what lies in the genetic process of digital technologies? Maybe we can claim that in this process there is a general tendency towards materialisation, meaning that that which is not considered to be immaterial can now be captured, materialised and manipulated by computational devices. This general process of materialisation creates new temporal and spatial dimensions for the creation of art. In terms of temporal dimension, we know that the phonograph and cinematograph, at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, introduced time-based media that stood in great contrast to painting and photography. These media allowed exact repetition, which also produces an experience that is no longer conditioned by a unique time and space. This repetition of time is still in itself linear. That is to say, as a recording device, both phonograph and cinematograph introduce a repeatable linear time. Digital technology fragments this linear temporality by turning every sound and image into grains. For example, we know that with digital technology it is possible to divide a second of sound into a micro-sound, each of one millisecond, like what musicians Curtis Roads and Iannis Xenakis have demonstrated in the granular synthesis, which opens up a new relation to the indivisible human experience. For example, I will not be able to perceive the millisecond as an individual sound but only as the whole that is already synthesised. As Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz says, when we hear the roar of the ocean, we don’t really perceive the petites perceptions of the wave but only a synthesis. In and between these two orders of magnitude, that is to say, in and between the micro and the phenomenological, some interobjective relations can be established through digital technology which could be visually displayed. I call interobjective relations those which are independent of the association of human mind, but rather it is a constant materialisation of relations thus discovered according to new epistemologies and technologies.7

An algorithm is not a recipe, because a recipe is a linear instruction: Cut the carrots, season them, then put them in the oven. An algorithm can be linear, but what makes it powerful is non-linearity, or more precisely recursivity. This recursivity can be identified in the Turing machine and in Gödel’s general recursive function, which are the theoretical foundations of computation today. The algorithm takes over from the idea in conceptual art, and this is precisely what makes it necessary to reflect on the relation between digital art and conceptual art, between digital art and its own medium. Digital art no longer takes up the task of Malevich or Stella; rather, it is capable of producing a reality materially constructed by data and which can even be transformed into a physical existence through 3D printing. Today, maybe Hegel could proudly respond to Krug’s criticism by 3D printing him a pen!

Marshall McLuhan once said the medium is the message, and it is. We have always ignored the medium and focused on the message without realising that the medium is probably more significant. This focus on the medium opened a new discipline in the twentieth century, namely media studies and the philosophy of media. The conceptualisation of media as the extension of the central nervous system, or technology in general as the extension of the body, was a task for the twentieth century. It doesn’t take us far enough in this century of ours, and it doesn’t yet touch the question of art. So let’s ask more questions: How would digital art resist its medium? What do we mean by resistance?


Jean-François Lyotard, after his legendary exhibition Les Immatériaux (1985), which we can call a postmodern exhibition, suggested to the artist Philippe Parreno that he was thinking of organising a sequel to Les Immatériaux, titled Les Résistances. It was not realised due to Lyotard’s death in 1998; however, I believe that the resistance Lyotard was calling for is against what he saw as the limits of digital media. Lyotard sees the hegemony of digital technology as turning the individuals into database entries and governance into technocracy, which for Lyotard is best demonstrated by Niklas Luhmann’s system theory. Today the medium is becoming even more hegemonic, and that is something we don’t find with the canvas, because a canvas has never become hegemonic beyond painting. Today, the medium on which digital art finds its existence does not belong to the art academies, museums or galleries, but rather to the ‘industry’. The digital information channel is where different domains that were unrelated before now converge. Because of this, today we cannot easily distinguish artistic activities from financial speculation and entertainment, especially those embodied immersion experiences that create spectacular spots of tourism.

If digital art deserves the name ‘art’, and not simply craftmanship, it is because in comparison with a craft, the work of art is always at work, which Aristotle calls energeia. But what is at work in a work of art? It is that which opens up what is closed. What is closed is always closed by the medium, because the medium itself and the conventional use of the medium impose limit to the work itself. A work of art doesn’t exist without a medium; however to resist the medium is not to abolish it. Malevich didn’t destroy the canvas and the surrealists didn’t destroy cinema, instead they opened up new approaches to painting and to cinema. To resist means first of all to enlarge the medium of art, and with this enlargement open us to a new reality.

We might recall what Paul Klee says in his Notebooks: ‘art is what makes the invisible visible’.8 Visual art indeed makes what is invisible visible, since the invisible doesn’t belong to the realm of vision, but the task of art for Klee resides precisely on the resting of the invisible. The invisible is not represented as such because the invisible is brought about by the visible that the painter is able to paint on the canvas. I tend to rephrase Klee’s statement on the task of art as ‘art is what makes the invisible sensible’, because sensible is not limited to vision. The sensible is also present in other realms such as hearing, touch, smell and taste, the five senses that Aristotle has already laid down for us in the De Anima. One may argue that there are more sense organs than Aristotle knew, but that is not the point because the augmentation of senses that we find in a work of art is not the extension of our sense organs – that we can see one kilometre further or hear sounds two kilometres away from us, for example. On the contrary, the augmentation of senses is an augmentation that opens us to a higher level of reality, towards the open.

We moderns are no longer used to seeing the open (Offene) as animals do. As Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke says at the beginning of ‘The Eighth Elegy’ of the Duino Elegies: ‘[A]ll other creatures look into the Open with their whole eyes. But our eyes, turned inward, are set all around it like snares, trapping its way out to freedom.’ The attempt to open is precisely a form of resistance, a resistance against its medium and the limits imposed on it. Such resistance is not a negation but an opening of new paths towards ‘truth’. Today, through the use of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) in art, can our senses be augmented? Nietzsche finds this possibility in Greek tragedy, where intoxication (Rausch) for him is such a means. Augmentation of the senses allows art to return scientific rationality to a higher realm. Here we may want to recall Nietzsche’s remark in the 1872 edition of his Birth of Tragedy:

Nevertheless, I do not wish to suppress entirely how unpleasant it now seems to me, how alien it stands before me now, after sixteen years – before an eye which has grown older, a hundred times more fastidious, but by no means colder, an eye which would not be any the less prepared to undertake the very task that audacious book ventured for the first time: to see science under the optics of the artist, but art under the optics of life.9

Nietzsche returns science to a broader reality called art, or artistic creation, and furthermore returns art to another broader reality called life. Life here does not mean biology, but rather the vitality that allows art to overcome its medium, namely creativity. To resist scientific rationalism means transforming it instead of merely serving it. It means making science become a stranger to itself in such a way that it will have to return to itself in order to acquire a new finality.

We can conclude that art in relation to its medium consists in resistance against the limits imposed on the medium and the instrumentality of the medium itself; however, this resistance can only take place through its instrumentality. What is in question is not medium specificity, but rather the opposite. In other words, the ‘materialisation of spirit’ that we try to understand above is not contingency, on the contrary it is necessary. Art makes such necessity contingent before turning it into necessity again. This negation of negation does not produce the same ‘materialisation of spirit’, but rather a ‘spiritualisation of matter’.


  1. Joseph Kosuth, Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966–1990, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1993, pp. 18–19.
  2. Arthur Danto, After the End of Art, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998, p. 25.
  3. For the concept of recursivity, see Yuk Hui, Recursivity and Contingency, Rowman and Littlefield International, London, 2019.
  4. Hegel fiercely responded to Krug, first in his 1802 review of Krug’s work and his article in the Kritischer Journal der Philosophie, as well as later in a footnotes of Phenomenology of Spirit and in the anmerkung (annotation) of paragraph 250 of the encyclopedia.
  5. In a handout accompanying the first show of the Black Square at The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings: 0.10 exhibition in Petrograd, Russia, 1915–16.
  6. Kazimir Malevich, The Non-objective World, Paul Theobald and Company, Chicago, 1959, p. 100.
  7. See Yuk Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2016.
  8. Paul Klee, Jürg Spiller (ed.), The Thinking Eye: The Notebooks of Paul Klee, vol. 1, Lund Humphries, London, 1961, p. 76.
  9. Cited by Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol 1: The Will to Power as Art, Harper, San Francisco, 1991, p. 218.

Yuk Hui is a philosopher from Hong Kong. Hui studied Computer Engineering at the University of Hong Kong, wrote his PhD thesis under the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler (1952–2020) at the Goldsmiths College in London and completed his Habilitation in philosophy of technology at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg. Earlier he was postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Research and Innovation of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Center for Digital Cultures at the Leuphana University, visiting scientist at the T-Labs Berlin and member of the Centre international des études simondoniennes (MSH Paris Nord). He has taught at the Leuphana University, Bauhaus University, China Academy of Art, and the City University of Hong Kong. He is the initiator and convenor of the Research Network for Philosophy and Technology, and a juror of the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture.