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ThemesAesthetics of the DigitalEndo-Aesthetics
Claudia Gianetti

From ontological discourse to systemic argumentation


In view of the differences existing between aesthetic paradigms of modernism and postmodernism, and those of media art especially, the radical transformation brought about by the questioning of ontological and phenomenological concepts like subject, reality, and truth becomes obvious. The consequence of this transformation is a revision of the traditional aesthetic concepts of author, beauty, work of art, original, and viewer. In the twentieth century, proponents of various aesthetic theories attempted to fathom and define the nature of art, and under these premises devoted themselves to an ontological discourse. At the same time, most aesthetic theories concentrated on specific demarcated areas. In summary it can be said that in a large part of modern and contemporary aesthetic theories the reflection upon artistic creation is limited to evaluating concrete aspects bound to the ‹object› (such as the formal solution of the work, or the examination of its structures), to investigating the conceptual or critical values inherent in the work, or to semantic criteria.In most cases the aesthetic models are able to include all the arts.

The fact that art continuously questions itself has removed it from the grasp of this universal essentialism. Human social systems are constituted as consensual and dialogic networks, and are therefore coordination systems in language. Art comes into being and exists within this dialogic network, both in the domain of interpersonal interactions as well as that between the latter and a context or medium. Art, then, can neither imply a ‹particular› type of object or of autonomous meaning, nor represent an observer-independent experiential form. No less so than science, religions, philosophies or ideologies, therefore, art/system and aesthetics are understood to be different consensual descriptive domains which are cognitive in nature. [2] Outside this social consensual domain existing in language, there is no art—and no autonomous object, either—that acquires meaning such as it is. It is the observer (or community) who, after a operation of distinction that takes place within a collective consensual domain, applies time-dependent criteria in order to ascertain the significance relationships of an object. The description of a work or action as art, and of their attributes as aesthetic, is hence an operation carried out by the observer or community.

An aesthetic theory in line with such an approach cannot build on orthodox or reductionist methods or criteria, but must take as its starting point models that are largely process-based, contextual, and interrelational. Even the term ‹art,› along with its meaning and its use, is part of this consensual system. These considerations are of fundamental importance to the detailed analysis of interactive works of art, since the paradigms of creations of that kind are not approachable from an essentialist or ontological perspective.

Principles of endo-physics

The theory of endo-physics, [3] which has been a subject of research for more than a decade, emerged primarily from the work of the German scientist Otto E. Rössler, who also played an important role in the development of chaos theory (Hyperchaos; Rössler- Attraktor, 1976). As physics from within, endo-physics takes as its starting points the distinction between systems and models, the principles ofobserver-objective endoreality, and those of inaccessible exo-reality. The analysis centers on the fact that the human being is part of the universe and an observer of the world, and that the world is defined at the interface between the observer and the rest of the world, meaning that the individuals are necessarily internal observers without access to the interface. As an observer one can neither step outside the world nor observe from outside the world within which one lives, with the result that the observed—reality—is always subject to elements of subjectivity. In order to enable explicitly external observation, endo-physics proposes the construction of model worlds that would simulate exo-models of endosystems, for instance in a computer-simulated model universe.

According to Otto E. Rössler, after the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and self-organization theories the twentieth century witnessed a fifth radical placing in question of our understanding of reality. The phases of relativization of objectivity by light velocity, observation, and unpredictability amount to a coherent sequence that is further expanded by endo-physics with its introduction of the internal observer following the traditional assumption of the external observer (exo-physics). [4] «This internal consideration differs from the quantum-physical problem of observerdependence in that the measuring problem continues to be regarded in the latter as one that is objective (and reality as objectively capricious), whereas in endo-physics the internal observer is constitutive in a precise sense. That makes the relativization and observer-dependency of the world considerably more radical.» [5]

Rössler puts it that since the introduction of perspective in the Renaissance, and of group theory in the nineteenth century, world-views have been known to be dependent on the localization of the observer in the sense of a co-distortion. A change of the observer’s position directly influences the angle of observation. The new covariance principle in endo-physics means that movements ‹within› the observer bring about distortions in the world. This implies that the ambition to describe the world unconditionally can be realized only from a position outside the world. Such a position, however, can betaken up only in a model world and not in reality. Endo-physics in this way shows the measure in which objective reality is necessarily dependent on the observer. The radical consequence of this finding is that the world is not the place «where one believes oneself to be, but is the place of the interface.» [6] The creation of such an interface was not possible before the advent of the computer. Endo-physics therefore proposes a theory of model and simulation. This interface is not accessible from within our world; only a simulated world, a model, enables access to such an interface, for instance in the form of an artificial, computergenerated world. Within a computer-simulated ‹universe,› the observer is able to take up a position outside the non-trivial universe. Working with model worlds, this method offers the basic possibility of moving beyond the interface between observer and world (to take a peek behind the curtains). In this respect endo-physics is proving to be an expansion of the natural sciences.

Observer and interface are therefore central research issues in endo-physics. The conceptual transformation implied by endo-physics is connected with two theoretical results: first, that objective reality is only the inner side (endo) of an external world (exo), for which reason true reality differs from what it appears to observers to be; [7] second, that the truths differ according to their internal or external origin. «Perspective, as is well known, is not wholly objective—it is ‹observer-objective.› As an observer one inevitably distorts the world.» [8] «The world, which resembles a virtual reality without an emergency exit, can only be viewed from within. However, it is possible on a computer to generate lower-level worlds in which the interface between the explicit observer and the rest of his world can be explicitly investigated.» [9] This research defines itself as a meta-experiment, or second-level experiment based on the difference between endo and exo.

Observer dependency

The search for an internal reciprocity between viewer and work is one of the most important research areas of media art. Initial impulses came from the invention of visualization technologies for digital information and from immersion systems permitting a high degree offeedback and an expanded relationship between observer and system. In 1962 Morton Heilig developed the «Sensorama,» an Environment consisting of a multisensorial stereo cinema arcade machine. Various simulation strategies like three-dimensional sounds, vibrations, drafts of air, or binocular views of the film convey to the audience tactile, visual, and olfactory sensory impressions. Heilig’s research interest focused on how viewers could feel immersed in the film by integrating the human senses, and on expanding artistic forms.

In 1967 Walter Pichler devised the «TV-Helm» (also known as «The Portable Living-Room»), a TV machine adapted to the shape of the head. With this forerunner of the data helmet used to visualize virtual reality, Pichler brought about a paradigm shift in the positioning of the viewer by making the perspective of the works dependent on that of the observer. Pichler’s basic idea was to make the subject an internal observer of the system, and thereby separate him from the real world (a direct critique of the isolation of the individual in the age of telecommunications). This he achieved by causing the subject’s field of vision and perception to be completely involved in the system. [10]

VR, AI and AL: Aesthetics of simulation as endo-systems The «TV-Helm» represents an attempt to implement in practice the convergence of the image-reproduction system and the observer-centered perspective in a single, artificial and comprehensive (closed) space. The fusion ultimately succeeded with the development of interactive computer-graphics programs that are visualized on monitors, with the optimization of stereoscopic data helmets—such as the «Head-Mounted Display » of Ivan Sutherland—as well as with the «VIEW-System» [11] (Virtual Interface Environment Workstation), on which research took place from 1985 on. Due to these technologies, the idea of external audience participation gave way to the concept of interactivity or internal cooperation: work and interactor enter into an interdependent relationship.

The approach of allowing the internal interactor to participate in an artificially generated model world takes into consideration the possibility of moving beyond the human-machine interface (which Rösslerinterprets as a «peek behind the curtains,» and Scott Fisher as a «door to other worlds»). In this kind of simulated world or endosystem the internal observers move within two kinds of reality: that of their consciousness of acting within a simulation, and that of their perception, which suggests that their presence and their actions exercise an active influence on the artificial world, with the result that the distortions peculiar to their own observing are reflected in the virtual environment. In interactive works of this kind the aesthetics of simulation is closely related to endo-aesthetics: the interactor fulfils a function within the work; he shares a spatio-temporal experience in the system ‹interior›; the work manifests itself as a simulation of a special world, as an ‹endo-system.› Depending on the degree to which the interactor identifies with and feels a connection with the system, one can speak of soft interactivity or simulation—as for instance in the case of fictive images of games, in which the interactor retains an awareness of non-reality—or of hard simulations or unconscious fictions in which experiences are made in isolation, or together with others in the same fictional realm. Every approach towards an aesthetics of simulation and endo-aesthetics as a theory of interactive art ought to take into account that the discourses regarding ‹artificial worlds,› ‹virtual realities› or ‹model worlds› cannot refer to projections arising independently of the cognitive system of a human being, of his understanding and relationship to the (potential or real) environment, since the references remain bound up with socio-cultural and cognitive behavioral configurations and experiences. Part of the problematic of virtual reality possibly lies in the term itself, because it suggests that a parallel world exists without reference to the real world. Since historical models are always multifarious operations in language that are based on distinction processes among data of social or individual memory contents and on the (re-)interpretation of experiences and knowledge according to specific criteria, and moreover always refer to the system, historical constructions cannot consist of an objective and neutral rendition of past events, since accounts of reality are not viable. The construction of virtual reality is accomplished in similar fashion, with a role being played in the selection andcomposition of data both by the observer’s particular experience of the world as well as by his knowledge and powers of imagination.

A good example of this duality is furnished by «Liquid Views or The Virtual Mirror of Narcissus» (1992), produced by Monika Fleischmann/Wolfgang Strauss in collaboration with Christian A. Bohn. [12] Based on the myth of Narcissus, the installation uses the metaphor of water as a mirror and confronts the viewer with his self-image and the reflection of the digital universe. Since the technical interface is not consciously perceived as such, a strong simulation or unconscious fiction takes effect in which the real and virtual realms are sensorially linked. The real image of the observer, reproduced in the fictive image of the mirror-screen, stresses the duality existing on the one hand between world-observation and self-observation (self-knowledge), and on the other hand the sensorial relationship of tension between the immateriality of the virtual and the materiality of the physical body. These various levels of reality (exo and endo) make clear the double game played by endo-aesthetics.

Louis Bec, an artist whose research into artificial systems and the relationship of art, science, and technology began in 1970, emphasizes that artificial life underscores the connection between artistic experiments and scientific visions. As he sees it, the machine-based AL processes are contributing to the emergence of a new aesthetics of autonomy in which the most important productions of the artificial system are proving to be programmatic. He describes this aesthetics as being expressive of the interactions between different components of the system, and as serving to transfer biological knowledge into the area of technology, and vice versa. Further, this aesthetics is characterized by successive states that become visible in the form of morphogenetic transformations; an aesthetics of visualization in which something concealed is brought to light, brought into being; an aesthetics that must be viewed as a process, since in interactivity there exists no instrumentalized response but merely potential perspectives approximating the virtuality of the creation.

Bec’s aesthetics of autonomy is based on the assumption that virtual beings are capable, by means of reproduction and mutation, of bringing forth new beings possessing a different aesthetics. At the sametime, this procedure implies the ‹aesthetics of amputation,› which for Bec amounts to the technological-expansion-induced compulsion to adapt to the artificial environment, and in consequence to forget or to renounce capabilities that have been rendered obsolete. By interfering with the constitutive logistics of the living—logistics characterized by inconstancy, increasing complexity, autonomy, or self-organization—the zoo systematist establishes a practice of the ‹aesthetics of refloating› (‹ésthétique du renfloué›). [13] Other works concerned with the relationship between living and artificial systems endeavor to achieve a still more profound interaction between work and observer. This is an important prerequisite of the works of Ulrike Gabriel, an artist who makes the mode of function of the system dependent on that of the interactor’s body. Her interactive AL installation «Terrain 01» (1993) links up the internal and external world over an interactive display that establishes indirect contact between the external observer (brain) and the robots. The result is a kind of immaterial communications form between the two systems. [14] The above examples vividly point to the conceptual transformations resulting from the artistic deployment of interactive systems like those of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, or artificial life, that is to say: technologies enabling the creation of virtual realities or environments that the interactor can experience from within, or mechanisms producing parallel ‹histories› or exo-realities. These developments were accompanied by the emergence of various methods of analyzing interactive works. One tendency is directed primarily at the structural mechanism, with less attention being paid to the context and the interactors. The object of investigation is the manner in which interactivity arises between the user and image, along with the functions exercised by the interface, and how works are generated and controlled, as well as the way in which they direct the user to act. These are aspects connected with structural design, and accordingly this line of argumentation concedes far more weight to the question of ‹how,› i.e. the technological design, than to the question of ‹what.› For the purposes ofaesthetic reflection in the area of interactive art/systems, however, interest would have to center on the question of which types of information, communication, contents and aesthetics are created. In the case of virtual-reality systems, for instance, not only the technological development or the spectacular forms reproducing slices of reality are a matter of interest. The actual purpose of applying these technologies—that of evoking the aesthetics of simulation—results from their potential ability to create qualitatively complex environments conveying plurisensorially experiencable contents.

In an interactive environment in which the observer is a transmitter who can interfere, who can manipulate the available audiovisual information or generate new information, the work’s meaning and effectiveness are linked both to the interaction experience of the audience and to the corresponding reaction (performance) of the system. In order that circular communication—and be it fictive—can arise between the interactor and system, the latter must simulate the ability to ‹take in› the visitor’s instructions. This would allow an interactor to assume that he was controlling or communicating with the system, even if he were conscious of being unable to understand its mode of function.

Interaction, whether explicit or simulated, demands an open and contingent work structure, through which the position of the process is more fundamental than that of the materiality and completion of the work. To the idiosyncratically aesthetic paradigms of interactive works—their virtuality, variability, contingency, and simulation—it is possible to add the following endo-physical characteristica describing and defining that interactive and virtual world of electronic media: meta-experiments possessing external (exo) and interior (endo) sides; model worlds with an accessible interface on which the world is defined; they can have various reality planes; their internal operations adapt to the distortion of perspective (or of action) of the observer. [15] For these reasons, endo-aesthetics and endo-physics alike deal with artificial, interface-based worlds in which one can simultaneously participate (endo) or observe (exo). The properties of the world can be discovered through this dual action of the interactor. «A new technology which, in contrast to allthose already known, changes not just something in the world but the ‹world› itself is coming into view as an intellectual possibility.» [16]

Endo-physics as an aesthetic model

An exemplary demonstration of the integration into computer-simulated systems of the endo-aesthetic notions of the internal and external observer is given by the interactive installation «The Wall, the Curtain (Border, the) technical terminology also: Lascaux» (1994) by Peter Weibel, in which the interactor becomes part of what he observes. That distortion triggered by the observer in the reality of his environment is provoked likewise by an interactor participating in the artificial, interactive system. The expression «rubber wall,» which Weibel used one year earlier, was repeated in the context of this new work: «For once, after all, the inner observer of the universe ought to be able to receive data from the external observer and to cast a glance beyond the local event horizon of his universe, beyond his interface (his rubber wall).» [17] This kind of virtuality is based on something Weibel calls the ‹rainbow phenomenon.› Although a rainbow can be photographed, it cannot be photographed stereoscopically, and least of all if the two cameras are set up far apart in order to obtain a special stereoscopic image quality. In other words, one can see the rainbow in the natural world, even photograph it, but one cannot reproduce it three-dimensionally, since in reality its nature is not objective.

This thesis is illustrated by «Simulation Room – Mosaic of Mobile Data Sounds» (1993), an interactive installation produced by the interdisciplinary group KR+cF (Knowbotic Research). Real and virtual spaces are superimposed over each other in this installation. Although the internal observer (interactor) is physically located in the real world, he contributes to the creation of an artificial model world in which he participates, while external observers watch his actions in real time. The internal observer interacts with the data—statements sent over the Internet—received from external participants, whose presence is such that they become virtual agents within the data realm of the installation. On the basis of the data received the internal observer (interactor)creates new data sequences—sound groups—that can be heard as compositions in the acoustic space. Accordingly, internal observers and external participants are both inside a virtual space in which they exchange messages in order to generate new communication structures that become constitutive elements of the simulated world.

The application of endo-physical models in aesthetic theory is demonstrated by this work: in a simulated world the internal observers have access to certain actions and interventions of which the effects allow them to draw conclusions for their own environment. This possibility must be ascribed to the existence of the interface between observer and space (real and data space). Internal and external observers co-exist in a simulated world of that kind.

The observer-dependent reality, the definition of the world at the interface between the observer and the world, and the distinction between internal and external observer phenomena furnish crucial reflective stimuli for the developments of aesthetics of self-reference, of virtuality (the immateriality of the constitutive elements of the virtual world), of interactivity (the role of the observer in the system), and the interface (world-understanding as a question of the interface). [18] All this characterizes endoaesthetics. Endo-aesthetic criteria enable a comprehensive analysis of interactive art in which the audience participates in the system which it observes and with which it interacts, and whose digital processes and instruments are considered to be system-inherent. With a series of works from 1977 onward, Peter Weibel investigated the relativity of an observer-dependent world and the possibilities resulting in reference to internal observers, to the world as interface, and to the relationship between real and virtual spaces. His video installation «Inverse Space» of 1977 simulates the model of an artificial world which, although set up in a real space, is paradoxically inaccessible to the observer. A camera concealed in a black box next to the monitor is shielded and lit up from within, with the result that it turns into an internal observer who takes a photo of the space set up on one side of the black box and relays this photo live to the monitor. [19]

The camera takes on the position of an internal observer in several of Weibel’s closed-circuit installations.With «Observation of the Observation: Uncertainty» (1973), «Imaginary Water Sculpture» and «The Dream of Everyone Having the Same Consciousness» (both 1979), Weibel commenced a series of works starting from both—exo and endo—planes of reality. They allow the observer to move within a virtual space (observer-centered system) from both the outer and inner side of the interface. In the first installation a wide circle is formed by three cameras and three monitors, each connected with one of the three cameras placed on circles drawn on the floor. When the observer is standing in the inner ring, he sees on the monitor what the camera behind him is recording: his rear view. The observer moves within a virtual space that is created not by himself, as an external observer, but by the internal observer, the camera. «In order to be able to see himself from the front, the viewer must conform to the laws of the interface and become himself a co-variant […]. In this realtime installation the viewer is put in the picture, but the price he pays is co-variance.» [20] Using the possibilities opened up by new technologies, Weibel in the 1990s commenced a series of works in which the observer interacts in real time with virtual images by manipulating them live in real space. Commenting upon the computer installation «The Tangible Image,» realized in 1991 in collaboration with Bob O’Kane, Weibel wrote: «Neither the image nor the observer was touched, only the interface. The observers were part of the system they observed, they were in the picture, in the data of the image. A non-local distortion, a manner of displacement that was tele-correlated, distorted the image likewise. The modification of the interface modified the image at the same time.» [21] The effect resulting from this configuration consists in an identical (albeit virtual) distortion being triggered in the real, live-projected image by every touch, every change, and every manipulation (on the monitor screen). In this way the observer is in fact ‹in the picture,› while his body remains in the real space. This would be a clear example of an endo-approach to electronics. «We propose the introduction of two levels: first the endo approach to electronics and second electronics as the endo approach to the world. The nature of electronic art can only be understood as an endophysical principle since electronics itself is an endo approachto the world. But now a double entry is possible. On the endo-gates of the model world simulated by means of the electronic arts you can read: Entrance from the world—Exit to the world.» [22] A further research direction in the field of interactive art examines possible connections between systems that are biological (human body) and artificial (virtual space). The previous analysis of the robotic, interactive installation «Terrain 01» delineated how Ulrike GabrielTerrain 01, by using a direct interface (the interactor’s brainwaves) not involving material communication, connects up the internal and external worlds in reciprocal and inverse fashion. By means of an interface that links organic activities with the generative activities of the algorithm, the interactive connection in her installation «Perceptual Arena» (1993) turns the interactor into the internal observer of an artificially generated world. The results of this connection are made visible over the projected image and so can be perceived by external observers. In this system the interactor is invited to take part in the process of creating the work, not with conventional methods of manipulation implying the use of the hands or physical movements, however, but over natural processes of the body: eye movement and breathing. The interaction with the system is conducted over the observer’s selfperception, over the self-controlled activity of the eyes and respiratory system. This enables the interactor to more closely identify with the system, and conveys the impression of taking part ‹in natural fashion› in the virtual world. «Perceptual Arena» or other works using implicit (non-conventional) interfaces, such as «Osmose,» [23] an immersive and interactive VR installation by Char Davies (1995), translate the special qualities of endo-aesthetics into artist practice. At the same time they are paradigmatic of a kind of intuitively generated interactivity that allows participation in a work without the need for previous knowledge or skills on the part of the audience. Paul Sermon examines the possibilities of non-verbal communication both between interactor and work as well as between various, spatially remote interactors in a series of works such as «Telematic Dreaming» (1992), «Telematic Vision» and «Telematic Séance» (both 1993). Sermon uses telepresence tointegrate the real observer as part of the virtual system he observes and with which he internally interacts. Over the network the interactors physically located at different places come together as telepresent inhabitants of the same virtual space, which is visible over the monitor. As soon as the clear separation between telepresent and real, physical bodies blurs, the audience becomes a ‹voyeur› of its own actions, since the interactor now (virtually) exists in and between the two places. In this kind of telematically simulated world people become simultaneously internal and external observers.

The possibilities emerging with digital technologies and their applications in the field of art are inevitably transforming not just the materials, forms, and structures of works of media art, and of interactive art especially, but also revolutionizing the basis of their expressive modes, concepts, and fields of research. Endo-aesthetics must be viewed as a theoretic model conveying from an interdisciplinary position basic concepts for understanding and analyzing this transformation and those contemporary productions exploring the creative possibilities offered by the new interactive technologies.

The influence of endo-aesthetics on the way art is understood is based on its conceptualizations of self-referentiality, simulation, and virtuality (immaterialization); on interactivity and relativity; on the priority conceded to the interactor in the context of the work (internal and external observer); and, finally, on the interface. The understanding and analysis of interactive systems from an endo-aesthetic perspective result from the reflection upon an ‹aesthetics beyond aesthetics› and from the transition of art to system. These works can be defined as complex, flexible, context-conditioned, hypermedia, and multidisciplinary systems. Their specific object is the reciprocal communication process (cognitive, intuitive, sensorial, sensomotoric) on very diverse levels (audience—system; system—interactor; interactors within a system; context— system) on both online and offline platforms. From the endo-aesthetic viewpoint these works ‹exist› (that is, make sense and develop their performance) as such only in the measure to which there is a reciprocal and active (real or virtual) relationship between interactor(s) and system (work).The interactive system is insofar always potential, and does not exist in actively autonomous form, since it is dependent on the action of the observer or environment, be this action visual, acoustic, tactile, gestural or motoric, be it energetic (as in the case of brainwaves), or physical (as in the case of respiration and movement).

Investigating interactive systems from an endo-aesthetic perspective enables firstly the creation of virtual spaces and realities as systems or model worlds, secondly the relativity of observer-dependent systems, and thirdly by means of interface the integration of internal observers into a (virtual) system that can be observed from the external perspective. Endo-aesthetics prepares the ground for an understanding of a possible ‹alteration of the world› that, through the placing in question both of the world itself and of our truths, our life and its biological system, unfolds as an expansion of our realities (experiences, perceptions, impressions) and as knowledge of our environment. The endo-aesthetic theory proposed in connection with media art, and with interactive art in particular, is liable to meet with resistance and rejection from representatives of dogmatic or ‹nostalgically› oriented positions, since instability can be triggered by the querying of the classical notions of truth, reality, objectivity, transcendence, autonomy, or originality. These conservative positions conform with those of a consumer society fixated on objects and their symbolic-economic, strategically articulated values (authenticity, originality, expensiveness). The contradiction of contemporary pluralism reveals itself in this area: one demands unrestricted access to new technologies yet at the same time avoids accepting, or refuses to accept, those radical changes resulting from the cultural integration and use of these very technologies. The deconstruction of traditional artistic values and their aesthetics evidently began at the center of art itself the instant its methods were added to those of digital technologies.

If wishing to paraphrase the basic idea of artificial life, according to which the computer is to the researcher that which nature was to the classical natural scientist, one might say that the current digital and telematic systems are to the artist in the role ofresearcher that which the laws of perspective were to the Renaissance artist, namely far more than purely a set of instruments, since they influenced the premises and the conception of art itself, along with its aesthetics.

As a system, therefore, art is closer to science than ever before, and contemporary science, which is concerned (like endo-physics) with necessity and contingency, is becoming the science of the possible, investigating not only how the world is, but also how new models of the world might most efficiently and plausibly be generated with computer-assisted media (hence the proposition of endo-aesthetics). Perhaps such an expansion of personal experience of the world will enable us to better understand what significance and consequences action has for our own environment, and to exercise modesty and tolerance while playing our part in constructing social ‹realities.›

Translation: Tom Morrison

© Media Art Net 2004