Forward from Christiane Paul: RE: [-empyre-] reply to Ben Bogart
Date: March 7, 2006 1:04:37 PM PST
Subject: RE: [-empyre-] reply to Ben Bogart
One of the threads of this exchange seems to have returned to the
good old topic of medium vs. content, which has already been much
discussed on lists and within conferences and festivals over the
years. (And I don't mean to say that it doesn't warrant further
exploration). At least part of this discussion is related to
modernism and its reflection on formal aspects of artwork.
Millie Niss wrote:
"But I don't think that given a good concept, one can ever devote too
much effort to getting the technology right."
Absolutely, but you're already assuming that there is "a good
concept" somewhere in the work.
What Ben and GH seem to refer to is the much heard criticism that
"New media art is all about technology." At first glance, this
criticism seems ambiguous at best. Obviously, new media art, at least
to some extent, is "about technology." As you and ben have pointed
out, no object or art form (be it painting, sculpture, or
photography) can be separated from its own materiality, and one could
argue that every painting also is "about" painting and comments on
its own medium -- although the degree of self-reflexivity
substantially varies from one work to another. (see modernism)
In most cases, the above complaint is meant to express frustration
with a gratuitous use of technology -- a showcasing of technology for
Millie Niss wrote:
"I think maybe some curators do not know enough about computers to be
properly judge new media... Until we have a generation of arts
administrators who are trained in new media and computer technology,
will be some very silly curatorial and funding decisions made."
I would agree again. In the case of new media art, the criticism
conerning "technology focus" is fundamentally linked to a person's
familiarity with the medium. Obviously, a completely gratuitous use
of technology can only produce bad art. For most new media artists,
who often have worked with their medium for at least one if not
several decades, technology is "just" a medium as paint or or clay;
they take it for granted. This is not meant to say that these artists
are not interested in or closely follow the "latest" technologies.
The state of the medium often lags behind the concepts that artists
try to communicate, and they continuously find themselves pushing the
boundaries or developing technologies in order to express their ideas.
If an art recipient / museum visitor is unfamiliar with a specific
technology or interface, it will automatically move to the foreground
and become the focus of attention -- which very often is completely
unintended by the artist. For the expert audience, on the other hand,
the technology tends to be transparent, it moves to the background
and becomes mostly a vehicle for content. Unfortunately, this problem
of focus and perception cannot easily be solved.
An additional factor that needs to be taken under consideration here
is that every medium in its emerging phase tends to explore its own
characteristics, which is a necessity and an important step in
shaping an artistic practice. Many of Nam June Paik's works -- such
as Magnet TV and TV Crown -- precisely fulfilled that function and
investigated the "materiality" of television and video.
Moreover, new media art often critically investigates its underlying
technologies and their encoded cultural and commercial agenda, which
automatically results in a shift of focus to the medium itself. Not
until new media art will make regular appearances in the art world
will its technologies be taken for granted rather than understood as
an obsessive fixation.
Software / algorithmic / generative art tends to be a particularly
tricky medium in this respect. Again, the topic has been much
discussed (e.g. at the 2003 Ars Electronica Festival, Code -- The
Language of Our Time). In the following, a few excerpts from an essay
I wrote for Ars -- full text at:
In “Concepts, Notations, Software, Art,” Florian Cramer outlines that
much of contemporary software art takes two opposite approaches to
software art and software criticism: either “software as first of all
a cultural, politically coded construct” or a focus on “the formal
poetics and aesthetics of software code and individual subjectivity
expressed in algorithms.”
The latter is exemplified in the criteria for evaluation established
by computer scientist Donald Knuth, who has been talking about
“computer programming as an art” since the 1970s (9): among these are
correctness, maintainability, lucidity, grace of interaction with
users, and readability (which would make the Obfuscated C Code
Contest (10) a failure in the art of programming).
The study and criticism of software art has to be equally literate in
the aesthetics of the back end’s construction and the front end’s
(multi-sensory) perception. The crucial dilemma of software art may
very well be that the study of its “backend” will always remain a
fringe culture that won't be integrated into the mainstream of
(perception-oriented) art criticism. The interconnectedness of
written code and the actions it produces also begs the question how
transparent the relationship between these two forms can or should
be, and whether this might be a criterion for evaluating the art.
Meaning, is software art more successful if one can “see” the
algorithms at work in the unfolding of visuals / sound and can
establish direct connections between the front end and the code
driving it? Art that allows this connection to be made will certainly
be accessible to a wider audience but it remains questionable whether
the transparency of cause-and-effect relationships is a criterion for
the quality of art. The issue here seems to be one of reference and
is embedded in a larger discussion surrounding the status of
representation in digital art.
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