Forward from Christiane Paul: RE: [-empyre-] reply to Ben Bogart

rom: <>
Date: March 7, 2006 1:04:37 PM PST
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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 technology's sake.

Millie Niss wrote:
"I think maybe some curators do not know enough about computers to be able to
properly judge new media... Until we have a generation of arts
administrators who are trained in new media and computer technology, there
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: festival_artikel.asp?iProjectID=12501

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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