Re: Forward from Christiane Paul: RE: [-empyre-] reply to Ben Bogart
I'm so sorry to say but I must - this is such a tired debate, really
- medium versus content, modernism, post-modernism, post-studio,
post-post studio. I mean, really, for practioners of a medium which
has tagged itself as "new" , its foray into visual art and media
practices is stuningly modernist in its approach - in both its
inherent adherence to materiality and form as well as its
theoretical/historical refences to various art practices.
Quickly the point I'd like to suggest in response to Christiane's
statement below is in regard to the often levied criticism that "New
media art is all about technology." Unfortunately, I believe this
is more often the case than not. However, painting is not simply
about painting as such ( materially and technically speaking.) Its
discipline speaks to an art historical, academic and institionalized
legacy which is rarely ( if ever ) questioned as an impenetrable
cannon of art practice . I believe that we all realize this point -
the question then becomes one infused with the David and Goliath
characterization of this discussion.. What I am witnessing in this
exchange harkens back to some research I had done in graduate school
drawing analogies of "new media practice" with the resurgence of the
crafts movement of the 1960-80's which was prevalent in North
America, Europe and Japan. Please recall that both disciplines
address issues of materiality and technical proficiency and were
replete with criticisms often foisted that form was held very highly
over content. by many of these practicioners. At that point there
was a remarkable flailing around about the stunted dynamics of the
hierarchies embedded in the art world. Concurrent with that time
period is the more obvious analogy one can easily draw to "to video
art" - a form which has undergone innumerable permutations and is now
"safely" ensconced in the gallery and museum system.
Unfortunately, I now must run but look forward to continuing this
debate as there are larger issues informing these contestations that
need to be brought to the foreground.
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
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:
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.
University of Southern California
SoFA, WH 103, UPC
Los Angeles, CA 90089
T: 213-740-1038 Office
Sabbatical - 2005-06
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