Edward Shanken

Edward Shanken just posted on Rhizome some thoughtful side comments to my text “The Postmedia Perspective” (see the previous post). I collected them below. Thanks Eddie!

There are many keen insights in this excerpt from Media, New Media, Postmedia. I hope that Domenico’s whole book will be translated into English, as this teaser demonstrates that it will make a valuable contribution to an ongoing debate that appears to be building significant steam.

Related to this debate, I’m in the process of completing a manuscript that examines the gap between what I call mainstream contemporary art (MCA) and new media art (NMA). Domenico and I have discussed this subject over the past couple years, happily discovering that our scholarship shares some key reference points, including Bourriaud and Krauss, and in our identification of parallel artworlds. Our work is sufficiently different to make the discussion interesting. And as the response to this excerpt suggests, there is clearly a diversity of opinions and perspectives and plenty of room for further scholarship. In that spirit, I’d like to offer a few reflections in reference to Domenico’s excellent work.

My goal is to forge a hybrid discourse that joins the best of both worlds, informing each other in a way that is mutually beneficial and fortuitous for art in general. While this merging of NMA and MCA is perhaps inevitable, proactively theorizing the issues and stakes involved may play an important role in informing the ways in which that merger unfolds. Indeed, as historian of photography John Tagg has noted of the reception of an earlier “new media,” the more experimental aspects of photography were not well-assimilated and that the impact of the discourses of photography and contemporary art on each other was highly asymmetrical: the latter changed very little, while the former lost its edge in the process of “fitting in.” Needless to say, many in the NMA community are wary of losing our edge in the process of assimilation…

At Art Basel in June 2011, I organized and chaired a panel discussion with Nicolas Bourriaud, Peter Weibel, and Michael Grey (see link to video, below.) That occasion demonstrated some challenges to bridging the gap between MCA and NMA. One simple but clear indication of this disconnect was the fact that Weibel, arguably the most powerful individual in the world of NMA and Bourriaud, arguably the most influential curator and theorist in the world of MCA, had never met before. Although Domenico and I (and many others in the NMA artworld) see significant parallels and overlaps between MCA and NMA, these worlds do not see eye-to-eye, no matter how much they may share the rhetoric of interactivity, participation, and avant-gardism.

If MCA curators like Bourriaud genuinely embraced the so-called “post-medium condition,” as he suggested at Art Basel, then the exclusionary prejudice against the explicit use of technological media in and as art would not exist. Bourriaud would not favor “indirect influences” of technology on art as he asserted. His discussions and exhibitions of contemporary art would be blind to medium, and there would be no debate. But that is not the case. Peter Weibel astutely picked up on Bourriaud’s distinction between direct/indirect influences and pointed out the hypocrisy of valuing the indirect influence of technology while ignoring the explicit use of technology as an artistic medium in its own right. Weibel accurately and provocatively labels this “media injustice.” Here I’m picking on Bourriaud, but the same argument applies to the vast majority of MCA curators.

Dick Higgins - Intermedia Chart

While Domenico traces the roots of the post-medium discourse to Guattari and Brea, it could also be seen as rooted in Dick Higgins’ 1966 “Statement on Intermedia.” I propose another early touchstone, one that, like Higgins’ statement, has the advantage of authorizing the historiography of art and technology/new media art: critic Burnham’s embrace of ‘post-formalist art’ in his influential Artforum essay, “Systems Esthetics” (1968) and his magnum opus, Beyond Modern Sculpture (1968). Burnham was able to see ideas beneath forms and media, as exemplified in his brilliant exhibition, Software (1970), which joined together, without differentiating between them, works of art and works of technology, technological artworks, and artworks associated with conceptual art, happenings, and performance. As I noted in my essay, “Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art” (2001), for Burnham, scientific and technological advances (now known as new media) were inseparable from the sweeping economic and social changes associated with the information age. Given the flood of technology and technological modes of exchange into all facets of life in the 2000s, I argue that this inseparability is as true or truer today than it was four decades ago. It is in this context that I agree with Weibel, whom Domenico quotes as stating, “This media experience has become the norm for all aesthetic experience. Hence in art there is no longer anything beyond the media…. There is no longer any [art] ouside and beyond the media experience.”

The debate surrounding medium-specificity and the post-medium condition is fraught with tension both in NMA and MCA circles. Rosalind Krauss refers to post-medium practitioners as “nothing but pretenders” in contrast to Ruscha, Kentridge, Calle, and Marclay, whom she champions as “the genuine avant-garde of our day.” (Krauss, The Guarantee of the Medium, 2009, p. 42). Bourriaud, on the other hand, seems to embrace the post-medium condition as a positive development, yet refuses to grant art that explicitly uses technological media, like NMA, entry into the high alter of MCA. Regarding medium-specificity and, more particularly, the importance of medium-specific analysis for NMA (which surely must threaten the uninitiated in MCA), Domenico rightly points out that “many works cannot be properly understood without an in-depth knowledge of the medium and its dynamics, and therefore continues to require a specialized critical approach.” Later, he hedges on this, arguing against Christiane Paul’s “prejudice” that “New media art requires media literacy,’” yet a few sentences later he returns to the Weibelian position that “all contemporary art needs to be media literate.”

Citing Inke Arnes, Domenico asks, How can we “underline New Media Art’s ‘specific form of contemporaneity’” in a way that does not “violate th[e] taboos” of MCA? I’m compelled to take issue with the tone of this query. Violating taboos has played an important role in the history of art. One of the key contributions NMA can make to art in general is in drawing attention to and contesting the status quo. This has a lot to do not just with the explicit use of technological media but with challenging the museum and gallery – or any specific locale – as the privileged site of exhibition and reception. If NMA lies down and accepts assimilation on the terms of MCA, then much of its critical value will have been usurped.

At the same time, I’m compelled to agree with Catherine David’s assertion (quoted) that “Much of what today’s artists produce with New Media is very boring,” but I must add that much of what today’s artists produce without New Media is equally boring. While MCA curators and theorists like Krauss, Bourriaud, David make all the usual criticisms of NMA’s “vacuous celebration of technology,” I agree with Domenico’s assertions that some of this work, even if it fails as art, may have “heralded a new development in knowledge” and that “The New Media Art world can potentially generate the energy that powers the other art worlds, giving their respective ‘ideas of art’ a radical evolution.” Moreover, I argue that there may be specific strategic and conceptual advantages to using emerging media in a metacritical way. In other words, if used cleverly, technological media may offer precisely the tools needed to reflect on the profound ways in which that very technology is deeply embedded in modes of knowledge production, perception, and interaction, and is thus inextricable from corresponding epistemological and ontological transformations. I believe that such a metacritical approach is operating in the best NMA (and the best digital humanities scholarship.) Rather than shunning technological media, this method may offer artists the most advantageous opportunities to comment on and participate in the social transformations taking place in digital culture, in order to, as Bourriaud implores, “inhabit the world in a better way.”

Early in the excerpt, Domenico summons Manovich’s 1996 distinction between “Duchamp Land” and “Turing Land,” a distinction that he claims remain “valid to a point” despite considerable changes in both artworlds over 15 years. As a matter of principle, I abhor such simplistic, binary oppositions, which do violence to the subtle layering of ideas and practices by flattening reality into sound-byte categories. Moreover, Manovich’s characterization of Turing Land, as oriented “’towards new, state-of-the-art computer technology” misses what is conceptually most interesting about Turing’s (and Manovich’s!) theories of digital computing: the idea of the universal machine. Writing about the Dynabook (an early multimedia computing system) in their 1977 essay, “Personal Dynamic Media,” Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg claimed that “the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media.” This “new ‘metamedium,’” as they called it, has “new properties” including “dynamic search” (i.e., random access), simulation, the ability to combine images, animations, and sound, and programmability. Its content, they propose, “would be a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media.” Manovich credits these ideas in his later, more nuanced theories, which emphasize the unique properties of meta-media.

From the above considerations, it should be becoming clear that new media theory straddles medium-specificity (the “new properties” of meta-media first proposed by Kay) and medium-generality (the “universal machine” proposed by Turing.) In my book, I argue that the history of ideas and practices pertaining to computing and new media as a technological and cultural field cannot be limited to modernist conceptions of medium-specificity propounded by Krauss in her dismissal of the post-medium condition. It appears that neither specific nor universal theories of media are sufficient for the task, just as Domenico rightly suggests that neither new media theory nor contemporary art theory are sufficient for the task of making sense of either NMA or MCA. To their benefit, new media discourses have a remarkable ability to equally embrace universality and specificity, to say nothing of remediation (Bolter and Grusin 1999), convergence (Jenkins 2006), software studies, and a variety of other theoretical models, eroding the binary opposition between specificity and universality. The richly textured conceptual and applied hybridity of NMA practices and theoretical discourses offers great potential for reconfiguring the terms of debate concerning experimental and avant-garde artistic practices in the 21st century.

Ed Shanken, 17 January 2011

PS. I am chairing a panel on this topic at CAA in NYC on Fri, 11 Feb and welcome Rhizomers to attend and participate in the discussion. See http://conference.collegeart.org/2011/sessions/sessions.php?period=2011-02-11

Art Basel Conversation with Bourriaud, Weibel, Grey (19 June 2010):
View: http://www.artbasel.com/go/id/mhv/
Download: http://www.artbaselvod.ch/videos/salon201006192.m4v

Contemporary Art and New Media: Towards a Hybrid Discourse (draft overview essay of current monograph): http://artexetra.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/shanken-hybrid-discourse-draft-0-2.pdf


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