Abstract

Along the last sixty years, a complex body of works has been developed along the edge between art, science and technology. An increasing number of artists came up putting their hands on the new tools that technology placed at their disposal, trying to get in touch with engineers and scientists, collaborating with them, entering university labs as well as research and development centers. After a long preparation, this research literally boomed along the Nineties, when the increasing accessibility of new technologies and the development of a “digital culture” made it possible for it to acquire a critical mass of artists. Festivals and specialized art centers sprang up like mushrooms, and many books and magazines, investigating the present and documenting the past, have been published.

A plenty of labels and critical paradigms have been forged in order to identify and describe this kind of research; then, in the late Nineties, the label “New Media Art” imposed itself upon the others.

Yet, notwithstanding this flourishing, neither the label “New Media Art” nor the artistic practices it refers to were able to conquer the official art criticism or, more generally, the contemporary art world. Just a few works of New Media Art were able to enter the permanent collection of a museum, and even less were able to escape the limbo of the museum’s warehouses. New Media Art is more or less absent in the contemporary art market, as well as in mainstream art magazines; and recent accounts on contemporary art history completely forgot it.

How can we explain this segregation? Why “official” art criticism and history have still so many difficulties in integrating the artistic research on new media technologies into their interpretation of the art history of the Twentieth century, even now that this research can be considered in all its historic relevance? Why the art market, that was able to greet video, installation and performance, is still unable to accept and distribute artworks based in software, hardware or computer networks? Why many artists are so intolerant of the very term “New Media Art”, and of any attempt to stress its diversity? Why, on the other side, other artists are so proud of this diversity? Why New Media Art pretends to be “different” from contemporary art, and yet proudly reclaims its relationship with contemporary art’s very same roots, the Avant-gardes?

Many answers have been suggested, along the last decade, for these questions. It has been said that the official art criticism suffers a generational gap, a digital divide that doesn’t let it understand the most radical choices (in terms of media); that art history never accepted the art-science-technology paradigm; that digital technologies challenge the traditional idea of an artwork as a closed, unique artifact, as a luxury item for a luxury market; and that the fast obsolescence of technology makes it impossible to collect technology-based works.

However, all these answers share a common mistake: they focus on a single problem, rather than considering these problems as part of a whole. Medium, New Media, Postmedia is the first attempt to give these questions a common, holistic answer. In order to reach the goal, this book starts discussing the current definition of New Media Art, making its weakness clear and suggesting a new definition that makes it possible to reconsider New Media Art’s historical development on a new basis and to better understand its recent developments and its positioning in contemporary culture.

But Medium, New Media, Postmedia is not just an attempt to explain the current status of the artistic research with new technologies, but also a militant endeavor to help it get the critical consideration it deserves; it’s not just a description of the present, but also an attempt to change the future, suggesting new critical and curatorial strategies.

Chapter I. New Media Art

«“Media art” is […] such a problematic term, exactly because it is imprecise; it can refer to work that deals with so-called “new media”, or work that is simply made with such media technologies; in the latter case, however, a distinction from contemporary art is impossible to draw, since all art uses some sort of medium, and many modern and contemporary artworks have used media technologies without qualifying as “media art” in a narrower sense. It seems that, more than anything else, “media art” is a way of looking at works». Andreas Broeckmann 2005

The first chapter of this book focuses on the meaning of the label “New Media Art”, considering the wide literature in which this label, or its more widespread surrogates such as “Media Art” or “Digital Art”, are adopted. The chapter starts demonstrating that there isn’t a shared definition of this term: there is no agreement on the nature of New Media Art (discussed sometimes as a genre, sometimes as an art movement, sometimes as a ghetto); there is no agreement on its positioning in time (some critics discuss it as a phenomenon of the Nineties, others go back until the Sixties or even earlier); there is no agreement on the media involved (“new media” as digital media or “new media” as everything that as been, along the Twentieth century, a new medium for art, from photography to biotechnologies?)

What is left in the end is a generic and provisional definition of New Media Art as art that uses new media technologies; or, to quote Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook (2010), «art that is made using electronic media technology and that display any or all of the three behaviours of interactivity, connectivity, computability in any combination». While this definition still appears to be quite questionable in a situation that both media theory and art criticism agreed to define as “postmedia”, its weakness is further demonstrated by the way this term is used or not used. Why, for example, an artist like Olafur Eliasson, whose work may fit perfectly in the mentioned definition, has never been discussed as a “new media artist”? Why other artists, whose artistic research with new technologies is often translated in traditional artifacts such as prints and videos, are often discussed as such? And why the use of this term is often welcomed this way: «Every time you describe these artists by material, you are hurting, and not helping them» (Brody Condon, 2008)?

The thesis discussed in the rest of this chapter is that, beyond the medium-based definition that everybody seems to agree with, there is something else that nobody dares to mention, because it will destroy any theoretical construction about the pretended “difference” between New Media Art and contemporary art. Relying on the theory of the “art worlds” introduced by Howard S. Becker in 1982, I show that the term New Media Art is not used to describe a practice, but the art cultivated by a particular community, or better by a whole art world that can be considered completely indipendent from the mainstream art world. According to this approach, all the contradictions noticed above can be described as the result of the development of a separated art world for New Media Art, and of the growing conflict between this art world, and the idea of art it is based on, on the one side, and the art practice it is meant to support and discuss on the other side.

Chapter II. A short history of New Media Art

«art worlds provoke some of their members to create innovations they then will not accept. Some of these innovations develop small worlds of their own; some remain dormant and then find acceptance from a larger art world years or generations later; some remain magnificent curiosities of little more than antiquarian interest». Howard S. Becker 1982

This conflict is, however, a thing of the present time. The New Media Art world grew out of a need. For some decades, there was a perfect correspondence between the New Media Art world and the practices it supported. For some decades, there was no New Media Art out of the New Media Art world. Thus, the second chapter of the book is an attempt tell the story of the New Media Art world; or, in other words, to rewrite the history of New Media Art from a sociological point of view. The chapter starts from the first experiments on the edge between art, science and technology that took place along the Sixties, and demonstrates how these experiments, that at the time had a good chance to enter the mainstream of contemporary art, were in the Seventies rejected for both technological and ideological reasons. This isolation brought to the development of a little but very active community of like-minded people that, step by step, started creating new gathering and exhibition contexts (ie. Siggraph or Ars Electronica), new spaces for debate and criticism (ie. The magazine “Leonardo”), and a new economic model. All this brought, at the beginning of the Nineties and thanks to the exponential growth of interest in new technologies, to the development of an independent art world, with its own venues, its own magazines, its own distribution platforms, its own canon and its own peculiar idea of art.

At the beginning of the Nineties, the New Media Art world was completely self sufficient, and big enough to guarantee artists, art critics, academics and curators the possibility to make a career without ever getting in touch with the contemporary art world.

But then something changed. On the one side, New Media technologies developed into democratic tools, accessible to everybody (included artists whose work was not necessarily focused on technology). On the other side, the contemporary art world started getting interested in this kind of art. The following chapters are both a detailed overview of this turn and an in-depth analysis of its consequences on the art practice.

Chapter III. Two worlds compared

«[…] when Ars Electronica program asks “In which direction is artists’ work with the new instruments like algorithms and dynamic systems transforming the process of artistic creativity?” (festival program, p. 9), the very assumptions behind such a question put it outside of the paradigm of contemporary art». Lev Manovich 2003

If you could choose the world you have to live in, you’d probably go for the one that better fits your expectations. The third chapter analyzes the differences between the New Media Art world and the contemporary art world, considering their systems of production, distribution and comments. Both the worlds are discussed according to the idea of art they are grounded in, to the type of artist they support, to the borders they are defined by, and to the production and distribution systems they developed. This analysis takes into account both rules and exceptions, in the attempt to understand how each world conditioned the artistic production, but also how happened that works breaking the conventions of their own art world started moving freely from one world to the other and back.

Talking about conventions, if the contemporary art world evaluate art works on the basis of their content, the New Media Art world is interested in how a work contribute to the development and the understanding of a given medium; if the contemporary art world has a market-driven distribution system based on private galleries, art fairs, private, public and corporate collections, the New Media Art world nurtures an experience economy made of festivals, symposia and meetings; if the contemporary art world needs objects, the New Media Art world needs experiences.

At the same time, however, many exceptions to these rules are possible in both the worlds. Thus, if in the contemporary art world the content is king, some formalist concerns are gaining an increasing attention in the so-called postmedia era; and a growing number of so-called new media artists, far from celebrating the medium they use, often criticize it or make an instrumental use of it. If the art market has still prominence in the contemporary art world, the more contemporary art becomes popular, the more museums and other art institutions move towards a spectacular economy, focusing on temporary events and often producing site-specific installations and performances.

The third part of the chapter is dedicated to the Internet as a new context for art, with its own idea of art, its own economic model, its own distribution system. Moreover, this paragraph is an attempt to argue how the advent, along the Nineties, of the Internet and of consumer electronics consistently changed the way artists addressed new technologies, turning contemporary New Media Art into something completely different from the idea of art supported by the New Media Art world, and something at odds with this very name. This change produced the mayor shift that made the distinction between the two worlds become more and more blurry, and that made many “new media artists” abandon the ship of New Media Art to look for a better understanding of their work in the contemporary art world.

Chapter IV. The boho dance: New Media Art and contemporary art

«[New media art] has been briefly taken up as a novelty and shown only for its newness. The hype surrounding the technology driving new media art hasn’t helped its long-term engagement with the art world». Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook 2010

In the fourth chapter of the book I apply the model of behavior of the avant-garde, as ironically discussed by Tom Wolfe in The Painted World (1975), to the way New Media Art promoted itself on the platform of contemporary art from the mid Nineties until today. I suggest that this attempt to be accepted in the canon of “mainstream contemporary art” can be interpreted as an embarrassing, never-ending seduction dance, where New Media Art was never able to seduce her partner because she was wearing the wrong clothes. Considering prominent examples of exhibitions such as Mediascape (Guggenheim Museum, New York 1996), Documenta X (Kassel 1997), Net_Condition (ZKM, Karlsruhe 1999), 010101: Art in Technological Times (SFMoma, 2001), I show how New Media Art curators tried, over and over again, to impose to the contemporary art world the same system of values that makes art interesting for the New Media Art world, thus failing in getting its attention.

Of course not everything, along this long courting ritual, can be considered a failure. If most of the main shows organized in the last fifteen years weren’t able to avoid the celebration of technologies, or to propose a selection of works and a translation model that would adapt New Media Art to the conventions of the contemporary art world without losing its own identity; many attempts in this direction have been made in other, less visible events. At the same time, a daily, invisible work of mediation have been made by many other characters in the play: art critics discussing New Media Art in contemporary art magazine; private galleries, collectors and special sections in art fairs.

So, if the present situation is more or less the one described at the beginning of this abstract, things are slowly changing – and, moreover, the ground is ready for a major change in the positioning of “the art formerly known as New Media” in contemporary culture. The following chapter suggests some strategies to get this result.

Chapter V. The postmedia perspective

«The specific character of the media arts under post-medium conditions is today not the media, but their specific form of contemporaneity, their engagement on a substantive plane with a present bearing the strong stamp of electronic media and new technologies. This critical engagement does not take place necessarily by using these new technologies, but rather, art employs (almost) all of these possible media and techniques. This kind of media art is at the same time liberating itself from the compulsion to employ the newest technologies. It is ridding itself of the conceptual burden of the newness of the medium and is facing the challenge of art itself. It is finally growing up». Inke Arns 2008

Today, the presence of New Media Art in the contemporary art discourse is still quite little, and its cultural urgency is far to be recognized widely. At the same time, however, this process is begun, and it’s mainly up to art critics and curators to make it proceed faster and smoother.

The last chapter of the book attempts to give an answer to two fundamental questions. If many artists formerly known as new media artists are increasingly migrating to the contemporary art world, what will happen to the New Media Art world? Does it have to renovate or die? And what, on the other side, can contemporary art critics and curators do in order to facilitate the integration of these artists and artworks in the art world and to reach a better understanding of them?

My answer to the first question is that the New Media art world should turn its frustrating complex of inferiority into a virtue: that is, to act as an incubator for art forms that wouldn’t be accepted at a first stage by the mainstream art world.

The answer to the second question is more layered, because it implies a critique of the strategies art critics and curators developed until now. From a critical point of view, I suggest that the main strategies should be, on the one hand, to embrace a revised, enriched concept of the “postmedia condition” that should include the reflection on media developed in both the contemporary art world (Rosalind Krauss) and the New Media Art world (Lev Manovich, Peter Weibel among others); and, on the other hand, to find transversal concepts that could help considering New Media Art in a broader cultural context, and in a non-technological way.

From a curatorial point of view, I shortly discuss some of the stereotypes concerning so called “new media curating”, considering the artworks case by case and developing strategies of “translation” able to conceal New Media Art with the conventions of the contemporary art world.

Conclusions

«The final avant-garde, if one should call it that, of the twentieth century is that art which engages the most enduring revolution in a century of revolutions: the technological revolution». Michael Rush 1999

At the end of this long debate, conclusions can’t but be provisional. The advent, after the last World War, of the digital media introduced the premises for a consistent change of paradigm in the contemporary cultural production. These premises, patiently nurtured in the New Media Art world, have now reached the complexity needed to cause the cultural revolution we are expecting from them. What we still have to understand is if this change should be pursued through the radical opposition to the idea of art that has been winning until now, or rather through border crossing, mediation, cross-breeding. This book is a bet on this second way.

INDEX

Prologue

New Media Art

Nomenclature
Genre or movement?
When did it begin?
What’s the meaning of “New Media”?
What’s the meaning of“medium”?
A medium-based definition?
New Media Art is an art world
Art worlds

A short history of New Media Art

The Sixties
The Seventies
The Eighties
The mid Nineties

Two worlds compared

Contemporary art: the idea of art
Contemporary art: the artist
Contemporary art: the edges
Contemporary art:the edges
New Media Art: the idea of art
New Media Art: the artist
New Media Art: the edges
New Media Art: the value
Internet, a new context for art
Internet: the artist
Internet: the edges
Internet: the value

The boho dance: New Media Art and contemporary art

The dance begins (1996 – 1998)
The Next Big Thing (1999 – 2001)
The withdrawal (2002 – 2010)
“Its specific form of contemporaneity”
Market and collectors

The postmedia perspective

The curator’s breviary
Which fate for the New Media Art world?
Postmedia condition
Digital Natives
Other critical perspectives
Conclusions

Bibliography

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