Introduction to New Media
"It is debatable when exactly the history of digital art began. Artists have been experimenting with computers at least since the 1970's... As in the evolution of photography and video art, this new medium was often considered a threat to traditional art forms... Over the decades, art making use of digital technologies has taken many forms, and even today, the question of how exactly digital or new media art can be defined is still being debated." ~ Christiane Paul, New Media Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, FotoFest 2002 Catalogue Introduction. For a clue, see: http://www.dam.org/history/
The main criterion of classification is to divide the works in three periods: 1). '1956-1958: The Pioneers, when artists and visual experimenters began writing the first aesthetic computer programs; video installation experiments; 2). '1986 - 1996 The Paintbox era', when the emphasis wasn't on computer programming anymore but on the use of paint programs, together with the first scanners; 3). '1996 - 2006 The Multimedia era', with Internet and interactivity imposing new models of relationship between the artist and his audience.
The beginnings of digital fine art are hard to pinpoint because they consist of many convergent threads, which wove together in different ways at different times. Thus, we have the development of the computer in the 1950s through the home PC in the ‘80s and Internet in the ‘90s. Computer generated art is somewhat different from using a computer to render artistic vision. Fractal art opened up a whole new world of aesthetics, an unseen world of mathematical beauty. But fine artists also began using the computer as their medium. Then there is the thread of film and video, which converged, in digital video effects (FX) or CGI. The field of media studies was highly influential philosophically, etc.
Media oracle, Marshall McLuhan became a pop culture figure in the 1960's with his seminal works, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964) and The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (with designer Quentin Fiore, Random House, 1967). Most of MM’s quotes used here to make our arguments are from these works, though some points were later attacked by Postmodern critics.
Polymath, Wyndham Lewis and McLuhan were close friends in the 40s and 50s. Lewis published America and Cosmic Man in 1948 (Britain) and 1949 (US). Lewis’s book on the United States as prototype Cosmopolis greatly influenced that pioneer exponent of electronic globalism, McLuhan, inspiring his famous phrase "Global Village". Lewis was a novelist, critic, philosopher, poet, sociologist, travel writer, autobiographer and, far from least, painter with galvanizing styles all his own.
''An explosive force'' is what Lewis required the artist to be. Some of the chief artists of that time, including Lewis, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, were among the first to probe and define the esoteric dimensions of media. These artists teach us to distinguish figure from ground and so allow a consciousness of the surround (ground), which shapes us. This new consciousness is a path to freedom from control by the new surround.McLuhan indicates that the advertiser is like the artist in wanting to get his effectacross (“McLuhan: What If He Was Right?”). Both are less concerned with what their audience thinks than with theories or with changes of mind, interested in shaping sensibility, in molding the individual's manner of experiencing the world. The advertiser is the artist of the “Electranascence,” having learned his techniques from the more “traditional” artists.
Marshall McLuhan's central theory of the mass media as a global extension of the human nervous system is developed from Lewis's stated and published enthusiasm for and belief in the unifying role of mass communications, and their role in rendering the solitary human body obsolete.
He echoed R. W. Emerson who wrote that "The human body is the magazine of inventions, the patent-office, where are the models from which every hint was taken. All the tools and engines on earth are only extensions of its limbs and senses" (1870). McLuhan claimed, “Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."
Famous also for coining the phrases "The medium is the message" and “the user is thecontent”, McLuhan’s prescient insight also touched deeply on the nature of creative process and creative freedom in the electronic era. He suggested artists are the cultural antidotes to relentless technological future shock, which simultaneously dominates and emancipates us. For example, artists inoculate us against its effects by introducing technological innovations long before they mainstream and by jolting us out of our commercially programmed trances and mass media social conformities.
There is a big difference between being a consumer of the spectacle (Debord) of mass-media or developing content as a digital artist, game designer, or art lab using new media as tools. The software code penetrates cultural and social development. Ownership of information is the real process of control.
New media makes different use of established channels and createsextraordinary works that fall outside of any conventional aesthetic definition. It’s a huge, active field with no single aesthetic line.The burgeoning new art culture is independent of the gallery system and infused with the spirit of innovation.
Electronica includes digital fine art, software writing, hypermedia, gaming environments, hypertext, novel visualization environments, interactive fiction, distance learning, product design, net art works, information arts, telepresence, browser art, collaborative work environments, active learning simulations, psychophysical feedback, medical applications, virtual reality psychotherapeutics, and digital media arts, whose temporal structures are driven interactively. In each case it is the medium that makes the difference.
Media products have a social dimension and varying degrees of immersion and connectivity with the physical environment. If the analysis of the iconic and metaphorical entity of the 'user' is configured as an entity (shaped by the interface) created for the benefit of the IT industry, assumptions of social and cultural control built by the industry itself are deeply shaken. New interpretative paths can be traced which intersect with documented observations and skillfully cross several fields, starting from original perspectives, such as architectural, video and sci-fi experiments.
All media are complementary, forged in patterns of interconnection. Opposition between screen and page or canvas is false; both articulate the human drive to particularize and unfold universal patterns. Proclaiming the superiority of one medium over another takes us nowhere, because both are human artifacts, extending different senses. E-media are brimming over, immediate -- glowing wild -- they are whirlpools within vortices, a chaotic media maelstrom, which homogenizes to white noise.
Recalling Blake's bard in the Songs of Innocence, who sees the past, present and future simultaneously through the imagination, McLuhan projected this perceptive condition on participants in the global media theatre: E-media makes history now and in our living rooms. (emphasis on the word “living.”) But he delighted in pointing out, we face forward with our “eyes wide shut.”
All works of art are ‘painted’ against the cultural canvas, the deep background of society. Culture is a set of learned ways of thinking and acting that characterizes a decision-making human group. It determines our paradigms, worldview, values, and aesthetics. Our cultural landscape is morphing and art is morphing with it, and in many cases leading the way with artists as pathfinders. Media is the environment or cultural ground of 21st century life. It is a ground that is at once personal, social, global, corporate, and political.
A cross-disciplinary field, media studies uses techniques from psychology, art theory, sociology, information theory, and economics. The development of multimedia and performance art has been greatly influenced by media studies. Media serve as active "metaphors" that have powers to translate experience into new forms, new formats with enhanced flexibility. There is a new spatial grammar for the electronic age, and the digital artist is the pioneer or cybernaut exploring this new media frontier.
Chaos engineer Timothy Leary had his own positive take on the cyber-evolution. As usual, he was all for it.
“We are mutating into another species - from Aquaria to the Terrarium, and now we’re moving into Cyberia. We are creatures crawling to the center of the cybernetic world. But cybernetics are the stuff of which the world is made. Matter is simply frozen information. The critics of the information age see everything as negative, as if the quantity of information can lead to a loss of meaning. They said the same thing about Gutenberg. Never before has the individual been so empowered. But in the information age you have to get the signals out. Popularization means making it available to the people. Today the role of the philosopher [and the artist, we might add] is to personalize, popularize, and humanize computer ideas so that people can feel comfortable with them. In every generation I’ve been part of a group of people who, like Prometheus, have wrestled with the power in order to hand it back to the individual.” (Chaos and Cyber Culture).
Understanding media is to understand the forms of media and to analyze the effects of media -- the content is mainly irrelevant. McLuhan meant the medium has an intrinsic nature and will do what it does regardless of the content conveyed. Certain perceptual systems will be enhanced and others suppressed. New media reverse the relationship between “figure” (a new or conspicuous feature of the environment) and “ground” (the familiar environment).
Digital technologies are the new medium; they are the new ground. Technological changes create new environments of perception and the form of media has a more significant effect on society and knowledge than the information in that media.
The approach in every study of any medium, once identified, is examining its shape or contours and discovering its underlying meaning. Successive media rise and fall. This holds true in the realm of digital arts - the electronic media. We must remain informed about the subtle nature of new media - the electronic palette -- from which our works emerge.
Intrinsic effects make each media unique. The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. "The medium is the message" because it is the "medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action." Content is the interactive quality, a verb or continuing process.
For the digital revolution in art, the computer is one such expressive medium that is transforming culture in a variety of ways, both educational and on the production end - in both ‘input’ and ‘output.’ It has become a virtual Temple of Living Light that is subject, tool, and medium with the aesthetics ofthe database, the algorithm and the code facilitating self-exploration and collaboration.
“Art that uses digital technologies as a medium can take so many different forms (ranging from interactive installations and networked installations to software art or purely Web-based art, among others). Even the term Internet art has become a broad umbrella for multiple forms of artistic expression that often overlap. There is art that has been created for and exists within the browser window; there are telepresence, telerobotics, and streaming media projects that establish telematic connections between remote places; there are performance and time-based projects that take place as actions within a specific time frame during which they can be experienced by Web visitors worldwide; there is hypertext that experiments with the possibilities of non-linear narrative; there are netactivism or “hacktivism” projects that use the network and its possibilities of instant distribution and cloning of information as a staging platform for interventions; there are alternative browsers, and there is software art that doesn’t make use of existing applications but is coded from scratch and distributed over the network.
All of these forms are aesthetically very different and to distinguish certain “trends” is almost impossible. However, there are certain prominent themes and narratives within new media, among them data visualization and mapping, database aesthetics, gaming paradigms, agent technology etc. Currently, more and more works are being developed for nomadic devices, PDAs or cellphones, and I would expect that this art will experiment more with network structures that go beyond the static set-up of the CPU, monitor, and keyboard.” (Christiane Paul)
In McLuhan’s altered frame of reference, TV broke up the linear thinking of print culture, then “video killed the radio star,” moving us toward electronic culture. Digital artists have led this revolution in art, while most conventional artists have lagged behind this fundamental change in thinking - the subliminal, processed world of electronic technology, which will soon play out in unrestricted space.
Multimedia means a convergence of media, communications technologies, art, design, and culture - “intermedia.” Many believe that multimedia is a "new media;" but this is perhaps mis-stated. Many of the elements of multimedia--interactivity, artificial reality, performance, storage, etc. - are well established with their own compelling histories. Technology, communications media, and culture use the history and context of interactive art and design as a framework.
In the digital world, film, design, animation, and hypermedia become new media. The historical context for interactivity includes the surreal, fluxus, and situationist movements of the 20th century, as well as the history of artificial reality. New media visions of the future will affect our sense of identity and what constitutes our physical bodies.
Perhaps more important than either cliche or archetype is transformation itself, the idea of percept in flux, in a state of change that we used to mean by that now badly abused piece of new-speak, process. The importance of this sense of alteration lies in its compatibility with the Electranascence, the electronic culture of dynamic flow. The significance of percept in flux is seen by paralleling it with the "concept in stasis" which, McLuhan constantly reminds his audience, is an outmoded sensory posture. It is outmoded because it is a direct descendent of that fixed sense of space -- visual, continuous space -- which was bequeathed to the world by Plato and his descendents, and which was intensified for European man in the Renaissance, according to MM in “What If He Was Right?”.
Artists are at the forefront of this technological revolution. Whether designing intermedia, computer games, producing web sites, writing software, or working on intelligent systems, artists work on a daily basis consuming and producing electronic cultural artifacts.
A collaborative process and model is almost a necessity in new media art. This applies not only to the collaboration between curators and artists but also to collaboration among artists on specific projects. Some pieces require a whole team of programmers, designers, researchers, and et al. al. In other projects, an artist sets certain parameters and collaborators create different (visual) manifestations of the work within these parameters.
New media art is more participatory. The work process of the artist who “employs” people to build components etc. is very different from the one required for new media works. In some new media projects, artists become “producers” who work with a whole team of collaborators. In most of these cases, the collaborators aren’t playing the role of contractors but are very much involved in aesthetic decisions. New media art is a very hybrid medium and often demands expertise in very different fields, which one individual alone can hardly acquire. (Paul).
Whitney New Media Curator, Christianne Paul describes her curating choices:
“The institution definitely influences my focus but this has a lot to do with the place new media occupies within the art world at this point in time. It is an art form that still hasn’t found an established place in the arts at large. Many people are still scared of computers, technology, and interfaces and do not understand the inherent possibilities of the medium. I could easily curate a show consisting of projects that I find very interesting, and it would turn out to be a complete “geekfest,” entirely inaccessible to a larger art audience. Curating for a museum, I am aware that I’m still introducing many people to this art form, so I strive to strike a certain balance, choosing projects that are accomplished as well as engaging and accessible.
Europe certainly has more venues (quite a few of them well established) when it comes to showing this art, ranging from Ars Electronica, EMAF, DEAF, Viper and Transmediale (to name just a few) to museums such as ZKM and Kiasma. I don’t think that more of this art is being developed in Europe; the new media scene in the US is quite large and many of the artists have been showing at the venues mentioned above. There are a few galleries in the US that have consistently shown new media art but museums have only fairly recently begun to embrace the medium. In my opinion, this situation is largely due to economics and funding models. So far, there are no established economic models for selling this art, and commercial galleries obviously need to sell in order to survive. There is far more government and state funding in Europe while institutions in the US have to rely mostly on private and foundation support; they are more cautious when it comes to being adventurous and showing art that is hardly established and doesn’t necessarily have a huge box office draw.”
Digital technology has had a major impact on the production and experience of art during the past decade and a half. Not only have traditional forms of art such as printing, painting, photography, and sculpture been transformed by digital techniques and media, but entirely new forms such as net art, software art, digital installation, and virtual reality have emerged as recognized practices, collected by major museums, institutions, and private collectors the world over.
There is a distinction between work that uses digital technology as a tool to produce traditional forms and work that uses it as a medium to create new types of art. Themes addressed by and raised by the art include viewer interaction, artificial life and intelligence, political and social activism, networks, augmented reality, networked performance, and telepresence, as well as issues such as the collection, presentation, and preservation of digital art, the virtual museum, ownership and copyright.
The history of new media in art must include discussions of film making, video, digitally manipulated photography, virtual reality, installation and performance by artists such as Nam June Paik, Laurence Gartel, Vito Acconci, Marina Abramowic, Pipilotti Rist, Bill Viola and others whose seminal works have radically transformed the world of art with border-breaching unruliness. Artists use the computer as subject matter, production tool and artistic medium, sometimes all at once.
Cybertechnologies have created new contexts for human interfacing, shaping and understanding culture. Teresa de Lauretis claims, technology "shapes our perception and cognitive processes, mediates our relationships with objects of the material and physical world, and our relationships with our own or other bodies." Like it or not we are now immersed in the dynamic field of computing arts.
There are historical, theoretical, aesthetic, conceptual and technical challenges presented by the relatively recent collision of art, culture and computing power. Through envisioning information as popular media, science fiction, computer games, marketing tool, and artist's projects, technology has been and will continue to be a key component of culture rather than just a digital wasteland. Online exhibition means ‘continuous art’; the gallery never closes.
Art itself can be a powerful communal stimulant.
What Is Art, Anyway?
Does our talk about art and creativity illuminate the subject or confound its dynamic form further? Performance artist, Lauri Anderson says, “Talking about art is like dancing about architecture.” Nevertheless, art is in no danger of being drowned in the volume of discourse that surrounds it. The aesthetic experience is tied to the way we engage certain objects or processes in a unified, intense, complex and pleasurable way. Pleasure is the key to aesthetic value. Desire is its driving force.
Any ideas about art remain culture-bound and subjective. Whether we come to it with a romantic or work ethic, art remains a fantastic, seductive, mysterious process, largely for the initiated. But we all value art for what it teaches us about ourselves, others and the world. Whether art is sublime, frightening or pleasing we cannot ignore or deny its immediate impact. Something in the composition, configuration, or setting - implicit or explicit -- is inviting.
Ontology is a branch of metaphysics that systematically characterizes reality. The ontology of art seeks to determine what kind of thing an artwork is and provide a means of determining when and where “artworks” occur. Materialists think it is a physical thing (artifact), while Idealists reckon art is a pattern of thought or emotion (aspect), perhaps shared in some way with an audience.
An artist is a person who participates intentionally with understanding in the making of a work of art. A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public. A public is a set of persons the members of which are prepared in some degree to understand an object which is presented to them. The artworld is the totality of all artworld systems. An artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an artworld public. (George Dickie)
No overarching policy can possibly determine what is art among genres, epochs, or cultures. As with food, the pleasure comes in the tasting, not reading the recipe. Art theories proliferate (postmodern, romantic, expressive, emotive, essential, significant), proving that no single notion can encompass its glory. The common properties are only threads of similarity.
But we all agree that mankind is artful, and some societies make no distinction with “non-art”, doing everything in the best way that can be done. The philosophy of art explores these issues. Art has its own laws. Issues for the artist include fidelity to one’s self and vision (or in performance to the script, tempo and other dramatic elements), locus of creation, creativity, and the artist’s intention.
On the other hand, the artworld is a dynamic social institution with its own agenda, consisting of established practices, historical value, and the exercise of critical judgment, signification, and aesthetic value.
Today, an open concept of art is an essential precondition of creativity and novelty in the field. We are either inspired by or wrestle with our media until we discover and realize a form. Form is a process at work - a flux - a gestalt.
Creating can refer to a process or a product: composition, innovativeness, novelty, and originality - advancement beyond the current tradition. But creativity is also an essentially self-expressive means of transcending the normal limitations of ordinary life, “possession” by the divine.
Frames for art are disappearing as it becomes more and more part of everyday life - the vibrant environment -- not a ‘something’ to be cordoned off in a stuffy museum. Functional art, such as web media, requires no interpretation, just immediate engagement. We don’t simply react, but interact. The process is visceral but somehow “makes sense,” quite literally. It makes the observer a collaborator. Subject matter and content are now ubiquitous.
Cyberculture and web life have blurred the distinction in modern culture, as we are immersed in an ocean of imagery and signs. We discover art and beauty at the click of a mouse, and judge by our visceral reactions.
The essence of art does not lie in its definition; it is far too complex. Despite differences in technique and media, connecting the fine with the applied arts, we connect the pragmatic and the idyllic. Inspiration can be an exaltation, but elaboration, especially with technical media can be painstaking, reflective, analytical work.
Four-step version of creativity or creative process (Douglas Morgan):
“Preparation” during which the creator becomes aware of a problem or difficulty [and] goes through trial-and-error random movement in unsuccessful attempts to resolve a felt conflict.
“Incubation”, renunciation o recession, during which the difficulty drops out of consciousness. The attention is totally redirected.
“Inspiration” or insight. The “a-ha” phenomenon, characterized by a flood of vivid imagery, an emotional release, a feeling of exultation, adequacy, finality.
“Elaboration” or “verification” during which the “idea” is worked out in fully developed detail.
Aesthetics is something else. What is artful, beautiful or ugly depends to some extent on taste, or acquired taste (gesture of approval). A work that isn’t necessarily beautiful can be very compelling, such as plasticized human corpses. Aesthetic value is based on reasonable arguments that describe the criteria, credentials or defining features of that value.
But pleasure or enthrallment is the key to aesthetic value, in general. “Pleasure” thus becomes a quality of the work, itself. The mind is susceptible to its unique impact, its implicit or explicit beauty. But today we can also find beauty in the flow state of interactivity - the ease with which we navigate an artificial environment and imbibe the information it contains. Like a fine meal, it nourishes us in a way that struggling with technology cannot.
An aesthetic experience is a subjective reaction which can momentarily suspend time and consciousness, a sort of transport or fixation - an intuitive contemplation or “ecstatic” state of mind. As human beings, we have an innate craving for ecstasy as much as for novelty-seeking. Suddenly, through apprehension, our mental activity is sparked, rendered unified, intense, complex and pleasurable by the sublime.
The “beauty” contest is over. Art is no longer an imitation of life. Postmodern artists reduced the chasm between art and real things to immediate knowledge. Art teaches us about emotions and truths that cannot be discovered or learned in any other way. It stimulates thoughts that cannot be depicted or portrayed. An object’s truth is its being, its emergence. The hyperreal has made the merely real virtually obsolete.
Today’s art is challenging, confrontive, transgressive. Short-circuiting our rational minds, it grants us privileged entree into the mystical, the irrational, the nondeterministic. We slide down the rabbit hole, constantly bombarded with it in a pandemonium of nonlinear forms. They feed the older needs of the human mind.
In the dynamic model, morphology is a plurality of elements in which what is formed is immediately broken down and re-formed. Growth is a constant interchange of its own elements with the environment, taking-in and giving-out patterns in all directions. There is no hard boundary between ourselves and our surroundings, no before or after in the formative process, in cause and effect, in outward and inward.
Interactive art works pose special problems. An interactive art work can only be interpreted through interaction, either as first-person or as bystander. It is obvious that the experience differs between the two positions, whereas one acts and the other watches the acting. The question is whether it is possible to extract the art work from the interaction with it, let alone the (im-)possibility of extracting the interaction among the beholders (first-person and bystanders) of the art work from the interaction with it.
This leads to further questions: how is the interactive art work interpreted when the spectator has left it, or has changed it? Is it possible to interpret interactive art works without interacting? Is it possible at all to interpret art works through interaction, and thereby accept the interpretation from a distracted interpreter? 'Interactivity-theory' must be added to traditional aesthetics. Based on experiences from computer games and web-design, an aesthetic understanding of the concept of interactivity counters aesthetics in many ways. (Michael Hammel)
Contemporary art is characterized by an increase in the use of technological media, such as videos, television and computers. The human body has also become a site of artistic investigation. It is a challenge to conventional gallery spaces as an exclusive site for artistic display. There is increasing interest in process and procedure as opposed to a finished or static artifact.
Context and intentionality are crucial. Design (understood as rational planning) forms an important part of the realization of an interactive artwork. There are many design tasks (often distributed among co-creators or helpers): for example, designing an interface, or a flow-chart for a hypertext architecture. There is also need for engineering skills.
However, neither a beautifully designed software code, nor an ingeniously engineered hydraulic platform is a work of art. An artwork requires something else, a kind of surplus of inspiration and signification which will transcend the rational assembly of the "machine parts", melt them together and give them a raison d'etre on a higher level of abstraction.
Art is multi-layered and open-ended. There is no final "solution" to an interactive artwork, no way to exhaust its meanings. Modern art is transient, interdisciplinary, multimedial, processual, discursive, dependent on concept and context and besides that increasingly aimed at interactivity with the recipient. Its diversity is in need of documentation in a wider sense, in case it should at some point be subjected to scientific questions and authenticity by those who were not present at its conception and presentation.
Contemporary art requires rethinking and a strategic procedure in its documentation. Documentation is a work of art, is a process, navigation, interpretation and a tool for communication and discussion. The instruments of digital and multimedia technology require specific art efforts. The increasing presence of digital media appliances in museums changes the viewing habits of visitors to the museums as well as researchers. There is an entirely new set of curating problems and questions to cope with. (Harald Kramer)
Interactive art is firmly rooted in the aesthetic upheavals of the 20th century. The questioning of the role of the artist, the work, the audience, the market and the relationship between art and society by the Dadaists, the constructivists, the surrealists and others prepared the ground. In the 1960's Fluxus, happenings and "participation art" (Frank Popper), cybernetic art, the art & technology movement, environmental art and video art already provided many of the ingredients of interactive art.
In an artwork which also incorporates an on-line connection the situation gets even more complex: in addition, there is now the possibility of communication with real humans in remote locations as well as with manifold software agents and knowbots residing in the net. Sometimes it will be difficult to tell which is which. In the near future we will probably see more and more of these kind of hybrid artworks, with both a local and a global face, providing the user the simultaneous experience of being present and faraway in some distant location. Such situations tend to reduce rather than increase the narcissistic potential of the medium.
We are arguably moving through successive transpositions toward a world where man is art: the locus of art has returned to the immediacy of the body in performance and body art. In interactive art, we become part of the system, part of the dynamic artifact or experience. And, often we are changed tangibly by that interaction.
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