Our culture seems to have reached a defining moment vis-à-vis new media art. (Let’s characterize the subject simply as work produced using a computer or other advanced technological means.) It’s been less than four decades since the 1969 launch of the Internet precursor, ARPAnet—a U.S. Defense Department initiative to decentralize communications in case of Soviet nuclear attack. This coincided with the 1969 staging—at the London ICA and New York’s MOMA, respectively—of the epochal exhibitions “Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts” and “The Machine Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.” And it’s less than two decades since the advent of the World Wide Web facilitated the distribution of digital images.
During that short time, a new media art world has emerged that seems to mirror its analog forebear. A pantheon of artists and iconic works have been exhibited before large audiences in galleries and online, and their impact has been discussed by well-known theorists such as Roy Ascott, Critical Art Ensemble and Lev Manovich. Canonic pieces include Char Davies’s virtual reality opus Osmose (1994); Antoni Muntadas’s censorship archive, The File Room (1994); and the Yes Men’s 2004 online subversions of the Dow Chemical Company on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.
Yet the novelty of new media art’s emergence sets it on a path different from the usual top-down institutionalization. Artist-initiated vehicles for the dissemination and consideration of ideas, such as Nettime and Rhizome, both long-established online discussion groups or “list servs,” were essential to shaping the current field. (They should also be considered a variant of the alternative space paradigm of the late 1960s and ’70s that encouraged performance and video art.) By Y2K, a surprising number of American museums including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art were regularly presenting digital and online works. These programs, in turn, had been preceded by those at purpose-built venues such as the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe and, later, Eyebeam in New York, as well as at hybrid events oddly melding festival, trade show and academic meeting. Prominent among these are Ars Electronica in Linz and transmediale in Berlin, as well as the long-standing convocations ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Art) and SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques, run by the Association for Computing Machinery).
Seemingly all that new media art lacked was validation by the academy. Now three related books from MIT Press and the announcement by Danube University in Krems, Austria, of the November 2008 start-up of the first degree-granting Masters of Media Art Histories program (featuring user-friendly rolling admission and low residency requirements) suggest that perhaps this development is already under way.
If another criterion of institutionalization is a network of like-minded museums, schools and publishers, then consider that the Danube University degree program came to my attention through an ad at the bottom of an e-mailed announcement from Rhizome. The ad promises students in the program—run by Danube University’s image science department head and MediaArtHistories editor Oliver Grau—a “deeper understanding of the . . . historical developments of digital art,” provided by a “network of renowned international theorists, artists, curators and archivists.”
Of the eight savants named in the ad, five are contributors to MediaArtHistories. Like many serious books about new media or digital art, this anthology was published by MIT Press as part of its Leonardo book series. (The press, the affiliated publisher of the Leonardo/International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology, also distributes the organization’s journal, Leonardo.) The only other real publisher-player in the digital art field is Thames & Hudson, which features more commercially oriented overview volumes. Thames & Hudson published Frank Popper’s useful Art of the Electronic Age (1993), for instance, while MIT Press recently brought out his more specialized book about virtual art.
The 15-year-old Leonardo series does not seem burdened by a programmatic agenda or self-consciously historic mission. This may be due to an advisory committee of seven members, chaired by series editor-in-chief Sean Cubitt. In fact, diversity is one strength of the outfit’s more than two dozen titles, which range from the anthology Women, Art and Technology (2003), edited by Judy Malloy, to Alex Galloway’s polemical Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (2004). But when it comes to individual books, more viewpoints and more information aren’t always more. Despite an abundance of interesting material, Grau’s MediaArtHistories and Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation, by Brunel University professor and school of arts head Steve Dixon, suffer from insufficient editing and sometimes awkward transformations of component material. (MediaArtHistories anthologizes conference proceedings from Refresh! The First International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology, which convened at the Banff New Media Institute in 2005, while Digital Performance is a hybrid source book/critical history/theoretical meditation derived from a government-agency study.)
Although Grau asserts that Media-ArtHistories is far more than a record of the symposium, it has the same sort of looping logic that characterizes conferences and conversations—forms of face-to-face communication prone to repetition, overlap and thematic circularity. The anthology’s 21 contributors are almost all longtime professors of art and/or new media history, ranging alphabetically from the book’s most renowned scholar, the late Rudolf Arnheim, to its second-best-known contributor, Peter Weibel, who heads ZKM. The book comprises three sections of four or five essays each, and a longer opening part that makes explicit the book’s raison d’être.
MediaArtHistories basically makes a case for the inclusion of digital art within the standard art-history curriculum and considers how to regard the art form: as revolutionary or evolutionary? The majority of the book’s writers favor the latter, given their interest in establishing historical antecedents for their research interests. The quirkiest pieces in the book—micro-histories that focus intently on small, unfamiliar subjects—are the most enjoyable. They include Machiko Kusahara’s “Device Art: A New Approach in Understanding Japanese Contemporary Media Art,” which sets the immaterial and infinitely replicable nature of the digital against clashing Japanese and Western esthetic value systems, and Douglas Kahn’s “Between a Bach and a Bard Place: Productive Constraint in Early Computer Arts.” Kahn asserts that the computer-art action for two decades beginning in the late ’50s took place not in the domain of visual arts but in literature and music. These essays represent a sort of localized multiculturalism that contrasts sharply with Arnheim’s broader, lovingly eloquent and old-fashioned benediction, written for Leonardo in 2000, with which the book opens: “The technology of the modern media has produced new possibilities of interaction,” he argued. “What is needed is a wider view encompassing the coming rewards in the context of the treasures left us by past experiences, possessions, and insights.”
Dixon’s Digital Performance and From Technological to Virtual Art by Frank Popper are, by contrast, works conveying single sensibilities. Dixon’s book—it also includes “contributions” from Barry Smith—grew out of a turn-of-the-millennium research project he and Smith conducted for the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK. Their efforts resulted in the Digital Performance Archive, designed to document achievements of the digital arts in the ’90s. The archive’s purview was as broad as that encapsulated in the book’s title (which still doesn’t really do justice to the project’s breadth) and is a remarkable accomplishment. But while an archive or database can be exhaustive, a book can exhaust. If MediaArtHistories seems the stuff of an undergraduate art-history seminar, Digital Performance might easily form the basis of several graduate seminars—perhaps one devoted to theater, one to dance and so forth.
Dixon provides documentary information and commentary not only about live performances in which “computer technologies play a key role rather than a subsidiary one in content, techniques, aesthetics or delivery forms” but also about “robotic and virtual reality performances, installations and theatrical works that use computer sensing equipment, and performative works and activities including . . . MUDS, MOOS, computer games, CD-ROMs, performative net.art works,” and on and on. He analyzes the theoretical and historical underpinnings of modern performance, repeatedly asserting that Dada and Surrealist artists receive an inordinate amount of attention at the expense of the far more influential Futurists because of PC attitudes about the latter’s Fascist politics. He also addresses the press reactions to individual works and complementary strains in popular culture. Dixon’s grasp of contemporary culture is sometimes so sweeping and synthetic that I’m reminded of Mike Davis’s virtuoso account of Los Angeles, City of Quartz (1992). Alas, unlike Davis, Dixon hasn’t found a narrative framework on which to hang the extraordinary amount of information he’s brought together for Digital Performance. Can a book be too much of a good thing?
Frank Popper’s From Technological to Virtual Art is the most satisfying and fully realized of the three books under review. Popper characterizes virtual art as both the latest wrinkle in, and a departure from, technological art. Its distinguishing feature is the art’s “humanism” (Popper’s term), manifested in part through the interactivity inherent in the genre, which allows for multiple outcomes determined by viewer-participants, as well as in the extra-art, socially redeeming, even “ethical” concerns (again Popper’s term) embraced by some virtual artists but hardly all. Drawing on experiences with artists that Popper, an emeritus professor of esthetics and the science of art at the University of Paris, has met either in person or online, From Technological to Virtual Art is subtly nuanced and sometimes vividly written.
The humanism that Popper sees in virtual art he also wears on his sleeve, expressing it through the unusually detailed attention he pays to artists’ lives and art. (Like Grau and Dixon, he begins with a broad-brush account of a century of art history that establishes the pedigree of his contemporary subject.) Compare his three-page treatment of Orlan—the well-known French artist who for years “sculpted” her face and body by cosmetic surgeries that she transmitted via closed circuit from the operating room—with Dixon’s few, impersonal paragraphs. Although celebrity culture can make many biographical approaches seem suspect, information about Orlan’s pre-op appearance, say, is highly relevant in the context of her shape-shifting performance procedures.
Other contemporary artists featured in Virtual Art include Mark Amerika, Toni Dove, Ken Goldberg, Eduardo Kac, Stelarc and Adrianne Wortzel. Are their projects more ethically elevated or socially engaged than those of their non-virtual art peers? Trying to persuade us that their ethical standards or humanistic impulses can be clearly discerned, much less evaluated, complicates the task Popper has set for himself. If he doesn’t always succeed, his word portraits are often both striking and finely rendered, illustrating the lifelong journey we make to connect ourselves with the world. Pointing out the signposts along the way, Popper suggests, remains the artist’s proper concern.
Robert Atkins is the co-editor (with Svetlana Mintcheva) of the anthology Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression (New Press, 2006).