Books about new media often prove difficult to truly engage with, if only because they differ so greatly in form from what they seek to represent. A hardbound sheaf paper obviously can't convey the properties of light, or sound, or virtual reality.  We know this. Yet, it still feels awkward (anachronistic, even) to see dynamic art works represented in print -- especially at a moment when everything from archival to live-action film footage is so easily accessible on the Web. Books force us to remain still, no easy task when the subject at hand is anything but static. It is notable then that Edward A. Shanken's Art and Electronic Media, published by Phaidon, manages to trace this particular course of art history without losing sight of its essence.


Shanken, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam (and a member of the Media Art History faculty at the Donau University in Krems, Germany) begins his introduction with a quote by Marshall McLuahan, from his 1964 book Understanding Media: "The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception." The book exhibits a keen sensitivity to the cognitive and visual challenges posed by new technology (and its attendant vocabulary). Shanken's approach, while decidedly academic in scope -- artworks made by 200-plus artists over the past 100 years -- is nevertheless dynamic, avoiding the dense, technical manual-like feel too many in its genre mistakenly adopt. Art and Electronic Media is indeed a resource, but it is a pretty one: 250 color images (and 50 black-and-white ones) pack the center of the 304-page volume, abutted by a series of essays on either end.


Shanken positions his goal humbly: Art and Electronic Media seeks to articulate art and electronic media as "central" to the histories of art and visual culture. While his preface provides a brief sketch of that trajectory, beginning with the steam-powered engines of the Industrial Revolution, an appendix, "Documents," provides instant access to primary source material. (Entries range from Naum Gabo & Anton Pevsner's 1920 treatise on art and science, The Realistic Manifesto, to feminist collective subROSA's 2003 essay on "tactical cyberfemnism.") Organized in a way that allows the reader to dig in for longer periods of time, or simply flip about for a quick peek at a project or two, Art and Electronic Media mimics the very Web it represents in part -- a model for new media books to come, one would hope.