British New Media Art April 3, 2004 11:41 AM
Steve Dietz
Keynote (edited)
British New Media Art
April 3, 2004
This conference was initiated by The Arts Council, England in association with Tate Britain and Film and Video Umbrella. It coincides with the launch of New Media Art: practice and context 1994-2004, an ACE / Cornerhouse Publication.
Good morning. I want to thank the Arts Council and the Film & Video Umbrella and Tate Britain for inviting me here today. It was a great honor and and most of all a pleasure to review so much of the work supported by the Arts Council over the past decade, and I look forward to our day of discussions.

Recently I was doing a studio visit at the Banff Centre with Tina Gonsalves and Tom Donaldson. When I mentioned I would be giving a talk at this symposium about British new media, Tina immediately asked: "Why did they invite you?"

I would note that the work Tina and Tom are doing is interactive jewelry, and one of the inputs is measurement of galvanic skin response. I'm relatively certain Tina was just messing with me. [Video clip here]

On the other hand, when I look at the lineup for the day, I ask myself the same question. Charlie Gere, Julian Stallabrass and Geoff Batchen between them have written several critically acclaimed books about digital media and digital culture; Sarah Cook recently finished her PhD dissertation and is now curator of new media at the Baltic; the artists on the panels have collectively shown in major museums around the world; and in addition Saul Albert and Matt Fuller are like the Victor Burgin and Donald Judd of British digital art - practitioner intellectuals who are part of the milieu they map.

The Arts Council, of course, has organized this symposium to celebrate 10 years of the "practice and context" of new media art in Britain. And I think celebration is in order. Remarkable work has come out of Britain - whether it is the "heroic period" work of Heath Bunting, Rachel Baker, irational.org, backspace, I/O/D, Mongrel and many others too numerous to mention, or whether you go back even earlier to the brilliantly prescient manifestos of Roy Ascott and the pioneering curatorial efforts of a Jasia Reichhardt or whether you fast forward to this evening when the new work of Carey Young, I Believe in You will be formally launched, with literally dozens of works commissioned in the past decade.
Saul Albert,, Michael Atavar, Audio Rom, Tahera Aziz, Rachel Baker, Vicki Bennett, Josephine Berry, Anna Best, Simon Biggs, Blast Theory, Heath Bunting, Susan Collins, Nick Crowe, Alan Currall, Desperate Optimists, Matt Fuller, Clive Gillman, Shilpa Gupta, Karen Guthrie, Graham Harwood, Lucy Kimball, Mongrel, Julie Myers. Nina Pope, Simon Pope, Josh Portway, Proboscis, radioqualia, Kate Rich, Soda, Thomson & Craighead, Jake Tilson, Carey Young, Richard Wright
This list of British artists, partial and incomplete as it is, has to form a substantial percentage of anyone's list of distinctive creators over the past decade. This is not in dispute. Celebration is indeed appropriate.

I have been asked, however, to discuss whether from my point of view there is anything distinct about new media art from the Britain.

No. No there isn't.

Any questions?

But just a minute. We hear a lot about the Y-B-As, why shouldn't there be Y-B-N-M-As? Young British New Media Artists?

I'm not saying that it's not possible to construct a narrative about Y-B-N-M-As. But here I would deploy Lev Manovich Exhibit A. In The Language of New Media, Lev suggests that the database is the premier symbolic form of our time, and that it inverts the accustomed relationship of syntagmatic and paradigmatic uses of language. Normally, narrative is syntagmatic. I chose one word after another to tell a particular story. The database, however, orders words paradigmatically. That is, they are stored by their classifications, such as noun, verb, adverb, etc. And it is in their deployment, as the results of a selection process, that a narrative is created.

So, let us imagine a database of artists that is categorized at minimum by name, nationality, medium and by some probably inadequate classification schema, which we will rigorously call keyword. If I perform the following random search for
  • nationality = British
  • + medium = new
  • + keyword = conceptualism
the results just might include Thomson and Craighead, Carey Young, Matt Fuller and Lucy Kimball. What a coincidence! They're on a panel here today.

And if I search for
  • nationality = British
  • + medium = new
  • + keyword = cultural and social explorations
the results just might include the superset of all of the artists in the database who are British and whose medium is new.

And if I search for
  • nationality = British
  • + medium = new
  • + keyword = locative
I might come up with Proboscis, Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Saul Albert, and Heath Bunting. Does this mean that Y-B-N-M-A is distinctively about locative media?

My point is that it is possible to construct any number of narratives, including the ones being presented here today. Curators do it. Arts funders do it. And, if we believe Manovich, we all do it. That is just what "naturally" occurs in a data-based society. Narratives proliferate.

The question is how to evaluate these narratives, and what I would like to argue is that in celebratory and historicizing moments such as today, it is useful to test our hypotheses and assumptions--our database narratives--against two other questions:
  1. Is it a difference that makes a difference?
  2. What is at stake?
So if the question is "Is there anything distinctive and distinct about British new media art?", can we just stipulate that the answer, at least to the first part, is yes, some British new media art is distinctive--and presumably some British new media art is not distinctive.

But is there anything distinct about British new media art?

Let's take, for example, Simon Biggs's Great Wall of China, which the Arts Council supported, and which I included in my 1998 Beyond Interface exhibition and would have no problem making the argument that it is distinctive.

(Just to be clear, I could pick on any number of works, and I have been asked not to focus on works by or related to today's presenters.)

What, if anything, makes Simon's work distinct as Y-B-N-M-A? Or in Simon's case just B-N-M-A. Or actually, since he is Australian, just N-M-A.

This particular work was made in Britain, though, where Simon has situated his practice for over 20 years. And for all I know, he may hold a British passport. But the question is, if British can mean someone not British but who did the work in Britain or someone who has lived in Britain for x years or someone who has become, as we say, a naturalized citizen, then the concept of British looks awfully porous. It starts to raise the red flag about whether it's really a difference that makes a difference.

Well maybe I just picked a bad example.

If I look at the list of artists supported by the Arts Council, I could also chose--and these are just artists that I happen to know about without doing any further research--Natalie Jeremijenko, Micz Flor, Geert Lovink, Adam Hyde, Margaret Crane, Jon Winet, Mongrel, and Superflex. Very British.

Well now I'm being totally unfair. All of these artists were supported as participants on a platform that was being supported by the Arts Council, such as Locus+ or Mute or Proboscis's Private Reveries, Public Spaces--or in the case of Mongrel an artist group that is, well, mongrel.

But if Locus + can commission two American artists or FACT can commission 3 Danish artists or if Grizedale Arts can work with a number of Eastern European artists and arts organizations, then doesn't the difference that makes a difference shift a bit from the identity of the artist to the place where the work is executed? Perhaps the question is what is it about Britain that is distinctive in relation to new media art? Hold that thought; I'll come back to it.

In terms of the question what's at stake, there is at least one obvious answer. Money. It seems reasonable, on the surface, that British taxpayers and gamblers should be asked to support work by British artists or art that they can go to physically because it's produced on British soil--although this does break down a bit in terms of a difference that makes a difference in the network world, but we'll just ignore that for the time being. At some somewhat malleable level, there needs to be a British connection to get the money. Fair enough. But is there something else at stake in proposing British as a difference that makes a difference?

I founded the new media department at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, and I was the editor of the scholarly journal American Art, for 6 years, so I have some familiarity with issues of nationalism in relation to art. The National Museum of American Art--now called the Smithsonian American Art Museum--was founded, like the Whitney Museum of American Art precisely because American art was undervalued if not devalued in relation to European art. It was remedial, in a sense. Or to cast it more positively, the intent was to emphasize a neglected set of artists. Over time, however, "American art" has come to mean less and less as a useful distinction about the art itself. Lots of American art is more related to genealogies and practices more prevalent in other countries than in the United States.

I think the same could be argued about much of British new media art. For a number of years, irational.org was linked at the hip, so to speak, with artists in Russia, Spain, and Slovenia as much as London. Saul Albert's collaborators in both Discordia and the University of Openess are a multi-national lot. Mongrel lived in the Netherlands for a year to complete Nine. And so on.

Probably, one could argue this even more dogmatically. One of the interesting characteristics about Internet-based communications networks is that they don't much care about national borders.

So I would argue that what's at stake about being British is important on a practical level but not particularly interesting on a theoretical level.

It may be a different story regarding what's at stake with new media, however. Hold that thought; I'll come back to it.

So now what about the idea that British new media art may be distinctively conceptual or pop-cultural-cum-political? I think you get the point about how I might go about analyzing these assertions, and I won't drag us through that one. But I do want to raise two related red flags.

Manovich Exhibit B. In Language of New Media, in discussing the characteristics of new media, Lev initially surprises us by stating what new media is not. It is not digital, and it is not interactive. Or rather, it's not so much that it's not these as that the terms are so broadly applicable that they are not useful in distinguishing new media from other creative practices. They are not differences that makes a difference in terms of what is distinctive about the medium.

If we want to think of certain characteristics of creative practice as being distinctive or distinguishing, we have to be careful to construct them in a circumscribed enough way that they do indeed make a difference; that they're not so broad as to include some very strange bedfellows.

But this is where the second red flag is raised. My background is in photography, and while I can appreciate the fluency of his writing much better now, I always railed against the way John Szarkowski turned his view of what was distinctive about photography into what it should be to really be considered photography--or, to put it more bluntly, to really be considered by him, at the time the most important curator of photography at New York-based MOMA, arguably the most influential museum in the world in relation to photography at that time.

It is this balancing act between medium specificity and medium openness, one might say, that I think we still haven't fully resolved.

As Rosalind Kraus puts it her meditation on Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition:
"Although [medium-specificity] is another, unfortunately loaded concept, abusively recast as a form of objectification or reification, since a medium is purportedly made specific by being reduced to nothing but its manifest physical properties; it is (in its non-abusively defined form) nonetheless intrinsic to any discussion of how the conventions layered into a medium might function."
Our narratives need to attain the certitude of description without becoming formulaic prescription.

For me, the characteristics of new media that make a difference are computation, the network, and I am increasingly interested in the idea of the virtual or "virtuality," which I suspect is not nearly as generalizable as, say, "the new," digitalness, or interactivity.

I think these are pretty well understood concepts by this group, so I won't go into them in detail, but I would like to talk about what is at stake with them - or, I believe, anyone's particular definition of so-called new media.

The first thing at stake is net art.

Recently, while I have been in Europe, the New York Times published an article, which, from what I can gather from the list discussions,suggests that the heyday of net art is over.

Heyday is essentially an issue of temperature--whether something is hot or not--and I would only point out that the dot.com Pollyanas have a lot in common with the dot.bomb Cassandras.

Poetry still is written. Painting didn't die. I even know some artists who make single-channel video. Net art is not dead. But this certainly isn't because of a surfeit of caring or any particularly cleared-eyed thinking about it. A few points:

Net art is not the superset of new media. It is a very powerful and provocative combination of computation, networks, and virtuality, but it is by no means the only combination available. Too often, I think, we tend to conflate net art and new media, and, more problematically, we tend to think of net art as net art only when it is, as Krauss says of the "abusive" form of medium-specificity, "reduced to nothing but its manifest physical--or in this case, virtual--properties."

But the greatest failure for net art, to my mind--and I want to chose my words carefully here because it is a nuanced point I am trying to make--is external to it, not intrinsic. There is a lack of discourse. This may seem like a strange thing to say when there are seemingly hundreds of lists that discuss net art all the time--way more than most people are able to keep up with; but very little of it reaches the level of criticality that is commonplace, say, regarding politics that we agree with, let alone politics we disagree with.

It's not that good writing doesn't exist. Without naming names, read anything Matt has written. Or Saul's essay on critical cartography. Or Charlie's history of digital culture. But even the good stuff is debatable, and there is SO LITTLE DEBATE. Hopefully, we can engage in some of that today.

I am resigned to the fact that this position will be taken as an institutional endrun--not that I'm any longer employed by any institution mind you--asserting the need for the middle person, the explicator, the critic, something, anything between the artist and the public. Absolutely not. I see this almost more as an internal issue. We have a hard time talking to each other. Nor am I particularly interested in consensus. For almost 10 years, I have argued--and still believe--that the role of the curator is to follow the artist, not lead or define the field. For almost 10 years, I have argued that the most dangerous thing we can do is agree too soon, too early about what's what. And I still believe this. But we need a more robust debate, if there is to be continued energy in net art in particular and new media in general, which I still believe have a bright future.

The second thing at stake is medium-differentiation. I know that Sarah and Julian and Charlie and Geof will solve this, so I won't say too much about it, but simply put, is new media--however you define it and whatever you call it--best positioned as "just art" or as a distinct and distinctive medium?

We all know the trajectory of this argument. If we treat new media as something separate, it will eventually end up in a ghetto, like photography. On the other hand, if we treat it like everything else, the truth of a decade of experience is that we will go to extraordinary lengths to show everything else before we truly integrate new media into our programming. Some museums would even rather dismantle their new media programs than fight to integrate them.

This is one of the problems that will seem silly in retrospect. Lots of institutions have photography curators and produce integrated media exhibitions anyway. And lots of institutions don't have photography curators but mount significant photography shows. Likewise, lots of artists self-define as photographers, while others shudder at the thought, even when photography is the primary media they use.

The issue isn't labels; it's commitment. From my point of view, it's entirely appropriate to specialize in new media. There has never before been anything like computation as a creative tool. I think it's worth exploring and even promoting. Like American art early in the century, there is enough devaluation of new media that it may require a certain amount of remedial focus. But I don't believe that is the only model that can work, especially in the long run.

Unfortunately, for better or worse, what is at stake, at least in the current environment, is that without dedicated support at the table, too often new media receives short shrift, even when the issues it can easily address are central to an exhibition's thematic or a funder's goals.

Identifying new media as a distinct new medium certainly isn't only an institutional issue. It applies to artists, to artist-run organizations, to funders. It is an issue that crosses boundaries and has consequences, even when your point of view is radically anti-institutional.

"Institutionalization" itself IS necessarily an issue for new media practitioners. Again, on the listserves there is currently a lot of reference to the deleterious effect that institutions have had on net art. To some extent, I think this is the old joke that I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me. But I also believe and agree that there are serious issues at stake. Is the structure of new media practice in some way inimical to institutional discourse? How do the expectations of a process-oriented, distributed, collaborative, often research-based practice intersect with the history of hanging paintings on the wall and creating black installation boxes in the white cubes of the museum? And what about collecting, one of the bedrocks of museological praxis, in relation to free software and an open source ethos that permeates much of new media practice?

These are not trivial questions, but I think that too often they are constructed as exclusive questions. As the only way to think about the issues.

I believe that what is actually at stake is not the institutionalization of artistic practice and the fear of the loss of a mythical autonomy; what is at stake is the creation of a heterogeneous and rhizomatic environment structured around relationships rather than hierarchies. In such an environment there would not be the standard art world structure of "farm teams"--as they are called in baseball--feeding into the major league or "the show" as it is called. There would be slipping and sliding, border crossings and temporary alliances, permeability and osmosis. In both directions, I think it is important to state.

This is an admittedly utopian formulation, and there are compelling arguments that new media as a field and new media artists are better off creating their own structures rather than grafting onto existing ones, although in the long run, I think this is debatable--and should be debated.

Such a debate would be less likely to be undercut if there was a sustainability model for new media art practice. It is easier to be independent, if there is a way to make a living from your art independent of the parties from whom you want independence. I don't think that the current state of economic support for new media artists is irrelevant to the current state of net art, for instance.

To my mind, all of these issues--robust debate, medium specificity, institutionalization, and sustainability--circle back to what is distinct about British new media art. It is not the art per se. It is, at least compared to the United States, with which I am most familiar, the heterogeneous environment that exists to support new media art in Great Britain.
  • In Britain there is direct government support of artists--something that is basically illegal in the United States.
  • In Britain there is significant support of artist-run organizations--which hardly any longer exist, at least as platforms, in the United States.
  • In Britain there is support of virtual platforms and platform projects such as e-2, D-Fuse, TTS.fm
  • In Britain there is support of organizations like Film + Video Umbrella, which support smaller and mid-sized organizations
  • In Britain, there is support of various festivals throughout the year such as Lovebytes and Future Sonic
  • In Britain, there has been significant support available new facilities that are new media capable such as FACT
  • In Britain, there are burgeoning new media programs on campuses all around the country
  • In Britain, there is even regular support by the largest, mainstream cultural institutions from the Welcome Wing of the Science museum to research-based programs with the V&A to the BBC. Tate Modern just commissioned another net art work, AgoraXchange, which in the US would basically land the artist and the commissioner in Guantanamo under the Patriot Act.
I'm not claiming utopia exists here in Britain by any means, but I would argue that the best way to debate what is at stake is by avoiding postulating a single, overarching solution. Solutions are tactical, appropriate to the task at hand, time sensitive, and emergent. Britain has the basis and the potential for a heterogeneous, rhizomatic environment that is building the expertise to be usefully critical about solutions for the new media "problem."

It is such an environment that is most importantly at stake for the success of new media. Such an environment is and should be precisely about diversity, and the only difference that makes a difference is whether the work that is supported is excellent, which we will find out during the course of the day, it is.

Thank you.