Curating New Media August 25, 2000 9:56 PM

Curating New Media

Steve Dietz
International Curatorial Summit Banff New Media Institute
August 25, 2000

What is new media? (called?)

  • computer-integrated media
  • cross-disciplinary media
  • digital media
  • interactive art
  • integrated media
  • interdisciplinary media
  • Internet art
  • multimedia
  • multidisciplinary
  • neen media
  • next media
  • online art
  • process-based work
  • code art
  • cybernetic art
  • research-based work
  • telematic media
  • transdisciplinary media
  • variable media
  • software art
  • generative art
  • metamedium
  • In 1839, photography was new media. In 1895 it was motion pictures. In 1906 it was radio. In 1939, television. 1965, video. 1970s, computer graphics. 1980s, computer animation. 1994, the World Wide Web. 1995 Mosaic. Then Quicktime, Shockwave, Real, Flash. 1999 was the year of the database. 2000, transgenic art. 2001 PDAs. In 2002, it will be telepathy.

    What痴 in a name? More to the point. What痴 at stake?

    Rosalind Krauss, in her meditation on Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, A Voyage on the North Sea argues that while it is now commonplace to rail against a debased notion of medium related to the excesses of Greenbergian formalism, it is not an unuseful concept. She writes:
    "Maurice Denis's famous 1890 dictum about the pictorial medium欄It is well to remember that a picture--before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote--is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order迫was now being read, for example, as merely pressaging an essentialist reduction of paintings to 吐latness.� That this is not Denis's point, that he is instead describing the layered, complex relationship that we could call a recursive structure預 structure that is, some of the elements of which will produce the rules that generate the structure itself謡as (and is) just ... ignored. Further, that this recursive structure is something made, rather than something given, is what is latent in the traditional connection of 杜edium� to matters of technique. ... Although [medium-specificity] is another, unfortunately loaded concept預busively 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擁t is (in its non-abusively defined form) nonetheless intrinsic to any discussion of how the conventions layered into a medium might function. For the nature of a recursive structure is that it must be able, at least in part, to specifiy itself." [1]
    For me, while it has a specificity that will undoubtedly render it quaint in the coming surge of nanotechnology and biocomputing, 鍍elematic� is a useful distinction.

    It was only in 1970 that Simon Nora and Alain Minc wrote a report for the French government on the computerization of society. In it, they coined the term telematique or telematic, meaning the convergence of telecommunications and informatique or computer processing擁n other words, the network and the computer. [2]

    These physical substrates, it seems to me, give rise to three distinct characteristics from which one might argue that telematic media constitute a separate or distinctive medium: connectivity, computability, and interactivity or the recursive, cybernetic feedback loop.

    Finally, I think it is important that in his seminal essay, 天ideo the Distinctive Features of a Medium,� David Antin specifically used the terminology 電istinctive� characteristics of a medium as opposed to necessary or unique or inherent.

    What痴 at stake, I think, is to catalyze, explore, and try to understand the potential of these multi-hyphenated arts. How best to do this may be a question of strategies that are both local and variable.

    How do you understand your role as a new media curator?
    徹ne way to cope with the provocations of novel art is to rest firm and maintain solid standards. . . . A second way is more yielding. The critic interested in a novel manifestation holds his criteria and taste in reserve. Since they were formed upon yesterday痴 art, he does not assume that they are readymade for today. While he seeks to comprehend the objectives behind the new art produced, nothing is a priori excluded or judged irrelevant. Since he is not passing out grades, he suspends judgment until the work痴 intention has come into focus and his response to it is擁n a literal sense of the word耀ym-pathetic; not necessarily to approve, but to feel along with it as with a thing that is like no other.� Leo Steinberg, 徹ther Criteria� [3]
    Agnostic, omnivorous, obsessed, persistent, and ignorant. These seem to me like action items from Steinberg痴 admonition--laudable traits upon which to base one痴 study of incunabular (new) as well as conventional media.

    While I do not doubt the existence of net art, I am agnostic about its contours. I am interested in the distinctive properties of net art--what makes it a thing that is like no other?--but more as possibilities than requirements; as permeable across boundaries rather than fixed; and as transient over time.

    To be an obsessive omnivore is like trying to create the sleekest information architecture. It must be broad but not so broad that the map is coterminous with the territory. It must be deep, but not so deep as to end up solipsistic silos of unrelatable knowledge. Most important is the ratio. To be obsessively focused on the distinctive characteristics of incunabular media while omnivorously contextualizing across the fields of art, technology, and culture seems about right.

    Persistence is a measure of commitment and a function of exploration. If one is exploring the distinctive properties of a medium, one exhibition is not a commitment. If one is exploring a particular cycle of themes in contemporary art, including some 鍍ech art� in only one of the exhibitions is not a commitment. Furthermore, persistence implies that, as with the scientific method, 吐ailures� are as useful as 都uccesses,� if one is pursuing an ongoing commitment.

    Finally ignorance, by which I mean the quality of 渡ot knowing.� It is commonplace, of course, for contemporary arts institutions, curators, and practitioners to assert that often what is important are not the answers given but the questions asked. But I mean ignorance a bit more pointedly. With incunabular media, mastery is a form of closure. Options are closed down. Coherence may not be the most beneficial goal.

    In the end, it痴 an ecology thing. We need a diverse culture. I don稚 know why you do or don稚 need curators, but I curate to learn something, to research. As often as not, what I find out modifies what I thought I knew before. This is time-based truth. Hopefully, my point of view is of use to someone else, at least for a while.

    I am also committed to a practice that is much more about building infrastructure and creating a hospitable (and critical) environment for new media art to take root than it is about a garden hothouse to showcase and refine an increasingly hybridized strain of art. Presumably, the needs of this environment will change over time as well.

    How has new media unsettled roles, definitions, identities, economies in the cultural arena?
    "Whatever the time spent swooning, the mathematician, like the lepidopterist, is _professionally_ engaged in an effort to limit the loveliness that he sees [infinitude], the mathematician fixing in formalism what the lepidopterist fixes in formaldehyde. But the desire to see and the desire to ratify what one has seen are desires at odds with one another, if only because they proceed from separate places in the imagination." David Berlinksi, The Advent of the Algorithm [4]
    The desire to understand--to ratify what one has seen through naming, classifying, formalizing--is not limited to "professionals," of course. It is human nature. Which is what interests me about the net. It changes everything. Or does it?

    How quickly we have gone from infinite possibilities to the construction of limits. Infinity is too difficult to grasp and besides, we're getting tired of ideas that don't work; work that doesn't produce. When will we see some real art? Some net art we can really value, in the market?

    The Duchampian gesture of the readymade suggested, at least initially, that art could be what the artist asserted. It changed ... a lot. To say that Michael Heizer's Double Negative owes something to Duchamp is not to suggest it is a readymade or to deny that it is executed in a medium with some of its own distinctive characteristics. It is to acknowledge the definitional role of artistic practice per se.

    In this sense, net art is more of Duchamp. It is what the artist makes of it. What is different, perhaps counterintuitively, is the network of distribution, of access. Disintermediation was the rhetoric. The critic-curator as filter is the return of the repressed.

    Net works compel the desire to understand. The network is an infinite ratification process, so to speak, for which criteria are points of view not authority; for which consensus is distributed, cumulative, and mutable not stone-cold commandments from on high; for which diversity is a system not a regret. The network changes ... some things--not human nature but, perhaps, the imagining of professionalism and institutionalization.

    [1] Rosalind Kraus. A Voyage on the North Sea: Art In the Age of the Post-Medium Condition.. Thames & Hudson: New York, 2000. In relation to "new media," Kraus's identification of medium as being a recursive process is interesting, as recursion is at the core of Alan Turing's universal machine and the idea of computability.
    [2] Simon Nora and Alain Minc. The Computerization of Society. MIT Pres: Cambridge, MA, 1980. See also my exhibition Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace.
    [3] Leo Steinberg. 徹ther Criteria.� Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. 63.
    [4] David Berlinksi. The Advent of the Algorithm: The Idea that Rules the World. Harcourt: New York, 2000.

    Copyright Steve Dietz 2000, 2004