"Just Art": Contemporary Art After the Art Formerly Known As New Media October 27, 2006 2:57 PM
"Just Art": Contemporary Art After the Art Formerly Known As New Media
Steve Dietz
October 27, 2006
Olhares de Outono Symposium
Porto, Portugal

Thank you Paulo. And I would like to thank Luis and his colleagues for inviting me to speak here today. For about the past two years, I have been maniacally focused on the ZeroOne San Jose Festival and ISEA2006 Symposium, so it is good to be allowed out for at least a few days.


Don't worry. I am not here today to sell you the Festival I directed, ZeroOne San Jose. But a little background is germane.

The topic of my talk, Just Art: Contemporary Art After the Art Formerly Known As New Media, is an issue that I have been contemplating since at least the ISEA2004 Symposium at Helsinki, when I gave a talk titled Art After New Media. In that talk, I ended with the rather bald statement,
In other words, new media has won. It is the only way we can adequately describe and understand contemporary art.
That statement is even more outlandish without the full context of the talk, but it is, in essence, the topic that I want to explore today. Without "giving in" and simply assimilating -- as the eminent historian Charlie Gere has put is so succinctly,
We know this soap opera: "Upstart art is misunderstood and then assimilated into the mainstream as 'just' contemporary art."
Without giving up our differences, what is an interesting and hopefully fruitful way to think about the relationship of the art formerly known as new media and contemporary art?

Maciej Wisniewsk, 3 Seconds in the Memory of the Internet, installation view, The Art Formerly Known As New Media, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Center, September 2005 Maciej Wisniewsk, 3 Seconds in the Memory of the Internet, installation view, The Art Formerly Known As New Media, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Center, September 2005

The phrase, "the art formerly known as new media," is, I realize, an awkward circumlocution, but it is no more awkward - or at least inaccurate - than the completely inadequate phrase "new media" art. It also happens to be the title of an exhibition I curated with my colleague, Sarah Cook, at the Banff Center a year ago. As I said at the time,
At the simplest level, The Art Formerly Known As New Media follows in a long line of exhibitions - at least 30 years old - which claim that it's not about the technology, it's about the art. True. Sarah and I do believe that while the technology may be enabling, to the extent that it's only about an instrumentalization of those capabilities, it's probably not very interesting.
In The Art Formerly Known As New Media, Sarah and I attempted to present work by Garnet Hertz, Michael Naimark, r a d i o q u a l i a, Martin Wattenberg & Marek Walczak, Maciej Wisniewski, Greg Niemeyer, irational.org, Shu Lea Cheang, Francesca da Rimini, Sara Diamond and Catherine Richards - all pedigreed new media artists - as significant art both independent of and dependent on its technological means of production. This is a tricky negotiation but a necessary one, at least temporarily. The more germane question, however, is why aren't more of these remarkable artists being shown at festivals and in exhibitions of "just" contemporary art?

ZeroOne San Jose - South Hall One way to solve this conundrum, of course, is to start/host your own festival. Which is what happened with ZeroOne, the organization I direct. Working with the San Jose Museum of Art, the CADRE Laboratory for New Media at San Jose State University, the City of San Jose, San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau, Montalvo Arts Center, Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley, and The Tech Museum of Innovation, founded a new biennial, which we called ZeroOne San Jose: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge. The point being, that even though the group I mentioned had been talking for 5 or 6 years about starting a festival of "art and technology," in the end, we decided to foreground the art and understand the technology angle as enabling, even necessary, but not in any sense determining.

What I would like to do now is give you a brief tour of the range of work presented at ZeroOne San Jose, which by the way, was held in conjunction with the ISEA2006 Symposium, a longstanding and prestigous international festival of the Inter-Society for Electronic Arts, which cities bid to host, and which San Jose was awarded for 2006.

ZeroOne San Jose slideshow

Because of the ISEA connection, which calls for an exhibition and symposium juried by peers, ZeroOne did not have complete control over the selection process, which is fine. I'm all for collaborative and distributed curatorial platforms. But in terms of the issues of "Just Art: Contemporary Art After the Art Formerly Known As New Media," perhaps the most direct example is a show I did curate for the San Jose Museum of Art during the Festival, Edge Conditions. In the introduction to the exhibition, I write: Edge Conditions, San Jose Museum of Art, curated by Steve Dietz
Cutting edge. Bleeding edge. Leading edge. These are all familiar catch-phrases which suggest we are glimpsing the future of contemporary art, today. Edge Conditions, however, is most emphatically not about the "next new thing." It presents works of art in a different context, at the intersection of creativity, choice, and what might be called "technology" but what is arguably the world we live in. Whether it is devices such as pencils and chisels, or ubiquitous aspects of modern life such as electricity, phones, or computers and the Internet, technology is simply a set of tools that are more or less familiar at any given time.

An edge is a boundary -- a divide between this or that -- but an "edge condition" is an intersection, not only of art and technology, but of physical and virtual, conceptual and actual, the future and the present, the familiar and the experimental, the real and imagined. It can be discomfiting and disorienting. "Are you human or are you machine?" "Is this place real?" An edge condition is like an estuary where the river meets the ocean -- not quite either but teaming with evolved adaptations.

This emergent reality is in some sense the transformative condition we currently live in. The artworks in Edge Conditions explore and exploit this intersectional territory.
So the Festival and Symposium happened from August 7-13, a little more than 75 days agao. There were highlight and lowlights. There were positive and negative reactions. Above all there were a lot of lessons learned. I won't go into them in any detail, except for one event, which happened about a month after the Festival and Symposium.

The San Francisco Art Institute organized a panel discussion forum, Assessing ISEA / ZeroOne San Jose. About halfway through, after each of the panelists had spoken - none of them about technology, I might add -- renowned curator Okwui Enwezor, who is also the Dean of Academic Affairs at SFAI, asked the question "why are you so technophiliac?" This was a question to the panelists and audience in general but clearly it was a question about the organization not just of ZeroOne San Jose but of festivals of its ilk in general.

According to Wikipidia,
Technophilia is, in its simplest definition, a strong enthusiasm for technology, especially newer technologies such as computers, the Internet, cell phones and home theater. It is not currently considered a psychological condition or a disorder, but is used in sociology when examining the interaction of individuals with their society, especially contrasted with technophobia.
Enwezor went on to ask with evident puzzlement how in 2006 there could be such a thing as a medium-based festival. So modernist. Contemporary art is about society, he suggested.

These twin accusations of technophilism with modernist tendencies are emblematic of the generic response of the contemporary art world to the "art formerly known as new media" world. As the Wikipidia definition of technophilia continues:
Technophilia and technophobia are the two extremes of the relationship between technology and society. The latter regards technology as destructive because it leads to a process of dehumanization and believes social reliance on technology is harmful. The former is a positive relationship, adopting technology enthusiastically, seeing it as a means to improve personal life and combat social problems.
Without claiming that Enwezor and his contemporary art ilk are technophobic, there is often a rather reflexive response to any art practice that appears to actually enjoy its means of production, casting it as modernist technophilia without, I would argue, really appreciating exactly what is the art formerly known as new media or, arguably, what exactly is contemporary society.

But before getting into the issue of contemporary society, I want to address the modernist issue of medium specificity first.

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, medium is not an unuseful concept. She writes:
Maurice Denis's famous 1890 dictum about the pictorial medium - "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" - was now being read, for example, as merely pressaging an essentialist reduction of paintings to "flatness." That this is not Denis's point, that he is instead describing the layered, complex relationship that we could call a recursive structure - a structure that is, some of the elements of which will produce the rules that generate the structure itself - was (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 "medium" to matters of technique. ... 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. For the nature of a recursive structure is that it must be able, at least in part, to specifiy itself.1
There have been dozens of attempts to codify the recursive structure of the art formerly known as new media, from former SFMOMA Director David Ross's 21 Distinctive Qualities of Net.Art to Lev Manovich's principles articulated in The Language of New Media:
  • numerical representation
  • modularity
  • automation
  • variability
  • transcoding
Quite appropriately, I would argue, there has been little consensus about a specific set of characteristics, certainly not in terms of terminology. I will return to this lack of consensus, but another way of approaching Kraus's distinction between an abusive and non-abusive notion of medium-specificity is to ask what is at stake.

David Antin, in his classic essay, Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium, writes:
To a great extent the significance of all types of video art dervies from its stance with respoect to some aspect of television, which is itself profoundly related to the present state of our culture. In this way video art embarks on a curiously mediated but serious critique of the culture. And this reference to television, and through it to the culture, is not dependent on whether or not the artist sees the work in relation to television. The relation between television and video is created by the shared technologies and conditions of viewing, in the same way the relation of movies to underground film is created by the shared conditions of cinema.2
What was at stake for Antin and the artists he highlighted in his Video essay, Richard Serra, John Baldessari, Robert Morris, Nancy Holt, Lynda Benglis, Vito Acconci, and Eleanor Antin, among others, was their relation to the 800 pound gorilla in the room: television. Or as Antin titled an earlier version of the essay in Artforum, Television: Video's Frightful Parent.

Is there, one might ask, a similar frightful parent of the art formerly known as new media?

No. Yes. Maybe. Sort of.

On the surface, there is no dominant player-medium in the same way that there was in in 1974. Depending on how optimistic one choses to be, this could be precisely because of the distinctive features of the art formerly known as new media. Specifically, participatory interactivity and the combination of a broadcast and point-to-point network infrastructure.

Ira Schneider, Frank Gillette, Wipe Cycle Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette, Wipe Cycle, 1969, video, b&w, sound, 12:08 min.

Antin's essay is renowned for analysis of the young medium of video art, but it is also instructive what he has to say about the art that was to become new media. Toward the beginning of his essay, he quotes Ira Schneider on Wipe Cycle, which he made with Frank Gillette in 1969:
The most important thing was the notion of information presentation, and the notion of the integration of the audience into the information. One sees oneself exiting from the elevator. If one stands there for 8 seconds, one sees onself entering the gallery from the elevator again. Now at the same time that one is apt to be seing oneself standing there waching Wipe Cycle. You can watch yourself live watching yourself 8 seconds agao, watching yourself 16 seconds ago, eventually feeling free enough to interact with this matrix, realizing one's own potential as an actor."
Antin himself italicized the end of Schneider's quote, commenting on the revolutionary aspirations of the work:
What is attempted is the conversion (liberation) of an audience (receiver) into an actor (transmitter), which Schneider and Gillette must have hoped to accomplish by neutralizing as much as possible the acts of 'taking' and electronic transmission."
At the same time, however, Antin seems to despair of actually reversing or even neutralizing this assymetry of the consumption relationship to broadcast media, continuing:
If they failed to accomplish this, they were hardly alone in their failure, which seems to have been the fate of just about every interactive artwork employing significantly technological means. Apparently, the social and economic distriubtion of technological resources in this culture has a nearly determining effect on the semiotics of technological resources. More concretely, an expensive video camera and transmission system switched on and ready for use don't lose their peculiar prestigous properties just because an artist may make them available under special circumstances for casual use to an otherwise passive public. In fact, this kind of interactive video situation almost invariably begins by intimidating an unprepared audience...
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, body movies
relational architecture 6 Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Body Movies, Relational Architecture 6

Arguably, whether it is the Relational Architecture of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer or the so-called Web 2.0 as exemplified in sites like MySpace, Flickr and YouTube, this participatory hurdle has been vaulted. Increasingly, the "determining effect on the semiotics of technological resources" seems be to encourage us to interact, to participate to co-produce our experiences.

This is not to say that everything is "solved," by any means, but it does beg the question why artists employing the "significantly technological means" of video are not only undisputed members of the the contemporary art canon but they seem to overwhelm every major international art biennial of the past decade. What is the difference betwee a "failed" -- according to Antin -- "interactive" video artist like Schneider and Gillette with Wipe Cycle and an ignored - at least by the same venues that show and collect Wipe Cycle -- Jim Campbell and his Interactive Hallucination or Digital Watch?

The answer, I wonder, in part at least, is in the last sentence of Antin that I orginally quoted:
The relation between television and video is created by the shared technologies and conditions of viewing, in the same way the relation of movies to underground film is created by the shared conditions of cinema.
Shared technology gave video a relationship to both TV and cinema. The art formerly known as new media, on the other hand, has no clear relation to any previous medium.

This obviously isn't true, of coruse, but it's untrue in a complicated way.

Complication #1. As has been repeatedly remarked, the computer gives rise to a metamedium. Computational media can mimic, re-present, and extend almost every other medium from still images to moving images to text to sound. So in a sense, the art formerly knownn as new media has a relationship to every other medium. But, I would argue, to the extent it is replicative, this relationship is uninteresting qua medium. Not that the results can't be interesting, but as a medium, I'm completely uninterested, for example, in the fact that you can make a digital photograph.

The question is what's the difference that makes a difference. And whatever your answer is - for me it is fundamentally what computation and interconnectivity -- and especially their combination -- add to the equation - the art formerly known as new media qua medium is, indeed, something different, which has only an amorphous relationship to, say, television or cinema or for that matter, Enwezor's contemporary art and society.

Complication #2 is that the art formerly known as new media and its distinctive features of computation and networking do have analogs, so to speak, in contemporary art - Wipe Cycle is nothing if not recursive, the fundamental building block of computation - but for reasons that remain unclear, at least to me, once technology newer than video, or computation that does more than essentially mimic the strategies and extend the capabilities of old media, or a network that is the Internet and not, say mail art, are involved, then the work is "technophiliac" -- a little too enthusiastic about the technological.

Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, Listening Post, installation view, Edge Conditions, San Jose Museum of Art

At this point, I should, of course, make a stand and suggest that a work like Mark Hansen's and Ben Rubin's Listening Post is one of the seminal works of the 21st century and holds its own as a profound and engaging documentary of the contemporary as any work presented at, say, Documenta XI.


Instead, however, I would like to return to the days of yesteryear circa 1978, when two French social scientists, Simon Nora and Alan Minc produced a report for the French government, which was published in the United States as The Computerization of Society.3

In their report, which was in many ways a wake up call about the coming world domination of IBM, which, they wrote:
As a controller of the network [IBM] would take on a dimension extending beyond the strictly industrial sphere: it would participate, whether it wanted to or not, in the government of the planet.
More to the point, however, at least in terms of this talk, is that in their report they coined a term to describe a new transformative capability and effect. To quote as some length:
Until fairly recently, data processing was expensive, unreliable, and esoteric, restricted to a limited number of businesses and operaation. Data processing was elitist, a prerogative of the great and powerful. Henceforth, mass computerizatioin will take hold, becoming as indispensable to society as electricity. This transformation can be traced to two technological advances. In the past, the only computers to be found were gigantic. Nowadays, a multitude of small, powerful, and inexpensive machines are on the market. They are no longer isolated from one another, but rather linked together in "networks."

This increasing interconnection between computers and telecommunications -- which we will term telematics -- opens radically new horizons."
Telematics, they argue, will not only "affect all of the long and short-term aspects of the French crisis. It will affect the economic balance, modify power relationships, and increase the stake of sovereignty." It will also "alter the entire nervous system of social organization."

The computerization of society doesn't change art per se - or at least not only art - it fundamentally has changed every aspect of society througout much of the world. Including art.

And here I should add that yes, I know perfectly well that the majority of people in the world have never used a telephone. But I can guarantee you that by several orders of magnitude, even fewer have ever been to a contemporary art exhibition. The art formerly known as new media needs to be careful of the claims for universality that it might make, but it can be confident that it is no more mysterious than contemporary art, with its own set of claims for the global and the quotidian.

But I digress. After almost more than 30 years of the computerization of society, it is no longer a special case. Many, many artists understand this. And some of them are even interested in becoming skilled in deploying computational and network capabilities in their artwork, not just commenting on its impact on so-called mainstream society. Rather than considering this to be merely technophilia, perhaps it is time to accept that contemporary art in general is reflecting - and reflecting on - these decades of upheaval. From this perspective, the art formerly known as new media lies at the center of contemporary art and society not its periphery.

In this next part of my talk, I am on dangerous grounds, not only because of my mispronounciation, for which I apologize in advance, but I have not seen the work in person, but I am assuming some familiarity on your part.

LISBOSCOPIO, Amancio Guedes and Ricardo Jacinto Amancio Guedes and Ricardo Jacinto, LISBOSCOPIO

For example, at the recent Biennial of Architecture in Venice, Claudia Taborda wrote about the following project:
LISBOSCOPIO is architecture of space created by Amancio Guedes and Ricardo Jacinto, installed at the Esedra, Giardini della Biennale, and invites for a new dwelling experience, at a vacant and neutral site. This is a temporary and mobile device, the construction of which explores the use of materials usually related to the transformation of the city.
As I said, I have not seen the piece, and it certainly doesn't self-define as art formerly known as new media, but it is interesting to compare aspects of what Taborda writes with David Ross's aforementioned 21 Distinctive Qualities of Net.Art.
  • Qualiy #1: "The ability to move and assemble audiences."
  • Quality #2: "Authority shifts between reader and writer."
  • Quality #9: "Iterative nature. There is a back-and-forth continuum quality of the net."
  • Quality #15: "The net is not directly commodifiable."
I'm not claiming that there is an exact convergence between Ross's discourse and some of the articulated characteristics of LISBOSCOPIOS, but but they are certainly related, and generally speaking, many of the concerns of the artists Ross is referring to were and are the same as any other contemporary artist, both formal and societal.

When done well - and isn't that one of the jobs of the curator, to identify work that is "done well"? - the art formerly known as new media is as far from technophilia as any good contemporary art is from technophobia.

To end then, while part of my argument is that the art formerly known as new media is "just art," it is arguably true that in the age of telematique, some art is just better situated to exploit the quotidian fundamentals of society at large. Call it art after new media.

Nam June Paik, 20th Century Man, 1996 Nam June Paik, 20th Century Man, installation view, Edge Conditions, San Jose Museum of Art

An example of what I mean is in the exhibition I curated for ZeroOne San Jose, Edge Conditions. One of the four galleries in the exhibition is titled Human Machine, and the didactic for it states:
Some of the most disconcerting edge conditions in contemporary society are challenges to human autonomy by machines, even while we pursue machines as an invaluable aid for human achievement, as articulated in J.C.R. Licklider's 1960 paper, "Man-Computer Symbiosis." So, while we marvel at the technical virtuosity of Ken Goldberg and Karl Bohringer's 1/1 millionth scale-model of Frank Lloyd Wright's residential masterpiece "Falling Water," there is not only a nagging question of whether it can be real, but there is also a kind of nightmarish premonition of a pandemic of rampaging "nanobots." Even Nam June Paik's comfortably nostalgic Twentieth Century Man is easily understood as a precursor to Alan Rath's Handwave, which strikes us as either welcoming or as a robotic traffic cop, collecting and monitoring our data. And how long is it before Lynn Hershman's artificial-intelligence avatar DiNA actually runs for President? Gail Wight's Rodentia Chamber Music is a clever take on John Cage's notions of chance as much as anything. By merely replacing human musicians with rats, she is tapping into an entire biotech edge condition, which is both fascinating and appalling. Harold Cohen's experiments with his computer painting program "Aaron" raise fundamental questions about the nature of creativity and what is or isn't uniquely human.

All of the works in this gallery, in one way or another, are reminders that the human traits we cherish--intelligence, autonomy, creativity--exist not on one side or another of hard and fast boundaries, but in the grey and nebulous intersections.
Particularly germane to this idea of art after new media is to compare Nam June Paik's 20th Century Man with Lynn Hershman's DiNA. 20th Century Man is a brilliant catalog of all the major media of the 20th century: the typewriter, the gramaphone, telephony, broadcast radio, television, video, even the personal computer. The message, if we want to reduce such a wonderful work to a slogan, is that we are our media. The nervous system of 20th century "man" is mediamatic.

Lynn Hershman, DiNA, 2004 - present Lynn Hershman, DiNA, installation view, Edge Conditions, San Jose Museum of Art

By contrast, Hershman's DiNA or Harold Cohen's AARON, an AI drawing program, are results that could only be produced by a "language machine" - the computer. Art after new media, like society, shifts from the merely representational to the virtually real. Or is it the real virtual?

In any case, networked computation is the telematic world we live in, and it is as generative - and destructive - as anything that has come before: the steam engine, the railroad, electricity, broadcast media.

Increasingly, inevitably, unstopably, artists will just make art in, of, about and against this world, but make no mistake, it is the world that has changed, and the art formerly known as new media is just some pretty damn good contemporary art that is made out of this world.

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. David Antin, "Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium," in Ira Schneider and Beryl Korot, eds. Video Art: An Anthology, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York and London, 1976, p. 181
3. Alan Minc and Simon Nora. The Computerization of Society. MIT Press: Cambridge, 1970