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Cultural Observations

Connecting the dots; a short history of media arts

by Mireille Bourgeois This article was originally printed in Visual Arts News, Fall 2006, some edits and additions have been made to be more inclusive of certain genres. Please note that the below article was written as an intro to media arts for the general and emerging artist public.

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When I first became an arts administrator at the Centre for Art Tapes, a Halifax-based media arts non-profit organization, I was convinced I understood contemporary media arts and its community. I had volunteered and freelanced in the visual arts community for only a couple of years and I was truly naïve to be so confident in my knowledge of media arts. I quickly learned that visual art, though similar in its purpose, is very different from media art. Not only are they not interpreted and exhibited with the same curatorial process or approached with the same level of interaction by their audience, media art requires a completely different understanding of the materials used to create artwork.

From manipulating the very basics of commercialism to hacking the very complex capitalism, Media Art is a Willow-tree intersection, a hybrid of mass media used to one’s advantage to express (in most media artwork) an idea. The community is also quite different though not entirely separate. These two worlds will cross over one another time and time again (visual artists will exhibit online as well as media artists in the gallery space), yet there is still a feeling of ownership when the media or visual arts sector is examined. The debate of how to standardize artist fees for media art, how to slot the appropriate artwork in this category, how to properly handle the issues around copyright, how to prevent illegal downloads of net art, and of how to appropriately curate media artwork in order to encourage art education, has not found a conclusive solution.

Media artwork attempts to flourish, despite fear of the new art dialect, which comes attached to it at the hip. So many questions remain unanswered, among other artists, but also by its audience, as well as by the challenges of the exhibiting spaces (whether they are white cubes or computing cubes). Many have decided not to pay attention to this new form in hopes of not being confused by attempting to define its presence. Media arts is often described as a young art-form; but whether it is perceived as being the newest of art mediums, part of what is now being categorized as media art has had a presence within the art world for over 130 years. The genre of media art is understood as the encapsulation of film, audio art, video art, and new media art. Still there is confusion. So what is it…this media art?

Film and Video

Dating back to the zoetrope of 1834 (the first device using still images to create an illusion of motion) our world seemed indifferent to what it was about to experience just a few decades later with the advent of the first moving picture projector in 1880. Film, being one of the most mature forms of media art, represents the mass of filmmakers with an undying love for la péllicule still creating work today. These filmmakers are operating through film cooperatives, publicly screening their films to admiring festival viewers, and holding independent screenings in the back yards of our neighborhoods. Growing from the still image of photography, film captures a depth perceived unmatched since its inception. Whereas some filmmakers explore linear narratives such as documentary, drama, and cinematic applications, others experiment in short pieces, meant to push and pull the medium, becoming at times almost painterly, using light as the paint and the film strips as the canvas. (not to be too literal…)

Filmmaking remained very independent even when the world was blown open by the creation of the Sony Portapak, said to have become accessible in 1967 and then again by the typical family camcorder in 1985. Hence the birth of video and of video “tape” which was said to replace film through offering the cheaper alternative for lower production costs.  A common misconception is that the video genre came from the genre of filmmaking, though videotape (magnetic tape), what you find when you pull the ribbon from VHS tapes, is most like audio tape technology, therefore video art comes from technology and the application and use of audio tape. The domestication of the “filmmaker” became enticing to the general public and to artists in turn as they realized that advanced technology was becoming more and more accessible, contributing to the futuristic obsession with technology spreading through the world ever-since Futurism.

The video artist brought the video camera to places never visited by film before. It’s social commentary engulfed the radical and fierce MTV generation, and video shorts became a genre in itself inspiring some of the greatest artists to have exhibited their works in both black box theaters and gallery spaces. Despite the use of the term filmmaker for artists that also use digital format, confusion around the term continues because of its double meaning. The term is at times used to define the aesthetic of cinematic films (linear narratives and feature length films) and at times for the materials used in its production.

The Computer and Internet

Already in progress was the development of the computer which took over a century to master and was commercially distributed by 1970. The computer went hand in hand with video art as elaborate video editing systems appeared and allowed for special effects not attainable through film editing techniques. Through placing in the gallery space what was beginning to be a common household item, artists worked with a system that was already programmed for human interaction. Computer art reveled in all its possibilities, and grew with the fresh graphics slowly being integrated into software that would one day turn everyone into computing beings. The Internet wasn’t far behind.

Though there is debate about the exact birth of the Internet, by 1983 the technology was accessible from Europe through to the US and had spread to Canada, Hong Kong and Australia. The impact of the early computer and Internet in the art world created an underground movement. One that created interactive web pages, hacker games and somewhat of a secret society that peeked the curiosity of curators and visual artists. It is overwhelming to believe that claustrophobia can be instigated even in the vastness of the World Wide Web. It is also important to think about how different regions in the world are evolving at drastically unbalanced levels. Not only are entire communities not connected to the Internet or even own one single computer, but also there is no notion that net art even exists.

New Media

The mind-blowing communication tool of the internet brought about the “purist” concept of Net Art, also categorized as New Media art for its use of new technology. This new breed of artists believed the Internet was a pure form of expression, unmediated by the institutional bureaucracy of the museum and gallery space. Furthering the concept of the interactive performative arts, interactive new media invited the audience to participate and become the artwork. New media art can use the act of interruption as a tool for an anthropological communication study. In trapping the viewer in a webpage, or setting off motion sensors in a gallery space, the audience will have successfully acted out the performance anticipated by its creator, whether it be spontaneous or not. New media art also represents electronic art, robotics, and kinetics. At times artists use low technology such as breadboards, sensors, actuators, and motors, or utilize computer engineering skills for creative application. “New Media” is likely the most difficult to categorize, and since it embodies an ideology based in the underground, advanced hacking, and creating something with outdated technology, it is a genre that doesn’t want to be categorized (the scientists of the artworld?).

Audio Art

Also represented in the category of new media is audio art (which began long before Net Art), taking its lead from the music industry when “sound collaging” became popular and then from the Fluxus, Dadaist, and Surrealist movements. Audio art being one of the intangible forms of new media is based on the experience of the complete auditory; can achieve a tangible visual through spoken word happenings, radio art or sound installations, all specific to this genre, but also explored in the visual art field when presented with sculptural art pieces. Audio art has an interesting ability to either create an immersive space, or be experienced through more mysterious sources, allowing this ephemeral genre to experiment with the volume it occupies.

Resembling the devotion of the Neo-Impressionists to scientific methods of art, the new media artist represented an anti-art movement, which proved to be an obsession with technology that went further than art and crossed into the world of science. This emerging genre threatened visual artists who had dibs on gallery and museum exhibitions when suddenly television monitors and URL’s pointing the audience to online exhibitions started appearing in these same venues. One cannot blame the art community for its apprehension, as mass media tends to encourage the replacement of what exists instead of adding to already flourishing art genres. It is because of the quick turn-around that difficulties arise when the need for technical assistance, investments in new hardware, and media arts dissemination is faced full on. On the flip side, media arts programming has to face low budgets, a lack in promotion and education, and the resistance of change.

Following these mere nutshell explorations into the genres of media art, we begin to understand why blurry lines and cross-signals always follow these artforms. In this contemporary time, we must take into consideration that technology and mass media changes our world faster than we can upgrade our old systems. What seems like a short time for media arts to emerge is in fact timely when looking at how quickly our world, socially, politically, and commercially is adapting to technology. It is only natural that our art world be allowed to evolve with it. Artists have always wanted the new SLR camera, the brightest pigment of paint and the newest fabrics with which to create. As mass media expands, our artists are finding new materials with which to express themselves. It is in this spirit that the museum, the gallery, and the artist-run centre find themselves trying to adapt, which then trickles down to general public acknowledgement of the genre. If these venues wish to provide well-rounded contemporary programming, media arts has to inspire a new way of curating, collecting, and art viewing and education.

So here we are, at the Willow-tree intersection again, trying to find an accepted method not to lose the art development, which has been widely respected over the last centuries, all the while being inclusive to accept new schools of thought into the mix. It is interesting that a medium so ultimately rooted as a social form of art, its materials extricated from technology used everyday in our society, has our world seemingly unprepared for it.

The art community demands an explanation for it, media artists do not want to be defined by it, and the audience doesn’t always understand how to link what they understand as art to what is media art. Let’s not forget that there was a time when photography was not seen as a form of art, but as straight forward documentation, with a scientific purpose. More than a few pioneers have gone forth and treaded in the dangerous waters of the curation of media art exhibitions and have done so successfully, all the while including the general public and the institution to learn about the issues surrounding the medium. Resources are out in the open to bring awareness and provide successful models. Resources are also found in experienced media arts curators, media artists, directors and coordinators, the World Wide Web, even the old-school printed text exists to help with this “new” medium which can appear like an uncrackable code. It is therefore our responsibility as the advanced and evolved society that we are to inform ourselves on the changes of the world. The fast pace of our futuristic times will not end here but have no fear; it will eventually all make sense. We hope.

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