Edward Shanken : Contemporary Art and New Media: Toward a Hybrid Discourse?

Edward Shanken : Contemporary Art and New Media: Toward a Hybrid Discourse?

Expanded from a conference paper first presented at Transforming Culture in the Digital Age, Tartu Estonia, 15 April, 2010; e xcerpt presented at ISEA2010 RUHR, Dortmund, 23 August, 2010

This dynamic environment has nurtured tremendous creativity and invention by artists, curators, theorists and pedagogues operating in both domains. Yet rarely does the mainstream artworld converge with the new emdia artworld. As a result, their discourses have become increasingly divergent. (1)

Indees, they are frequently engaged with issues that pertain to global connectivity and sociability in digital, networked culture. Given the proliferation of computation and the internet, perhaps is was inevitable that central discourses in MCA would employ, if not appropriate, key terms of digital culture, such as interacitivity, participation, programming, and networks. But the use of these terms in MCA literature typically lacks a deep understanding of the scientific and technological mechanisms of new media, the critical discourses that theorize their implications, and the interdisciplinary artistic practices that are co-­‐extensive with them. (1)

To its detriment, NMA and its discourses often display an impoverished understanding of art history and recent aesthetic and theoretical developments in MCA. Due to the nature of NMA practice and theory, as a matter of principle, it often refuses to adopt the formal languages and material supports of MCA. This is one of many reasons why it frequently fails to resonate in those contexts.

Central to these debates have been questions of legitimacy and self-­‐ghettoization, the dynamics of which are often in tension with each other. In seeking legitimacy, NMA has not only tried to place its practices within the theoretical and exhibition contexts of MCA but has developed its own theoretical language and institutional contexts.(1)

That said, and despite great pluralism and internal friction, there is arguably a more or less coherent network in contemporary art that dominates the most prestigious and powerful institutions. (2)

Next, it must be recognized that the mainstream contemporary artworld (MCA) does not need new media art (NMA); or at least it does not need NMA in order to justify its authority. Indeed, the domination of MCA is so absolute that the term “artworld” is synonomous with it.

As Magdalena Sawon, co-­‐ founder/co-­‐director of Postmaster Gallery notes, NMA does not meet familiar expectations of what art should look like, feel like, and consist of based on “hundreds of years of painting and sculpture.”3  It is deemed uncollectible because, as Amy Cappellazzo, a contemporary art expert at Christie’s observes, “collectors get confused and concerned about things that plug in.”4

The operational logic of the MCA – its job, so to speak – demands that it continually absorb and be energized by artistic innovation, while maintaining and expanding its own firmly entrenched structures of power in museums, fairs and biennials, art stars, collectors, galleries, auction houses, journals, canonical literature, and university departments.(2)

As such, their power, authority, financial investment, and influence are imperiled by perceived interlopers, such as NMA, which lie outside their expertise and which, in form and content, challenge many of MCA’s foundations, including the structure of its commercial market. (3)

The complex and uneasy relationship between NMA and MCA is hardly new. But the growing international stature of NMA and the seemingly irrepressible momentum it has gathered, make MCA’s ongoing denial of it increasingly untenable.(3)

At the core of Relational Aesthetics is the claim that, “… artistic practice is now focused upon the sphere of inter-­‐human relations…. So the artist sets his sights more and more clearly on the relations that his work will create among his public, and on the invention of models of sociability.” (p. 28.) (5)

My intention is not to criticize relational aesthetics or the artists and artworks associated with it, per se, but rather to apply its theoretical frame to NMA. However, I cannot ignore the fact that while Bourriaud’s text is full of new media metaphors and references, new media art is all but absent from his analysis.13  (5)

Bourriaud emphasizes the materiality of art and insists on the exhibition (whether that be in the consecrated spaces of the museum and gallery or in public spaces) as the privileged physical site for the sociability of relational art. These emphases are difficult to reconcile with certain discourses of NMA, such as net.art designed for web browsers, the heyday of which corresponds with the moment that Relational Aesthetics began being formulated in the mid-­‐1990s. On the other hand, his writing is highly energized and marked by a subversive spirit that shares affinities with the avant-­‐garde aspirations of NMA. (6)

Relational Aesthetics offers scant analysis of specific artists or artworks.

More research on unplugged examples of MCA might offer significant insights into the implications of science and technology and into the relationship between human and non-­‐human agents. Such work might also offer useful perspectives on how NMA can be more successfully rendered and presented in exhibition contexts. One of the frequently noted shortcomings of NMA is that it does not satisfy the formal aesthetic criteria of MCA. In part this failure can be explained, if not excused, on the basis of the nature of the media and the theoretical commitments of the artists working with them.

One must recall that, on the basis of conventional aesthetic criteria, Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) was rejected by the organizers of the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists (Duchamp served on the board and submitted the work under the pseudonym R. Mutt). Just as the canonization of such readymades demanded an expanded conception of what constituted art, the acceptance of NMA within mainstream discourses demands a similar expansion of conventional aesthetic criteria. In comparison with these early conceptual interventions, Duchamp’s kinetic, perceptual investigations, such as his Rotary Demisphere (1920), which are key monuments in the history of NMA, are considered relatively inconsequential in MCA discourses. Their use of electronic media in order to interrogate duration, subjectivity, affect, and perception contest conventional aesthetic values contest conventional modernist discourses and demand a reconfiguration of both art and the experience of viewing it. (12)

it is important to recognize that most MCA is not very good either, and that only a very small fraction of mainstream artists actually succeed in gaining recognition and acceptance of their work within the discourses of MCA. So it is not the case that NMA simply fails the litmus test of MCA, for most MCA fails too. (13)

Electronic works by Duchamp and Moholy-­‐ Nagy from the 1920s, early closed-­‐loop video installations by artists including Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham from the 1960s, the use of computerized electric light in the work James Turrell, Jenny Holzer, and Olafur Eliasson and the computer-­‐manipulated video installations of Doug Aitken, Douglas Gordon, and Pipilotti Rist, spanning the 1980s-­‐2000s, all comfortably fit within both NMA and MCA discourses.  Hans Haacke’s early technological and systems-­‐oriented works, praised by Jack Burnham in the 1960s were later shunned by Benjamin Buchloh, and more recently have been reclaimed by Luke Skrebowski.

The only two artists who appear to have gained substantial cross-over success are Nam June Paik and Laurie Anderson.(13)

Similar difficulties were faced by the visual banality of conceptual art, the ephemerality and objectlessness of performance art, and the remote contexts of earth art, yet these tendencies managed to overcome their hurdles, in part by the clever marketing of saleable objects by dealers, a practice that, as is the case with net.art, can be interpreted as antithetical to the conceptual underpinnings of the work.

Curators are also culpable. NMA curators must master the conventions of MCA if they are to succeed in exhibiting NMA in that context. By the same token, MCA curators who are unfamiliar with NMA and the technical and spatial considerations that it demands are ill-­‐prepared to create compelling exhibitions.

Indeed, we live in a global digital culture in which the materials and techniques of new media are widely available and accessible to a growing proportion of the population. Millions and millions of people around the world participate in sociable media, and have the ability to produce and share with millions and millions of other people their own texts, images, sound recordings, videos, GPS traces. A YouTube video, like Daft Hands, can delight and amaze 38 million viewers (April 2010), spawning its own subculture of celebrities, masterpieces, and remixers. In this context what are the roles of the artist, the curator, and the critic? What do we have to offer that is special, that adds value and insight to this dynamic, collective, creative culture? Unplugged art may offer some clues but it is out of touch with the standard tools and vernacular of our time. Moreover, there may be specific strategic and conceptual advantages to using emerging media in a metacritical way. In other words, if used cleverly, technological media may offer precisely the tools needed to reflect on the profound ways in which that very technology is deeply imbricated in modes of knowledge production, perception, and interaction, and is thus inextricable from corresponding epistemological and ontological transformations. I believe that such a metacritical approach is operating in the best NMA and the best digital humanities scholarship. Rather than shunning technological media, this method may offer artists the most advantageous opportunities to comment on and participate in the social transformations taking place in digital culture, in order to, as Bourriaud implores, “inhabit the world in a better way.” (14)

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