Geert Lovink: New Media Arts at the Crossroads

Geert Lovink
New Media Arts at the Crossroads

05.04.07 // 20:30

The emerging new media arts genre is in a crisis. Not that ‘new media’ are on its way out. What we’re talking here is a luxury problem: in what direction to grow futher? After an initial period in which time and again the question ‘what is new media?’ was raised, we have now moved to a second phase, in which large parts of the population have gotten familiar with multimedia, cell phones and the Internet. However, new media arts still operates in a self-referential ghetto, dominated by techno-fetishism. In the meanwhile, the world at large has moved from utopian promisses about virtual reality and cyberspace to a culture of massive use. Taking this ‘democratization’ of new technologies in mind, what are the implications of this shift for the ‘electronic arts’ branch? Should new media artists and their (few) institutions seek collaboration and interegration with the museum and gallery art? Should new media as a seperate category, with its own festivals and exhitions, be integrated into the broader ‘contemporary arts’? Or should we rather further institutionalize the new media discipline?
(this talk is based on the essay New Media Arts: The Cool Obscure, published in Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture )

Geert Lovink (NL/AUS), media theorist and activist, Internet critic and author of Dark Fiber, Uncanny Networks and My First Recession. He worked on various media projects in Eastern Europe and India. He is a member of the Adilkno collective (Cracking the Movement, The Media Archive) and co-founder of Internet projects such as The Digital City, Nettime, Fibreculture and Incommunicado. He is founder and director of the Institute of Network Cultures, professor at Interactive Media (Hogeschool van Amsterdam) and associate professor at the Media & Culture department, University of Amsterdam. In 2005-2006 he was a fellow at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study.


New Media Arts: In Search of the Cool Obscure
Explorations beyond the Official Discourse

“Wer ohne Rücksicht auf den Stand der Kunst philosophiert, betreibt letztlich immer das Geschäft eines Mythos, verdeckt oder offen, und nicht selten mit gefährlichen Konsequenzen. (1)”
-Peter Sloterdijk

A scene at Transmediale 2006, a Berlin festival once devoted to video and media art. Armin Medosch interviews festival director Andreas Broeckmann:

“On my repeated insistence, Broeckmann confirmed that media art existed no more. There was no such thing as a distinguished field of practice. It was either art, where it did not matter which technology was employed, or something else (he did not spell out the something else). In this day and age, Broeckmann said, technology cannot be the sole angle from which an art practice can be looked upon. And off he went to another reception. I was left pondering the implications of media art’s sudden but not so unexpected death. The signs had been up there already. Peter Weibel had been advertising the age of digital everything for nearly 25 years before he abandoned it, all in a rush, this year, by creating a show called ‘Post-media Condition’. What is going on? Are the former captains turning into rats who are the first to leave the sinking ship? And what with all those newly founded faculties and MA media art courses worldwide?” (2)

This chapter raises a range of questions. (3) Why is new media art perceived as an obscure and self-referential subculture that is in the process of disappearing? (4) Why is it so hard for artists that experiment with the latest technologies to be part of pop culture or ‘contemporary arts’? What makes it so attractive, and yet so difficult, to seek collaborations with scientists? Why did new media art miss out during the ‘exuberant’ dotcom days and why do geeks and IT millionaires prefer buying cars and other middle class baubles of consumption, and turn their backs on their own art form? Why is there such a subordinate attitude towards the hard sciences? Is the educational sector the only way out when we look at personal biographies? New media art has positioned itself in between commercial demo design and museum strategies, and instead of being crushed, it has fallen into an abyss of misunderstanding. After years of heroic struggle to create works, install exhibitions, assemble festivals, conferences and courses, there is a looming sense of crisis. Is this just a painful moment in a process of growth or do we need to discuss about structural problems?

Disclaimer: I am reluctant to list specific examples of artworks for fear of diluting the general argument. Of course there are successful new media artists. But only few of them can be seen at Biennales, where we are mostly treated to single channel video projections. Each and every argument I give can be falsified with references to specific art works that exemplify the exact opposite of what I am trying to prove. Regional and national differences only make it harder to extract general trends, as in most parts of the world new media art is an unknown entity. Should this failed art form (commercially speaking) be circumvented by ‘emerging’ artists? What I am interested in is a general picture in a time of rapid commercial development and social take-up of new media forms. A call for ‘positive examples’ and ‘alternatives’ is not a constructive attitude. In fact it is part of the problem as it averts making a critical analysis. As Renato Poggioli wrote in his Theory of the Avant-Garde from 1962, my aim is diagnosis, not therapeutic treatment. (5) I have been involved in new media arts since the late eighties and have, for instance, done jury work and organized festivals where these works were shown. Over the years I have met so many artists, seen shows and did interviews, most of them posted to the nettime list and then collected in Uncanny Networks. The connection in my own work to art was always close. Scores of brilliant pieces stand out, and I would not like to stress their importance here. If I speak about a ‘crisis of new media arts’ I do not refer to the level of artistic work but at the precarious position of the art form as such and its institutional representations in particular. I wrote this essay with a pain in my heart, knowing that someone, a relative outsider like me, who is not a curator, artist, or administrator himself, would be in a position to voice concerns that are, in fact, not all that new and shared by many.

In this essay I summarize recent debates on mailinglists like the ‘Deep Europe’ platform Spectre, Empyre, iDC and Fibreculture from Australia, where the Australian federal arts funding agency in 2005 dismantled its separate New Media Arts Board. Would it be better to integrate new media arts into film, theatre and the visual arts, or, do we get more interesting works if technology-based art has its own funding structures, media labs and centers? Besides a critical examination of the premises – and the very existence – of ‘electronic arts’, I am making an argument to simultaneously question the Biennale-centric ‘contemporary arts’ system – a system that reproduces a retrograde distinction between the fake of the special effect and the authentic struggle of ‘real’ artists with the raw image.

The world is a big place and there are contradictory movements happening all the time. There are, still, enough asynchronous developments. It’s hard and often not very wise to extrapolate a certain tendency, in this case the conceptual stagnation of new media art, and presume it is happening everywhere else. What emerges in A, has been stagnant for ages in B. However, there are trends and rumors—memes spread fast. Electronic art, an earlier synonym for new media art, is in crisis. So is ‘virtual art’ and ‘’. These carefully gated communities have proven incapable of communicating their urgency and beauty, to their ever-rising (potential) audience. In response to this, there are fewer subsidies and sponsorships available. The ‘crisis’ is taking place in a culturally conservative era that shies away from experiment in general. Art should hit, slap in the face, go straight through all interference and not question. It should present itself as an object of desire, a tangible commodity, and not see itself as a prototype. It should be instantly ready for consumption. This leads to questions like what are the economic models of new media art with its unstable standards? And also: are there as yet untapped sources of money and resources?

I feel compelled to start with a definition. New media arts can best be described as a transitional, hybrid art form, a multi-disciplinary ‘cloud’ of micro-practices. (6) Historically ‘new media’ arose when the boundaries between clearly separated art forms such as film, theatre and photography began to blur, due to rise of digital technologies. (7) Its beginnings are currently being investigated by scholars such as Dieter Daniels and Inke Arns, Charlie Gere, Stephen Jones, Paul Brown and Oliver Grau. (8) In October 2005 Refresh!, the first international conference was held in Banff, Canada, that dealt with the multiple new media arts histories from the ‘science’ perspective. (9) The emerging field of ‘media archeology’ as exercised by Siegfried Zielinski, Erkki Huhtamo and others will contribute to this effort on another level, as well as studies by sociologists and art historians. Before we can start speculating about its becomings, it is time to analyze its stagnation, using the tools of institutional criticism.

The birth of new media is closely tied to the democratization of computers with the development of the personal computer (PC). According to some it is an art form born out of the Geist of Fluxus with its video art and performance. Others stress the influence of seventies electronic music and post-industrial art and activism of the eighties. Again others point at the ‘intermedia’ practices that used a variety of analogue techniques, also called ‘multi-media’ such as slides and super-8, projectors, inflammables and soundscapes. Despite its numerous predecessors and prehistories of ‘telematic art’ I see the late eighties as a starting point when ‘new media art’ hit the surface, specifically tied to the rise of desktop publishing, hypertext and the production of CD-ROMs. Internet involvement started relatively late, from 1994-95 onwards, after the World Wide Web had been introduced. New media art is, first of all, part of the larger ‘visual culture’ picture. While it has strong ties to hypertext discourses, cyberculture, sound art, as well as abstract and conceptual art and performance, we can nonetheless say that the visual arts element forms the dominant thread. However, the problem with these accounts of the ‘beginnings’ of new media art is their overemphasis on individual artists and their works. Such accounts usually lack institutional awareness. Institutional understanding in this sector has been as slow as the development of new media technology has been rapid. In this respect new media art is a misnomer since it reproduced time and again the modernist dilemma between aesthetic autonomy and social engagement. Add the word ‘art’ and you instantly create a problem. In the case of new media art there was – and still is – no significant market, almost no gallery support, precious few curators and critics, and an audience of specialists, bordering on a ‘cult’. And most of all: there is no ‘suprematist’ feeling of acting as an avant-garde. What is clearly lacking here is a sense of historical confidence. Instead, there is a strong practice of conducting ‘minor’ interventions in the shadow of established practices such as film, visual arts, television and graphic design.

New media art, as defined by the Australia Council, “is a process where new technologies are used by artists to create works that explore new modes of artistic expression. These new technologies include computers, information and communications technology, virtual or immersive environments, or sound engineering. They are the brushes and pens of a new generation of artists.” (10) The emphasis here is on exploration. New media art is searching for new standards and art forms. Its prime aim is not necessarily to create everlasting universal artworks. Instead, it paves the way for a new generation to make full use of the newly discovered language—outside of the new media arts context. This strength should further be emphasized and explored. However, as this essay shows, a lot of the prime energies gets lost in the battle to fit in. The emphasis on the creation of a language, an infrastructure, could explain why there is so much hidden, voluntary work done in this scene and why self-exploitation is so common. Only pioneers understand that one first needs to create a language in order to write a poem. However, the ‘laws of new media’ are not simply there to be uncovered. What some see as an advantage, not having a complex set of rules and references, others judge as an inherently immature situation. How to drag yourself out of the mud, jump over your own shadow? No one will do it for new media art. There is no sugar daddy. Forget the trophy at the end of the race.

During the early 1990s a quiet divorce happened. In the midst of the virtual reality, multimedia and cyberspace excitement, video art slipped off the scene and made a clever move towards ‘contemporary arts’ with its much better infrastructure of biennales, curatorial programs and exhibition halls. There are a few exceptions, like the New York Postmasters Gallery that in the late nineties became for the net.arists it represented. Still, if we speak of new media art we deal with an art form that embodies technological experimentation. Some video art still does this, but most have turned away from frame-within-the-frame and other special effects. Video art can no longer afford to indulge in formal experimentation and has found it needs to transmit ideas which are easily understood in a classic narrative form. Within new media discourse we can see confusion around the exact status of the moving image. What is called ‘video’ these days ranges from the high end productions of Pippilotti Rist and Stan Douglas to works which look like they’ve been hacked together last weekend by a cousin in iMovie. In his book Topology of Art Boris Groys includes a chapter called “Media Art in the Museum” in which he reduces new media to video installations and how they relate to cinema. There isn’t a single mention of interactivity, immersive issues, the role of sound, networked environments or performance pieces. Groys should know better as a Karlsruhe-based ‘ZKM’ art historian. This exclusion is of course consciously done and reinstates that new media, by definition, belongs to the visual arts domain. (11)

We need to remain specific. Political climates in Western countries vary greatly. Whereas “e-culture” funding in the Netherlands has gone up, new media no longer exists as a separate category in the funding of art there. A political coup out of Rotterdam in 2000 tried to centralize the arts, including the V2 centre for “unstable media” into an overarching Centre for Visual Culture, but it failed miserably. The situation in Berlin, Paris and London are all radically different. Academia remains a safe haven in the USA with little cultural funding available elsewhere, whereas Europe still struggles with the question whether art education should be academic. My critique is not meant to disdainfully look down on the “yawning vacancy of the technological sublime.” (12) New media art is not a single entity. It is ‘searching’ and does not primarily focus on grand narratives or finished works that can be purchased in a gallery. Electronic arts, a somewhat older term that is sometimes used as a synonym for new media art, is a hybrid setup that highly depends on the cultural parameters set by engineers. Many of the key players in the field position their practice in the fragile zone between ‘art’ and ‘technology’—which asks for trouble. Often there are traces back to the practice called ‘intermedia’ which deals with transdisciplinary collaboration. (13)

New media artworks are forms in search of a form. They are procedural in the sense of writing material-specific procedures. As test beds they often lack content. Many of the works are neither ‘cool’ nor ironic, as are so many works of contemporary art. Instead, they often have a playful, naïve feel in that they invite the user to experience alternative interfaces. Many examples of new media art are ‘hot’—participatory, dysfunctional, or distributed—frustrating the attempt to detach and enframe them in a gallery. (14) New media, to its credit, has been one of the very few art forms that has taken the programmatic wish to blow up the walls of the white cube seriously. This was done in such a systematic manner that it moved itself outside of the art system altogether.

New media artworks have the impossible task of having to impress both computer scientists and art curators. But this undertaking fails tragically. Neither the art world nor ICT professionals are necessarily fans of electronic arts. Wunderkammer artworks are not in big demand. From the geek perspective they are made by users, not developers. In their view such artworks ‘apply’ new technologies, and do not contribute to its further development. There is a lack of interest to engage with new media artworks as they are often packed with references to philosophy, art history and its own recent history as a genre. (15) For the art professionals, on the other hand, new media art belongs in educational science museums and amusement parks rather than contemporary arts exhibitions. If we read the mainstream critics, they believe art should transmit Beauty, Truth and Emotion. In today’s society of the spectacle there is no place for halfway art, no matter how many policy documents praise new media arts for its experimental attitude and Will to Innovate. The thesis that I develop here is not a critique of experimentation. What’s at stake is the strategic question of how to deal with the inevitable self-referentiality that occurs once ‘new media’ are no longer new and a process of institutionalization sets in that, instead of facilitating its constituency, in the end cuts off more possibilities than not.

I am by no means the first one to address these issues. In 2002, Cologne-based media theorist Hans Ulrich Reck published a booklet called Mythos Medienkunst (The Myth of Media Art). I am quoting here from a not (yet) published translation. According to Reck art is dissolving into various directions. He then proposes to draw a distinction between ‘art through media’ and ‘media art’. “Whereas ‘media art’ continues the lineage of claiming art as defined by expression, presentation and representation, ‘art through media’ highlights the ‘interventionist’ and ‘collaborative’ claims with a stress on processual methods and findings.” (16) Reck argues that there is no compelling reason to attach one and the same—art—to any number of creative processes. Crucial in this context is his thesis that “if something is art, then it is not art because it employs certain media. Painting is not ‘oil art’. For Reck it is absurd to take material characteristics of art to be a defining feature. “What art is does not depend on its media and its materials. Art is a specific statement.” At the same time he warns that no claim can be made to cultural exclusivity in the name of art. Instead of a cold, institutional definition of art, Reck does not question whether something is art or not. What matter is whether something is good, important relevant, illuminating and shattering, or not. Reck defines art in a normative sense as an ‘activating force’ as something in the realm of the virtual (in the Deleuzian sense), a category that opens a realm of possibilities. Art attempts the impossible—with or without the use of ‘new’ media. “Art is no longer the art of representation, but primarily the art of transformation.”

To illustrate the often felt lack of urgency, I would like to quote from a report of the August 2006 ISEA conference in San Jose, written by the artist kanarinka/Catherine D’Ignazio that focused on one the festival’s main programs called Interactive City. “The festival’s imagination seemed to be characterized by a spirit of play which feels increasingly oriented towards middle-class consumer spectacle and the experience economy. To give you an example of some art experiences that were possible at ISEA:

– eating ice cream and singing karaoke
– calling an old person in San Jose to talk about whatever you might have in common with them
– pressing a button on a machine and getting an artsy plane ticket with your photo on it
– drifting through the city as if it were a sports field via applying sports plays in urban space
– visualizing your social network via bluetooth as you go around the conference and talk to your friends
– watching/listening to noise music made by people riding skateboards around the conference
– listening to an erotic sci-fi narrative about San Jose on your cell phone while riding the train
– flipping light switches to make a one-word message in public space
– viewing colorful 3D representations of wireless digital data

So, my questions to the artists, the organizers, the attendees and everyone else is – is psychogeography/locative media work simply R&D for a new generation of entertainment spectacle? Or, what are we actually trying to do with these ideas of ‘play’ in urban space? Who gets to play? And what about the interactive cities in Iraq and Lebanon and elsewhere? Why didn’t we address war, security, militarization and terrorism as aspects of the contemporary interactive city? For me, running around making the city into a sandbox, a playground or a playing field feels increasingly irrelevant and irresponsible. A gentleman invited to drift with us summed it up nicely ‘Sorry, I can’t go with you. I have to work here until 8PM and then I have to go to my other job.’” (17) At the 2006 ISEA Sydney-based theorist Anna Munster widnessed divergence, not convergence. “There is no common thread to new media anymore.” “Festivals, like Biennale’s, are now events that are pretty much external to the local and the located – they are art imports that come in with lots of talk of global, critiques even of the global and then precisely land like a great big Airbus 380 and do their ‘thang’ wherever they happen to dock.” Anna Munster also observed that, as a visitor to the US, it was remarkable that none of the art works or themes in ISEA addressed Iraq, Afghanistan or the Israel-Libanon war that raged on during the during the days of the festival. (18)

Before I will go into specific debates, I would like to present four models to deal with the current stagnation.

1. The first one is what we see happening in most places: a desperate attempt to further carve out a semi-autonomous terrain for technology-based arts practices. This strategy is ambivalent as it attempts to institutionalize itself while simultaneously collaborating with neighboring, and competing, art and research practices such as theatre, performance, film and media studies, computer science, humanities and contemporary arts. The making of a mature discipline is constantly undermined by inter/poly/meta-disciplinary approaches. In the field of constant and rapid change, it is hard to go for the long haul. The establishment of a separate field with its own expertise takes decades. Just think how long it takes to set up awards, residencies, organize critical writing and review mechanisms, set up centers and labs where the artists can work and secure a separate, sustainable funding from federal or local authorities, foundations or through sponsorship.

2. The second option would be a Hegelian transcendence of new media arts into the existing institutional art practices. One could also call it the strategy of disappearance. It is naïve and real at the same time, as such a synthesis between the traditional and the digital is too good of a deal. It might work for individual artists that escape the ghetto, but will be devastating for the small new media arts infrastructure that has been set up over the past few decades. Where could those with their professional careers so deeply invested – all their dreams, hopes and ambitions in the new media arts identity – possibly go? The contemporary arts scene can only speak with contempt about the ugly high-tech installations, and this doesn’t present much promise for future negotiations. The destiny of new media arts as an autonomous domain looks bleak if it has to merge with established art forms. A possible example here could be to look at video art and how it elegantly disassociated itself from ‘new media’ in the early nineties in order to reincarnate as a marketable arts form.

3. The third option would be to leave the arts context altogether. Most young new media artists disappear into the commercial sector and find work as web or games designers, animators, video editors, or worse, behind the desk of a copy shop. Or they become unemployed and live on social security, if that’s an option anyway, and make extra money playing the stock market. Most disappear into the education sector. Another way out would be to seek refuge in science labs, and I will discuss such art & science collaborations below.

4. Another option would be renaming new media arts as creativity. The Creative Industries concepts so far have proven to be not much less than a short-term government policy cycle. The CI-hype exists only in the heads of bureaucrats. This is a problem because the CI construct could at least serve as some kind of diversification of money sources (in places where governments give money to start with…). The good thing about the CI meme is that, at the very least, it puts the economic question on the table: how do artists survive? It forces artists to think beyond state funding and a gallery market that doesn’t exist in the first place. So far, new media art has been reluctant to talk about commercial options, at least in Europe. If you work in the business sector, you’re no longer an artist. Elsewhere, such as in Japan, most part of Asia, and the USA, there is little other option than to either work in the private sector or teach in an art school.

Dissolving a New Media Arts Board

In December 2004 the Australia Council announced its intention to disband the New Media Arts Board and the Community Cultural Development Board. These Boards gave grants respectively to artists working in new media and to artists working with communities such as disadvantaged youth, prison inmates and the homeless. I would like to summarize some of the responses on the Australian mailing list for new media research & culture, Fibreculture. Paul Brown writes that it has always been his opinion “that setting up special funding bodies essentially marginalizes the practice and allows the conservatives to defer acknowledgment of the inevitable.” (19) While Danny Butt appreciates that while artists may not want to be pigeonholed, it is his understanding “that you could always apply to the other pots of money and ‘compete on your merits’ against the landscape painters if you were that concerned about it. This move [by the Australia Council] represents a suppression of the new, the emergent and the political in favor of the known and the commercial (high art is big business).”

Theorist Anna Munster played an important role in the debate and strongly criticized the Council’s decision. On Fibreculture she wrote: “We now live deeply immersed in informationalism as a cultural, social and political set of circumstances. We need fields and infrastructure to support responses to and experiments with this. It doesn’t matter whether the New Media Arts Board is stuck in a semantic loop about the term new media. The point is that a huge amount of very interesting and extraordinarily experimental work here in Australia would not have been done without it.” Munster points to the future of the young generation. “Where will our younger and emerging artists who are feeding and living off information culture go for support now? They will be forced into making tiny amounts of money doing web design, making ring tones, or doing cell clean-up whenever a blockbuster Hollywood production rolls into Fox studios. Or they will tread the grinding road into academia, which is probably going to be the next place new media gets the cut. Of course they/we have to do this anyway in order to live and we attempt to sustain our more experimental practices through these avenues. The previous board supported a range of people that had more sustained periods of time to think through ideas and bring these to fruition. You just don’t get that kind of time without funding support.”

Anna Munster also points to the current ‘precarious’ position of artistic practice that exists on the back of unpaid voluntary labor. “The notion that we are now or should be moving from welfare to commercialization is simply adopting the glib election patter of the government. The economic times we live in, as artists, comprise a mix of public and private sector restructuring in the light of global shifts towards a service-based economy. The reality for most artists is that they get a bit of public sector funding, a bit of sponsorship and then the rest of the time they sell their services to sustain their practice. Selling your services is the way in which artists currently self-sustain.”

Net artist, curator and now director of the Australian Network for Art and Technology, Melinda Rackham saw clear benefits from the situation as it was. “Even if the board was a short term solution, it was a bloody good solution that other countries are following. It helped produce some fantastic work, created dialogue, and promoted our artists globally. And it worked for very little investment.” University of Queensland scholar Lucy Cameron points at another tendency: “There is a suggestion that in the future there will be less ‘new talent’ funding and more ‘virtuous cycles’ funding based on the track record of the institution you’re attached to—if you got grants/contracts before you’re more likely to get grants in the future—a process that is being supported by the current suggestion by the government that in Australia we’ll soon be reverting to a two-tier higher education system—of teaching only and more elite teaching and research institutions. The overall effect of this US type free-market, bottom-up, endogenous growth philosophy is that it backs commercial capacity rather than individual talent.” (20)

In an open letter to the chair of the Australia Council media artist Simon Biggs sums up some of the ‘secondary’ aspects of new media arts, besides the central question if it is art (or not). “The emergence of new media art can be seen as valuable to society not only for the art that arises from it. Australia is a world leader in the new media industries and in part this is due to the well-documented interchange there has been between the experimental cultural practices that have happened in new media art and the commercial exploitation of these developments. Australia is also a world leader in education and, again, this has been enhanced notably by the emergence of new media arts specialist departments at many of Australia’s universities and is also evidenced by the number of Australian artists employed at similar departments in universities around the world.” (21) So far the New Media Arts Board mainly measured success as individual talent and was hesitant to encourage institutionalization. ANAT (Adelaide), Experimenta (Melbourne) and D’Lux (Sydney) are all tiny and have been stagnant over the last decade (in terms of their budget). The prestigious ACMI centre (Autralian Centre for the Moving Image) on Federation Square, Melbourne is in fact, as the name already indicates, soon turned into a film centre with little emphasis on contemporary arts or technology. The new media arts funding of the Australia Council over the past decade produced a field of dispersed, indeed highly trained and well-informed artists, who are now increasingly desperate as the necessary next phase of institutionalization of the field has failed to materialize. The strategy to fund a number of small organizations and dissipate what little money there was to individuals has made the New Media Board, and the sector as a whole, an easy target.

This Brechtian Lehrstück (learning play) from down under could lead us to the thesis that the true potential of new media arts is in its ability to dissipate. It is not a goal in itself, even though it obviously has self-referential tendencies, like all activities in society. In the short term, new media arts sets out to discover the inner logic, standards and architectures of new technologies, but apparently these process can only last for a short while. The phase of experimentation will necessarily come to an end. Its findings will dissolve into society.

Myth of the Blank Page

If it is all just misery, then why bother about ‘electronic arts’ in the first place? Is it the road less traveled, the thrill to discover, to write history that attracts artists? For this we need to look into the archetype of the artist as inventor and creator. Whereas those who stress the ‘media’ aspect will see the role of artists as one those who critically comment and question, for those who focus on ‘technology’ there are positive and imaginative contributions to be made. There is a widely spread belief that tech-based art works have the potential to be ‘genius’. Supposedly there are not yet ‘traces’ or ‘fingerprints’ of society on recently developed technologies and the artist therefore has the full range of all possible forms of expression in front of him or her. Imagine if you were the one to make the first film, or shoot the first photograph. Humans, with their dirty, little interests have not yet spoiled the channel. There are no influences of pop culture yet. The apparent absence of a digital aesthetics for PDAs, urban screens, RFID tags, smart cloth, mobile phones and the like is exactly seen as their potential. According to this ‘myth of the blank page’ new media artists are not limited by existing cultural connotations because there are no media-specific references yet. It is the heroic task of the new media artist to define those cultural codes. There is indeed historical evidence that those who work first with a new medium can reach a God-like status (and make fortunes). But in most cases these artists only start to make real money after they have passed away.

In the myth of the blank page the situation of new media art is too good to be true. You can do whatever you like and are not bothered by the heavy weight of art history. The problem of this theory of the unspoiled perception is the uncritical belief in art talent that operates outside of its own time-space. Real new media artists are obsessed with deciphering the eternal laws of the new materials. So-called creative, contemporary artists on the other hand are focused on the market. They have to subject themselves to the laws of fame and celebrity and cannot waste their time in such uncool environments as computer labs. For them, technology is merely a tool and will be the last to question the manual, let alone write their own software or build experimental interfaces. The search for the specificities of a new medium requires a long trial-and-error period in which funky images or experiences are not guaranteed. Pop and experiment do not go together very well. The geek as role model had its media moment during the Internet hype of the mid nineties, but then quickly faded away. And the geek aesthetic remains as bad as it always has been. This is media reality but the new media arts sector finds it hard to deal with. The uncool can only be pop once – after its demise, it’s just seen as a failure.

A Motivational Art Intermezzo

“Live to be outstanding.” What is new media in the age of the ‘rock ‘n’ roll life coach’ Anthony Robbins? There is no need to be ‘spectacular’ anymore. The Situationist critique of the ‘spectacle’ has won. That would be my assessment of the Anthony Robbins Age we now live in. Audiences are no longer looking for empty entertainment; they seek help. Art has to motivate – not question, but assist. Art should not primarily reflect, represent or discover the world but talk to its audience, hit it in the face, so say today’s art marketeers. Irony can be a medicine as long as it contributes to the healing process of the patient. Be careful not to offend anyone. Today’s aesthetic experiences ought to awaken the spiritual side of life. Aesthetics are not there for contemplation only. Art has to become (inter)active and take on the role of ‘coaching.’ In terms of the ‘self mastery’ discourse, the 21st Century artist helps to ‘unleash the power from within.’ No doubt this is going to be achieved with ‘positive energy.’ What is needed is perverse optimism, as Tibor Kalman called it. Art has to create, not destroy. A visit to the museum or gallery has to fit into one’s personal development program. Art should consult us in transformation techniques and not criticize. In order to be a true Experience, the artwork has to be an immediate bodily experience, comparable to the fire walk. It has to be passionate, and should shed its disdain for the viewer, along with its postmodern strategies of irony, reversal and indifference. In short: artists have to take responsibility and stop their silly plays. The performance artist’s perfect day-job: the corporate seminar, ‘trust-building’ and distilling the firm’s ‘core values’ from its ‘human resources’.

Self-management ideology builds on the 80s wave of political correctness—liberated from a critical negativism that only questioned existing power structures without giving guidance. As Anthony Robbins says: “Live with passion!” Emotions have to flow. People want to be fired up and ‘move out of their comfort zone.’ Complex references to intellectual currents within art history are a waste of time. The art experience has to fit in and add to the ‘personal growth’ agenda. Art has to ‘leverage fears’ and promise ‘guaranteed success.’ Part therapist, part consultant, art no longer compensates for a colorless life. Instead it makes the most of valuable resources and is aware of the ‘attention economy’ it operates in. In order to reach such higher plains of awareness it seems unavoidable to admit and celebrate one’s own perverse Existenz. Everyone is a pile of shit and has got dirty hands. Or as Tibor Kalman said: “No one gets to work under ethically pure conditions.” (22) It is at that _i_ekian point that art as a counseling practice comes into being.

Tired Media Art

Let’s look into another debate. It’s hard to reconstruct the beginnings of the ‘crisis in new media arts’ debate. The relative isolation of technology-based work probably already existed in the 1950s and 60s. Here we can only report about the malaise that surfaced around 2004-2006. Transmediale director and moderator of the Spectre list, Andreas Broeckmann kicked off a debate about the “media art centre of the 21st century” with the following overview of festival and centre closures. “Rob van Kranenburg asked on this list: ‘what’s next?’, quoting the ‘restructuring’ of IVREA in Italy and the closure of the MIT Media Lab in Dublin; we have also recently seen the termination of the Radiator Festival, Kopenhagen, of CICV, Montbeliard (France), of the World Wide Video Festival, Amsterdam, as well as the scaling down of Electrohype, Malmö (Sweden), Public Netbase in Vienna, and of HTBA Hull Time Based Arts, Hull (UK); while each of these cases has its particular local, national or even personal reasons, it is difficult not to think that there is some sort of a pattern which, at least in part, reverses the 1990s institutional expansion of media culture and media art.” (23) Had new media, as a fashion, passed its due date, and if so, what would happen to those that had committed their identity and career to the term? How to reconcile with the notion of institutional life cycle?

Spectre subscriber Tom Holley mentions the dissolvement of the net art program of the Walker Art Center (when curator Steve Dietz was fired) and ICA’s New Media Centre in London which was sponsored by Sun Microsystems. Holley was one of a series of curators/producers who tried to direct the ICA lab. What new media art struggles with is the discrepancy between its own niche status (Joe Kraus: “The 21st Century is all about millions of markets of dozens of people”) and unprecedented ICT growth figures. According to Holley most media labs close down because of a failure in the funding models. “With the Sun deal at the ICA the organization accrued a lot of cash, probably saving it from closure, but at the same time the provision of Sun machines that hardly anybody knew how to use alienated the community. Locked doors created a ridiculous sense of exclusion for most, which is at odds with any sense of openness and skill/knowledge. With the millions of pounds value of the sponsorship deal the ICA got it’s IT infrastructure in place, plus servers and a sys admin guy. When the deal ended a few years on Sun pulled support and it’s been dead in the water for years now.” (24) Compare this with triumph of the new media market as described by Andreas Broekmann: “We see a massive expansion of the field of digital culture, a growing number of mainly young people who inhabit that space, who are ‘of that tribe’, who ‘live digital culture’—often even without a strong critical reflection, but more as a quasi-natural, techno-social environment in which they grow up—and swim like fish that don’t see the water because they don’t need to.” (25)

In a thread called “Is Modernity our Antiquity?” on the Empyre list, Ben Bogart raised the question why in the art system concept prevails over technology. “Technology is nothing but the manifestation of concepts. Would a critic deem a painting as poor because the artist spend too much time developing the colors on the canvas? Is ‘concept’ simply a method of sorting those artists that do from those that ‘create’ and leave the implementation to others?” New York artist Millie Nis responded that “a lot of digital art is about technology in an empty, self-referential way that is of little interest to the wider art world. Too much new media is an exercise in demonstrating that a certain technological process is possible rather than an exploration of some area of human interest. Most art makes us think about things that are broader than the specific art techniques employed in the work, such as emotional, cultural, or philosophical issues. It also often reminds us of real life and gives us insight about real life (like when we see a painting that influences our way of seeing the world outside the painting). If a work of digital art does not engage us in this way, then it probably will fail as art, however well-executed the technology is.” GH Hovagimyan agreed. “The problem with digital art is it’s focus on techne,” he writes. “A large amount of digital art doesn’t engage art history or the art world at all but rather presents itself as the newest form of creativity that obsoletes all previous forms. Digital art often insists that it be judged by it’s own rules so that for instance, well formed code is supposed to be considered on an equal footing with a Jackson Pollack. What digital artists disregard is that Pollack engaged in a rigorous discourse with previous art forms. He painted WPA and regionalist murals, he studied and produced both Surrealist and Cubist paintings and drawings before he got to his drip paintings.”

The Desire to Be Science

There is an implicit holistic, New Age element behind the desire to escape and create a synthesis between arts and technology, thereby escaping the confrontation with the art market. With Leonardo da Vinci in mind, the ‘artist-engineer’ expects the world to embrace the desire to unite humanities and hard science. Much to their surprise, the world is not yet ready for such good ideas. Often the artist is not much more than a willing test user/early adaptor. In itself this wouldn’t be such a problem. Who cares? But most new media art works are neither subversive nor overly conceptual or critical. To make things more complicated: they aren’t ‘pop’ either. The new media art genre can’t work out whether it’s underground or urban subculture. But new media arts never really became part of the techno, dance or rave party scene either–let alone a ‘rebel’ subculture; certainly, it’s never had anything to do with rap or other contemporary street cultures. VJ-culture, for instance, is not part of the official new media arts canon and hovers at the edge. Like the self-insulated world of the ivory-tower modern academic, new media art situates itself in a media lab rather than a lounge club. The launch bed of works is the new media festival where like-minded colleagues gather.

Instead of being loud and clear about the hybridity-in-flux, the somewhat odd and isolated situation of new media arts has turned into a taboo topic. A general discontent has been around for a while, in particularly as a privileged inner-circle has focused on excessively expensive interactive ‘baroque’ installations that could be found in places like Ars Electronica (Austria), ZKM (Germany) and ICC (Japan). But that excessive period of the late nineties is over. We could almost become nostalgic about those days. It was a good party for many and a modest goldmine for some. In contrast, this post-millennial period is a time of budget cuts, conceptual stagnation, talk of ‘creative industries’, artistic backlashes (with the ‘return’ of minimal painting), and political uncertainty–while simultaneously new media are penetrating society in an unprecedented fashion.

It is not considered ‘good form’ to openly raise ‘crisis’ issues in the new media area for the simple fact that the gloomy mood may endanger future projects, a next job or your upcoming application. It is often enough said that most new media art is of inferior quality. ‘Negativism’ sticks to people in this scene, which is silently dominated by ‘new age’ positivism, driven by a common cornicopian belief that technology will ultimately save us all. We’re on the right side of history, no? There are only rare cases of individuals who speak out openly. The rest shuts up and moves on to become part of the ‘contemporary arts’ or to find a job elsewhere. Another reason for the lack of negation could be the influence of techno-libertarianism. Those who protest are quickly condemned as ‘enemies of the future’, but this is never done out in the open.

The collective discursive poverty within new media arts explains the virtual absence of lively debates about art works in general. There is little institutional criticism. With mainstream media uninterested, the new media arts scene is fearful of potentially devastating internal debates. Rival academic disciplines and policy makers could be on the lookout to kill budgets. Instead, a fuzzy tribal culture of consensus rules, based on goodwill and mutual trust. To develop a genuinely critical perspective on new media arts, one really has to either come from elsewhere, or move away from the scene to an entirely different field such as the commercial art world, design, pop culture, or dance parties. For all these reasons, the scene remains small and is stagnating, despite the phenomenal growth of new media worldwide. This is not exactly what young, creative tinkerers expect. A growing number of young artists who work with technology carefully avoid the ailing sector and find their own path, either via the established art sector, ‘tactical media’ activism, or small businesses. At the same time there are painters, sculptors, and fashion designers who use computers as the primary tool of design, yet explicitly leave out ‘new media’ in their public presentations.

Instead of taking the heroic stand of the avant-garde, many new media practitioners have chosen to simply ‘drift away’ in clouds of images, texts and URLs. There is a certain coziness to hanging out in the networks and not being confronted with the exigencies of the world. The importance of vagueness cannot be underestimated. The blurry, background aspect of many works need to be acknowledged and taken seriously. In the present situation of immediate irrelevance, it is genuinely difficult to create a significant work that will have an impact. Digital aesthetics have developed a hyper-modern, formalist approach, and seem to lack the critical rigor of standard contemporary art pieces. The main reason for this is the young age of a field that is constantly on the move, from video, industrial robotics and CD-ROM, to Internet, bio art and immersive installations to locative media and software art. This makes it hard to develop a critical apparatus.

It is easy to get depressed at this point. Some will deal with this situation, label it as existential and continue with their work, no matter what art critics, the markets or funding bodies have to say. Such an elegant, self-referential attitude of becoming ‘sovereign media’ has popped up here and there. (26) The larger issue here is the widely acknowledged impossibility to create avant-garde movements. Working with computers, the Internet and similar technologies could easily have created a specific romantic, agnostic or nihilistic aesthetics, a set of styles and attached schools that gather around certain ideas and political programs. This did not happen and we all know why there can and will not be a repeat of the historical avant-garde. Pop-art and then postmodernism have successfully sabotaged every attempt in this direction. Relieved, sad or angry? The isolated situation of ‘innovative’ art cannot be discussed without taking the into account the ‘mourning’ phase after the death of the avant-garde. So the questions remains: If art is either a perpetuum mobile or a fashion spectacle, then why experiment?

Current art & science inquiries, as promoted by Roy Ascott and Jill Scott, could be read in the light of IRCAM’s “scientization of art”. IRCAM, based in Paris, is the largest institute of its kind that researches electronic music. It was founded in 1977 by the avante garde composer Pierre Boulez and is funded by the French state. The aim of IRCAM has been to bring together music, science and technology. The center is best known for its residency program for composers. In her study on IRCAM, Georgina Born describes how the musical anvant-garde gradually became legitimized by the academy and gained increasing financial subsidy. It became established, but quite different from the way modernist avant-garde in the visual arts created a commercial market for its art works. Modernist visual techniques, says Born, “have become absorbed into wider cultural practices and public consciousness. By contrast, the musical avant-garde has failed to find success with a broad public or to achieve wider cultural currency: it remains an elite form of high culture. Being no longer marginal or critical of the dominant order it has not only undermined its initial raison d’être but it must also continually legitimize its present position of official subsidy in the absence of a larger audience.” This is exactly the position in which the electronic arts has maneuvered itself, including an “avant-garde view of history, in which the present state is denigrated in promise of greater things to come.” (27) The relative isolation in which IRCAM operated does not stem from organizational mismanagement. This is neither the case within new media arts organizations. Born describes IRCAM as an “efficient ship”, a “dependably machinery” with a marketing and eduducation department. “IRCAM remains as it has always been: a hierarchical, now increasingly efficient bureaucratic institution.” (28) However, what is under debate here is not professionalism but basic categories and presumptions.

If new media arts has such an emphasis on experimentation, collaboration with engineers, biological scientists, and innovative interfaces, then why it is it not simply giving up this tragic alliance with the arts and ruthlessly seeking to integrate itself in the world of IT business and computer science? It is only outsiders who can accuse the electronic arts of compliance with the ‘capitalist system’. The sad reality is that artists aren’t all that different from ordinary computer users, unless they are part of the celebrity high-end circuit. For the majority of artists access to technology is limited to consumer hard and software. Often there is no money for more state of the art machines or resources to acquire strategic knowledge. This strategy is anyway exhausting as today’s latest is tomorrow trash technologies. The way out here is to either produce works with a lasting aesthetic quality or to use the latest but to ‘override’ it with powerful material.

A way out could be to accept the ‘demo design’ status of artist works. But most corporations already have their own networks to do the demo design and don’t take ‘art’ serious—if they take any notice of it in the first place. This is the tragedy of new media arts. Those who turn new media inside out and develop an aesthetic counter agenda have hardly any place in today’s production processes. Despite such institutional, disciplinary and economic realities, so many artists persist in their pursuit of a formalist nirvana. Is this symptomatic of a lack of imagination, or perhaps even an over-subscription to the exotica of the artist-identity?

If digital formalism, neither recognized by the museum, the market nor by the industry, is such a dead end street, then why aren’t artists walking over to the ‘content side’ and start producing narratives? Certainly a lot of the new media artists try this move. But their stories are not connected to the mainstream distribution networks such as film, television and the publishing industry. This is why numerous CD-ROMs and DVDs do not even reach their own core audiences. It is not seen as a priority to build up distribution networks through, for instance, museum bookshops. Another reason for the reluctance to ‘comply’ is the wish to alter interfaces, software and even operating systems. Rightly so (or not?), some new media artists feel uncomfortable using mainstream products such as Windows XP or even Mac OS X. Critique in this context is focused on underlying structures, not the superficial level of mediated representation. It is the architecture of the Internet and open standards of the Web that shape your surf experience, not this or that ‘cool’ homepage.

New media art operates well beyond the logic of the demo design. Marketing something that has not been conceived of as a product in the first place has proven next to impossible. Putting content online is a last resort, but funnily enough it’s not very popular amongst new media artists. The Internet is looked down upon by some as a primitive device, left to an in-crowd of ‘net artists’ and discourse leaders that prefer to do formalistic experiments, combined with a subversive political action every now and then, such as those instigated by groups such as New media arts is (rightly so) not interested in traditional politics, but has yet to reach its own phase of political correctness. Even though the presence of female curators and administrators is substantial, this does not result into a more open field. Links to contemporary social movements are weak, and the awareness of basic post-colonial issues is often absent. This is not the case if we look at individual works, but certainly if we look at the way festivals and conference are programmed. The scene, which is largely “white”, is, for the most part, is a collection of individuals from North-West-Central Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and Japan, this is, those areas where digital technology is most developed and integrated into the social fabric.

Life for artists in general is an uphill struggle and this particularly counts for those that deliberately position themselves in between or across disciplines. Instead of curiosity and support, what the pristine new media arts scene finds is stiff competition between scientific disciplines, media and art forms. These are often fights over decreasing resources within a general climate of jealousy and ignorance. There is no convergence or harmony with the performing arts. Despite all the ideology, multi- and interdisciplinarity are at an all-time low. People simply can’t afford to jump over to a competing form of expression. It seems that all too often people working in theatre have to look down on the medium of television and video people are often snobs when it comes to new media: there is nothing as trashy and third-rate as the Internet.

Online debates on Art & Science

Until recently the art & science rhetoric in new media remained obscure and undebated. People with critical insights cannot speak out because they would otherwise lose their funding or would have to quit the PhD program they are enrolled in. Nonetheless, early 2006 some exchanges on the Spectre list were devoted to the topic. Australian media theorist Anna Munster argued that the rise of ‘bio art’ merely reflects the rise of bio-tech research budgets in Western countries. It is no longer the question whether or why but how art and science should relate to each other. “Science and art don’t actually speak the same language, so then what do we mean by collaboration? What is the mythology created around this idea by using a ‘language of collaboration’? Is a ‘communication’ paradigm useful for describing art-science working strategies or is there a problem here that glides over crucial problems of translation, slippage, praxis?” (29) While it is useless to put forward a grand plan of art-science collaborations, it is also uninformed, says Anna Munster, to dismiss the art-science relationship. “What we need instead are concrete histories and discussions about who is doing what, where and why.” The point is, however, that new media arts have made a false start in this respect. On the agenda, says Anna Munster, is the confrontation of art & science collaborations with contemporary forms of visual representation. It is not enough to hide in laboratories and do interesting stuff. Critical Art Ensemble, for instance, is dealing with this challenge by turning laboratory work into performances. Others work on new visualizations of scientific procedures.

Critical interventions that emphasize the DIY approach do exist (Critical Art Ensemble, Natalie Jeremijenko, the Tissue Culture and Art Project, Heath Bunting) but they have been not visible enough to counter the dominant current in which artist works are instrumentilized to promote ‘value free’ bio sciences. Jose-Carlos Mariadegiu from Peru demands that scientists should reflect on the importance of being critical and open to discussion. But what if they don’t? And what exactly has new media art to offer that scientists, beyond their human compassion, would be interested in? They already discuss ‘ethics’ enough. Paul Brown is curious how “artists and scientists are collaborating on projects for mutual gain. And not, for example, artists appropriating scientific ideas for their own gain—which I see as part of the romantic/postmodern fallacy. When scientists see this latter they quite rightly perceive there’s little in it for them apart from at best publicity so they are reluctant to engage.” (30) Despite their reluctance, they do still engage in such projects, while devoting little time to actual engagement with the artists, and this is where art & science becomes so compromising. Anna Munster asks: “What are the epistemological issues raised by media and new media art? Do these challenge or speak to similar issues and questions in some areas of contemporary science?” (31)

New York artist Trebor Scholz gives an insight into why art & science came up in the face of resource scarcity. Due to the lack of art funding, it is hard to imagine how artists who experiment can survive outside of academia. “In the U.S. the business logic of the university moves the largest part of academic funding to the sciences. Universities see this investment as seed funding to attract corporate involvement aiming for large-scale profits that so far have largely not materialized. In the battle over resources the humanities have no chance of winning and the funding for these areas of inquiry may increasingly be found only at long-established universities who can still afford the luxury. In the context of this funding dynamic a widespread scientification of the arts kicks in. Cultural producers battling over grants adapt to science formats. This is not always their genuine choice. Their work is suddenly framed as ‘research’ and ‘case studies’ are being carried out. A Ph.D. is often necessary to apply for national science grants. The noticeable interest in practice-based doctoral degrees is more often than not related to this funding logic.”

Instead of debating with biologists, neuro scientists or astronomers, it would be good start closer at home and deal with the relationship between computer science and new media arts. It is well-known that even IT engineers show little interest in experimental interfaces, image processing for the sake of art, let alone Internet art. Game designer Chris Crawford deals with the ‘two cultures’ in his book Interactive Storytelling from 2004. Why can’t programmers and games people not communicate with the artists that talk about new media? He confesses: “Bubble intellectualism arises when a group has become so ingrown that it loses all contact with the rest of the intellectual universe and drifts off into its own self-reinforcing universe. I must confess that I don’t understand any of the artsts’ discussions on interactive storytelling or, for that matter, games. Despite my substantial credentials as a designer and theoretician, I can’t understand what these people are talking about. It’s not just one of them that bewilders me—it’s the whole kit ‘n caboodle. The works of the media theorists impress me with their erudition and cleverness, but they never leave me with anything to grab hold of.” (32)

Crawford has to give artists credit for trying to bridge the gap, at least socially, and raves on how the different groups fail to have productive exchanges. “Artists have organized conferences on interactive entertainment and games, to which they always invite some representatives of the techie/games community. (It’s revealing that techies have never reciprocated, but merely acquiesced to an artsie initiative.) These conferences always start off with an earnest declaration of the need for academia and industry to work hand in hand. Then a techie gets up and talks about what he wants from academia: students trained in 3D artwork, programming, and animation. An artsie gets up and lectures about the semiotics of Mario Brothers. A techie follows with a lecture on production techniques in the games industry. Another artsie analyses the modalities of mimetics in text adventures. And so it goes, both sides happily talking right past each other, and neither side having the slightest interest in or comprehension of the other side’s work.” (33)

Writing in 1962 Renato Poggioli reminds us that avant-garde movements always had an interest in science and technology. But what these artists explored, says Poggioli, was “the terra incognita of the unconscious, the unexplored of the soul.” (34) They play games with technical elements in order to ‘awake’ unheard and unseen content. What happens is the invasion into realms where ‘technique’ has no raison d’etre. Poggioli sees that the avant-garde thinker is “particularly susceptible to the scientific myth and lists numerous titles of works that use scientific metaphors. What makes late twentieth century electronic artists so different is their lack of superiority. Their scientificism, as Poggioli coins it, grows out of a subordinate feeling that scientists are decades, if not centuries, ahead of ordinary people and that we, artists included, will never be able to fully understand their complex knowledge. It is out of this inferiority complex that the urge grows to ‘collaborate’ so that the artist at least has a vague notion of what is ahead of us. Maybe scientists and programmers will start listening, again, if artists regain their sense of superiority in that they possess ‘knowledge’ that far supersedes ordinary interdisciplinary exchanges. The breakdown of communication between the two cultures of humanities and sciences, as C.P. Snow described in 1959 is still real but should rather be described as asymetric. (35) Over the past decades progress has been in made, mainly thanks to an increase in scientific journalism which informs the arts and humanities and the public in general about the latest scientific research and its ethical implications. We can no longer state, as Snow did, that artists and humanities scholars are ignorant about science. John Brockmann’s Third Culture of scientists who reach out to the broader public is a real existing media phenomena. (36) What lacks is a critical interest amongst scientists and technologists for the arts, perhaps not so much a personal level but in terms of institutional arrangements. In the end this can only be solved through a reallocation of financial resources. We no longer need accurate information or critical awareness, was is needed is an overall shift. To suggest that well-intended ‘collaboration’ will do the job has proven to be a powerless gesture.

Inside Institutional Changes
Much of what I write here has to remain speculative. In a sense ‘mafia’ is too strong an accusation, as there is little money available in the new media arts scene. Nonetheless, electronic arts is an old boys club (including a few old girls). As I have indicated, a lack of a rich and diverse discourse is one of the many problems. Sectarianism is another. The strategy to first build-up a self-referential system and then reach out has taken a toll. The new media scene, even on a global scale, is simply too small and is in an increased state of defense as neighboring, competing disciplines such as visual arts, photography, film & television, are eager to kill off the emerging new media scene. Even though the Internet part of the new media arts scene has taken off, their institutional representation is weak and often non-existing. Administrators and curators find it hard to keep up with the multitude of forums, lists and blogs, let alone that they actively participate in them. What is the need of new media as a separate domain if the computer is being integrated in all existing art forms anyway? For instance, theatre itself becomes one digital trajectory, from concept, production, stage design, light, music to promotion and ticket sales. It doesn’t need the specific new media arts insights. The same could be said about performance, dance and film.

New media images are not sacred, nor do they have an aura. Instead, we could describe these images as technical in the spirit of Vilém Flusser’s definition of ‘technical images’. According to Flusser “it is difficult to decipher technical images, because they are apparently in no need of being deciphered. Their meaning seems to impress itself automatically on their surfaces, as in fingerprints where the meaning (the finger) is the cause and the image (the print) is the effect. (..) It seems that what one is seeing while looking at technical images are not symbols in need of deciphering, but symptoms of the world they mean, and that we can see this meaning through them however indirectly. This apparent non-symbolic, ‘objective’ character of technical images has the observer looking at them as if they were not really images, but a kind of window on the world. He trusts them as he trusts his own eyes. If he criticizes them at all, he does so not as a critique of image, but as a critique of vision; his critique is not concerned with their production, but with the world ‘as seen through’ them. Such a lack of critical attitude towards technical images is dangerous in a situation where these images are about to displace texts. The uncritical attitude is dangerous because the ‘objectivity’ of the technical image is a delusion. They are in truth, images, and as such they are symbolical.”

I am quoting Flusser at length because he provides us with a clue about the fate of new media arts: the technical nature of its images is in itself not by definition cool. New media arts have a problematic relation with pop culture and the strategy of appropriation. Obviously its image production is not claimed to be unique. Instead they are probes into new laws of perception. The dominant appropriation point of view in art history can only deal with content, not with the medium itself. Data from other media are used as resources, as data trash, fuel that can fire up the exploration. There is no desire to further deconstruct the already weak modernist project. If there is anything that needs to be appropriated it is hardcore scientific knowledge, not other art works.

The new media arts scene is not in need of further globalization. It’s scope is broad enough, despite the relative lack of work from non-Western countries. One day it may absorb post-colonial theory but that’s not our concern here. At the moment there are simply not the financial resources to operate on a truly global level. What new media arts cries for is a quantum leap. The ghetto walls need to be taken down. As a revolt from inside is not likely to happen, we can rather expect a general implosion. Younger generations that join the education courses in droves will not automatically join in. Their attention span is even less than the one-minute video. Interactive installation are often too complex for them, due to the unorthodox interfaces. This surprising lack of interest, if we take into account their absence on festivals, could cause the field to fade away and become owned by specific generations.

What if there are those who do not accept such trends? A first step would be to raise civil courage and get out of closet. Right now people talk with two tongues. They feel compelled to defend the venerable field, and this completely legitimate. There is policy and good intensions, but that alone will not do the job. Questions are raised in small circles and private conversations but in the end funding bodies and other officials have to be praised. There is a regime of fear that needs to broken down. The question how we cater beyond the small scene has to be seen as a creative challenge. Electronic art is in need of its own whistleblowers. People in positions of power are not questioned and there is not even a basic awareness as to how a controversy could be ignited. We’re in a situation much like that of the former socialist countries, with their two cultures and two languages—except that in this case dissidents are even too fearful (or cowardly?) to publicly declare that the real existing culture is one of misguidedness and irrelevance. The only legitimate option remains to walk away and change context, or not to enter the scene in the first place—which is what most young artists do.

Electronic Arts and the Dotcoms
Let’s focus for a while on the rarely debated topic, the (absent) relation between new media arts and IT-business. While many blame new media of being too narrowly focused on technology, the actual influence, or presence of IT-firms in this field is almost zero. This question of how new media arts related to the dotcom sector might be only of historical interest, but is important as sufficient capital, back then, could have decisively have transformed the field. Superficially, the ‘tech wreck’ of 2000/2001 and its following associated scandals did not affect new media arts. It always struck me how slow critical new media practices have been in their response to the rise and the fall of dotcommania. Whereas Internet use quickly spread in the early-mid 1990s, publicly available knowledge of its economy was hard to find. It seemed as if they were parallel universes with the arts dragging behind events. There was not even a ‘spiritual anticipation’ of the excess. Everything was business as usual during the mad years of the orgy. The world of IT firms and their volatile valuations on the world’s stock market seemed light years away from the new media arts galaxy. One of the explanations of this could have been that the speculative hey-day of new media culture was the early 90s, in fact before the rise of the World Wide Web when video was still in the new media galaxy. Theorists and artists jumped eagerly at not-yet-existing and inaccessible technologies such as virtual reality. ‘Cyberspace’ generated a rich collection of mythologies. Issues of embodiment and identity were fiercely debated but virtually played no role in the dotcom saga. In fact, ‘new media’ came too early on the scene but lacked the glamour, or the suspense, to out itself as avant-garde.

Only five years later, with Internet stocks going through the roof, not much was left of the initial excitement in intellectual and artistic circles. The artist-as-virtual-expert had lost its short-lived hype status of the early-mid nineties when artists could showcase their multimedia capabilities. Once concepts could be turned into money there was no room for people with ideas anymore. At the turn of the millennium artists and their theorists had lost influence on the public perception of what new media was all about. What could have turned into a pop culture, financed by ‘funny money’, degenerated into a shrinking micro-cosmos. The market after all had its own demo-designers that spoke the right visual language that could be used in advertisement campaigns. The experimental art resisted too much, insisting on its own autonomy, to become instrumentalized. And maybe after all dot-com tycoons did not support new media art simply because it doesn’t support them.

Dotcom culture has been ‘anti-art’ in a rather open fashion. It was said that profit should be re-invested in the IT-sector and transferred into stocks and ought not to be invested into art works, as the ‘old money’ was doing. Technology itself was art, and there was no need for artists to substantiate this assumed truth. Real artists were the geeks who worked for firms. Applied art such as design was cool but its role should not be overestimated as it was the abstract and image free ‘code’ that eventually ruled, not the world of images. Nineties cyberculture was essentially manufactured by Hollywood.

Eventually experimental techno culture missed out on the ‘funny money’ of venture capitalists. As a result no commercial arts in this sector have been developed, nor have serious attempts been made to resolve the distribution and revenue/cash crisis. Most new media art is therefore produced with government support that tightly controls and guides production. It’s stunning to see how, in detail, pseudo-independent bodies are overseeing the new media arts field, exercising their power over tiny individual applications. This, in turn, explains the relative importance of Northern European countries, Austria, Canada and Australia. Most work done in the U.S.A. originates from universities and/or is funded by a hand full of foundations. Over the past few years there has been a growing stagnation of new media culture, both in terms of it concepts and state funding. With hundreds of millions of new users flocking onto the Net and over a billion now using mobile phones, new media arts proved unable to keep up with the fast pace of change and had to withdraw into its own world of small festivals and workshops (exceptions here are Ars Electronica in Linz and, lately, Transmediale in Berlin).

Whereas new media arts institutions, begging for goodwill, still portray their artists as working at the forefront of technological developments, collaborating with state of the art scientists, the reality is a different one. Multi-disciplinary goodwill is at an all-time low. At best, the artist’s new media products are ‘demo designs’, as described by Peter Lunenfeld in his book Snap to Grid. Often the work does not even reach that level. New media art, as defined by institutions such as Ars Electronica, ISEA, Transmediale and the countless educational programs, rarely reaches audiences outside of its own subculture. What in positive terms could be described as the heroic fight for the establishment of a self-referential ‘new media arts system’ through a frantic differentiation of works, concepts and traditions, may as well be thought of as a dead-end street. The acceptance of new media by leading museums and collectors will simply not happen. Why wait a few decades anyway? The majority of the new media art works on display at ZKM in Karlsruhe, the Linz Ars Electronica Center, ICC in Tokyo are amazing in their innocence, being neither critical nor radically utopian, or even vaguely untimely in their approach. It is for this reason that the new media arts sector, despite its steady growth, is becoming increasingly isolated, incapable of addressing the issues of today’s globalized world. It is therefore understandable that the contemporary (visual) arts world is continuing the decades old silent boycott of interactive new media works in galleries, art fairs, biennales and shows such as Documenta. The relative isolation of new media arts could, in part, also explain the rise of the ‘creative industries’ discourse, which presents itself explicitly as a way out of the miserable policies that surround the state-funded arts and education businesses. The irony however is that the ‘creative industries’ meme itself does not exist outside of the realm of state policies.

A critical reassessment of the role of arts and culture within today’s network society seems necessary. Would artists be happier if they could work within the ‘creative industries’ and no longer bother with the question of whether, or not, they are producing ‘art’? Certainly, there’s a discursive legitimacy that awaits migrants to the Creative Industries, but whether it pays their rent is yet to be seen. The ‘information economy’ is still failing to extract value from content production, and if money is to be made, it profits whoever possesses the IP rights – which typically isn’t the creative producer, whose role is really one of service provision. So, what’s the difference between the artist and the sales clerk in that scenario?

Let’s go beyond the ‘tactical’ intentions of the players involved. The artist-engineer, tinkering away on alternative human-machine interfaces, social software, alternative browsers or digital aesthetics has effectively been operating in a self-imposed vacuum. Over the last few decades both science and business have successfully and easily ignored the creative community. Even worse, artists have actively been sidelined in the name of ‘usability’. The backlash movement against web design, led by usability guru Jakob Nielsen, is a good example of this trend. Other contributing factors may have been fear of corporate dominance. Creative Commons lawyer Lawrence Lessig (37) argues that innovation of the Internet itself is in danger. In the meantime, the younger artists are turning their back on the specific new media arts related issues and either become anti-corporate activists, do webdesign for a living, teach here and there, struggle in a free-lance existence or turn to other professions altogether. Since the crash of 2001, the Internet has rapidly lost its imaginative attraction. File swapping and cell phones can only temporarily fill the vacuum. It would be foolish to ignore these implosive trends. New media have lost their exclusiveness. Youth culture is engaging with ‘the magic spell’ on a massive scale and show little interest in decades old pioneer work. Unlike previous generations that had to fight for access to high tech, gadgets are now part of everyday life, similar to radio and the vacuum cleaner. The passionate uptake of blogs and social networks does not contradict the ‘normalization’ trend.

New Media as War of the Generations
A ‘taboo’ issue in new media is generationalism. With video and expensive interactive installations being the domain of the baby boomers, the generation of 1989 has embraced the free Internet. But the Net turned out to be a trap for the young ones. Whereas real assets, positions and power remains in the hands of the aging baby boomers, the gamble of its successors on the rise of new media did not materialize. After venture capital has melted away, there is still no sustainable revenue system in place for the Internet outside of advertising (viz. Google) and gated content downloads (viz. iTunes). There is no life after demo design. The slow working education bureaucracies have not yet grasped the new media malaise. Universities are still in the process of establishing new media departments. But that will come to a halt at some point. The fifty-something tenured chairs and vice-chancellors must feel good about their persistent reluctance. The ‘positive generation’ (ISP Wanadoo slogan) is unemployed and frustrated, in one word: ‘precarious’.

‘What’s so new about new media anyway?’, many baby boomers ask. Computers are not generating narrative content and what the world needs now is meaning, not empty, ironic They say: technology was hype after all, promoted by the corporate crooks of Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom. It’s enough for students to do a bit of email and web surfing, safeguarded within a filtered and controlled intranet… If there is to be a counter to this cynical reasoning, then we urgently need to analyze the ideology of the excessive 90s and its associated political consciousness of techno-libertarianism. If we don’t disassociate new media quickly from that decade, and if we continue with the same rhetoric, the isolation of the new media sector will sooner or later result in its demise. Let’s transform the new media buzz into something more interesting altogether – before others do it for us. The Will to Subordinate to Science is nothing more than a helpless adolescent gesture of powerlessness and victimhood.

One way out of this subordinate position may be to point at the social aspect of the production of science, as Bruno Latour and others do. According to their theory the work of science consists of the enrollment and juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements—rats, test tubes, colleagues, journal articles, funders, grants, papers at scientific conferences, and so on—which need continual management. They conclude that scientists’ work is “the simultaneous reconstruction of social contexts of which they form a part—labs simultaneously rebuild and link the social and natural contexts upon which they act.” (38)

US-performance artist Coco Fusco wrote a critique of biotech art on the Nettime mailinglist (January 26, 2003). “Biotech artists have claimed that they are redefining art practice and therefore the old rules don’t apply to them.” For Fusco, “bio art’s heroic stance and imperviousness to criticism sounds a bit hollow and self-serving after a while, especially when the demand for inclusion in mainstream art institutions, art departments in universities, art curricula, art world money and art press is so strong.” From this marginal position, the bio-arts post-human dreams of transcending the body could better be read as desires to transcend its own marginality, being neither recognized as ‘visual arts’ nor as ‘science’. Coco Fusco: “I find the attempts by many biotech art endorsers to celebrate their endeavor, as if it were just about a scientific or aesthetic pursuit, to be disingenuous. Its very rhetoric of transcendence of the human is itself a violent act of erasure, a master discourse that entails the creation of ‘slaves’ as others that must be dominated.”’ OK, but what if all this remains but a dream, prototypes of human-machine interfaces that, like demo-design, are going nowhere. The isolated social position of the new media arts in this type of criticism is not taken into consideration. Biotech art has to be almighty in order for the Fusco rhetoric to function.

Coco Fusco rightly points to artists who “attend meetings with ‘real’ scientists, but in that context they become advisors on how to popularize science, which is hardly what I would call a critical intervention in scientific institutions.” Artists are not ‘better scientists’ and the scientific process is not a better way of making art than any other, Fusco writes. She concludes: “Losing respect for human life is certainly the underbelly of any militaristic adventure, and lies at the root of the racist and classist ideas that have justified the violent use of science for centuries. I don’t think there is any reason to believe that suddenly, that kind of science will disappear because some artists find beauty in biotech.” It remains an open question where radical criticism of (life) science has gone and why the new media (arts) canon is still in such a primitive, regressive stage. Coco Fusco’s remarks were written before the FBI cracked down on Critical Arts Ensemble (mid 2004) because of their alleged bio tech terror experiments. (39) This however does not affect her overall argument.

Conspiracies of Contemporary Art
“Art is what you can get away with.” (Andy Warhol) Before we come to a close, I would like to look into some critiques of “contemporary arts” that I find relevant in this context. It was Jean Baudrillard who, in 1996, wrote that contemporary art had no reason to exist. As Baudrillard’s editor Sylvère Lothringer remarks, this denunciation came as a slap in the face. Didn’t this French simulation thinker side with the new and cool? The ‘contemporary arts’ markets has been booming, so what’s the problem? In The Conspiracy of Art Baudrillard states that visibility and fame, not content, had become the engine of the New Art Order. Art has spread in so many directions that we can no longer distinguish it from society. It is no different from anything else. As the back cover sums up, “spiraling from aesthetic nullity to commercial frenzy, art has entered a ‘transaesthetic’ state.” What Baudrillard claims, art that has lost its desire for illusion, could no doubt also count for new media. The ‘suspense of subjectivity’ seems hard to deny. According to Baudrillard, galleries now primarily deal with the byproducts of art. What happens there is the “management of residues.” You can do anything there, which, for Baudrillard leads to “virtual reality.” VR represents “the end of art and rather resembles a technological activity. It seems to have become the orientation of many artists.” (40) At this point we can closely observe how out of touch Paris intellectuals have become. Not only can we count artists that work with VR on one hand, but also, such work is hardly exhibited, let alone to be seen in New York galleries, as Baudrillard suggests. Even if we would read Baudrillard use of the virtual reality term in a broader sense as hype and effect, it is still unprecise and untrue as so few galleries deal with technological culture, apart from using video projectors and monitors.

The problem, as I have outlined above, is not the ubiquity of technological art but its marginality. For virtual reality one has to visit highly specialized hospitals or academic research institutes, not galleries. What is indeed remarkable about this is what I am observing about new media arts, Baudrillard is also witnessing for contemporary arts, namely its self-referential autonomy, cut off from any real economy of value. For Baudrillard art has become a “fantastic excrescence.” The art market “is formed according to the rules of its own games, and whose disappearance would go unnoticed.” Baudrillard blames Duchamp, who set a process in motion of “readymadeness, a trans-aestheticization of everything, which means that there is no illusion to speak of.” Whereas the contemporary art system still holds onto the belief that there is a market for its art objects, most new media artists have given up all hope to enter the value chain. Their experimentation has become priceless, to describe it in a more positive way. For Baudrillard contemporary arts no longer transcends itself into the past, or the future. Its only reality is its operation in real time and its “confusion with this reality.” It is questionable if new media art shares a similar obsession with real time. It does when it dreams of interaction as real time manipulation. It does when it focuses on remote presence and live surveillance. But it doesn’t in terms of those works that study the ‘real time reality’ within networks or even broadcast media. In fact many new media works create artificial environments that shy away from reality as we know it. What Baudrillard propagates is a ‘tactical indifference.’ There is too much art. And that may also count to new media arts if we look at the hundreds, if not thousands of entries for a growing amount of random, interchangeable categories at festivals such as Ars Electronica and ISEA. Baudrillard here argues for form and limits. “More is not better.” This may be so, but we cannot turn the clock. Art is no longer a privileged activity and we have to live with its ‘obesity’ and the impossibility to trace its circumference.

In a similar publication, published in the same series by Sylvère Lothringer, Paul Virilio contemplates about the “accident of art”. Like Baudrillard, Virilio questions the term contemporary: “It’s contemporary in the sense that it isn’t modern, or ancient, or futurist, it’s of the moment. But it can only disappear in the shrinking of instantaneity.” The due-date can be measured in picoseconds. In this context Virilio surprisingly mentions Stelarc being a “futurist, implying that such body-art is beyond the contemporary. Virilio doesn’t see how the failure of the visual arts can be overcome, as a return to corporeal arts merely results in more spectacle, and more virtuality. Unlike post-modern strategies of the 80s that raved on about the sensuality of perception, the body is no longer seen as a counter strategy to compensate for the unbearable lightness of becoming virtual. For Virilio abstract art is not abstract, it is an art of retreat. Inevitably, Virilio maintains, that the figurative will be destroyed, as a response to the systems of organized violence, that artists themselves are a part of.

According to Virilio art should stop making camouflage and start recognizing itself as a “casualty of war”. “Contemporary art has been a war victim through Surrealism, Expressionism, Viennese Actionism and terrorism today.” The military origins of new media is common knowledge and part of every curriculum, such as the origin of Internet in DARPA. In that sense Virilio’s notion has already been fully incorporated. But is a better understanding of the 20th century’s past really the right key to overcome the impasse and break through the current isolation of the arts? If the rehabilitation of the image is not the right answer to ‘decomposition’, then what is? How can art be identified if it is stripped of its socio-economic context and no longer produced and exhibited in the gallery and museum industrial complex? Increasingly, professional critics and curators are no longer capable of legitimizing their moves to bring art works and practices from one context into the other. “We are leaving the image behind—including the conceptual image by Warhol or Duchamp—for optics,” Virilio says. (41) But why not drop the presumed primacy of the visual all together? Why only mention optics? New media not only consists of new arrangements between text, sound and images, it is also increasingly becoming miniaturized, wireless, in short: invisible to the eye. Spherical, as Peter Sloterdijk would say.

An inside analysis of a different kind comes from San Francisco artist Henry Warwick (42). He points at Ellen Dissanayake’s Homo Aestheticus, in which she writes that art is a way of saying: “this is special”. (43) Henry agrees: “Art is a method of ‘framing’: this isn’t just a picture of a chair, it speaks in terms of symbols, it is SPECIAL and requires Special Attention and reverence. When you get something that is, by definition or even intention, inherently meaningless, and then frame it in the ‘this is special’ lens of art, you have an abuse of the aesthetic faculty. Meaning can be brought to a meaningless object – but that doesn’t mean that making meaningless objects is a method of making meaning, except in a precise sense of critical awareness. Such a limited stance brings in the range from Duchamp to Warhol to Fluxus to Koons. Their positions are studiously ‘meaningless’ and based in a critique of the cultural signifier as to demonstrate the emptiness of the signifier itself.”

Turning to new media art, Warwick submits that “the influence of Fluxus was not wholly beneficial. It held the new media arts back due to its credentials in academic circles. There is this odd cabal of Fluxus, PostModernism, Deconstruction, Conceptualism, and the balkanization of identity politics that has led to the present impasse. Let’s face it: the largest market for professional VJ equipment is in Christian Evangelical Churches. People want and need meaning. For a while, the Modernist impulse became a religion for a secular civilization. But when it turned the corner into the cul de sac of postmodernity, art as a cultural force lost its way. Art can’t come back—it lost its credibility when it said that we have to treat meaningless art as ‘special’. As a consequence new media may transform into a new folk art of the techno savvy working class.” After decades of meaningless work, the toll is getting heavy, Warwick concludes, “and I don’t think it can be paid much longer. Dissanayake also notes our world is one typified by ‘unprecedented leisure, comfort, and plenty.’ This is completely predicated on the petroleum economy, and as we cross into peak production of that resource and watch it contract over the next several decades, we will no longer have the luxury of affording meaningless art—the materials will be too expensive and exotic to permit something that isn’t ‘special’.” A surprising message, from the American Abendland.


What new media art to my taste lacks is a sense of superiority, sovereignty, determination and direction. One can witness such tendency towards ‘digital inferiority’ at virtually every cyber-event. The politically naïve pose of the techno-art tinkerers has not paid off. Neither science nor art is paying much attention to its goodwill projects. Artists, critics and curators have made themselves subservient to technology and ‘life science’ in particular, unsuccessfully begging for the attention of the ‘real’ bio scientists. This ideological stand has grown out of an ignorance that is not easily explained. We’re talking here about a mentality that is nearly invisible. The cult practice between dominant science and its servants is taking place in the backrooms of universities and art institutions, all warmly supported by genuinely interested corporate bourgeois elements; the board members, professors, science writers and journalists that set the technocultural agenda. We are not talking about some form of ‘techno celebration’.

The corporate world is not interested in electronic art because, in the end, they are too abstract and lack sex appeal. They are not ‘special’ in the Warwick sense, and should in fact raise more interest in science and technology museums. Do not make this mistake. New media art is not merely a servant to corporate interests. There has not been a sellout for the simple reason that there has not been a basic economic interest from the corporate world to start with. If only it was that simple. The accusation of new media arts ‘celebrating’ technology is a banality, only stated by ill-informed outsiders; and the interest in life sciences can easily be sold as a (hidden) longing to take part in science’s supra-human triumph of logos, but I won’t go there either. Scientists, for their part, are disdainfully looking down at the vaudeville interfaces and well-intentioned weirdness of amateur tech art. Not that they will say anything. But the weak smiles on their faces bespeaks a cultural gap of light years. An exquisite non-communication is at hand here. Ever growing markets for Internet provided content, mobile devices, and digital electronic consumer goods make it hard to sense the true despair. Instead of, again, calling for a more positive attitude towards the future, it could be a more seductive strategy of ‘becoming’ to disconnect the computer from labels such as ‘new’ and ‘digital’ and start building up poly-perverse networks across the board with an even more brutal intensity.

In defense of new media art we have to say that there is a passion for complexity, away from the amateur imperfection. If we look at the videos that run in biennales, museums, galleries and exhibitions, half of the works are video but none of them are experimental or self-reflective about the materiality of the medium. Contemporary videos are nice and provide us with shocking, one-off pictures. It’s art that uses a documentary style in order to present itself as uncompromised, long shots, hardly edited, without special effects. New media art, at its best, is aware of the specifics of the technologies it is utilizing, and explores its underlying architecture. Contemporary arts’ video is techno-naive, and sometimes worse: its consciously wobbly camera tries to have a reality claim, sublime superiority over the artificiality of new media art. And in the public’s eye, it looks amateurish and pointless, compared to the slick entertainment they get from cable, broadcast, or DVD and therefore, looks like art.

Networked Social Spaces

As a way out of the crisis, on the Spectre list Eric Kluitenberg proposed a new style institution, aimed “to bridge between these kinds of cultures deeply immersed in the digital realm, and simultaneously to a broader audience that either tinkers away at home or is not immersed quite as deeply into the digital but finds itself still fascinated.” He points at an underlying crisis in presentation formats. “Conventional formats such as the exhibition, stage production and concert all seem a bit incomplete or inadequate to capturing the spirit of the new media cultures. Putting up terminals in a public space is totally inept, better to watch it at home through your DSL or cable modem connection. Workshops, seminars and lectures, are all fine but we can do those already now.” Should the new institution necessarily have to be a place where you can offer experiences audiences cannot possibly have at home, Eric asks. “But wouldn’t that make the venue too dependent on expensive high tech? Or conversely, should it be ‘just’ a meeting place with basic facilities? But what makes it special then?” (44) These are strategic topics as they move beyond the “but is it art?” deliberations. Shulea Chang is pondering a “mesh network relay system.” Relays, as Andreas Broeckmann suggests, that are managed by medium-size institutions that can work with more fluid segmented structures as well as with the docking stations at molar institutions. Yet, he admits these relays do not have a noteworthy life-span and cannot offer financial and organizational support to artists. Often they are not rooted enough in the local art infrastructure in order to offer them the possibility to maintain some sort of stable structure and income.

Large institutions such as ZKM, ICC and AEC started ambitious programs of both supporting production of new media art works in their media labs, curating exhibitions, doing festivals and conferences with catalogues and last but not least growing and conserving their collection. This has proven too much. Tim Druckrey in Spectre: “ZKM has, for example, largely abandoned support for production (and for a decade it was a powerful producer) in favor of bombastic exhibitions. The highly visible exhibition touts itself as encyclopedic rather than exploratory and itself undermines its insulated community in favor of a broader public (no less broader funding). This is the fate – and crisis – of the mega-institution.” (45)

What is needed is to open new channels for dialogue. One of them would be art history. Judith Rodenbeck, writing in her report of the Banff Refresh! conference on new media art history noticed a disturbed relation between art history, that supposedly aligned itself too much with painting, and therefore not be able to deal with new media. The technical incompetence amongst general art critics makes it difficult, if not impossible for them to judge new media works. Rodenbeck rejects this. “Art history and new media share Walter Benjamin and, for better or worse, Rudolf Arnheim; new media people would do well to read Panofsky and Warburg, just as I and at least some of my colleagues read Wiener and Kittler. Art history may not yet be able to deal with new media, but perhaps it is also the case that new media doesn’t know how to deal with art history.” (46)

Whether technology-based art should continue to claim a relative autonomy to do research, remains open for debate. Artworks should not merely be judged according to their commodity status, or for their capacity to alienate, enlighten, transform and educate. According to Swiss media theorist Giacco Schiesser art-as-method emphasizes the process character of creative acts. What artists explore, Schiesser says, is the Eigensinn, the wilful obstinacy of new media. (47) It is obvious that radical, fundamental research is a risky enterprise with unpredictable outcomes. The artworks that are the outcome of such searches often fail to communicate their initial curiosity. We get to see results without knowing the questions they struggled with. This is where new media art becomes autistic. Artistic research need not end in self-contained objects. Often it is not the self-referential quality that disturbs, as the tradition of the discipline itself is, in fact, rather weak. Unlike literature and film, new media arts does not suffer from an abundance of insider cross-references. What disturbs are the unfinished deconstruction efforts and the failed attempts to formulate a new media grammar—not some grand utopian gestures.

From a funding perspective it might be strategic to negotiate a merger or take-over, and strike a deal at the right moment, before all art is being conceived as technological and people can no longer distinguish a difference between digital and non-digital art. Giacco Schiesser discusses an entry point for such negotiations: “If the Eigensinn of a new medium has to some degree been recognized, tried out and developed, the new artistic methods and possibilities have an effect on the old media. Soon after the invention of photography and film, for instance, these media began to exercise a strong influence on literature, and since very recently we can witness a similar influence being exercised by the new media.” (48) This is where the bargaining power of new media art could be located.

Discussing the faith of new media and its relation to the contemporary arts system, Melbourne art theorist Charles Green is using the Concorde analogy. He quotes Francis Spufford, who noted that the “real flaw in Concorde was not technological but social. The whole project was based on an error in social prediction. Those who commissioned it assumed that air travel would remain, as it was in 1962, something done by the rich… but at the time that Great Britain and France were betting on supersonic speed as the next step in aviation, one of the bosses at Boeing pushed through the development of a subsonic plane that could carry four hundred passengers at a time.” (49) For Green new media is an “already outmoded disciplinary formulation.” Intellectual validation through artistic scientism has been a problematic feature, says Green, who traces this back to Roy Ascott, who’s not only influential in ISEA, V2 and Ars Electronica circles, but also played a major role in accrediting practice-based PhDs to a range of new media artists through the UK school system. Such link with the scientific method Charles Green judges as arbitrary, “the resulting detachment from artistic genealogies accounts for the shaky relationship—oscillating between awe and amnesia—that the art world has with new media art.” The strategic decision of Ascott, to move new media away from the gallery and museum world and into academia and research, has been detrimental for several generations of artists. Again Charles Green: “Because new media is only partly concerned with itself as art, its inhabitants tend to have a somewhat touching and definitely naïve belief in either art or its irrelevance.”

Following the Concorde analogy, what new media art was betting on was a close alliance with scientists and engineers. The mistake was to envision the artist-as-developer in a lab situation and suggest that an entire art genre, including its institutions, festivals, exhibitions and education programs such be wrapped around the lab & science reference. What was overlooked here was the high speed of computer dissemination in society, including its introduction into and influence on all art forms. It is this democratization of computer use that eventually made new media arts as a special category redundant. There is also a ‘reconciliation’ with consumer electronics necessary here. Many pointed out that access to equipment is becoming less and less of an issue, at least in affluent societies. While prices dropped, performance of machines increased dramatically. This makes it questionable if special new media facilities in art schools and museums should be established and further maintained. What will remain necessary is specific software training and tech support in the making of networked pieces, videos and installations. But that’s a point of discussion in the ‘free cooperation’ context, in that most contemporary art works are produced in collaborative teams. The ideal of the genius who masters a myriad of programming languages and operating systems is an idea of the past.

Critical Intervention: Warren Neidich

Artist Warren Neidich, inventor of ‘neuro aesthetics’ (50), stresses the protest attitude of the first generation of media artists who initially didn’t care about the art market. “When Fluxus and early sound and video art started, there was no money in it. These artists were anti-establishment and actually gravitated to those forms of expression to resist what they perceived as the establishment. Art and science and new technology groups are coming from the opposite place. Any wonder that they are now disappointed?” For Warren Neidich art has to be a form of resistance. Technology is just another tool, not an end in itself. Neidich: “Artists throughout modernism have utilized technology for many reasons. First of all because new technologies presented the opportunity to change the morphology and methods of production of the artwork. Norman Bryson writes that it was the invention of numbered pencils with different degrees of hardness of their graphite that allowed Ingres to draw the way he did. New technologies as they fed back into artistic discourse destabilized the dynamic relations with the factographic relationships of the aesthetic form. Nude Descending a Staircase and the work of the Futurists are examples of this process.” For Neidich new media artists became intoxicated by power of new technologies. “Maybe artists should not fetishize technology as a reason for making a work. Even when the apparatus was an essential aspect of their work, as in the case of the early experimental films of the sixties like Stan Brakhage or Jean Luc Godard, it was in the context of a desire to express the social, political, economic and psychological relations around at the time and in which these technologies were imbedded.

What makes digital culture interesting for Neidich is when that art, instead of stressing the technology, hides the technology and concentrates on the conversation that it is having with culture which surrounds it. For Neidich that could include the culture of science but, he warns, it needs to make science a ready made and import it into the white cube, the black box where it becomes anew in relation to the history of aesthetic concerns and the history of art. Warren: “If you are going to call yourself an artist then talk in the language of an artist. Too many in new media have forgotten this. There is a conversation out there at all times locally and globally that artists are having between themselves and with the broader culture. Right now, for instance, it is about the hand made. How can new media talk to the hand made object? For new media arts to survive and be interesting to the art world they need to be aware of what that conversation is and figure out how to enter it. I am not talking about the art market which seems to be an obsession with digital artists as they are somehow excluded from it. The reason is not digital or media praxis but rather that is not addressing the concerns that artists using other media are interested in. Even though painting and figuration is hot now it is finding reverberations in sculpture, installation art, drawing, photography, video and, yes, in digital art. Many digital artists are of course aware of this.”

What is needed is a renewed disdain towards ‘digital art’. Warren Neidich: “Until recently artists used to make a distinction between fine art and commercial art. From the very beginning digital art, not media art, was a kind of commercial art. If you look at the creativity industry that is now erupting through art and science and new technology artists, you can see that it is its natural extension. New Media artists can’t have it both ways. On one hand they cannot act as if the world is an assemblage of global flows and transdisciplinary practices and on the other insulate themselves in an a-historical moment with themselves as the only rightful authors. As such they are enlisting modernist tropes of medium specificity. So there is a contradiction here.” It would indeed be interesting to reframe new media arts as an arts and crafts movement. The problem with this approach however is that new media arts thus far has been such a financial failure for most practitioners.

Beyond the Cool Obsure

“Everything changes except new media.” (after Paul Valery) Before we launch the next techno art wave (for instance locative video), we have to figure how to avoid the ‘cool obscure’. At first sight cool and obscure seem to be opposites. Cool is out there, on the street, whereas the enigmatic hides itself, careful not to overexpose itself. Many artworks seen in galleries today aim to be cool but are completely obscure. Virilio’s opt-out is his Museum of Accidents, filled with negative monuments such as Hiroshima and Auschwitz, but also Chernobyl and the World Trade Center. This strategy is radically different from attempts to get new media arts accepted so that it can, finally, enter the temples of High Art. However, accidents still operate within the contemporary arts scheme that art has to disrupt. The strength of new media arts is its Will to Investigate, its curiosity beyond the convention of having to break through conventions. Free software could be a source of inspiration here, as it leaves behind the discontent and agonistics about monopolies such as Microsoft. The tinkering is modest in that it does not claim to be innovation. Neither must it be focused on problem solving, as Judith Donath (MIT) states. (51) The awareness that new media often causes more problems than it pretends to solve is widely accepted. There are simply too many bugs. Unfinished defines the aesthetic of digital media, as Peter Lunenfeld already noted. (52)

In the period of the historical avant-garde obscurity has been one the tools the movement owned to express its antagonism to the public. More important than the ‘common man’ and his hostility towards new art is the tactical use of idiom to distinguish itself from previous generations. According to Renato Poggioli, this tendency calls to mind the theory of the young Nietzsche. Metaphor would originate in the desire of a group of youths to distinguish themselves by a kind of secret language. Their language would be opposed to the prose idiom, since that was the means of communication of the old generation.” (53) With a few communication guerilla exceptions, new media arts has lacked such drive. Its obscurity often was default and grew out of its tragic destiny and was not done with intent. The hermeticism of works do not carry secret messages that can only be revealed by next generations or other civilizations. The experiments often want to achieve too much, fighting dozens of battles simultaneously, with painting and TV, popular culture and politics, while also dealing with interface design issues, network architecture, the power of code, and so on. This almost inherent drive to create the multimedia Gesamtkunstwerk put the narrative element on the backburner and make it hard for the artist to reach clarity. The result is a nice looking work whose multitude of intentions, unfortunately, will remain obscure.

“Artists working with new technology often invent by necessity. It’s rarely our primary motivation, it just happens.” says Michael Naimark in his Rockefeller report on new media arts and sustainability. “We are in an inflection point. We have a clear idea what doesn’t work, but not much of a clue what does.” He concludes that patents are not a realistic source of income for an art lab and favors a checkbox on US-tax forms which says “I do/don’t support weird and difficult art.” So far the dotcom millionaires that have entered philanthropy have had little interest in contemporary art, let alone technological arts. Art should nurture a culture that values debate, says Naimark, and the tools we create could radically reshape the world. But they don’t. Checking out the role of artists in the hundreds of so-called Web 2.0 applications will tell you that their contribution has been minimal. Artists that developed expensive, proprietary VR installations, built for museum purposes only, indeed play no role in “reshaping the world.” Perhaps it is time for the virtual artists to step down, give up their obsession with ‘the future’ and catch up with contemporary uses of technology?

The pope is no longer patron of the arts. There is no need for cathedral-sized immersive environments anymore. Society has caught up with techno-utopia—now it is time for re-orientation for the artists. What new media art has yet to deal with is the miniaturization, up to the point of invisibility, of real existing devices. This places the man-machine interface question, played out by so many immersive artists, in a different framework away from the still heavy ‘machinistic’ aspect, with its (post)industrial references, towards a more precise understanding of the ‘manual’ (as in related to the hand). Software art is another way out. Virtual reality as a visual Gesamtkuntwerk has proven to be an ideal closed circuit for theorists and art historians. They found all the evidence that was hidden there by the inventors. By now all references, from Lascaux to Richard Wagner, have been retrieved. Information technology developed in another direction, from the exceptional ‘sacred’ baroque 3D installation towards ordinary, ‘secular’ mobility – integrating computers into the everyday. We moved from the Wunderkammer, owned by aristocrats and later bourgeois classes, towards 21st century Jan Steen scenes: checking your email while doing the dishes, ipodding away on your bike, text-messaging in the subway. What we are witnessing is a radical—and rapid—demystification of technology towards a new form of intimacy in which people from all walks of life have learned to deal with devices that are no longer alien objects. The challenge now is to navigate between empowerment and control, as new media clearly facilitate both. (54)

What needs to be overcome is the culture of unfinished experimentation. What some see as a celebration of the freedom of expression and the autonomy of the arts, others judge as immaturity and incompetence. Is there a lack of rigorous work in new media arts as an institutional practice? We have to, once again, keep in mind that I am not talking about outstanding experimental qualities of individual works. Often it is the multiplication of different experiments in one work that makes the end result ill conceived. This leads to a growing impatience amongst viewers who come to the conclusion that the ‘search for a form’ can’t last forever. We witness a strange love-hate relation with the Unfinished. In a rich and dense visual culture it has become a rarity to see new images and to be surprised about unexpected sounds. Once in a while the technology sector comes up with an unseen feature, but power users are getting used to the unheard within weeks, if not hours. It would therefore be a challenge for new media arts if works would be pushed to their limits. Someone needs to take them out of their beta stage they are stuck in and encourage the artist to further develop the work. Often it is a matter of polishing narration and meaning (even if the content is technology itself). What is needed is radical clarity concerning the balance between form and content. . Such a trend would not necessarily imply commercialization and co-optation. In fact, we do not need less ‘laboratory art’ but simply better outcomes. Digital works are never finished and whereas some see this as an advantage, other dismiss the culture of preliminary releases. What Fred Camper said about avant-garde film also counts for new media arts. “An avant-garde film addresses each viewer as a unique individual, speaks to him in the isolation of the crowd, invites him to perceive the film according to his own particular and perception.” (55) For Camper such attitude is the result of the “individuating techniques that make the act of perceiving the film a part of the experience of it.” The artist who travels the road that many have traveled before and claims to reinvent his medium, has to taken into account what happens when experiments continue to convince the audience. Moving on to ever new platforms and gadgets is not the way out and in fact only raises the suspicion of escapist behavior. And Camper advises: “It is hopelessly self-destructive, when trying to make a film, to make something great. One can often reach a large goal by thinking in the smallest of terms.”

One could argue that new media should align itself with the highest and strongest forms of expression. Instead of looking inwards, it needs an older brother or sister. Such points of reference need to be identified and are not similar in any given situation or genre. This much is clear: it is not by definition visual arts. In the Dutch context it would be architecture and design. In Australia it would be film and cultural studies. In London it would be music and visual arts, in Berlin the techno club scene. Theatre, with its rich tradition and solid infrastructure, would be another context in which new media experiments can flourish. There has been, for instance, a tremendous uptake of digital technologies in fashion, a trend that has so far been ignored by new media. After an anxious decade, photography has, by and large, dropped the polarized contradiction between the analogue/chemical procedure and digital images. It is also, finally, widely recognized how useful vinyl records and record players are, compared to the ‘flat’ and ‘crisp’ sound quality of CDs and the CD’s lack of random access to its surface – not to mention the ubiquity of MP3 sound files. Scores of painters have laptops and projectors in their ateliers, pre-composing images on the computer. The contradiction between ‘real’ objects such as canvas, prints or DVDs versus the artificial nature of virtuality, has become a farce—the argument is dead. This victory of the digital and the arrival of its own set of post-digital exigencies in all disciplines and parts of life will, sadly, not be credited to new media art, a label that would best be forgotten. If ‘new media’ has any chance of surviving, it will be as ‘material awareness’. New media art, at its best, communicates the underlying premises, and glitches, of the network gadgets we use day and night. Without such critical knowledge we merely float around in the collective unconscious of the media sphere.

(1)Peter Sloterdijk, Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, p. 18.
(2) Armin Medosch, Good Bye Reality! How Media Art Died But Nobody Noticed, February 7, 2006, Mazine,
(3) I would like to thanks Richard de Boer, Anna Munster, Scott McQuire, Nikos Papastergiadis, Henry Warrick, Linda Wallace, Warren Neidich for their critical comments and editorial work.
(4) Armin Medosh, in his review of the ISEA 2004 floating conference on the Baltic Sea, asks: “What is this media arts scene about then? Escapism? Are we going anywhere, or are we just drifting? Is there anyone still at the helm of this ship? The well known accusations about the self-reflexive nature of media arts discourse, of media art living in its own ghetto, in a comfortable sort of bubble, are not going away. The suspicion grows, watching the circus travel from station to station, from Transmediale to Futuresonica to ISEA, that the notion of ‘new’ in new media allows us to continue in some state of historical amnesia, hopping from one theme to the next. What comes after the wireless-generative-locative hyperventilation? It appears to me that the real developments are dictated by successive commercial and technical ‘revolutions’ and media art just surfs on those waves.” URL:
(5) Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1968, p. 3.
(6) An early fragment of this essay appeared online: In 2004/2005 I wrote a first draft that appeared in Empire, Ruines and Networks, edited by Scott McQuire and Nikos Papastergiades (Melbourne University Press, 2005). I also used a text on the same topic, focusing on the Australian Fibreculture debate, published in the Basque art magazine Transition (nr. 57, 2005) called New Media, Technology and the Arts, Unhappy Marriage or Perfect Synthesis. Thanks to Ned Rossiter, Trebor Scholz, Andres Raminez Gaviria, Henry Warwick, Anna Munster and Scott McQuire for critical comments.
(7) For an extensive debate on the merits of the new media term, see Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 2001, pp. 27-61.
(8) See Books of individual authors include, amongst others, Dieter Daniels, Kunst als Sendung. Von der Telegrafie zum Internet , Beck Verlag München, 2002; Charles Gere, Digital Culture, Reaktion Books, London, 2002; Oliver Grau, From Illusion to Emersion, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 2003; Siegfried Zielinski, Audiovisions Cinema and Television as Entr’actes in History, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 1999.
(11) Boris Groys, Topologie der Kunst, Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2003. P. 59 “Je mehr die neue Medienkunst, also die Kunst, die mit bewegten Bildern operiert, Eingang in die Museen findet. Desto mehr verbreitet sich das Gefühl, daß die Institution Museum dadurch in eine Krise gerät.”
(12) Charlie Finch (Artnet) about Chris Kraus’ book on the Los Angeles art scene, Video Green, Semiotexte, Cambridge (Mass.), 2004.
(13) Wikipedia: “Intermedia was a concept employed in the mid-sixties by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins to describe the ineffable, often confusing, inter-disciplinary activities that occur between genres that became prevalent in the 1960s. Thus, the areas such as those between drawing and poetry, or between painting and theater could be described as intermedia. With repeated occurrences, these new genres between genres could develop their own names (i.e. visual poetry or performance art).
(14) Additional comment made by Jon Ippolito, email correspondance, July 21, 2006.
(15) Jon Ippolito: “Plenty of contemporary paintings and installations include obscure philosophical or historical references. The difference is that the curators know more about these allusions than the vast majority of their gallery visitors, whereas references to new media are often better understood by a museum’s audience than its resident experts. For example, art-history trained curators at the Guggenheim were at a loss to understand the context for a Cory Arcangel game mod, while the guards were like, ‘Hey, a light gun! I remember these….’”
(16) Hans Ulrich Reck, Mythos Medienkunst, Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2002, quoted from the translation manuscript, May 2005.
(17) Kanarinka, Interactive City: irrelevant mobile entertainment, iDC, August 13, 2006.
(18) Anna Munster, iDC, August 21, 2006.
(19) Paul Brown, Danny Butt, Anna Munster and Melinda Rackham all responded in the New Media Arts Board Axed thread, Fibreculture, December 10, 2004.
(20) Lucy Cameron, Fibreculture, December 12, 2004.
(21) Simon Biggs, Letter to Jennifer Bott, Fibreculture-announce, January 23, 2005.
(22) See Rick Poynor’s
(23) Andreas Broeckmann, Spectre, August 16, 2005. The Spectre list archive can be found here: Other contributors to the debate were Shulea Chang, Yukiko Shikata, John Hopkins, Eric Kluitenberg.
(24) Tom Holley, Spectre, August 18, 2005.
(25) Andreas Broeckmann, Spectre, August 26, 2005.
(26) For instance Eric Kluitenberg, Media Without an Audience, nettime, October 19, 2000. Also:
(27) Georgina Born, Rationalizing Culture, IRCAM, Boulez and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995, p. 4. Thanks to Timothey Druckrey for the reference.
(28) Born, p. 314.
(29) Anna Munster, Spectre list, February 18, 2006.
(30) Paul Brown, Spectre list, March 14, 2006.
(31) Anna Munster, Spectre list, March 15, 2006.
(32) Chris Crawford, Interactive Storytelling, Berkely, New Riders Press, 2004, p. 73. Thanks to Richard de Boer for this quote.
(33) Crawford, p. 75.
(34) Poggioli, p. 138.
(35) See: C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures, Canto Books, Cambridge, 1993 (1959).
(36) See John Brockmann, The Third Culture New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995 and his website
(37) See: and
(38) In a private correspondance, Melbourne art theorist Charles Green points at the “power of the boom, that is continuing in contemporary art, especially the US and Europe and now China. Art follows money. Both are more connected with mainstream media than with new media. There’s lots of money, and art adapts. The sheer scale of the market in contemporary art simply is beyond belief, though no doubt there will be a crash some point coming, the size of the sector still means the survivors will be numerous and big.” (April 27. 2006).
(39) See:
(40) Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotexte, Cambridge (Mass.), 2005, p. 55.
(41) Sylvère Lotringer/Paul Virilio, The Accident of Art, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, 2005, p. 70.
(42) See:
(43) Ellen Dissanayake, “The Core of Art: Making Special”, in: Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. The Free Press, New York, 1995.
(44) Eric Kluitenberg, Spectre, August 27, 2005.
(45) Timothey Druckrey, Spectre, September 15, 2005.
(46) Judith Rodenbeck, iDC mailinglist, October 5, 2005.
(47) Interpretation from Giacco Schiesser’s essay Arbeit am und mit Eigensinn. URL: An English translation was published on the Piet Zwart Institute website:
(49) This and following quote taken from Charles Green, “The Visual Arts: an Aesthetic of Labyrinthine Form,” in: Innovation in Australian arts, media and design: Fresh Challenges for the Tertiary Sector, ed. R. Wissler, Flaxton Press, Sydney, 2004.
(50) See: Neidich about his work: “Neuroaesthetics as a methodology, which is now about neurobiopolitics and post phenomenology, imports neoroscience into aesthetics and uses it as a ready made.” Quotes from email exchange with the artist, May 20, 2006.
(51) Quoted in Michael Naimark, Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Money-Technology-Based Art and the Dynamics of Sustainable. Downloadable at
(52) Peter Lunenfeld (Ed.), The Digital Dialectic, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 1999, p. 7; quoted by Frieder Nake, Und wann nun endlich ‘Kunst’-oder doch lieber nicht, in: Claus Pias (Hrg.), Zukünfte des Comptuters, Diaphanes, Zürich-Berlin, 2005, p. 51.
(53) Poggioli, p. 37.
(54) Jon Ippolito: “VR’s original promise—to construct a ghostly realm where consciousness could roam free of the constraints of flesh—became *socially* obsolete. The archetypal user of 1990s-era virtual reality was a white ‘data cowboy’ with no social life; the archetypal user of 2000s-era augmented reality is a Japanese teenage girl with too much social life. Gawky VR helmets have given way to burnished Palms and scarlet Nokia phones—and people use these stylish wireless devices not to escape bodies but to find them.”
(55) Fred Camper, End of Avant-Garde Film, Millennium Film Journal, Issue No. 16/17/18, Fall/Winter 1986-87, p. 100-101. The parallels between Camper’s description and the crisis of new media are significant. Camper complains about academicism. He rejects teaching ‘avant-garde’ or ‘experimental film making. Increased opportunities trough teaching jobs, grants and lecture tours “have not been accompanied by a greater social impact for the work.” By the 1980s public audience had fallen drastically. Works of the newer generation “lack the authentic power of the orginal,” which, in my view, is not case in new media arts. The problem is not the fall of a movement but the voluntary closure that arguably prevent new media arts of becoming a movement.


Some reactions:
In his talk at Argos (Art After Institutions), Jon ippolito mentioned some comments on Geert’s text. Laurence Rassel (Constant) posted a comment, entitled Who is afraid of new media (bis) . In reaction to Geert’s text, Stefaan Decostere wrote this “Lettre Restante to Geert Lovink

Dear Geert,

I received your text unasked. And because you are a friend, I read the whole body of it. What do I get in return? Not that much. As you write yourself, the content of your message has been posted before, many times. More frustrating even, your text didn’t make me think. Philosophy is left out completely. And cases and artists are out of it as well. For that specific missing part you do offer excuses, at least three times. Didn’t you want to offend ‘friends’? Or do you, as did so many to-do academics before you, prefer not to get attached to where it starts to matter?

Where is the blind core of this Lovink text? Is it really blind, or is it just not there? In any case, I’m sure, there is a core Geert Lovink. So, why then did you hide it? I asked you the same question before. You said, then, it was a way of being ‘pragmatic’. But then, why can I definitely not now, discern a difference between your kind of pragmatism and that of the average media manager around the corner?

Why are you so eager to sketch a general picture of the ‘state of the media arts’? From where the urge and the need? About ‘art’ you never had to say a great deal. And from that unwillingness, it grows into worse. Now you reinstall the established arts institutions, such as theatre, advising every anonymous media-maker to integrate into that wooden stage. In the same hot blow, you show the ‘loosers’ the way to film and television and the real world of games. Again, no further arguments you employ, because no further backstory can be drawn out of your experience so far, I guess.

You start your text by saying you refuse the therapeutic approach. Instead you put forward the diagnostic one. You as a doctor then? But is that then the only choice you offer of possible approaches? To say the minimal, what about the analytic one, the one of investigation you practiced so wonderfully? Did you quit? Doesn’t it empower you enough nowadays with tools necessary for your next move? Is that it? Or is all that kind of evidence too personal, too local, too small, too real, too heavy, too differentiated to twist into a story catched into one pitch? And one-liners you offer. Very pleasant ones, even. And that is the good part of your text. You still make us laugh, dear Geert. Unfortunately only style flat sofa of a late talk show on tv.

So few realies in your text are favoured, so many are left hors-texte. Why is Berlin so central? Only for the bunker parties? Why is Transmediale so pivotal? It is not, I know, and you know. ZKM is what it wanted to be(come), from the beginning. You know. I know. I was involved in it in its starting-up period (as you know). (recent) History too then is no longer a wanted issue? Or, somehow, did you decide yesterday it is time to join the general move of revisioning the whole lot of it, for the sake of common sense, your sense that is?

And now the vicious paragraph. Don’t become an artist yourself (yet), dear Geert. Your network and connections would make you even faster celebrated than Herman Asselberghs (not heard of him yet?). You refuse the therapeutic vista. Instead you prefer to diagnose, slashing your way through the media body, such as Chris Dercon once did with the arts world, in order to make way, that is to say, his way. Is that you intention? Why are you so impatient, to make it (what?) work? How much cash do you need to become full Australian? And, oh hell!, the worst of all: what if you were not a male, but a passport female instead, writing this provo? This to say, your text sounds deja-vu and it smells so strategic. I must be wrong.

Come over some time soon Geert. Let’s talk about this.


Brian Holmes: The Absent Rival

Brian Holmes: The Absent Rival. Radical Art in a Political Vacuum

Thu 15.02.07
Argos, Brussels

The story begins with the archetypal scene of interventionist art: the moment when the Yes Men step out of the Internet and into a corporate conference, expecting to provoke violent outrage. Instead everybody smiles, shakes hands and asks for a business card. Can political satire make meaning ina vacuum, when elites don’t even recognize its critique? Extending the discussion to Italy – home of Luther Blisset and, but also of Silvio Berlusconi – Brian Holmes looks at the destiny of the artist-provocateur without a rival. Capitalist democracy, as Bernard Stiegler claims, seems unable to rise above the fantastic technical mutation it has set into motion. To what extent has the activist generation really used new technology to invent new subjectivities? What would we do in the face of the enlightened industrial bourgeoisie that Stiegler dreams of?

Brian Holmes is an activist critic. Over the past ten years he has collaborated with a wide variety of social movements in Europe and the Americas. His writings can be found in a wide range of books, magazines and journals, and can also be accessed for free at


Was there ever a vanguard without enlightened industrialists? Is it possible to shock the bourgeoisie in the twenty-first century? Does anyone have ears to hear what activists are saying? Or has the privatization of knowledge destroyed even the common space where words have their meaning?

Our story begins with the archetypal scene of tactical media: the moment when the Yes Men arrive in disguise at their first pseudo-corporate lectures. They expected to raise shock, tumult, outrage, fisticuffs and all manner of projectiles hurled from the floor to halt their delirious speeches, which to their minds were twisted Malthusian parodies of contemporary neoliberal discourse. Instead everybody smiled, shook hands, discussed the finer points (could we really solve our productivity problems by convincing Italians to give up sex in the afternoon?) and asked politely for a business card. They weren’t even conscious of the critique. In fact, what never happened in the last ten years of intensifying debate over the global expansion of neoliberalism is the slightest recognition from the corporate class that something might be wrong. It’s as though what’s called the “pang of conscience” – that ghostly moment when the stakes of someone else’s life or death impinge on your sensibility – had vanished from the minds of those who manage the world’s industrial development.

To understand the consequences of the “privatization of knowledge” we will have to discuss the conditions under which words meet ears, or the technological conditions under which human expression circulates. Simultaneously we will have to analyze the control of mediated speech. And finally we will consider the means, milieus and motives for intervention. But first let’s consider what it’s like to talk when no one’s in the room – or what communication might mean in the absence of a conscience.

Skeletons in Suits

Imagine one of the most banal locations on Earth. It’s called the Millennium Conference Center in London, England. A gentleman named “Erastus Hamm” will deliver a PowerPoint lecture for the Dow Chemical Corporation, on the subject of risk management. No one realizes that the ham actor is Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, that the “Dow Ethics” website which the conference organizers consulted is a fake, and that the speaker is about to present an ironic condemnation of the very principles on which corporations like Dow are founded. The unfortunate thing is – they still won’t realize it at the end of the speech, which the Yes Men have expertly captured on video.(1)

Hamm explains that Dow is about to release Acceptable Risk: the first world’s first fully automatic risk calculator. AR will help corporations decide where to locate their most dangerous industrial operations, the ones that could become liabilities: “Will project X be just another skeleton in the closet, something your company comes to regret, or will it be a golden skeleton?” Hamm discusses Agent Orange, the poison Dow sold for US Army use in Vietnam; and he claims that even in 1970, the AR calculator would have predicted a positive balance, for the corporation anyway. He brings up another case, IBM’s sale of technology to WWII Germany to help identify certain races – and a Nazi sign flashes up on the screen next to the IBM logo. Definitely a skeleton in the closet, but once again, Hamm gushes to the audience, it’s golden!

Applied in our time, Dow’s AR device is supposed to calculate liability settlements on big industrial disasters, showing clearly that certain lives in certain regions of the world are worth a lot more than other lives in other regions. The tacit example here, which underlies all of the Yes Men’s work on Dow Chemical, is the 1984 disaster at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, killing an estimated 20,000 people. The corporation paid a minimal settlement and left behind over a hundred thousand wounded, as well as tremendous pollution that continues to cause deaths. In 2001 Union Carbide was acquired by Dow, which still refuses any liability.

The upbeat presentation ends with a glittering bone-dance on the screen, then a pop, flash and plume of smoke in the room as the golden skeleton Gilda is unveiled from beneath a crimson cloak. Chuckling businessmen and women are encouraged to come up, take a card and an AR keychain and have themselves photographed next to Gilda, while occasional jerky footage of the crowd, shot from a miniature camera installed in Erastus Hamm’s geeky-looking glasses, reminds you that this surreal event is actually cinéma verité. But the astonishing part comes afterwards, in the candid dialogues of the real businessmen with the phony Dow representative.

– Simplex consultant: As I understood it your risk assessor will work out what is the human impact as opposed to how much money you can make on it (big smile). Whatever way you do this, you’re gonna cost some lives, right? But you’re gonna make some money in the process of it! It’s acceptable! Is that right?
– Hamm: Well, yeah, that’s exactly what I said. Did you find that not, um…?
– Simplex: I thought it was refreshing, actually!

Great news from the corporate unconscious: disdain of human lives is refreshing! After all, those lives don’t cost much, do they? At least, not if you choose the right place to lose them…

I think we have to ask what the Acceptable Risk calculator really proves to the watchers of the Yes Men video. Maybe it proves there’s no risk in offering up the most extreme scenarios, so long as they come with a golden keychain? Or that decades of neoliberal greed have eliminated even the slightest risk of conscience among business executives? Could there be a zombie at the wheel in the age of corporate governance? And if so, where is the juggernaut of contemporary capitalism really headed?

Counseling the Prince

Enter an unusual figure: Bernard Stiegler, the French philosopher who leans to the left, believes in industry, dreams of technology, and wants to be the counselor of the prince. He worries about the collapse of today’s “libidinal economy” and thinks Europe should develop a new industrial model. He’s also nostalgic for the statism of General de Gaulle, dislikes anyone who wears tennis shoes and shows every sign of being a cultural conservative. One of his recent books (but he publishes three or four a year) is dedicated to Laurence Parisot, the president of the French bosses’ union: a corporate crusader to whom he proposes “saving capitalism” by “re-enchanting the world.”(2) Stiegler’s ideas are stimulating but also weirdly naive, pragmatic yet strangely delirious. Let’s have a closer look.

His first move is to establish an equivalence between the technologies of cognitive capitalism and what Foucault calls “the writing of the self.” As the ancient Greeks shaped their inner lives through the memory-aids of intimate diaries (hypomnemata) to which they consigned formative quotations and reflections, so we postmoderns shape our own subjectivities through the use of computers, video cameras, mp3 players and the Internet. The mediation of externalized linguistic techniques is fundamental to the process of individuation. The problem is that these “technologies of the mind” – or “relationship technologies,” in Jeremy Rifkin’s term – now take the form of networked devices connecting each singular existence to massive service industries operating at a global level. As Stiegler says, “service capitalism makes all segments of human existence into the targets of a permanent and systematic control of attention and behavior – the targets of statistics, formalizations, rationalizations, investments and commodifications.” Or in Rifkin’s less abstract way of putting it: “The company’s task is to create communities for the purpose of establishing long-term commercial relationships and optimizing the lifetime value of each customer.”(3)

Here we see that the fundamental commodification is not that of intellectual property. Rather it is the commodification of cognition itself, which becomes a calculable quantity (“lifetime value”) to be channeled into relational patterns that meet the needs of giant corporations. It is we who then perform the service. In Stiegler’s view, this “proletarianization” of entire populations acts to destroy sublimated desire, leaving people open to the gregariously aggressive drives of “industrial populism.” The pandering of bellicose politicians on Berlusconi’s or Murdoch’s TVs gives some idea of what he means. TV is the classic medium of industrial populism. The question is whether the networked technologies will merely confirm the destructive effects of television, or whether they can be transformed.

To conceptualize the way that civilizational development shapes the thoughts and actions of individuals via the mediation of technology, Stiegler introduces the term “grammatization.” It is the process whereby the existential flow of human thought and action is analyzed into discrete segments, and then reproduced in abstract forms or “grams” – the most evident example of this being the writing of language. Indeed, all the varieties of hypomnemata or externalized memory can be seen as grammatization techniques for patterning the way people think, speak and act. This structuralization of behavior is endless, operating through various codes and media; its recent manifestations include the analysis of human gestures known as Taylorization (the scientific basis for the Fordist assembly line). The enforced repetition of specific sequences of actions forecloses the existential possibility of becoming oneself, or individuation. TV programming, which imposes an identical modulation of thought and affect upon millions of viewers at the same time, represents a pinnacle of enforced repetition. Similar remarks could be made about computer programs like Windows, which imposes the same routines on hundreds of millions of people. But the relationship to grammatic patterning is not necessarily one of pure imposition. And this ambiguity of the “gram” is what makes all the difference.

With an astonishing historical image, Stiegler suggests that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing “allowed for the control of floodwaters, of flows and stocks of commodities, and of the work of slaves, through the intermediary of scribes specialized in the protection of royal or Pharaonic power.” Subsequently, however, “these hypomnemata, which for centuries had been in the service of an increasingly rigid royal power… became in ancient Greece the principle of a new process of individuation, that is, of a new relationship between the psychic and the collective: the citizen became a new dynamic principle whereby the Greeks rapidly transformed the entire Mediterranean basin.” Writing, reinterpreted in alphabetic form by the Phoenicians and the Greeks, becomes not only a vector for authority, but also an instrument of self-government. Yet the whole point is that this very transformation opens up the basic problems of democracy, exactly as they appear in Plato’s Phaedrus: “Writing is a pharmakon, a remedy whereby the process of individuation takes care of itself and struggles against the poison that threatens to destroy it at the heart of its own dynamism. But it is also a poison that allows the sophists to manipulate public opinion, that is, to destroy the dynamism and make it into a dia-bolic force that ruins the symbolic: a power of dis-sociation leading to the loss of indivduation.”

Stiegler points to the need to take care of the role of mental technologies in the process of psychic and social individuation. He borrows from the epistemologist Gilbert Simondon the idea that each technological system gradually transforms over time, becoming increasingly distinct as a system through the progressive differentiation of all its interdependent devices. He also borrows the related idea that each singular pathway of human individuation (the process that allows one to say “I”) is inextricably bound up with a broader pathway of collective individuation (the process that allows us to say “we”). The individuation of each “I” is inscribed in that of the “we” from its very outset; but it is only the differentiation of the two that allows both processes to continue. And this differentiation is multiple: each “I” is intertwined with different “we’s” unfolding at different scales (family, town, region, nation, language group, etc.). What Stiegler claims to add to Simondon is the realization that the twofold process of psychosocial individuation is inseparable from the process of technological individuation, to the extent that the former is dependent on the specific kinds of externalized memory made possible by the latter. In other words: I become who I am, and we become who we are, within the range of possibilities offered by the concomitant evolution of the recording machines to which I/we have access. And this specific and constantly evolving range of technological possibilities can serve to further the process of twofold individuation, or to destroy it.

In this new light the industrial development of the Internet appears as a potentially dynamic principle of technological writing, offering an historical chance to go beyond the stultifying effects of television. Stiegler illustrates those effects by quoting Patrick Le Lay, CEO of the premier French commercial channel TF1, who infamously declared at a corporate strategy session that what he had to sell to Coca-Cola was “available human brain time” for their advertisements. Le Lay is the epitome of a cultural manager without a gram of conscience. But a similar predatory instinct on a much grander scale is behind the developments of American-style service capitalism (and it’s surprising that Stiegler doesn’t draw a further parallel with Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron, who practiced the most extreme financial sophistry of the entire New Economy (4)). The Internet as a “global mnemotechnical system” is itself threatened by industrial populism, whose massively damaging consequences we see all around us – above all in the global warming created by the Fordist economy, whose effects became undeniable at the very moment when the US and Britain launched the war for oil hegemony in Iraq.

A response would have to be imagined at a continental scale, as the smallest possible rival to Anglo-American globalization. Only at the European scale could one envisage an effective, upward-leading spiral of reciprocal emulation, where singularities challenge each another in the quest for a better world that lies beyond everyone’s horizon. Stiegler’s thinking reaches its peak when he imagines a continental rivalry, which is the necessary conclusion of any extensive reflection on technopolitics. The challenge is to make one’s ideals of change materially real. But this same conclusion provokes the desperate appeal to the French corporate elite, whom Stiegler thinks could be convinced of the need to spark a European response to really-existing cognitive capitalism.

Here we come to the heart of the dilemma. Because the appeal to a European corporate elite is at once totally logical and deeply unrealistic. Who could possibly believe that the corporate raiders who gathered around Patrick Le Lay are now going to band together to save capitalism from its own self-destruction? By the same token, who really believes that the businessmen who meet in Davos every year are ready to rescue the planet from climate change? Or that the new “green capitalism” is anywhere near as green as it is capitalist? Maybe the better question is whether Stiegler’s elaborately crafted appeal to the corporate elite is not a subtle heuristic fiction, stimulating readers to imagine all the practical changes required to transform the technological basis of what is ultimately a cultural system. His pragmatic political text would then become a piece of delirious philosophical sophistry, a pharmakon itself, whose real target is the formation of public opinion. The key thing it sparks us to realize is that epochal change could come from either end of the techno-cultural system. For just as the industrial production of better mnemonic devices would stimulate a higher level of participatory culture, so the latter would itself create a broader demand for more intricate and useful machines of self-government. And if we consider the track-record of our capitalist elites, then the cultural demand might seem a much more likely starting point than the industrial offer.

So instead of following the philosopher any further – either in his attempts at counseling the corporate prince, or in his dodgy ideas about sublimation5 – let us take the avenue offered by his heuristic fiction, and follow it along radically different cultural paths until we find the real driving forces of a critical and emancipatory use of mnemotechnics. I’m referring to the production of free software, to its uses in a far vaster and historically deeper web of potlatch-type exchange, and above all, to the recent upsurge of media interventionism, including but not limited to the exploits of groups like the Yes Men. Here we shall again encounter forms of rivalry and questions of conscience – all mixed into a poison which is also a remedy.

Letters and Destinations

There is an obvious place to look for positive transformations of networked technology: in cooperatively written, non-proprietary computer code, which comes to most people’s desktop as a Linux operating system (like the one that brought you this book). But Linux forks into as many as 300 different “distributions,” from Debian to Red Hat via Slackware and Ubuntu, all constructed out of the same basic core. Linux and its various “flavors” are related like Saussurian langue and parole. The evolving relation between individual and society, mediated by technology, is visibly alive here: the collective project of free software creation continually opens new possibilities from a shared horizon, differentiating along a singular paths even as it consolidates the fundamental distinction of a non-commodified technological system.

Common interpretations speak of a “high-tech gift economy,” where each contribution to the collective pot translates into the multiplying wealth of riches for everyone. But holding closer to the ideas of anthropologist Marcel Mauss, one could conceive certain “gifts” as charged with antagonism, devised in reality to crush an opponent with overwhelming abundance. When the wildly popular music-exchange service, Napster, was shut down by legal attacks from the record companies, free-software programmers immediately launched new formats of peer-to-peer exchange, which had no central clearinghouse. Let the thousand song-lists bloom, they said, offering their new inventions freely to the public. The record companies began to founder – and Hollywood trembled as p2p video made the scene. Why such a concerted reaction from the hacking community? Behind the copyrighted tunes were lurking all the metaphysical subtleties of free software’s ancient enemy: private property.

Seizing upon the very device that is used to secure the exclusive ownership of intellectual property, Richard Stallman created the General Public License. This specially formulated copyright contract insures that any computer code written cooperatively will remain open to future modification by other programmers for other uses. The poison of copyright is turned into its own remedy. Stallman himself makes a curious observation about how this came to pass: “In 1984 or 1985, Don Hopkins (a very imaginative fellow) mailed me a letter. On the envelope he had written several amusing sayings, including this one: ‘Copyleft – all rights reversed.’ I used the word ‘copyleft’ to name the distribution concept I was developing at the time.”6

Few people realize that the keyword of today’s most emancipatory technology came mailed through the post. Even fewer probably realize that the term “copyleft” was independently invented by the artist Ray Johnson, founder of the “New York Correspondance School.”7 But one thing is obvious when you consider art history: Mail Art provided the matrix from which radical uses of the Internet would spring. The international postal network was the cultural crucible of what now appears as the very essence of social radicalism, what the philosopher Christoph Spehr calls “free cooperation.”8 Participatory practices of differentialist creativity put an indelible stamp on the letters of contemporary activism, which are still reaching their destinations in the world of technopolitics.

Robert Filliou coined the name of the “Eternal Network” to describe the mail art circuit way back in the 1960s. In 1992, Vittore Baroni sketched a prescient diagram that history has confirmed. In the center of a tree of words is a vertical trunk that reads networking. Radiating out from the top are the technical possibilities: small press, photocopier, mail, phone, fax, cassette, video. Amidst all the others, computer is just one more, already sprouting the leaves of email, virtual link, interactive art.9 Exchanges from peer to peer were a reality, even before the Internet as we know it.

In between Filliou and Baroni is an interview with Ray Johnson, published in 1982 in Lotta Poetica10 Mail art is an addressing system for the multiplication of desire. Or as William Wilson wrote, “Ray Johnson is a mild-mannered choreographer who sets people in motion.”11 (Verona, Italy), with a preface by Henry Martin that may give the best feeling for the prehistory of the net: “To me, Ray Johnson’s Correspondence School seems simply an attempt to establish as many significantly human relationships with as many individual people as possible…. relationships where true experiences are truly shared and where what makes an experience true is its participation in a secret libidinal energy. And the relationships that the artist values so highly are something that he attempts to pass on to others. The classical exhortation of a Ray Johnson mailing is ‘please send to…’”

Contact through a far-flung network became part of what Ulises Carrión referred to as the shift from “personal worlds” to “cultural strategies.”12 These strategic moves were initially restricted to a few hundred, then a few thousand artists exchanging singular desires. But as time progressed and technologies ramified, the pleasurable consciousness of the existence of one’s peers became doubled by letters coming from further afield, bearing that affect of conscience that pierces the narcissistic mirror. The growth of the Internet was paralleled, in a minor key, by political transformations. Hackers inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 changed the postal system into a real-time flux of underground information. And news from the South of the planet, brought by the new functionalities of email, reminded inhabitants of the North what their money was actually doing. Namely, impoverishing entire regions in the name of single-commodity exports and forced loan repayments administered by the IMF. After the first Global Days of Action in 1998, “cultural strategies” came to mean the art of mobilizing tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of people. The networked protests of Seattle, Genoa and Cancún, the World Social forums and the anti-war marches of February 15, 2003, appear as watersheds in retrospect. But that’s because we can’t foresee the responses to the disasters that lie ahead. The privatization of everything may still be confronted with the contagion of contrary desires. It all depends on what uses we make of technology – and with whom.

B – B Prime

The philosopher Christoph Spehr sums it all up, in a film that violates every provision of copyright. On Blood and Wings: A Study in the Dark Side of Cooperation is a contribution to the cutting edge of Marxist theory, clipped from the archives of B-grade vampire flicks.13 It starts from the classics of 1930s expressionism, then goes on to hilarious 1990s video, dubbed over with Spehr’s cutting-edge ideas on free cooperation. In this film, the Prince of Darkness counsels you.

The first thing is to understand is a monetary compulsion, a senseless momentum. Listen to its logic in the ghostly voice of narrator Tony Conrad, intoned in deep bass against a gory backdrop: “The blood thing is the only thing you have to know to understand capitalism. The vampire can’t act without the blood. And he doesn’t keep it, he doesn’t feed on it in a way that he would ever be full…. He’s more like a machine that is fueled by blood. And the blood he takes only drives him to search for new blood. Like Marx put it in Capital: B leads to B prime.14 If you understand this, it will greatly improve your life under capitalism.”

Spehr ranges through the depravity of a civilization and its spectacles, showing how everyone in the developed societies – whether in the academy, the technology sectors or even in activism – comes gradually under the fangs. We are the dash between B and B prime. But the leading edge of a new productive system carries its promise along with its poison, at least when it remains in touch with the past that gives the future meaning. The next thing to understand is what that productive system is good for: “Technology becomes more and more important in the fight against capitalism: networking, communications, the Internet, new forms of organizing. But the core of the action – the social struggle – is still the basis, and cannot be replaced by any of that.”

The film that began with the Prince of Darkness comes to an end with a sunrise in Mexico, and with a reflection on the way that solidarity acts as a grounding force to control the avant-gardes, who are necessarily infected: “The ones we expose to highly contaminated areas – like boards, parliaments, any forms of leadership and representation – are always in danger, and they are a danger.” So while the would-be hero from the North goes off to a new struggle, the comrade from the South tells him he will “pray… pray for the good medicine.” And the lesson of the pharmakon returns, as we hear the ghostly voice repeating “pray… pray for the good medicine.”

Tactical media comes back here with a vengeance. Christoph Spehr has produced a bottom-up vision of transformations that Bernard Stiegler can only imagine from top down. The aim is to produce a confrontation with the absent rival. But the means can only be a complex alchemy of emancipation, where artistic motifs and advanced technology encounter the mobilizing powers of desire.

Today the Yes Men are producing a film with Arte and a British foundation. As far as I can tell, industrialists have still not felt the fangs of conscience, but maybe a few cultural bureaucrats are at least starting to see the work of the vanguards, and to respond to a deeper call of solidarity. A disclaimer on Spehr’s film says it’s designed for political education only: “Any screenings outside this context may be a violation of copyright laws.” In other words, please confront the rule-governed spaces of contemporary capitalism at your own risk – the risk that the absent rival might be listening, and that he might even call the police.

Activism of any kind, even symbolic, is increasingly a risk. But it’s time to reopen the space where words can meet ears. In the age of global war and global warming, what’s the danger of being bit by the law? In November 2008, the Yes Men and friends brought out a million and a half copies of the New York Times, just like the real thing but with a political project for changing what makes the news.15 The least that the rest of us can do is bring some education into the infected realms of public institutions.

(1) For the lecture, photos and a clip from the video, see; or check out the Yes Men’s forthcoming film.
(2) Bernard Stiegler & Ars Industrialis, Réenchanter le monde: La valeur esprit contre le populisme industriel (Paris: Flammarion, 2006), p. 38. All further Stiegler quotes are from this book.
(3) Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access (New York: Putnam, 2000), p. 109.
(4) See the excellent documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, dir. Alex Gibney, 109′ (USA, 2005).
(5) The concept of sublimation is at the center of Bernard Stiegler, Aimer, s’aimer, nous aimer (Paris: Galilée, 2003).
(6) Richard Stallman, “The GNU Project,” at
(7) See McKenzie Wark, “From Mail Art to Ray Johnson and the Lives of the Saints,” at
(8) Spehr’s ideas were at the center of a brilliant and often hilarious conference/encounter in Buffalo, New York, in 2004, documented in Trebor Scholz and Geert Lovink, eds., The Art of Free Cooperation (New York: Autonomedia, 2007).
(9) Vittore Baroni, Arte postale (Bertiolo: AAA Edizioni, 1997), p. 235.
(10) Quoted in Donna De Salvo and Catherine Gudis, eds., Ray Johnson (Columbus: Wexner Center/Paris: Flammarion, 1999), p. 186.
(11) Ibid., p. 147.
(12) Ulises Carrión, “Personal Worlds or Cultural Strategies?” in Second Thoughts (Amsterdam: Void, 1980).
(13) The film is included on DVD in T. Scholz and G. Lovink, The Art of Free Cooperation, op. cit.; it can be downloaded at
(14) For those who grew up on Milton Friedman, Marx’s formula is actually M – M prime: money turning into more money on the financial circuit.


Laurence Rassel posted a reaction to this lecture, entitled Who is afraid of media art?

Audiovisions / Program


Audio Visions

Dissonanze 6, Festival di Musica Elettronica e Arte Digitale
Palazzo dei Congressi, Roma
curated by Stoffel Debuysere

Dissonanze is an international festival of electronic music and digital art, based in Rome. The festival program explores the relationship between creativity and technology, looking for unknown correspondences among visual, sonory and urban universes and phantasies. The program of the 6th edition lists performances by such artists as Zbignew Karkowski, Yasunao Tone, Carl Michael Von Hauswollf, Olivia block, Maryanne Amacher and Francisco Lopez. This year there is a focus on the concept of “visual music”. argos was invited to compose a program, based around the relationship between electronic sound and image. The program will be shown in the Aula Magna of the ‘Palazzo dei Congressi’, alongside performances by artists like Jeffers Egan, Karl Kliem/Dienstelle, Purform, Ryoichi Kurokawa, Stephen Vitello and Steve Roden.

The development of electronic and digital media technology has made it possible to move image and sound beyond the limitations of “real” time and space. The use of music, as a configuration of uprooted and generated sound patterns, is significant in this respect: not only does music liberate us from the actual listening time, the image also drags itself away of the linearity which is imposed by actual sound or dialogue. The image escapes from its status of relatively stable visual surface and recovers its full meaning (again) in movement and texture. It turns in something to listen to. We hear what we see, we see what we hear.

The digital media bring image and sound closer together: in the same way sounds are edited it is possible to compose with images. Image and sound turn into data, which, once translated by software, can be moulded and layered more and more intuitively. A generation of sound and image makers, who grew up with the inheritance of the avant-garde, always surrounded by sound and image, are looking for diverging ways of representation and interpretation, away from the narrative straitjacket, from the illusion of continuity and coherence. It is a generation which grew up with a permanent and constantly evolving presence of the audiovisual: the rhythm accelerations in the editing, the turn from film to video, the aesthetical exchange between cinema and television, the visual and auditive polyphony of MTV-culture. A generation gladly subjecting itself to a flood of images and sound, gradually replacing reality, not merely existing outside us, but inside of us as well.

The makers in this programme move freely between abstraction and narrative, between identifiability and alienation. They create self-enclosed audiovisual and musical worlds, typified by repetition, distortion and suggestion, averse to eccentric meaning. Image and sound sling around one another, still they are separate, asynchronous but inextricably bound in a continuous game of attraction and repulsion. Movement is structured, time is sublimated. Image and music resonate in and between one another: cyclic, plastic, ambiguous, musical, affectionate. In-between lurks an imaginary vacuum, hiding unnamed meanings and metaphors. These are encounters feeling like indefinable whims of the human existence, as lighting beacons amidst a shroud of memories. Timbre and colour, tone and texture, pitch and rhythm: various languages, various trajectories, a transcendental experience.

Kurt D’Haeseleer

2005, col., 9′, music/sound: David Shea

This video was produced as part of the ‘Memory Lane’ project, commissioned in 2005 by the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The traditional idea of soundtracks as translation and extension of moving images was reversed for the occasion: five video makers were requested to produce a work based on a composition by David Shea. Each individual filmmaker could draw out his own trajectory throughout the various musical layers. D’Haeseleer merged sound with image into an immersive panorama of fossilised shapes and traces. Images were distorted, layered and shaped into an apocalyptic spectacle in which vaguely recognisable shades and objects seem to be sucked up, into a parallel, enamelled world. Underneath all of these hermetical levels Fossilization comes forward as a meditation on the slip-off of Western civilisation to a pandemonium of mass-tourism, -media and –consumption.

Guillaume Graux & Frederik Van Allemeersch
In Leisure

2003, col., 14′, music/sound: Tuk, Ovil Bianca, Köhn

Through a succession of overly romantic images of everyday relaxation rituals a link is made between recreation and spectacle. Where does tourism end and where does voyeurism begin? The sensation of watching, of looking at, conditioned and determined in the arenas of television and other communication technologies, is exposed in an aesthetics which atmospherically refers to the soap opera. A slow and telescopic image haze strides by on the tones of cloying muzak and ethereal electronic sound images. This video was composed as a first draught for the music of Tuk, Köhn and Ovil Bianca, on the occassion of the .wav festival in bruges.

Nicolas Provost
Papillon D’Amour

2003, col., 3’30”, music/sound: Köhn

The work of Nicolas Provost balances between fiction and experiment, the grotesque and the moving, and it provokes both recognition and alienation. He blends in all kinds of narrative clichés, film samples and various cinematographic styles into tiny phantasmagorias. Time and again these succeed in catching our expectations into an unravelling game of mystery and abstraction. In most videos filmic memory is stimulated by short fragments from classic films by Akira Kurosawa or Alain Resnais, but Provost is as likely to appropriate snippets from obscure B-films or thematic platitudes. With the help of various simple graphical effects, manipulations of time and form, cinematographic and narrative language is analysed, accents are shifted and new stories are told. The extraordinary is elucidated in order to reveal the global. Apart from the use of film and visual language music is also a constant factor in Provost’s body of work, as a rhythmical spine or an emotional guideline. In Papillon D’Amour, Provost subjects a number of fragments from a film by Kurosawa to a mirror effect, thus creating ethereal figures, constantly remelting into each other and slipping away again. The “imploding butterfly” is metaphoric for the impossibility of love.

Pascal Baes
HF Remix

2002, col., 11’30”, music/sound: DJP

HF Remix 1 is a mathematical ‘re-cookery’ of fragments of old 16mm films through the systematic adaptation of the ‘Height Field’ effect on images. The film Rainbow market shows a series of performances carried out at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and at the Sint-Gilles’ flower market in Brussels. The images have been digitally enhanced frame by frame with the ‘Height Field’-effect, boosting the grey values to their black and white extremes. The end-result is 3D images creating an explosion of light and colour. Highly accelerated and compressed musical fragments by DJP accompany the images.

Anouk de Clercq & Joris Cool

2003, col. 12′, music/sound: Anton Aeki

Shafts of light and the camera are moving through the dark as in a glissando, flat, sharply cut forms appear in black-and-white and high definition. They feel their way along expanses of wall, opening up storeys, windows and doors, and break down on floors, stairs and columns. In this way, according to a controlled choreography upheld by the music of anton aeki, a truly architectural experience is created on the screen. like a constructivist audiovisual mobile, the building reveals itself and is being documented as in an architect’s dream. in other words: as a spatial and atmospheric starting point for users to start leaving their marks on it. Building is inspired by the new concerthall in bruges and thereby also pays homage to the work of Robbrecht and Daem, the Belgian architects’ collective which is well known for such exploits as the new Boymans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam and the aue-pavilions for Documenta IX in Kassel.

Justin Bennett
Berlaymont Dreaming

2004, col., 20’20”

A video/surround-sound piece made for the argos Festival 2004. “The Berlaymont building, seat of the European Commissionis a symbolic centre for the European quarter of Brussels as well as for Europe itself. Formally interesting is the fact that the original modernist architecture has been renovated and forseen with a new “skin” or rather an armour plating,changing the outward appearance while preserving the inner form. I see this as mirroring the expansion of Europe in general. Berlaymont/Europe is pictured as a modernist utopia, where the transparency of architecture is a metaphor for democracy itself. The building is empty, but it hums softly to itself. It dreams of its future uses, its future occupants, dreaming that it might one day be open to all, but knowing that its gigantic security machine regulates the flow and access of people just as the airconditioning regulates the flow of air and heat.The sounds are of empty buildings and their machines but sometimes other sounds filter in from outside through ducts or through the windows. The images are of Berlaymont and other buildings either in use or already being demolished.The image and sound sequences are composed by a machinethat chooses sounds and images which build up, overlap and then fall away again. Thus the machine constructs its “dreaming”- an imaginary ephemeral architecture”.