My brain hurts

Ian Haig

Van Sowerwine, Play with me

Van Sowerwine, Play with me

The great thing about new media art is the way in which it can draw on a whole range of inputs and sensibilities from multiple areas, resulting in works that can’t easily be broken down into one medium. This should produce weird, idiosyncratic and hard to define hybrids. However what seems be happening is that new media artists are producing work with themes that can be too easily categorised, compartmentalised and pigeon-holed, the inverse of much of the promise of new media arts as a shape shifting medium of hybridity.

Bio-technology, artificial life, the impact of technology on nature, surveillance, genetics, the nexus of science and art etc etc… Such topics are probably music to funding body ears and you can bet the next curated new media event you attend will have some poetic piece about the impact of technology on nature (yawn). While there is no doubt some interesting work is being done in these areas, I for one would genuinely like to see some new themes emerge in new media art beyond well established agendas.

Revenge of the nerds

There was a time in the mid 80s when artists fanatically quoted lots of French theory, mostly Baudrillard and the hyper-real. This was more than just art, it was art informed by the discourse of contemporary critical thought and Postmodernism. These days new media artists often talk about their work like those artists talked about theory, badging and validating what they do with cultural and social value with one word—science. It’s more than just art, it’s all about the convergence of art and science. I am all for taking new media into new and interesting terrain, but at times it seems that art-science collaborations are the only game in town (think, ConVerge and BEAP as recent examples. See pages Rackham and Jones).

Sure there’s a lot of weird shit going on in the real world of bio-technology like cloning and gene therapy, but real life is a hell of a lot freakier than most things new media artists come up with. When Stelarc grows some new internal organs from pig tissue, give me a call.

The nexus of art and science reaches its extreme in Artificial Life, so much of which takes itself far too literally. The notion of creating ‘worlds’ is always a bit problematic. All this mimicking of life-like behaviour hurts my brain. I failed science and maths at school so maybe I am missing something here. If you’re going to create life, don’t just illustrate reality as a technical demonstration or an illustration of your programming skills. Do something interesting with the concept. After all, reality is cheap real estate, it’s everywhere.

A safe bet

Recently I attended ACMI’s (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) presentation of visiting US artists Amy Youngs and Ken Rinaldo. Some of the work was really playful and interpreted Artificial Life in unusual and interesting ways. But then it hit me as their presentation unfolded, new media art often seems to implicitly be about informing and educating its audience of the important ‘issues’ at stake. This pedagogical tendency embraces the idea that art must be responsible and all about producing objects of virtue, from Bill Viola to local artists like Patricia Piccinini, or in critic Dave Hickey’s words, “Art that is good for you” (Air guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, Distributed Art Publishers, 1997).

After reading a bunch of statements by new media artists waxing lyrical my brain starts to hurt again. The argument that themes of biotechnology, synthetic nature, genetics etc are culturally significant and compelling ones is not the problem. What worries me is that new media artists are using basically prefabricated and already culturally validated themes to begin with, in other words, safe bets. It’s an exciting time for new media art, it can redefine the game, once it can get beyond the conventional modes of thinking about the inherent ‘goodness’ of art and realise that art doesn’t have to pay lip service to the ‘important issues’ or be socially redeeming to be interesting.

Please don’t call me a new media artist

These days the visual art crowd are picking up all manner of technology (that’s if they can get gallery assistants to turn on the power). The recent Biennale of Sydney had a variety of interesting works that could loosely be described as new media. They didn’t all plug into a wall, but many resulted from collaborative processes and often straddled myriad media forms, including digital animation, plasma screens and CD-ROM. Many would argue this is not ‘true’ new media, as it doesn’t connect with current discourses and research areas. So what? The looser and more open the definition of new media art the better.

New media art at various international institutions has finally come into its own within the parameters of the visual arts: San Francisco’s MOMA with its 101010 Art in Technological Times show of web work; the Whitney Biennial has a Net Art section and web art featured at the last Venice Biennale.

Meanwhile much new media art is locked into a very specific way of thinking about technology, art and its cultural value. This is odd for an area that is still developing. Exhibitions curated specifically around new media tend to ghettoise artists and artforms. Favourite international new media art events like Ars Electronica, ISEA and Siggraph embody the problem. Having participated in some of these events in the past, I am simply not interested in presenting work in such a narrow context. There’s also a conservative sensibility at such events which sees artists as more interested in the advances in technology than in advances in art (they are not the same thing).

Van Sowerwine, Play with me

Van Sowerwine, Play with me

Something wicked

Artists taking new media arts into exciting dimensions and beyond familiar territory include Vanessa Sowerwine with her installation Play with me (Next Wave, CCP). The work is an interactive video installation where the user, sitting inside a cubby house, controls the actions of an animated child. Adult bodies hunch over a screen and make the kid drink Drano or provoke a hissy when choosing the wrong response. With its freaky overtones, the user becomes implicated in the actions of the child. It is a refreshing angle on interactive art, perhaps a perverse and screwed up parody of Artificial Life.

US artist Charlie White’s highly memorable and totally mutant, digitally composited photographs depicting a haggard alien crashing parties in suburbia, could also be seen as a trashy version of Artificial Life, but with none of the baggage that is often associated with the area. While not strictly new media, but worth mentioning here, is Austrian experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold, known for his hyper-edited films such as Alone: Life wastes Andy Hardy (1998). Arnold’s work-in-progress involves developing software to erase actors from famous movies scenes, the inverse of the Hollywood wet dream of bringing actors back from the dead. Arnold plans to kill ‘em off once and for all.

With the Australian Centre for the Moving Image about to open in Melbourne, it’s a great time for the media arts in Australia. Hopefully ACMI can function as a showcase for this kind of work. While ACMI have clearly spent lots of money to keep the interior designers happy, I hope it has the vision to present not only the prestigious international movers and shakers, but also work that doesn’t easily slot into curatorial agendas—work that is problematic and hard to characterise; that’s new media art for me.

Thanks to Darren Tofts.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 5

© Ian Haig; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002