ZKM, Sydney & the Art & New Media Detente

Adam Geczy

Morphologies took not only the form of an exhibition of new works of art for show, it consisted of a series of aesthetic propositions. At its most challenging, Morphologies sought to suggest that moving images were viable within the realms of fine art, whose static and spatial nature traditionally distinguishes it from the more linear, temporal arts of music and literature. The 3 presiding questions with technological and new media arts is first, whether it is a passing fad, and second, whether it is a separate genre, or third, whether it simply continues aspects of previous genres in a new way. Bridging, or solving this—at least for the short term—is interactivity. The question is, is it really as inclusive as we would have ourselves believe? More than any institution in the world so far, ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie), the gargantuan centre for new media arts in Karlsruhe in Germany, has been responsible for enabling media arts and its attendant debates to flourish. While staking ambitious claims for a still emergent genre, Morphologies represented the institutional nexus between ZKM artists (including 2 of its directors, Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel) and Australians who have recently worked there.

In the Black Forest region near the Swiss border, Karlsruhe is situated in the region of Baden-Württemberg whose capital, Stuttgart, is home to Daimler-Benz, and one of the wealthiest regions in Europe. Karlsruhe, a relatively minor city, is nevertheless graced with several significant collections and buildings to house them, beginning with the state museum, a rococo palace completed in 1785. The art academy in Karlsruhe is remembered as the place where Anselm Kiefer was a student and where Baselitz once taught painting and Stephan Balkenhol sculpture. And the argument for a centre for new media arts was no doubt bolstered by Karlsruhe having one of Europe’s largest institutes for computer sciences. By virtue of all these factors the founding director, Heinrich Klotz, persuaded the city to put up DM 154 million (at least 165 million in today’s Australian dollars) for the renovation of a former munitions factory built in 1919. Dreamt of in 1985, realised in 1988, the structure redesigned by Peter Schweger is so large that the megalomania of Wilhelmine Germany is not forgotten: the facade alone is the length of 6 Olympic swimming pools.

ZKM houses the Institutes for Visual Media and for Music & Acoustics, a Media Museum whose purpose is to show recent examples of new media experiments and historical antecedents side-by-side, and a Museum for Contemporary Art whose main purpose is to place examples of new media together with those of painting, sculpture, photography and object-installation. For a long time, by policy and example, this museum was unmatched in its vision to reorient and restructure visual awareness to the increasingly digitalised future. The main departments are complemented with a variety of visual and audial reserves embodied in the Mediathek, boasting comprehensive interdisciplinary material that links art, music, literature and the moving image. Finally, ZKM has offered long, short and intermittent residencies for artists to develop their work and to take advantage of the sophisticated equipment and assistance. The collaboration SKAN shown in Morphologies began with 2 Australian students developing their practice in this environment. They are the youngest of a great many Australian artists who have availed themselves of the technological milk and honey that ZKM appeared to have in abundance. Only funding constraints of late, and some internal wrangling between the 2 museums, has slowed the progress of such programs.

Klotz envisaged his ‘Digital Bauhaus’, as it has been called, as the place that elided and renegotiated fixed ‘isms’ and laid the ground for the established definition of new media as a fluid and boundary-disrupting tendency. Whether this is so is open to question, but I am inclined to the idea that too much openness in certain hands has its commensurate dangers. Klotz repeatedly insisted that the essential criterion was quality—needless to say; but with a policy of openness this can be a standard devilishly hard to monitor. And this unresolved, gapingly open area contributed to Klotz’s downfall.

The principal hallmarking of Morphologies is not only technological art (because, depending on where and when you are in the world, new media can mean a voluminous amount of things—a catch-all for all that breaks with the norm), but interactivity, a principle that seems to be gaining notice. Now, I am genuinely guarded, if not sceptical, about interactivity—in an exclusive and an overarching sense. I might ask artists and curators (and an acquiescent public) at this point whether they are drawn to the notion of interactivity as a result of economic rationalism which says that we need to seek out avenues that openly encourage and involve public awareness (since we are all now ‘accountable’ in one way or another). This is a philosophy of enforced inclusion, something of a draconian democratisation.

More often than not, with interactivity, viewers are lulled into believing that they are creating something for themselves, when the permutations conceived of by the artist are relatively limited. In such cases, the success or failure of a work can be determined quite quickly for the way that such limitations are taken into account and woven into a tight aesthetic fabric. At worst, the choices themselves, constrained as they may be, can inhibit the work’s cohesion and cause it to disperse and founder, the viewer giving up early on this random choosing, not knowing where choices and combinations may lead. Artists and curators need to keep in mind that the inclination of the viewer to participate in a work of art can be limited. Making art is about choices—intuitive, refined and reasoned choices all at once—and everyday viewers are perhaps not that interested in integrating their own choices along with the work they have come to see and consider. On the other hand, interactivity can be a powerful tool to penetrate an artist’s personal logic of assembly. The viewer literally moves within a variety of frames, much like inhabiting the artist’s dream for a short while. The feeling of being active brings with it an unusual degree of confidence; viewers are led to believe that they are partaking directly in the artist’s methods. With the viewer presumably responsible for shuffling through frames or images or structuring the work’s tempo and rhythm, so far, interactivity involves 2 approaches: the installation modifies according to specific triggers activated by a viewer’s movement; or, through voluntary prompts, the program—and supposedly the work of art—is the raw material for the viewer’s own realisation. Overall, Morphologies largely enabled the latter.

The 3 works that stood out were by Susan Norrie, Agnes Hegedüs and Ian Howard, for they clearly exemplified solutions, problems and strategies which interactivity has provoked and inspired up until now. All 3 suggested very strongly that interactivity is a form of collage but whether the artists discerned this intentionally is another matter; the 3 works shared the political intent which made, and still makes, collage—with its collapsing of spaces, languages and styles—so sympathetic. Hegedüs’ Things Spoken was a series of identities coupled to their favourite or most meaningful objects, whetting the viewer’s curiosity, ultimately remarking that the personal importance of things is both arbitrary and permanently foreign to anyone else. It was the most literary work, better suited to a website. As a CD-ROM, it sat rather coldly within the gallery. (The exhibition was accompanied by an independent publication dis(LOCATIONS) with DVD, intended as a portable, personal, digital micro-exhibition.)

Ian Howard’s SweetStalking was an elaborate grid of images each in a recessed frame comprising other distorted images. Each frame was an emblem for a brief scene, so that the viewer could independently compose a broken sequence. The overly disjointed nature of the work was compensated for by the intriguing and, in places, poetic nature of the scenes.

Susan Norrie’s Defile was a cogent piece, surprisingly harmonious with her non-time-based works. The line between political and non-political work is always anathema, since the most oblique can carry the most forceful message, delivered by stealth. Norrie’s work is characterised by a dramatic coupling of the most obvious with the most abstruse. On one level, it was about birds that had been incapacitated through damage done to the environment but, on another, the viewer was made into a kind of vivisectionist, a clinical observer, allied to technology rather than nature. Since the viewer was made to skip and edit the work and was given the power to alter the speed of the scenes, a certain push-and-pull was inescapable: the necessary abstract uselessness of art vs the moral imperative in images that are provocative and emotive.

As a kind of climax to the entire exhibition was Dennis Del Favero’s Angelo Nero or dark angel—about the Sydney boy, agonised by his father missing in service in the Balkans, who brought a gun to school—that inescapably spelled out the media arts to be ‘hot’ in McLuhan’s sense of the term, wrapping viewers up in its mysteries and, in this case, arresting them within a psycho-sexual drama that we willingly repress or ignore. If the eeriness of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series lies in alerting us to how desensitised we have become (thus ‘cold’) to tragedy processed by the media, then Del Favero mobilises an authentic terror withheld by the media, one that we prefer to relegate to the realms of fiction.

Morphologies, curators Nicholas Tsoutas & Nick Waterlow, Artspace & Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney, Nov 22-Dec 15

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 24

© Adam Geczy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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