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New Media from Borges to html

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Lev Manovich

New Media from Borges to HTML

(commissioned for The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, The MIT Press, forthcoming).

New Media Field: a Short Institutional History

The appearance of New Media Reader is a milestone in the history a new field that, just a few years ago, was somewhat of a cultural underground. Before taking up the theoretical challenge of defining what new media actually is, as well as discussing the particular contributions this reader makes to answering this question, I would like very briefly to sketch the history of the field for the benefit of whose who are newcomers to it.

If we are to look at any modern cultural field sociologically, measuring its standing by the number and the importance of cultural institutions devoted to it such as museum exhibitions, festivals, publications, conferences, and so on, we can say that in the case of new media (understood as computer-based artistic activities) it took about ten years for it to move from cultural periphery to the mainstream. Although SIGGRAPH in the U.S. and Ars Electronica in Austria have already acted as annual gathering places of artists working with computers since the late 1970s, the new media field begins to take real shape only in the end of the 1980s. At the end of the 1990s new institutions devoted to the production and support for new media art are founded in Europe: ZKM in Karlsruhe (1989), New Media Institute in Frankfurt (1990) and ISEA (Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts) in the Netherlands (1990). (Jeffrey Shaw was appointed to be director of the part of ZKM focused on visual media while Frankfurt Institute was headed by Peter Weibel). In 1990 as well, Intercommunication Center in Tokyo begins its activities in new media art (it moves into its own building in 1997). Throughout the 1990s, Europe and Japan remained to be the best places to see new media work and to participate in high-level discussions of the new field. Festivals such as ISEA, Ars Electronica, DEAF have been required places of pilgrimage for interactive installation artists, computer musicians, choreographers working with computers, media curators, critics, and, since the mid 1990s, net artists.

As it was often the case throughout the twentieth century, countries other than the States would be first to critically engage with new technologies developed and deployed in the U.S. There are a few ways to explain this phenomenon. Firstly, the speed with which new technologies are assimilated in the U.S. makes them “invisible” almost overnight: they become an assumed part of the everyday existence, something which does not seem to require much reflection about. The more slow speed of assimilation and the higher cost gives other countries more time to reflect upon new technologies, as it was the case with new media and the Internet in the 1990s. In the case of Internet, by the end of the 1990s it became as commonplace in the U.S. as the telephone, while in Europe Internet still remained a phenomenon to reflect upon, both for economic reasons (in the U.S. subscribers would play very low monthly flat fee; in Europe they had to pay by the minute) and for cultural reasons (more skeptical attitude towards new technologies in many European countries which slows down their assimilation). (So when in the early 1990s Soros Foundation has set up contemporary art centers throughout the Eastern Europe, it wisely gave them a mandate to focus their activities on new media art, both in order to support younger artists who had difficulty getting around the more established “art mafia” in these countries; and also in order to introduce general public to the Internet.)

Secondly, we can explain the slowness of the U.S. engagement with new media art during the 1990s by the very minimal level of the public support for the arts there. In Europe, Japan, and Australia, festivals for media and new media art such as the ones I mentioned above, the commissions for artists to create such work, exhibition catalogs and other related cultural activities were funded by the governments. In the U.S. the lack of government funding for the arts left only two cultural players which economically could have supported creative work in new media: anti-intellectual, market and cliché driven commercial mass culture and equally commercial art culture (i.e., the art market). For different reasons, neither of these players would support new media art nor would it foster intellectual discourse about it. Out of the two, commercial culture (in other words, culture designed for mass audiences) has played a more progressive role in adopting and experimenting with new media, even though for obvious reasons the content of commercial new media products had severe limits. Yet without commercial culture we would not have computer games using Artificial Intelligence programming, network-based multimedia, including various Web plug-ins which enable distribution of music, moving images and 3-D environment over the Web, sophisticated 3-D modeling, animation and rendering tools, database-driven Web sites, CD-ROMs, DVD, and other storage formats, and most other advanced new media technologies and forms.

The 1990s U.S. art world proved to be the most conservative cultural force in contemporary society, lagging behind the rest of cultural and social institutions in dealing with new media technologies. (In the 1990s a standard joke at new media festivals was that a new media piece requires two interfaces: one for art curators, and one for everybody else). This resistance is understandable given that the logic of the art world and the logic of new media are exact opposites. The first is based the romantic idea of authorship which assumes a single author; the notion of a unique, one of a kind art object; and the control over the distribution of such objects which takes place through a set of exclusive places: galleries, museums, actions). The second privileges the existence of potentially numerous copies, infinitely large number of different states of the same work, author-user symbiosis (the user can change the work through interactivity), the collective, collaborative authorship, and network distribution (which bypasses the art system distribution channels). Moreover, exhibition of new media requires a level of technical sophistication and computer equipment which neither U.S. Museums nor galleries were able to provide in the 1990s. In contrast, in Europe generous federal and regional funding allowed not only for mountings of sophisticated exhibitions but also for the development of a whole new form of art: interactive computer installation. It is true that after many years of its existence, the U.S. art world learned how to deal with and in fact fully embraced video installation, but video installations requires standardized equipment and they don’t demand constant monitoring, as it is the case with interactive installations and even with Web pieces. While in Europe equipment-intensive form of interactive installation has flourished throughout the 1990s, U.S. art world has taken an easy way by focusing on “net art” i.e. Web-based pieces whose exhibition does not require much resources beyond a off-the-shelf computer and a Net connection.

All this started to change with the increasing speed by the end of the 1990s. Various cultural institutions in the U.S. finally begun to pay attention to new media. The first were education institutions. Around 1995 Universities and the art schools, particularly on the West Coast, begin to initiate program in new media art and design as well as open faculty positions in these areas; by the beginning of the new decade, practically every University and art school on the West Coast had both undergraduate and graduate programs in new media. A couple of years later museums such as Walker Art Center begun to mount a number of impressive online exhibitions and started to commission online projects. 2000 Whitney Biannual included a room dedicated to net art (even though its presentation conceptually was ages behind the presentation of new media in such places as Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Intercommunication Center in Tokyo, or ZKM in Germany). Finally in 2001, both Whitney Museum in New York and San Francisco Museum of Modern art (SFMOMA) have mounted large survey exhibitions of new media art (Bitstreams at the Whitney, 010101: Art in Technological Times at SFMOMA). Add to this constant flow of conferences and workshops mounted in such bastions of American Academia as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton; fellowships in new media initiated by such prestigious funding bodies as Rockefeller Foundation and Social Science Research Council (both were started in 2001); book series on new media published by such well-respected presses as the MIT Press (this book is a part of such a series). What ten years ago was a cultural underground became an established academic and artistic field; what has emerged from on the ground interactions of individual players has solidified, matured, and acquired institutional forms.

Paradoxically, at the same time as new media field has started to mature (the end of the 1990s), its very reason for existence came to be threatened. If all artists now, regardless of their preferred media, also routinely use digital computers to create, modify and produce works, do we need to have a special field of new media art? As digital and network media are rapidly became an omni-presence in our society, and as most artists came to routinely use it, new media field is facing a danger of becoming a ghetto whose participants would be united by their fetishism of latest computer technology, rather than by any deeper conceptual, ideological or aesthetic issues – a kind of local club for photo enthusiasts. I personally do think that the existence of a separate new media field now and in the future makes very good sense, but it does require a justification – something that I hope the rest of this text that will take up more theoretical questions will help to provide.

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