[These are notes for a possible introductory text.]
What is media art?
Forgive me, I know this is a dumb, dumb question…
Vere simply, media art is not a clear category. It is not as though you can simply clarify the concept of media, marry it up to the concept of art and then you are done. For a start, media and art are not entirely easy bedfellows. They have a long history of attraction and repulsion. Andreass Huyssens argues that the early 20th century avant-garde were fascinated by the visceral shock of new technological forms of representation and communication (photography, film, etc.), drawing these qualities within art through strategies of collage, chance, fragmentation and the like. At the opposite pole, the high modernism associated with Clement Greenberg’s reduction of painting to colour and surface represents a deliberate turn away from the mechanical cacophony of popular media. More recently there has been an on-going tension within contemporary art between all manner of apparent centers and peripheries. Whether it is supporters of traditional forms of modern art lamenting the spread of projected video works or the supporters of post-object installation art decrying the political and aesthetic naivete of digital-interactive work, media more often figures as a point of contention than agreement.
One approach may be to discuss the concept of media and then link it to the concept of art. I will pursue this approach, but need to acknowledge at the outset that it is naive. Names are curious things. Their meaning is not totally locked up in the name itself. The meaning of media art is not entirely etymological. It draws on an historical, institutional context.
Leaving aside the vexed question of how to define art, let’s begin by considering the concept of media. We typically think of media in terms of various technological systems of representation and communication. The media refer to things like photography, film, newspapers, radio, television and the Internet. These take shape not only as a technological forms but also as cultural and institutional fields, involving political, commercial and social dimensions. In the complex, globalised, contemporary world, the media appear as a plurality of mechanisms for provisionally linking together and differentiating various strands of the cultural universe. There is much more that we can say about media, but let’s begin with just this notion of technologically mediated systems of communication.
Ways of engaging with media:
- produced with… (technological definition)
- exploring through… (positioned as creative medium, but regarding the means as unproblematically constituted)
- speculating within/beyond… (finding purchase in the interstices of the existent – drawing out other conceptions of media, particularly at a formal-aesthetic level)
- obliquely reflecting upon… (sometimes by turning away from media – Bourriaud’s “law of relocation”)
- directly reflecting upon… (considering/addressing media)
- interventions within… (activist critique)
Media art is typically associated with practices that employ media technologies to produce art. If the video medium qualifies as a form of ‘media’ while painting or something else equally medium-specific does not this is because painting appears as a traditional, material-craft based activity, while video is more apparently enmeshed in modern technological forms and systems of communication. However, the issue is complex. In its characteristic avoidance of modern media, painting can be regarded as providing an oblique critique of contemporary media. This highlights the need to think beyond narrowly technical conceptions of media art. Beyond creative experimentation with media technologies, media art can also represent a conceptual, critical and aesthetic engagement with contemporary systems of representation and communication. This need not necessarily involve the explicit use of photography, video, computational code, etc. All manner of materials – water, wood, live bodies, even paint on campus – may provide effective means for reflecting on the current state of media. (Consider Bourriaud)
There are other possibilities as well. Media art practice increasingly considers the history of media forms.
Within this context, when you enter a Media Arts program you expect to produce audio-visual projects, whether in terms of traditional, linear time-based work or in terms of contemporary forms of electronic, networked or installation-based new media. It becomes then a matter of producing art with contemporary tools and engaging critically and creatively with the current state of media.
We say that something comes in “immediate contact with skin” to suggest that the contact is direct, that there is nothing intervening between object and skin. Similarly, we say something “happens immediately” to suggest that it occurs without delay. Immediacy represents a state of being unproblematically present both in space and time. It is the opposite of the mediate, which involves distance, separation, delay and a corresponding, positive work of intercession. Instead of immediately speaking to a person, we employ a text or a phone call. The latter media act as relays, as intermediaries. But equally instead of directly communicating our thoughts and feelings to another person we employ the media of language and non-verbal communication. These most apparently intimate forms of communication serve as means for crossing the inevitable divide that separates the inner experiences of any two people. This suggests that mediation is not something restricted to just the more obvious forms of separation. It affects even those areas of our lives that we regards as most immediate.
Middle..means. As means it is not seen until it fails. McLuhan switches focus from message to mediumgive