Tag Archives: net art

Ghosts in the media art machine

Kinetica Art Fair. Photo: flickr.com/jellybean

Kinetica Art Fair. Photo: flickr.com/jellybean

It’s one of those what-do-you-call-it dilemmas. In the way that ‘Artists’ Film and Video’ has embraced and displaced terms like ‘avant-garde’, ‘experimental film’ and ‘video art’, so ‘(New) Media Art’ has kicked out ‘digital art’, ‘interactive art’ and so forth as a useful name for a messy field of practice. Myself, I cleave to ‘net.art’ (or even ‘internet art’) in the way that I prefer ‘experimental film’: not because I think it’s a better and more descriptive term, but because I both prefer a specific area of practice (work with the medium of film; work with the medium of the internet), and feel that practice needs some kind of nominal recognition and differentiation. Which isn’t to say that Media Art doesn’t need defending, not least from its juvenile detractors, just that I prefer art that starts with the internet.

The funny thing is that Media Art can be an envelope even when its address isn’t on the label. This year’s Kinetica Art Fair and the V&A’s current Decode exhibition occupy very similar ground (and one or more artists). Strangely, neither of them use the term ‘media art’, but pitch themselves in terms of their own traditions: kinetic art in the case of Kinetica, and design in the case of the V&A.

Kinetica is definitely the cooler of the two: you can tell from the euroartchicks manning the front desk. It costs eight pounds to get in, and at ten o’clock when the doors open exhibitors are still setting up and plugging in their creations. The vast concrete bunker of P3 features plenty of neon and LEDs, but little wifi. I bump into an eastern European businesswomen I know whose conversational strategy consists of staring at you a bit awkwardly until a chance to mention her product arises.

Kinetica makes a point of signposting its heritage: at the back of the hall are ‘Kinetic Masters’ including work by Jasia Reichardt and Jean Tinguely, Bruce Lacey’s R.O.S.A. B.O.S.O.M. robot from the ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity, and a Liliane Lijn poem machine, Get Rid of Government Time. There’s a film by John  Dunbar shot in and around the Indica Gallery, containing some tantalising shots of the Post Office Tower that I want to add to my influences. Gaberbocchus press, the link with the Themersons and the European avant-garde doesn’t have a stand this year like last, but their books are on sale in the shop.

Jasia Reichardt’s essay in the catalogue posits the digital work in a grander tradition, claiming of kinetic art as a meta-category:

Kinetic art represents a range of heroic art manifestations that constantly cross those boundaries that any established art form, group, or movement builds around itself with time.

There are a lot of works here which are simply kinetic: beautifully-moving sculptures to pick and drop, push, or blow. Most of the work here, however, owes something to digitality, is computer generated or designed; was born or lives in a network.

Staples of the fair are individual exhibitors and graduate collectives. Hugh Turvey, currently working with the British Institute of Radiology makes x-ray animations by taking appliances to pieces, x-raying them, and then reconstructing movements with software. The most striking piece is two skeletal hands playing round after round of stone-scissors-paper. Lots of his still and moving works are brightly-coloured in a way that generic medical x-rays aren’t. Turvey’s partially colour-blind himself, but he says that using computer technology to add colour to the images gives him a confidence in their appearance.

From the Goldsmith’s MFA stable Ric Carvalho’s Global Warming uses a pressure-sensitive pad mounted on a urinal linked to a Google Earth display to allow you to piss all over the world (using a bottle of water of course). Other works respond to the human body: Interactive AgentsHydro-Acoustic Big Bang Filter allows you to control water levels and a rising tone by moving your hand through a cut-off beam; Monomatic’s P.E.A.L. is a laser-triggered virtual campanile you can walk around and around, ringing bells (one pre-teen makes circuit after circuit in a having-arty-parents version of zoo psychosis).

At the corporate end of the spectrum are some earnest-looking types from NESTA plugging a project they proudly announce as ‘fascinating’ (why not leave that to the audience to decide?); just outside the doors Ben Perry and Jacques Chauchat’s Milk Float is at the more industrial end of the creative ‘industries’ and wouldn’t look out of place with the Mutoid Waste Company.

There’s also some reification at work here. A certain kind of artwork appears at an art fair. It might have its roots firmly in the internet, but Mark Napier’s PAM (Untitled), an uneasily fluxing chimera generated from images of Pamela Anderson found online is an editioned work, something to buy and own. Likewise, the films of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries embody almost exactly the kinetic relationship between text and meaning that Liliane Lijn’s Poem Machines do, but (while YHC have done gallery work) you won’t find a place for freely downloadable flash movies in an art fair.

Meanwhile over in South Kensington at the V&A, it’s manifestly less cool, but only a fiver to get in, with a chunky catalogue thrown in free. ‘Digital Design Sensation’ is a curious subtitle for the show. There’s nothing particularly designy about it at all – most of the work here is simply screen-based or interactive art. What in particular would distinguish ‘digital’ design these days, anyway? Almost all design happens on computers. If it were necessary to highlight specifically digital aspects of design, the V&A’s own China show in 2008 made a better job of it, demonstrating the appeal of mass access to the design of vinyl toys, for example.

An aesthetic of fragmenting polygons and networked nodes dominates the screen works in Decode as it does in Kinetica. The internet as an idea is present in Decode, theorised and abstracted in the manner of the finer arts. Fabrica’s Exquisite Clock, a chronometric display constructed from photographs submitted online is prefaced by typical curatorspeak: “This networked world has provided the basis and tools for works of art and design that are multi-sited and global.” (Go on, read that again and try to figure out what it actually means).

The pieces that dominate, though, and the biggest overlap with Kinetica are the works that react to or record the movements of the spectator, responding to sound and body movement. These are typically slicker and more colourful than found at Kinetica: Yoke’s Dandelion allows you to blow the fluffy seeds off same with a hairdryer. Mehmet Akten’s Body Paint reacts to your body’s movements by releasing glorious washes of colour.

While this kind of work certainly fetishises ‘interactivity’ its also undermines its own status as an art object with the fact that it wouldn’t be much fun to own one. Imagine setting it up and turning it on in your big home, calibrating the camera and then standing in front of it, throwing lonely handfuls of brightly-coloured virtual sand at yourself. Art like this only works in a gallery, with other people to queue behind (even the V&A’s typically hideous middle class punters who don’t like you getting in their way when you’re taking pictures of them and the art), play with and discover how the pieces work. The V&A has this over Kinetica: it’s not a club or a marketplace, it’s a publicly-funded gallery, a place of collective entertainment, and this makes a subtle but monumentally important difference to the nature of the experience.

The V&A’s aware of  its responsibility to the public too, and the ‘user-generated content’ component of Decode’s online presence (‘get involved’) is a challenge to redesign Karsten Schmidt’s identity for the show. It’s interesting in that it actually requires some work, and is craft/code based (like the Science Museum’s Cosmic Collections mash-up competition) rather than aesthetic or one-dimensional, appealing to a constituency who are already engaged. Nevertheless, it remains limited to the show’s marketing identity: online contributors are kept at a safe distance from the actual art.

Perhaps Media Art is a temporary umbrella covering phenomena that will eventually go their separate ways; perhaps Kinetica and the V&A feel their own traditions are longer-lasting. It still seems strange that two exhibitions share such a large common ground but should be pitched and presented so differently. While I’ve always felt that net.art was the ghost in media art’s machine, media art itself seems to be doing the haunting at the moment.

Unlimited

Keith Tyson, History Painting

Keith Tyson, History Painting

In a co-promo with The Guardian this morning, Keith Tyson gave away ‘5,000 original works for free’ — the process basically involved slashdotting Tyson’s own cumbersome flash-heavy site until you arrived at a screen where you could type in your own location, which would then generate a roulette-striped print for you, part of an online extension of his series of History Paintings.

If you missed out, here’s mine: download it and print it out (A3 recommended). Does this decrease the value of my ‘edition’ of the work (£100 is the starting price on on eBay)? Does it decrease the value of the edition as a whole? I doubt it, any more than printing the work out and blutacking it above the stationery cupboard to ‘share’ with my colleagues does. Aesthetically, it has some kinship with Maya Roos’ defrag paintings, but for all the fiddling around with randomness and generativity going on in this work, the idea of ‘editions’ is fundamentally pretty antithetical to the internet, a domain of infinite reproducibility, and the ‘released at noon’ gimmick a rather tired stunt.

On the morning that the Guardian came with a sheet of christmas wrapping paper ‘designed’ by Sienna Miller, we should probably allow for some seasonal lowering of standards. But there’s something truly sophomoric about Charlotte Higgins’ assertion that “Tyson’s attempt to colonise the web highlights how little, in fact, mainstream artists have harnessed its possibilities”.

In fact the really puzzling question is why mainstream contemporary art has so little interest in the possibilities and problems created by the internet. At the end of the article Higgins can do no more than assert that today’s art students watch YouTube and know about UbuWeb, which are both mostly vast archives of media objects. They’re each in their own way critical repositories of artistic history, but neither has much to do with any kind of online practice.

The disavowal of the internet might have something to do with the financialisation of the artworld so slobberingly documented by Sarah Thornton which demands a kind of differential pricing (original works for the collectors, editions for the serious fans, and mass market prints for the plebs), to achieve maximum market penetration. The web’s good for selling stuff like this, but work which is infinitely-reproducible, non-object, collectively created, ephemeral or politically aggressive, as online art tends to be, doesn’t really add any value for anyone but the audience.

Charlie Gere has a more in-depth analysis on CRUMB:

Institutions such as the ICA or Tate are absolutely invested in the quasi-religious mystagogy of contemporary art … This is I think the source of their resistance to New Media Art, which for me is like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain to reveal that the great Oz, the big Other, is nothing but a funny little man manipulating some levers and shouting into a microphone, or in other words art is nothing but a manipulation of material means and techniques. This is perhaps why NMA does not invoke the kind of emotional reactions that other Art does. That is perhaps both its strength and its weakness. It repudiates the mystagogical claims to transcendence that Art still needs to be believed in. No wonder Eshun and Bourriaud and all the others don’t want to have anything to do with it. It is not in their interests to have the curtain drawn back, which NMA arguably does by engaging in the fundamental technicity of all art through its own practice, which is otherwise disavowed. They’d rather have the big green shouty head.

which only suffers a little from the recursive what-is-art quandary of academic art discourse.

Apparently, Tyson also “hopes to exploit its possibilities more fully, by creating communities and open forums for discussions.” That’ll put him in direct and pointless competition with everyone from ArtReview to Facebook, then. (Remember when David Bowie transformed himself into an ISP? He can’t even keep his own website up to date these days.) Good luck with that, Keith.

If you’re interested in internet-based art, two of my personal recommendations are Harwood’s Uncomfortable Proximity and Tomoko Takahashi’s Word Perhect, both a few years old, but imho still politically and aesthetically valid. For a historical perspective, read Vuk Cosic or Olia Lialina. Visit the HTTP Gallery. Look at runme.org, ljudmila, furtherfield.org, and even Rhizome. But don’t expect to learn much from a Turner Prize winner.