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 Agents’ Hydro-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.