some critical views on art and culture today
break: loop >> The Emergence of New Media Concepts
Isjtar (aka Junior)
When people come in contact with new media art (your coinage may vary), they are often puzzled by a seeming lack of conceptual content.
Compared to other contemporary forms of art, the way to comprehend and engage a work seems less obvious. There are usually no personal hooks of The Artist, the reason why a technological approach is taken is unclear and an indulgence in abstraction seems to make the work void of substance.
What easily gets overlooked and more often than not goes unclarified, is the implied world view in a large branch of experimental media arts.
I'll touch on some constructs that are central to this world view, although I have to limit myself for the sake of brevity.
'Emergent behavior', 'the algorithm', 'the generative' etc. are not only terrific buzz words, they are also the strands of which a universe is created and the looking glass through which reality is observed.
Emergent behavior is the driving force behind many complex systems. From the interaction of multiple relatively simple units novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties arise without anyone or anything steering the process.
An algorithm is a set of instructions to execute. This ranges from cooking recipes to computer programs. Algorithms can be considered the methods that underpin processes.
Generative art takes algorithms to generate artworks. Using this method, an artwork is never exactly the same twice. This emphasizes the importance of the process in media art.
As you can generate as many instances of an artwork as your system can handle, the individual work, which in many other forms of art takes on the value of an object, is just a snapshot of a dynamic entity.
If you take the concepts described above and combine them with the never ceasing impact of technology on society and life, the tension between a modernist and an organic approach, it makes for a deep and relevant field that needs to be tapped into by artists so inclined.
It's a view that invites to see the world as a dynamic, ever-changing kaleidoscopic structure of subprocesses. The sheer fascination of looking for emergent patterns everywhere, seeing self-similarity in trees and clouds, looking for patterns in how streams of people organize, how they communicate and how they form networks and build urban tissue is a an ever tantalizing challenge.
This way of looking at the world can be compared to the change of perspective that was thrust upon us by the first space photography of earth, of realizing that there's a form of external eye and that we're on this blue sphere together.
Having acquired such a view is enriching, as is any world view. But being a layman in such fields, as most artists and the public are, it can be tempting to jump to conclusions, make false analogies and most importantly attach value to them.
For example from an algorithmic viewpoint, one can understand that a centrally led economy can't work due to a lack of bottom-up input. The idea of an anarchist society makes perfect sense when observing autonomous agents, an example of emergence, but one easily goes one abstraction too far, one reduction too absurd and one extrapolation too pointless.
Arriving at this point, I can imagine some readers being puzzled about a pervasive confusion of art and science in this article. This confusion isn't at all troubling, considering that art and science strongly connect through history and practice.
Furthermore, one can consider this relationship as similar to the relation between science and philosophy which is broadly accepted. Science can offer topics and methods that reflect the state of society and artists can elaborate on them, not being limited by the scientific method and introducing them in culture.
An important angle to this is that it excludes art which is based on the persona of the artist, in the form of intuition and introspection.
Introspection and intuition have proven to be very poor and limited methods when applied to certain phenomena, exactly those which artists are often interested in.
What consciousness, perception, society, politics, nature, time and many other subjects is concerned, an approach based on the concepts described above and related fields is vastly more grounded and interesting.
The adage *life imitating art* might now have taken on a completely new meaning: what's more fascinating than life and art evolving along the same algorithms?
In the previous section, I've sketched the conceptual framework for generative new media art.
Such an approach has a number of consequences for the production, presentation and perception of new media art.
For a new media artist, 'renting technicians' is a dead end. If an artist doesn't understand the technical possibilities and limitations of the followed path, he cannot understand his own artwork.
Furthermore, technicians and engineers in the narrow sense wouldn't work with the same mindset, leaving a void between the conceptual-aesthetical aspect and the technical execution. Such a distinction goes against the nature of media art. This approach often leads to a threadmill of mounting budgets and disappointing developments.
Should every artist be an engineer? This a wrong interpretation of the problem.
There seems to be a reluctance, fear even, of engaging technology from a non-user perspective.
Anyone able to use a computer can learn basic programming concepts, a command line or to solder. The goal is not to make elite programming geniuses. The goal is to be able to sync your mind with the technology at hand. In the case of programming, it is about sequential thinking and visualization. If you can handle this, you can communicate with your peers to form what is the most natural organism for producing media art, the collective.
While traditional art schools don't provide too much in the area of programming tools, many organizations such as goto10.org and xmedk.be provide free or cheap workshops to get you going.
I'm personally not a proficient coder in anything other than my favourite tool Max-MSP. However, having acquired a minimum of system-logic, this allows to communicate with people with other skills, or to make small adaptions to available free code to fit my/our projects.
The same goes for scientific research. You don't have to be a scientist to tap into the work of certain researcher. Especially in the United States, it is common practice to publish books that are accessible to 'the intelligent layman'. Integrating this with vulgarizing works or perhaps more specialized articles is not as daunting as it seems.
For my Mai project for example, I dug into artificial intelligence and creativity. A very complex matter, but from an artistic point of view, it was quite possible to absorb this in a way that makes for an interesting angle.
The learning path and exploration involved in the production of new media art has its repercussions on the presentation. It tends to be more process-based. This is often misunderstood. Due to the complex entanglement between concept, technology and aesthetic, a new media work is never finished nor does it have to take on a fixed form.
During development, the balance shifts between these aspects. A conceptual sketch can evolve into a technical proof of concept, to a full-fledged installation, a performance with the installation, a recording, an internet stream or anything else one can come up with.
Formal classifications such as these are subordinate to the process that is exposed.
A caveat however is that, at a certain stage it should Just Work. This is perhaps the biggest challenge, the 'magic' of technological works only comes across when executed in a way that can be understood by the public. But small tricks that come from some basic knowledge of perception go a long way to build captivating works.
When artists make this type of work, it requires a different attitude from organizations.
Good new media works are often site-specific or site-adapted. They also generally have an auditive component. The classical exhibition venues are not prepared for these requirements. The horror of having many installations producing sound in the same, acoustically unfit space is unacceptable.
Cubicle setups aren't the answer either. For new media installations, which are often interactive, it's a claustrophobic setting which detriments the experience.
I'd suggest leaving the megalomanic hall-based festivals for what they are, unless they have exceptional architectural possibilities. Instead, organizers should focus on a few good installations, performances or better still, take the art out of the confined space into public areas or onto the internet.
For the public there are some more things to take into consideration.
The classical distinction between creator and public is blurred. Communication goes two ways, especially in interactive and participative works. The participant has an active role to make the work come to fruition.
Furthermore, collective works cannot be judged as part of an oeuvre of a specific artist. The work stands apart as the result of a temporary, non-hierarchical bond between several individuals with similar interests.
Isjtar makes electronic music and new media art. He has a profound
fascination for all things that underpin the mind, perception and reality.
He is a core-member of OKNO, Society of Algorithm, Code31 and works with
several other artists and collectives such as Jeroen Uyttendaele,
Shelbatra Jashari, Masato Tsutsui, Machine Centered Humanz and So-on.