Reflections on new media

I use a computer daily as my Swiss army knife for self-expression, education, work and community building, but I’m not sure it’s possible for me to ever totally grok the culture of digital media. It’s like a scab that we can’t help picking. Maybe it’s addictive and we need to use it responsibly. Or maybe our use of it will level out eventually. I love it, I would hate to live without it, but I’m not sure I trust it.

The first time I turned on my very own computer with a user-friendly interface, I was dancing and hollering for days. Layers! Hyperlinks! Scanning! Video capture! Sound mixing! The creative possibilities were overwhelming. I never dreamed that in my lifetime I would be able to combine complex visual images, sound, text and film – this was how my mind naturally worked! My peers didn’t get the empowerment of software and thought the internet was just a fad. I, on the other hand, was so blown away that I hopped on a single-prop to Crested Butte, Colorado to attend the Digital Storytelling Festival and connect with other like-minded geeks. It was there I met some of the early creative pioneers and renegades of new media and web-based arts, like the late artist Dana Atchley; Justin Hall, the first blogger; Joe Lambert, founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling; the designer of a CD-ROM interactive adaptation of the Griffin and Sabine trilogy developed by Peter Gabriel’s Real World company; and Nathan Shedroff, an early proponent of personal branding and experiential design.  But in equal force and sponsoring the event were corporations like Kodak and Adobe. It was a brave new world; it was also a wild west ticket to a new and extremely potent form of advertising.

With a new virtual continent to conquer, people pushed the limits and blurred the lines between art and commercial design. There were experiments in literary hypertext. Despite bandwidth limits of 56K, Aurelia Harvey made some of the most poignantly beautiful gifs I have ever seen on her raw gothic site Entropy 8 which eventually evolved into a game design enterprise. Matt Owen of Volume One combined typography, vector iconography and video in Flash animations with concurrent timelines. Second Story brought databases to life in museum installations.

In the early 90’s there was no YouTube, Facebook or Twitter but there were lots of websites with industrial grey backgrounds and gifs of revolving mailboxes. A website could be built using a lowly ASCII text editor. The gaming industry was limited by the CPUs, video cards and RAM of the period, painfully slow by today’s standards. The beauty of this was that it was unequivocally low tech. A guy with a website about his gerbil had as much access to cyberspace as a multimillion dollar corporation and his site might in fact be more interesting and better designed. But 20 years later it’s becoming increasingly rare to find a website without advertising or data mining embedded in one form or another. Interactive creativity has been quietly subverted by profit motive. It is up to us to steer it away.

But technology should not be considered an end in itself, anymore than paint is an end in itself. In the arts, much of that early visual excess has given way to austere photography/film/electronics based output. The medium is basically pattern-based, with its output reduced to the 0’s and 1’s of computer circuits. Its virtuality may negate the need for any physical manifestation, since the artwork can be really about the process rather than the product. It can get mired in academic rationales. It has wonderful crossover capabilities, extending even to social innovation. It is perhaps essentially craft (not a bad thing), a place where art and science collide or co-exist. In what other arena outside the art world can the limits of technology be explored, asked acoustic engineer and artist Philippe-Aubert Gauthier at a recent Artspace talk.

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) by Duchamp

Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). (1915-23). Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on tnot wo glass panels. 109 1/4″ x 69 1/4″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

To quote new media curator Sarah Cook’s definition “[new media] art … is made using electronic media technology and … displays any or all of the three behaviours of interactivity, connectivity and computability, in any combination.”

There is something inherently literal about new media. It is a cool medium. It is often self-referencing. It may incorporate non-linear narrative. It can be shallow, derivative or reduced to shock value.  It can present a repository for shared memory or experience. Or be tethered to advertising. It can be powerfully moving as in Bill Viola’s video work or mirror sociopathy as in Max Dean’s 1992 classic As Yet Untitled.

I can’t help but notice a correlation between new media and the Dada movement, also born during a time of political and social insanity. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (the Large Glass) seem likely precursors to this genre. If you think new media has never been done before, have a look at some of his 1920’s mechanized optical experiments. I see Dada in a whole new light through the lens of new media art.

It occurs to me that there is now a generation of artists who have never known a world without technology. And at present it is almost impossible to disengage technology from advertising, which relies heavily on our 3 most powerful psychological triggers – food, sex and violence.

These days I don’t spend hours combing the internet for that gem of a website or knowledge portal. I let my Facebook friends do the curating and culling for me. And the danger is that we reduce ourselves to a monoculture.

Are we becoming media savvy or completely indoctrinated? Is new media a game, with no actual winner or loser – amoral or egalitarian? Is it a nihilistic response to the collapse of our economic and ecological stability, the pointlessness of imagination? A stress reaction to media overload or hedonism for hedonism’s sake? Are we mourning a civilization in decline or compiling a new aesthetic vocabulary? My jury is still out. It seems I understand digital technology as a medium but not as a culture. I may have to read a book about it. Either that or wait for the interactive holographic sequel to The Medium is the Message.

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