Geert Lovink on Wed, 13 May 2009 14:07:25 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Political Work in the Aftermath of the New Media Arts Crisis

On the event of the Montevideo/Netherlands Media Art Institute 30th  
anniversary, departing curator Susanne Jaschko put together a one day  
symposium entitled Positions in Flux. Régine Debatty at We Make Money  
Not Art blogged about it. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the  
morning session. The event on May 8 2009 took place in Trouw  
Amsterdam, the followup of Club 11. From what I heard, Positions at  
Flux had a critical take towards the common media art discourse and  
asked relevant questions. It was a relief to see that the attention  
was, for once, not focused on history, preservation and conservation.  
Cultural heritage has already taken over way too much attention space– 
in part because this is one of the few areas where there is still  
plenty of funding. Sigh. Just for one day, no celebration of “medium  
religion” or “art meets science”. Director Heiner Holtappels opened by  
noticing that new media art is not easily accepted by fine art.  
Traditional art has become eclecticism. According to Heiner, all art  
is technology based. The subject of the symposium was a visible break  
with the video art heritage that Montevideo has been known for.  
Politics topics, a courageous step? “Is there a future for us?” is a  
question not many institutions dare to ask. In the Dutch daily De  
Volkskrant of that day, ex-Montevideo curator Bart Rutten (now  
Stedelijk Museum) took up the role of expressing the ambivalent  
feelings of the Dutch art establishment towards the new but no longer  
young art form. Whereas he praised Montevideo’s work, he himself had  
moved on. “You can ask yourself if Montevideo should continue to show  
only media art works. In this way they preserve their specialism. It  
was my main reason to leave.”

In Zero Comments I mapped the current challenges for new media arts.  
While society at large is inundated with (new) media, the art branch  
that deals with the digital moved itself in a ghetto. While this  
analysis still holds up, many in the sector openly admitted the  
shortcomings and are now putting in place strategies to escape the  
dead end street. Technology has lost its original fascination, while  
spreading even faster in society. Is this a reason enough to abandon  
the field? While experimentation with electronics and the digital  
might have lost its aura and the spirit of curiosity has somewhat  
fained, the field of new media arts at large is still growing, despite  
institutional setbacks here and there. What most participants shared  
was the feeling that, despite the intimidating institutional violence  
of the large players, museums will die or become a zoo if they do not  
deal with the Digital. Some say new media arts lacks the timeliness  
and the depth. Whereas ICA London closed its media lab, Laboral in the  
North of Spain, which opened in 2007, is now a large exhibition space,  
devoted to media art. Chairman Chris Keulemans emphasized that new  
media arts was always at it best when it criticized the media itself,  
with its codes and nodes. Each of the three presentations in the  
morning session gave a different answer to the question how relevant  
political work could be produced.

The Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal is known from his installation  
Domestic Tension, in which the artist lived in a gallery space for a  
month, pointed at by paint ball gun operated by web users. Shoot an  
Iraqi had 80 million visitors and, according to Bilal, was a “strange  
mix of aesthetic pain and pleasure.” What made the work so popular was  
the power of viral connections, in particular through chatrooms and  
video he put online. What happened here was a confrontation between  
conflict zone and comfort zone, disengagement and engagement, virtual  
versus physical platform — both in the case of the artwork and war in  
Iraq itself. Bilal concluded that the body has its own language that  
is not in sync with the electronic reality. Bilal made a distinction  
between interactive works, in which the end-states is already  
determined, and dynamic pieces that are open ended. A lot of the old  
school new media art is interactive. Increased user participated was  
illustrated in Bilal’s story of the ‘virtual human shield’, a group of  
people that gathered to protect the artist from being shot at. Dog or  
Iraqi was a month long online debate who gets waterboarded: a dog or  
an Iraqi? Bilal also briefly discussed his modded version of a 2003 US  
shooting game that he renamed into Virtual Jihadi. Instead of killing  
Sadam the user can now hunt GW Bush. This and other projects were  
documented in Wafaa Bilal, Shoot an Iraqi (City Light Books, San  
Francisco, 2008).

Former Etoy Hans Bernard of didn’t show projects but  
read a text concerning the role of “European techno fine art avant  
garde.” I am great fan of Uebermorgen. It’s in fact becoming  
impossible to list all their interventions and hacks. Uebermorgen is  
all about “surreal outcomes”, not bound by any medium. “The  
transformation from digital to physical is important. The work is not  
pop art, it is rock art. We are not activists, we are actionists.” For  
a while seeking large audiences was a thrill, but that’s no longer the  
main motivation. There is a new strategy for each new project. Bernard  
did his best to prove that Uebermorgen’s intentions were neither  
political nor ideological. The aim should be Art, not Politics.  
Communication is the 9-5 job, but that not the passion. Bernard’s  
insistence on the non-political status didn’t convince. Uebermorgen’s  
claim, not to have any political agenda, refers to an ancient, rigid  
definition that was already problematic in the late seventies when I  
studied political science. Maybe in Austria politics is still  
associated with corrupt parties and fat, ugly politicians but  
elsewhere in the world people use a much broader definition of “the  
political”. His insistence on artistic freedom is amiable but the idea  
that once art becomes political it turns into politics and seizes to  
be art, simply doesn’t hold. His separation between the private  
opinion of the artist as a citizen and the Artist as a public figure  
is problematic for the same reasons. Bernard’s insistence  that  
“perception and production need to separated” sounds good–but we all  
know that visual arts no longer operates outside “perception  
management.” Autonomy, at least in the Dutch context, is the official  
state religion. We all anticipate aesthetic impact, even if we reject  
the categories of the day and undermine the dominant visual logic.  
Hans, there are no commissars anymore that control the ateliers. If  
there is any censor it’s probably the Politically Correct Self. So, if  
we state, “in production we need to be free,” there is no one who will  
stop us — but ourselves.

Knowbotic Research, teaching and working in Zurich, was the third  
presenter. Their translocal distributed temporary works avoid–and seek– 
the Political in yet another manner. Christian Huebler showcased the  
Blackbenz Race project between Prishtina and Zurich, a city marketing  
proposal that was refused because of its negative image of the proper  
Swiss finance capital. The broader idea was to play with the Kosovo- 
Albanian-Swiss people that hover in-between places. Code words are  
fog, smoke, blurred spaces and multiple identities. The self-built  
stealth boat project has a similar intention. The micro audiences  
become actors here. Activism doesn’t need more exposure and  
transparency. Art doesn’t need moral outcry. The celebrity industry  
took over this role. Art questions and creates new spaces for  
reflection. What’s required are slow spaces. All three projects showed  
that new media art “doesn’t need to be a monade, merely celebrating  
itself.” (Huebler) This is the age of entering other contexts, times  
and spaces–assisted by production houses that have in-house knowledge  
about the specificity, and the Eigenartigkeit, of digital technologies.

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