Dr. Future on Sun, 14 Jun 1998 23:33:26 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> New Media, Old Technology

New Media, Old Technology

I am attending a smart cheese and wine party hosted by the Arts Council
and one of their corporate sponsors when it is announced that the
director of a well known North American art centre is present and is
looking for new proposals for their artists fellowship programme. I have
an idea that could do with some 'institutional support' so I decide to
forego the race for the vol-au-vent and cross the room to introduce
myself. I begin to explain my exciting new method of image synthesis but
do not get very far before she makes her position clear.
"Is your project internet based?", she inquires.
"Is it multimedia?".
"Well those are the only projects we do now".
In the corner of my eye I can see someone skewering the last savoury

In 1995 the grand daddy of electronic arts prizes, the Prix Ars
Electronica,  decided to drop its 'computergraphik' still image category
after suggestions in previous jury statements of a 'tiredness of
creativity' and speculations on whether this form had 'outlived itself'.
That year it was duly replaced by the new World Wide Web category. In
addition, the computer animation section became increasingly dominated
by special effects feature films selected by a jury made up largely of
members of commercial production companies. Amidst timid jury statements
questioning the wisdom of having to compare half a dozen Hollywood films
made by Industrial Light and Magic with a short sequence made by a lone
artist working out of their bedroom, Prix Ars reinforced the feeling
that artists had gradually abandoned 'older' forms of 'new' media for
the safety of emerging 'cutting edge' technologies before they too are

This year, the ISEA'98 revolution symposium distinctly positioned itself
at the forefront of radical arts practice, brazenly featuring this quote
on its call for proposals - "the opposition of writer and artist is one
of the forces which can usefully contribute to the discrediting and
overthrow of regimes which are destroying, along with the right of the
proletariat to aspire to a better world, every sentiment of nobility and
even of human dignity". Against this heady rhetoric, the invitation for
exhibition proposals to ISEA '98 contained no mention of either still
image work nor film and video art in its list of entry formats,
presumably relegating such outdated forms to an earlier era of
'pre-revolutionary' practice.

So we are left to infer, perhaps, that a new medium can only sustain a
period of true artistic innovation and challenge for a limited time
before it is exhausted of radical ideas and has to leave centre stage.
The new incarnation of progressive arts practice then rises into the sky
on the wings of blue sky research labs while its decaying predecessors
have their bones picked clean of creative meat by the vultures of
venture capitalism. Film art begat video art begat computer art begat
interactivity begat the WWW. This cycle of birth and death has now
assumed a familiar logic - artists need not worry as the routes of
access to media production are closed off by the mainstream
commissioning policies of the commercial industry. They need only wait
for the next wave of media to appear and then to seize that window of
critical intervention to undermine capitalist social relations before
the corporations know what's hit them. The only article of faith that
this requires is that technological progress march inexorably onwards,
generating the raw material that can be used to subvert its own
previously recuperated incarnations. Political innovation requires
technical innovation.

The theoretical justification for this attitude is given in terms of art
as a 'transformative practice' or aiming at a 'functional
transformation'. It is a direct reference to Walter Benjamin's famous
materialist theory of revolutionary art practice. This is expressed most
concisely in his The Author as Producer lecture of 1934 where he
formulates it in terms of a distinction between an art work that
supplies a social production apparatus and an art work that tries to a
change a social production apparatus. What this means in effect is that
it is not enough for, let's say, a writer to criticise the capitalist
system in words if he or she continues to use a capitalist form of
cultural production to publish those words. Benjamin warns that
bourgeois culture is very capable of absorbing all kinds of
revolutionary ideas without at any time allowing those ideas to threaten
its power. Instead of publishing political arguments in the usual
academic form of books and scholarly articles, the socialist writer
should use new forms that change the writer's production relations,
especially their relation with their audience, the proletariat. The
newspaper, pamphlet, poster or radio broadcast were the most appropriate
media in Benjamin's time because they could be used to reach a mass
audience and avoid patterns of traditional cultural consumption that
were rooted in class structure. What matters most in the political
effectiveness of an art work is not the 'tendency' of its content but
the effect on production relations of its 'technique'. 

In contemporary times this translates into an oppositional arts practice
which uses the most advanced materials of its time to demonstrate in a
concrete way the direction in which society should be progressing. It
challenges currently accepted notions of production, authorship and
creativity by using new media to show how electronic distribution
changes exhibition, interactivity changes authorship, sampling changes
creativity. Technology is shown to possess the power to restructure
these production relations and alter what people had previously taken
for granted. And whenever production relations threaten to ossify into
restrictive ideologies as newspapers are merged by press barons and
radio airwaves are regulated then they can be blasted apart again by the
socialising potential of each further technical development that can be
applied to the mass media. All of which is fine except for the fact that
this is not entirely what Benjamin meant.

Later on in his lecture Benjamin goes on to discuss some explicit
examples of the effects of 'technical innovation' on the political
function of culture. He use quotes from Eisler to show that concert hall
music has entered a crisis caused by the advent of recording
technologies which changes the relation between performer and audience.
But we are told that this is not sufficient by itself to transform music
into a politically potent form - the addition of other elements like
words is also necessary to help overcome the breaking down of culture
into isolated specialisations that occurs under capitalism. And this
eventually leads it to the form that Benjamin's finds most exemplary -
Brecht's Epic Theatre.

What is technically innovative about Brecht's theatre? It is not cinema,
is is not radio, it is not mass media. But it does change the
relationship with its audience, not by using film or broadcasting
technology directly, but by adopting their 'techniques'. The principle
technique is montage, the ability of modern media to fragment perception
and then recombine it. In Brecht's theatre this is absorbed in the form
of 'interruptions' to the dramatic action in order to create
'conditions' presented to the spectator that require a 'dialectical'
response. In this way montage is employed as an 'organising function' as
opposed to a 'modish technique' used merely to stimulate the viewer's
fascination. So we see that the actual works that Benjamin is interested
in use new techniques at a variety of levels which can include different
media, perceptual modes, 'organising functions' and aesthetic
considerations. Contrary to using the latest technological means, Brecht
is described instead of returning to the ancient origins of theatre,
turning the stage into a simple podium for exposing present behaviour
and conditions. New technique does not mean new technology.

Today we see digital artists driven onwards to become multimedia artists
to become net artists and in their wake they leave a trail of unresolved
experiments and restagings, unable to develop an idea through before the
next software upgrade is announced. As if 'earlier' forms of new media
had been 'outlived', no longer able to express the forms of subjectivity
that are now experienced. But by picking up any magazine or observing
any street advert we can clearly see that on the contrary commercial
design and photography has continued to exploit and push the still image
form way past the stage where many artists abandoned it in their move on
to more 'revolutionary' media. Through this work we can still see the
potential of continuing advances in the standard commercial digital
software packages like Photoshop which has unfortunately now taken on
the status of an office desktop accessory with many artists. The artists
that have continued to work in areas that are almost unfunded have shown
how much further image and print media can go in producing their own
newspapers, fly posters, fax art, graffiti and underground cinema and in
experimenting with alternative methods of distribution.

Similarly in moving image production, developments in digital image
synthesis are amongst the most advanced technical accomplishments in the
world today, but are only ever seen as 'special effects' in feature
films or promos, a 'modish' or stylistic use of the medium as the
new-as-always-the-same. It seems almost an accepted fact that the
sophisticated logics created to structure image events such as dynamic
simulation or motion capture can only ever be used for blowing up space
ships or for the latest shoot-em-up computer game. It is as though they
are perceived as so closely aligned with the interests of Soho art
directors that they can never be quite new enough to escape from its
orbit. Instead it appears far easier for arts organisations to develop
schemes to support work made for a particular piece of hardware or
software they have just seen on Tomorrows World than to look one layer
below the surface to ask what techniques, like montage in the 1930s, are
likely to have an impact on the function of many forms of practice. For
it is surely the case that technical and aesthetic developments in the
basic manipulation of sound and image are applicable to a wide range of
media generally. Arts centres fall over themselves to attract work
designed for the latest internet software, VR environment or multimedia
platform but are not willing to consider projects in image or sound
making that could radically alter the possibilities of all three.

There is an argument to the effect that by being involved in the early
stages of a new medium that artists can exert some influence over the
direction in which it develops. By getting in first before mainstream
genre forms have had the time to become entrenched it could be possible
to indicate alternative patterns, but it is still very difficult for
artists to work as maverick researchers against a corporation's ultimate
agenda. This approach also implies that media will inevitably develop
into a single optimum commercial form without any further hope of an
intervention, a kind of commercial determinism. In fact the computer
industry seems to be distinguished for its continuing volatility just
when everyone thinks the dust has settled.

I am reminded of a story related by Graham Weinbren, the artist who
pioneered the use of interactive cinema in the late eighties. He and his
brother had developed a system that allowed for real time transitions
between different story streams and was demonstrating one of his first
pieces to an audience of industry professionals. They were duly
impressed by the speed and fluidity of the system and wanted to know the
technical specifications. However, when Weinbren revealed that it was
based on an old 386 PC, a machine already obsolete even in those days,
their interest immediately cooled. The problem was that the logic of the
commercial industry demanded that new products were always premised on
the notion that they embodied nothing but the latest in technology and
manufacturing. To revert back to a previous 'generation' of machines
would have introduced an uncomfortable contradiction into that
philosophy. Unfortunately this is also a philosophy that has now been
taken on by arts organisations that feel that here is an easy way to
align themselves with progressive media simply by pointing to new black

So artists find themselves running to keep still, trying to keep at bay
the panic that they will be left behind in the latest hi-tech funding
opportunities and consigned to the back room of old media. Condemned to
chase a never ending succession of software versions and hardware
upgrades, their practice is now so 'transformative' that it never gets
past the round of demos and beta tests. By becoming fixated on the
receding horizon of technological developments the space for
consolidating what has been learnt is lost. The avant garde artist
trying to lever an oppositional advantage at the fringes of advanced
materials is replaced by the techno artist entrepreneur providing
research and development services for corporate sponsors. There is no
reason to develop an idea beyond the point at which it can be sold. 

During the seventies and most of the eighties artists that wanted to use
computers were obliged always to be working at the frontiers of
technology because there was practically no where else to be. Computing
machinery was so limited that in a real sense the machine  was the
artwork because you would always be using it at the very extremes of its
abilities. Such was the desire to escape these restrictions that faster
and bigger architectures were eagerly sought after and resulted in the
feeling that to produce the best art you needed the best computers.
Nowadays this principle clearly sounds erroneous, partly due to the fact
that desktop computers are so powerful that the 'best' in computing is
accessible to the point of being unavoidable. But it has been
surreptitiously replaced by a 'softer' version that implies that to work
in the newest media you need the newest technology.

The effect is to divert attention from innovations in currently used
media by implying that artists can only retain their radical credentials
by concentrating on the 'cutting edge' of new technology. And, surprise,
surprise, it is exactly this mythic trajectory of technology that
commercial companies depend on to motivate the consumption of their
endless releases of new products that allow you do the same thing more
often. Both are now united in their quest for a Killer Art for the
Killer App.

2,260 words
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