The Silly Separation of New Media Art by Daniël van der Poel

digital discrimination metropolis m

The Silly Separation of New Media Art A Dutch Perspective (1)
Daniël van der Poel, March/July 2013

This is a translation (with minor adjustments) of the Dutch-language essay “Digitale discriminatie” featured in Metropolis M, 2013 2 (April). Copyright 2013 Daniël van der Poel and Metropolis M.

In the September 2012 issue of Artforum, Claire Bishop wrote about the “digital divide” that separates new media art from regular art forms.(2) The division is clearly visible in the institutional and the academic field: on one side, the province of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) and Ars Electronica, where media theory monopolizes the conversation; on the other, the domain of the MoMA and the Venice Biennale, where art history reigns. It is also apparent that new media art as a whole still plays a secondary part. Many artists who affiliate themselves with new media praise the autonomy and the technological progressiveness of the scene, well knowing that this free state is at the same time a ghetto from which the average art dealer, critic or curator will stay clear.

The general distaste or indifference of the established art world towards new media has had tangible consequences. For instance, a research report published last year by Virtueel Platform, an institute for “e-culture”, shows that only about 1 in 90,000 objects in the collections of Dutch museums for modern art comprises digital equipment or components.(3) On the other side of the divide, there are small, experimental institutions, such as V2, Waag Society, and Mediamatic, that have been offering exhibitions and workshops on new media for years or even decades, yet hardly collect any works. Thus new media art falls between two stools when it comes to collection development.

It appears that things are slowly changing. In the past few years, several museums and related institutions have been paying more attention to new media art, mostly on matters of conservation and presentation (e.g. Matters in Media Art hosted by MoMA and Tate). In the Netherlands, where “e- culture” and “digital heritage” have become official buzzwords, there also is a growing awareness of the transience of new media art and the notion that it, as an indisputable product of the Information Age, deserves a place in museum exhibitions and collections. When the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk), one of the most important Dutch institutes for (new) media art, was dissolved last year, it painfully brought home the urgency of this issue. Its dissolution was the immediate cause for a seminar on the conservation of media art, organized by Stichting Behoud Moderne Kunst. Collecting and Presenting Born-Digital Art, a two-day symposium in the Van Abbemuseum, followed in its footsteps.(4)

Such overtures to new media may give hope to those artists and theorists longing for the prestige and the resources offered by the museum circuit. However, they do not necessarily lead to true integration or a greater understanding of art. The principal problem is thinking in terms such as new media art, born-digital art, computer art and digital art, which are employed to denote a constantly changing selection of media, styles and technical properties. The fact that almost every author introduces a new definition, or refrains from providing one altogether, evidences that these terms are too imprecise to function as proper analytical instruments. Rather, the use of these stopgaps works primarily to reinforce the digital divide itself, which is rooted in the history of institutions and academic disciplines but otherwise quite arbitrary. Despite these shortcomings, when museums for modern art adopt new media, they typically hold on to this division and replicate it within their walls. For instance, MoMA recently unveiled a separate videogame gallery and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam confines computer-based experiments within its public programme, safely removed from the more permanent exhibitions – tiny, isolated ZKMs and Ars Electronicas in museological contexts.

Regardless of whether the digital divide runs in-between or through the institutions, it crucially diverts the attention from intrinsic and formal developments that span both digital and non-digital art. While information technology is usually associated with new media (and only new media), its influence is not restricted to art that requires an internet connection, so to speak: it touches on almost every human activity and significantly shapes our view of the world. Therefore, it is not about delineating one or two new media; it is about gaining insight in the broad artistic reflex of the emergence of what Lev Manovich called “software society”. For example, Trevor Paglen’s astronomical images of the constellation of secret satellites above us (The Other Night Sky, 2008) are inextricably and critically bound up with information technology, even if the work’s final medium – the photographic print – is relatively old-fashioned. This is also true of Harun Farocki’s Serious Games (2009–2010), a series of video installations about various military applications of virtual reality. It would be valuable to regard these works in relation to a perfectly digital piece such as 9-Eyers (2012– present) by Jon Rafman, which consists of an online collection of images extracted from Google Street View. A rigid division between new media art and regular art serves only to hinder such connections.

In order to still maintain an overview of sorts, it is possible to make a different distinction, namely one between art that relies on information technology in a technical sense, art that has this technology as its subject matter, and art that is part of software society and could be influenced by it, yet does not articulate this condition. This avoids pegging down the effect of information technology on art on certain technical properties. Moreover, it allows the general influence of information technology as well as the artistic applications thereof to be studied as phenomena that are connected, but not completely entwined.

A number of art historians and theorists, including Claire Bishop and Nicolas Bourriaud, already make a comparable distinction. It is conspicuous, however, that they concentrate almost exclusively on art that relates only indirectly to information technology, and disregard pieces that incorporate actual digital components. Their approach does sometimes yield insights, such as Bishop’s suggestion that the current emphasis on the materiality and the historicity of the physical art object is a response to the intangibility and fleetingness of the world behind the computer screen, but the art that unites itself with that world is strangely omitted. Debating Bourriaud, Peter Weibel rightly labeled this attitude “media injustice” (imagining perhaps a ghetto).(5) The main cause of this injustice appears to be the often unspoken assumption that art directly related to information technology and associated images is “too close for comfort” and therefore has less critical potential and artistic merit. Such generalizations simply cannot be the basis for an honest exploration of art, especially considering how medium self-reflexivity produced so much good art before.

This is not to say that every artist who explicitly deals with information technology deserves our appreciation for that reason alone. There are technophiles who use computers only to blind us with information, or to transform one type of signal (light, sound, movement, text, electrostatic charges, and so on) to another, often amplifying it in the process. On the other hand, there are artists who explore new technical and visual possibilities with an almost modernist thoroughness and tenacity. Take for example the finely crafted animations and interference patterns on the website of Nicholas Sassoon. Like Cory Arcangel’s modified 8-bit console games, they hark back to the métier of a time of pixel scarcity. Because of the thoughtful design of their work, it cannot be disposed as shallow “computer art”: what may seem immaterial, turns out to be a product of workmanship, and what once were technical limitations are now stylistic choices with (media) historical connotations. It is true that some expert knowledge is required to recognize these qualities, but is it not a professional’s duty to make sure he has such knowledge?

The next logical question is what kind of knowledge is needed for a better understanding of art that relies on information technology. There is no ready-made answer. Media theory serves as a handle for the analysis of what for convenience’s sake could be called new media art, but it is not a second art history with alternative names and concepts that can be transferred to the other side of the divide without any problem. For that, too many differences in conceptualization, terminology, and appraisal stand in-between, despite efforts (mostly by media theorists) to close the gap. Therefore, in addition to their interdisciplinary homework, art historians and theorists will need to do further research and fieldwork, especially on the internet, which is becoming an increasingly important and autonomous platform for art.

Rafaël Rozendaal’s practice demonstrates what developments on the internet may bring. The core of his oeuvre consists of dozens of websites, each of which features an elementary pictorial experiment and a title identical with the site’s domain name. The various pieces can be reached via a central website, which combines the functions of a museum gallery, an open studio, and a blog. Rozendaal’s sites, combined, attracted over forty million visitors in 2012 (papertoilet.com alone had more hits than the primary website of the Stedelijk Museum), far exceeding the number of visitors for his occasional exhibitions in real-world institutions. These exhibitions also showed that Rozendaal’s work has difficulty settling in psychical, architectural space. The Shift (2011), an interactive installation in W139, was successful because it was specifically designed for that location, but the website–pieces that were projected on the walls and reflected in the mirrors scattered around the NIMk (Yes For Sure and Color Flip, 2010) looked listless compared to the usual online experience. Not the white cube, but the web browser’s window had become the norm.

This shift characterizes certain alternative artistic practices that ignore the constraints of both established and new media art circuits. The works of Rozendaal and those of related artists such as Sassoon are formally and intellectually embedded in an often playful, experimental internet culture that has for the most part taken over the functions of the museum and the art historical or media theoretical discourse. Their art can be done justice only when this context is taken into account. At the same time, their practices extend beyond the internet. For instance, Rozendaal initiated the internationally popular Bring Your Own Beamer events, a type of improvised gathering where artists bring projectors to show off their creations. He also came up with a sales contract that compels buyers of his websites to keep their acquisition unaltered and freely accessible to everyone. True to the spirit of internet pioneering, the only privilege enjoyed by these patrons is the attachment of their name to the website’s title.

Although such ideas are rarely propagated using the terms commonly used in academic discourse, they could contribute to it. Conversely, this discourse could enrich the artistic practices. We should therefore pay them serious attention. Because the essential works of artists such as Rozendaal and Sassoon are found almost exclusively on the internet, however, they remain beyond the horizon of current connoisseurship, and are thus excluded from the chosen 1 in 90,000 – unseen art will not be collected, let alone canonized. Indeed, so long as the initiative for the conservation of so-called new media art is not matched by a broadening of our understanding of its scope and contents, we may end up knowing exactly how to conserve and present such art without knowing which pieces really deserve our devotion. In order to correct this imbalance, the chiefly technical definitions that shape the discussions and policies on conservation, collection, and presentation should be counterpoised by an integral, in-depth discourse on art that does not shun the digital. Fortunately, the untenability of the digital divide and the inevitability of an adjustment become clear now that already well-known artists reach for digital means with increasing casualness. Nobody will mark Jonas Staal as a new media artist just because his most recent piece, Ideological Guide to the Venice Biennale (2013), is a smartphone app. Furthermore, academics, especially those who grew up with the internet, are creating more and more connections between art history and media theory, some of them pressing for a review of the post-war art canon. If these developments continue, Dutch art museums’ tentative and somewhat naïve embrace of new media art could lead to collections that are truly more diverse and meaningful.

1 This is a translation (with minor adjustments) of the Dutch-language essay “Digitale discriminatie” featured in Metropolis M, 2013 2 (April). Copyright 2013 Daniël van der Poel and Metropolis M.

2 Claire Bishop, “Digital Divide”, Artforum September 2012, pp. 434-441.

3 Annet Dekker, Born-digital kunstwerken in Nederland, Virtueel Platform, Amsterdam 2012. Virtueel Platform is now part of The New Institute in Rotterdam.
4 Thanks to Karin de Wild and Annet Dekker for providing their minutes of Collecting and Presenting Born-Digital Art.
5 “Contemporary Art and New Media: Towards a Hybrid Discourse”, panel discussion with Edward Schanken (moderator), Nicolas Bourriaud, Michael Joaquin Grey, and Peter Weibel, Art Basel, 19 June 2010.