SOCIETY OF THE SKEPTICAL

Sins of Change:
Media Arts in Transition, Again

Walker Art Center and The Kitchen
Minneapolis, Minnesota
April 6-8, 2000

PETER KRAPP

Have the arts been living in sin with the media? From April 6 to 8, the Walker Art Center and The Kitchen held a conference entitled "Sins of Change: Media Arts in Transition, Again" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to address this possibility. The first symposium about media arts held at the Walker in 1983 was remembered for its excitement about new possibilities, but the second time around, the taste for departure and transgression was muted, as if media arts had been forced out of a paradise of innocent exploration. To establish a context for discussion, six panels were convened: "pride" focused on media as art, institutions were addressed under the rubric of "covetousness", "sloth" debated the politics of access, "anger and gluttony" marked video art, net art was considered with "envy", and a discussion of interfaces was entitled "lust". Each panel brought together artists and curators, producers and critics to present and reflect upon the recent reception and transformation of media arts.

    Symptomatic of post-industrial society and a global economy that no longer pivots around production but around attention, art that addresses the media commands special interest in the attention economy. Demand, it seems, exceeds supply; some of the artists invited to the conference - Vuk Cosic, Jordan Crandall, Natalie Jeremijenko - might show in London, Karlsruhe, New York, Minneapolis and San Francisco simultaneously. By the same token, most panelists agreed that the omnipresence of video and computer screens can make one forget, or momentarily repress, the history of media art, particularly its conflicts with art institutions. Such screen memories were analysed by Bruce Jenkins of the Harvard Film Archives, who traced changing attitudes about video art in major festivals over the past decade. Lynn Hershman, whose work in the 1970s was often excluded from exhibitions because sound and interaction were not accepted yet, considered the computer a filter for culture: one of her more recent interactive installations films visitors and divides their image between real time and deferral. Looped in 27 seconds of video or archived in a VRML structure, spectators become an integral part of her work.

    While the conference made clear that there still is a digital divide, the participants did not make it a matter of ideological contention. At the same time, the mainstreaming of interfaces holds the peril of an overly familiar mediascape that loses its peculiar potential for art. Three different tactics were explored: critic and curator Lev Manovich insisted on the difference between design and art in his analysis of graphic interfaces since Apple's 1984 debut. Radical net artists like Olia Lialina, Cosic, and Simon Biggs on the other hand keep pushing the boundaries of net interfaces and their software, from visual metaphors such as icons, frames and desktops to packet switching codes and transfer protocols. Neither separating the core of his art from technology nor employing it to foreground the limits of technology, Crandall uses images from surveillance and infrared cameras in his work, raising the question whether his use of such gadgets would be recognizable without his commentary. Each approach positions itself differently regarding notions of distance, contamination, and appropriation of a medium by, or for, one's art.

    Every panel raised the question of appropriate means to varying degrees. If visualization lacks surprise and pushes reflection into the background, it can stupefy, as Walter Benjamin writes in a note on museum pedagogy: to involve the audience, optical stimulation has to be reined in. (1) What is shown, in other words, cannot just be what is said; one expects an event, a trick of evidence: a picture is still supposed to say more than so many words. By the same token, such attention traps reduce any accompanying blurbs to simplifying catchphrases, slogans of common sense. The most generic blurb about media art is that boredom dumbs down, entertainment enlightens. Yet as Walter Benjamin first pointed out, mass viewership is no longer geared towards collective enlightenment; arguably, the old truism about boredom and enlightenment is partially reversed by the sensory overload of "irritainment" and "recreology", and more people appreciate the speed bumps on the information superhighway that gives digital pause.

    For all its claims to acceleration, media art that seeks to last under the gaze must work with the long while, with the risk of boredom. In conceptual works such as Jeremijenko's suicide camera on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge or the intricate computer animations by Biggs, temporality is transformed in directly inverse relation to the associated attention span. Such work exploits the short or long while substituted for a real time we are thereby enabled to forget. This forgetting of real time is the constitutive experience of the attention-distraction dialectic that cleaves media and arts both apart and together. And once museum officials and independent curators ask their audience to invest their interest in the digital realm, the role of the institution also changes. Neither competing with television and the Internet nor truly compatible with them, museums and galleries must help artists and audiences access each other. However, television producers like Neil Sieling and art historians like Robert Atkins unanimously agree that more access does not necessarily mean more options, and so to strike a balance of politics and technology is not a question of a quantity of channels, sites or institutions. Emerging technology alone will not overcome sloth; cultural producers must try to lead through technology without leaving behind the audience they seek to build, as veteran activist Kathy Rae Huffman urged.

    Billed as a media philosopher, French sociologist Pierre Lévy delivered a keynote address to start the intellectual debate. Introduced by Steve Dietz, the Director of New Media Initiatives at the Walker, Lévy offered a futuristic spin on collective intelligence. He posited cultural evolution as literal continuation of Darwinian, biological evolution, with cyberspace as the last step of the latter and a new beginning for the former. To Lévy, humans are mere adjuncts of a transformation of the post-cultural semiotic sphere. As the goal of this accelerating evolution, he proposed a collective intelligence of the biosphere. Fast-forwarding through the history of media, Lévy focused on creative reproduction at the cost of another Darwinian principle, selection. However, art and its institutions have as much to do with selection as with creative (re)production. Further, in his reduction of evolution to the single principle of self-reproductive life, Lévy neglected all factors of resistance. Insisting that his model does not exclude or select, supersede or overcome, every step was supposedly inclusive of what preceded. The irony of this single-mindedly "intelligent" thought-experiment is that in its all-encompassing embrace, it cannot account for resistance and soon loses all powers of distinction; for Lévy, "progressively capitalism becomes communism" since everyone has equity stakes. Yet arguably, both markets pivot around what one could call collective stupidity, a formidable resistance which one ignores at one's own speculative risk.

    Lévy counseled artists to forget about mediation, yet the best art discussed during the conference highlighted the fact that media art does not allow for quasi-religious immediacy of content and context, but works with the medium, with the resistance, the static that always slightly distorts the signal. An installation by Jessica Bronson, for instance, juxtaposed screen noise or "snow" with the various toxic substances used in Hollywood to simulate snow, and the screen windows with the weather outside the gallery windows. On a different level, material resistance was also evident in the technical snags typical for any new media conference: digital projectors failed to connect, laptops froze, web sites did not load; poignantly, Lévy chose to rely on an old-fashioned overhead projector. When SFMoMA curator Benjamin Weil argued that the future task was to collect and preserve ideas and not objects, his point was well taken, but not surprisingly producers like Esther Robinson and curators like Sara Diamond of the Banff Centre for the Arts protested that certain material conditions still come first.

    While the conference provided rich historical perspectives and raised interesting questions about contemporary challenges, the consensus among the discussants seemed to be that as an intervention, the entire event perhaps did not leave as strong an impression as the first such event held at the Walker in 1983. One of the "sins" not on the program for this "forget-together" of media and arts was nostalgia, but as in 1983, the conference ended with a performance by Bay Area culture jammers Negativland in the legendary downtown club First Avenue. If it was not nostalgia, it was their fast-forward into a future when it is no longer possible to distinguish between irony and propaganda - either way, what Negativland put on stage seemed dated in the same way that some transitional media art is relying on the déjà vu effect for recognition.

(1) Walter Benjamin, "Bekränzter Eingang",
Gesammelte Schriften IV.1, 557-559
First published in
Afterimage, The Journal of
Media Art and Cultural Criticism

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