New Media, Art and Science

Explorations beyond the Official Discourse

(This essay was first published in Scott McQuire/Nikos Papastergiadis (ed.), Empires, Ruins + Networks, University of Melbourne Press, Melbourne, 2005, http://www.mup.com.au).

Disclaimer: in this essay I want to raise the topic why new media arts is perceived as such a closed and self-referential scene. Why can’t artists who experiment with the latest technologies be part of pop culture and the arts market? What’s the after-effect of the ‘exhuberant’ dotcom era? And why is there there such a subordinate attitude towards academic science within new media arts? And is the educational sector the only way out? In what follows, I am reluctant to list specific examples of artworks for fear of diluting the general argument. Each and every argument can be falsified with reference to specific projects that prove the opposite of what I am trying to prove. What I am interested in is the broader tendency in which new media arts currently exists—a situation I will argue is unnecessarily constraining at a time of rapid commercial development and social take of new media forms. The immediate call for ‘positive examples’ and ‘alternatives’ is not a constructive attitude but part of the problem because it averts to make an actual institutional power analysis.

Beginnings

I feel compelled to start with a definition. New media arts can best be described as a transitional, hybrid art form, a multi-disciplinary ‘cloud’ of micro-practices[1]. Historically ‘new media’ arose when the boundaries between clearly seperated artforms such as film, theatre and photography began to blur, due to rise of digital technologies[2]. Its beginnings are currently being investigated by scholars such as Dieter Daniels (Leipzig), Charlie Gere (London), Stephen Jones (Sydney), Paul Brown (Goldcoast) and Oliver Grau (Berlin)[3]. The emerging field of ‘media archeology’ as excercised by Zielinski, Huhtamo and others will contribute to this effort, as well as studies by sociologists and art historians. Before we can start speculating about its becomings, it is time to analyse the stagnant new media arts with the tools of institutional criticism.

The birth of new media is closely tied to the democratization of computers. According to  some it is an art form is born out of the Geist of Fluxus with its video art and performance. Others stress the  influence of seventies electronic music and post-industrial art and activism of the eighties. The term ‘new media art’ only arrived as a set of practices in the late eighties, and is specifically tied to the rise of desktop publishing and the production of CD-ROMs. Internet involvement started relatively late, from 1994-95 onwards, after the World Wide Web had been introduced. New media art is first of all part of the larger ‘visual culture’ context. While it has  strong ties to written discourses, computer code, sound,  as well as abstract and conceptual art and performance, we can nonetheless say that the visual arts element forms the dominant thread. The problem of with these accounts of the ‘beginnings’ of new media art however is their overemphasis on individual artists and their works. Such accounts lack institutional awareness.  Whereas technology developed fast, institutional understanding in this sector has been equally slow. In this respect, new media art is a misnomer, since it reproduced time and again the modernist dilemma between aesthetic autonomy and social engagement. Add the word ‘art’ and you create a problem. In the case of new media arts there was–and still is–no market, no galleries, few curators and critics, and no audience. And most of all: there is no ‘suprematist’ feeling of acting as an avant-garde. What is lacking here is historical confidence. Instead, there is a strong sense of conducting ‘minor’ practices in the shadow of established practices such as film, visual arts, television, computer animation, games and graphic design.

New media art, as defined by, for instance, the Australia Council, is a process where new technologies are used by artists to create works that explore new modes of artistic expression. These new technologies include computers, information and communications technology, virtual or immersive environments, or sound engineering. They are the brushes and pens of a new generation of artists.[4]” The emphasis here is on exploration. New media art is searching for new standards and art forms. Its prime aim is not necessarily to create everlasting universal artworks. Instead, it paves the way for a next generation to make full use of the newly discovered language—outside of the new media arts context. The emphasis on the creation of a language, an infrastructure, could explain why there is so much hidden, voluntary work done in this scene and why self-exploitation is so common. Only pioneers understand that one first needs to create a language in order to write a poem. However, the ‘laws of new media’ are not simply there to be uncovered. What some see as an advantage, not having a complex set of rules and references, others such as myself judge as an inherently immature situation.

We have to be specific, that’s true. Political climates in Western countries wildly vary. Whereas e-culture funding in the Netherlands has gone up over the past years, the situation in Berlin, Paris and London, for instance, remains bleak. Academia remains a safe haven in the USA with little cultural funding available elsewhere. Yet, the overall tendency of stagnation is clear and needs to be analysed. This critique is not meant to disdainfully look down on the yawning vacancy of the technological sublime[5]. New media arts is not a single entity. It is ‘searching’ and does not primarily focus on grand narratives or finished works that can be purchased in a gallery. They are forms in search of a forms.  As testbeds they obviously lack content. Many of the works are neither ‘cool’ nor ironical, as so many pieces of contemporary art are. Instead, they often have a playful, nave feel. Electronic arts, a somewhat older term that is sometimes used as a synonym for new media arts, is an experimental setup rather than an established discipline that highly depends on the cultural parameters set by engineers. Many of the key players in the field position their practice in the fragile zone between ‘art’ and ‘technology’, which means asking for trouble. Because what does it mean to have to please both computer scientists and art curators? Neither the art world nor ICT professionals are  fans of electronic arts. Wunderkammer artworks are not in big demand. From the geek perspective they are made by users, not developers. New media artworks ‘apply’ new technologies and do not contribute to its further development. For the art professionals, on the other hand, new media art belongs in educational science museums and amusement parks rather than contemporary arts exhibitions. If we read the mainstream critics art should transmit Truth and Emotion. In today’s society of the spectacle there is no place for halfway art, no matter how many policy documents praise new media arts for its experimental attitude and Will to Innovate.

Myth of the Blank Page

There is a widely spread belief that new media art works have the potential to be works of ‘genius’. Supposedly there are not yet ‘traces’ or ‘fingerprints’ of the human on recently developed technologies and the artist therefore has the full range  of all possible forms of expression in front of him or her. Dirty society with its evil economic ‘pop’ interests has not yet spoiled the channel. The apparent absence of a digital aesthetics for PDAs, RFID tags, mobile phones etc. is exactly seen as its potential. According to this ‘myth of the blank page’ new media artists are not limited by existing cultural connotations because there are no media-specific references yet. It is the heroic task of the new media artist to define those cultural codes. In this argument the situation of new media art is too good to be true. The problem of this theory of the unspoiled perception is the uncritical belief in universal talent. So-called creative, contemporary artists on the other hand are focussed on the market. They have to subject themselves to the laws of fame and celebrity and cannot waste their time in such uncool environments as computer labs. For them, technology is merely a tool. But the search for the specificities of a new medium requires a long trial-and-error period in which funky images or experiences are not guaranteed. Pop and experiment do not go together very well. The geek as role model had its media moment during the Internet hype of the mid nineties, but then quickly faded away. And the geek aesthetics remained as bad as it always has been. This is media reality but the new media arts sector finds it hard to deal with. The uncool can only  be pop once, after its demise it’s just a failure.

The Desire to Be Science

There is an implicit holistic, New Age element behind the desire to create a synthesis between arts and technology–and not go for confrontation. It’s tempting to look away from the harsh reality of the arts markets. With the heroic Leonardo figure in mind, the ‘artist-engineer’ expects the world to embrace the desire to unite humanities and hard science. Much to their surprise, the world is not yet ready for such good ideas. Often the artist is not much more than a willing test user/ early adaptor. In itself this wouldn’t be such a problem. Who cares? But most new media art works are neither subversive nor overly conceptual or critical. To make things more complicated: they aren’t ‘pop’ either. The new media art genre can’t work out whether it’s underground or urban subculture. But new media arts never really became part of the techno, dance or rave party scene either–let alone a subculture; certainly, it’s never had anything to do with rap or other contemporary street cultures. VJ culture, for instance, is not part of the official new media arts canon. Like the self-insulated world of the ivory-tower modern academic, new media art situates itself in a media lab rather than a lounge club. The launch bed of works is the new media festival where like-minded collegues gather.

Instead of being loud and clear about the hybridity-in-flux, the somewhat odd and isolated situation of new media arts has turned into a taboo topic. A general discontent has been around for a while, in particularly as a privileged inner-circle has focused on excessively expensive interactive ‘baroque’ installations that could be found at in places like ZKM (Karlsruhe/Germany) and ICC (Tokyo). But that excessive period of the late nineties is over. We could almost become nostalgic about those roaring nineties. It was a good party for many and a goldmine for some. In contrast, this is a time of budget cuts, conceptual stagnation, artistic backlashes (with the ‘return’ of minimal painting), and political uncertainty–while simultaneously new media are penetrating  society in an unprecedented fashion.

It is not considered good form to openly raise ‘crisis’ issues in the new media area for the simple fact that the gloomy mood may endanger future projects, a next job or your upcoming application. ‘Negativism’ sticks to people in this scene, which is silently dominated by ‘new age’ positivism, driven by the common belief that technology will ultimately save us all. There are only rare cases of individuals who speak out openly. The rest eventually shut up and move on to become complicit  intraditional ‘contemporary arts’ or find a job in the industry. One source of the lack of negation could be the implicit influence of techno-libertarianism. Those who protest are quickly condemned as ‘enemies of the future’, but this is never done  out in the open.

The collective discursive poverty within new media arts explains the virtual absence of lively debates about art works. There is little institutional criticism. With mainstream media uninterested, the new media arts scene is fearful of potentially devastating internal debates. Rival academic disciplines and policy makers could be on the look out to kill budgets. Instead, a fuzzy tribal culture of consensus rules, based on goodwill and mutual trust. To develop a genuinely critical perspective on new media arts, one really has to either come from elsewhere, or move away from the scene to an entirely different field such as the commercial art world, pop culture or dance parties. For all these reasons, the scene remains small and is stagnating, despite the phenomenal growth of new media worldwide. This is not exactly what young, creative tinkerers expect. A growing number of young artists who work with technology avoid the ailing sector and find their own path, either via the established art sector, ‘tactical media’ activism or small businesses. At the same time there are painters, sculptors and fashion designers who use computers as the primary tool of design, yet explicitly leave out ‘new media’ in their public presentations.

Instead of taking the heroic stand of the avant-garde, many new media practioners have chosen to  simply ‘drift away’ in clouds of images, texts and URLs. There is a certain cosiness to hanging out in the networks and not being confronted with the world. The importance of vagueness cannot be underestimated. The blurry, background aspect of many works need to be acknowledged and taken seriously. In the present situation of immediate irrelevance, it is genuinely difficult to create a significant work that will have an impact. Digital aesthetics has developed a hyper-modern, formalist approach and lacks the critical rigour of standard contemporary arts pieces. Serious international curators simply cannot afford to include halfway ready ‘fairground’ installations that lack critical content and decent aesthetics. Marketing and attempts  at professionalization cannot overcome this basic mistrust.

If new media arts has such an emphasis on experimentation, collaboration with engineers, bio- scientists, innovative interfaces, then why it is it not simply giving up this tragic alliance with the arts and ruthlessly seeking to integrate itself in the world of IT business and computer science? Good question. It is only outsiders who can accuse the electronic arts of compliance with the ‘capitalist system’. The sad reality is that artists aren’t all that different from ordinary computer users, unless they are part of the celebrity high-end circuit. For the majority of artists access to technology is limited to consumer electronics. Often there is no money for more state of the art machines and software.

Industries already have their own networks who do the demo design. This is the true tragedy of new media arts. Those who turn new media inside out and develop an aesthetic agenda have no place in today’s production processes. Despite these institutional, disciplinary and economic realities, so many artists persist in their pursuit of a formalist nirvana. Is this symptomatic of a lack of imagination, or perhaps even an over-subscription to the exotica of the artist-identity?

If digital formalism, neither recognized by the museum, the market nor by the industry, is such a dead end street, then why aren’t artists walking over to the ‘content side’ and start producing interesting narratives? Certainly a lot of the new media artists try this move. But their stories are not connected to the mainstream distribution networks such as film, television and the publishing industry. This is why numerous CD-ROMs and DVDs do not even reach their own core audiences. It is not seen as a priority to build up distribution networks through, for instance, museum bookshops. Another reason for the reluctance to ‘comply’ is the wish to alter interfaces, software and even operating systems. Rightly so (or not?), new media arts feels uncomfortable using mainstream products such as Windows XP. Critique in this context is focused on underlying structures, not the superficial level of mediated representation. It is the architecture of the Internet and open standards of the Web that shape your surf experience, not this or that ‘cool’ homepage.

New media arts operates well beyond the logic of the demo design. Marketing something that has not been conceived as a product in the first place has proven next to impossible. Putting content online is a last resort, but funnily enough its not very popular amongst new media artists. The Internet is looked down upon as a primitive device, left to an in-crowd of ‘net artists’ that prefer to do formalistic experiments, combined with an subversive political action every now and then, such as those instigated by groups such as www.rtmark.com. New media arts is (rightly so) not interested in traditional politics, but has yet to reach its own phase of political correctness. Even though the presence of female curators and administors is substantial, this does not result into a more open field. Links to contemporary social movements are weak, and the awareness of post-colonial issues is absent. The ‘white’ scene is by and large an exchange between North-West-Central Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and Japan.

Another reason for the alleged ’emptyness’ of new media arts could be traced in the absence of regular critics and curators. Often there are technicians or IT managers around instead. There is no rich reference system or common language (even though, in theory, this could be constructed by now). Instead there is a romantic notion that artists are busy ‘inventing’ the language of new media. Its rare to see playful games of referencing to each others work. If classified, works appear under very general categories or are simply grouped under the rubric of the media they were produced in, or the genre it belongs to.

Life for artists in general is an uphill struggle and this particularly counts for those that deliberately position themselves in between disciplines. Instead of curiosity and support, what the pristine new media arts scene finds is a stiff competition between scientific disciplines, media and art forms. These are often fights over decreasing resources within a general climate of jealousy and ignorance. There is no convergence or harmony with the performing arts. Despite all the ideology, multi- and interdisciplinarity are at an all-time low. People simply can’t afford to jump over to a competing form of expression. Theatre has to look down on television. Video people are snobs when it comes to new media. There is nothing as trashy and second-rate as the Internet.

Much of what I write here is of a speculative nature and is formulated to open up a discussion, not to dump on specific persons or the pursuit of new media arts experiments. Allegations such as mafia networks, corruption and insider favours can be investigated but not published because they will be met with defamation claims. People in power, even in this relatively progressive scene, have their lawyers close at hand to silence dissent. It is an old boys club where only a handful of though ladies can survive, presuming they are playing the game. As I have indicated, a lack of a rich and diverse discourse is one of the many problems. Sectarianism is another. The new media scene, even on a global scale, is simply too small. But what is more surprising: it is not even growing. For instance, theatre itself becomes digital (stage design, light, music etc.). It doesn’t need the new media arts to do that. The same with film. The only observation one can make is that every civilized country needs to have its own festival or centre. But that doesn’t say much. What stagnates is the ‘penetration’ into society.

New media images are not sacred, nor do they have an aura. Instead, we could describe these images as technical in the spirit of Vilem Flusser’s definition of ‘technical images’. According to Flusser:

[I]t is difficult to decipher technical images, because they are apparently in no need of being deciphered. Their meaning seems to impress itself automatically on their surfaces, as in fingerprints where the meaning (the finger) is the cause and the image (the print) is the effect. (..) It seems that what one is seeing while looking at technical images are not symbols in need of deciphering, but symptoms of the world they mean, and that we can see this meaning through them however indirectly. This apparent non-symbolic, ‘objective’ character of technical images has the observer looking at them as if they were not really images, but a kind of window on the world. He trusts them as he trusts his own eyes. If he criticizes them at all, he does so not as a critique of image, but as a critique of vision; his critique is not concerned with their production, but with the world ‘as seen through’ them. Such a lack of critical attitude towards technical images is dangerous in a situation where these images are about to displace texts. The uncritical attitude is dangerous because the ‘objectivity’ of the technical image is a delusion. They are in truth, images, and as such they are symbolical.

I am quoting Flusser at length because he provides us with a clue about the ‘faith’ of new media arts: the technical nature of its images is profoundly uncool.

New media arts have a problematic relation with the strategy of appropriation. Obviously its image production is not claimed to be unique. Instead they are probes into new laws of perception. The dominant appropriation point of view in art history can only deal with content, not with the medium itself. Data from other media are used as resources, as data trash, fuel that can fire up the exploration. There is no desire to further deconstruct the already weak modernist project. If there is anything that needs to be appropriated it is geek knowledge, not other art works.

The new media arts scene is no longer in need of further globalization. It’s international enough, despite the relative lack of work from non-Western countries. What new media arts cries for is a quantum leap. The ghetto walls need to be taken down. As a revolt from inside is not likely to happen, we can rather expect a general implosion. A first step would be to raise civil courage and get out of closet. Right now people talk with two tongues. Questions are raised in small circles and private conversations but in the end funding bodies and other officials have to praised. There is a regime of fear that needs to broken down. Electronic arts is in need of its own whistleblowers. People in positions of power are not questioned and there is not even a basic awareness as to how a controversy could be ignited. We’re in a situation much like that of the former socialist countries, with their two cultures and two languages—except that in this case dissidents are even too fearful (or cowardly?) to publicly declare that the existing dominant culture is one of corruption, misguidedness and irrelevance. The only legitimate option remains to walk away and change context, or not to enter the scene in the first place—which is what most young artists seem to do.

Electronic Arts and the Dotcoms

Let’s focus for a while on the more specific topic of the absent relation between new media arts and the dotcoms. Superficially, the tech wreck of 2000/2001 and its following associated scandals did not affect new media arts.  It always struck me how slow critical new media practices have been in their response to the rise and the fall of dotcommania. It seemed as if they were parallel universes with the arts dragging behind events. There was not even a ‘spiritual anticipation’ of the excess. The world of IT firms and their volatile valuations on the worlds stock market seemed light years away from the new media arts galaxy. The speculative hey-day of new media culture was the early-mid 90s, before the rise of the World Wide Web. Theorists and artists jumped eagerly at not-yet-existing and inaccessible technologies such as virtual reality. ‘Cyberspace’ generated a rich collection of mythologies. Issues of embodiment and identity were fiercely debated.

Only five years later, with Internet stocks going through the roof, not much was left of the initial excitement in intellectual and artistic circles. The artist-as-virtual-expert had lost its shortlived hype status of the early-mid nineties when artists could showcase their multimedia capabilities. Once concepts could be turned into money, there was no room for people with ideas anymore. At the turn of the millenium artists and theorists had lost influence on the public perception of what new media was all about. What could have turned into a pop culture, degenerated into a shrinking micro cosmos.

Dotcom culture has been ‘anti-art’ in a rather openly fashion. It was said that profit should be re-invested in the IT-sector and transferred into stocks and ought not to be invested into art works, as the ‘old money’ was doing. Technology itself was art, and there was no need for artists to substantiate this assumed truth. Real artists were geeks. Applied art such as design was cool but its role should not be overestimated as it was the abstract and image free ‘code’ that eventually ruled, not the world of images. Nineties cyberculture was fighting with this same paradox.

Eventually experimental technoculture missed out on the ‘funny money’. As a result no commercial arts in this sector has been developed, nor have serious attempts been made to resolve the distribution and revenue/cash crisis. Most new media arts is therefore produced with government support that tightly controls and guides production. It’s stunning to see how, in detail, pseudo-independent bodies are overseeing the new media arts field, exercising their power over tiny individual applications. This, in turn, explains the relative importance of Northern European countries, Austria, Canada and Australia. Most work done in the U.S.A. originates from universities and/or is funded by a hand full of foundations. Over the past few years there has been a growing stagnation of new media culture, both in terms of it concepts and state funding. With hundreds of millions of new users flocking onto the Net and over a billion now using mobile phones, new media arts proved unable to keep up with the fast pace of change and had to withdraw into its own world of poorly attended festivals and workshops.

Whereas new media arts institutions, begging for goodwill, still portray their artists as working at the forefront of technological developments, collaborating with state of the art scientists, the reality is a different one. Multi-disciplinary goodwill is at an all-time low. At best, the artists new media products are demo designs, as described by Peter Lunenfeld in his book Snap to Grid. Often the work does not even reach that level. New media art, as defined by institutions such as Ars Electronica, ISEA, Transmediale and the countless educational programs, rarely reaches audiences outside of its own subculture. What in positive terms could be described as the heroic fight for the establishment of a self-referential new media arts system through a frantic differentiation of works, concepts and traditions, may as well be classified as a dead-end street. The acceptance of new media by leading museums and collectors will simply not happen. Why wait a few decades anyway? The majority of the new media art works on display at ZKM in Karlsruhe, the Linz Ars Electronica Center, ICC in Tokyo or the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne are hopeless in their innocence, being neither critical nor radically utopian in approach. It is for this reason that the new media arts sector, despite its steady growth, is getting becoming increasingly isolated, incapable of addressing the issues of today’s globalized world. It is therefore understandable that the contemporary (visual) arts world is continuing the decades old silent boycott of interactive new media works in galleries, art fairs, biennales and shows such as Documenta. The relative isolation of new media arts could, in part, also explain the rise of the ‘creative industries’ discourse, which presents itself explicitly as a way out of the miserable policies that surround the state-funded arts and education businesses. The irony however is that ‘creative industries’ themselves do not exist outside of the realm of state policies. A critical reassessment of the role of arts and culture within todays network society seems necessary. Would artists be happier if they can could work within the ‘creative industries’ and no longer be bothered with the question of whether, or not, they are producing ‘art’? Certainly, theres a discursive legitimacy that awaits migrants to the Creative Industries, but whether it pays their rent is yet to be seen.  The information economy is still failing to extract value from content production, and if money is to be made, it profits whoever possesses the IP rights – which typically isnt the creative producer, whose role is really one of service provision.  So, whats the difference between the artist and the sales clerk in that scenario?

Let’s go beyond the tactical intentions of the players involved. The artist-engineer, tinkering away on alternative human-machine interfaces, social software, alternative browsers or digital aesthetics has effectively been operating in a self-imposed vacuum. Over the last few decades both science and business have successfully ignored the creative community. Even worse, artists have actively been sidelined in the name of usability. The backlash movement against web design, led by usability guru Jakob Nielsen, is a good example of this trend. Other contributing factors may have been fear of corporate dominance. Creative Commons lawyer Lawrence Lessig[6] argues that innovation of the Internet itself is in danger. In the meanwhile meantime the younger generation is turning its back on the specific  new media arts related issues and either become anti-corporate activists,  do some webdesign for a living, teach here and there, or turn to other professions altogether. Since the crash the Internet has rapidly lost its imaginative attraction. File swapping and cell phones can only temporarily fill the vacuum. It would be foolish to ignore these trends. New media have lost their magic spell; the once so glamorous gadgets are becoming part of everyday life, similar to radio and the vacuum cleaner. This long-term tendency, now in a phase of acceleration, seriously undermines the future claim of new media altogether.

New Media as War of the Generations Another taboo issue in new media is generationalism. With video and expensive interactive installations being the domain of the baby boomers, the generation of 1989 has embraced the free Internet. But the Net turned out to be a trap for the young ones. Whereas real assets, positions and power remains in the hands of the ageing baby boomers, the gamble of its successors on the rise of new media did not materialize. After venture capital has melted away, there is still no sustainable revenue system in place for the Internet. There is no life after demo design. The slow working education bureaucracies have not yet grasped the new media malaise. Universities are still in the process of establishing new media departments. But that will come to a halt at some point. The fifty-something tenured chairs and vice-chancellors must feel good about their persistent sabotage. The ‘positive generation’ (Wanadoo) is unemployed and frustrated.

‘Whats so new about new media anyway?’, the babyboomers ask. Computers are not generating narrative content and what the world needs now is meaning, not empty, ironic net.art. Technology was hype after all, promoted by the criminals of Enron and WorldCom. It’s enough for students to do a bit of email and web surfing, safeguarded within a filtered and controlled intranet . If there is to be a counter to this cynical reasoning, that then we urgently need to analyze the ideology of the greedy 90s and its techno-libertarianism. If we dont disassociate new media quickly from that decade, and if we continue with the same rhetoric, the isolation of the new media sector will sooner or later result in its death. Let’s transform the new media buzz into something more interesting altogether – before others do it for us. The Will to Subordinate to Science is nothing more than an helpless adolescent gesture.

One way out of this subordinate position may be to point at the social aspect of the production of science, as Bruno Latour and others do. According to their theory the work of science consists of the enrollment and juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements – rats, test tubes, colleagues, journal articles, funders, grants, papers at scientific conferences, and so on – which need continual management. They conclude that scientists’ work is “the simultaneous reconstruction of social contexts of which they form a part–labs simultaneously rebuild and link the social and natural contexts upon which they act.”[7]

US-performance artist Coco Fusco has written a critique of biotech art on the Nettime mailinglist (January 26, 2003). Biotech artists have claimed that they are redefining art practice and therefore the old rules don’t apply to them. For Fusco, bio art’s heroic stance and imperviousness to criticism sounds a bit hollow and self-serving after a while, especially when the demand for inclusion in mainstream art institutions, art departments in universities, art curricula, art world money and art press is so strong. From this marginal position, its bio-arts post-human dreams of transcending the body could better be read as desires to transcend its own marginality, being neither recognized as ‘visual arts’ nor as ‘science’. Coco Fusco: I find the attempts by many biotech art endorsers to celebrate their endeavor as if it were just about a scientific or aesthetic pursuit to be disingenuous. Its very rhetoric of transcendence of the human is itself a violent act of erasure, a master discourse that entails the creation of ‘slaves’ as others that must be dominated.’ OK, but what if all this remains but a dream, prototypes of human-machine interfaces that, like demo-design, are going nowhere. The isolated social position of the new media arts in this type of criticism is not taken into consideration. Biotech art has to be almighty in order for the Fusco rhetoric to function. Coco Fusco rightly points at artists who attend meetings with ‘real’ scientists, but in that context they become advisors on how to popularize science, which is hardly what I would call a critical intervention in scientific institutions.’ Artists are not ‘better scientists’ and the scientific process is not a better way of making art than any other, Fusco writes. She concludes: ‘Losing respect for human life is certainly the underbelly of any militaristic adventure, and lies at the root of the racist and classist ideas that have justified the violent use of science for centuries. I don’t think there is any reason to believe that suddenly, that kind of science will disappear because some artists find beauty in biotech.’ It remains an open question as to where radical criticism of (life) science has gone and why the new media (arts) canon is still in such a primitive,regressive stage. Coco Fusco’s remark were written before the FBI cracked down on Critical Arts Ensemble (mid 2004) because of their alledged bio tech terror experiments[8]. This however does not affect her overall argument.

Becomings

Western ‘new media arts’ lacks a sense of superiority, sovereignty, determination and direction. One can witness a tendency towards ‘digital inferiority’ at virtually every cyber-event. The politically nave pose of the techno-art tinkerers has not paid off. Neither the science nor the art world is paying any attention to its  goodwill projects. Artists, critics and curators have made themselves subservient to technology and ‘life science’ in particular, unsuccesfully begging for the attention of the ‘real’ bio scientists. This ideological stand has grown out of an ignorance that cannot be explained easily. Were talking here about a subtle mentality. The cult practice between dominant science and its slaves in the new media artists is taking place in backrooms of universities and art institutions, warmly supported by genuinely interested corporate bourgeois elements, board members, professors, science writers and journalists that set the technocultural agenda. Here we are not talking about some form of ‘techno celebration’. The corporate world is not interested in the new media artworks because in the end they are too abstract and seriously lack sex appeal. Do not make this mistake. New media art is not merely a servant to corporate interests. There has not been a sellout for the simple reason that there has not been basic interest to start with. If only it was that simple. The accusation of new media arts ‘celebrating’ technology is a banality, only stated by ill-informed outsiders; and the interest in life sciences can easily be sold as a (hidden) longing to take part in science’s supra-human triumph of logos, but I won’t do that here. Scientists, for their part, are disdainfully looking down at the vaudeville interfaces and well-intentioned weirdness of amateur tech art. Not that they will say anything. But the weak smiles on their faces bespeaks a cultural gap of light years. An exquisite non-communication is at hand here. Ever growing markets for Internet, mobile devices and digital electronic consumer goods make it hard to sense the true despair. Instead of, again, calling for a more positive attitude towards the future, it could be a more seductive strategy of ‘becoming’ to disconnect the computer from labels such as ‘new’ and ‘digital’ and start building up networks with an even more brutal intensity.

  1. Earlier fragment of this essay: http://www.media-culture.org.au/0308/10-fragments.html. Thanks to Ned Rossiter, Trebor Scholz and Scott McQuire for critical comments.
  2. For an extensive debate on the merits of the new media term, see Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 2001, pp. 27-61.
  3. See www.mediaarthistory.org. Books of individual authors include, amongst others, Dieter Daniels, Kunst als Sendung. Von der Telegrafie zum Internet , Beck Verlag Mnchen, 2002; Charles Gere, Digital Culture, Reaktion Books, London, 2002; Oliver Grau, From Illusion to Emersion, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 2003; Siegfried Zielinski, Audiovisions Cinema and Television as Entr’actes in History, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 1999.
  4. http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/newmedia/
  5. Charlie Finch (Artnet) about Chris Kraus’ book on the Los Angeles art scene, Video Green, Semiotexte, Cambridge (Mass.), 2004.
  6. See: www.creativecommons.org and www.lessig.com/blog.
  7. Quoted from the website What is Actor-Network Theory, written by Nancy Van House. URL: http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/ant_dff.html
  8. See: http://www.caedefensefund.org