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NEW-MEDIA-CURATING  June 2007

NEW-MEDIA-CURATING June 2007

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Subject:

automatic update exhibition essay, still working out references

From:

Patrick Lichty <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Patrick Lichty <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 23 Jun 2007 14:56:17 -0500

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Automatic Update
Dificult Conversations Between Contemporary Art and New Media

In regards to the upcoming "Automatic Update" exhibition at the MoMA NY, 
there seems to be a great deal of question about a number of issues.  These 
are; the re-writing of history, the relevance of net-based art, the 
perception of popular culture, and the role of the New Media movement/Genre 
in the contemporary scene.  What seems to be a key dialectic about the state 
of New Media as force in contemporary art derives from two poles; one from 
the MoMA colophon about the Automatic Update show;

The dot-com era infused media art with a heady energy. Hackers, programmers, 
and tinkerer-revisionists from North America, Europe, and Asia developed a 
vision of art drawn from the technology of recent decades. Robotic pets, 
PDAs, and the virtual worlds on the Internet provoked artists to make works 
with user-activated components and lo-res, game-boy screens. Now that "new 
media" excitement has waned, an exhibition that illuminates the period is 
timely. Automatic Update is the first reassessment of its kind, reflecting 
the artists' ambivalence to art, revealed through the ludicrous, comical, 
and absurd use of the latest technologies.  [1]

The other comes from the near-historical perception of the New Media 
community as “art ghetto”, residing in festivals/enclaves such as DEAF, 
ISEA, Ars Electronica, SIGGRAPH [2], and others.  As an aside, this writer 
would like to remind the MoMA that there have been other retrospectives of 
New Media [3], but not of this profile.  What is ironic about Automatic 
Update is that it suggests that New Media’s time has all but gone, and that 
New Media artists have ambivalence to art in general.  Perhaps this is 
evident from Roland Penrose’s assertion of Rauschenberg’s heritage to Dada 
[4], and Rauschenberg/Kluver’s role in constructing key discursive threads 
in contemporary art through Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) [5] that 
would spawn many tech/art event/sites, including New Media.  

The questions posed by Automatic Update are many.  First, is New Media a 
genre that is quickly being assimilated/deconstructed by the contemporary, 
or is its death, to paraphrase Twain’s commentary on his obituary in the NY 
Times, “highly exaggerated”?  Secondly, does this body or work aptly 
represent the “waning” dot-com/New Media era, and does it represent the 
material/info culture that is reflected in the work?  What are the linkages 
between the assertions of interactivity and response as absurdist reactions 
through technological art?

Before continuing this analysis of the exhibition, I want to frame the 
argument of this essay more explicitly.  On the CRUMB New Media discussion 
list, Christiane Paul noted that most of the works in this exhibition are 
from internal collections [6], which is a point well taken.  Even with this 
taken into account, there seems to be a dys-connection between the absurdist 
practices of the artists in context with how they fit with other 
contemporary threads, the role of interactivity in the exhibition, and the 
locating of curatorial focus in context of the conceptual grounding of the 
show in terms of Automatic Update being representative of the “dot.com” era, 
which apparently is congruent with that of the historical framing of New 
Media.  Lengthy sentences aside (which, by the way, coincide with early New 
Media works like Amerika’s Grammatron [7] and Davis’ world's first 
collaborative sentence[8]), my analysis is not so much a critique, but query 
into the dialogue between the contemporary and New Media worlds and how 
their memetic trends translate.

First of all, let us look at some dates where we may frame some of the 
considerations of art terminology and economic trends. The dot.com crash can 
be located in March/April 2000, when the tech-heavy NASDAQ stock exchange 
dropped from the 4300’s to the 1400’s [9]. Conversely, the beginning locates 
somewhere in the mid-90’s, with the 1995 IPO of companies like Netscape.  
This coincides with the rise of the Web in 1994, and the founding of 
Rhizome.org in 1996 by Tribe & Galloway [10], which also follows with the 
online publishing of many of Lev Manovich’s essays that would become The 
Language of New Media [11] in 2001.  If Automatic Update is loosely 
suggesting the era of New Media to be approximately 1996-2000, then it may 
also be ironic that Manovich’s book may be an encapsulation of the time, 
being released the year after the genre’s apex.

However, pre-Web, (let’s say, 1995) there was the era of Cyberarts, as this 
was the common parlance for digital/computational art.  For example, Compu-
Serve Magazine published an issue in 1994 on the subject [12], and the 
creation of Mondo 2000 in 1989 [13] to the staff’s proclaimed “end of 
cyberpunk” in 1993 with the release of the Billy Idol album (or possibly the 
founding of WIRED Magazine). The pattern that emerges is one from ’89-’94 of 
a bohemian cyberpunk culture and related arts based on digital technology to 
one that became more mass-cultural and linked to capital with the creation 
of the Web and its cooptation by business. What seems to be evident with in 
the decade of the 90’s and the emergence of the implied era of New Media is 
the shift from Cyber to Wired.

If Automatic Update is truly a reflection on the era of New Media and its 
cultural issues, then perhaps the greatest singular driving force of the 
dot.com boom is unquestionably the rise of the World Wide Web, and not 
robotic pets (the Sony Aibo robotic dog was introduced in 1999 and Furby in 
December 1998), the cultural context for New Media must be heavily tied to 
the Web.  In the years stated here, there were shows like net.condition 
(ZKM, 1999), Art Entertainment Network (Walker Art Center, 2000), and the 
Whitney Biennial 2000 for which web-based art figured prominently. In 
addition, during the renovation of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s 
galleries in 2000-2002, they hosted a partially net-based gallery during 
that time. Therefore, from a formal perspective, at least three or four 
years of the “New Media” art era of the dot.com boom saw some of the 
greatest activity in web-based art.

What is ironic in the online exhibition is that there are no web-based works 
online, only some net-based networking through de.licio.us, and the only 
piece that seems to directly acknowledge the browser is the video by 
PaperRad, Welcome to my Home Page.  For that matter, 23 of the 25 works 
featured in the online documentation are largely video-based.  If one 
considers events like the “Sins of Change: Media Arts in Transition” New 
Media summit (2000), which was the successor of a similar video art summit 
nearly a decade and a half prior, a key irony is the expression of waning 
media/media becoming canonized in terms of a canonized, or stable,  medium 
(video).  As an aside, the Automatic Update page borrows stylistically from 
late 90’s Walker Art Center Gallery 9 New Media exhibitions, including Art 
Entertainment Network, which was launched in conjunction with the Sins of 
Change summit. From this, the question arises as to whether institutional 
expression of media art forms can only come through the translation into 
institutionally-supported media, such as video.  It reinforces the New Media 
community’s dialogue as to whether museums will be able to support Web-based 
or otherwise more “formal” types of work from the genre, or whether the 
equivalent of video documentation will be de rigeur for the time being.  
While vaguely disappointing, it is not far from this author’s contention 
that, due to the ephemerality of technology and technical upkeep required 
maintain most New Media works, the key archive of New Media art will 
probably be the book.

Another aspect of New Media that is often at odds with the sensibilities of 
the American museum patron is that of Interactivity.  It is no surprise that 
of the 25 works documented, only 2 are interactive.  While it is not 
surprise, it is at odds with the curatorial vision’s emphasis on 
interactivity, and with the pervasiveness of interactivity in much, if not 
most, New Media. This stems from two factors; one, the traditional gallery 
practice of “not touching” the work, which is a known issue, but a complex 
one that is beyond a full discussion in this essay.  Secondly, and this is 
an issue I intend to write about more fully at another time, are the issues 
of time and engagement, what I call the “time-function”. 

What I mean by this is that for different venues, audiences expect different 
slippages in time-based work for different contexts and genres.  In the case 
of the video festival, work must have the rhythm and span more attuned for 
entertainment, i.e. shorter form, quicker pace, etc.  There are, of course, 
exceptions where the framing of festival screenings specifically include 
experimental formats, but this commentary is aimed at broader contexts.  
Moving on, the gallery permits slower slippages.  The time flow can be 
slower than the festival, as the patron can engage with partial attention, 
contrasted with that of the “captive” in the theater seat. As long as there 
is the perception of change between glances, conversational pauses, or sips 
of Chardonnay at the occasional vernissage, the temporal contract is 
fulfilled.  What is more problematic is the context of the Museum, where the 
role of the time-based screen/projection work must fulfill the dual role of 
Sublime/Static and Cinematic/Kinetic. It must be read as a single image in 
Gladwellian “blink-time”, but then withstand the engagement of longer 
timeframes.  A key example of this effect is Viola’s “The Passions”, where 
the figurative high-definition video reads as late Renaissance painting, but 
also as protracted cinema.

The challenge of the time-function in the museum context is where much New 
Media fails to engage Contemporary Art audiences.  Interactive New Media, by 
and large, do not convey their intent iconically in a blink.  Much 
interactive New Media requires the direct dialogue with the viewer through 
touch or motion over numbers of minutes in order for the intent/content to 
reveal itself to the viewer.  Interactivity in the museum is often 
restricted to gesture.  Therefore, because of the “attendance” of interactor 
and support personnel to much New Media work of the 1995-2000, as well as 
its modes of representation, it would not be surprising to see little truly 
interactive New Media in a larger museum context, even for a show reflecting 
on the genre.

In addition to the matters of time in the gallery, the issue of cultural 
location in terms of time as era in context of Automatic Update is an issue. 
Of interest is the inclusion of only 9 of 25 pieces from the 1995-2000 era, 
with Laurie Anderson’s 1986 video, What You Mean, We? As part of the 
exhibition, Anderson’s piece, although seminal, is curious because it 
neither takes place within the implied New Media era nor reflects upon the 
specifics of the rise of computational media art, as Anderson’s piece is 
clearly about the 80’s art milieu and late-stage analog video technologies.  
That leaves 15 of 25 works from the post dot.com boom era, given the framing 
of reflection on the role of technology in contemporary art, is appropriate 
for the exhibition.
  
What may be revealed in the works of Automatic Update is not a reflection 
upon the “New Media era”, but a filtration of technological artworks through 
US Contemporary Art agendas. This interface between art genres/communities 
is important to understand the translation of works under differing 
institutional contexts (museum/market/festival/academia) that are more 
specific to the given bodies of work.  For example, many of the artists in 
the show (Arcangel, Lucas, July, PaperRad, Rist) at the time of the works’ 
creation is a juxtaposition of the creation time of the work with the early 
2000’s obsession with youth/young artists.  The obsession with young artists 
is rife in the art fairs, with personal experience at the 2007 BridgeArt 
Chicago, Basel, and others, and has been shown in recent years with the 
apparent doubling of Boomer geriatric anxiety, the rise of Millennial youth 
artists, and the denial of acknowledging mortality in the US through mass 
culture. 

The other art-meme evident in the Automatic Update exhibition is that of the 
prevalent nature of the Neo-Pop/Superflat movement created in part by 
Murakami and his KaiKai Kiki stable (Nara, Mr., Aishima, Takano, and 
others). Huyghe et al’s No Ghost, Just a Shell demonstrates the Western/
Eastern dialogue in technological art, as Murakami employed digital 
techniques to update Warhol’s Factory concept through contemporary Japanese 
terms.  Conversely, Huyghe’s project juxtaposes virtual identity, 
intellectual property, and the post-millennial abjection through Murakami’s 
“poku” (pop/otaku) lens of the “Kawaii” (cute) character of Annli.  Anime, 
as a prevalently youth culture, although it does span well into late Boomer-
aged culture in the States, and far beyond that in Japan) reiterates the 
desire for endless youth or even childhood in both cultures. Murata’s 
“Melter 2” video also shows similar motifs in color and form to Murakami’s 
flowers, without anthropomorphizing them, but the influences/concurrence of 
styles is clear.

Some of the more interesting intersections of US and Japanese Neo-Pop, 
youth, and techno-cultures are in the area of 8-Bit culture (like New Media, 
another oddly named genre).  Ramocki’s documentary, 8-Bit, along with 
PaperRad’s 414-3-RAVE-95 that show at least the Gen Y nostalgia for 80’s 
digital video game culture.  The nostalgia mentioned here relates to the 
fact that many of the artists working in 8-Bit genres (Arcangel, Neill, 
Slocum) are just old enough to have taken part in the first wave of the 
Nintendo culture. Nintendo is probably the key term here, as while PaperRad 
mentions their intent of using machines that they can have complete control 
over so that artists’ intents override any external programmers’[], the 
cultural resonances of 8-Bit override technical formalism.  G4 television is 
releasing an animated series for young adult demographics entitled “Code 
Monkeys”, along with mass-media influences in design from both the 8-Bit and 
Neo-Pop influences.  And lastly, with Arcangel’s Nintendo Duck Hunt hack, I 
Shot Andy Warhol, the historical linkages are made explicit, from Pop to US 
8-Bit Neo Pop, and thus through color styles and linkage to a gaming “poku” 
mentality back to an intertextual conversation with Murakami & KaiKai Kiki.  
The importance of these linkages is that my assertion that Automatic Update  
is only superficially about New Media, but actually it illustrates the art 
world’s ambivalence to the ongoing procession of technological forms and 
methods.  

This ambivalence, not by the artists as much as the curators, is part of the 
ongoing dialogue to understand the role of digital technology and its 
intricacies in a contemporary scene still dominated by Pop/Neo-Pop and the 
Sublime.  The fractured dialogue between cultural clades is well illustrated 
through a personal experience. is encapsulated in a personal experience.  In 
Fall of1999, I was given a Best in Show in a regional exhibition in 
Northeast Ohio for a large mixed-media digital print based on 
recontextualized Japanese pornography.  When awards were given, and I 
stepped down, the curator proclaimed to the audience, "By the way, the Best 
in Show was done with a computer!"  For the next three hours, almost every 
conversation entailed analogies of programs and oil paints, and little about 
the content at all.  But this is a relatively universal experience for the 
digital, let alone New Media artist, and endemic of the era.

What is evident in Automatic Update is a quirky show on "artists and 
computers", and one that does not engage the issues and genres related to 
new media, despite its linkage through the mention of the “waning” of the 
era.  The idiosyncratic Walker-esque design, combined with ironic, Neo-Pop/
8-Bit sensibilities with the focus on 'younger artists' is in line with 
contemporary culture's Nintendo nostalgia.  Automatic Update does try to 
address a desire to understand how artists could make use computers to make 
contemporary art, and address that to an audience (MoMA) who 
(apologetically) has a large non/pre-digital audience.  The mass audience is 
wrestling with contemporary art/entertainment issues in the mass culture, 
and are still unreconciled with Duchamp, let alone Lippard, and how that 
could possibly relate to technology or even personal computers.  

As mentioned earlier, Automatic Update is a Contemporary Art show, and not 
one that addresses the New Media art movement its cultural specificities and 
formalist concerns.  The issues here are ones that stem from Duchamp. Paik, 
Rauschenberg, and include Anderson.  Actually, they seem to be more akin to 
Murakami, Warhol, and Nauman. as opposed to Manovich, Csuri, Kluver, Ascott, 
Davies, Verostko, Cosic, Schwartz, et al.  Again, as part of this 
conversation, Furthermore, Whitney New Media curator Christiane Paul noted 
on the CRUMB New Media Curating list that Automatic Update appears to be a 
show compiled from the collection works from the MoMA. This may be just the 
case, and as such, presents an interesting set of works in an odd 
juxtaposition that illustrates the uneasy cultural dialogue about art and 
technology, whether New Media has reached an apex, and what the perceptual 
difference between practitioners, public, and institutions regarding tech 
and art might be.

References

[1]
[2]
[3]
[4]
[5]
[6]
[7]
[8]
[9] NASDAQ charts online,
http://dynamic.nasdaq.com/dynamic/IndexChart.asp?symbol=IXIC&desc=NASDAQ
+Composite&sec=nasdaq&site=nasdaq&months=84
[10] http://www.boingboing.net/blogosphere.html
[13] http://www.totse.com/en/ego/literary_genius/mThe issue of 
timeondo2k.html

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