Book Review: Beyond New Media Art

Joseph Nechvatal

Domenico Quaranta, a curator and art critic who regularly writes for Flash Art and Artpulse, has just released a new book Beyond New Media Art that is particularly topical and noteworthy, as it is very much in the current inclination to formally re-evaluate contemporary art in terms of a developing post-media understanding. In it Quaranta deftly juxtaposes Peter Weibel’s notions of post-media against those of Rosalind Krauss (who dismisses the post-medium condition) and Félix Guattari (who embraced a critical and political post-medium condition), questioning their distinctions in a post-media world in which perhaps it no longer makes sense to distinguish between art that uses computers and art which doesn’t. (page 212)

But perhaps it still does. Possibly there is something strangely cognitively dissonant in the medium-specificity of computers themselves, as Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg already in a 1977 essay suggest, with their understanding that the Dynabook (an early multimedia computing system) should be viewed as a medium in and of itself while simultaneously containing the powers of most other media put together. Hence already proposing the idea of the computer as metamedium.

But the focus of this book is tighter than that and begins by telling the history of the gap between the mainstream curatorial contemporary art world and the so-called new media art world. This little known history is the crux of this pertinently revised, updated version of an earlier 2010 book Quaranta published in Italian, with the title Media, New Media, Postmedia (Postmedia Books, Milan). Through the circulation of interviews around that book, Quaranta contributed a bit to the heated debate outside of Italy concerning the majority of powerful contemporary art historians and curators’ ignoring (in what seemed like a blanket rejection) of new media and digital art per say, and their enforced taboo against artists who address our era of digital technology head-on.

In an art world that seemingly accepts absolutely any hybridity, any material, any theoretical model, any remediation, any critical inspection, and any aesthetic approach at all – the extent of which Jed Perl in his recent book of collected essays Magicians & Charlatans (Eakins Press, 2012) deems a condition of irony drenched, laisser-faire aesthetics (page 15) – the peculiar question of the rejection of anything raises eyebrows of concern. What peculiar and dastardly Luddite bias is at work here? And how can it be eradicated in an era in which digital media are powerfully reshaping the political, economic, social and cultural organization of the real world?

This problem is an oddity that has baffled me for over two decades, but now seems to be waning, and this book both advances and celebrates that wane. Quaranta makes the point that within a post-media art world, so called technology-based – or new media – art (digital-based art now is more accurate to our times) has slipped back sideways into the acceptable means of creating art, provided it does not (1) mention by name the technological or digital, (2) describe itself as technological or digital, or (3) lovingly point at anything outside itself that is overtly technological or digital. In other words, technological or digital connected art is now acceptable to select art editors, curators and critics so long as it is an art that dare not speak its name.

But we may question, how did we get to such an imprecise position today towards once modernist conceptions of medium-specificity? Can it be merely an overreaction to foolish technologically determinist positions? This book reviews that issue in depth, as it explores some of the historical, sociological and conceptual reasons for the weirdly under-recognized, even marginalized, position of the digital within recent art history. On the other hand, the book is also an attempt to suggest new critical and curatorial strategies to turn around this marginalization and to emphasize the topicality of art that touches on digital media and the issues of the information age.

It does so by citing some key examples of the problem. For example, in 2010, this marginalization dispute flared up around Nicolas Bourriaud’s out-of-hand rejection of digital art in his statement about new media’s impoverished appreciation of art history and recent aesthetic and theoretical developments on the panel that Edward Shanken, author of Art and Electronic Media (Phaidon Press, 2009 & 2011), conducted at the Basel Art Fair. This was perversely odd, as Bourriaud often defends his metaphoric references to networks and computer culture as inspirations for his own curatorial work, while refusing the actuality of computers in art. This, what might at first assumed to be an anomalous event of unwarranted tactical minorization of art and technology within a technological society, has been the dominant trend. But in Basel, Shanken came up vigorously against Bourriaud’s avoidance of the notion of medium altogether, while Bourriaud pleaded willful ignorance, instead insisting on developing non-technically determined notions for his curatorial agenda with terms similar to Krauss’, such as automatism and technical support.

We next explicitly saw this discussion fume up last year around Claire Bishop’s essay in Artforum. These and further biased persuasions of powerful people within the art institutions of the digital age, convinced Quaranta to rewrite his 2010 book and release this extensive, very understandable and attention-grabbing book in English, only a few months ago. It is a bit wispy on illustrations, but makes for remarkable reading, given the wild swings in opinion and convoluted rationalizations that must be sat with here.

To situate us in this maze of new media marginalization, we must grasp Quaranta’s point that now it is already too late to talk about a New Media Art in our time of post-convergence, a convergence of every medium into digital territory (hence the relevance of the term post-media). However, Quaranta goes to lengths demonstrating and analyzing so-called New Media Art’s appearance, early reception, rejection and recent reappearance within the wider field of contemporary art. And he makes some keen distinctions in this regard, for example defending the outmoded term Media Art, a term he says that is “particularly popular in German academic literature, extends the reach to all media: press, radio, fax, telephone, satellite communications, video and television, light, electricity, film, photography, and also computers, software, the web and video games. As underlined in the online encyclopedia Medien Kunst Netz, launched in 2004 and edited by the German scholars Rudolf Frieling and Dieter Daniels, the term Media Art forges a tradition that goes from Man Ray to Nam June Paik to the current use of computers and the web, while Digital Art covers at most a story that begins in the late sixties, the period of the first experiments that used computers to make art.” (page 23) But the book mostly focuses on the last twenty or so years (generally the mid-90s on), and is thus foremost an explanatory history book for people that were either too technophobic, too young, or just not paying attention at the time.

Having actively lived and worked in the thick of things then, I can attest that Quaranta basically gets the big history right, if, I suppose inevitably, somewhat partially. I particularly was impressed by Quaranta’s ability to fairly accurately report on what happened with new media and digital art both throughout European capitals and in New York City. However, a few regrettable errors of omission were made, for example in listing the history of art galleries that supported/support so-called new media art in New York (starting with still striving Postmasters). Here one egregious error was Quaranta’s omission of the work of Universal Concepts Unlimited, an early new technology based gallery with a limited but fertile run at 507 West 24th Street between the years (and tears) of 2000 and 2006. But the rise and fall of interest for new media art within the museums at the turn of the century is rather comprehensive, covering 010101: Art in Technological Times at San Francisco’s SFMoMA, Art Now: Art and Money Online at the Tate curated by Julian Stallabrass, through BitStreams at the Whitney Museum curated by Lawrence Rinder and Debra Singer, to Data Dynamics, also at the Whitney curated by Christiane Paul, Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace at the Walker Art Center curated by Steve Dietz (it toured six other venues in 2001), Game Show at MASS MoCA that was curated by Mark Tribe and Alex Galloway from Rhizome, on to lesser known shows and venues, such as Dystopia + Identity in the Age of Global Communications that was presented at Tribes Gallery in New York and was curated by Cristine Wang.

After reviewing this history, Quaranta essentially concludes that this first wave of acceptance of new media in the art world waned due to a combination of hubris and blatant self-interest. The self-interest came in the form of often technology-related corporate sponsorship. The hubris came from those making overly revolutionary and technologically determined evaluations by way of claims to superiority based on the wonder of technological newness alone, as we saw at times with the farcical claims made for virtual reality, and for example with the always funny field of teledildonics.

But the major, systemic and deep failure that Quaranta points to (and here I corroborate him), was that of the critical and curatorial art communities, with their failure to take an informed and even-handed interest in art that uses technology. Thus such art in the mid 00s remained under-recognized, under collected and essentially disregarded. As a result, many in the critical and curatorial field either unintentionally missed or intentionally ignored much art that is not bound to, or only about, technology for its own sake, missing or ignoring art that is content driven (as is required now, according to Quaranta), with the technological component playing a crucial but secondary role. And this is what has changed just in the last three years, a change that started with Christiane Paul’s Whitney show of Cory Arcangel, soon followed by some concentrated coverage of Arcangel in Artforum and other art magazines.

The book basically winds up with Arcangel; pointing at a hopeful convergent new realty where now we can accept so-called new media (or digital media) in art so long as it does not speak its name. Unfortunately, Quaranta misses the best evidence for his thesis with his exclusion of Wade Guyton, the digital artist who in 2012 received a rave retrospective at the Whitney Museum, but whose name does not appear anywhere in the book. More the pity, for with the financial success of Guyton in the collector sector (his works regularly sell for more than $1 million at auction and privately and an untitled Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen of 2005 established an auction record for the artist when it sold for $2.4 million at Christie’s New York in 2013) Guyton proves Quaranta’s end point, utterly.

Not that Quaranta always and easily blames those damnable art critics who were unable to grasp the equal universality and specificity of digital technology. Nor does he uncritically praise those astute collectors and Whitney curators; as during the 2000 period and before, new media artists (and some theoreticians) spoke and acted in conflicted manner – some desiring understanding, sales, praise and acceptance within the art world – while others fully rejecting such a goal, often insisting on putting first the technological component of their work, happily remaining encrusted within the university context and/or festival circuit, contentedly insisting on the freedom of the benefits of their marginalization from the market – safe from within the confines of their techno-ghettoization. So its been a bumpy ride all the way down, and thus, to explain this colliding dynamic, Quaranta points us, kind of bizarrely, at The Painted Word, a successful pamphlet on the art world published in 1975 by the American satirical writer Tom Wolfe.

Quaranta retells how in it, Wolfe ironically describes “the relationship between avant-garde movements and the art establishment as a bizarre mating ritual, that takes place in two stages: the Boho dance, “in which the artist shows his stuff within the circles, coteries, movements, isms, of the home neighborhood, bohemia itself, as if he doesn’t care about anything else,” and the consummation, “in which culturati from that very same world, le monde, scout the various new movements and new artists of bohemia, select those who seem the most exciting, original, important, by whatever standards – and shower them with all the rewards of celebrity.” (page 123)

I usually abhor such simplistic thinking such as Wolfe’s, as I find it massacres the subtle layering of art ideas and art practices as they enter society at large. But Quaranta’s conclusion is that such a consummation is finally at hand.

Beyond New Media Art by Domenico Quaranta, Link Editions, Brescia, 2013, free e-book or purchasable soft cover, 290 pages, ISBN 9781291376975







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2 Responses to Book Review: Beyond New Media Art

  1. Pingback: My review of Beyond New Media Art by Domenico Quaranta | The Hyper-Noise Aesthetics of an Exquisite Monster Sacré

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