Tag Archives: Len Lye

Prehistories of New Media Art

16 Jan
Ben Laposky, Oscillon 4.

Ben Laposky, Oscillon 4.

Notes (mostly) from class, Wednesday 11th January 2012.

This term, my final module is ‘Museums and Galleries in the Digital Age’, taught by artist and researcher Nick Lambert. The format looks like it’s going to be quite lecture-driven, and so I’m hazarding a return to blogging to try and process thoughts and ideas coming out of the class.

Week 1’s class and reading was entitled ‘Introducing New Media in Art’, but looked largely at the developments of technology in relationship to art throughout the twentieth century. Individual art movements have their foundational myths: Tristan Tzara at the Cabaret Voltaire, Kosuth’s manifesto, and even Hirst’s Freeze, that posit a rupture with the past, a definitive new way of seeing and making. Not so much with ‘new media art’. While it implicitly begins with the use of computers in fine art in the 1960s, most histories of it tend to look back to the beginning of the 20th century to establish both precedence and continuity for the use of technology in fine art, and in particular to Kinetic and Op(tical) art for aesthetic approaches. In this respect, media art history as a discipline shares something more with academic parvenus like ‘visual culture’ or the ‘digital humanities’ that seek to establish both their necessity and their legitimacy as a focus for research and teaching. The slightly grudgeful tone of Oliver Grau’s introduction to Media Art Histories has something in common with Nicholas Mirzoeff’s to the Visual Culture Reader.

Peter Weibel’s ‘It is Forbidden Not to Touch’ in Grau’s reader makes the case for ‘algorithimic’ art (governed by rules) emerging in Kinetic art and Fluxus both before and contemporaneously with computer-based art. The principles of virtuality, immersive environments and interactivity, all to become core characteristics of computer-driven art had, he argues, been established by kinetic art well before the introduction of the computer itself as an interface. Edward Shanken’s introductory survey in Art and Electronic Media is broad in and light on theory, but similarly makes the case for the manipulation of light (from impressionism onwards) and shape (Duchamp and Gabo) in fine art preceding the use of digital technology.

There’s something slightly recursive about this legitimacy-seeking. ‘New media art’ is considered to have receded from importance in the artworld between the 1960s and the 1990s. (Charlie Gere’s ‘New Media Art and the Gallery in the Digital Age’ is particularly good on this, identifying 1970 as the year in which Jack Burnham’s ‘Software’ at Jewish Museum in NY was followed by Kynaston McShine’s ‘Information’ that set an agenda eschewing the art of systems for the aesthetic of administration). The emergence of net.art, enabled and made accessible by the internet, re-introduced computational art to the art world. Art historians then sought to contextualise it in the history of digital and technological art.

Reading older works about media art, it’s always tempting to see what predictions they ‘got wrong’. Brian Winston’s ‘A Mirror for Brunelleschi’ (1987) [JSTOR£] in fact predicts the development of television though digital to HD fairly accurately. Winston stands against technological determinism, and for social understanding of representational technologies (his explanation of the way in which Technicolor film was effectively a racist technology in Technologies of Seeing still blows my mind a little). In ‘A Mirror…’ Winston offers ‘six slogans’ for artists working with technology that are less timebound:

  1. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – technologies that are prevalent and socially embedded can be more powerful for artists than bleeding edge developments.
  2. Fear the Greeks – new and more impressive technologies may not prevail in the marketplace
  3. Festina lente (‘Hurry slowly’) – technological progress is much slower than it seems. Holographs have been in the scientific imagination since 1947.
  4. Carpe Diem – seize and use whatever technology is available and works
  5. Fight the good fight – technology does not exist in isolation: use what is socially beneficial
  6. Horses for courses – don’t let technology master art; use what is appropriate for the project

Theoretical touchstones for the lecture were CP Snow’s ‘Two cultures’ (I’m intrigued by the way i which computer technology sometimes stands in as a proxy for, or as access to the abstract idea of ‘science’); Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (does it or doesn’t it also apply to digital reproduction?) and Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ (communications technology’s impact on our cognition).

Beyond that, it was an enjoyable romp through some interesting twentieth century avant-garde art. Marrying sound and music was an early impetus: 19th century ‘colour organs’ used musical keyboards to control the generation of light, and Oskar Fischinger sought to manifest ‘visual music’ through the cinematic movement of animated light, as did Mary Ellen Bute, who used oscilloscope images in some of her works. Ben Laposky’s Oscillons, photographs made from waveforms on oscilloscope screens coloured with filters are not only beautiful, but also solve the mystery of where Stereolab acquired their album title. John Whitney crossed the line from using an ‘analogue computer’ used to generate rhythmically precise images on film to pioneering the use of digital images in film. Some kind of ‘virtual space’ is evident in Naum Gabo’s Standing Wave and Alexander Calder’s kinetic mobiles.

Whether this constitutes a convincing pre-history of ‘new media art’, I’m not sure. Personally, much of the moving image stuff I’ve encountered as ‘experimental film’, a form that I’d consider to be still going strong in both black and white cubes. For my money, while given scant attention in many media art pre-histories Len  Lye’s work embraces both the kinetic principles of Calder and the visual music of Fischinger and Bute (while also being just more bloody beautiful), but fits less easily into the pre-media art paradigm, partly perhaps because Lye’s underlying philosophy was more humanistic and mystical than algorithmic. When establishing legitimacy with historical precedents, what you exclude can be as telling as what you include.

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Museum through a lens

7 Feb
Your work is forgotten...

Your work is forgotten.... by Bob and Roberta Smith

Street art constitutes the vast majority of what hangs on the actual walls of the museum without walls. Given the broad institutional boundaries and lack of restraints, it remains a wonder that there remains such a limited repertoire of subject and style. Graffiti doesn’t constantly surprise you any more than an art gallery does.

With street art, though, that normally redundant practice, taking two-dimensional photographs of flat objects,  is an important part of the game. Having abandoned your (anonymous) work to the vagaries of weather and municipal buffers, you can revel in its genuine ephemerality, but photography is evidence – published books of street art are documentation, not reproduction. And for the photographer, capturing a choice piece of work is not only part of exploring a new or familiar environment, but also of entering into a potential relationship with the artist. Publishing a photograph of something you found pretty and being told, after the fact, ‘that’s by Bobbyphonics’.

Less so in the gallery, where we already know what everything is, and are likely to take a picture of the label after the work, just so we get the metadata correct. But even in a gallery the visitor-photographer is more than a weak echo of the official installation photographer. Taking pictures in a gallery is performative: it records your own visit; it’s interpretive: photographs of objects from new angles and in new lights show new truths; and it’s also (without over-egging the ‘media’ part of that particular pudding) social: we can share photos of artworks we’ve seen as meaningfully as photos of people we’ve met.

At the Kinetica Art Fair, the third eye culture was in full effect. It was hard to walk from one stand to another without getting between an artwork and someone’s camera. The hectic atmosphere feels like a challenge to capture rather than regard, to take something away and create your own something out of it. Still, the nature of kinetic works seemed to provide a rare justification for cameras that record moving image, and for Flickr’s display of same.

But Kinetica is, after all, an art fair, somewhere transient, to shout and trade. In established museums and art galleries, official photography policies are moving more slowly. Object museums like the V&A lead the way because there are few ‘rights’ issues with historical and antique forms (unless they are particularly uncomfortable), but even contemporary art galleries are moving away from blanket ‘no photography’ policies.

But there are some unresolved issue about taking and using the photos. In Birmingham and Walsall this weekend, being allowed to take photographs meant: 1) signing a piece of paper saying that any photographs you took would be for ‘personal use’ only. 2) Being given a sticker with a picture of a camera on it to let gallery invigilators know you had signed said piece of paper. Even so, there were still some exceptions: the main floor of the Bob and Roberta Smith-curated ‘Inner Life of the Mind’ exhibition was strictly off limits because it contained ‘works from the Tate’ according to the main desk.

The restrictions on use suggest that the galleries understand that taking photographs can be an important part of visiting an art gallery; but that they’re still a little uncomfortable with the use of the actual photographs themselves (perhaps because the reproduction of artworks is embedded in a artworld system larger than small galleries; but also because digital photography has fundamentally changed the nature of photographs). Personally, I’m dubious about the validity of a contract I’ve signed but haven’t been given a copy of; and consider posting images on Flickr well within the bounds of ‘personal’ use.

And so all of which is really no more than being by way of introduction to four photo/video sets on Flickr of exhibitions and art I enjoyed over the weekend:

Kinetica Art Fair 2011
Street Art in Digbeth
Len Lye at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Bob and Roberta Smith at the New Art Gallery, Walsall