New Media Art: An Intro

What is the “new media” in new media art? New media art is a new area of art historical study, and something that I am just starting to familiarize myself with. It was only until after auditing a survey class in the Digital Humanities that I started to be intrigued by the impact that digital technologies and media are having on the art world. The class, in other words, sparked within me a desire to find out what new media art is all about…

Digital Inspiration? After Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam"

Digital Inspiration.
After Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”

It is a little-understood art-form, and many people question whether it is even art at all. This may be because it does not fit in to the traditional notion of what we consider “art;” i.e. drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, etc. With the advent of new technologies and digital media, this notion of art needs to evolve with the times. New media art is defined by Wikipedia as a “genre that encompasses artworks created with new media technologies, including digital art, computer graphics, computer animation, virtual art, internet art, video games, computer robotics, and art as biotechnology.” This sounds awfully technical, and parts of that definition (cough, video games) you wouldn’t necessarily think to see in a place like an art gallery, yet they are still considered art.

New media art is like contemporary art, but it always seems to involve three criteria: interaction, connectivity, and computability, which may be present in any combination. Interactivity is an evident quality in most new media art installations, where the artwork responds to the viewer. For example, this (rather long) video from MediaArtTube on YouTube is a perfect example of how New Media Art interacts and involves the viewer with the artwork.

The lights in the ceiling respond to the viewer’s movements and create spasms of light throughout the installation. To be in a room like this would be pretty cool. I’m sure that some people would revel in the interactivity and dance around to see what would happen. Interactivity can present itself in different ways, but the key thing is that the viewer participates in the message of the artwork in some way.

The exhibition of work by Monica Studer and Christoph van den Berg, Package Holiday (2005), including the installation Mountain Top (2005) at the BALTIC Centre of Contemporary Art in England features all three criteria of new media art (i.e. interactivity, computability, and connectivity). Computability is one of the behaviors of new media art, and it is inherent in Mountain Top. This artwork consists of a large-scale digital print of a computer-graphic representation of an alpine landscape on the wall, complete with alpine flowers, snow-dusted peaks and swirling mists, facing a bench  visitors could sit on. A video camera observed the bench, and a small screen on the opposite wall showed the live footage from the camera of the viewers enjoying a mountain view. This footage was also streamed live to a Web site. By inviting us to enter physically into their Mountain Top fiction, the artists have further confused the boundaries between real and imagined. You know this paper mountain is real, but the artists get what they want when you start to doubt the truth of the “real thing” too.

Installation view from the exhibition "Package Holiday" (2005) by Monica Studer and Christoph van den Berg, showing the installation "Mountain Top." Photograph by Colin Davidson, courtesy of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.

Installation view from the exhibition Package Holiday (2005) by Monica Studer and Christoph van den Berg, showing the installation Mountain Top. Photograph by Colin Davidson, courtesy of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.

In another room of this exhibition, there were two kiosks with large LCD wall screens that showed Vues des Alpes, an ongoing online project by the artists where users can check in to a computer simulated hotel and can explore the surrounding alpine landscape for the duration of their virtual stay. There is also a livecam of the imaginary Gleissenhorn weather station involved in the simulation, where users can choose the time and date, past or present, in which to see the mountain and its weather. The websites themselves would not hold your interest for long, but the obvious question is whether the experience of using an imaginary webcam is any different from that of a real one. In this way, the use of computers and the internet in this exhibition provided an element of connectivity that commented on the wider cultural context of tourism.

Installation view from the exhibition Package Holiday (2005) by Monica Studer and Christoph van den Berg, showing the installation Vues des Alpes. Photograph by Colin Davidson, courtesy of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.

Installation view from the exhibition Package Holiday (2005) by Monica Studer and Christoph van den Berg, showing the installation Vues des Alpes. Photograph by Colin Davidson, courtesy of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.

The three criteria interactivity, connectivity, and computability seem to be what makes new media art—for the most part—different from traditional fine art. More broadly, it is art that is made using electronic media technology and displays any or all three of these criteria in any combination. Most new media artworks almost always involve a degree of interactivity—or so we have seen from the examples I have outlined in this post. New media art is an art-form that keeps moving and it will continue keep moving with the creation of new technologies. As we advance, so will it.

So, in this brief introduction, we begin to see a part of why new media art is becoming so popular—we like technology and we like being involved in the artwork. The art-world finds this kind of art fascinating because it presents a challenge: how is it altering the notion of art? how does it fit into the art historical canon? how do you exhibit it? and how do you preserve it for posterity? These are the issues inherent in the study of new media art, and ones that I will continue to explore further.

Meanwhile, for those of you in the Ottawa-area, there is an exhibition called IN/digitized: Indigenous Culture in a Digital World  that opened yesterday at SAW gallery (it runs from May 23-May 31, 2013). It features a number of new installations by the 007 Collective (Ottawa, Ontario 7) featuring 007 Special Agent guest artist Robert Houle.  It sounds absolutely fantastic, and I would go see it if I were not in Saskatchewan for the summer.

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