Medien Kunst Netz: Medienkunst im Überblick = Media Art Net: Survey of Media Art. — [Vienna] : Springer, 2004. — 399 p. — Includes an index. — Includes a bibliography. — ISBN 3211005706
Media Art Net is an interdisciplinary project developed jointly by the Goethe Institute and the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe (ZKM) in Germany under the direction of Rudolph Frieling and Dieter Daniels. The project’s aim is to enhance the specificity of practices related to media arts while still incorporating the more general context of contemporary art.
With files devoted to well-targeted issues, the project’s Internet platform presents resources intended for specialized researchers alongside basic educational tools to initiate Internet users unfamiliar with media art practices.
Thematic files are one of the pathways toward clusters of data blocks and denser texts by art theorists and historians. These blocks provide factual data (in the form of biographical notes on artists and data sheets on works) to complement the historical elements mentioned in the texts. Indexes also give access to these blocks through a list of names of artists and organizations or through key words linked to the texts where they are the main subjects. Conversely, all the topics are mapped as a list of these key words, displayed in the upper section of each page. Users are therefore free to learn about the practices by selecting key words that produce a list of their occurrences in data blocks that are themselves connected to their respective files. Users also have a search engine for more limited queries.
As they state in their introduction “Media Art Can Only Be Conveyed by Multimedia,” Rudolph Frieling and Dieter Daniels hope to create a bridge between the interactive platform the Web site constitutes and a series of printed publications. The co-authors feel that print media alone is not an adequate means of presenting media art, which is better served by the Internet or other digital supports. Yet the simultaneous presence of the Internet site and publications is justified here by the handling of books which are still the favoured instrument for reading. According to the project’s coordinators, this dialectic of print publications and the Internet site goes beyond the truism that printed works enjoy greater scientific legitimacy than on-line content. In fact, these print publications include content that interacts with elements making up the Internet site thanks to a series of icons providing access to data blocks (audiovisual data blocks among them) and to other resources such as bibliographic references. The print publication subject to this review inaugurates this new interaction between books and the Internet site by looking again at the contributions of theorists available on-line in the first thematic file completed, “Survey of Media Art 1.” The cluster of related Web data blocks (several hundred biographical notices, data sheets on works, audiovisual documents, etc.) offers an overview of media art practices (video, audio art, network art, etc.) from the early 20th century to today.
The three essays that open this anthology attempt to set out historical markers to create a bridge between recent media art practices and past practices in the avant-garde movements from the early 20th century to the seventies. In “Media Art/Art Media: Forerunners of Media Art in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” Dieter Daniels provides an overview of early discourse on media and technology within artistic practices of the first part of the 20th century (Dziga Vertov, Walter Ruttmann and the futurists). Daniels also comments on the theoretical reflections of such thinkers as Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin whose utopian views on media find their grey zones in the fascism of the futurists and communist propaganda. In “Television-Art or Anti-Art?: Conflict and Cooperation Between the Avant-Garde and the Mass Media in the 1960s and the 1970s,” Daniels comments on the socio-political impacts of a series of iconoclastic gestures by artists in the late fifties that targeted television (Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Tom Wesellmann, Isidore Isou). With the accessibility of Portapak cameras, this violation of the object itself enabled artists to invest the media sphere, which was difficult to access at the time, and to create the foundations of what would in the seventies be called video art. The article by Golo Follmer, “Audio Art,” attempts to link together practices at the dividing line between several artistic disciplines in which sound plays a key role and the research of such 20th-century avant-garde musicians as Erik Satie, John Cage, Nam June Paik and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Follmer stresses the theoretical aspects of these approaches that view sound production within a broader framework. The use of real-time and random transmission helps extend beyond the restrictive aspects of a score and a recording medium. Follmer also touches on audio installations emerging at the time in which the sound reception space—ranging from concert halls to diverse venues often themselves laden with sound—was reconfigured. The author establishes a parallel between the importance of process in these approaches and the laboratory approach recommended by current representatives of audio art. In “Reality-Mediality: Hybrid Processes Between Art and Life,” Rudolph Frieling describes the phenomenon of disciplinary decompartmentalization at work in performative artistic practices of the mid-sixties (Viennese actionism, happenings, John Cage, situationism, body art). Developing new production protocols in which the boundaries between everyday spaces and venues for presenting art are blurred, these practices also embrace the media sphere that then becomes one of the sites of their realization (for example, televised events and satellite communication experiences). The author mentions that the notions of intermedia and active participation of the viewer developed at the time would later be recycled to define the pragmatic aspects of the experience of interactive works.
Following the section devoted to the beginnings of media art, the six essays that round out the anthology look at formal problems and theoretical discourses arising from several fields of the social sciences that will define the formal and thematic issues of contemporary practices. In “Technological Construction of Space-Time: Aspects of Perception,” Heike Helfert delves into the phenomenology specific to the mediums of the practices defined in the earlier texts in the anthology. She examines first the boom in abstract film and then structuralist cinema experiments in which the characteristics and formal vocabulary of the medium are put forward to build a new range of experiments on perception. Helfert then comments on closed-circuit installations and video art from the seventies whose proposals solicited a physical experience from the media environment and thus rewarded the framework for disseminating television content. In conclusion, the author explores cognitive devices designed by artists to go beyond sensorial segregation and thereby suggest complex experiences. In “Social Technologies, Construction, Subversion and the Utopia of Democratic Communication,” Inke Arns underlines the paradox revealed by using new media in artistic fields given that technology is, according to a social perspective, first designed and used to increase the stranglehold of government and industry on the individual. According to the author, this is an impassable condition that artists must resolve. Arns probes the diversion strategies of an early generation of artists who appropriated media content so as to criticize its ideological presuppositions and create parallel spaces for television broadcasting (Dan Graham, Dara Birnbaum, Klaus Von Bruch, Marcel Odenbach, Raindance Corporation). Arns adds that these strategies became more refined in the eighties and nineties with the field work of media activists, which the Internet boom facilitated (Paul Garrin, Rtmark, Heath Bunting). Finally, Arns points to artistic practices that arise from a rereading of data gathered by devices designed with a view to social control (surveillance, public records) as a recent manifestation of these strategies. In “Virtual Narrations: From the Crisis of Storytelling to New Narration as a Mental Potentiality,” Soke Dinkla talks about the phenomenon of the fragmentation of narrative in 20th-century literature and its impact on other artistic fields. The work of James Joyce, she feels, crystallizes a radical shift in the ideology of naturalism inherited from the 19th century. With this canonical example, Dinkla tries to establish a typology of these new modes of narration developed by avant-garde writers and later explored pragmatically in media art practices. She also mentions experiments in interactive cinema (the Czech pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal) and network writing where readers contribute directly to the orchestration of narrative units (Roy Ascott). In addition, she mentions approaches deployed in video works by artists who question the rules of cinema and television genres and transcend these rules through hybrid forms (Grahame Weinbren, Stan Douglas, Eija-Liisa Athila). In “Immersion and Interaction: From Circular Frescoes to Interactive Image Spaces,” Oliver Grau retraces the history of the concept of immersion and then applies it to recent devices in media art. Grau describes the attempts since the Renaissance to create an image encircling the viewer and the rhetorical uses of such devices by various political and religious groups up to the 19th century. He then comments on the emergence of immersion technologies in the eighties and nineties, as well as their experimental use by artists to develop other devices for understanding images (interactive theatre, telepresence, visualization protocols). In “Interaction, Participation, Networking: Art and Telecommunication,” Inke Arns tries to formulate a genealogy of the notion of interaction in art. He distinguishes this concept within intermedia practices in the sixties from its contemporary manifestations, which are based largely on the pragmatic aspects of manipulating a computer interface. As part of this overview, Arns touches on telematic projects in which the bipolar relationship between the viewer and the work incorporates other geographically remote participants. He then compares the logistic complexity of the first attempts at artistic networking projects with the relative accessibility of technological means (through the democratization of computers and the Internet) in the following decade. Finally, Arns explores devices that bring together virtual spaces and real spaces. In “Form Follows Format: Tensions, Museums, Media Technology and Media Art,” Rudolph Frieling looks at the evolution of the dissemination of art media practices by institutions (museums, galleries). He is particularly interested in how since the sixties, museums have reinvented ways of presenting works to display projects spotlighting technological components. Frieling also examines parallel dissemination strategies developed by artists and gallerists in the absence of a real market for media art. He then comments on the reasons why video art in the seventies and eighties, much like work designed for the Internet in the nineties, suffered from this lack of a market. The explosion that same decade of video screenings in museums and galleries stems, Frieling feels, from the simplicity of the devices available (screen, DVD, LCD projector). These devices were now accessible inexpensively and required no special skills (in contrast with a period when screening a video in a gallery was very technically complex). In conclusion, Frieling stresses the importance of countering the phenomenon of media hegemony so that technology is not the exclusive preserve of industry and remains accessible to artists.