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Lizzie Muller

Towards an oral history of new media art

David Rokeby, The Giver of Names (1991-)
A future-use scenario for an oral history of new media art

Let us begin with the story of an experience. Imagine this...
It is the year 2032. You are a 25-year-old artist living in London and writing a doctoral thesis on the explosion of interactive installation art at the turn of the century. The Tate Modern has a permanent exhibition devoted to computer-based interactive art from the 1970s to the present day. The works from the 1990s and 2000s are particularly interesting to you as technological relics representing a kind of human-computer interaction that, only 30 years later, seems archaic. You are curious to know how different these works may have seemed to your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Books on art history and criticism describe the important impact a number of these works had on the development of artistic practice, and some propose theories about how these works related to people’s everyday life in the 1990s and 2000s. But the question remains: how did audiences at the time experience these works?

You go online to search the oral history of new media art. You begin your search with David Rokeby’s
The Giver of Names (1991-), a work that, despite its antiquated rendition of artificial intelligence, seems poignant given the current ethical debates surrounding domestic and industrial robots. There are 34 records for The Giver of Names associated with two different exhibitions of the work—one at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2007 and the other at Tate Modern in London in 2013. The records include interviews with audience members and museum invigilators from both exhibitions as well as one with David Rokeby himself. You search the records using the catalogue system to find interviews with audience members aged 50 and over from both exhibitions. There are 11 records matching the criteria, including audio and video files, some with accompanying transcriptions. You scan the abstract of each record and pull out three records that describe anxious or uncomfortable encounters, and four records describing fascination or pleasure. You listen to short extracts from each of these interviews and realise that there is a great variety of different responses by these older participants to the work, but that very few of them actually interacted with it—preferring to look at the installation or observe others interacting. You download all 11 records as well as accompanying photographic and video documentation that shows the configuration of the work in the two different spaces, and meanwhile you search for records of older people participating in other interactive works from the year 2007. You find records for several artworks—including Subtitled Public (2005) by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and Day of the Figurines (2006) by Blast Theory—artworks you have read much about but never experienced. As you explore the experience of older participants who witnessed these works in 2007, you realise that their relationship to interactive art was complex. They were at once fascinated by the novelty and variety of the new forms and confused by how to read the cues to interaction. Most preferred to watch others interact and draw their conclusions from what they saw. You wonder to yourself: Do the over 50s still prefer watching interactive art to participating in it? Is this a feature of older people’s behaviour in general, or was that just the behaviour of a generation who did not grow up with digital technology? You go back to the oral history database and search for records of older people using artworks made in the last two years. What will you find?
This story provides a future-use scenario (2) for an oral history of media art that shows how such a resource would allow future generations of researchers access to primary experiential material. Many other scenarios can be imagined from the perspective of curators, archivists and conservators working not only in the future but also throughout the world today. A great deal of our knowledge of global contemporary art practice is based on documentation rather than first-hand experience of artworks.

Such scenarios allow us not only to describe concrete examples of the usefulness of an oral history of new media art (the “Why”), but also to begin to imagine the many aspects that may need to be included in such a resource to make it useful (the “How”). Examples include the provision for researchers from different places and moments in time to upload records to a common repository; the need for some type of uniform structure and catalogue that can facilitate searching; and the need for contextual information, such as photographs or details about the conditions of the production of particular interviews, to ensure that experiential records remain intelligible. The whys and hows of creating an oral history of new media are addressed in more detail in the paper that follows.

Lizzie Muller © 2008 FDL

(2) Future-use scenarios are tools used in the field of Human-Centred Design to ground the design of a new product in the real-life experience of users, see Bodker (2000).