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Lizzie Muller

Towards an oral history of new media art

Why create an oral history of new media art

Identifying the experience gap in the history of new media art

"[T]he work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding." (John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1959,p1)

“I’m an interactive artist: I construct experiences” (David Rokeby, The Construction of Experience: Interface as Content, 1998, p27)
In the opening paragraph of John Dewey's Art as Experience, first published in 1934, Dewey argues that research in art mistakes its own object by focusing on objects rather than experience. He describes the dual existence of art as growing from the experience of the artist and manifested in the audience's experience of the work. Dewey’s words foreshadow a powerful movement within contemporary culture away from a focus on objects and towards an emphasis on experience.

This emphasis finds particular expression in new media art. David Rokeby acknowledges, in his influential essay The Construction of Experience: Interface as Content (1998), that as an artist working with computers his role is not to create objects but rather to create experiences. As computer-based systems, new media artworks have a liminal existence on the threshold between material and immaterial things; they are things in potential. New media artworks cannot be considered or treated simply as objects. Their full existence occurs when they are used; in other words, they exist, in a very literal way, “in experience.”

This liminal existence is sometimes seen as a barrier or a problem for documentation, raising the question of how, or even whether, we should preserve fleeting and immaterial art forms. Others argue that the ephemeral nature of new media art is a valuable opportunity for developing new ways of documenting art. Alain Depocas has pointed out that in our approach to documentation, we must accept the “transitory and transitional state” of new media art; “denying this state (he writes) would mean renouncing the fundamental nature of such artwork. Yet grasping all the consequences of this transitoriness requires a profound paradigm shift” (Depocas 2002).

Already there have been significant developments in methodologies for documenting ephemeral works from an archival and preservation perspective. The Variable Media Network, for example, has developed an approach that seeks to identify the essential qualities of an artwork through the detailed questioning of the artist and others involved in the creation of the work (Depocas et al 2003). The Capturing Unstable Media project has developed a formal conceptual model for describing and preserving aspects of electronic artworks that is flexible enough to accommodate the iterative and processual nature of media arts projects (Fromme and Fauconnier 2005).

Both the Variable Media Network and the Capturing Unstable Media initiative agree that audience experience is important, and while both make space in their structures for experiential material, neither has developed methods for dealing with this aspect of documentation. Fromme and Fauconnier conclude their recommendations for capturing unstable media in this way:
“Finally, the specific, subjective characteristics and quality of a user’s interaction with an electronic art piece cannot be captured through formal modeling; specific documentation of a user’s experience is needed here… For a good understanding of user interaction, it is often necessary to create audiovisual reports…of someone interacting with a piece. Interviews with users may also prove very useful; in general, recordings and registrations of user testing activities are rare, but interesting documentation materials.” (Fromme and Fauconnier 2005).
As Fromme and Fauconnier acknowledge here, audience experience continues to be a gap in the documentary record, despite the leaps forward made in documenting ephemeral art. Recording the material aspects of a work, such as its technical specifications and spatial configuration, are essential, but alone these will not convey how the work exists in experience. We know, from the extensive empirical research on “user” experience that has been conducted in Human-Computer Interaction and Interaction Design (e.g. Dourish 2001, Suchman 1987) and from the reflective accounts of artists such as David Rokeby (1998), that the maker’s perspective of the experience of a work frequently offers an ideal account that can be very different from the audience’s lived experience. By contrast, all experiential descriptions from individual audience members will offer partial accounts of a work, presenting some aspects that the artist would hope to see and also inevitably other aspects that the artist may not have imagined. These partial accounts capture the vibrant, living, generative existence of the work. The content of such accounts goes beyond an itemised recording of the historical, social or contextual factors surrounding it to show how all of these factors are synthesised within a unique, active experience. Such accounts, as Fromme and Fauconnier suggest, are always specific, and resist formal modelling. They must be gathered for each artwork and require painstaking audiovisual documentation techniques. To create such documentation, the researcher must engage in a dialogue with the audience.

Oral histories: valuing experience, listening to voices
“Many limit the value of oral history and interviewing to anecdotes, the illustrative incident, the ambience of the time, to clues on where to search further; or a mere feel for the facts… I think it helps get the event itself... Not colour, or peripheral facts, or a feel for the situation, but the guts of the event, the heart of it.” (Walter Lord, Oral History Review, 1968 (3)).
I originally looked to the field of oral history to find precedents, models and guides to good practice in recording, cataloguing and preserving accounts of individual experiences. But I also began to see the great relevance of the underlying aims of oral history to my project; to redress an historical imbalance in the kinds of information that are recorded, valued, and made available to people in the future. Reimer (1984) describes oral history as the use of the actual words and voices of those who lived and witnessed history to document people and subjects previously absent from the historical record. Such gaps appear, he argues, when “groups in society [have] neither the means nor occasion to represent themselves by written records and hence our knowledge of them [comes] through impersonal statistics or the observations of detached and unsympathetic elite” (Reimer 1984). The audience of new media art is such a group. Despite the increase in qualitative and formative research with audiences in museums, in-depth individual interviews with audience members rarely form part of the historical record. (4) I argued in the previous section that there is a gap around lived experience in the documentation of artworks, but there is also, more specifically, a gap around the experience of the “non-professional” audience of the work. The audience is a kind of silent majority in the historical records of new media art—much talked about but rarely heard from.

As curators, conservators, artists and arts administrators, we have the power and the responsibility to select or produce the institutional archival records about the artwork of today. An oral history of media art would address the gap in experiential documentation by recording many different perspectives on a work, including the views of the artist, curator, technician etc. But its particular contribution would be to emphasise the experience of the general audience; creating a rich and varied portrait of how the artworks existed, in the words of Dewey, “in experience.” Such an emphasis would necessarily widen our understanding of the relationship of new media art to its social and cultural context.

It is crucial, if somewhat obvious, to emphasise that oral history is part of a spoken rather than written tradition. Its materials are produced from a conversation between archivist/researcher and subject (which implies a significant ethical dimension as we shall see in the section on “How”). As described in the quote from Walter Lord, many historians immediately consign documents produced in the oral register to the periphery. Such accounts are necessarily less polished and more partial than written records and therefore seem to have less authority in the text-based world of academic research. Countering this position, Reimer (1984) points out that oral history was in fact one of the first ways of registering history and was eclipsed when the technology of the written word became our primary mode of recording. However, modern technology, such as the telephone, video and Internet, is bringing orality strongly back into our culture. Mackay (2007) argues that oral history has developed hand in hand with technology. Beginning with the open reel tape recorders of the 1930s and 1940s, developments in recording technology first made the recording of people’s verbal descriptions possible. The 1960s and 1970s represented a boom in oral history recordings due to the introduction of small portable tape recorders. The digital technology of the 1990s opened new options for preserving and presenting records, and video offered the possibility of adding visual information.

The relationship of oral history to technology makes it a particularly interesting form of documentation for new media art, as both the art form and its means of documentation reflect and exploit technological change. Advances in Internet technologies—particularly the ability to easily upload and download video and audio content to Web sites—offer the possibilities of distributed production and widespread dissemination of audiovisual records.

Whereas in the early days of oral history the written transcription of an account was considered the primary document, current practice emphasises the central importance of the audiovisual recording (Mackay 2007). This emphasis recognises that the value and content of an oral account is inextricably bound up with its telling: the time-based unravelling of the story in the voice of the person who tells it. The tone of voice, attitude and emotion of the speaker, the lapses in memory and self-correction are all vital parts of oral records, which situate the account given by the speaker. In their complete form, oral records are clearly partial, subjective and selective; no single oral record claims to hold the whole truth. As Reimer argues, few historical records show the biases of their creators as openly as oral interviews. The challenge, then, in creating an oral history of new media art, is to find a way to present experiential accounts in ways that allow the oral register to be valued, understood and placed centrally in the history of new media art.

Lizzie Muller © 2008 FDL

(3) Quoted in Reimer (1984).

(4) For an overview of existing research into audience experience in museum environments, see Muller et al (2006).