From New Media to Old Utopias: ‘Red’ Art in Late Capitalism?

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This panel session intends to investigate the relevance of communist utopianism to New Media Art’s ideological dispositions, as a starting point from which wider political, social and cultural implications of New Media Art could be explored.
Dates: 
Sunday, 18 September, 2011 - 13:00 - 14:40
Chair Person: 
Bill Balaskas
Presenters: 
Christina Vatsella
Presenters: 
Beryl Graham
Presenters: 
Philip Glahn
Presenters: 
Melanie Lenz
Presenters: 
Athanasia Daphne Dragona
Logos of Funding Organisations

Chair: Bill Balaskas

From the early stages of its development, New Media Art readily adopted a variety of means of artistic engagement and expression that aim at serving modes of utopian social being: from multi-modal collaboration to mass participation and from open software to hacktivism, the germs of leftist utopian thought seem to abound in the art of the Digital Age. It appears that New Media Art increasingly employs new technologies in order to penetrate all aspects of global social living and propagate such practices as catalysts for change. It has gradually become part of an ideology whose objectives allude to utopian theories of social organization lying closer to certain visions of communism, than to the realities of late capitalism within which new media operate.  

This panel session intends to investigate the relevance of communist utopianism to New Media Art’s ideological dispositions, as a starting point from which wider political, social and cultural implications of New Media Art could be explored. In this context, areas of interest addressed by the panel’s contributors will, amongst others, include: Marxist theory and the digital art object, democratization of art through audience participation, literal and metaphorical revolution in the realm of new media, economic actors and networks shaping the character of New Media Art, institutionalization of New Media Art and related cultural policies. Through the synthesis of such diverse points of view, the session will attempt to demystify whether and to what extent the art of the Digital Age is, or could be, the result of the seemingly paradox combination of capitalism’s products and communism’s visions.

Paper Abstracts

From Literal to Metaphorical Utopia. Space and Time in the White Cube

by Christina Vatsella

In its original meaning u-topia means the lack of topos. This condition is inherent in the new media artwork. Due to its immaterial quality and non-object status, the new media art is not physically tied to a specific space unless displayed. Thus the white cube, turned black for the occasion, hosts its virtual and ephemeral image, or, in other words, it becomes the topos of its physical realization.  

Whereas the non object-based art is a predominant tendency spanning through the 20th century, the time-based media introduce a new multi-layer spatio-temporal condition within the work. The moving image, derived from the cinematographic paradigm, has by definition its own virtual spatio-temporality which unfolds during its projection. As far as the software and net-based creations are concerned, supplementary layers are automatically added. When the artwork is installed in a physical space, a new dimension appears: the real installation space and time as experienced by the spectator. Since both virtual and real spatio-temporal layers coexist simultaneously, the work evolves within this dialectical pattern. 

This literally “u-topian” condition results from the utopian (in the sense of revolutionary) nature of the new media art that rises above questions of unique prototype, controlled reproducibility and object ownership; hence, a new genuinely utopian artistic condition emerges. To speak in Marxist terms, it is the a priori negation of the commodity fetishism that imposes the literal, as well as the metaphorical, utopia. Thus, new media, the pillar of the late capitalism public sphere, becomes the new field of revolutionary cultural practices. I will further analyse this paradoxical -or rather coherent, according to Frederic Jameson- condition where the Marxist logic is fully implemented in the most emblematic form of the post-modern art: the new media.

How Democratic? New Media Art and Participation

by Prof. Beryl Graham

CRUMB, the research centre CRUMB (http://www.crumbweb.org) at the University of Sunderland in the UK, has a deep interest in how the ‘behaviours’ of new media art, such as connectivity, computivity and interactivity, present opportunities and challenges for curators. Interactivity, in particular, highlights how behaviours of interaction, participation and collaboration have often been important in art, including activist art, conceptual art, and more recently, relational aesthetics. This presentation considers artworks and exhibitions including those by Hans Haacke, Chris Burden, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Les Liens Invisibles, Josh On, Pad.ma, Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, and Heath Bunting. It suggests a critical definition of types of participation which draws on both political and network vocabularies.

Digital Publics: Promises and Problems of an Applied Cyber-Revolution

by Dr. Philip Glahn

Today’s new media artists and activists find themselves in a position similar to that of the Russian Productivists almost a century ago: the revolution has already happened and remains only to be implemented, making cultural production less an articulation of the possible than a sphere of the applied. As digital forms of information exchange and knowledge labor afford the dislocation of traditional boundaries of community and identity, “tele-” and “cyber-communism” declare the dawn of a new sociopolitical era. The successful implementation of the emancipatory abilities inherent in social digital communication thus depends on their pragmatic application. Technical utility, and the new-media productivist as its provider, are the keys to establishing “extreme sharing networks” not to make consumables but to harness and solicit surplus creativity.

Organizations like Mikro.fm in Berlin, FutureEverything in Manchester, and the Waag Society in Amsterdam employ digital technology to turn consumers into producers, availing “mass participation” for “social innovation.” These groups reprogram GPS devices to renavigate urban environments, devise open-source software for remapping eco-political landscapes, and organize festivals and workshops for the collaborative production and dissemination of information and technological know-how. As such practices seek to reconstruct the public sphere, the question remains whether or not the access to information and the technological means of its production actually redistributes ownership of knowledge, labor, and experience: whether these projects foment real action and agency, or further institutionalize an ideal bourgeois public sphere by creating a satisfying semblance of cultural participation. Taking a critical look at selected examples, this presentation assesses these collective practices within a trajectory of historical avant-garde strategies and their formation of potential “proletarian” or “counter-public spheres” in which participants are transformed into networked actors rather than remaining spectators in symbolic dramas of aestheticized relationality.

In Times of Change: An Institutional Perspective on Collecting and Conserving Born Digital Art

by Melanie Lenz and Douglas Dodds

Whilst communist utopianism permeates the process of making and dissemination for many New Media Art works, it is the social aims and principles of public access and the care of collection for future generations that, within a museum context, drive the need for expanded research into the collection and conservation of digital art. This paper uses the V&A’s recently acquired born digital works Shaping Form 14/5/2007 by Ernest Edmonds, Study for a Mirror, 2009-2010 by rAndom International and Process 18, 2010 by Casey Reas, as case studies to explore acquisition, documentation and preservation considerations and the challenges of working in new ways. 

The V&A’s emerging digital art collection builds on the museum’s existing comprehensive holdings of historical computational work, providing a route for understanding the contemporary significance of early computer artists’ work.  The V&A has been collecting computer-generated art and design since the 1960s, but it was not until more recent years with the acquisition of two major collections and the Computer Art and Technocultures Project (funded by the AHRC held jointly by Birkbeck College and the V&A) that the museum has solidified its status as the UK’s national collection of computer art.  The collection predominately consists of two-dimensional works on paper, such as plotter drawings, screenprints, inkjet prints, laser prints and photographs.  The material nature of these works sits within the traditional framework of conservational practices and the art works are accessible to the public through the Prints and Drawings Study Room. However, the care and collection of born digital works poses a new set of questions including: 

What informs the collection policy; how are access rights mediated; what are the signficant properties of the software and hardware to be preserved; what are the challenges of emulation, migration and replication; what metadata and licencisng structures are needed; and if a more networked way of working is required what collaborations can be idenified?

Artists as the New Producers of the Common (?)

by Daphne Dragona 

 “The transition is already in process: contemporary capitalist production by addressing its own needs is opening up the possibility of and creating the basis for a social and economic order grounded in the common.”
Michael Hardt & Antonio  Negri (Common Wealth, 2009)

Hardt and Negri in their latest book Common Wealth discuss the importance of the recurrent notion of the commons highlighting its role  especially in the era of postfordism and late capitalism. Knowledge, information, affection, codes, social relations, the “new artificial commons”, as they frame them, are not inherited but rather produced and shared by the posse of the contemporary multitude. Produced in the contemporary metropoleis as well as in the networked spaces we have come to inhabit, the new common wealth seems to be dynamic and vulnerable at the same time, presenting an oxymoron which is known from the past: Isnt this common wealth based on the surplus of knowledge and general intellect the very object of exploitation today?

In this context, in the networked era and especially in the last decade, a great number of artists, thinkers, programmers  and cultural workers have started developing their work and reseach on the basis of the commons. The new emerging commons’ culture proposes not only platforms and initiatives that embrace collaboration, communication and sharing, or critical reflections on the very features of the networked world, but first and foremost a different  mode of  thinking, working and being. While it is still to be shown if we are looking back to an old utopia or rather to a feasible alternative, a number of questions arise: How does the role and the identity of the artist change within this condition? What happens when the  so called audience is replaced by individualities that become involved in processes and practices that may no longer need to be defined as art? Do institutions still have a role to play?

The proposed paper and talk will aim to answer these questions through a presentation of two projects commissioned and hosted by the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens in 2010: the online platform of Esse, Nosse, Posse : Common Wealth for Common People and the project Mapping the Commons, Athens by the spanish collective Hackitectura.org. 

Bios of the Participants

Melanie Lenz

Melanie Lenz is Computer Art Curator at the V&A. She has worked on a variety of contemporary art exhibitions and digital commissions. She holds a MA in Museum Studies and previously worked at the Barbican Art Gallery and Tate Modern.
Christina Vatsella is an art historian and curator based in Paris. She is a PhD candidate in History of Art at the Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) working on the question of space in video installation. Following a residency at the ZKM, her Master degree focused on the institutionalisation of netart. She has worked at the Centre Pompidou (New Media Department) and the Centre de recherches en Arts of the Université d’Amiens (Picardie, France). As a freelance curator she works in France, Greece and Cyprus. She has published extensively in exhibition catalogues, art journals and university editions.

Christina Vatsella

Christina Vatsella is an art historian based in Paris. She is a PhD candidate in History of Art at the Université Paris Sorbonne - Paris IV working on the question of space in video installation. Following a residency at the ZKM, her Master degree focused on the institutionalisation of netart. She has worked at the Museum of Cycladic Art (Athens, Greece), the Centre Pompidou (New Media Department) and the Centre de recherches en Arts of the Université d’Amiens (Picardie, France). She works as a freelance curator and her articles have been published in exhibition catalogues, art journals and university editions.

Beryl Graham

Beryl Graham is Professor of New Media Art at the School of Arts, Design and Media, University of Sunderland, and co-editor of CRUMB. She is a writer, curator and educator with many years of professional experience as a media arts organiser, and was head of the photography department at Projects UK, Newcastle, for six years. She curated the international exhibition Serious Games for the Laing and Barbican art galleries, and has also worked with The Exploratorium, San Francisco, and San Francisco Camerawork. Her book Digital Media Art was published by Heinemann in 2003, and she coauthored with Sarah Cook the book Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media for MIT Press in 2010. She has chapters in many books including New Media in the White Cube and Beyond (University of California Press), Theorizing digital cultural heritage (MIT Press) and The 'Do-It-Yourself' Artwork (Manchester University Press). Dr. Graham has presented papers at conferences including Navigating Intelligence (Banff), Museums and the Web (Vancouver), and Decoding the Digital (Victoria and Albert Museum). Her Ph.D. concerned audience relationships with interactive art in gallery settings, and she has written widely on the subject for books and periodicals including Leonardo, Convergence, and Art Monthly.
http://www.berylgraham.com

Philip Glahn

Philip Glahn is Assistant Professor of Critical Studies and Aesthetics at the Tyler School of Art/Temple University, Philadelphia, specializing in contemporary art history and theory. Glahn studied art history and cultural studies at the Universität Lüneburg and Pratt Institute, and received his PhD from the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His writings have appeared in Art Journal, Afterimage, Communications and BOMB and he is currently working on a critical reassessment of the life and work of Bertolt Brecht.

Daphne Dragona

Daphne Dragona is a media arts curator based in Athens, Greece.  She has worked with centers, museums and festivals in Greece and abroad, such as the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Athens), Fournos Center for Digital Culture (Athens), LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre (Gijon), Alta Tegnologia Andina (Lima) and Transmediale (Berlin). She has participated with lectures and presentations in different conferences and festivals and articles of hers have been published in books and magazines of different countries. She is, also, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Communication & Media Studies of the University of Athens.

Bill Balaskas

Bill Balaskas is a London-based artist working with video and digital media. He studied Economics and Business Administration before deciding to completely change direction by studying film and video at the Royal College of Art, in London. His work has been widely exhibited internationally. Recent and forthcoming solo exhibitions include presentations at Institut Français de Thessalonique, Greece (2011); Jewish Museum, London; and Sketch Gallery, London (both 2010). Recent and forthcoming group exhibitions and screenings include presentations at Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, New York (2011); Musée des Abattoirs, Toulouse; British Film Institute, London; Werk-Raum Gallery, Berlin; and A Foundation, Liverpool (all 2010). Bill Balaskas is, also, an awarded short fiction writer (British Council of Greece, 2005) and screenwriter (Worldfest Houston International Film Festival, 2006). More information: www.billbalaskas.com 

Bill Balaskas’s participation in ISEA2011 is kindly supported by the Association of Art Historians (www.aah.org.uk), the European Cultural Foundation (www.eurocult.org) and Open Society Institute (http://www.soros.org).