Re_view: RENEW is the message

When it comes to art of the last fifty years, the definition of style and movements has become more flexible and nebulous, making the enterprise of evaluating an artwork more precautious. During this period aesthetics of technology has plaid a dominant role in visual arts. It gives artists space to materialize their ideas that have not been possible to realize before; however, theoreticians face the difficulty of explaining and classifying them. Each innovation creates a problem – in the art field, it is particularly true of new media art, because it changes along with technologies and science. Alongside traditional instruments, new tools from other fields of life have entered the picture. What is new media art? And what characterizes its aesthetics? And where is the line beyond which technology and/or science end and art begins?

Let’s start from the beginning. Peter Weibel, the director of ZKM, Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, said: “(..) when somebody is a head of an institute of mathematics, he is a mathematician himself. The director of an institute of physics is a physicist himself. (..) In arts, you have people who are directors of museums who cannot write, who cannot curate and who are not artists.”1 Four years ago Contemporary Art Centre kim? shot interviews asking contemporary artists what is art?2. I think mathematicians and physicists are able to describe to themselves what they are doing and what physics or mathematics is. I believe that most artists, however, could not say what is the industry they are working in. Understanding and interpretation of the term “art” is very abstract. It is especially true for those artists who work in traditional art media. They are so focused on explaining their emotions and inspirations that the form of their art often becomes “invisible”. Therefore art historians are left with the task of explaining emotional and formal parts of the artwork.

New media art creates a different kind of situation. Artists who practice this “movement” of art are able to explain their creations more clearly. New media art requires the viewer to rely on reasoning rather emotions and impression. To evaluate new media art, one needs knowledge from other fields. It could be the reason why, in descriptions of new media artworks we will not find references to artists’ emotions, but rather descriptions of the process of research. It sounds like new media art relates to two absolutely different fields, but if we consult encyclopaedias published in Latvia, we will discover that “science” and “art” are both defined as mental and specific cognition forms of society.

Stephan Wilson, an artist and professor who has explored cultural implications of new technologies, has highlighted five similarities between art and science in general:

1. Both value the careful observation of their environments to gather information through the senses;
2. Both value creativity;
3. Both propose to introduce change, innovation, or improvement over what exists;
4. Both use abstract models to understand the world;
5. Both aspire to create works that have universal relevance.3

As for differences, he notes that art seeks aesthetic response while science aims at knowledge and understanding; art engages with emotion and intuition, while science – with reason. If we want these differences to conform the new media art, then the differences between industries established more than ten years ago by Stephen Wilson require an adjustment. Art also tends to seek knowledge and understanding, which are often determined by reason; for example, possibilities of GPS technology are clearly expressed on a locative art – mapping project “Milk” (2003) by Esther Polak, Ieva Auzina and RIXC.

Using technologies to create artworks, new media art does not have a “plastic substance which the artist manipulates and over which he is supposed to maintain a sort of total control.”4 Describing new media, Canadian communication theorist Herbert Marshall McLuhan notes that the media is the message. Consequently, new media artists are working with two sets of tools which express a message: technologies as material and artwork as a creative result; meanwhile artists of traditional art media create works that are subordinated to a message of a system of philosophical characters.

In the context of art history in Latvia, new media art is considered as part of influences by the movement of New Age or a continuation of kinetic art. Somehow it raises doubts, because both these terms are history. I am not sure if it is adequate to connect ideas of New Age to Eastern European art from the 1960s/70s and to today, because in that period, even in periodicals there have been discussions about the mission art, its meaning has often been considered in the context of evolution of sciences and technologies5. For more than fifteen years, RIXC Centre for New Media Culture has been trying to show examples and explain issues that relate to new media art. The beginning of RIXC is linked to Electronic Arts and Media Center E – LAB which was founded in 1996 and had RIXC as its offspring in 2000. RIXC6 is explaining questions that are related to experimental projects in art, science and technology, practice and theory both in Latvia and internationally. Since 1996, it has organized the annual International Festival for New Media Culture “Art + Communications”, which focuses on different themes regarding media art, such as cultural exchange, network art, spectrum, waves, technologies, art as research, etc. The festival includes exhibitions, conferences, performances, workshops, symposiums and discussions. Over the years, RIXC has become well known abroad and fully participates in the world history of new media art.

Therefore it is natural that, following Banff (2005), Berlin (2007), Melbourne (2009) and Liverpool (2011), the conference of Media Art Histories 2013: RENEW – The 5th International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology was held by RIXC at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga from 8th to 11th October. It is a traveling pantheon of new media art where contemporary gods (artists, researchers, historians, scientists who are working in the field of new media art) meet once every two years.

In just three days, participants made over a hundred presentations, divided into nine parallel sessions: Networked Arts; Paradigm Shift; Media Archeology; Archiving; Eastern European History, Geospatial; New Imagery; Techno – Ecologies and Art and Science. Presentations and discussion sessions were organized under these topics. Even though questions about interactions among industries was not touched upon, there was a thorough discussion and focus on innovation in terms of creativity and the preservation of the end product for future generations. This question is also raised in the exhibition “Save as”, curated by new media artist Raitis Šmits within the framework of the festival “Art + Communications” 2013. As a participant of RENEW, mathematician, computer scientist and a pioneer of computer art Frieder Nake said that works of digital art were algorithmic in essence and required ways of archiving and preserving. It means that art is not to be limited. He noted that artists have to think not just of creation, but of archiving and preserving as well, i.e., at the same time become art historians. The artist becomes a researcher and a historian of art. It opens the question about the relationship between the artist and the historian of art: whether being art historian as a trade will survive in the future, if artists themselves start playing the role of art historians. In new media art it is already common practice for artists, so it might mean that, in the future, art historian will no longer be a link between the artist and society, but rather an observer of artistic processes.

The conference was opened by Erkki Huhtamo’s lecture “… Hey you, get off of my cloud”, where he presented the “cloud”, explaining etymology throughout the history of images and how the term has been understood through centuries, connecting it to the Cloud Software Program. Over the centuries, the “anonymous” hand which reaches towards us from the clouds has been the one belonging to God. In the 20th century, dominated by the film industry, the meaning of the hand has changed. It is the artist who owns the anonymous hand. From the point of view of semantics, it creates a question whether the artist is taking God´s place as the creator. There is no doubt that the artist is a creator of new images. The conference concluded with the lecture “Looking at one million Images: How visualization of big cultural data helps us to question cultural categories” by Lev Manovich who has presented a research project by phototrails that uses media visualization techniques for exploring visual patterns. This project shows differences among cities in images as well as analyzing works by impressionist painters, showing which kind of palette each artist has been working with and the differences among them, using internet as a resource of research. He is working with images that already exist and creating new images which have new layers of meaning. The artistic research explores tendencies of images during the last century. Lev Manovich is well known in Latvia due to his visits and a book “The Language of New Media”, which was published in Latvian in 2006 by RIXC, where he characterized new media language using such keywords as database and navigation in space. I would like to mention that Lev Manovich has published a book “Software Takes Command”7 in 2013 which is accessible online. Do not worry, it will not be a cybercrime. This time he did not publish his book at MIT Press so that it is available for everyone and would not be stolen as in some cases before – with a smile on his lips commented Lev Manovich himself.

The RENEW conference included a variety of affiliated events, blending together with the XV International Festival for New Media Culture “Art + Communication” and performances, concerts and satellite events which still continue. RENEW is not a conference which will tell you what new media art is, but it has given examples and a taste of things in this field. It did not embark on the analysis of synthesis between industries, but more about relations between a new media artist and a historian of art who has traditional background. Artists are operating with knowledge which art historians do not have. However, it has been an exclusive opportunity to have such a huge conference in Riga, on the doorstep of our own house. It gave a strong, high-quality feel of new media art in Riga for a week. The conference included specialists from the entire world giving an insight into what has been and what is going on in the field of new media art. The 6th International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology “RE – create” is going to take place in Montreal in 2015.

2013.10.08.fotoA.Pozarskis 062 2013.10.08.fotoA.Pozarskis 070 2013.10.08.fotoA.Pozarskis 201 2013.10.08.fotoA.Pozarskis 263 Erkki Huhtamo_2013.10.08.fotoA.Pozarskis 024 Viduu_Frieder_Nake_2013.10.08.fotoA.Pozarskis 043

Opening of RENEW. Photographs by Anrijs Pozarskis

2013.10.12.fotoA.Pozarskis 123 2013.10.12.fotoA.Pozarskis 216 Lev_Manovich_2013.10.12.fotoA.Pozarskis 161 Lev_Manovich_2013.10.12.fotoA.Pozarskis 237 Oliver_Grau_2013.10.12.fotoA.Pozarskis 048 Raitis_Smits_2013.10.12.fotoA.Pozarskis 148 Closing of RENEW. Photographs by Anrijs Pozarskis

  1. Weibel P., A Museum Cannot Buy Viewers/ written down by Raitis Šmits// Studija. – 2013. – Nr.91. – p 63.  
  2. Interviews are still available on www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SzWbFnJ71g  
  3. Wilson S., Information Arts. Intersection of Art, Science, and Technology. – London: The MIT Press, 2002, p 18.  
  4. Benthall J., Science and Technologies in Art Today. – London: Thames and Hudson, 1973, p 28.  
  5. Kalniņa I., Netradicionālās mākslas izpausmes Latvijā 1972 – 1984.// Doma 6./ Ind. by I.Konstante. – Rīga: DOMA, 2000. – p 102.  
  6. During years RIXC have purposeful selected books, DVD, CD on a public multi-media library. It is the best information resource about new art media in Latvia.  
  7. http://issuu.com/bloomsburypublishing/docs/9781623566722_web  
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December 4, 2013
Published in Review from Latvia
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