Elephants in the Air *
By Mireille Bourgeois
Some notes upon attending the 2010 Images Festival and the International Experimental Media Congress in Toronto: I enjoyed both immensely, with their combined scheduling of all-day panels and all-night screenings; the inspirational ideas that resulted left me reeling. The Images screenings and off-site programming were critical, ranging from experimental performances to documentary screenings to video shorts, profiling international artists’ artwork with which I had never been acquainted. The festival was also widespread, extending into multiple galleries across the city, involving the participants in a pilgrimage through downtown Toronto.
I found the Congress dynamic and engaging if a little bumpy at times. I was happy that it began with a progressive topic right off the bat: The Place of the Medium, with panelists Nicky Hamlyn, Pip Chodorov, Nicole Gingras, Michael Snow, and Ming-Yuen S. Ma. I thought it was a progressive topic, based on my assumptions that in the context of an Experimental Media Congress, a panel discussing the medium would attempt an exploration of its intersection with site(or an exploration of site as medium). This is a subject that has been posited within the contemporary discourse around experimental new media practices. I also expected discussion on the tangibility of the medium, since it is commonly believed that digital media exists only as digital signals, not in physical form. Discussing, lamenting, and waxing nostalgic while contemplating the medium is a favorite topic among artists, historians, and curators, as technology threatens all mediums with every cycle of the “new.” The panel offered many potential avenues for investigation.
With such pioneering professionals taking hold of the topic, I expected nothing less than greatness and fresh thinking, and though their ideas were essential, they were perhaps a bit too basic. As each panelist went into rehearsed and familiar case studies on the preservation of important historical performance documentation (i.e. first recorded on celluloid film, then transferred to and projected on a digital format), the crucial life of film, and statistics about audience interaction with video installations (how many times do we have to hear that the average gallery-goer only spends between 15 to 20 seconds in front of an artwork?), I thought, Really? From veteran—even radical—artists, historians, and curators? This is what the first panel of the Experimental Media Congress in 2010 is all about: the problematics of presenting video with comfortable seating and the conservation of film? Yep, really. I would have preferred hearing examples of how new media has challenged the place of the medium in the context of presentation; even more interesting would have been an effort to unpack the definition of the medium, rather than a reiteration of its technological challenges.
Within new media practices, the materials of production are often presented as the artwork itself. See Thomson and Craighead’s Telephony (2010) for example, or the works of David Rokeby. Many new media artists place technology in the gallery not only as the medium, but also as the concept (or rather, the message). For me, this introduces a fascinating link between the artist’s studio and the space of the gallery. For digital artists, hardware and software are the equivalents of a paint-splattered studio. Also, it could have been interesting to draw a link between the challenges of collecting film and new media in the museum context. Both mediums demonstrate the complexities of technical evolution, as collecting institutions struggle to maintain the old and keep up with the new. Finally, it would have been beneficial to invite panelists to think outside of what has already been covered extensively, to approach the panel with the experimental congress in mind.
Over the course of the Congress, I noticed many of the panelists repeat the words, “it’s in the air.” Cheryl l’Hirondelle made a beautiful comment about there being “ghosts in the room” while presenting on the panel Carrying History Forward. It was a lovely and disturbing thought, that ghosts were somehow looking over our shoulders, informing our actions, and maybe judging us too, even as we ignore them. I suddenly had a feeling that Plato had been in the room with us all along. He was, incidentally, the first to write about what’s “in the air,” or “a priori,” the idea that a certain common knowledge exists, independent of experience, and that we all draw from those (in his case, the men) who have exchanged ideas before us, even subconsciously.
More and more, as I pondered the many layers of contemporary art production and discourse, I came to realize there was a very big ghost in the room that wasn’t being acknowledged — one that quickly turned into an elephant. At this experimental media congress it became harder and harder to find the faintest mention of any “experimental”media beyond film and video (its content may be experimental, but this doesn’t always suggest the same of its medium). Even in the context of completely relevant topics such as the ephemerality of the medium, well-established, “tangible” media like film still took precedence. Some of the panelists spoke about the medium’s tangibility as if it presented more substantial challenges than intangible media. This created an unfortunate, and — in my view — incorrect division. If some artists deem the hardware that they use as their medium, why shouldn’t it be considered tangible? Thomson and Craighead’s Telephony, for instance, is a digital art piece with a tangible outcome. This new media installation is about participation and connectivity, analyses the social aspects of technology, and is not simply defined by the 1s and 0s that exist behind the physical object. As Telephony makes clear, artworks that easily fit in the category of new media shouldn’t necessarily be considered intangible or immaterial.
The Congress would have also been the perfect place to discuss the difficulties of defining any emergent medium, since artists working with sophisticated technology do not always consider the software used to develop their artwork as a “medium,” but instead may describe the context or the way in which they inhabit a space (whether in the form of installation, performance, or website) as their medium, such as in Rokeby’s Very Nervous Systems (1986-1990). These so-called, hard-to-define “sites” then, must be understood as potential mediums, before we can begin a complex discussion about the place of the medium in contemporary media practice.
The omission of new media throughout The Place of the Medium also leads me to believe there is an assumption that new media doesn’t face similar challenges as film and video in terms of archival practice. As stated above, with new media, it is often impossible to separate the artwork from the technology (both the hardware and the software) it was created with. This poses unique challenges for curators and archivists alike. Just ask the many art gallery professionals struggling to preserve important digital files, when both the hard drive and the software used to make the work, which tend to go quickly out-of-date, must be preserved at the same time.
There was a time when film and video likewise posed a challenge within the context of museum presentation and archival preservation. Why must we repeat these same errors again with new media? It’s far too easy to write off new media in our discussion of the issues that affect the whole of media arts in Canada (and elsewhere) unilaterally, by saying that we must define it before dealing with it (global warming procrastination tactic anyone?). Why, for instance, were contemporary theorists of new media excluded from the Congress?
I’m currently reading Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham’s book, Rethinking Curating: Art after New Media. I fully admit I have a bias toward their articulate disambiguation of fundamental media and new media art and curatorial practices, which attempts to enlighten this ever-changing sphere that seems to scare us so much. As Cook and Graham state:
… new media art forms have suffered in the past from being understood through metaphors that only partially fit. As in the folk tale where several people in a dark place might variously identify the part of the elephant they are touching as a snake, a tree trunk, or wings, which metaphors people use for understanding new media rather depend on which cultural history they are coming from…
The elephant may be too big to contemplate as a whole, but we must reach out and, at the very least, attempt to feel around, discuss, enlighten each other of our professional biases and interpretations (which is the trajectory of knowledge isn’t it?), even if in parts, and even if it takes many attempts (our dissection of the site and tangibility of the medium is likely to change every time anyways). Otherwise we are but individuals, standing in the dark, with an elephant in the room.
New media was not touched upon in that very first panel, when it could have been the most relevant genre to delve into. At this Congress, it seemed as though new media wasn’t considered a medium at all. When the subject was raised, it seemed to make the presenters uncomfortable; unwilling to “get into it,” some stated it was simply too big or complicated a topic to ponder in the context of the panel. In no way do I contest the relevance and participation of film and video artists and activists. However, it seems to me that the failure to properly address the significance of new media — an important and pervasive field of experimental media practice today — was an enormous oversight, perhaps symptomatic of how new media is viewed in the broader discourse of experimental media today.
1. Thomson and Craighead’s Telephony, a grid of 42 cellular telephones installed on a gallery wall, asks the audience to dial the numbers listed and triggers a call forward effect to the other phones that eventually creates a choir of sounds. See http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/slide/docs/teleph.html. For examples of Rokeby’s work, see http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/installations.html.
2. See, for example, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s large-scale interactive projections, which utilize Lozano-Hemmer’s specially written algorithms.
3. Rokeby’s Very Nervous System is an interactive sound environment where the audiences’ movements trigger a sound or music. See http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/vns.html.
4. Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham, Rethinking Curating: Art after New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).
5. To be fair, there was a panel on new media, though the panelists presented exhibition case studies that were far too grand to ever seem plausible in modest non-profit galleries in Canada, or many larger institutions, which are often weighed down by bureaucratic forces.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Originally from Dieppe, New Brunswick, Mireille Bourgeois has an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. She has independently curated and contributed to programs throughout Canada, the US, and Germany, and has published critical writing for Visual Arts News, Creative Times Press, C Magazine, the Canadian Film Institute, and Artengine. Bourgeois is currently Director of the Centre for Art Tapes in Halifax, Nova Scotia.