Rudolf Frieling, formerly curator and researcher at ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, is curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“The media” has been characterized as a means of communication that links publishers to readers and broadcasters to listeners or viewers, allowing these producers to reach consumers through the systems and channels that “mediate.” This notion of the media has radically changed over the last two decades as the Internet and social media have become ubiquitous. Now every consumer is in turn also a producer, and the public at large publicly blogs, posts, or tweets. The media is not only a daily part of us, it is us.
Throughout the twentieth century the dream of the artistic avant-garde was alive and productive. Artists working with video, sound, software, or communication networks could claim to be at the forefront of technological development and critique. In fact, the generation of pioneers from the 1970s who spearheaded not only the deconstruction of technological tools but also the use of alternative and counterinformation networks was followed by their grandchildren in the 1990s, who translated these explorations of medium specificity and content into the early Internet culture. This last flicker of the avant-garde lasted only five years and has since been historicized as “net art.” Artists, curators, critics, and the audience ever since have grappled with “new media” as a concept that has lost its edge and become mainstream.
Today’s focus in the arts on modes of collaboration and participation can be traced to radical performances and happenings in the 1960s as much as to a history of media practices. Bridging the gap between these traditionally separate discourses of contemporary art and media art is at the core of a contemporary curatorial approach in which curators negotiate the diversity of practices and discourses and add their specific perspectives to the hybrid field of crossovers. Working in the realms of art, communication, education, design, publishing, and science, they may seem highly specialized in “media,” but it turns out that they are simply versatile in the art of building bridges and platforms.
Historic crossovers between industry and the arts (such as the seminal performances of Experiments in Art and Technology in the 1960s) have given way to a global wave of software engineers and designers who may claim that their products have an intrinsic artistic quality but who nevertheless rarely find themselves appreciated by the artistic community. At the same time the use of digital tools has become part of everyday life for artists, bookended by the antiartistic and counterculture practice of hacking and by popular mainstream culture, as, for example, in the gaming industry. (Media artists continue to struggle to reach a critical mass within the visual arts while the declaration of a “postmedia” or “postdigital” state of affairs once and for all threatens to push the field to the unresolved cases of deep storage in light of an all-pervasive presence of hybrid practices that have been fundamentally shaped by media tools yet that fly, so to speak, under the radar of the modernist call for medium specificity.) The very notion of media art seems to have become obsolete.
The postdigital generation that knows no analogue in media anymore has also given rise to a new specter: teens distribute massively and instantly their visual or textual impressions without having the slightest interest in storage or longevity. This shifting quicksand of user interaction resembles more a “performance of presence” than a process of sending/receiving or production/consumption of discrete information. In fact, an application such as Snapchat offers a preprogrammed short shelf life for its files, in tune with the short attention span of instant gratification. Teens thus approach a state of postmemory.
When the imminent future is either occupied by Silicon Valley or immediately deleted, the recent past reemerges in the arts as a terrain to be mined for forgotten histories—see the rise of slide and 16mm film projections in contemporary art over the last decade. Artists return to older media rather than anticipate the next killer app. They reuse obsolete media as a form of tactical resistance to and critique of the claims of the media society with its constant call for a presence in the cloud of social media. More importantly, they also insist on the presence of the shared experience in space and time; hence the reemergence of performance or performativity in the discourse of contemporary art. From this perspective, the museum that collects media-based art needs to perform and reperform, produce and re-produce a collection in a permanent state of instability, manifesting or exploring its relevance thus again and again through variable media configurations. In other words, the museum becomes a media producer.
Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2008.
Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980.
Pierre Huyghe, The Third Memory, 2000.
Dora Garcia, Instant Narrative, 2006.
Tris Vonna-Michell, GTO: hahn/huhn, variation 1, 2010.