Monday, May 15, 2006


Tactical new media meets Flash-embedded narrative mash-up practicing the art of "surf-sample-manipulate":
This multi-media news-reel re-mixes news clips, protest footage, phone conversations, our President explaining his respect for the Constitution, an interview with blogger/author Glenn Greenwald and a 1946 school documentary concerning the dangers and warning signs of despotism--all set to an incessant rock-and-roll beat.
But how many new media art symposiums and festivals, especially in the US (where it now most needed), are programming events that will address the potential uses of new media technologies to create politically-charged art projects that actively engage with the constitutional crisis now at hand? None that I know of.

As is often the case in America, provocative art and progressive politics don't really mix in real-world terms. Although the vast majority of my colleagues in the new media art and theory fields would tend to agree with me that the foundations of our democracy are being undermined by the governing oligarchy (oil-garchy), and the vast majority of my colleagues who are active in progressive politics would agree that we need to find creative uses of the technology at our disposal to both intervene in the traditional media environment as well as challenge the corporate news industry, these two worlds rarely if ever meet to strategize a formal assault on the way we aestheticize information to disrupt the flow of technocapitalism that continues to dominate our networked media spaces. Instead, we (and I have been guilty of this too) latch on to the trendy apparatus of the day and "make like fun" with it. Oooo, phones with video capability? Let's create a new form of Distributed Mobile Performance Art. Great. Actually, that was my idea about four years ago. But what exactly is happening on the screen during this "emergent" (favorite term of 89% of new media artists/theorists) performance? Usually not that much. Most of the new media work being celebrated today lacks a parallel political poetics. Instead, what we tend to get, is same-old same-old techno-theory dressed up in fashionably jargon-laden packaging.

It's funny, but whenever I start talking about digital narrative and the use of new media technologies, most colleagues in the field immediately want to start talking about the available technologies that are being experimented with and then, once they have their tech-jargon credibility established, they inevitably drift into mimicking the by-now canned theory that has been established around the tech-jargon. And yet, when it comes to discussing the actual formal innovation of the narrative, the meaning-making apparatus that defamiliarizes the story being told, or the way a work constructs identity or digital persona, most of the time the interlocutor's eyes get that "glazed over" look of "I have no idea what you're talking about" and an attempt is made to get back on track -- and in this case, on track means referring to the by now established techno-theory that somehow informs the development of weak new media art created for the express purpose of justifying that techno-theory's existence. Of course, this approach is back asswards and just like most of That 80's Show gender and identity politics killed the potential of art in the worst of possible ways, now new media art is quickly beginning to show its structurally insecure spots as well. This essential weakness in the international new media scene has made it less palatable to a lot of artists I know who first got their start in this field, myself included. How to break away from this institutionalization, academicization, and "scientificating" [scientific-pontificating] that is now suffocating so much of the new media arts?

The first thing you have to do is break the cycle of co-dependency. This means that you may have to diss the academy, diss the scientific community, and even diss a good portion of the curatorial apparatus and/or festival directors who are busy building their sand castles so that they can attract funds to pay for the mega-events they are coordinating. That's not easy, especially when networking is such an essential element of the new media art scene. And when there is a lot less pie to go around than in the mid-to-late 90s, and the pie that is being made is oftentimes only possible thanks to the largess of mainstream academic, scientific, and governmental organizations (and in the US, there's very little of that to go around), the cycle of co-dependency creates lots of competition to become even trendier so that you and your work will stand out as the newest of the new media artist-trendsetter crowd. I know, because I was caught up in that cycle myself for almost 10 years. But at what cost? By cost, I mean creative cost, opportunity cost, and political cost.

In previous posts, I have suggested employing more improvisational methods to defamiliarize everything that is making much of the new media scene seem so complacent in the face of our current political upheaval. In my seminar this semester at CU-Boulder, we developed a strategy of "making things" that went against the grain of most studio art courses, especially the kind that I associate with the elite universities like Yale, which I wrote about here. Our objective was to collaborate on projects that were so bad, they were -- well, bad. But not weak. Bad in the sense that a lot of the work at is bad, but that somehow still rings true to the amateur's love of all things D-I-Y. Yes, there are always exceptions to the rule, in fact, the rule is to have no rule and I may change my mind at given (or taken) moment. For now, though, our aim is to diss this worn-out effort by the overwhelming number of hungry new media "professionals" in the art world today whose sole mission it seems is to legitimize their creative work process so that they can slop up whatever remaining pieces of the pie are still left on the table. Give it up!

This is not to say that there are not new media artists who use the Internet space for largely political purposes. Think of the work of The Yes Men or even a straightforward comix artist like Tom Tomorrow. I use my forthcoming book META/DATA (MIT Press, 2007) to suggest alternative approaches to working in and with new media that will enable us to break out of the academic, scientific, and commercial molds that are debilitating the formerly refreshing and fruitful potential of this networked media art scene. Basically, my premise is that a great deal of the work being created in the new media art and theory fields is being wrapped up in an institutional straitjacket that is neutering our ability to have any real effect on the world we live in and that a great many new media artist-theorists are falling into this trap by willingly buying into the same forms of co-dependency that the predominantly academic-scientific communities have bought into long ago. In META/DATA, I don't address this issue dogmatically, wagging my finger at those who buy into the Big Lie, but by doing an end-run, mixing spontaneous theories with avant-pop fictions and self-effacing pseudo-academic essays that read more like poetry remixes than argumentative papers.

To my mind, this is all connected to ones political agenda. What does it say about your professional network, especially one so tied to the First Amendment like the artistic and academic communities are, when the huge symposiums and conferences that bring them all together, collectively ignore the big elephant in the room. And I mean ELEPHANT. The question is: How To Be A First Amendment Patriot while maintaining a healthy anarchic attitude toward organized politics in general? In the past, what made America unique among nations, was its practical implementation of the Bill of Rights. But now it looks as though we're giving it all up to those who would rather dictate a patriarchal Bill of Far Rights.

Except for the occasional sideshow, don't expect to find this as the primary point of discussion at any new media conferences or festivals.

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