As the New Media arts evolved, we have seen many different ideas dominating the scene at different times: it used to be interactivity, randomness, networking, virtuality, and so on. The attention of artists working with the New Media has been focused primarily on studying the new possibilities offered by computers, algorithms and networks, and on the effect they had on everyday life and art, on the relationship between a viewer, an artist and a piece of art itself. The meaning of most artworks – some of them great, and some rather mediocre, – revolved around the new art forms and the new technologies that inspired them.
Making sense of new technologies became a driving force behind artistic practices. Some artists were charmed by it and others seemed disappointed. Both sides, however, felt that this situation could not last long. By the beginning of the new millennium, computer technologies were changing at such a pace that no artist nursing media-specific aspirations could remain consistently up-to-date. As a result, we were left with underdeveloped fields, New Media languages that were never fully learned, and immature aesthetics, all of which have become the characteristic features of New Media. Every season, yet another area of practice was declared dead and buried, and replaced with a new hero of the hour (a new medium, not a new artist), instilling panic and fear of imminent doom.
However, in the last two years the situation has gradually calmed down. Artists stopped being jittery and collectors became more active. Exhibitions have shaped up and became more eye-pleasing. New media has switched to pictures, to moving and dynamic images. Besides the obvious market interest in eye candy, there are three more reasons that encouraged this switch.
Processing gave birth to a new line of graphic generators and inspired a new wave of interest in generative forms. YouTube invaded the Web and turned video into a standard way of expressing thoughts and feelings. And last but not least, video projectors have become substantially cheaper, while the quality of the image has grown significantly better. Moreover, we now have computers that are completely flat, and it seems like white walls are now forever married to digital culture (which is the new politically correct term for new media). It’s all about video and projection today. It looks neat, and yet there’s something missing – we miss the special relationship that used to exist between an artist and a chosen medium.
Now, let’s talk about projects that can satisfy that thirst for media-specific art and still fit perfectly into the current trends:
New media art has its own heroes. The Austrian artist Gebhard Sengmüller is one of them. It also has its own traditions: every four years, Gebhard Sengmüller comes up with a new and amazing installation, seamlessly blending art and technology.
His vinylvideo – a room where video tracks are played back from vinyl LPs, using a traditional record player – has been traveling from one exhibition to another since 1998. Despite the retro feel, you can’t say that the viewer is transported into the past, because previous generations never utilized vinyl as video storage media. In fact, you’re transported to some kind of an imaginary “now”: if the inventors of PhonoVision back in the 1920’s hadn’t been so focused on producing disks and put more effort in building modified gramophones, the whole history of video recording and distribution could have unfolded differently.
In 2002, together with five engineers and programmers, Gebhard built a monster that he named Very Slow Scan Television. This computer-controlled gizmo injects paint into rolls of bubble wrap, creating images technologically and visually close to those produced by SSTV. The installation looks absolutely fascinating, and the absurdity of its purpose is astounding. In fact, the existence of a crazy and yet effective picture transmission method like SSTV is quite impressive as well. Who would’ve ever remembered that it existed if it wasn’t for VSSTV?
Gebhard’s works have loads of reviews. If it weren’t for him and several of his works, media archeology wouldn’t be such a hot area of study, and the concept of remediation, crucial for the understanding of the New Media, would have remained purely theoretical.
2006 saw the birth of the latest fruit of the his passion for the technologies on the brink of extinction: Slide Movie - Diafilmprojektor.
24 slide projectors, loaded with 1920 slides, are focused onto a single spot on the screen. A new slide is projected 24 times per second. This allows us to see 80 seconds of a movie, as if run on a very slow outdated film projector.
If you make a 180-degree turn, you’ll be able to see the apparatus itself – a mutant projector emitting twenty-four light bursts per second.
Or, you can close your eyes and listen to the sound, reminiscent of that of a film camera or a typing machine – which will soon become a fossil in its own right, - and reflect on a difference between analog and digital worlds.
Then, you can open your eyes again and turn your attention to the movie. The artist has chosen a rather typical moment – a shootout – in one of the most widespread genres, a crime film. At a first glance, it looks like a fairly generic scene, with the exception of one media-specific joke: one of the bullets hits the TV screen.
But in fact, this movie is far from generic. What we see is a scene from “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974) by Sam Peckinpah, a movie that is still, many years after its making, a subject of the same controversy: does it belong to a top ten worst or top ten best films ever? It means, of course, that the movie is really good, and at the same time that it hasn’t been watched enough, that it’s misunderstood, underexplained or underanalyzed, that it appeared at the wrong place or at the wrong time. Like PhonoVision, that came ahead of its day, or SSTV, couldn’t attract more than a handful of fans.
We don’t normally watch movies on vinyl LPs or slide projectors – we have DVDs and video projectors for that. Neither do movie fans need the head of Alfredo Garcia when they have the perfected “Pulp Fiction” and “Planet Terror” at their disposal.
Then again, some of us don’t even need to see the installation or the movie - the title alone, Diafilmprojector, is enough to evoke strong emotions. But for that, you’d have to be a Soviet-born child of the 70’s, cherishing memories of a weird media experience: scary stories (pictures accompanied by text) appearing in a ray of light on the wall of a dark bedroom.
Today’s Internet users are living through great times. Everywhere they go, they are surrounded by the warm loving care of service developers, professional designers and professionals in general, who made the Web comfortable to use and immediate. Every hour of their lives they are receiving what Tim O’Reilly so elegantly named the Rich User Experience. Sure enough, the richness of that experience was supposed to mean new dynamic possibilities and enhanced interactivity, and ended up meaning that the users could change the position of certain elements on web pages and change their colors, like, for example, on iGoogle or MySpace.
The hypocrisy of professional web developers, and especially professional web designers, never stops to amaze me. Ten years ago, they ridiculed the users’ tendency to make their personal pages as bright and dynamic and possible; they viciously attacked animated graphics and nonstandard HTML tags, such as marquee and blink. As for the last one, they almost killed it completely – I’ve heard that even its creator now regrets having anything to do with it. And even though new versions of Opera and Firefox went back to supporting it, the blink tag is still considered bad taste – as well as the marquee tag that makes elements (pictures or texts) scroll across the screen.
In the same time, Ajax-based movable page elements are being praised as a technology breakthrough and an aesthetic achievement, and pushed on users and clients as an expensive and desirable service!
Truth be told, despite being a huge fan of early home page aesthetic, I have no idea how to use the marquee tag without making the page look funny or nostalgic.
Nobody really knows that – except for John Michael Boling. In April 2007, he found a short video on YouTube – a panorama – and extended the camera’s motion with the marquee tag, giving it a new life.
The marquee tag emphasized the panoramic effect and made it look like the camera was moving into the past – the same thing that the author of the original video was trying to express. Not when he took it twenty years ago, but when he uploaded it to YouTube and asked the potential viewers to film the same spot today, because he hasn’t seen it ever since.
It’s nice to see that there’s a place for a request like that in today’s Web, and that it can elicit all kinds of responses: hurtful, sympathetic, or informative. Or a response such as this one, created in the spirit of early net art: a generic video and a banal piece of code combined on a simple web page unite in a happy coincidence – the cameraman’s default panning speed almost exactly matches the pace of the default marquee speed.
What results is one of the most elegant cases of mixed media art, a shining example of distributed work and tactful appropriation. I hope to see it enter the pantheon of best net art works ever produced under all three of these categories.
Once, in the end of the 90’s, I stumbled upon a very curious website. Shortly after that, it disappeared without a trace, so I’ll have to rely on my memory to describe what it was like – I hope I still remember the most important details well enough.
The site featured a web cam installed in a bedroom of a decent and proper American family. You could guess how decent they were from the look of their neatly made bed, part of which was visible on the camera, from the cleanliness of whitewashed walls and the lack of clutter on their night stands. The tone of the messages on the site was also well meaning and proper. No promises of hot chicks or other XXX-rated pleasures – just a message from the mother of the family offering to enjoy the view of their cozy nest, up to 11 hours P.M. Those who wanted to see what was happening in the bedroom after that hour were supposed to pay some money. The site didn’t precise what exactly was going to happen after 11 P.M., and sure enough, did not advertise anything.
Everything about this website was mysterious. What will you see if you do pay? What will happen to your account? Is the bedroom – and the family – real, or is it a disguised brothel? What if it’s just a film set that doesn’t go farther than the frame, and there are rows of dozens of cameras directed at dozens of incomplete beds with nightstands?
The “bedroom” was always empty. But someone certainly came there every so often. Creases appeared and disappeared on the bedspread, the camera changed position ever so slightly, shadows followed the sun across the wall. I remember this room better than any other web cam images that were rising in popularity at that time, because there was no face or a body part in front of the camera to block the most real and authentic possibility: entering someone else’s room anonymously. The way that the furniture is arranged in the room, or the way its inhabitants’ stuff is scattered all over it, is much more interesting to a true voyeur than a close-up of a poser sitting awkwardly in front of a computer screen or undressing for a camera. After all, if it wasn’t for their own rooms in the background, their attempts to look natural and non-professional wouldn’t make sense.
The times of periodically refreshing web camera images are long gone. Nowadays, those who want to display themselves do it on YouTube in the YouTube video format. What does this format offer to amateur dancers, strippers or porn actors? Several minutes of do-it-yourself footage, untouched by an editor or a camera operator. This last thing is even more important to us voyeurs than the feeling of authenticity that comes from the lack of editing: it gives us several seconds to look around in someone else’s room, a moment or two when the camera is already switched on, but the actor (who also doubles as a camera operator) hasn’t entered the frame yet. These are the sweetest moments.
In the summer of 2007, a German rapper and a debutant net artist Dennis Knopf opened a channel on YouTube that he named Bootyclipse. Every video broadcasted on that channel consists of those candid moments, prolonged to 40-60 seconds. Dennis has collected fragments from more than twenty videos where a girl who is going to shake her booty in front of a camera has not appeared in the frame yet, and looped these moments, leaving the music to play in real time.
To quote gigglytoot92 (2 months ago):
“LMFAO!!...that shit is hilarious!!....there’s no one there”.
Dennis left the original videos titles’ intact. This allowed his empty Booty!’s, Shake dat’s, and Tip drill’s to blend in quickly among their namesakes. You can see them in their natural habitat on YouTube, where they turn up to the same keywords – not on the first page, of course, but that’s not the point.
I had the pleasure of supervising the author of Bootyclipse when he studied, and I think that Dennis represents the third generation of net artists.
The first generation had artists that came from other cultures and other media, the second generation studied the first one and followed them in an educated way, and now comes the third generation that perceives the Web not as a technological novelty but as a mass medium, and their art reflects this approach. This is the next stage that calls for a new kind of courage and a new kind of competence. And it’s unbelievably difficult – working in an environment where everything follows strict rules even though they are largely unwritten, and where there’s a specifically designed niche for every possible form of self-expression.
Is there life outside of the big service sites? How to survive fame that comes fifteen minutes after you’ve uploaded your files? How to compete with amateurs? I know the answer to these questions, but I’ll keep the secret – anyway, it’s not my own; it belongs to the artists of the third generation.
Several years later, when the art history of the Earth from the 19th to the 21st century will fit into a single chapter in the Milky Way Art History Textbook, half of this chapter will be dedicated to Cory Arcangel, because his art is impressionist, avant-garde, conceptual, post-constructive and media-specific at the same time. In other words, he’s not just an artist, he’s the greatest gift the art market could give to an art critic.
Besides that, he made “Two Keystoned Projectors”, the only artwork that will make it into the future. Because whatever the future might turn out to be like – whether it unfolds on an orbit or in a bunker – no one is going to drag Black Squares and Amber Rooms along with them as they move there. Instead, humankind will choose to pack this manual:
“2 projectors are then pointed at the wall at the same vertical height, but their horizontal position is different therefore they overlap in the middle. If we are looking at the wall, the projector on the left will be referred to as projectorL, and the projector on the right will be referred to projectorR. ProjectorL is key-stoned horizontally to its maximum so its top is smaller then its bottom. The image on ProjectorR is then key-stoned to match that of projectoL and then horizontally inverted so the channel number is now on the bottom right of the projection and projecting upside down and backwards. When inverting the image the keystone of projectorR should now have the length of the bottom be smaller then the length of the top. These 2 images are then lined up so their top and bottom are on the exact same horizontal line and overlap. […]”
… With that manual, humankind could while away nuclear winters - or light years - basking in projector rays. As for the projectors themselves, they’d certainly have them stashed somewhere.