This text has been written for the proceedings of the international conference "New Perspectives, New Technologies", organized by the Doctoral School Ca' Foscari - IUAV in Arts History and held in Venice and Pordenone, Italy in October 2011
The "portal" designed by Antenna Design to show net based art in the exhibition "Art Entertainment Network", Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2000. Courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
In the late nineties and during the first decade of this century the term “new media art” became the established label for that broad range of artistic practices that includes works that are created, or in some way deal with, new media technologies. Providing a more detailed definition here would inevitably mean addressing topics beyond the scope of this paper, that I discussed extensively in my book Media, New Media, Postmedia (Quaranta 2010). By way of introduction to the issues discussed in this paper, we can summarize the main argument put forward in the book: that this label, and the practices it applies to, developed mostly in an enclosed social context, sometimes called the “new media art niche”, but that would be better described as an art world in its own right, with its own institutions, professionals, discussion platforms, audience, and economic model, and its own idea of what art is and should be; and that only in recent years has the practice managed to break out of this world, and get presented on the wider platform of contemporary art.
It was at this point in time, and mainly thanks to curators who were actively involved in the presentation of new media art in the contemporary art arena, that the debate about “curating new media (art)” took shape. This debate was triggered by the pioneering work of curators – from Steve Dietz to Jon Ippolito, Benjamin Weil and Christiane Paul – who at the turn of the millennium curated seminal new media art exhibitions for contemporary art museums; and it was – and still is –nurtured by CRUMB - “Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss” - a platform and mailing list founded by Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook in 2000 within the School of Arts, Design, Media and Culture at the University of Sunderland, UK. As early as 2001, CRUMB organized the first ever meeting of new media curators in the UK as part of BALTIC's pre-opening program – a seminar on Curating New Media held in May 2001.
In the context of this paper, our main reference texts will be CRUMB-related publications, from the proceedings of “Curating New Media” (2001) to Rethinking Curating. Art After New Media (2010), a recent book by Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook; and New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, a book edited by Christiane Paul in 2008. Instead of addressing the specific issues and curatorial models discussed in these publications, we will try to focus on the very foundations of “curating new media”, exploring questions like: does new media art require a specific curatorial model? Does this curatorial model follow the way artists working with new media currently present themselves on the contemporary art platform? How much could “new media art” benefit from a non-specialized approach? Are we curating “new media” or curating “art”? ...
The following excerpt comes from the final chapter of my book Media, New Media, Postmedia, recently published in Italian by Postmediabooks, who kindly gave Rhizome permission to republish it in English. The book is an attempt to analyze the current positioning of so-called “New Media Art” in the wider field of contemporary arts, and to explore the historical, sociological and conceptual reasons for its marginal position and under-recognition in recent art history.
February 17 - 21, 2010
Curated by: Domenico Quaranta
Galleries and artists: [DAM]Berlin, Berlin / BOREDOMRESEARCH; Alma Gallery, Riga / GINTS GABRANS; Art Claims Impulse, Berlin / JULIUS VON BISMARCK AND BENJAMIN MAUS; Arthobler, Porto / JAKUB NEPRAS; DNA Galerie, Berlin / MARIANA VASSILEVA; Fabio Paris Art Gallery, Brescia / EVA AND FRANCO MATTES AKA 0100101110101101.ORG; Gentili Apri, Berlin / JODI; Haunch of Venison, London / RAPHAEL LOZANO-HEMMER.
Press Images (zip folder, 72 MB): http://domenicoquaranta.com/public/PRESS/ARCO\_EB\_2010\_press\_images.zip
More infos on the fair: http://www.ifema.es/web/ferias/arco/default\_i.html
Official press release:
Once again, ARCOmadrid is opening up its own particular “black box” to provide room for renowned international artists using new media in their works. The use of new technologies and digital tools in art creation is no longer viewed as anything strange or exceptional, and in fact a large number of artists have already added it to their everyday practise without further ado. This new addition of electronics to art is reflected in the eight spaces at EXPANDED BOX, in a programme coordinated by the Italian critic and curator Domenico Quaranta, a specialist in digital and net art.
“The idea that new technologies, new media, new ways of addressing vital questions, as well as how cultures have contextualised these technological changes, is constantly modifying not only the way in which we live, but also the way in which we make art and even the very notion of art itself”, the curator explains. The evolution has been so fast and digital media have irrupted into our lives with such force that they are transforming absolutely all fields of culture.
This means a true revolution in terms of cultural production, with a rise of techniques such as photography, film and animation. “Some artists have embraced new media enthusiastically, while others are being forced to reconsider the way in which they work with conventional media like painting and sculpture; and yet others have done both things” and, as Quaranta says, “art has changed beyond all recognition”.
With over a decade under its belt already, the EXPANDED BOX programme has been instrumental in this process and, in this upcoming edition, it will take another step further in order to showcase an art that is looking beyond the creative world, “an art that is growing on Internet, that is made in research centres and laboratories and that has the potential to change our current accepted idea of art”, the curator tells us. The public will find a programme that “will try to make collectors and art lovers lose their fear of these changes”, while at once demonstrating that “in the information society, works of art have as much to say as always”.
The reconstruction of art
To give us a rounded perspective, Domenico Quaranta has selected eight projects “capable of clearing showing the diverse facets of this strange diamond we currently know as ‘New Media Art’” or, in any case, those that the curator considered the most interesting “in terms of cultural urgency”, within a field “whose leadership and reputation has seen an exponential growth over recent years”.
This is the case of the Italian collective comprising Eva & Franco Mattes aka 0100101110101101.ORG. In the space of the FABIO PARIS ART GALLERY, they are presenting a complete cycle of their “Synthetic Performances”, in which they reconstruct legendary performances from the history of art through avatars from virtual worlds like Second Life.
Particularly representative of latest trends in this genre is JODI, a duo of artists and one of the hottest names in Net Art since its inception. They will be showing their work in the space of the Berlin gallery GENTILI APRI. At ARCOmadrid this collective from Holland are presenting one of their latest and most subversive works, which revolves around amateur technology and participative media, rewriting folklore in a particular anthropology through the net.
Also from Berlin, the ART CLAIMS IMPULSE gallery is representing the German collective comprising Julius Von Bismarck & Benjamin Maus. The public will have a chance to catch their latest creation, “Perpetual Storytelling Apparatus”, a machine that translates the words from a text into drawings on continuous paper. Like a 21st century “exquisite corpse”, the result reveals a re-contextualization of ideas and fragments, opening the way to a new narrative, creating fascinating stories and intriguing visual metaphors.
Tradition and innovation
Domenico Quaranta’s selection also includes various projects combining new technology with more conventional media or which use these technologies towards classical ends. The latter is the case of the wonderful installation by the Bulgarian artist Mariana Vassileva, presented by the German DNA GALLERY. The artist, concerned with issues cutting across violence, gender, family and social hierarchies, uses the human being in her work as a source of energy and light, exploring themes of human desires like communication, interpersonal relations, personal introspection and solitude.
The Latvian gallery ALMA GALLERY is exhibiting photonic paintings created by the multimedia artist Gints Gabrāns using a laser ray and then registering them on photographic paper. From a profound concern for aesthetics, this artist’s works are a clear instance of how conventional media can be reinterpreted and adapted to new technologies and languages.
On a similar tack, we find the work by the young artist Jakub Nepraš presented by the Portuguese gallery ARTHOBLER. This Czech artist brings three of his video projects together in one single installation. Through the use of assemblage and the layering of individual sequences, the artist creates movement along various axes, generating dynamic and pictorial rhythms in a temporal loop.
The public can also see an evocative work by the UK collective Boredomresearch, comprising Vicky Isley and Paul Smith, who use new media to portray and recreate artificial life. The new series of informatic objects by this duo who work with software art to fuse aesthetics and biology is on view at the space of [DAM] BERLIN.
Finally, the Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is also making a contribution to this summary overview of e-art and new technologies applied to creation. The London gallery HAUNCH OF VENISON is showing one of his latest installations, Reaction Diffusion, which consists of a series of computer-controlled light boxes showing animated images from some of the world’s frontier regions with the greatest migratory traffic and the greatest economic inequality. The social dynamics are, in this case, the object study and reflection for this artist, who uses new media to speak of pressing problems of the moment.
The “black box” at ARCOmadrid\_2010 is, as such, “an attempt to rethink more traditional media -photography, video, performance and even painting and sculpture - through the optic of the digital era and to facilitate a mutual dialogue”, and as Domenico Quaranta claims, one of the founding mandates of his selection for EXPANDED BOX.
I'd not talk about ignorance here. To make it clearer, I post below what I wrote on Will Gompertz's blog:
I had some funny time reading this article and all the reactions it produced, on this blog and around the Web (check out, among other things, Lauren Cornell's contribution on Rhizome - http://rhizome.org/editorial/3282 - and the CRUMB thread at http://www.crumbweb.org/). Personally, as an art critic strongly interested in Net Art, I don't think that Mr. Will Gompertz just needs some links to "hot" web projects, neither informations of any kind. He doesn't write "I can't find any net-based art", but "I can't find any net-based art of note". As the following statement suggests, Mr. Gompertz knows very well what Net Art is: "Duchamp and the Dadaists would have had hours of artistic amusement creating spoof websites, unintelligible Wiki entries and general questioning of the status quo." Well, at least 50\% of the best Net Art is "spoof websites, unintelligible Wiki entries and general questioning of the status quo."
So, if I see a problem here, it isn't a problem of ignorance, but of critical judgement. What we have here is a mid-career art critic - one who wrote for the Times and the Guardian and who ran Tate Online before joining the BBC as arts editor - who claims that, among the many net art projects he came in touch with along his brilliant career, he didn't find anything that can be described as "a significant artwork". This may mean either that Net Art, along the last 15 years, didn't produced anything noteworthy or that Net Art, after roughly 15 years of existence, still challenges the evaluation criteria and critical tools available for a mid-career, traditionally trained contemporary art critic.
Both the options above can be right of course. My little experience in the field makes me believe in the last one. It may help us to understand why, among other things, important art critics not strictly connected with the art market (and thus potentially interested in critical practices), such as Hal Foster or Rosalind Krauss, were never able to get it. And I think that, if we'll be able to focus the discussion on these topics - how Net Art challenges traditional criticism? do we really need "other criteria" in order to understand it and its positioning in the contemporary art field? - Mr. Gompertz's remarks will turn out to be really useful.
WHOLE EARTH CATALOGUE
Video selection for the series “Playlist”, Neoncampobase, Bologna (Italy)
Opening: January 27, 2010
Curated by: Domenico Quaranta (http://domenicoquaranta.com).
Founded by the American writer Stewart Brand in 1968, the Whole Earth Catalogue (WEC) was a catalogue of tools that was regarded as a bible by the counterculture generation - that is, by those who shaped the techno-cultural environment we are living in. Published regularly until 1972 and sporadically until 1998, it definitely died with the rise of the Web, of which it is considered a conceptual forerunner by people such as Steve Jobs (founder of Apple) and Kevin Kelly (founder of Wired). WEC was conceived as an “evaluation and access device” meant to bring power and knowledge to the people. It featured excellent reviews of books, maps, professional journals, courses, and classes, along with objects of any kind, from gardening tools to computers. Everybody could submit a review for the catalogue.
Like the WEC reviewers, the artists in this exhibition are contributing to a shared resource; like them, they love their tools and, like them, they are interested in understanding the world as a whole. What did change, in the meantime - and mostly thanks to the WEC generation - is the world itself.
These artists - WE - live in a world in which media don't just reproduce reality, nor just simulate it, in Baudrillardian terms: they shape reality, improve it, sometimes they build parallel worlds in which we can spend our time. They redesign our way to live, to think, to make and enjoy culture, to eat, to sleep, to die. And to think about God.
These artists use simple tools and editing tricks in order to comment on the current status of the image, to talk about themselves, to edit found material and to improve its meaning; they explore cultures and habits in order to sample, remix and comment them; they use and abuse technologies; they export metaphors, practices, aesthetics and narratives to other situations. This may sound weird if you are not living in their same time slice, but please - don't call them formalists. They are not working within a medium: they are working within a media-implemented reality. They are realists, in the only way that realism makes sense nowadays.
This peculiar realism can bring somebody to go back to when everything started. Notoriously, psychedelic drugs played an important rule in the beginning of digital culture. Without Sun, by Brody Condon, is a mesh-up of various found videos of individuals on a psychedelic substance. Why do people broadcast these materials? Do these “out of the body” experiences have any relationship with other now common forms of projection of the self, such as online videogaming? Some artists, such as Cory Arcangel or Oliver Laric, are interested in the conceptual consequences of technologies, and on the way they are updating fundamental concerns of our culture; others, such as the duo AIDS-3D, explore how technologies are increasingly affecting our spiritual life. In their own words, they want to make “the intangible magic of technology visible”. Not necessarily trough technologies themselves: Constant Dullart's video, for example, turns Youtube's “loading” animation into a suggestive, hypnotic object using light and styrofoam balls.
This concern with magic and transcendence is shared by many of the artists on show, from Petra Cortright to Damon Zucconi, from Harm Van den Dorpel to Martin Kohout. In their hands, a video filter can become the best way to explore how consistent the outer world is, and how consistent we are. It can become the best way to get a better knowledge of the world we live in, whatever we may mean with this word.
AIDS-3D (Daniel Keller & Nik Kosmas, US/DE), Motion Capture Dance, 2008. Video, 08.34 min. Courtesy Gentili Apri, Berlin. Online at http://www.aids-3d.com/motioncapture.mov.
Cory Arcangel (US), Drei Klavierstücke op. II - I, 2009. Video, 04.21 min. Courtesy Team Gallery, New York. Online at http://www.beigerecords.com/cory/Things\_I\_Made/DreiKlavierstucke.
Brody Condon (US), Without Sun, 2008. Video, 15.12 min. Courtesy Virgil De Voldere, New York. Online at http://www.tmpspace.com/video/WithoutSun.mov (excerpt).
Petra Cortright (US), Das Hell(e) Modell, 2009. Video, 03.41 min. Online at http://petracortright.com/das\_helle\_modell/das\_helle\_modell.html.
Paul B. Davis (UK/US), Compression Study #4 (Barney), 2007. Video, 02.49 min. Courtesy Seventeen Gallery, London. Online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWG5jqzYsEI.
Constant Dullart (NL), Youtube as a Sculpture, 2009. Video, 00.33 min. Online at http://www.youtube.com/constantdullaart.
Martijn Hendriks (NL), Untitled (12 glowing men), 2008. Video, 04.10 min. Online at http://www.12glowingmen.com/.
Jodi (BE/NL), Mal Au Pixel, 2009. Video, 01.14 min. Courtesy Gentili Apri, Berlin. Online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KE8VIKXnsQ0.
Martin Kohout (CZ/DE), Close Up, 2009. Video loop, 03.11 min. Online at http://www.martinkohout.com/new/close-up/.
Oliver Laric (DE), Aircondition, 2006. Video, 01.59 min. Courtesy Seventeen Gallery, London. Online at http://www.oliverlaric.com/airconditionvideo.htm.
Les Liens Invisibles (IT), Too Close to Duchamp’s Bicycle, 2008. Video loop, 02.14 min. Online at http://www.lesliensinvisibles.org/too-close-to-duchamps-bicycle/.
Miltos Manetas (GR/UK), King Kong After Peter Jackson, 2006. Video, 03.05 min. Online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNMkjWpdC4c.
Pascual Sisto (US), No strings attached, 2007. Video, 01.30 min. Online at http://www.pascualsisto.com/projects/no-strings-attached/.
Paul Slocum (US), You’re Not My Father, 2007. Video, 04.05 min. Online at http://turbulence.org/Works/notmyfather/.
Harm Van den Dorpel (NL), Resurrections, 2007. 3 animated found photos, 04.18 min. Online at http://www.harmvandendorpel.com/work/resurrections.
Damon Zucconi (US), Colors Preceding Photographs (woodshed), 2008. Video, 00.35. Courtesy Gentili Apri, Berlin. Online at http://damonzucconi.com/uploads/Video/woodshed\_w.mov.
CHECK IT OUT HERE: http://www.clubinternet.org/archive/onceuponatimeinthewest
More infos: http://www.pixxelpoint.org/
Updates - http://domenicoquaranta.com/
Although the term “new media” is one of today’s great buzzwords, in actual fact these media are anything but new. The Net is twenty years old, if we start counting from the advent of the Web, forty if we start from Arpanet. Spacewar!, the first videogame ever, is more or less the same age. Virtual worlds are the updated, more streamlined versions of technology acclaimed as “the future” when Second Life programmers were still in diapers; social networks are the bastard sons of Fidonet. As for the computer, it is younger than Lord Byron, but certainly not than his daughter Ada.
Once upon a time there was the electronic frontier, an abandonware myth which drew life from the continuous advance of the frontier itself. Like in space, in technological progress there's no ocean at the end of the trip. But, unlike the space race, the race to the next technology is endless, and endlessness is boring.
Yet while we have grown accustomed to innovation and the day-after rhetorics, we have never got used to the loss of the past. We look back to what was new yesterday and is trash today, and we feel a deep sense of nostalgia. Commodore 64 and 386dx. The first Apple Macintosh. Bulletin Board Systems. Animated gifs. Glittering images. Web buttons. Super Mario. Doom. Napster. Jennicam. Mosaic. ASCII art. MIDIs and MOOs. Not to mention VHS, vinyl, audio cassettes, cathode ray tubes, portable radios, faxes. It is the kind of nostalgia that we feel for a relative who died young, once the pain abates: you are left wondering what kind of man he would have been. Or for someone who, once grown up, does not live up to his or her promise. Sometimes nostalgia develops into historical research, and becomes media archeology. We don't look for the technologies that we once loved, but those we have never seen in action.
But in both the cases, in the artistic field this sentimental look at the past is producing some brand new, interesting stuff. Reviving dead media and obsolete technologies, retrieving and rekindling their aesthetics, making them do things they were never expected to do, and telling stories about them with other means, is proving to be a sound artistic strategy - undoubtedly more so than “the exploration of the artistic potential of new media” which became the mantra of most New Media Art. This happens because, when you give up on the rhetorics of novelty, what is left on stage is the human element: the man of the past who domesticated the media, put his own life into them and was changed by them; and the man of the present, who looks back on that past with the same sentiment as the venerable Sergio Leone looked to the West.
On the occasion of its 10th Birthday, Pixxelpoint festival wants to explore this feeling. Clean out your attic, the folders you haven’t touched for years, GIF repositories, your university's warehouse, and the dumps of Silicon Valley - or its small-town emulators. Get your hands on this stuff, and send us your finds. Any media is allowed, apart from new!
I wrote this call for artists around the end of April 2009. I had just become the happy father of a wonderful child, and I was about to become the happy father of a weighty PHD thesis. While the first was all about the new, the latter was an effort to understand what went wrong with so called “New Media Art” in the last fifty years or so. The answer, of course, is complicated and took about 300 pages to discuss and formulate academically. The bottom line is that “the exploration of the artistic potential of the new media” mantra and the very notion of “new media”, while not the only factors, seem to have a lot of responsibility for the problems that “New Media Art” experienced in its efforts to become something more than a niche for geeks.
This notion offers an insight into my call for artists and the thinking behind it. When you have to organize an event based on an open call, time is a key factor. Eight months is a really long time, both for a child and for a show. In eight months, my child went from about 3 kilos to almost 10, got sick once, cut his first two teeth and produced an incredible quantity of... well, you know what I’m talking about. As for the show, in eight months you send the call for artists, you get feedback from friends, you read new articles and books, you see new projects, you start working on another exhibition on a similar subject, and finally you get the applications in and start reviewing them. Some of them fit perfectly into the framework you set up, others don't fit at all, and a few force it to develop in directions that you never envisaged. And when you finally go back to the project, you see that it has grown up, that it has teeth, and that it's different from what you expected.
At that point, you start writing a text for the catalogue - it's late and you have to hurry. You dig into your hard disk and find the call for artists you wrote eight months previously. Reading it, you see just how far you now are from that point, how much the project differs from that first draft. But it wasn't just a first draft, something that you shared with just your team and a few other people. It is out there, published on web sites and magazines, and has been read by at least the one hundred and thirty eight artists who sent in applications. It's part of the story, like it or not. It's like the picture that shows how fat you were as a teenager, hidden for years in the family album until some so-called former friend you almost forgot about uploads it on Facebook and tags you in it.
Actually, I'm not that unhappy with that text, but I wanted to make this story longer because I have to fill up these pages and because - no matter how much you think you’ve changed - you always end up bumping into someone from the past who delights in telling you that you’re exactly like you always were. Nevertheless, there are a couple of points I'd like to clarify, disavow, atone for. The first one is the feeling of nostalgia, which was at the core of the call for artists and also inspired the title of the exhibition. Nostalgia is a good feeling, I like it. But in the field of art, nostalgia is often a synonym of mannerism, academism, and decadence. Artists are often nostalgic about another conception of art, or of another way of making art. The kind of nostalgia you can experience in art made with obsolete technologies is rather different: it looks back in a new way to the past of a medium which wasn't perceived as an art medium at the time, or to a set of aesthetics which were developed outside of the art field. An artist trying to remake jodi today is a nouveau Bouguereau; an artist working with animated gifs today is an innovator working with an obsolete medium.
Moreover, nostalgia is not the only feeling that takes you back, for instance, to your old GameBoy, and rarely is it the main one. Yet I still think that feelings play an important role in the process. In a way, an obsolete technology is more “human” than its newer counterparts, in the same way as, in Terminator II, Arnold Schwarzenegger is more human than the liquid metal T-1000, the latest output of the same technology. It carries the memory of the great times shared, but also the memory of its “initial promise”, as Walter Benjamin put it, and of its final failure. For all these reasons, it elicits an emotional involvement that is very different from that related to newer, still surprising and still successful, technologies. And this is true for both the creator and the audience. Look at what is happening with 3D animation, for instance. When you go to see Ice Age III, you expect it to be not just as entertaining as the previous two, but also more spectacular, with more advanced special effects, animated in a sleeker, more natural way. The people working on it are aware of this and do their best to dazzle us with top-level technology.
On the contrary, when we go to see Kirikù or Persepolis, for example, we are not expecting to be surprised by technology. But this doesn't mean that we are necessarily driven by nostalgic feeling - that we are looking for something old, reassuring, retro, done in the good old way and recalling our childhood cartoons. That is just one option. What most of us are looking for is something new made with old means. The implicit belief is that an old technology doesn't stop having something to say because it has been replaced by new tools. Quite the contrary.
Obsolescence is the other face of the race towards the new. Focusing on nostalgia, we implicitly accept planned obsolescence, the marketing strategy developed to force us to buy the last release of something we already have. Saying that we like the obsolete because it's obsolete is like saying: “new is better, but we are old and prefer old things”. For many artists working with obsolete media, their art is not a nostalgic tribute to the past, but an act of cultural resistance against the present and this marketing strategy. Choosing lo-fi instead of wi-fi, lo-res instead of hi-res, the amateurish instead of the professional, the old instead of the new, can thus become a political act. The very fact that nobody will employ you today on the basis of being a GIF virtuoso, a great Assembly coder or a passionate manipulator of your old Commodore 64 is meaningful in itself. Working with obsolete technologies is necessarily an amateurish practice. And, as the Critical Art Ensemble wrote in Digital Resistance, «[…] tactical media practitioners support and value amateur practice - both their own and that of others. Amateurs have the ability to see through the dominant paradigms, are freer to recombine elements of paradigms thought long dead, and can apply everyday life experience to their deliberations. Most important, however, amateurs are not invested in institutionalized systems of knowledge production and policy construction, and hence do not have irresistible forces guiding the outcome of their process such as maintaining a place in the funding hierarchy, or maintaining prestige capital.»
Moreover, dealing with obsolete media is political because it often entails a refusal to work with proprietary software and hardware. Writing about the current use of animated GIFs, Sally McCay explains that «their use is also somewhat political and can indicate a commitment to the long-standing open source, anti-copyright activism of online producers». Finally, we have to consider that the more complicated a computer is, the more we are delegating to those who are responsible for the software; and, as the collective I/O/D taught us, “software is mind control”: a cultural artifact which brings with it the culture and ideas of those who built it. Thus, working with older machines that can only be programmed in machine language enables you to dialogue directly with the machine itself, bypassing any attempt to take control of what you are doing. In this regard, Seb Franklin quotes Cory Arcangel, who wrote: «I tend to prefer assembly because it gives me control over the machine and assures me that the aesthetic choices are based on the hardware of the machine, and not, say, some dupe at Macromedia.»
Furthermore, if we start viewing media obsolescence as a phase in the life of a medium and a vibrant stage in our cultural history, rather than the unhappy ending of the same story, we discover that we can make stunningly new things with obsolete media. Working with a medium that can’t evolve any further has tremendous potential: you can delve deeply into it, and gain increasing awareness of what you can and you can't do; you can use it in ways that were never envisioned by those who created it, and lastly, being a child of your time (and not of the past, when the medium in question was new) you can use it in a pretty contemporary way. Both Chuck Close in his daguerreotypes and William Kentridge in his hand-drawing based animations are using old means in unprecedented ways, and doing so to effectively talk about their own time. Close uses the daguerrotype in a way that contains an awareness of the whole history of photography, of the digital shift of the last decade and the contemporary attitude toward the large format; but the precision, depth and energy of these images could never be achieved with a digital camera. When using a 386dx or playing with a Gameboy, nobody would ever have thought about turning the former into a rockstar, and the latter into a musical instrument; but this is exactly what happened to these devices at the end of the Nineties, with Alexei Shulgin and the chiptune community.
What’s more, working within a defined set of constraints can, paradoxically, be more exciting than working with a tool that seems to grant an apparently total freedom. The fathers of contemporary culture, such as Raymond Russell and Marcel Duchamp, knew this well, even though they did not manage to convey it to their descendents, who often got drunk on total freedom. When you work with a limited tool, such as an animated GIF, you know that there are some things you can do and some things you can't; the idea of using these to get results that you would only think possible with later technologies is one of the reasons that drives many artists to use these instead of Shockwave or Flash.
Lastly, the decision to use obsolete media reveals a complex attitude toward the past, which cannot be described only in terms of nostalgia. In some cases, it is the juicy fruit of a steampunk imagination, which attempts to rewrite the past according to a different evolution of its premises. In these terms Vinylvideo described its activity, based on the storage of video (moving image plus sound) on analog long-play records, as a “fake archeology of media”. And, after talking about the era of the birth of the computer, this is how Tom Jennings talks about his project World Power Systems: «World Power Systems is an entity that produces artifacts and written ideas to create a sort of portal between the early Cold War era and today; to illuminate the beauty and horror, at once alien and familiar, and thereby reflect today's beauty and horror back into visibility. […] Sleek futuristic technologies of the past; entire branches of science and industry utterly forgotten, whose once-experts are now cranks; solutions to problems impossible to recall; the solutions now problems themselves.»
In other cases, looking back to the history of the media goes hand in hand with looking back to your own personal history. This is almost obvious, but it became clear to me when I discovered the project Childhood Games, by Eugenio Tisselli. In 1984, when he was 12 years old, Tisselli created some computer games without access to a computer, writing the code in a notebook. In 2008, the artist finally released these games on the Net. Yet the futuristic dream of a child did not translate into the nostalgic reminiscences of an adult white male: «I wanted to re-connect with the mind of my childhood, and try to understand its creative processes. This work is not about nostalgia; it is about remembering that imagination (that is, the act of creating images) can also be a central element of game play. Thus, the graphics are simple on purpose, to the point of being primitive. I didn't want to re-create the then-current state of technology, but to dream again of other worlds, armed only with a handful of basic symbols.»
In the end, Once Upon a Time in the West, the title chosen for this Pixxelpoint festival, is not that bad. Indeed in spaghetti westerns, as in this show, nostalgia is just a minimal part of the whole thing. Firstly, Sergio Leone's movies were one of the best things to come out of an age of political conflicts, which are often addressed in his work. Secondly, the spaghetti western was the unexpected development of a dead medium (western movies), which introduced some extraordinary variations into a highly codified genre, and enabled it to survive to the present day. And lastly, it turned that past into a literary place, breathing new life into it and giving it a bright future.
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