Thoughts on "New Media Artists vs Artists With Computers"

New Media vs Artists with Computers

In his post "New Media vs Artists With Computers", artist and blogger Tom Moody sees the distinction between conceptual photography and art photography made in the 1970s as a correlate to that between new media artists (i.e. those who exact a high level of mastery over hardware and software) and artists working with computers now (i.e. those who use computers and digital technologies in their art practice, often towards a conceptual end and in a more amateur fashion.) Citing Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander as an example, "art photography" was a practice valuing the artist's command over the medium, whereas for "conceptual photography" (e.g. Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons...) the emphasis was not on one's mastery over the tool, but rather the tool as a means to express an idea. In applying this contrast to artists working with computers today, Moody astutely observes a similar ethos between conceptual photography and "artist's with computers." In my opinion, one weakness to the post is Moody's stark polarization between his constructed categories, stating, "New media suggests a respect for hardware & software and belief in their newness, something artists with computers don't care about. New media involves a finicky devotion to programming and process, whereas artists with computers are bulls in the Apple Shop." The opposition he presents between "new media" vs. "artists with computers" in this instance is clunky and not entirely accurate -- there are artists working with software who don't buy into a "belief in...newness" (like Joan Leandre) while there are "artists with computers" who are attuned to programming (like Paul Slocum). The primary difference between these two camps -- if you want to follow Moody's distinction -- is the type of questions artists ask. To use the examples I gave, Leandre's work would fall under "new media" because his object "exists as data" (to recycle the Manovich quote from Moody's post) but his corrosive use of code interrogates the very ephemerality and instability of software (retroyou nostalg(2)). While he appears to be in command of his medium, he directs this skill to reflect his lack of control, and that tension guides his work. Thus, while he might fit Moody's categorization of a "new media artist" his work is more complex and, frankly, more intelligent than simply using code to elicit a sense of wonder in it of itself. Truly, I can't think of a single "new media artist" who sees that as their end goal. For Slocum, a trained programmer, his work is more conceptual and often does not require advanced skill. That's not his point. Four Seasons of Work Desktops (2007), a series of screengrabs of Slocum's work computer taken over a two year period, is a catalog of the banality of the interfaces we see everyday. While a commentary on computing, and a conceptual work, it is not a reflection of Slocum's adeptness nor intended to be. Slocum does draw on this ability as a programmer in Pi House Generator (2008), a software which infinitely generates house music from the digits of Pi, but again, the work isn't about mastery at all, but rather it is a humorous observation on the repetition of electronic music. Slocum and Leandre are not asking mutually exclusive questions, and in posing a pronounced opposition between the "new media artist" and the "artist with a computer," Moody is missing the point.