Retracing Political Dimensions: Strategies in Contemporary New Media Art

Retracing Political Dimensions: Strategies in Contemporary New Media Art
by Oliver Grau and Inge Hinterwaldner, Editors

De Gruyter, Berlin, Germany, 2020
256 pp., illus. 59 col. Paper, PDF, $39.99
ISBN: 978-3-11-067094-3.

Reviewed by
Brian Reffin Smith
February 2021

Though some find solace in making pretty pictures, structures, and interactive spaces, we must surely ask: if now is not the time to consider a political 'new media art', as well as a politics of it, well... when? I'm not talking about propaganda and mere sloganising, nor about empty identification with the oppressed. As Art & Language, I think, said long ago, to paint a picture of a miner is not to be working class. But deliberately to avert one's eyes from a world where political and social decisions by malign narcissists and poltroons are daily mediated by every possible means except art, or to accept that art should only be a refuge from it, is surely untenable today. As it was 50 years ago, when Jonathan Benthall, in his still useful book Science and Technology in Art Today, writing of GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel) in Paris and New Tendencies in Zagreb, described them as "devaluing the art-product as a source of charisma. This was an important achievement for which we should all be grateful." It is a strange thing that although art, like science, generally proceeds by failure, and although technology frequently fails to deliver, we never read about media art failures.

If, as Walter Benjamin asserted, the aestheticisation of politics is a hallmark of fascism, then is the politicisation of art the reverse (in the sense not perhaps of an anti-fascism which we might optimistically take for granted, but rather an anti-kitsch, anti-pompier stance)? If Trumpism was politics in the style of Jeff Koons crossed with the values of the Reichskulturkammer then what style of representation, what index of possibilities, could be embraced to make an art whose theory and practice would at the very least refuse to be thus co-opted and which at best might become political in a performative way (like 'abracadabra' or 'open sesame')? We need to problematise new media art, the making, theorising, curating, teaching and historiography of it. But what do these questions mean today? It's all so chaotic.

Thomas Kuhn's model of scientific progress (to simplify) was that it proceeded via periods of 'normality', with generally accepted paradigms, interspersed with periods of chaotic revolution when the paradigms became untenable, until a new dominant paradigm emerges and normality reigned again. The new dominant paradigm is surely a function of the old, due to evidence and other pressures, money, politics and zeitgeist all playing a part. In general, looking in the rear view mirror, we can usually see how we got 'here'. But with computer based art, with new media, there is no normality at all, only constant revolution and turmoil, and if you look back in the mirror all you see is the preceding chaos: it can be hard to see how we got here. Little wonder that easy models for the progress of technological art, if progress it be - change, anyway - are technological ones (almost business models in the 1980s and 1990s) - but without the political dimension that normally might be expected to accompany even such an enquiry. Politics has no presence there. A politically characterised model of the development of computer based arts and new media, their production, celebration, curation and memorialisation, encompassing perhaps everything from Siggraph and MIT to research centres, institutions, public vs classified research, individual vs communal activity, web art vs the gallery wall, telematic vs. automatic and so on (not always in struggle, of course) would generally be seen as taboo. It is thus not surprising that questions within new media art have often tended to be devoid of political content, even when the purported subject of the work was itself a political object. It sometimes seems that everyone knows this, but no one actually does anything about it. So this book and other works by its begetters and contributors are very welcome. The editors explicitly have a paradigm that "the technological advances in current media cultures are best understood against a backdrop of an extensive media and art history", which is refreshing.

One of the editors, Oliver Grau, is an influential figure in the fields of media archeology and humanistic investigations of what is going on when people make and experience media art. That he is also an art historian is a great antidote to those who would simply apply the internal criteria of media arts to any discourse about them. The other editor, Inge Hinterwaldner, has also researched, written and argued persuasively for deeper investigation in these and other areas, adopting a broad bandwidth of methodologies and stressing the importance of flow and fluidity, against static (perhaps both literally and metaphorically) ways of interpreting. She too has plenty of background in actual art history.

Does it need emphasising that the 'art' bit of media art means that it has to be considered as... you know... art, and not just technological spectacle? The medium is not the art. The cellars of museums of modern art contain fractal images from the 1980s that looked a bit like art and arrived with their own aura of mystification in the age of their mechanically enthusiastic reception. Being able to enter a world of such stuff and explore it in 3-D virtual reality might be many useful things, but it ain't art. There are many analogous works being produced in 2021. It also needs emphasising yet again that decoration, even in n-D space, is not per se art, and neither is graphic design. My definition of art is "a more or less systematic enquiry, often visual, whose goal is knowledge", notwithstanding that other goals may include money, fame, applause, retrospectives, faculty positions and so on.

So... does this book help even so prejudiced and hypocritical an artist and theorist as your reviewer? We certainly need an examination of the political dimensions of new media art and its archaeologies. There are not enough direct studies around, though of course many that touch upon it. The present work, based as it is on outcomes from the excellent conference series on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology, covers a wide spectrum. It must be noted too that the book is about media art as science, as polyvalent progress, amongst other things, and celebrates the work as more than artwork.

In their introduction, the editors write that the book "poses the question of what 'political iconography' is and means today. It asks which strategies are recognised, unveiled and commented on as the operational foundation, and which counter-measures are considered adequate. In new media art (theory), showing this is often closely linked to the operational, to action." So there we go: performative theory, which I like and which might be another near-definition of art.

The contributions are placed in five different sections, the first being Political Dimensions in Digital Imagery, in which Oliver Grau celebrates the multifariousness of digital media art as potentially being able to deal with complex societal issues such as globalisation or surveillance. He argues that we need to understand the mechanisms of its generation and how these correlate within and outside media art, and how they impact on present and future societies. He even calls digital art "a political iconography of the present". Of course saying that doesn't make it so, but it could be, and some might argue that it should be. Perhaps the best and worst is. Grau has sought to correct the lack of such art in various kinds of collections and memory banks, correctly arguing that society needs to see itself thus represented in order to understand itself, a complex representation that needs the richness of digital art to carry it. "We are ... almost completely excluded by our own museums and archives from reflecting on the issues of our time through its relevant art." The Archive of Digital Art is just one of his corrective projects.

The trouble is again that of the spectacle, whose condition, like it or not, much media art does approach (though this is presumably what the present book seeks to correct). We might all agree that the museum, gallery and other curatorial spaces have to change, be dimensionally expanded or even replaced. But media art has a responsibility, as if it hadn't already enough on its shoulders, to achieve adequacy as art even if that art is to be redefined. It's a two way process which a perfect media art qua art could accomplish, and I believe that this is a goal to aspire to.

Most of the contributions use particular artworks, events or aspects of media and media art to point up discussion about surveillance, global ecology, AI and "The (In)visible structures of information systems". Grau's section is preceded by a more specific one from his coeditor, Inge Hinterwaldner: 'Image-Transaction, What you see is not what you get'. She applies a transactional process view to the status of the image in digital networks. Taking The transparency Grenade, an artwork shown in Berlin's Transmediale in 2012 and consisting of a model of a military grenade that captured nearby network traffic and audio, she argues that the fragments of this data shown on a screen change the image from a "lure" to a place of critique. Many of the other systems discussed in later sections also turn inside out the idea of an artwork or other cultural object or process as a result, a product, making public that which was hidden, be that data, assumptions or indeed the political dimensions underlying various aspects of the work, or society, the museum and so on. The point is to open up everything surrounding new media, its objects and artworks, and yet somehow simultaneously to incorporate them into the artwork an experience of it.

Examples are Mathias Fuchs' opening up body movements, gestures and cues to emotions in computer games by discussing their actualisation in real life, or an analysis by Elisa Arca and José-Carlos Mariateguí of Teresa Burga's use of her own body as source and ground for information theoretical work, already in the early 1960s.

In a way, these 'openings up and yet foldings back in', if I can call them that, remind me of cybernetics in early work by Stephen Willatts, such as his 1973 Metafilter, and concept of a 'state of agreement' mediated by a computer. Several parts of this book echo, overtly or in passing, a return to cybernetics as a valuable tool in understanding the participants, human or not, in systems of conversations about, and contained in, media artworks in the widest possible sense. It may be that the retracing of political dimensions in the art is itself a work to be undertaken by artists as well as historians and theorists. The corollary is that the deconstruction and reconstruction of media archaeologies, memorialisations, conferences, events and indeed books, profit from being seen as actual or quasi-artworks too. The questions we might ask then are the questions we should have been asking since media arts began. The book is a reminder of that, and a way into problematising and enriching, with the dimensions of all its surrounding cultures, an art which necessarily contains and examines within itself these connections; and hence represents ourselves to ourselves, writ large, more transparent, and possibly even saveable. For those of us sitting wondering how on earth art can reflect upon and contribute to the struggles we currently face, this book is very timely.