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HASTAC III: What's the Matter with New Arts Media? A Forum on the Ubiquitous Arts

With a title that might cause pause, this thought-provoking panel brought up many compelling issues on the topic of "new arts media." First of all, notice "new arts media" rather than "new media arts," a turn in focus that puts the "new" on the artistic practice rather than the form or the media. Of course, the term "new" is endlessly debatable - but it's an interesting use. Focusing on the ubiquitous arts, the panelists spoke on the aesthetics, epistemologies, ontologies, phenomenologies of artistic practices using the technologies that surround, fascinate and confound us.

Coming from a background in performance and computing forms, Thecla Schiphorst's recent work focuses on sense making and experience modeling through physical computing. Schiphorst is a Media Artist/Designer and Faculty Member in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University. Drawing inspiration from the concept of "somaesethetics" and the work of Rudolf Laban, her work explores the possibilities of framing experience as skill, of extending beyond artistic practice, and of valuing epistemologies that exist outside of an academic framework. It is through these possibilities that she arrives at four concepts to emphasize in her consideration of the ubiquitous arts: materiality, experience, aesthetics, and collaboration.

Highlighting these topics, while moving chronologically through her recent works, Schiphorst talked about three projects. Whisper[s] is a collaborative project that builds/ explores "a wearable, handheld, intimate, sensory, personal, expressive, responsive system." As Schiphorst described the project, whisper[s] involved a series of experiments into understanding gesture, awareness, and wearability; understanding the body as device and as "devicing." Experiments included: using the stethoscope as a receiving and giving device, rather than surveyor of the body; and wearing shirts sown together, connecting subjects in unfamiliar ways. Exhale posits breath as empathic, poses the act of listening to someone's breath as information retrieval, and forwards using technology to create spaces of intimacy, curtailing traditional senses of trust towards something else, towards a different experience of collaboration. soft(n) conceives of these themes in relationship to limb-like, yet welcoming plush, lumpy objects.    

Mikel Rouse followed in the panel's order; he shared some of his work and experiences of art practice in more theatrical and musical registers. Showing some of his contemporary operas, Rouse began with Dennis Cleveland - describing it as "opera staged as TV talk show." The opera was a significant installment in a trilogy of contemporary operas, but also began his collaboration with the University of Illinois and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at UIUC, specifically. It is here that Rouse staged a redesigned version of the production in 2001, and where he also began to glimpse the technological innovations coming from NCSA, technologies seeming "beyond [his] paygrade and skillset." Coming from an independent art background in NYC, Rouse was more familiar with the make-do approach, but inspired by the high-tech advances he saw at UIUC, he developed a project that used StereoTV - which acted as an impetus for the latest opera in the trilogy, The End of Cinematics. From what Rouse showed of this project, I was quite enamored. Using a somewhat "low-tech" alternative to stereoscopy and 3D, The End of Cinematics cleverly used rear and front projection to create a lush production of simultaneous perceptual richness and instability.

Rouse also talked about his project Gravity Radio, an interactive piece that attempts to use audio in ways that recapture the 'magic of radio,' and about his homage to the collaborations between John Cage and Merce Cunningham that used iPods set to shuffle to deliver different sequences of a score for every audience member. Determined to not let the technology leave the artist behind, while still retaining an eccentric approach that engages the surreal, the corporate, the popular, and the magical - Rouse's career continues to inspire and challenge.      

Next up was Anne Balsamo, Professor and Associate Chair at the Interactive Media Division at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. As her career has spanned many different professional configurations that one can imagine to explore the relationships between technology and culture ? being a scholar, researcher, new media designer, and entrepreneur?she is uniquely positioned to address varied issues surrounding the ubiquitous arts. Balsamo?s recent book Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work (Duke, forthcoming) explored innovation?s connections to imagination, specifically as a quality of mind to think through technology. Balsamo asks what are some of the ways that we can think about collaboration and aesthetics as it is expressed in the performance of innovation? She forwards that a certain sense of improvisation is required to make future world making possible.  This also leads to her latest work, which explores the concept and practice of ?tinkering? as a mode of knowledge construction.     

Balsamo described a shift in her formerly analyzing the cultural practices of the (now) elite class of technologists in Silicon Valley to more recently mapping diffuse and scattered, yet embodied spaces for participatory communities of learning.  Balsamo's presentation was made with the beta version of a new presentation tool called Prezi (a zooming presentation editor) and it nicely, and quite literally, mapped out a broader understanding of innovation. Balsamo's presentation can be viewed at this link. I highly recommend exploring the presentation, as it welcomes re-readings, re-playings and re-visiting.

The last presenter was also the session chair and moderator - Donna Cox, director of the Advanced Visualization Laboratory at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (AVL) and the Illinois Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media Institute (edream); Cox also serves as the first Michael Aiken Endowed Chair and as Professor of Art + Design. Cox's work is interested in unpacking, but also most importantly creating with our digi-epistemologies and visu-phors -- which is to say she?s engaged with how we see things and how these are endlessly in dialogue with our cultural dispositions.  In her time at AVL, the lab has fashioned novel ways to represent data, treating data cinematically,  ?transforming data into artful animations that provide insights into complex systems. Throughout her presentation it was clear that AVL has had an impact on the visualization of scientific data for a very large audience. Cox forwarded the possibilities and opportunities of such a wide-ranging audience, asking how do we bring our culture with us in how we envision the workings of the universe?  How might we repurpose this data and how does it already inform our forms of entertainment, and vice versa?

As the viewers of Nova, or AVL's other data visualizations for NASA and other scientific projects, share and re-circulate these representations of natural phenomena, how are they themselves co-authors in these conceptions of science that compose, construct and surround our world? What about when these technologies reach down into nanotechnology? These are some of the questions Cox posed and engaged in her compelling presentation, all in front of a background projecting some of the amazing animations that have been created at AVL over the years.

In the duration of the Q& A session, many other interesting topics were raised:

  • It seems that a newer generation of artists don't feel as compelled to call themselves cross-genre because it has become more acceptable and less necessary to defend such a position. What high/ low culture divide? Rouse named NY-based Punch Brothers specifically as an instructive example.  
  • Is this a really new generation thing? Or is it just an ideology that?s been hard to put to rest? One, that of the lone creator, that still persists despite our best efforts. We need to put more of an emphasis on collaboration as a characteristic that is mentioned as key to tinkering. 
  • What about the notion of the human? (Not remembering what the segue was here...) And our Western constructions/ assumptions that plague us so stubbornly? What are some alternatives? The panel answer to this was to go to "perspective" as an often used example: specifically in 3D modeling program Maya, why have to view through Cartesian perspective? What about isometric? 
  • On this thread, Cathy Davidson pointed the audience to the work of Shin Mizukoshi. As she described it, his work directly challenges an impulse to archive staging elaborate productions that are documented in the process, only to be immediately destroyed.
  • Another thread of inquiry developed around DIY biotechnology. I'm including a video of Shiphorst's answer to a question on the topic (posed by Jentery Sayers).
  • Thecla Schiphorst response at HASTAC III, 21 April 2009 from 412 on Vimeo
  • Constance Penley replied to this thought with a Freudian position that rationalized the telepathic as a subjective construction of meaning making.

The Q&A session ended with inquiry into the methods of evaluation for tinkering, which drew Balsamo to conclude that she conceives of tinkering not as an institutional modality, but as an evolutionary imperative. It is a practice embodied in the people and communities that practice it, instead of belonging to the institutional structure. All in all, the panel pressed its audience to consider the matter, the practices, the tactility, and the communities of "New Arts Media" in original and exciting ways.




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