Saturday, January 26, 2008

Escape from the Gallery

Zero Comments is also a wake-up call to the digital arts community that takes issue with the self-satisfied virtual navel-gazing that occupies so many new media artists. Geert Lovink's chapter on "The Cool Obscure: Crisis of New Media Arts" is a much needed corrective for the dozens of academic books that are dedicated to gallery shows or Joycean hypertexts that are only experienced by a handful of people in the cultural elite. As someone who has looked at state institutions as digital media makers for the better part of a decade and the uneasy relationship between computational media and democratic deliberation, I would tend to agree with Lovink's assessment that digital media need to acknowledge much more diverse audiences in the public sphere who suffer the real-world consequences of badly designed networks, databases, and user interfaces. As he writes, "Instead of taking the heroic stand of the avant-garde, many new media practitioners have chosen to simply drift away in clouds of images, texts, and URLs" so that "both science and business have successfully ignored the creative community."

I also like the fact that he frequently cites Anna Munster, the author of the terrific and yet under-read book Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics, which looks closely at Cartesian ideologies and legitimates the counternarratives of Leibniz and baroque sensibilities. Although she appears nowhere by name in this chapter, Lovink's discussion of "expensive, proprietary VR installations" can't be taken as anything but a swipe at Char Davies and her ilk, about whom, in fairness, I should point out, my UCI colleague Michael Heim has written sensitively. Lovink also argues that the bio-art produced by Stelarc and other would-be cyborgs misses many of the connections to be made between art and science, particularly those suggested by the work of Bruno Latour on the social aspects of cultural and epistemological production. Lovink also acknowledges the low-tech contributions to be made by including DIY and DJ cultural practices.

At one point Lovink cites Chris Crawford's devastating summation of a typical interactive entertainment conference.

Artists have organized conferences on interactive entertainment and games, to which they always invite some representatives of the techie/games community . . . These conferences always start with an earnest declaration of the need for academia and industry to work hand in hand. Then a techie gets up and talks about what he wants from academia: students trained in 3D artwork, programming, and animation. An artsie gets up and lectures about the semiotics of Mario Brothers. A techie follows with a lecture on production techniques in the games industry. Another artsie analyzes the modalities of mimetics in text adventures. And so it goes, both sides happily talking right past each other, and neither side having the slightest interest or comprehension of the other side's work.

Of course, I think I've been at some of those conferences, mentally watching them bounce back and forth like a ping pong match after I'm done giving my paper.

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