INTERVIEW: “The Last Avant-Garde” Domenico Quaranta interviews Mark Tribe & Reena Jana

From: domenico quaranta
Date: Oct 30, 2006
Subject: The Last Avant-garde. Interview with Mark Tribe & Reena Jana
From: domenico quaranta
Date: Oct 30, 2006
Subject: The Last Avant-garde. Interview with Mark Tribe & Reena Jana

This text is republished in collaboration with Rhizome.org. It was released on Rhizome Digest, 11/08/06, and appears here as it was originally posted.

Rough version of an interview with Mark Tribe & Reena Jana, authors of NEW MEDIA ART (Taschen, Kln 2006). A shorter version has been published in Flash Art Italia, Issue 260, October November 2006, p. 73.

Domenico Quaranta: Even from an editorial point of view, your book describes new media art as a movement (such as Surrealism or Conceptualism) rather than a mere possibility of the medium. This is a very interesting point. Do you believe in it or is this a marketing strategy? Is new media art the last avant-garde, and why?

Mark Tribe: Before we discuss New Media art as a movement, we describe it more generically in terms of “projects that make use of emerging media technologies and are concerned with the cultural, political, and aesthetic possibilities of these tools.” I think this is more-or-less what you mean by “a possibility of the medium.” We go on to write, “New Media art is not defined by the technologies discussed here; on the contrary, by deploying these technologies for critical or experimental purposes, New Media artists redefine them as art media.” We then talk about New Media art as an art movement because, from our perspective, that is an important aspect of the historical context that has been largely ignored. In order to understand the work that was made by people who called themselves “New Media artists” and thought of what they made as “New Media art,” it is crucial to consider the historical specificity of that term (it’s relation to the corporate New Media industry, the Dot com boom and bust cycle, etc.), as well as the place of New Media art practices within a broader art-historical framework. I believe strongly in the value of this kind of contextual reading, as opposed to a more formalist approach that considers the intrinsic qualities of the work in isolation. Your question about the avant-garde actually raises a similar issue: like New Media art, avant-garde can be defined generically as any cultural practice that pushes beyond the limits established norms through innovation and experimentation. But avant-garde can also be defined with historical specificity as a set of movements, such as Dada and Constructivism, that linked experimental cultural practices with radical social and political change. But, to answer your question directly, I do think that New Media art was one of the few historically significant art movements of the late 20th century. There were a lot of other historically significant practices, but none of them galvanized as movements per se. The defining characteristics of art movements, in my view, are: self-definition (the artists tend to use a common term, or set of competing terms, to name their practice); the existence of dedicated organizations, venues, publications, and discourse networks; and a common set of artistic strategies and concerns. Often one finds the last of these without the first two, as was the case with identity-focused work in the early 90s. I do think that New Media art could be described, generically, as avant-garde.

Reena Jana: Mark very eloquently described the parameters of our definition of New Media as a movement. Our point is that during the 1990s, with the dawn of the Internet’s popular rise as a mass-market communication medium coupled with the increasing presence of PCs among households, a specific art movement started to take shape that both used these tools as primary artistic media to comment on the effect of these media on society and culture. This movement entailed self-organization and definition on the part of the artists involved on chat rooms, on artist-run Web sites, in gallery exhibitions and at institutions devoted to the movement. We seek to document this phenomenon, and to point out that New Media art is a specific term that refers to a particular historical moment. Our goal is to offer more than simplistic clumping of all work using digital media with a blanket term such as “digital art.” New Media artists were not simply experimenting with digital editing to make their video art easier to produce or creating online animations of their paintings (two examples of practices that often were described as “digital art” in the late 1990s and conflated with New Media art). Instead, New Media artists use emerging mass-communications tools to comment on the social, cultural, and philosophical effects that such tools trigger.
And yes, in my view, New Media art as it evolved from 1994-2004 can be understood as “avant-garde.” As for New Media art’s description as “avant-garde,” I think it’s key to see an antecedent in the Dadaist and Surrealist points of view that avant-garde art strives for using inventive artistic techniques to jar audiences and affect their understanding and experience of life. New Media art also can be described as generically “avant-garde,” by definitionconsider the term and the artists’ imaginative use of emerging mass-media and distribution channels involved to comment on the larger “new media” as a dominant cultural force and influence in the 1990s.

DQ: Why do you focus on the Nineties, seemingly forgetting the Telecommunication art of the Seventies and the Computer art of the Eighties?

MT: We discuss Video art in the “Art-historical Antecedents” section of the introduction. We had to cut a paragraph or two on transmission art of Paik, Douglas Davis, et al due to space constraints (the length of the introduction was pre-defined by the publisher to conform with the series). We left out ’80s Computer art (AKA Multimedia art, Electronic Intermedia, etc.) because we felt that it was not, in fact, a significant precursor. Although Computer art and New Media art, to the extent that they can be distinguished from each other, shared a similar set of enabling technologies, and many old-school Computer artists from the Siggraph/Leonardo/ISEA scene joined the New Media art bandwagon in the ’90s, the two are crucially and fundamentally different in their relationship to media culture. Of course I’m generalizing broadly here, and there are lots of exceptions, but most Computer art was not as concerned with media culture as it was with information technologies and their cultural applications, whereas New Media art almost always takes a critical position in relation to media culture and media technologies.

RJ: Our focus is not on media art (i.e., video or other telecommunication art) or early experiments with computer, electronic, or biological material and themes, but instead on New Media art. For clarity, we place New Media art within the continuum of media art and computer-based art. Please refer to page 7: “We locate New Media art as a subset of two broader categories: Art and Technology and Media art…” New Media is also its own category.

DQ: What kind of criteria did you follow in the selection?

MT: From page 7 of the English version: “We chose to… focus on works that are particularly influential, that exemplify an important domain of New Media art practice and that display an exceptional degree of conceptual sophistication, technological innovation, or social relevance.” Beyond that, we considered geographic diversity and generally selected work that we personally like. Unfortunately, do to the limitations of the series, we had to leave out a lot of work that we very much wanted to include.

RJ: In addition, I think it’s important to circle back to the definition of New Media art that Mark mentioned in his first answer. We looked for “projects that make use of emerging media technologies and are concerned with the cultural, political, and aesthetic possibilities of [new media] tools.” As for “selecting work that we personally like,” such a criterion reflects basic editorial (and, for that matter, curatorial) practice. We spent many hours debating back and forth what the final list would be – an intellectually challenging – and rewarding – process that we feel resulted in a balanced selection of forms, themes, styles, geographical representation, gender, and technologies that reflects the diversity and dynamism of the international movement of New Media art. Please note that our introduction includes many examples of other important works that we had nominated for inclusion in the main entries, which is historically relevant, or was influential. Because the book !
is meant to be a brief introduction to New Media art, we were required to present a concise list of main entries that illustrate the scope of the movement.

DQ: A book like this is a strange event for media art practitioners: it is cheap, small, captivating and easy to read. Media art gets out of the ghetto and goes mainstream. Don’t be shy: do you think New Media Art is going to change something in the history of new media art?

MT: New Media art started to emerge from the ghetto and swim in the mainstream several years ago, but I get your point. We tried to write the book in such a way that it would be both accessible to non-specialists and useful to our peers. I like the fact that the book has so many large images of the art work and that Taschen does such a beautiful job with printing and design. I do hope that the book helps broaden the audience for New Media art and generate more support for New Media artists and organizations.

RJ: Yes, the price-point, portability, and accessible-yet-informed tone are indeed intended to broaden the audience of New Media art, although certainly New Media art is quickly gaining attention in mainstream outlets (for example, one artist in the book, Cory Arcangel, was named best emerging artist of 2005 by Mark Stevens, New York magazine’s critic/co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning de Kooning biography). At the same time, we hope to offer a fresh thesis within the ever-growing field of new-media studies. In 2006, it is possible to now look back and offer historical context for both of these audiences, the non-specialists and specialists. Our aim is to suggest a focused lens through which students, art-historians, artists, curators, collectors, and the general gallery and museum visitor alike can look at New Media art.