TEXT: Media Art – A Mixed History, book review by Horea AVRAM

Media Art Histories, Edited by Oliver Grau;
Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: MIT Press, 2007.
More information: mediaarthistory.org

Media Art Histories, edited by Oliver Grau aims to occupy a central position among an increasing number of edited volumes of essays or overview histories dedicated to new media art. Like other such endeavours Media Art Histories proposes to fill the gap between a full-speed developing practice, the crystallization of a systematic theoretical knowledge and the establishment of a history (and in fact legitimacy) for the phenomenon of new media art.

The principal merit of this book is synthesized in the title itself: it doesn’t pretend to deliver a history, but histories, that is, a pluralist account of media art. Indeed, the volume is comprised of a mosaic of approaches and attitudes regarding new media art seen from a historical perspective. However, there is a declared common premise, which is, according to the editor, the need to put media art and its histories on a more stable basis, to bring them to a sort of mainstream institutional recognition, and introduce new media “full time” in the academic curricula. And there is something more: the affirmed ambition of this book to understand media art not only as a technical/technological gadget but also as a complex theoretical issue situated in a historical context and seen in relationship with other akin disciplines: film, cultural and media studies, computer science, philosophy, and sciences dealing with images.

In the very first sentence of the editor’s introductory note, Oliver Grau makes a bold statement that “the book will discuss for the first time the history of media art within the interdisciplinary and intercultural contexts of the histories of art”. The book’s aim is neither more nor less than to lay the first brick for the construction of an “evolutionary history of audiovisual media”. And how will this ambitious goal be achieved? As the editor states, by opening art history to media art, by putting media art against the background of art history while employing reflections from neighbouring disciplines. Now, of course, the tone of the first quoted sentence is a little bit bombastic. This volume is arguably not the first to deal historically with media art. Grau’s own book, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion contributed much to the development of this theme. But what is certain is that media art, as one of the major practices in contemporary art, deserves broader attention, and this book is intended to be a step towards a wider recognition and a deeper understanding of media art.

Despite its increasingly wider use, “media art” is still an “unstable” term that varies according to the author’s background, institutional engagement, or theoretical intent. In our case, Grau doesn’t attempt to offer a tight definition of the notion, but the few denominations the editor puts forward in the introductory text are meant to establish the framework for discussion in the pages to follow: besides photography, film and video, a wide range of digital practices like Net art, interactive art, genetic and telematic art, or even robotics, a-life and nanotechnology are to be considered. Media artists? Grau brings in a few names at the beginning, but surely the list of active people in the domain is—fortunately—much, much longer (Char Davies, Hiroo Iwata, Karl Sims, Daniela Plewe and David Rockeby).

When examining media art, considers the editor, it is important for us to observe which aspects are new and which are old, and then to familiarize ourselves with media history, with its myths and utopias. We are living in a world of images, where open and/or mobile access becomes more and more the rule (think wearable devices, cell phones, Internet, TV, cinema)—a visual sensory sphere that profoundly affects our perception of the surrounding world. Yet, our perception is not simply a physiological process but a cultural act, so, in order to decipher the what, how, who, when about new media (art), it is necessary to take a closer look at the legacy left by historical media in literature concerned with (artistic and scientific) visualization. Two possible models for constructing such a complex media art history, believes Grau, are the “older and successful” tradition named “image science” (a cultural history-oriented, inter- and trans-disciplinary approach in art history developed by Aby Warburg), and Panofsky’s “new iconology”, both of which emerged at the beginning of twentieth century. This new interdisciplinary subject it is believed to be in good company with other contemporary disciplines that deal historically with scientific or artistic image.

So, the building of a media art history should start from its origins, hence the title of the first part of the book: “Origins: Evolution versus Revolution”. Part Two “Machine-Media-Exhibition”, goes further and tries to clarify some of the key terms in media art theory. But the concrete forms that nourish media art today are also of great importance, therefore “Pop and Science”—the third part—examines the contemporary cultural context. Finally, Part Four, “Image Science”, deals with what already was mentioned above, the need to establish a functional “image science”.

As is the case with almost every edited book, the texts gathered in this volume are not equal in terms of value or “scientific weight”. Nor do the authors have the same calibre. But Grau knew to find the necessary balance between the more general, lighter texts and the “heavy-duty”, theoretically solid and accomplished writings. Among the contributors are: Rudolf Arnheim, Peter Weibel, Dieter Daniels, Edmond Couchot, Christiane Paul, Lev Manovich, W.J.T. Mitchell, Ron Burnett etc.
New media (art) is primarily characterized by immediacy, by the use of ephemeral images, therefore discussing in the first essay the “coming and going” status of image is an indispensable starting point (Rudolf Arnheim, “The Coming and Going of Images”). With its programmatic tone, this text is a call for considering images—even temporary ones—necessarily in relationship with a more stable historical context. The essays of the first section actually try to consider such a context (see for example Peter Weibel’s discussion of (neo)-constructivist and kinetic experiments, Dieter Daniels’ treatment of Duchamp’s bachelor machines as “universal machines”, or Grau’s examination of the tradition of a “cultural technique of immersion”).

Doesn’t matter how “new” new media art is, it stands in a continuum with previous practices, even if lots of its intrinsic aspects (especially technical) are radically changed. This is, at least, what the majority of the texts in the second section let us understand. For example, the tendency toward automation can be traced down to primitive art (Edmond Couchot, “The Automatization of Figurative Techniques: Toward the Autonomous Image”), or, as Andreas Broeckmann demonstrates, there is an aesthetic continuity between analog and digital in what concerns the experiential qualities of art (“Image, Process, Performance, Machine: Aspects of an Aesthetics of the Machinic”).

If there is not a clear dividing line between past/analog and present/digital, new media brings, however, some profound changes. The third section discusses these transformations and one of them is blurring the differences between producer and consumer through interactivity: responding to an old desire, new media offers the viewer “fully embodied experiences with screen-based media”. (Ron Burnett, “Projecting Minds”). Another aspect of these changes is, according to Lev Manovich (“Abstraction and Complexity”), the fact that contemporary software abstraction relies rather on a paradigm of complexity than on reduction and essentialism like the modernist painting.

Indeed, new media brought image to an unprecedented status, and at the same time they place image at the center of an interdisciplinary analytic debate, one that is called “New Image Science” (section four). The questioning of the image as a purely visual medium is only one aspect of this debate, and advocating medium’s intrinsically mixed status is W.J.T. Mitchell’s goal in his provocative essay “There Are No Visual Media”.

A good point is that the book opens media art histories also toward non-Western territories (for example, medieval Arab automata and contemporary Japanese art). Significantly, the editor avoids to dedicate an—almost mandatory, in academic publications—section devoted to gender and sexual aspects of the problem. Media Art Histories prefers to talk about art and media themselves and not about the sexuality of those involved in them. Despite the fact that it lacks the so-useful index, overall, the book can be a good tool for research especially by keeping a fine equilibrium between art history, media theory, philosophy, cultural studies, image science and computer science. Media Art Histories provides a wide view on the complex, in-progress field of media art, in which this volume intends to stand as one of the main bibliographical reference points.


Horea AVRAM is Ph.D. candidate in Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Canada. FQRSC doctoral fellowship holder. Art critic and independent curator from 1996.