TEXT: Let’s Call It Art: CAA Recognizes the New Media Caucus

This text is republished in collaboration with Rhizome.org. It was published on Rhizome Digest, 3/11/05. It appears here as it was originally posted.

Date: 3.05.05
From: Juliet Davis
Subject: Let’s Call It Art: CAA Recognizes the New Media Caucus

Let’s Call It Art: CAA Recognizes the New Media Caucus
Juliet Davis

Who would have imagined the Atlanta Marriott Marquis would become home to
both the CAA Conference and the National Cheerleading Championship? What
divine fate brought girls in sponge curlers and pink fuzzy slippers
sauntering past a gender studies presentation entitled ‘Looking for Lolita?’
Some would say plenty of strange bedfellows congregated at the conference
Feb.16-19. Balancing the traditional art history sessions were a series of
‘firsts,’ including two new panels sponsored by the New Media Caucus (one
that drew a standing-room-only crowd); a panel and mentorships sponsored by
Leonardo; two sessions on the Patriot Act (a fund-raiser for Steve Kurtz and
CAE was held Saturday night); and CAA’s first new media gallery entitled
‘ArtSpace.’ As for things pink and fuzzy (as well as poofed and fishnetted),
Simeon Hunter’s panel flaunted costumes in ‘Play, Pleasure, and Perversion:
Insubordinate Refusals of Discipline in the Practices of Art and Theory,’
which openly satirized art history academy practices past and present. (This
is not your grandfather’s CAA.)

In his 2003 Ars Electronica review entitled ‘Don’t Call It Art’ (Rhizome
Digest 9.17.03), Lev Manovich argued that much of digital art is
fundamentally at odds with contemporary art because the very term ‘digital
art’ (and, by extension, ‘cyberart’, ‘new media’, etc.) presumes a
formalistic preoccupation with medium. Therefore, he argued, digital art is
not compatible with contemporary art, which comes from a conceptual art
tradition. As one of many counterpoints to this argument, the CAA New Media
Caucus, while asking some of the same questions Manovich has raised (‘What
exactly is [sic] the phenomena of . . . ‘digital art,’ ‘new media art,’
‘cyberart,’ etc.?), presented us with digital work that operates in a larger
field of cultural production.

For example, a session entitled ‘Screenshots and Audio Effects: Electronic
Events,’ chaired by Caucus President Doreen Maloney (University of Kentucky,
Lexington) and Rachel Clarke (California State University, Sacramento),
featured a mix of traditional and nontraditional approaches to situating new
media in art-and-theory contexts. CADRE artist and theoretician Susan Otto
described a horizontal axis of emerging technologies shifting and
intersecting with a vertical axis of ‘private intent of information and
public consumption of data.’ The moment of this shift, she claims, is ‘a
moment of cultural production,’ which she demonstrated through several of
her own works that use scientific strategies and data collection to examine
cultural mythologies and intersections of public and private space (for
example, her collection of snake drawings by random male bystanders indexed
and exhibited with the use of a database; her x-rays of post-operative
gunshot wounds set to ambient music; her project asking scientists to plot
what-if scenarios for a Sasquatch’ http://cadre.sjsu.edu/people/susan/ ).
Even Zachary Lieberman’s interactive language visualization project (which
might be termed ‘software art’) was an appropriate litmus tests for CAA,
precisely because it is so culturally relevant (who is going to say Austrian
children creatively interacting with visual representations of language is
not culturally relevant?). And who would argue the legitimacy of Nomi
Talisman’s project entitled ‘Everything I Knew About America I Learned From
the Movies’ as it plots a relationship between home movies and mainstream
film? Exposing the material substance of film (sprocket holes, etc.),
Talisman ran home movie clips alongside feature film clips, on the same
screen, to make visual connections between the ‘cultural role of cinema’ and
ìeveryday life.î Children mugged for the home movie camera on one side of
the screen as movie stars struck poses on the other; a family-man smoked a
cigarette beside a movie-star cowboy
(http://www.mills.edu/MCAM/mfa2003/talisman.html). All of this art seems to
come from a conceptual art tradition and engages us in critical dialogue.

Theorist Judy Rudinsky (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) built
upon Talisman’s presentation by asserting that, because new media art and
entertainment share markers such as medium of presentation (e.g., sharing
the ‘screen’ with television and the Internet), there is a ‘constructed
overlap’ that produces ambiguity and discord. This overlap, according to
Rudinsky, becomes further problematized by the ‘complex and varied’
narrative formations of new media, which, instead of ìunifying sequences
over time,’ tend to ‘expand over sequences’ and alter the relationship
between author and audience.

Panelist Conrad Gleber (Florida State University) seemed to be opening up
the whole notion of ‘new media,’ suggesting that it is not so much a
media-specific term as it is a culturally-specific term. As he interviewed
artists such as Lane Hall and Lisa Moline (University of Wisconsin,
Milwaukee www.badscience.org), he asked the question: ‘What shapes the
desire to come to new media?’ Gleber reported that all of the artists
interviewed expressed ‘a desire to integrate audience into the work,’ expand
their public, and engage in intervention both inside and outside the
gallery. Gleber concluded that some of the distinctive characteristics of
new media art include its continual ‘ephemerality, obsolescence and
ubiquity’; the fact that it is ‘made out of’ technologies (something like a
vernacular language); and the idea that it is situated in a ìsociocultural
dynamic of cultural emergence. . . . always in flux, always new.’

Perhaps predictably, the conference had a way of bringing to life topics
some might have thought were a thing of the past (e.g., utopian/dystopian
dialectics). In a relatively controversial panel called ‘Interrogating
Interfaces,’ when two presenters suggested that adaptable VR interfaces
resembling video games would ‘make it easier’ for CEOs to make decisions
about business strategies and military figures to make decisions about going
to war,’ a lively discussion erupted, with one audience member politely
asking if someone could please ‘comment on the space between video games and
Guantanamo Bay.’ Meanwhile, panelist Michele White, focusing on the common
hand-pointer, examined how race, class, and gender are rendered through the
interface, and added her concern about the power structures that would be
creating so-called interface ‘adaptability.’ Ensuing debates about
interface design seemed to indicate that a second panel on this topic would
be productive, and Chairs Laurie Beth Clark (University of Wisconsin) and
Alec MacLeod (California Institute of Integral Studies) are calling for
position papers for ‘Interrogating Interfaces: Part 2.’

While the conference featured little art that would be as debatable as the
technically/formalistically-absorbed Ars Electronica software art of 2003
(albeit Zachary Lieberman’s work was indeed featured at that conference),
the New Media Caucus panels and exhibition point to the idea that tensions
between art and technology are not quaint, that a hybrid ‘third space’ is
not easily defined, and that continuous dialogue is needed. In a spirit of
related inquiry, the new media exhibition called ‘Soft Science’ (in the new
ìArtSpaceî) featured works that might actually be considered ‘low-tech’ to
some, but high in critical content. Curator Rachel Mayeri explained that
she was interested in ìpeople who are the objects of their own experiments.’
The resulting DVD was screened at the conference and will be distributed by
Video Data Bank. The collection ranges from Peter Brinson’s ‘It Did It’, a
fictional character’s story before and after Brinson took Prozac, to Susan
Rynardís ‘Bug Girl,’ which showed a potential loss of a story-book-like
innocence as a young girl swallows a bee (and as we track it flying down her
system in x-ray-like graphics). Perhaps the most provocative piece was
created by curator Mayeri herself: ‘Stories from the Genome’ was a
satirical, playful, and unsettling look at our questionable understandings
of genetics, human cloning, psychoanalysis, and nature vs. nurture.

The New Media Caucus is currently calling for panel proposals for CAA 2006
(Boston) and for juried panel proposals for CAA 2007 (NYC), and is planning
exhibitions for both conferences. A peer-reviewed journal entitled Media-N
is being developed by Conrad Gleber (Florida State University), who is also
editor of the International Digital Media Arts Association Journal, and
Rachel Clarke (California State University, Sacramento). Realizing that new
media faculty can have difficulty gaining recognition for their
accomplishments on their way to tenure, a caucus task force is reviewing and
suggesting updates for CAA’s ‘Guidelines for Faculty Teaching Computer-Based
Media in Fine Art and Design’ (published in 1995), which already articulates
issues regarding faculty hiring, workload, evaluation, and compensation for
faculty in computer-based media. New Media Caucus mentorships are also
being planned.

Concluding his 2003 article, Lev Manovich expressed optimism for the
legitimacy of new media as art, saying: ‘At the end of the day, if new media
artists want their efforts to have a significant impact on cultural
evolution, they need to generate not only brilliant images or sounds but
more importantly, solid discourse.’ If the CAA conference is any indication
of the kinds of exchanges that are possible regarding an intersection of
technology and culture, then let’s, at least sometimes, call it art.

_______

The New Media Caucus was founded in 2003 and currently lists 173 members.
New Media Caucus Web Site: www.newmediacaucus.org
CAA 2006 Call For Session Proposals:
http://www.collegeart.org/annualconference/2006/sessionproposals.html Calls
for 2006 ArtSpace submissions and for Media-N will be forthcoming.