50 Ways of (No Longer) Funding Media Art
The funding support of media art is currently undergoing changes which, although they may take forms specific to individual countries or regions, a somewhat detached view nevertheless reveals to be a multifaceted international phenomenon. Especially those art disciplines with a relatively weak institutional anchorage are often affected by the economic cycles of cultural policies which at times are advantageous to them but which after some time tend to diminish again and may even disappear entirely. This constant change has the advantage that, under favourable circumstances, the funding instruments are time and again adjusted to actual artistic practice.
The term ‘media art’ and its meaning have been critically discussed ever since it was first introduced in the late 1980s. A term is needed that encompasses the extended area of artistic practice involving electronic and digital technologies and media. The idea that one could experience media art as a specific scene – an artistic practice with specific production conditions and its own aesthetic principles – was, however, questioned in two respects as early as the 1990s: on the one hand through the realisation that every form of art is, to a certain extent, defined in ‘medial’ terms; and on the other hand by the argument that while a certain specific nature of artistic engagement with technology and digital society is undeniable, what makes this art form special is not adequately described by the prefix ‘media’. However, alternative suggestions such as ‘electronic art’, ‘digital art’, ‘new media art’ or ‘cyber arts’ only lead to a shift in meaning rather than providing a solution to the terminological problem.
This means that we are today confronted with a phenomenon which, in its essence, is described only by approximation but nevertheless manifests itself through a whole range of institutions, festivals and publications, even beyond individual artistic practice. In a recent text, Dieter Daniels (2010) has shown how this institutionalisation intensified from the middle of the 1980s, despite the fact that artistic predecessors can easily be traced back to the 1960s, and in a sense even back to the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century. Daniels cites as an important reason for the current “crisis of media art” the fact that the constant “emphasis on progress of the formerly ‘new media’” is now less convincing than in its heroic foundation phase of the 1980s and 1990s. Another reason is the permanently changing relation between contemporary art and media art which, according to Daniels, were split only in the 1970s. This complex relation again and again has provided an important pillar in the identity of media art.
The discussion on how ‘media art’ is defined is closely related to the question whether media art is seen as an autonomous area of cultural practice and promoted as such. Whereas the urgency of artistic engagement with the changes occurring in societies increasingly dominated by technology is generally recognised, the assessment of the significance of media art works varies to a great extent. The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London announced the closure of the Live & Media Arts Department in October 2008, the institute’s director Ekow Eshun arguing: "It’s my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks the depth and cultural urgency to justify the ICA's continued and significant investment in a Live & Media Arts department." (CRUMB, 17/10/2008) In the subsequent heated debate, the media art theoretician Charlie Gere retorted defiantly and with avant-gardist self-confidence: "If there is to be a form of art (...) that might be fit for the new rhythms of our digital culture then it is new media art. That institutions such as Tate or the ICA cannot understand it or incorporate it is not merely ignorance or blindness, but a symptom of their inability to come to grips with new cultural paradigms. I realise that this is not much use for those who have to or wish to make their living making and showing this kind of work, but perhaps it is a consolation that they are helping to bring about a new world out of the ruins of the old, which will always be a struggle. It seems to me almost axiomatic that if moribund places like the ICA and Tate understood this stuff it would have failed." (CRUMB, 22/10/2008)
Italian curator and theoretician Domenico Quaranta points out that artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Höller, Carsten Nicolai, Cory Arcangel, Eva & Franco Mattes and Janet Cardiff succeed in the art market with their ‘media art’ works, even though these works are not classified as such. Despite this overlap, Quaranta is convinced that media art marks a cultural area in its own right – one with an inferiority complex: "New Media Art is not an art genre, nor a ‘ghetto’ (...). In the last 50 years, New Media Art developed into a self-sufficient, independent art world, with its own idea of art (well, its ideas of art, that can be very different and include both techno-enthusiasm and techno-criticism), its own audience, distribution, criticism, venues. This world collects professionals from all the other art worlds (writers, musicians, dancers, engineers, along with visual artists) but, for reasons that remain unclear, it never recognized its own independence, and keeps on thinking about itself as a niche of the contemporary art world." (CRUMB, 21/10/2008)
The funding programme Sitemapping of the Swiss Federal Office of Culture has contributed, in the last decade, to the realisation of numerous artistic projects and events in which the Swiss media art scene was able to develop and present itself. In its specific and certainly generous form of funding, Sitemapping was an important factor in the vibrancy of a dynamic scene in which young artists in particular were given an opportunity to realise their first projects, before receiving support for their work in other institutional and economic contexts. The emergence of ‘good art’ can never be bought or bred, however, and this area is no exception. Whether outstanding works of art are indeed created anywhere depends on a number of factors which even effective funding measures cannot control. That said, a well-functioning funding structure creates the basic conditions in which good artists and interesting institutions are able to realise their projects at all and subsequently present them to a wider audience. For media art, these basic conditions notably include institutions with a proven track record, technically well-equipped and easily accessible workshops and labs, qualified technical advisors, artist-in-residence and scholarship programmes, opportunities to engage in discourse, like events, festivals, publications, and individual project funding. Sitemapping has made an important contribution notably in respect of the latter two conditions, and it is to be hoped that it will be succeeded by similarly influential instruments of funding.
An international comparison soon reveals that Sitemapping was something of an exception. The last equally specific and well-endowed funding programme for media art projects which were selected by a panel of experts and dispensed without a strict control of results was probably the programme of the Fondation Daniel Langlois. Operating within a similar structure, this private Canadian foundation provided project grants at the international level amounting in some instances to more than 1 million Canadian dollars until the mid-2000s. The French Government instituted DICREAM around the year 2000, a broad-based production funding programme for media art. Whereas for several years, numerous projects did indeed receive support, the promoters did not succeed in actually making this production visible. Although additional funding was available for international presentations, there was no well-thought-out strategy for distributing the resulting works which in consequence were exhibited infrequently in an international context.
In general however, funding in this field is not geared at individual projects, but consists of a mixture of promotional instruments more or less specifically geared to media art. These instruments of funding are administered by the relevant national, regional or communal governmental structures. They are supplemented by the usually temporary or subject-based programmes of private foundations, associations and companies who support scholarships, artist-in-residence programmes, prizes, institutions or events such as festivals, conferences and exhibitions at times when this suits their current agenda. Though extremely important for artistic practice, the spheres of artistic research and project development which also formed part of the Sitemapping programme are generally not given direct financial assistance within existing institutional structures.
Admittedly, numerous funding programmes exist that do not specialise in media art but are nevertheless open to it. The formula used to decide whether and how institutions, individual artists, one-off and recurring projects, programmes, platforms, the production of new works and projects or their presentation are supported and whether the promoters are informed by specific artistic genres, techniques or even themes, is renegotiated continuously, as is the question whether specific media art funding can be conceptually justified at all. However, practical experience shows that technically and conceptually complex media art projects often go unnoticed or are assessed incorrectly, if support decisions are made without specifically taking into account the context of the production of media art and the relationship of its reception with digital culture.
Competent decision-making bodies are essential for upholding criteria such as quality and innovation in all areas of public funding, not just in the cultural sphere. Interdisciplinary competence in the assessment of interdisciplinary projects is equally important. Adopting an alternative model, the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture worked with ‘federal curators’ for several years starting in the 1990s. They were individually responsible for funding decisions, and in the course of their two years as incumbents they were able to influence the direction of artistic activity. Thanks for instance to the efforts of federal curators Stella Rollig and Wolfgang Zinggl, conceptually and critically oriented network and media culture in particular saw especially dynamic development for a few years in the 1990s. In the city of Vienna, a system of self-organisation for first-project promotion was introduced in network culture in 2006 as part of which Viennese artists themselves made decisions on the allocation of funding – though the amount was relatively modest: 10 allowances of Euro 3,000 each in the last phase of the support programme.
There are no one-fits-all solutions for such support and decision-making structures. Instead, one typically sees specific arrangements which on the one hand have developed historically and on the other are subject to current political trends. The temporary impact that individual persons and groups can have, due to their individual passions, on such structures within funding institutions or as representatives of specific interest groups is not to be underestimated. A few exemplary situations of international media art funding are mentioned in the following section, although only their salient points can be briefly highlighted here. They are intended as an invitation to rethink adequate forms of funding and to conceive of art funding as an expression of a critical contemporaneity.
In the 1990s, media art received special attention in some countries, because it could be posited as a driving force of innovation in the information and communication technologies. In Canada and Australia, for example, a growing infrastructure of institutions and festivals was set up from the mid-1990s. The promotion of artistic production was complemented by generous distribution funding which enabled international presentation of new works and made both Canadian and Australian media art especially visible within the international market for a few years. In both countries, this trend has now subsided again, not least due to the changes occurring in the political environment, and this has had a directly negative impact on both the production and international visibility of Canadian and Australian media art. These political changes were intensively discussed, for example, in and around the Australian Network for Art and Technology, ANAT.
Although there is no clearly structured state-funded promotion of media art in Berlin (i.e. the Federal State of Berlin or its boroughs), the general support programmes (notably the Federal project funding granted by the Senate Department for Culture, Capital Culture Fund) offer opportunities for projects in the area of media art. The German Federal Cultural Foundation which operates countrywide has supported the transmediale, Germany’s largest media art festival, since 2005, with the Federal State of Berlin only indirectly contributing to its funding. In contrast, the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia systematically promotes, in some cases providing institutional support, a number of cultural institutions and festivals dedicated to various aspects of media art and offers, for example, its own annual scholarship for female media artists. The biennial Nam June Paik Award organised by the Art Foundation NRW ranks among the highest-value prizes for media art internationally.
In the Flemish part of Belgium, media art funding was established as part of a separate initiative (Initiatief Audiovisuele Kunst) by the Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, by analogy with a film support fund. This form of funding was supplemented a few years ago by the foundation of the public BAM Institute for Visual, Audiovisual and Media Art which is responsible for facilitating networking within the Flemish media art scene and representation of its interest in the world of business and politics. Out of this emerged some exemplary publications presenting artists, institutions and core themes of media art. As the name of the institution suggests, BAM does not make a strict distinction between visual and media art, but instead emphasises the transdisciplinary and innovative nature of current artistic practice.
In Norway, the government-funded Arts Council runs a relatively small division for Art and New Technology within its Visual Arts section. Apart from supporting a range of small and medium-sized institutions, this division also offers direct project funding for artists. The most important Norwegian media art institutions are united in the production network PNEK which is also funded by the special division of the Arts Council. PNEK has a project manager and a relatively modest budget which is used almost entirely for putting the various exponents of the scene in touch with each other by providing travelling grants and for organising meetings. The question whether the special Art and New Technology division should be discontinued and its tasks integrated in the general Visual Arts division is currently being discussed in Norway. This means that there is concern in the media art scene – similar to the situation in Switzerland – that the specific artistic and structural competence required for supporting and assessing media art projects may be lost as a result of such integration measures.
Whereas the discussion mentioned above about the closure of the media art department at London’s ICA primarily irritated the vanity of an unjustly underrated scene back in 2008, the current debate on the changes in the funding strategy of the Art Council of England (ACE) deals with much more fundamental issues. Several small and medium-sized institutions and festivals dedicated to media art – and indeed a wide range of other art forms – are not to receive any more national funding in future. In contrast, others can even expect an increase in grants. The massive cutbacks – which must be seen against the background of the new conservative-liberal government and the financial pressure resulting from the 2012 London Olympics – will, it is speculated, affect almost half of the groups and institutions active in the field of media art all over England.
Pauline van Mourik Broekman from the London-based Mute Magazine sees these changes as symptomatic of a new funding system, the aim of which is no longer to promote specific art forms but rather to meet economic criteria and maximise public appeal. She contends that those responsible within the ACE have explicitly called into question the specific role of digital media with regard to their aesthetic production and reflection: "What has clearly been decided is that (...) digital can now confidently be assumed to exist as a set of processes internal to organisations (who should have the expertise to develop a digital strategy, be that via marketing or elsewhere), and that this more self-reflexive (and, I'd argue, historically sensitive) conception of it, can make way for a normalisation and integration of 'digital' tout court, across the cultural landscape – be that in and through e-commerce, geo-location and 'expanded reality', or audience development, or whatever. To me this explains the targeting of what they used to call 'SUNs' (Service, Umbrella, Networking organisations, including all those specialist agencies focused on audience development via web tools like Google analytics etc.), loads of which have been de-funded, towards a more concerted support of what Julie Lomax (ACE Visual Arts) simplistically called 'the production of art'. (In our case this was all part of a long admonishment and caution directed at Mute as an (in her view) digitally-determined organisation, which also has a history of aligning itself with 'start-up' processes (another bete noir, as it's not sufficiently art related), and 'the creative industries' (a contradictory bogey man, since they clearly want culture to 'share its expertise' with this area, as it states in (the official report) Great Art for Everyone)." (CRUMB, 31/03/2011)
According to Mourik Broekman, critical reception and engagement are replaced by a return to traditional art concepts and rewards for spectacular displays and great public effect. Her analysis stresses one of three special challenges facing current art funding – the involuntary connection between media art on the one hand and the cultural and creative industries on the other. As with the two other challenges of cultural education and social diversity, the issue here is the conflict between the social benefits of artistic work and its status as an autonomous activity.
Similar arguments were adduced when the Scottish Arts Council and film funding by Scottish Screen were merged to become the new agency Creative Scotland in 2009: "Although reforms of cultural provision may be long overdue, Creative Scotland has wider-reaching implications than the supersession of Scottish Screen and The Scottish Arts Council. Creative Scotland seeks a fundamental change in a key aspect of democratic society. This change has significant implications for the many ways in which knowledge is produced and communicated in Scotland. As it is proposed, Creative Scotland is set to erode key principles such as the distinction between culture and commerce." (Variant Magazine, February 2010; cit. CRUMB, 31/03/2011)
This change of the most important funding instrument from an institution promoting art to one that invests in creative initiatives has, in the case of the media art initiative New Media Scotland (NMS), led many to search for new sources of funding. NMS still organises the government-funded project funding for media art as part of the Alt-W programme. However, NMS does not receive any compensation for these activities. Instead, this work is financed via a partnership with the University of Edinburgh whose Centre for Art and Science is supervised by NMS. Though originally the result of an emergency, this new arrangement has, as Simon Biggs writes (CRUMB, 31/03/2011), given rise to "one of the most dynamic and best resourced venues in the country for new media work across the creative arts and at the juncture of art and science research".
An especially ambitious example of the integration of artistic and scientific work is the Canadian project Hexagram. Based on cooperation between the three large universities of Montreal, this initiative supports, as a kind of decentralised research laboratory, artistic projects as well as product developments and design applications.
In Japan, the current discussion about state funding for media art is taking place under very different circumstances. Since the mid-1990s, the Japanese Ministry of Culture has organised the Japan Media Arts Festival which, apart from media art in the narrower sense of the term, presents animation films, manga and computer games (‘entertainment’). This amalgamation of different fields of the Japanese creative industries is partially justified with an explicit promotional interest, but also with the hypothesis of a special ‘Japanese’ cultural synthesis. Both the artistic context of these four segments and their national peculiarity are currently being debated.
In the Netherlands, a range of institutions concerned with art and design in the context of digital culture are funded under the label of E-Culture without such patriotic undertones. As is the case with other cultural areas or sectors, E-Culture too has its own “sector institute”: the Virtueel Platform. Since it was founded 15 years ago, when it began as a loose network, it has positioned itself as a lobby institution for the interfaces of art, technology and society. By ensuring a consistent discourse in the political sphere, research, knowledge, innovation and creativity have been defined as the core competencies of artistic institutions. In consequence, such institutions are able to present their work not merely as free artistic practice but as being socially beneficial. Even if this development of necessity entails a certain loss of freedom in the formulation of art-specific discourses, E-Culture has in this way nevertheless become established as a necessary and independent building block in the system of Dutch cultural funding. Persistent, state-recognised and well-coordinated joint lobbying of the most important cultural institutions was indispensable in bringing about this result.
This is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that in the Netherlands media art must hold its ground in the current general revision of cultural funding which was put on the political agenda due to pressure from the new government with its right-wing populist support. The aim of the government is a 25-percent reduction of the entire cultural budget by 2015, with over 40-percent cuts planned for some areas, whereas E-Culture may get off relatively lightly with a smaller reduction.
In the report of the Dutch Cultural Council which advises the Secretary of State for Culture on the future development of cultural funding, the education and participation of children and young adults in art and culture is identified as an especially important criterion for future funding. Equally, the report emphasises the diversity of audiences that is actually reached by cultural events and programmes: "Public approval is often seen largely in quantitative terms. In view of the existing diversity, the Cultural Council is in favour of a qualitative approach. An assessment model is needed which also takes into account the specific audience groups reached by an institution. Institutions capable of reaching an audience which consistently makes little use of the publicly funded cultural programme (this includes young adults and a culturally diverse audience), must be given special support. Such a model can also take into consideration the social significance of an institution; apart from physical visitors and producers, institutions have a platform in the (digital) media, and they participate in public debates and play a role within their local environment." (Advies, p. 27)
Criteria such as these shift, at least in the advice of the Dutch Cultural Council to the Secretary of State for Culture, the basic principles for cultural promotion at a very fundamental level. Issues of artistic quality, experimentation, aesthetic innovation and even international significance are subject to profound revision.
At the same time, the example of E-Culture in the Netherlands shows that in such a discursive environment, sustained arguments can strengthen and even secure in the long term seemingly weaker structures. The title of this essay refers to a song by the American singer Paul Simon who described 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover for those weary of love. Whereas the pressing question for artists and cultural professionals is mainly how they can best follow their own passions, cultural policy makers are confronted with the challenge of having to define what their objectives are and of ascertaining whether these goals can indeed be attained with the chosen instruments.
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Dieter Daniels, "Was war Medienkunst?", in: Was waren die Medien?, edited by Claus Pias, Zurich, Berlin: diaphanes, 2010.
Agency for Cultural Affairs: ICOMAG (International Convention on Manga, Animation, Game and Media Art) 2011: The Locality and Universality of Media Geijutsu: Beyond 'Cool Japan'." Tokyo, 2011
Raad voor Cultuur: Advies Bezuiniging Cultuur 2013 – 2016. Den Haag / Amsterdam, 2011.
In: Aurelia Müller u.a. (eds): Sitemapping. Das Medienkunstprogramm des Bundesamtes für Kultur. Ausstellungskatalog. Shedhalle Zürich, 2011