Sites of Making Media Art

Concept, Experiment, and Production: The Sites of Making Media Art

Andreas Broeckmann

Art gets produced in many different places. Even the classical artist studio exists in several guises: as a private room, as a rented studio in a building shared by other artists, or as a space used temporarily in the context of a residency. While the atmosphere in such places is often characterized by loneliness and quietness, there are other situations in shared studios, workshops, offices, or co-working spaces, in which artists work on their projects either alone or collectively.

The conditions offered by the space and its equipment are often closely related to the types of artistic work which can best unfold in these places. Painting needs spaces whose size correlates with the formats of the canvases, as well as good lighting, whereas sculptors who work in stone or metal require robust flooring and powerful transportation devices. Dance and theater need suitable floors and lighting, while sound artists and musicians mostly prefer acoustic isolation and good sound equipment. Media art also requires technical materials and tools suitable for the respective projects at hand. Usually artists don’t find ideal conditions, and only few of them command the means necessary for creating such an ideal situation. Instead, most artists work with the given possibilities, cherish occasional improvements, and will not allow limitations and particularities to restrict them, but take these as sources of inspiration.

Of course, the success of such sites of art production is not only, and not in every phase of artistic practice, determined by the spatial and technical conditions. More than anything, artists need time for developing and trying out their ideas before going into the realization of works and projects. Similarly important is money that serves to finance these developments and their material prerequisites. But there is also a need for access to different forms of knowledge that feeds into the artistic work. This can be, for instance, historical, technical, scientific, or philosophical knowledge, which may function as a source of inspiration or as the basis of specific solutions. Artistic research is aimed at strategically broadening and deepening knowledge that is not merely ancillary to an individual project, but that constitutes an integral part of the artistic practice itself.

Equally important is a social environment in which artists can develop their ideas and in which they find practical support both for their artistic work and for their everyday lives. Often artistic practice implies taking risks and moving in new or uncharted terrain. The concomitant loneliness is an everyday experience for many artists, some of whom are happy about it, while others accept it as a necessity, and yet others see it as a curse. The possibility of an exchange with artist colleagues, curators, and experts from different fields is therefore as significant as a regular dialogue with the audience that can not only be presented with the finished results in the vital presentations (exhibitions, performances, etc.), but also involved in the development of works in progress.

Artists who worked with digital media in the 1990s were, when compared to the overall art production, a great exception and were looked upon skeptically by the rest of the art scene. During this time, a number of specialized media labs evolved that were more or less focused on artistic production, which were however aimed at supporting the development of media art projects. Institutes like the Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe (ZKM), the Futurelab of the Ars Electronica Center in Linz or the V2_Lab in Rotterdam, all founded around 1997, have produced many media art works ever since. While some such institutions have either reduced their activities in this field or have closed down altogether—the Tokyo-based Canon Art Lab produced works with international artists only in the period from 1990 to 2000, and the Berlin media art lab TESLA existed only from 2005 to 2007—new production sites for media art are also cropping up, like the relatively recent Yamaguchi Center for Art and Media (YCAM), Hexagram in Montréal, or EMPAC at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Such places generally offer powerful and high-end technical equipment as well as the personnel who are specialized in the realization of the respective productions. Of course, such good equipment is no guarantee for successful projects, let alone for good art. The expectations and aesthetic judgments also change regarding what constitutes art and what it should provide. The techno-euphoria of the 1990s, which accompanied the increasing availability of digital technologies and the introduction of the Internet as a new cultural technique, brought with it a widespread fascination with large-scale media art installations through which many people had their first experiences of interactivity and the exploration of virtual, digitally generated “worlds.” In the meantime, digital technologies, global networks, mobile communication, and moving around in virtual computer game environments have become everyday phenomena, topics to which entire avant-garde conferences and exhibitions were dedicated in the 1990s.

In the course of these transformations, the themes addressed by many media artists have also changed. The online social networks, a growing interest in technically relayed arts on the part of the art market, and the increasing attention to ecological issues all contribute to shifts in the expectations toward the way in which media art relates to technology, to spaces, and to different modes of presentations. Small and relatively independent artist-run media labs like Time’s Up in Linz, FOAM in Brussels, Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven, Kitchen Budapest, or the Norwegian labs united in the PNEK production network carefully observe the changing role of media and new technologies in society and react, where this appears appropriate, not only with new artistic approaches, but also with flexible adaptations of their very organizational structures. For the general availability of powerful technical equipment has also changed dramatically. High-bandwidth Internet connections are now easily available and cost only a fraction of the prices that were demanded fifteen years ago, and the same applies to the hardware and software for the production and editing of digital video or electronic music which in many cases do not have to be bought at high prices but come pre-installed even in consumer PCs.

The meaning of the notion of media art has also shifted alongside the transformation of digital culture into a normal aspect of everyday culture. Even ten years ago, the term marked a clear distinction from other forms of contemporary art by pointing to the fact that this art was conceptually and materially connected to the new media technologies. Since then, the term has become less explicit. On the one hand, the art world is more accepting toward technically oriented art forms which increasingly get presented beyond the “ghettos” of media art festivals. On the other hand, artists who deal with the social meaning of new technologies are today less inclined to foreground technical aspects in their works. Institutions like Hartware Media Art Association in Dortmund (HMKV), the Edith Russ Site for Media Art in Oldenburg or plug-in (now the House of the Electronic Arts) in Basel have been reflecting this shift in their exhibition and residency programmes for years.

In the same period, many art schools and universities have developed courses and training programmes that integrate the creative work with digital media as a regular aspect of contemporary artistic practice. Their art students are mostly digital natives for whom computer, Internet, and mobile phone are completely normal, and for whom it is therefore also no longer a fateful ideological decision to work on a specific project with a computer, or not. For example, the composition of the first year of the new Lower Saxony artist residencies at the Braunschweig University of Art (HBK), PROJECTS, is an indication of how media art and contemporary art practice increasingly merge.
However, it is nevertheless of great importance that there are specialized production labs and workshops where know-how regarding the aesthetics, technologies, and a critical understanding of the social significance of digital media can accumulate. Art requires concentrated and thematically focused platforms for discourse and presentation where edgy and advanced explorations can take place. The need for such an advanced practice has recently been highlighted by a number of artistic projects dealing with, for instance, copyright, privacy, or the role of the mass media.

The evolvement of new artistic forms is not only supported by independent art spaces and media labs, but also by scientific institutions and universities. Some years ago, for instance, the University of Western Australia in Perth adopted the SymbioticA Lab, which offers artists the opportunity to do research in an academic bio-technology laboratory. The projects undertaken there are of an explicit artistic nature and explore the aesthetic, ethical, and technical aspects of bio-technology research. The Swiss Artists-in-Labs Programme arranges residencies for artists in different scientific research institutions, whereas the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) has institutionalized encounters between scientists and artists in its Art-Science Lab. In its residency programme, the Leuphana Arts Program of Leuphana University Lüneburg develops this dialogue between artists and researchers not only in the natural sciences, but also through projects in areas such as media studies and sustainability studies.

Artistic practice in general is active in the most diverse thematic fields and media and is impossible to grasp in its entirety. Yet we can observe how the focus of attention on contemporary art shifts in analogy to the currencies of socio-political themes, technical developments, and political fashions in culture and science, highlighting media competency or interdisciplinarity at one time, and the creative industries and arts education at another. Many related support programmes for artistic practice are established as experiments, making entire institutions dependent on the emergence and the withering of such fashions. It is thus all the more important that there also be art and culture institutions that can observe their social environment in a more long-term perspective and that can evolve in dialogue with that environment. They should, however, not be forced to reform and reinvent themselves regularly, for institutions are both machines of transformation and machines of consolidation. It is this dynamic of augmentation, acceleration, and deceleration that allows them to offer to an innovative contemporary art practice both a constructive framework and productive zones of friction.

In: Sabine Himmelsbach (ed): Produced @. 10 Jahre Stipendium für Medienkunst am Edith-Russ-Haus für Medienkunst, Oldenburg. Frankfurt/M.: Revolver, 2011

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