I thought I would start instead of giving a manifesto what is and what is not media art, but instead to read something. A very short text written in the year 2000 for a French television magazine called Télérama, kind of a TV guide. It was written by Pierre Bourdieu and it's a short text that I want to read since it seems relevant to what we're talking about, and then make some other comments. The title is Grains of Sand *:
"If I say that culture is in danger today, if I say that it is threatened by the rule of money and commerce and by a mercenary spirit that takes many forms - audience ratings, market research, pressure from advertisers, sales figures, the best-seller list - it will be said that I am exaggerating.
If I say that politicians, who sign international agreements consigning cultural works to the common fate of interchangeable commodities subject to the same laws that apply to corn, bananas, or citrus fruit, are contributing (without always knowing it) to the abasement of culture and minds, it will be said that I am exaggerating.
If I say that publishers, film producers, critics, distributors, and heads of TV and radio stations, who rush to submit to the law of commercial circulation, that of the pursuit of best-sellers, media stars, and of the production and glorification of success in the short term and at all costs, but also to the law of the circular exchange of worldly favors and concessions - if I say that all of them are collaborating with the imbecile forces of the market and participating in their triumph, it will be said that I am exaggerating.
If I recall now that the possibility of stopping this infernal machine in its tracks lies with all those who, having some power over cultural, artistic, and literary matters, can, each in their own place and their own fashion, and to however small an extent, throw their grain of sand into the well-oiled machinery of resigned complicities; (...) it will be said perhaps, for once, that I am being desperately optimistic.
- This piece first appeared in the French TV listings magazine Télérama, 4 October 2000.
For me I think even the panel represents a kind of quandary. It's clear that the history of the media arts, however we want to think about them, is a matter of grave and very, very important thinking and it, for me, doesn't have to do specificially with the concept of media art as it has been defined over the last 20 years or 26 years depending on which festival you want to be born at. But in fact to a much larger extent to a re-thinking of the whole concept, the whole project of modern culture, which has been an atmosphere of the medial sense since the beginning, it seems to me that the way our histories have been written, the canons that we've been assmilating whether the literary canons or the scientific canons and the art historical canons are all flawed in a certain way by their lack of confrontation with the idea of a developing sense of medial environments, in which they're evolving and so, for me, it's a much larger question.
The more specific question for us in terms of the media arts has to do with the evolution - let's say since the 1960s - of phases. I'm not making this categorical phases, but a kind of test case, which is a shift from this first phase, which I call the phase of ambiguity, which was the phase of the 60s and maybe into the middle 80s, when electronic arts, computer arts seemed ambiguous and had no real focus, and were just kind of playful. And yet underneath it we know there was some serious thinking being done, and you can start to understand by a series of exhibitions that there's a re-thinking of this period of the 60s, the exhibition at the ZKM now called Buffalo MindFrames which talks about the experimental television experiments from the 60s, of Paul Sharits and Stan Brakhage and Weibel and Vasulka and James Blue and others. That this material finally started to be unearthed for us again and we have to confront the transition that happend in the 60s to 80s from film to video, video to computer and then this kind of second period, if I can say it, a period which I call the proliferation period, let's say it's from the late 80s to the 90s in which there was an explosion, everybody was doing it, everybody was faster at it, we finally and very sadly inherited this really hard name for it - new media, a phrase that I hate more than anything else in the world.
New for me means something that is instanteneous forgetting, the new for me is about erasure, the new is about a relentless present, the new is about no reflection, it's about singularity, it's a slogan of the advertising campaign and the fact that we use it has been damaging for fifteen years. I hope you understand that.
In this second phase, a proliferation of festivals happened, the locations of subcategories, some of them that Olia talks about, these subcategories which have also for me undermined the basic idea that we have a kind of a large-scale set of intentions that are connected to each other. Once you create these subcategories - what did she say - blog art, net art, software art - for me it really undermines our project in a very specific way and makes us even more marginal, more elite, more differentiated, more unwilling to see that our project is actually a comprehensive project.
And now let's say there is this third project, a third phase, which is this phase of ubiquity. It's a period where we now have to start to understand that once the status of the medium reaches into every atmosphere of culture, then our job is even harder than it's ever been. And therefore it's more urgent for us to come to terms of understanding that we are neither autonomous nor assimilated without pardon and we're not just another spin of the wheel, that there's a sense in which the stagings of the media that we work within - and I've really considered very deeply - are slightly different than the fact that everybody has access, everybody has gadgets, everybody has hardware, everybody has cellphones with cameras and the new iPhone, everybody's integrated, because I feel like preferring the unintegrated and I will fight always not to be integrated into that system. It's a niche that I don't really want to live in. So, if we look back into these phases, this kind of history of the 21st century and think about the way that the media - by the way a term that is profoundly complex, but I can't find an alternative - but if we look back into this, we understand that the theories of the media evolved from the culture theory of the 1930s to the consciousness media of the 1950s, and is now integrated into the, what's been called, the creative industries, and this for me is the final incorporation of what happens to media. It's a really dangerous side for me. And one that we are in the position of both understanding in a certain way and in a certain way fighting and I see several layers of complications - complications that no one has much time to talk about.
In his book of several years ago, called 'From Places to Non-Places', the French anthropologist Marc Augé said that we live in a period with three figures of access and these are first the overabundance of events, like we are saturated with the world and events, the other was the notion of the idea of spatial overabundance, and the third, I think a very important one, was in the individualisation of references and by this he meant that we're living in a culture in which everything that we do always seems to be socially shared but is highly individualised, perhaps even I would dare say narcissistic. Therefore you hear these phrases like iPod and YouTube and MySpace and SecondLife, and you realise that these are systems of integration. We know that they are already owned by the large-scale corporations and that falling into the trap of thinking that these are creative spaces is a myth that I think we should work very hard to dispel.
The historical complications, the relationships between the mainstream art world - the gallery world for me is of absolutely no interest whatsoever - but the mainstream art world and its histories, particularly contemporary art history is faced with very serious problems to encounter this serious discourse that's been happening over 20 years, one that we bear responsibility for in terms of our absence from that discourse and they bear responsibility for their unwillingness to think about what we do.
The best example, a very short example, is the publication (coming out in English, I'm sure it will come to Germany) written by the four great (I call them the four horsemen of the apocalypse) Yve-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh, who have written this monstrous canonic tome called 'Art since 1900', an October re-reading of the 20th century and in this large, gigantic book, which will become the standard model for the next generations of people thinking about art history particularly in English and America and any other English-speaking country, they completely avoid media but for the most obvious ones like Nam June Paik and Bill Viola and Gary Hill and blablabla - no mention of experiments in art and technology, no mention of Ars Electronica, no mention of the media arts, the communication arts, satellite arts, even if you want to have sub-categories like blog arts - vacant from these books.
So we are faced with the problem of having to decide on our terms how important it is, (a) to have no illusions about this, and (b) to have no alibi about it, but to force ourselves to start to think as art historians, but by not becoming art historians, but by re-writing on our terms the way art history is being written.