Book for the Unstable Media – Introduction
Introductory essay for "Book for the Unstable Media," published by V2_ in 1992.
To bring out a book centered around media art in the year 1992 seems self-evident, since over the last 20 years our living and working environment has slowly filled up with communication media such as fax, video and computer, so that they have become part of our everyday life and consequently, we suppose, part of contemporary art as well. This kind of machinery, which is characterized by the duplication and quick transportation of data such as image and sound, all this over long distances and within a very short space of time, is the representation of a tremendously changed society, which, since the industrial revolution and particularly since the informatics revolution, has become more and more dynamic. However, the issue is not as self-evident as it seems, because, considering the developments within the art circuit, it is remarkable that precisely media art is so poorly represented and that it receives so little attention from critics, curators and artists as well. There is no more than a minimum of literature to be found in this field (particularly in the Dutch language); it actually boils down to a single journal and a few occasional catalogues and books. Outside The Netherlands the situation is not much better.
We can ask ourselves the question of why it is precisely art that is trying to avoid the influence and changes manifesting within our society. We can also wonder why precisely art is tenaciously trying to hold on to concepts, values and standards which date back to before the industrial revolution and were developed in a society based on a static image of the world, a society which by nature denies the essence of media art, because this kind of art is dynamic, immaterial and non-absolute, in contrast to the traditional forms of art, such as painting, graphic art and sculpture. Artist/philosopher Peter Weibel has written about this in his essay Transformationen der Techno-Ästhetik (Digitaler Schein, Suhrkamp, 1991).
He points out that the aesthetics of the static is being applied to the art of dynamics, in his opinion a fundamental error, because classic aesthetics concerns absolute concepts and an art representing these absolute concepts. It is of little use if, due to the advancing development and dynamization of society and technology, art itself begins to move and becomes an art of the time, as we see happening with media art. An art with moving images (image sequences), which is dynamic, immaterial and a product of its time. According to Weibel, the transformation from classic art to electronic art brings the classic aesthetics into discussion. The proposition that art is placing itself outside topical developments (we are not referring to any nine days'' wonder, but to new visions) and is running the risk of referring only to its own standards and values, formulated in a past era, has been the reason for the foundation of V2_. V2_, founded in 1981 by a group of artists, is an organization which pursues the presentation, production and distribution of media art.
In 1987 V2_ published its MANIFESTO FOR THE UNSTABLE MEDIA, in which it made a few statements on its relationship with media art in particular and traditional art in general. Form and content were deliberately paradoxical and pointed out the opposition between media art (unstable art) and traditional art. In this manifesto, we stated for example: "Unstable media are characterized by dynamic motion and changeability, this in contrast to the world of art which reaches us through the publicity media. This has come to a standstill and has become a budget for collectors, officials, historians and critics." The proposition that traditional art has come to a deadlock because it cannot cope adequately with the problems of our time, and that media art takes over from there, is a bold one, but one which makes sense. Indeed, art which holds on to, and is based on, a static world vision, in which the idea of the absolute determines the conditions as to how we perceive and interpret the world, will gradually get out of step with a society such as ours, which has already changed into a dynamic, non-static society, where sign, language and tools are developing rapidly and communication is already largely determined by these new tools (such as, for example, telephone, television, fax and computer). Thus, the relationship work-of-art/artist/observer is clearly different in interactive media art (works in which the public co-determines the result) from that in traditional art. In the former case, the work is realized under the influence of the observer as well, whereas in the latter case the work is exclusively determined by the artist, who is supposed to have a certain talent for it. This already indicates that the interactive work has, in fact, no stable, material form, but changes continually, so that it is really a dynamic, unstable work in which the relationship between the components (image and sound) is shifting continuously due to the influence of the observer. As a result, interactive art can never be Art according to traditional opinion, for such a view prescribes that Art must be 'absolute' and unique and elucidate the 'truth' and can therefore never be allowed to depend on such changeable elements as observers.
Four years after the publication of the 'manifesto for the unstable media', the situation around media art is slightly better, and the discussion on these media and the relationship between media art and the official art circuit is beginning to take shape, thanks to the growing range of international publications on this theme. In the hope that this book will have a stimulating effect on this discussion, we have included articles by such renowned media philosophers as Paul Virilio and Peter Weibel.
Publications in the field of media art are especially important because they query the position of these media within our society and in particular within art. The position of media art in respect of the museum as an institution is one question which should not be neglected in such publications. Indeed, the significance of media art and its impact on the kind of art presented by museums is not acknowledged by the museums, so that part of media art threatens to be denied and ignored, which really boils down to a falsification of history by the museum world. This negligence is not committed unawares, but is based on clearly defined principles which, in turn, originate from traditional visions on art.
Apart from the aesthetic aspect which comes to the fore in media art, in relation to traditional art, there is also the social and political significance of the technologies involved, because as it is, art is inextricably bound up with such aspects. The new media, often developed within the military industrial complex and in wartime, have flooded our society within a very short time, without much attention being paid to the effects of these media on, for example, the social structures of society. The introduction of television, for instance, which seems to neutralize time and space and which puts us in direct contact with virtually every other place on earth, has drastically changed our relation to the world around us; television has become more of a reality than our everyday surroundings. This reality has begun to replace personal opinion by public opinion brought to us by the mass media. The manipulation of images and sounds during so-called 'live' broadcasts is indicative of how twisted this new reality can be. The question of what this reality is, and implies, forced itself clearly upon us while we followed the events of the Gulf War 'live' on TV. There was manipulation of image and sound by all parties concerned, while the suggestion was created that the viewer was directly involved in the war proceedings, without censorship, because everything was broadcasted 'real time'; the camera, as it were, directly connected with the viewer like an extension of the eye.
Every television viewer fought in this war like a soldier in front of his screen, without being physically involved in the war action and without making victims directly indeed, these were kept out of sight during this 'clean' TV war - or becoming a victim. During and immediately after this war, Jean Baudrillard wrote an article which in part appeared in the French newspaper Liberation' under the title 'La Guerre du Golfe n'a pas eu lieu' ('The Gulf War never happened', Paris, 29 March 1991).
'The virtual does not only control the media, but it has also affected the real. The Gulf War was conducted electronically. The personal enemy has disappeared. For those involved, the battlefield exists only on their radar screens and through the lenses of their binoculars. The war events themselves have landed in the dark', according to Jean Baudrillard in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel (6/91).
Along these lines there are more queries to be raised, on the control of the mass media, the massive power of destruction developed by the advance of technology, the inaccessibility of technology for other than Western countries, and so on, all of these worthwhile issues which are, indeed, entered into by some of the articles in this book.
As already mentioned, presentation centers have been set up in the course of time, (often) by artists, to fill the gap consciously left by the museums, and to complement their work. By now, these centers have gathered considerable momentum within the Dutch art climate. V2_, as one of these centers, has devoted the past few years to setting up an organization to promote media art or 'unstable' art. Thanks to the support of the Ministry of Welfare, Health and Cultural Affairs and the local authorities of 's-Hertogenbosch and particularly to the many artists who have contributed their often unrewarded efforts, there is now scope for the distribution and publication of information carriers such as books, journals, compact discs, audio cassettes, etc., to provide the necessary background information in the field of media art. Since 1990 there has also been a workshop where artists can make use of the necessary equipment and where they can develop individual hard- and software in cooperation with technicians.
The attention for and the presentation of media art will definitely grow over the next few years but will most certainly not take place in the museums and galleries, but in independent established organizations.