British New Media Art 1994-2004

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference at Tate Britain to launch the book New Media Art: Practise and Context in the UK 1994-2004. Steve Dietz gave a very good introductory speech, with a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the ‘YNMBAs’, the Young New Media British Artists who had developed under the diverse support from funding and commissioning agencies like Film & Video Umbrella, FACT and Locus +. Using Lev Manovich’s assertion that we live in a keyword-driven database culture, he regrouped the work produced over the last decade in a number of arbitary thematic or formal categories, pointing out in passing how diverse and international a group the putative ‘YNMBAs’ actually were. Having mapped out many possible narratives, Dietz asked why there was so little discourse around New Media Art. There are many mailing lists like Rhizome that keep the global digital media community active and connected, and magazines like MUTE that place digital media within a wider political and cultural milieu, but, for Dietz, there is no debate about the artworks themselves to compare with that of mainstream contemporary art. By casually inventing a handful of taxonomies, Dietz demonstrated how few critical theories there are around the aesthetic qualities of new media art, and how few arguments there are about the ones – like Manovich’s The Language of New Media – that already exist.

Unfortunately, the rest of the conference failed to take this challenge, and felt like a series of unconnected panels alternating between lectures and presentations of artists work. Most disappointing was the session with Charlie Gere and Geoffrey Batchen. I’m a huge admirer of Batchen’s writing on vernacular photography, and had hoped that he would have taken the opportunity to expand this to digital media. Instead, he presented a revisioning of Lev Manovich’s description of the historical relationships between film and computers, extending back from Manovich’s citation of Konrad Zuse’s early use of film as memory storage, to the use of lace – created on the programmable Jaquard loom – as a referent for Fox-Talbot’s early photograms. This was fascinating, and would have been an excellent stand-alone lecture, but was far too historical to meet the challenge that Steve Dietz had set in the morning. Charlie Gere’s response was similar, tracing the history of British computer art to the creation of the technical and trade craft colleges in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Both talks felt tangentially linked to the main themes, as if the speakers had been invited to talk, but not given a strong enough brief, leaving them to present some current research of interest to them rather than really engaging with the conference aims. There was a brief Q&A after the Batchen/Gere session, when Batchen rose to a question about the potential political impact of new media art and called for artists to be far more engaged in contemporary political issues, saying that no other contemporary art form had as much potential for political debate. This was the kind of debate that I expected from the whole day, so it was frustrating to see it only twice – in Dietz’s opening speech, and in a 10 minute Q&A halfway through the day.

So – an opportunity missed, but it inspired me to try and write more about digital art. I owe Marisa Olsen an essay on vernacular culture and digital art, partly based on Batchen’s essays, so I’ll endeavour to finish that now and publish it here (I think i’m about six months past my deadline for Marisa, so she’s no doubt given up on ever seeing the text). I’ve also thought more about turning TEST into a location for commissioned texts on digital art, perhaps inviting Steve and others to write or respond to specific works. When I was an art student, I used to devour copies of October magazine, and the critical writing of Rosalind Krauss, Martin Jay and Douglas Crimp hugely influenced my views on modern art. October used to occassionally hold ’round table’ discussions on particular artists or artworks, and maybe that would be a good approach to kickstart the kind of debates Steve Dietz is calling for. In the meantime, I took a number of medium-format black and white portraits at the event, capturing a good cross-section of the UK ‘new media scene’ of the last 10 years, including Craighed & Thomson, Fiona Raby, Pauline Van Mourik Broekman, Peter Ride, Susan Collins and Beryl Graham. I’ll post them up in groups of threes over the next few days.

2 comments

  1. Tim Wright

    This is v interesting, Matt. I’m currently associated with trAce (http://www.trace.ntu.ac.uk) and on its site and in the associated forums there are a number of discussions and articles about some the issues you raise. There is also the discussion of specific texts and works that Dietz says doesn’t happen enough (and he’s right!).

    Take a peek when you have a mo. There is also the Incubation conference in July in Nottingham. You should sign up and come and shake things up a bit with your views. It’d be great to see you.

    Congrats on fatherhood BTW. My eldest turned 12 yesterday and I got all weepy thinking about him as a baby/toddler. You are in for lots of fun!🙂

    t x

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