Sunday, November 13

Judith Rodenbeck's Impressions on Banff New Media Art Conference

I’ve just come back from “REFRESH! The First International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology” in Banff. Herewith some brief impressions of the conference. I am an art historian (and ex-performance/video artist, from the Studio for Interrelated Media at Mass Art) with a longstanding but hitherto relatively untapped interest in new media. My own field of expertise is performance of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Fluxus projects, but I also teach on the early part of the 20th century and am currently leading an advanced seminar on what I call “mechanical transcriptions of the real ” that is, following Kittler, those analog copying technologies that have so defined 20th century experience and inflected much of its art. I attended the conference as an observer, trying to learn more about the subject. What follows is merely a report, but it comes filtered through that complex of interests & preoccupations.

The first thing to be said is that this was an enormously ambitious conference: its four days were packed from morning to evening with panels and events the overall distribution of which, in terms of topics and time, I thought was pretty good, given the mission. Sessions ranged from “media histories” to a session on “collaborative practice/networking” to “history of institutions”; there were 3 keynote addresses Edmond Couchot, Sarat Maharaj, and Lucia Santaella; a poster session; an optional hike (Banff is in the stunning Canadian Rockies); a walk-through of the media labs; und so weiter. Meals were had communally in the Banff Centre’s dining room, and at least for me, since I knew not a soul at the conference AND felt like what one snooty panelist called a “clueless newbie,” these became interesting moments of social anxiety and unexpected social pleasure. While things did tend to split out into the old pros and the young nothings, they did get a bit more productively mixed up on occasion. Before I launch into the problems with the conference, the feeling I got from those I spoke with was that it was a mixed success but a success overall. I do think the conference provided a very good starting point for something, and this seemed especially true after the final session.

High points of the conference, in no particular order: * Mario Carpo’s paper on architecture in the age of digital reproducibility, which dealt with the shift from a simply additive to an algorithmic modularity in architecture. This was probably the most professionally delivered paper at the conference, as well as the most intelligently amusing, and what Carpo presented as a paradigmatic slide was fascinating, provocative. I learned something. Philip Thurtle and Claudia Valdes showing footage of Alvin Lucier doing solo for brainwaves. I’ve forgotten what the paper was about, but was thrilled to see the footage and to have the piece presented. Chris Salter on a history of performance with media, beginning with a fantastically forceful evocation of Russian Constructivis plays. I teach this material, but Salter’s presentation was vigorous and made a very strong case for its inclusion in a “new media” history. Christiane Paul on curatorial issues with new media. This was also a very professional (by which I mean good, clear, to the point) presentation and very usefully laid out the difficulties involved, from curators having to rebuild settings to house work to problems of bitrot to audience development. Impressive and useful. Machiko Kusahara on “device art” discussed Japanese aesthetics. This was an art historically thin paper no discussion of Fluxus, very loose mention of Gutai and then Tanaka’s electric dress but not the “painting machines” of her husband but the presentation of a different value-system for Japanese “device art” (gizmos whose “art coefficient” is activated by their use) was pretty convincing as well as very thought-provoking tour of the labs AND, surprisingly, the poster session, which was cluttered and weird but also the one moment in the conference when people really talked to each other’s ideas Tim Druckrey’s screening of apocalyptic Virilio. He gave a very lazy but passionate paper, basically asking why on earth new media would want to be included in an old canon, and noting that a far bigger problem is present in Nicholas Bourriaud’s blythe “relational aesthetics” than in the October cabal’s control of high theory. Michael Naimark’s corporatist but useful analysis of the sustainability of new media institutions. Johannes Goebel’s passionate and pragmatic overview of two such institutions. The final, quasi-impromptu “crit, self-crit” session led by Sara Diamond. This was where most of the interesting meta-issues were put on the table, and it was done in such a way that those in the room I think felt it was really a high point and a great note on which to finish. Left the feeling that while there is work to be done it will be done.

I didn’t go to everything, needless to say, and doubtless there were good things on other panels. I heard that Claus Pias’s paper on cybernetics was excellent, for instance.

That said, the conference overall suffered greatly from what Trebor Scholz and Geert Lovink have dubbed “panelism”: a territorial structure in which moderators also delivered papers within the format of a way over-tight schedule and with virtually no time for questions; a few speakers went beyond their alotted minutes in the first sessions and then panels were policed to an almost draconian degree, making the entire assembly tense. Discussions were notably truncated. In fact, to this art historian it seemed weird that people would gather for a conference on something as shifting and relatively openly defined as “new media” (how many papers in fact began with loose attempts to list the salient features of new media) and then sit and hear something they could have read already for though the organizers had posted quite a number of papers on their official website beforehand, it was clear that most attendees hadn’t read those papers and then not discuss what they had heard.

What surfaced in the tension around (non) discussion was a big mess of anxieties. Topped by the anxiety over having “new media art” categorized as “art” or as “new media,” these inflected many of the panel presentations and discussions, and not in a productive way. Part of the problem, as Andreas Broeckman pointed out in the final crit session, was that the mission of the conference was probably too broadly and vaguely defined. But what I heard over and over again was “traditional art history” can’t deal with new media. The first thing I’d want to know is, what precisely is “traditional art history”? From Simon Penny’s castigation of art history as racist, imperialist, classist, etc., it sounded to me like what was meant was Berensonian connoisseurship; this seemed overwrought, but his excursus was only the most vigorous and politically thought-through of a frequent plaint. Yet while he was quite right to note that cultural studies wasn’t mentioned once at the conference his characterization of art history is way behind the times. Art history and new media share Walter Benjamin and, for better or worse, Rudolf Arnheim; new media people would do well to read Panofsky and Warburg, just as I and at least some of my colleagues read Weiner and Kittler. Art history may not yet be able to deal with new media, but perhaps it is also the case that new media doesn’t know how to deal with art history.

On this score a truly low moment was struck on the first day by Mark Hansen, whose hatchet job on Rosalind Krauss was so lame that even the new media theorists were bugged. Instead of new media bemoaning its lack of recognition by art history and then its savaging of same (“we want to be with you; we you” or “I love you; go away”) it might be more productive to stage a genuine encounter. Leaving aside Andreas Broeckman, who gave a very nice but grossly amputated (ran out of time) presentation on aesthetics and new media, and the truly awful presentation comparing the websites of the Louvre and the Hermitage, the art historians who were at the conference were either working with medieval Islamic art or with the visual culture of science. That is, there were no art historians dealing with contemporary art who were not already part of the inner circle of new media people; yet this is precisely the encounter that needs to be staged. Meanwhile Mark Tribe, not an art historian, gave an extremely art historically lame presentation on appropriation, and while the broader point was, well, okay, his presentation of the historical material was painful and for at least this listener undermined his credibility. (On the other hand, Cornelius Borck, a historian of medicine, gave a terrific presentation historically nuanced, intelligently read, and carefully researched on the optophone of Raoul Hausman and Hausman’s complicated relationship to prosthesis.) From my perspective this suggests a serious problem of disciplinarity: surely just as new media artists/theorists expect a sophisticated treatment from art historians (Simon Penny again: art historians should learn engineering, cognitive science, neuroscience before they discuss new media) so new media artists and theorists should treat the work that comes before both art and media with the historical complexity (without going to Pennyian excess) art history at its best demonstrates.

Other issues that came up: * Problems of storage & retrieval of new media work. From an historical point of view this demonstrates a remarkable degree of self-consciousness on the part of new new media something new, incidentally, in the longer history of media, and interesting as a phenomenon. Huge anxiety about the “art” status of new media, alongside a subthematic of the relation to science and to scientific s of research. Adulatory izing of cognitive science, engineering, and neuroscience (in marked contrast to the dissing of art history). Lack of a fixed definition of new media, with repeated nods to hybridization, bodily engagement, non-hierarchical structure, networking, and so on. Disconnect of the keynote speakers. Couchot had difficulty with English and seemed, while emphasizing hybridity, to be speaking from another time. Sarat Maharaj rambled for nearly 2 hours about Rudolf Arnheim and the Other; I found this talk excruciating, though I later spoke with someone (media artist, go figure) for whom it had been a high point. And Lucia Santaella’s beautifully delivered, rigorously near-hallucinatory and religious but to me quasi- apocalyptic vision of the “semiotic” and “post-human” present/future of the “exo-brain” was a chilling picture of species-death. Ongoing problem of gender and geographic distribution. While non-Western topics cropped up here and there at the conference, the one panel that dealt in any extended way with non-Western paradigms was also the one panel that was almost all female and also the panel that got the most flak in its few minutes of discussion, in part because most of those dealing with non-Western paradigms were Western. This relegation of dealing with the Other to the women is typical. There was also some grumbling that many of the non-Western projects had been tucked into the poster session rather than elevated to panel status. It would have been good to have some representation from Africa, or even a panel on doing new media in less media-rich environments than Euro-Ameri-Nippon. Comical reliance on and then debate about Powerpoint. And then, as one member of the audience pointed out, nearly all of the people at the conference in their ppt-critical right-thinking wisdom had little glowing apples at their desks. No sign of Linux. That’s a sketch, replete with opinion. I’d encourage anyone interested in more specific information about the conference to check the website at, which has some papers up as well as abstracts.

From: Judith Rodenbeck
Date: 5 October 2005 12:22:18 BST
Subject: [iDC] REFRESH! conference, some impressions