On the Contemporaneity of Media Arts

by Inke Arns (published in: Nam June Paik Award 2006, Frankfurt am Main 2006)
Almost ten years ago with Language (property), Spanish media artist Daniel Garcia Andujar, better known under his company name Technologies to the People, developed a work which addressed the increasing privatisation and commodification of language. On a simple HTML page he listed phrases which have been registered as trademarks, and with that, had become the property of their respective owners, for example, “Where do you want to go today?TM” (Microsoft), “A better return on informationTM” (SAP), “Moving at the speed of businessTM” (UPS), “What you never thought possibleTM” (Motorola). By entitling this project “Remember, language is not freeTM” Andujar anticipated the disputes concerning “intellectual property”, which emerged in the following years (visible as early as the second half of the 1990s in the fierce battles for the allocation of domain names on the world wide web).

The makrolab1 of Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan was initially installed at the 1997 documenta X in Kassel, was in operation on the West coast of Australia at the beginning of 2000, in Scotland in the early summer of 2002 and, from June to December 2003, on Campalto Island close to Venice. Makrolab is a self-contained research, work and living unit which, with the help of all kinds of technical devices, charts the “topography of signals “2 of the entire electromagnetic spectrum – as a kind of private ECHELON-system: The laboratory is equipped with transmitting and receiving antennae which pick up different frequencies and are able to record the data streams circulating there (private telephone conversations, satellite-based navigation systems, and military and commercial communication). Conceived as a ten-year research project, makrolab is set up in areas as remote as possible, away from large cities or exhibitions, and from 2007 onward is intended to be installed permanently in the Antarctic.

At the beginning of June 2006 two Bulgarian truckers drove a 47 strong audience in a converted lorry through a thick net of motorway service stations, loading bays, container ports and warehouses in the German Ruhr area. “Cargo Sofia is a model of Europe, of a cell of globalisation, in which the audience become voyeurs, observing the most everyday perspective of long-distance haulage. […] The audience travel through the North Rhine-Westphalian landscape of production and consumption on a converted lorry whose side has been covered with transparent glazing. […] Complementing these ready-made stage sets of transit are South-East European biographies from the driver’s cab, dialogues with the Essen traffic police and Duisburg container hauliers, music from the Balkans and engine groves.” 1 The project by Stefan Kaegi, member of the Swiss-German performance group Rimini Protokoll, is a mixture of theatre, performance and multimedia show. In this way, between staged reality and everyday fiction it allows a new look at the (un)usual day-to-day life of globalisation. As a carefully observant cell, Cargo Sofia negotiates the landscape of globalisation, which is being changed by transnational goods traffic. Video projections in the interior of the lorry overlay reality, creating and referring to an “augmented space”. 2 In this space the GPS (global positioning system) equipped lorry is present from the outset, visible on the screens of the haulier’s headquarters.

British artist Heath Bunting takes an interest in the establishment of communication and the creation of social contexts and interconnection of virtual and physical space. In the 1980s, Bunting intervened psycho-geographically in urban spaces by means of graffiti, and was active in the context of Fax and Mail Art and London pirate radio stations; in the 1990s he became one the of most prominent exponents of so-called “net.art”, an informal group of predominantly European net artists who adopted a critical attitude to Internet hype when it emerged in the middle of the 1990s. Between 1994 and 1997 Bunting mostly used the Internet to develop his artistic projects. At that time he was one of the most high-profile net artists and also one of the first to withdraw again from net art. Since then he has been exploring routes for the unregulated crossing of European national borders. The Internet project BorderXing Guide (2001), commissioned by the Tate Modern, documents the illegal border crossings within and outside Europe which Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon embarked upon in the last years as a self-experiment.

BorderXing Guide sees itself as a guide to crossing borders without papers. Being British, Bunting and Brandon do have EU passports, but chose to follow those paths through woods, rivers, mountains and tunnels that refugees and those not in the possession of papers are forced to follow in order to get from one country to another. The information on the individual routes, provided by Bunting and Brandon on their website in the form of photographs, detailed notes, maps and laconic comments, is not available to every Internet user. In order to gain access to the project one must physically travel to one of the “social servers” (places with public Internet access and static IP-addresses1) which Bunting views as trustworthy. On the one hand BorderXing Guide is concerned with embedding virtuality in a specific social context, on the other hand the project refers to the paradox connection between an ever improving interconnectedness within the Western world (money, goods, information) and the simultaneous sealing-off against unwanted immigrants. With its principle of “reverse authentication” BorderXing also alludes to the everyday experiences of illegal border crossers.

Within the framework of the 2005 exhibition Verstreute Momente der Konzentration. Urbane und digitale Räume (Dispersed Moments of Concentration. Urban and Digital Spaces) French artist Renaud Auguste-Dormeuil presented two entirely unmedial works in the Dortmund PHOENIX hall. GPS (2001) addresses the ambivalence of localisation and control in the age of satellite navigation. At first, the mural painting in the colours yellow, pink and green appears to be mere decoration yet, upon closer inspection, it turns out to be a visualisation of the way GPS works. GPS makes it possible to locate people or places equipped with an appropriate receiver anywhere in the world, with an accuracy of a few metres. Code International Sol/Air No.14 (1999), realized as a large mobile flowerbed, communicates a secret message (“Need Weapons and Ammunition”) to helicopters and aircraft flying by. This is an element of the international code for surface to air communication, which serves the communication between aircraft and military or civilians on the ground. The work refers to the growing importance of vertical vectors in urban networks.

All these examples show that the area covered by Media Art today has widened. It now makes use of a whole range of media which, until a few years ago, would not have been considered worth a mention in the context of Media Art. The media and technologies used in Language (property) and makrolab make them clearly recognisable as exponents of Media or Net Art. Like makrolab, Bunting’s and Brandon’s hybrid project BorderXing Guide interweaves real and virtual space and anticipates the activities of this part of the irrational. From 2000 onwards these increasingly shift to the (sub)urban public space and address the physical surmounting of fences and borders (Tour d’Fence, Tunneling workshop, Public Sculpture Climbing). Cargo Sofia, as a “mobile theatre space”, allows us to experience these increasingly intermingled virtual (medial) and real spaces of globalisation as tangible truck routes. In the aforementioned example it is a mural painting which illustrates the workings of the GPS system and a mobile flowerbed, communicating its messages to the skies.

But why are wall paintings, digital prints on canvas, journeys by lorry or climbing trips Media Art? Or rather: why can they be called Media Art, as the Hartware MedienKunstVerein (Hartware Media Arts Association) has been doing programmatically in its exhibitions since 2005? My theory is that what back in the 1990s was collectively labelled Media Art is gradually emancipating itself from this conceptual restriction. To be more precise: Media Art is emancipating itself more and more from the use of new media/technologies – a paradox development. At the same time it deliberates, with great matter-of-factness and great ease, how the world surrounding us, which is increasingly based on these technologies, is changed by them. This development is probably due to the nowadays routine use of these media/technologies in our everyday lives. Internet, telecommunication, video, cameras, the convergence of all these media into one, namely the all-purpose machine computer, all this has become progressively more normal in the last five to seven years. So normal (in fact), that the Media Art courses, newly founded ten to fifteen years ago, have trouble finding new students: On the one hand it becomes harder and harder to find suitable applicants (namely, ones who do not confuse Media Art with commercial applications or the advertising industry), on the other hand, students define the territory of Media Art, contrary to their syllabus, according to their own rules, which is to say they are increasingly uninhibited in their choice of media.

I would therefore like to propose the following theory: What defines Media Art today is not its range of media, but rather its specific form of contemporaneity, its content-related examination of our present, which is to a high degree typified by media. It deals with what Friedrich Kittler described exactly 20 years ago in the succinct phrase “the media determine our situation” 1. Which media are used becomes progressively more irrelevant. In other words: Media Art is no longer the formal category or formal genre it was considered to be, above all in the 1990s (e.g. at the Karlsruhe ZKM, the ars electronica or various courses of study in Media Art). Rather it defines itself through an intensive content-related examination of the world surrounding us, one increasingly medialised and based upon new technologies. At the same time this examination does not necessary entail the use of the new technologies, but rather makes use of (almost) all media and technologies. It frees itself from the compulsion to utilize the latest technology, discards the conceptual support afforded by the newness of the medium and faces the challenge of art. It is (finally) growing up.

In this context it also becomes very clear that Media Art is no engineering competition for the development of technologies. When artists have mastered those media and technologies they work with and make use of (e.g. in Software Art they do the programming themselves) that does not automatically mean that they also have to get involved in the development of these technologies, the definition of their standards and formats as, for example, Friedrich Kittler demanded time and time again almost apodictically. By doing so Kittler disregards the basic potential of art. The specific form of the contemporaneity of Media Art is not its technical expertise in the narrow sense of the word. Rather are the artists and authors mentioned above inventors in a broad sense, which is to say, the very sense of their specific contemporaneity, the conceptual examinations expressed within it and, by all means, also in their participation and involvement in a world in which the use of media and technology is becoming increasingly normal and which, as a consequence, is changing radically.

This change, however, is not happening right before our eyes. Even more: Since this increasing medial composedness in the form of radio waves, computer interfaces and everyday applications remains predominantly transparent or invisible and thus goes unnoticed, many of these artistic projects set to work on making these transparencies visible or discernible. The Russian formalists called such a procedure “faktura”. Such a faktura, in the era of spaces influenced by information and signals which elude sensory perception (“augmented space”) might be the only possibility for translating the signals of one system into signals that can be interpreted by another. Not the aspect of functionality is being emphasised (i.e. Media Art is not in competition with engineering), but obstacles for the eye and the other human senses are being created. This movement leads from one stage of transparency to a perceptible visibility and the sensory experience of intrinsically unintelligible spaces of data. 1

Now one could ask: Why this adherence to a nowadays obviously redundant term such as Media Art? The answer is simple and has not changed in the more than ten years during which I have been working in the field of Media Art: because this field is still not an established part of contemporary fine arts. (The professorial chair at the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie, held by Nam June Paik, after whom this award is named, and a few other professorships held by media artists, are the exceptions which confirm this rule.)

To all intents and purposes “the art formerly known as (new) media art“ comprises everything that in content and concept deals with the world’s increasing medial composedness. This exploration results in a kind of contemporaneity, which is to say, a taking part in and an inquisitive exploration of the present, which in this form cannot commonly be found in contemporary graphic art (and there, is still considered too worldly).

Maybe Media Art today is less media than concept art: Here something is taking place which, polemically speaking, at some academies has been driven from the terrain of the once more current manner of painting, obsessed with gut feeling and emotions: the initial formulation of a concept, followed by the freedom to chose a medium – from mural painting to mobile research laboratory.

1 makrolab http://makrolab.ljudmila.org
2 Daniels, Dieter, in: cITy. Internationaler Medienkunstpreis 2000 (cITy. International Media Art Award 2000), SWF Baden Baden, Karlsruhe 2000, p. 94-97, here: p. 95.
3 Cf. Website PACT Zollverein, www.pact-zollverein.de, 27 July 2006.
4 Since the beginning of 2005 the Hartware MedienKunstVerein (the Hartware Media Art Association) has occupied itself intensively with the field described by the Russian media theorist Lev Manovich as “augmented space”. “Augmented Space” describes the real space which surrounds us, which is increasingly enriched and permeated by information or is criss-crossed by immaterial information streams. See Verstreute Momente der Konzentration. Urbane und digitale Räume (Dispersed Moments opf Concentration. Urban and digital landscapes), published by Hartware MedienKunstVerein / Inke Arns, Frankfurt am Main 2005.
5 In principle all static IP-addresses from third-world countries such as Angola, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, and Vietnam are allowed to access the site.
In addition some “trustworthy“ servers from inside and outside the EU are granted admission such as UBERMORGEN.COM (Vienna), Sarai (New Delhi) and mama (Zagreb). The list of social serves can be found on http://irational.org/cgi-bin/border/clients/list.pl.
6 Friedrich Kittler, Grammophon, Film, Typewriter (Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter), Berlin 1986, p. 5
7 Cf. Inke Arns: Faktur und Interface: Chlebnikov, Tesla und der himmlische Datenverkehr in Marko Peljhans makrolab (1997-2007), in: Kwastek, Katja (Ed.): “Ohne Schnur….” Kunst und drahtlose Kommunikation. Kommunikationskunst im Spannungsfeld von Kunst, Technologie und Gesellschaft, Revolver: Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 62-79
Inke Arns: Facture and Interface: Chlebnikov, Tesla and the celestial data traffic in Marko Peljhans makrolab (1997-2007), in: Kwastek, Katja (Ed.): “Cordless….” Art and wireless communication. Communication Art in the field of tension between Art, Technology and Society, Revolver: Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 62-79

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