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by Art Fag City on May 25, 2006 Events

Based on a lecture I recently gave at Yale, I wrote the article Discourse Is a Weapon for NYFA Current. The piece can be read on their site, but I have also reblogged the entire piece here, providing a slightly different layout of visuals and some additional links.

Discourse is a Weapon: A Legacy Continues

Paddy Johnson

The history of most artistic disciplines is full of figures that fulfilled several roles at once, often out of necessity. When mediums or concepts are new and inaccessible to the writers, curators, and producers who can help solidify and critically frame a discipline, it's often left to the artist to elucidate the new thing. Here, Paddy Johnson surveys various New Media artists who, faced with chronic lack of institutional recognition, have proactively shaped the discourse around their medium through writing and curatorial work.

The idea that artists are so entrenched in the world of visuals that they can't articulate the meaning of their own work is an enduring stereotype, despite past and present evidence to the contrary. Historically, artists have been key figures in shaping the discourse surrounding their work, particularly during the initiation stages of emerging mediums. This has been the case several times over the last 50 years, with examples coming from early American video artists such as Paik, Rosler, and Viola, as well as French New Wave filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, and Charbrol who wrote for Cashiers du Cinema. Some of the best known models of artists elevating the discourse on their own medium come from the field of photography; Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and John Szarkowski spent a life time curating and writing in the struggle to gain professional acceptance for the medium before exhibition venues became widely available.

Today, New Media artists are the most fitting model of an artistic community eager to speak for themselves, largely because online technology enables proactive and institutionally unaffiliated publishing and curatorial opportunities. In the increasingly diffuse art world, many artists now battle feelings of critical isolation; artist communities embracing new blogging technology, however, have assurance that their work belongs within an active feedback loop. Some of the most prominent artists in the field have been curating for as long as they have been making work, and most are committed to providing written content about the medium in one form or another.

One such example is David Rokeby, whose art and writing specifically addresses how the use of technologies affect our perception. A Very Nervous System, his most well-known work to date, is an interactive installation where an individual's movement is observed by a computer that responds directly to those actions in the language of improvisational music, [click here and scroll down to view the video of the artist in A Very Nervous System]. The interaction itself is meant to make the user aware of the interface, but it also demonstrates how systems can stimulate acuity. In several essays that followed the making of this piece, Rokeby describes these effects and their broader implications, demonstrating the social responsibility that characterizes several individuals developing New Media work to make contributions that ensure the public is given the opportunity to understand the full meaning of their use. Rokeby does this not only by writing but also in the form of workshops, which he has given throughout the course of his career and continues to provide.

In addition to more traditional forms of communication such as these, New Media artists have exhibited a penchant for blogging, which often encompasses both writing and curating (though artists of all types—Deborah Fisher, LeisureArts, and Speaking of Ashes, notably—are catching on). An excellent illustration of the communicative and promotional power of artists' websites comes from artist and entrepreneur Jonah Peretti, who has established a reputation for his remarkable ability to network large audiences through the internet. Peretti is a partner in the highly successful weblog start-up The Huffington Post, which hosts an exhaustive list of related links and reaches over two million monthly. The artist is also the brainchild behind “contagious media,” a concept that, in the words of Peretti, “illustrates the practical application of concepts like emergence, six degrees of separation, and tipping points.” In collaboration with the members of the Eyebeam research group, Peretti recently launched the Contagious Media Showdown website through Eyebeam, a contest to see who could create the most viral website. The showdown demonstrates two important concepts: one, that the internet has a natural tendency to propagate ideas, and two, that propagation of these ideas is self-selective.

A testament to the effectiveness of the written and curatorial efforts of these artists is the recent acceptance of New Media work by galleries and museums. Caitlin Jones' recent article in NYFA Current discusses this specifically, citing a wide range of recent shows in New York featuring artists who initially gained notoriety through their online work. The trend has continued recently, represented by the Marisa Olson-curated The GIF Show at Rx Gallery, and Michael Bell-Smith's Focused Forward at Foxy Production. It's reasonable to assume that these artists' ability to articulate the issues driving their work fueled their success in having it shown and received well. The idea that contemporary art criticism is mired in a time of crisis is often stated, and while it would be simplistic to attribute the lack of artist participation in the field as the source of the problem, it has certainly been a contributing factor.

Just as the internet has opened a pathway for the artists who use it to move into galleries, it has created new publishing opportunities, giving space to new voices. Over the last two years—and especially over the last four months—there has been an explosion of online artist-run e-zines and blogs featuring artist reviews, images, and various curatorial endeavors. Given that art responds to the surroundings in which it's created, and that many struggle with the fact that technology has advanced at a level disproportionate to the operative knowledge most have of it, the efforts that are currently being made by New Media artists lay the groundwork for broader acceptance and understanding of this work within the art world.

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