A Film Viewing List for Contemporary Artists

The following is a collection of what I consider to be required viewing for the contemporary artist. These films are not just about art, but many are documentaries that reflect some important aspect of modern society As the first role of the artist is to relate to society the films here are intended as an enjoyable trip to reveal the complexity, depth, and paradox of life in the 20th century.

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop
A fresh look at the transition from graffiti to street art, this documentary by internationally unknown artist Banksy reveals work by the filmmaker Thierry Guetta. It shows how street art established itself as an outcome of graffiti, and was then temporarily imploded by Mr. Brainwash.

2. Collapse
Directed by Chris Smith, this dark documentary about Michael Ruppert looks at the oil crisis and global economic collapse in a new way. Not widely seen, it has been interpreted as a character study of Ruppert’s social theories, but in some ways represents a very broad, encompassing – compassionate? – look at human life.

3. Stranger than Fiction
A 2006 comedy-drama written by Zach Helm (starting Will Farrell, directed by Marc Forster), this film is a pleasurable example of self-reference in writing and post-modern filmmaking. Never fun for the writers, we can take comfort in the fact that writers are out there sweating, so that we can find our humanity once in a while.

4. Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Of course, you should have already seen Woody Allen’s magnum opus Annie Hall (1987). Not highly acclaimed, I recommend Curse of the Jade Scorpion instead for other reasons. Its nice to see Woody Allen fail by independent means other than his own. This is an enjoyable film, and in some ways gets at the difficulties of romance despite itself.

5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Ok, I haven’t actually seen this film. I have wanted to again and again, but couldn’t find it!. Currently I’m living in Denmark, so its pretty much impossible to get. Once I do see it, and I hope you do to, then I’ll put in a proper review.

6. Dead Men Don’t Were Plaid
This film and LA Story are my two favorites by Steve Martin. Unfortunately, many of his recent films have the Hollywood stamp, but back in the day Steve Martin was a master of creative thinking in acting. Dead Men Don’t Were Plaid is a retrospective parody of film noir at its best, splicing Steve Martin into old films while maintaining some kind of plot.

7. The Wonder Boys
There are few films that are about post-modern writing and literature in all the right ways – this is one of them. This film combines the humor, paradox, horror, and tragedy of contemporary literature. The number of interesting references in this film, that only a writer would know, is enough to create a whole new reading list.

8. District 9
This is the only science fiction film on the list. Why? Because its very hard to find science fiction that does any true merit to the literary genre. Somehow science fiction films have gone on a tangent from the Golden Age of science fiction (if in doubt, read Frederik Pohl, Orson Scott Card, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert). Just as Ender’s Game is the one book that delivers everything you ever wanted in a science fiction novel, District 9 is perhaps the only sci.fi. film that does the same. Gritty, horrific, but this is not a horror movie – it is a movie about human spirit, change, and passion – what science fiction writing was always about.

9. Man on Wire
As this list should be revealing, art is passion. Passion means taking risks, going out on a wire, and doing things no one else will. Man on Wire is a documentary film by James Marsh about Philippe Petit, the French rope-walker who traversed between the Twin Towers. What does it take to be an artist? Although it may not be so physically dangerous, sometimes the most deeply felt benefits are when art challenges the self.

10. Bo Burnham: Words, Words, Words
With the decline in education, the rise in population, and globalism, I was once very worried that all the great artists would get old an die – Who would replace them? When George Carlin passed away in 2008, I wondered, how can life continue without being reminded by him that “The Earth will do just fine without us. Its not going anywhere; we are.” I am pleased to say that Bo Burnham has rekindled my faith in humanity, not because he’s human, but because his humor is so stream-of-consciousness that it is inexplicably rich with feeling — and at age 19.

11. The Pixar Story
Any modern artist must deal with the tension between consumer art and cultural art. Consumer art is what you thought was art in high school: video games, animated films, the Matrix. The defining feature of all of these is that their sole, crowning purpose is to make money. The Pixar Story is a revealing, inside story of exactly how this was accomplished with modern technology. Any thing is art, so we can’t deny the beauty of films like Ratatoullie, or the emotions they bring to us. But for the cultural, academic or avante-garde artist the work itself, the social message, is placed above monetary value. This tension of survival is central to art, and The Pixar Story shows one side of the coin.

12. Thirty-Two One Act Plays about Glenn Gould
An investigation into Canadian pianist and master of musique concrète radio documentaries, Glenn Gould, this film is not just a documentary but a visual and musical work of art itself. Each act captures an emotion in vivid detail and puts it to life with music. The emotions are sometimes classical, sometimes modern, and sometimes deconstructive, as Glenn Gould himself was.

The Limits and Freedoms of Artistic Practice

What are the limitations of artistic practice? This question has been one of the central pre-occupations of theorists and artists in the 21st century. The rise of industrialism, a series of World Wars, the globalization of capitalism, mass reproduction and a general explosion in population have led to an increasingly skeptical and critical view of the role of art in this time period. The avante-garde movements, especially Dadaism, Surrealism, Russian Constructivism and others may be viewed as direct responses to the means and production of art-making. The central criticism is generally consistent in that the elite controlling party retains the power and means of producing, duplicating, presenting and selecting art. Thus, avante-garde art forms sought to deconstruct and overthrow previous definitions of what was “established” as art.

In the 1960s, Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and others formalized these criticisms, demonstrating that the construction of myth in a capitalist society creates an image of art which the public accepts as standard. This construction of myth is so powerful that even subversive forms of art, originally intended to overthrow controlling power, may now be consumed by it via the public. This essentially signified the end of the avante-garde in art.

One of the most recent responses to this view came with Derrida’s introduction of deconstruction, a technique in which the construction of a myth is exposed for its underlying meaning – thus revealing the specific way in which myth retains its power. Post-modern artists, especially in minimalism, video art, cyberart and new media, have used deconstruction to reveal socially constructed meanings in art.
In this context, the limits of artistic practice thus refer to the ability of the artist to transform imposed social structures. The primary methods of the early 21th century are painting and sculpture. In Dada, Duchamp’s readymade (Fountain) showed that any object may be art, thus breaking the myth of art as a particular type of image. In Surrealism, automatic drawing contributed to breaking the myth that art must depict the objective world, showing that it could also depict a subjective, inner world. Minimalism destroys the myth that art must depict anything, revealing that art may be a purely conceptual act.

Throughout this process, however, the ability of capitalism to subsume these new forms as art, to treat them as new consumable objects, remains unchanged. Thus, we must question the power of the artist as an agent for political change, especially in a capitalist market. There is no reason to imagine that deconstruction of myths could not continue, and that artists will not continue to create new forms. However, we should not necessarily expect that these new forms will transform the capitalist nature of of society (although it may transform it conceptually).

When artists or critics call into question earlier forms, there are two effects: 1) The previous form is define as ineffectual or obsolete, and 2) a new form replaces it which is deemed to be a progressive, better method for upsetting the status quo. Much of the current drive toward new media is motivated by the idea that new media possess the ability to “transform society” in radical ways. However, the same can be said of Breton, Masson, or Dali. Did they transform society in radical ways? Yes and no.

Certainly, the development of surrealism, and 21st century painting generally, has completely transformed the modern public conception of art relative to the early 1900s. The same might be said of how science has also transformed the modern world. Yet through all these changes, the general structure of wealth and poverty – those specific things which both the artistic and scientific disciplines have promised to abolish – have remained consistent.

The ability to deconstruct a previous form through critical examination in favor of a newer one may be understood as simply another tool in the establishment of new forms of self-expression. If we observe the effects of deconstruction-reconstruction in art as an outsider (scientist? sociologist?), we might observer the primary function of this technique is simply to establish the lifestyle, niche and reputation of an artist in a very large world. Despite artists’ claims of transforming the world through art (some claim this, some don’t), the deconstruction of prior arts in favor of new forms may be simply to provide an unexplored survival niche for future generations of artists. The mechanism is simply to denounce the effectiveness of previous media in changing society, and suggest an alternative which only you, the new artist, can provide.

Overall, this argument calls into question the motives for all forms of art-making, and especially new media since it is both technological and artistic – thus drawing on the technological motivations of progress and change, and upholding a myth of social freedom through technology.

To take such a perspective to heart is demoralizing and realistic. The answer to our previous question regarding the limits of artistic practice, we would conclude that artists are infinitely limited in their ability to effect real change – by real change I mean the ability to rebalance wealth and poverty in capitalist societies. Other consequences may result from novel artistic forms, but they may contribute more to upholding the politic than breaking it.

Can a modernist interrogative be used to question forms of new media?

Yes. A interrogative, or deconstructionist view, can always be used to question existing forms. Deconstruction essentially encapsulates the process of crticial analysis, the breaking apart of a thing into components (Derrida). In the process, structures of a previous myth are revealed, and new forms are conceived.
In light of the history of painting it is actually fairly easy to do so with new media. We observe that new media itself upholds a myth of technological promise while at the same time that technology places such severe constraints on the artist as to make it difficult to express forms and ideas common to painting (e.g. boundaries between physical objects). The de/re-constructivist view is simply to identify the points at which technology is deficient, and propose novel solutions that provide greater freedom – exactly as I am proposing to do in my doctorate.
In the previous paragraph, I have thus constructed myself as an object of myth in an artistic world now driven by technology. This myth is that the purpose of the artist is to “destroy previous forms”, to “break out”, and “boldy adventure” into unknown territory using new tools.

I would suggest the contemporary problem of the artist is how easily one forgets the relationship between the individual and civilization as a whole. As shown above, the individual is powerless to affect the balance of power directly. Yet many new media artists continue to critically examine the past in favor of new techniques. The problem with such “critical examinations” is that they set up the past as point of contention, rather than learning from and embracing it. In addition, criticism defined in this way both devalues a previous form while boosting a new one, thus allowing the artist to promote him/herself as offering something transformative. The issue is not that such things may actually be transformative, but that they are proposed as transformative above and beyond other things which may be equally or more valuable.

Thus, it is possible to develop an interrogative to generate new forms of art, but we must ultimately question and be extremely cautious of the reasons for doing so. It is likely my own reasons for doing so are much more related to personal motivations, psychology, and desire than they are to a belief that I might be capable of transforming civilization on a larger scale in any significant way. Yet our culture has conveniently arranged for a myth in which this the supposed role of the artist.

We can see from the 21st century that no art may be universally transformative of civilization, just as no artist, individual or politician can be globally transformative of the much larger social dynamics of survival and need. However, in Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, we can find language and meaning which goes a long way toward change. This language is not deconstructive (analytic), but eliminates boundaries by proposing an end to logic and reason. The works of dada and surrealism were themselves integrative, removing boundaries in art and language. This can be observed directly in their ability to collapse forms and beings in space, and also in their philosophies.

Ideas are thus still capable of transforming the individual, where individual transformations are perhaps still the only real solutions to global problems. In an era of new media, it is possible that to synthesize and connect works of art rather than deconstruct them is a more valuable process. In this way, the artist acknowledges that he or she is just one single individual and that the myth of dramatic social change of the individual to transform wealth and poverty is just that; a myth. More importantly, these larger changes are not within the pervue of any single individual to resolve. The process of art-making is no less valuable, however, in that the artist is now concerned with changing him or herself, of developing ideas which connect disciplines, and simply creating forms and works to enable the transformation of others. These self-critical roles of the artist are perhaps much more valuable than the tools of critical examination of other media in the development of new artistic works. The role of the artist is to synthesize, to bring together, to perpetually embrace change without the expectation of social utopia.

Timeline of 20th c. Art and New Media

art_theory_map_900
Click above for medium detail image. (2000 x 976 pix)
A very high resolution image suitable for large format posters can be downloaded here. (10291 x 5024 pix, 4 MB)

TIMELINE OF 20th C. ART AND NEW MEDIA

Most timelines of art, as found in classical texts, end at Pop art in the 1970s.
This Timeline of 20th c. Art and New Media was created to include relationships between art, new media art, science, technology, war and media theory.
Included in the timeline are:
– Major movements of 20th c. Art colored according to their degree of “subjectivity”, or rejection of logic/war, as indicated by writings. Purple = More subjective, avante-garde. Red = More structuralist, formal.
– New Media Art after the 1970s, with movements running in parallel
– Consumer Art, including comics, animation and video games
– A few key artists are shown for each movement.
– Rise of the avante-garde in Europe, and Rise of science in America, shown as increasing gray bars.
– Major wars shown in red, with thickness roughly indicating number of lives lost. (Eg. World War I = 16 million. World War II = 65 million)
– Major theories in other fields impacting art, including Saussure’s linguistics, Freud & Jung’s psychology, and Barthe, Strauss & Burnham’s semiotics.
– Media theorists (at top), including Walter Benjamin, Marshal McLuhan, Greenberg, Virilio and Manovich.
– Important moments in 20th. science (at bottom)
– World population increases for every 1 billion people.

Permission is granted to use this timeline for educational purposes to students and teachers, with copyright mark maintained. For commercial and print uses please contact me.

What is New Media Art?

new-media-art1
History of New Media

What is New Media Art?

A range of new forms of contemporary art are enabled by modern technology, referred to generally as new media art. As a culture we tend to equate art with the products of film, television, and popular music. While these are well known, new areas for expression in art have greatly expanded in the past few decades.

Classically we tend to think of art as consisting of drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and more recently photography. In the modern world we might also including the production of film and television. The developments of computer graphics have brought digitally-based art to the general public through modern filmmaking. However there are many novel art forms arising from digital and physical medium which are still largely unknown and relatively invisible but which have been in production from many decades now. Some fields of New Media Art include kinetic sculpture, information art, organic and algorithmic art, interactive art, machinima and game design. Yet many forms of new media remain relatively unknown. I believe this is largely due to a lack of context and general theory in New Media Arts.

Art Form Description Example
A. Traditional Art Art which uses classical tools
1. Drawing Art using drawing tools (graphite, chalk, ink, pencil) Leonardo da Vinci
2. Painting Art using colored pigments applied to a surface Pablo Picasso
3. Sculpture Art using a combination of physical materials in
3D space
Michelangelo
4. Printmaking Art created by pressing ink onto a surface
4.1. Relief Printing Ink rests on the top of the surface (woodcut, wood engraving, linocut) Katsushika Hokusai
4.2. Intaglio Ink goes into groves made in the surface (engraving, etching, mezzotint, aquatint) Gustave Dore
4.3. Planographic Ink is selectively applied by treating the surface (lithography, monotyping) Fancisco Goya
4.4. Stencil Ink is pressed around precut shapes (screen-printing, pochoir) Andy Worhol
B. Modern Arts Art which uses non-traditional tools
1. Photograph Art created using a photographic process Ansel Adams
2. Filmmaking Art which to present a sequence of images
2.1. Pre-Film Special techniques for presenting temporal images Kinematoscope, Zoopraxiscope
2.2. Film Based Filmmaking with a photographic process George Melies, Chaplin
3. Video Art Art using broadcasting, television or video as the medium Naim Jun Paik, Bill Viola
4. Kinetic Art Art driven by physical motion (closely related to Sculpture)
4.1. Naturally-Driven Art Kinetic art using natural forces (wind, air) Alexander Calder, George Rickey
4.2. Mechnically-Driven Art Kinetic art using motors Duchamp, Tingley
4.3. Puppetry Kinetic art using human-interaction to create motion in objects Jim Henson
4.4. Performance Art Kinetic art using the human body as the medium Yves Klein
5. Mixed Media Art which uses a combination of traditional media together
5.1. Graphic Design Art using cut shapes, drawing and type to create visuals Mayakovsky, Klutsis
5.2. Photomontage Combination of drawing and photography Peter Kennard
C. New Media Art Art which uses digital tools
1. Multimedia Art Art which uses digital versions of traditional media
1.1. Non-Linear Editing Art of filmmaking using digital video Germain
1.2. Digital Painting Art of painting using digital tools (e.g. photoshop) David Em
1.3. Web Design Art of graphic design using web page as canvas
1.4. Interface Design Art of graphic design to create software interfaces
2. Computer Graphics Art using computer modeling and rendering to create virtual scenes Gilles Tran
3. Interactive Art Art involving human-interaction
3.1. Indirect Interactive Art in which cameras and detectors passively record human motion Camille Utterback
3.2. Directly Interactive Art in which direct manipulation is required of the viewer Sommerer & Mignonneau
4. Internet Art Art using the internet, or web site, as medium Vuk Cosic
5. Information Art Art using databases and social or statistical information as a source. George Legrady
6. Algorithmic Art Art using a mathematical formula or algorithm as the source of form or structure. Peter Beyls, Jean Pierre Hebert

When we look at a painting, such as Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory (click here), we experience much more than simply paint. We perceive art immediately on the level of meaning. If someone ask, “What are you looking at?”, of a particular painting one response is, “A painting.” Yet we know we are being asked: What aspect of meaning do you find intriguing about this work? The primary function of art, implicit in our looking at it, is to convey an idea, message or symbol through seeing.

If art is about ideas and meaning, why then do art schools divide themselves into the tools of painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture? This is not a criticism but a philosophical question. Why not have a major in art of the body, another major in art of the emotions, and another in art of the sub-conscious? Physics has majors in quantum physics, kinetics, and thermodynamics, each different kinds of physics. As a discipline, physics is generally not divided according telescopes, microscopes and spectrometers – that is its tools.

So why is art, as an academic discipline, divided according to its tools? The reason is simply that art, covering all possible ideas of the imagination would be far too vast to be organized on the level of meaning. In fact, Art History is dedicated solely to understanding the ideas of art past and present, and it does this primarily according to period (time) rather than meaning, which is still too vast a landscape to organize art. We can generalize and say “all religious works”, but a disciplined categorization by meaning is impossible. The purpose of art is to convey ideas, to communicate meaning. We can, however, make the observation that art is classically divided according to the techniques of painting, drawing and sculpture precisely because the meaning of art may be anything at all.

New Media Art has often be criticized for having “no solid theoretical foundation”. This is partly because so many new forms seem to defy traditional classification. For example, is game design a form of art, a field of computer science, or a kind of literary narrative? Many of the recent objections to games as an art form have to do with content. In academia, painting has both beautiful and controversial examples through history, yet games have struggled more to achieve academic status. This may be due in part to its interdisciplinary nature.

These complaints can all be summarize with a simple observation: On the level of meaning, all art is subject to criticism. The questioning and transforming of meaning is essential to art. The goal of the artist is not to structure our world as the natural sciences do, but to surprise us, to spark the imagination.. Thus, art is unbound by ideas. Yet organized by technique.

The goal here is to provide a foundation for New Media Art on the level of technique. Painting, drawing and sculpture exists as sub-fields in art because the artist uses these tools to create whatever ideas they like. The divisions of technique are a convenience – in a college painting class one student may be creating landscapes, another surrealism, yet both are using paint and canvas. The same may be true of New Media Art. As a starting point, we can define New Media Art according to common techniques without regard to their content. One possible organization is found in the list above.

One of the wonderful aspects of New Media Art is truely vast number of ways in which expression may develop. Robotic art is mechanically-driven kinetic art (B.4.2) that attempts to recreate humanoid or insect-like motion. Evolutionary art is a form of algorithmic art (C.6) that attempts to mimic the biology of natural evolution. Why are robotic art and evolutionary art not included in the list above? The definitive test for a movement, as opposed to a technique, is that it may be expressed through any number of other techniques. There is a field of passive-motion robotics which uses no motors, thus robotics could also be naturally-driven. Robotic art may also be found in computer games, i.e. game robots, and also through illustration. If we see a comic book on robots, is it Robotic Art? Although the development of robots themselves requires particular novel techniques, the combination of machine and humanoid form found in robotics is not a technique, but a kind of meaning referring to the mechanized human body.

Cyberfeminist art, mentioned in Christiane Paul’s book Digital Art, is also not found above for the same reason. Feminist art originated in non-digital media, such as the Gorilla Girls in the 1960s, working primarily with photomontage. With the advent of the World Wide Web, cyberfeminism developed out of feminist art and shifted to the new “hacker” oriented medium of the internet. The message shifted from one technique to another. Thus cyberfeminism is about a particular kind of meaning, expressed through the technique of Internet-based art. Yet it is not confined to this technique, and is thus a movement.

It is important to mention I am not attempt to define “art”, only clarify it with respect to meaning and technique. Surrealism is a movement, pop art is a movement, cyberfeminism is a movement, dada is a movement, organic art is a movement. They are movements because their ideas can appear in many techniques simultaneously. Drawing is a technique, information-based art is a technique, computer generated art is a technique. A given work of art exists both as part of a movement, idea or meaning, and as a technique simultaenously.

Some prefer the term technology-based art, media art, or digital art for the contemporary situation of the digital medium. I prefer the term New Media Art to encompass all of the above forms because it carries no particular connotation toward any one technique while also distinguishing itself from Mixed media, which refers to a combination of traditional media, and from Multimedia, which consists of digital versions of traditional techniques. The essential point is that, if we understand the difference between message and technique, New Media Art can be more easily understood as a new discipline.

New Media Art covers all contemporary techniques for digitally-based art making, just as traditional Fine Arts is divided into majors according to traditional technique.

Although technique can clarify academic distinctions in New Media Art, finding meaning in any art form is the real challenge. In my opinion, all forms of art should be rich, and alive, with meaning. The beauty of art is that we may each define and evaluate meaning differently. A significant concern is that, in the presence of so many novel techniques, we may loose our sense and ability to evaluate what is meaningful.

The challenge is to be more open to novel forms of human expression so that our critical sense is shaped and refined — to be scientific (analytical) as needed, and creative and imaginative the rest of the time.. A basic understanding of technique versus meaning can help us to clarify the discipline of New Media Art while allowing its meaning to remain open.

Summary
– Art is unique, relative to other disciplines, in that its meaning or message is unbounded.
– Art is not academically organized by types of meaning as, say physics, is.
– Instead, traditional and new media art are organized by technique (painting, sculpture, information art)
– A given work of art has both a technique and a meaning
– Meaning is unbounded, and since art is an intentional act, present in all art.