NEW.WRITING: British New Media Art Conference - Tate Britain, 03/04/04

BY: Garrett Lynch

POSTED: Monday 18 April 2004

Last Saturday the 3rd of April a one day conference entitled British New Media Art was held at Tate Britain to coincide with the launch of the book New Media Art: Practice and Content in the UK 1994-2004 (April 2004, Co-published by Arts Council England and Cornerhouse Publications, ISBN 0 948797 88 6).


With moderators, speakers and participants including Steve Dietz (keynote), Saul Albert, Geoffrey Batchen, Sarah Cook, Nick Crowe, Desperate Optimists, Matt Fuller, Charlie Gere, Shilpa Gupta, Lucy Kimbell, Julian Stallabrass, Thomson & Craighead, Carey Young and hosted by the art institution in England, taking some of their first steps into new media, the event promised to be one worth attending even considering the high price of entry displaying a lack of understanding of the new media / net.art community at large.

Steve Dietz started the day with the keynote speech discussing the much hyped Y.B.A. (young British artists) and pondering why we don't hear about Y.B.N.M.A. (young British new media artists). He criticised new media, net.art in particular, for not having enough theory and critical debate surrounding it. He suggested that the New York times statement in a recent article, that net.art was dead (which he emphasised was only published in print), would occur unless the community become more open to other forms of contemporary art, accepted that it needed to work with institutions and not shun them as it has to date and generally questioned if new structures are needed for new media or whether we should be working with existing structures.

Steve Dietz set the mood for the day, with questions and ideas that reoccurred time and time again and more visuals and urls than are humanly possible to note (though I did try). His call to the net.art community to move forward and work with institutions seemed incredibly gracious in light of recent events at Walkerarts and his attitude was anything but pessimistic. One thought which occurred to me towards the end of his keynote speech was, even with the enormous advantages more critical debate would give (after all this is what net.art review is all about), would more theory / more institutionalisation create a new elitism in net.art? Would this discourage and restrict access to those wanting to enter the form of new media art already intimidated by the high technical level? How could we find a balance in keeping with net.art's grass roots approach and the institutions established modes of promotion, presentation and debate?

Next on the program came presentations by Thomson & Craighead, Carey Young (who would be launching a new work later that day) and Matt Fuller, followed by an open discussion moderated by Lucy Kimbell, editor of the afore mentioned book. Thomson & Craighead talked about their current work and its use of the network as a source to create net.art, illustrating their ideas with two works Decorative Newsfeeds (designed primarily for exhibition) and Template Cinema, a work in progress. Carey Young presented her works Art and Life and The Revolution is us focusing on her themes of art versus commerce. How both can work together to successfully produce interesting art and revenue for the artist. Matt Fuller gave the next presentation. Essentially stating a history of art and giving an overview of what art can and can't be his presentation seemed to lack focus for the conference. Finally before we broke for lunch there was a short Q&A. One of the issues raised again was what Steve Dietz termed the Y.B.N.M.A. the general response being that the artists present did not feel particularly British. This left me thinking surely this is a quality of being British? Not feeling particularly British or being proud of it, it almost goes hand in hand with disliking the royal family!



After Lunch presentations were given by Julian Stallabrass, Sarah Cook and Geoffrey Batchen followed by an open discussion moderated by Charlie Gere. Julian Strallabrass talked about some of the most known net.art works such as Alexei Shulgins Form Art Competition within the content of his book recently published by the Tate, Internet Art; The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce. Sarah Cook, one of the two founders of Crumb was next up discussing the role of the curator. She questioned how the curator of the past could become the curator of the future adjusting to the changing role of the artist and their use of technology. Her approach as curator was segmented into two well defined categories. Firstly new media theory comprising three points - computable, connected and interactive and secondly art history practice broken down into - variable, distributed and collaborative. The effect was immediate, clearly referencing approaches such as Lev Manovich's, her presentation was both clear and understandable to all levels present from student to practioner. Geofrey Batchen gave his presentation on the parallel invention and progression of photography and computing. Elaborating on points rapidly made by Manovich in the Language of New Media, Batchen took them to a whole new level emphasising the importance of Henry Fox Talbot to the development of new media. His referencing to Fox Talbot's lace contact prints and his later patented photo engraving process which essentially broke images down into pixels for their mass production in print was perhaps not the easiest of presentations to follow but was undeniably relevant considering the reliance of new media (especially its visualization and our primary means of interfacing with it) on such a simple concept as the pixel. Charlie Gere responded to the presentation given by Batchen stating that new media is after all a product of industrialisation, which originated in England, so it is no surprise that many developments concerning new media have occurred in England.

The final group of presentations for the day comprised of Nick Crowe, Desperate Optimists and Shilpa Gupta moderated by Saul Albert. Nick Crowe talked about his work Police Radio and how it came to be commissioned as a community based piece. Desperate Optimists, originating from Dublin Ireland, presented some of their work next. While Steve Dietz, not being British, questioned whether he should be present at such a conference, Desperate Optimists seemed to me like a stranger choice. Not alone did they present video work, they questioned whether they were new media artists claiming instead to not restrict themselves to any single medium (true multidisciplinary artists) but one would have imagined they felt uncomfortable under the banner British New Media Art. Shilpa Gupta was the last of the day to present, showing her works Sentiment Express, xeno.bio.lab and Blessed Bandwidth illustrating her unique approach to retaining her Indian identity while living in England.

While well worth attending, most of the points made during the conference failed to tackle head on some of the issues Steve Dietz's key speech raised. It seemed strange that while on one level most present insisted on not separating new media / net.art from any other form of contemporary art. A separation on another, national / cultural level designated by the conference organisers (by using British in the title) yet surely contrary to much of net.art's no borders / cross-cultural themes, seemed to cause little if no problem. More than anything the event should be seen as a change in attitude by the institution as a whole to new media art and its acceptance of net.art as a major part of new media art. If failing to create more discussion and critical debate around new media in itself as Steve Dietz called for then lets hope it can be the used as the starting point for such debate via forums such as this.

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