NEW.WRITING: Content Under Pressure

BY: Stefani Bardin

POSTED: Sunday 14 March 2004

Marshall McLuhan, the “Oracle of the Electronic Age,” wrote that each new technology is a medium that deposes the vehicle of the Zeitgeist, and the old medium then loses its original content and becomes the content of the new medium. The trajectory of technological developments over the past decade has been astonishing, both in its scope and influence on visual art. The imbrications of better/stronger/faster, the internet, open-source, Rhizomatic interactivity, and networking has resulted in a digital and internet art movement that is unparalleled in art history’s history, in terms of output, access, and scale. However, in this current “New Media” culture, we’re lucky if there’s even the presence of content at all--the emphasis on style over substance is an unfortunate recurring theme, where it’s more often technology for technology’s sake rather than art pour l’art.

Sweeping generalizations aside, there’s a myriad of sites that brings together the elements of technology and content in ways that transcend the omnipresent bells and whistles mentality that McLuhan could not forecast. Mediatopia.net is one such site. Advertised as Networked Technology for the Creative and Critical: An Online Exhibition and Symposium, this site presents an architectural montage of images, ideas, and sounds--a realization of Sergei Eisenstein’s montage in film and Walter Benjamin’s dialectical image in writing—thereby utilizing the content of “antiquated” mediums. The site is introduced by the audiovisual counterpoint (central to Eisenstein’s work) when it opens; and within the grey backdrop appears the overlay of a white square that performs a countdown (a ubiquitous device of old films) that’s accompanied by the sounds of tinkling bells and revving motors as the home page opens.

Once inside Mediatopia, the user can view textual or visual projects created by writers and artists from many different countries practicing within many different disciplines. For example, Wolf Kahlen is a Professor of Architecture at the Technical University in Berlin. He began his visual art career in photography, then moved into film, and is now working with new technologies. His project is entitled Sorry, Mister Joyce/Verzeihung, Herr von Goethe/Perdone, Don Cervantes. The viewer is able to click on any of the three titles and move their cursor along a blank colored screen in order to read excerpts from the work of one of the authors of the title in its original language. Since the actual text is not apparent, the viewer has the option of moving through the page (as well as back and forth between the three works) and enacting their own reading based on their own preferences. Kahlen says the following about the piece:

In this sound triptych in Spanish, English or German language, classical literatures, which you know for sure, fall apart, like so many things today, if you are not sensitive or patient enough to receive them rather than act on them. But here you have the chance to re-de-compose them, acoustically. Or make your own versions by use of the words of the poets. As we anyhow may do in our mind, mindful or absent minded, when reading the original texts in a book, the Gutenberg way.

It is not the most visually arresting piece on the site (Amorphoscapes by Stanza and N3xt by Shirin Kouladjie are two that are definitely worth checking out), but, using new technologies in a thought-provoking way, it does demonstrate a concerted effort to challenge conventional ways of seeing, hearing, and reading classical literature. This underscores the mission of Mediatopia, which, under the umbrella of the organization Adhocarts.org, “uses the democratizing potential of network technology to reach communities around the globe, producing projects and events that encourage the exploration of “cultural capital,” education, and networked information.” The site further states that “creatives, technicians, and critical theorists are fascinated by these digital means. The residuals in this process creep into the canon of practice and are used to define and construct an electronic world and flesh-filled one. Therefore we ask questions and we manipulate information.”

According to McLuhan’s biographer W. Terrence Gordon, most people misunderstand or misread McLuhan's most famous dictum “The Medium is the Message;” they assume he meant that content was irrelevant. In actuality, what he was saying was that “The user of a medium is the content, because any medium is an extension of the human body.”

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