Digital Universe

“I’m going to put the phone down now — just hang on.” Media artist Michael Naimark was at LAX one morning a few weeks ago, on his way to the Banff Centre’s Refresh Conference on histories of new-media art. Another artist, Simon Penny from UCI, was up ahead, also on his way to the conference, and UCLA’s Erkki Huhtamo, a new-media theorist, wasn’t far behind. Not wanting to lose our connection, Naimark put the phone into one of those gray plastic containers and pushed it toward the X-ray machine.On my end of the call, the sounds of the airport grew muffled, and then everything got quiet. I held my breath as the phone moved along the conveyor belt. In spite of sitting in my sunny office, I looked around, poised for — what? A bright light maybe? But there was nothing, just a soft whooshing noise and the faint hum of distant voices. I hovered through another minute of stillness, suspended somewhere between downtown and the airport, waiting for Naimark to re-appear.At once mundane and mind-blowing, my cell-phone journey through the airport X-ray machine echoes a host of similarly strange moments of technologized disembodiment and networked connection (and disconnection) that make up daily life today. How to visualize the places we go online, for example, or to imagine the invisible crisscrossing lines of static that link cell phone to cell phone? And Naimark, along with Penny, Huhtamo and about 100 other Southern California artists, theorists and curators, are at the forefront of a media-art movement destined to help it all make sense. Indeed, Southern California has become the unrivaled international hub of new-media art, design and theory. Hoberman's performance piece Let's Make a Monster (2003) One of the original design-team members for the MIT Media Lab in 1980 and creator of several amazing interactive installations, including the celebrated 360-degree piece Be Now Here (1995–2000), featuring panoramic views of four cities, Naimark moved here a year ago to take a faculty position in the Interactive Media Division of the USC School of Cinema-Television. Huhtamo arrived from Finland six years ago and now teaches in the Department of Design | Media Arts at UCLA, and Penny, originally from Australia, heads UC Irvine’s Art Computation and Engineering graduate program. Other relatively new Southern California residents include media artists Perry Hoberman, Jordan Crandall, Marie Sester and Michael Lew. And we can tout a list of top scholars, too: UCLA’s N. Katherine Hayles, who has written about how we became “posthuman”; USC’s Marsha Kinder, who heads the Labyrinth Project, dedicated to experimenting with interactive narrative; UC San Diego’s Lev Manovich, who wrote The Language of New Media; Art Center’s Peter Lunenfeld, founder of Mediawork, a consortium of new-media thinkers and artists, and creator of terms like “digital dialectic” and “technoVolksgeist” in several books on new media; and Brenda Laurel, who wrote the fundamental text Computers as Theatre.The various programs in media art at local universities have expanded exponentially over the last five years, and they continue to grow, each taking on different areas of focus. CalArts’ ViralNet and USC’s Vectors, online journals that address media art and alternative scholarship, were launched last year. UCI’s Beall Center for Art + Technology, a gallery space devoted to new-media art, was founded in 2000, and L.A. Freewaves, a biennial festival of video and new media, is currently building an extensive online archive and new-media resource to help create a focal point for the international exchange of media art and ideas. Art Center’s Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery continues to showcase media art — over the summer, it featured a stellar survey of Naimark’s interactive and immersive film environments spanning 30 years. And media-art spaces Machine Project, Beta Level and Telic Arts Exchange were all recently founded to showcase and foster discussion of technology-inflected art.But why here? Media art is not only notoriously difficult to define, it’s nearly impossible to sell and it’s a pain in the neck to exhibit. Generally, the term “new-media art” designates artworks that incorporate some form of electronic media, often entail viewer interaction and frequently reflect back on our immersion in a technologized world. Thanks to the proliferation of gadgets, more and more new-media artworks use cell phones or GPS devices, and in response to the explosion of online and console-based games, many subvert or re-imagine gaming. (Artists often go into the first-person shooter games and talk peaceably instead of shooting.) Other branches similarly question biotechnology, surveillance and military technology.The practitioners of new-media art are remarkably eclectic, coming from backgrounds in engineering, computer science, architecture, fine arts, animation, graphic design and music, and many consider their work to be hybrid not only in materials but in occupying a point somewhere between academic research and artistic endeavor. As such, the concentration of colleges and universities in Southern California is a draw. Add the film industry and the rapidly growing gaming industry, with their need for new ideas and talent, and L.A. offers a lot to artists.The development of the area as a hub also has to do with the fact that there’s room here for an evolving art form to grow. “For something interesting to happen, you need a little bit of a vacuum,” says Perry Hoberman, the renowned media-installation artist and research professor in the Interactive Media Division at USC, who arrived in L.A. in 2003. “There’s certainly an art scene here, but it’s not the center of the city the way it is in New York. Essentially, in Los Angeles, nothing can displace Hollywood; everything is on the margins, and that’s kind of good when you want to see things develop and incubate.”Los Angeles also seems particularly conducive to certain themes prevalent in media art — the fluid mixing of fact and fiction, for example. “That seems to really fly here,” says Hoberman. “The cliché explanation would be that that’s like Hollywood, where everything is a façade, but I think it’s also because, again, things are able to incubate. If you put too much attention on them right away, they sort of shrivel up. I think probably it also has to do with the fact that there are ways of making art here that don’t look like art. People don’t think of the Museum of Jurassic Technology as being the output of an artist, for example, and the same is true of CLUI [the Center for Land Use Interpretation], and maybe they aren’t, but they do what good art does,” namely raise interesting questions. Michael Naimark's Be Here Now (1997) Photo by Ari Salomon “Is new media defined by the materials or by the questions?” asks Mark Allen, the founder of Machine Project, a gallery located on North Alvarado in Echo Park, and professor of art at Pomona College. Allen says that he’s far more interested in the questions. He wants art that doesn’t really look like art. “Machine is not interested in screen-based stuff or network-based stuff. We like stuff that has a physical presence. I’m not interested in art about art, or art about technology. I’m more interested in people’s weird obsessions.” Pushed to define things more clearly, Allen offers an example: “There’s an artist who has made a waterbed that has speakers that create vibrations that induce trances — that is 100 percent Machine Project! It has this use of technology and it’s absurd.” L.A.’s other main new-media venue is Chinatown’s Telic Arts Exchange. Originally founded as the Electronic Orphanage by Miltos Manetas in 2001, the space was then adopted by Christian Moeller, professor of Design | Media Arts at UCLA, who took over as curator in 2003 and changed the name. In 2004, Fiona Whitton, whose background is in architecture, joined as curator. The space has quickly grown to become an important venue for showcasing various media-art projects, with past shows featuring the processing art of Casey Reas, alternative games curated by Eddo Stern and, most recently, Scott Snibbe’s interactive installation Visceral Cinema: Chien. And, like Machine, Telic hosts various workshops and art talks.“The key part for us is the visitor coming into the gallery and being involved bodily in the work,” says Whitton. She’s particularly interested in electronic media as a site for collaborations among different people — artists, architects, engineers, scientists. “That opens up the work for other people to engage with as well.” She notes that Telic’s audience has interacted with “wind and oil and live geese and fish, hundreds of fluorescent lights, the movement of air,” mixed with “all kinds of technology, including robotics. The integration of these materials with technology is interesting, but one of the surprises coming out of those combinations is the way that other people are affected by them. People are becoming more comfortable with these diverse objects — and artists are pushing what people will engage with.”That diversity certainly characterizes the practices of L.A.’s media artists, who together offer an amazing cross section of the major themes driving the field. Jordan Crandall, for example, is an assistant professor in UC San Diego’s department of visual arts and moved to L.A. last year. He works consistently with materials and ideas positioned at the intersection of technology and the military and other institutions of power. In his most recent piece, Homefront (2005), he examines the roles of surveillance, monitoring and tracking.“It’s a three-channel video installation that looks at the psychological dimensions of the new security culture,” says Crandall. “There are three modes of seeing — live action, surveillance and military vision — and they carry with them their own way of seeing the world. For example, if you see a surveillance image of a place, one has a sense that a crime is imminent. You don’t see surveillance footage unless some kind of deviation has happened or is about to happen. A sense of an impending transgression comes with the surveillance orientation.” Crandall is also fascinated by the ways in which we respond to the growing prevalence of technology in our everyday lives, and not just as a threat. “All of my work has been interested in issues around power and pleasure,” he says, “orchestrated through new technologies of vision.” Julian Bleecker's Wifi.bedouin graphic (2005) Julian Bleecker, who heads the Mobile and Pervasive Lab at USC’s Interactive Media Division, is similarly interested in what people might do with new forms, especially when they’re out in the world. “Right now I’m very interested in topics related to what our sense of place is in a psycho-geographic sense,” he says. “What makes a physical location in space into a social place? How can social formations that create a sense of place be facilitated by mobility — walking, or driving a car?” Bleecker offers an example of the kinds of questions he considers. “I’ve been doing a lot of traveling to the Pacific Rim,” he says. “It’s a 15-hour plane ride, and you can’t tell me that there isn’t someone on that plane that I might have an awesome conversation with. But I’m in 50J and they’re in 24F, and we’ll never meet.” But what would happen, muses Bleecker, if there were ways to use technology to facilitate social interaction on the plane? What would that look like? How could it work?Another example of Bleecker’s work is WiFi.Bedouin, which looks like a high-tech backpack and functions as a mobile server and transmitter, allowing the wearer to create an “island Internet” accessible to those in proximity. So, if you’re wearing the backpack, you could go to your local café, sit down with a cup of coffee, and meanwhile, your portable server would show up on nearby computers as an access point. However, rather than offering access to the Internet, you’d be offering other café-goers access to your own self-contained network. And that network could offer any number of things, depending on how you’d like to provoke or entertain those around you. Because many of us have only the vaguest sense of how the Internet actually functions, Bleecker’s project is challenging to imagine, but his work is all about rethinking how we use technology and inviting more creative and active responses to things that sometimes feel fixed or overwhelming.Bleecker is working on a series of projects with artist and programmer Peter Brinson under the rubric “Vis-à-Vis Games” that are designed to combine console and desktop gaming with the games you played outside as a kid. “No one could have speculated what the Internet would do with social formations,” says Bleecker. “A lot of what I do is running things up the flagpole and seeing what comes of it. I like the sense of possibility.” Michael Naimark's Golden Gate Flyover (1987) Photo by Michael Naimark Surveillance and mobile or pervasive media are two key trends; a third brings together media art and science, which is what most interests Victoria Vesna, chair of the Design | Media Arts Department at UCLA. Vesna joined the program at UCLA five years ago, and in that time has helped establish the cross-disciplinary program while watching the field and its audience grow more sophisticated. “When I started working in this medium, it was like I was from outer space,” she says. “People were either fascinated, or they thought it was just too far out. But with technology becoming so pervasive, media art is actually becoming more accessible, something people can relate to.” Vesna offers a pertinent example. “I just met with medical doctors and a designer to help come up with ideas for communications strategies for Katrina survivors,” she says. “In a mediated world, media artists have a certain expertise to put out messages, whether in an art piece that’s purely experiential or in terms of very pragmatic messages that have to go out there.”Vesna’s projects include the Web-based Bodies INCorporated, in which visitors create virtual bodies, and Mood Swings, for which she collaborated with Dr. Ken Wells on a piece about the effects of the environment on mood. She also orchestrated the multiproject exhibition “Nano” at LACMA last year, which was created by a team of artists and scientists in order to illustrate ideas about nanoscience. Vesna’s own project, Nanomandala, uses the idea of the mandala as the form through which to watch the evolving structure of a single grain of sand.While Vesna is collaborating with scientists, other media artists are eager to connect with the film industry. One possible direction for that collaboration is toward interactive cinema, a form that particularly interests Swiss media artist Michael Lew. His interactive film Office Voodoo, for example, relies on the input of viewers to determine the arrangement of shots that make up the film. The project’s characters are two office workers who perform a series of mundane tasks and interact with each other with varying degrees of enthusiasm. To view the film, two viewers sit in a small space with a screen; each holds a voodoo doll representing one of the characters. Squeezing the dolls controls the sequence of shots, which are arrayed on an emotional grid that goes from cold to hot, or indifferent to passionate. Squeeze hard, and your character grows increasingly flirtatious. Squeeze softly, and your character focuses on work instead. “There’s one point when they’re in sync and they will have sex on the desk,” reveals Lew.“In a linear film, you have a lot of footage, but eventually an editor will place all of the shots in a timeline,” Lew explains. “Here you have all these shots, but they’re in a media space, and you have to program the interaction design in a way so that viewers will explore that space in their own trajectory, assembling the film as they watch it.” “Are you still there?” asks Michael Naimark. Having passed successfully through the security check at the airport, he has plenty to say about the possibilities of new-media art and Hollywood, characterizing the relationship as at once “tensely harmonious” and “harmoniously tense.” Citing the explosion of home theaters, Naimark figures studio heads will be looking for ways to make the movies bigger and better than anything you can get on a DVD. “Hollywood is in a situation that hasn’t happened since the birth of television in the ’40s and ’50s,” he says. “Immersion, 3-D and interactivity all offer possibilities, and artists are the ones working in these areas right now.” Naimark advocates creative collaborations between artists in tech-based subcultures and well-funded commercial entities beyond the movie industry. His idea of success for his USC students is when “they can take a meeting with Microsoft, present a paper at SIGGRAPH and have an installation at [media-arts festival] Ars Electronica.” In other words, when they are business-savvy, smart and artistic. But there’s a social responsibility, too, he notes before boarding his plane to Banff.“We’ve made a real mess of the world since Bush, and this can’t be overemphasized. There’s a gravitational pull toward cities like Los Angeles, New York, Berlin and Tokyo, cities that are global power centers, and away from places that are considered provincial. And in that regard, there’s a real polarization in terms of politics. Eventually, we’ll look back at this period as a dark cloud over cultural production and thinking.”And what does he imagine we can do about it? “I think the U.S. is ripe for a new kind of hybrid institution, one that focuses on research and art, but is also viciously commercial in terms of standing up in the marketplace, and yet is also not-for-profit.”Naimark’s vision is a tall order, but Southern California just may be the right place to fill it.Holly Willis, a regular contributor to the Weekly, currently teaches video art, new media and digital culture at USC, Art Center and CalArts.

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