New Media Art From here, where? PARSA SANJANA SAJID

As a term of art, new media spans and skates boundaries and in 2017 it is neither passé nor of-the-moment to try to examine the variegated landscape it covers. A settled term of acknowledgment, new media art does not perplex but encodes art practices and instruments that are fairly well understood, if simplistic. There is a reason Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser's Pedestrian is new media art, but Henry Moore's lithograph Hands I or Nasreen Mohamedi's series of Untitled ink and graphite drawings are not. It is then the use of new and digital technologies that qualifies new media art resulting in a loosely defined yet multitudinous scene. As Domenico Quaranta describes it: ‘New media art is the art that uses new media technologies as a medium – period. No further complexity is admitted.’1 Perhaps it is not surprising that this absence of complexity – simplification – often adds to the inscrutability of new media as a category.
Yolande Harris, Melt Me into the Ocean.
 Medium based classification is not an innovation in the art world. It is the default practice among several other forms of classifications. Watercolour, oil, acrylic, charcoal, ink, photography, video all communicate a familiar typology, mostly to do with curatorial practices at museum departments.2 A tagging system, much like its online counterpart, medium based groupings use a logic of coherence that is mostly functional, after all there is not much to argue whether a work of art is or is not watercolour. And much like online tagging that can feel insufficient, at times reductive and even scattered, these fulfill an obligatory taxonomical function when combined with other intersecting groupings (style, location, era, and so on). Then there are movements, expressionism, surrealism, cubism, and the like. An expressionist painting in a specific medium, oil for example, roots the work within a lineage.There is a story to tell here with these categories, even if it is one sanctioned and scrubbed by institutional curatorial staff. There are of course other stories, other ways of seeing and interpreting any of these works, without being hemmed in by institutional expediency or strictly structuralist and genre specific interpretations. Nevertheless, the process of naming is undeniably arbitrary, imperfect. Yet it is still a mode of understanding without which meaning, any meaning, risks collapse.

Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, ink on paper, 55x70cm,1982, private
collection, New York.


Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, Ink and graphite on paper , 1975.n
But art is as much about adhering to meaning as it is about questioning inherent or received meanings, or reinventing them, or even dismantling or circumventing them. It is as much about conforming to and continuing the well-understood genealogies of meaning and concepts as taking them apart. Turn of the 20th century movements, such as, Dadaism and Cubism sprang out of confrontations with the well understood and the contestation of meaning and their collapse formed the heart of those movements. Although not exactly a movement in the strictest sense, another turn of the century phenomenon, new media art flourished in breaching erstwhile conventions of form. It was of course inevitable, as newer technologies enmeshed the everyday artistic expressions would reflect these entanglements. And so as wide ranging technologies as ‘digital art, computer graphics, computer animation, virtual art, Internet art, interactive art, video games, computer robotics, 3D printing,’ and even biotechnology folded under the genre known as new media art.3
In this expansive understanding of new media art the problem is not that it allows too much, after all, the breach of boundaries is the point here, but something more fundamental. That is, an amalgamation of practices and forms developed around bending genres cannot escape the demands of traditional art establishment practices sprung around museums, art fairs, galleries, collectors, and curators. And that is to hew to functional categories, to slot art into genres for ease of identification and circulation. A porous understanding here still conforms to boundary maintenance – what is or is not new media art still anchors medium and function. If these classifications are to some degree inescapable, because how else to signify the practice, then the more important question is whether these particular processes, understandings, and categorizations still remain relevant.
As Quaranta argues this does not leave room for more complexity, a classification system hemmed in by merely medium and function that roots new media art in technology use when technology itself is a malleable term. But then Quaranta does not settle for the obvious explanation:

An easy argument against this could be that technology won't be always new. We got used to TV monitors and projectors in galleries; we will get used to computers as well. The youngsters currently drawing their first pictures on an iPhone at the age of two will eventually grow up, and new media art will look more natural to them than it does to us. Yet this is only true up to a point. The hype surrounding the ‘new media’ has not died down over the last two decades, quite the contrary: it burgeons any time a new gadget is launched on the market, reaching an even wider audience.4
 
Ehsanul Karim Aninda, Future Vanishes, installation from Seven Senses, a curated exhibition at Dhaka Art Center, 2012

Even if new is not new anymore, there are always newer technologies to occupy that space of new. So at a definitional level, we can have new media art as a stable category, even if what constitutes new evolve over time. But can novelty as an organizing principle sustain an entire practice? At what point does gimmickry overtake novelty? When do experimentations bleed into shticks? The promise of new media art is its shape shifting capacity one that cannot just spin and spread on that temporal plane that is newness. Newness also signals an arrival, therefore an absence before, but that absence is not lack of any priors at all. Where then do we situate the new?
Then there is technology. Imagining technology only as digital lends itself to a rather messy use and application of the word. Derived from the Greek techne, technology is a process, a mediation, an instrument of transformation. As a mode of transformation printmaking equipment lay just as a valid claim to technology as a digital one. Why then shouldn't Mohamedi's prints be new media art? If technology as medium seems too amorphous, a literal meaning that loosens the boundaries to the point of infinite pliability, then technology only as digital is similarly shorn and pervious. In other words, the category new media art allows too much and not enough all at once.
Manir Mrittik, New Land,New Hope, photography .
When we imagine technology as digital, as something to do with computational mediation, technology as a ‘term of convenience’ for the advancements that now envelope and saturate our lives, we must extend that understanding to new media art and situate that in context. Particularly, new media art springs from the seen tanglements of the everyday. Here, a digression: everyday does not necessarily mean mundane, though there is certainly a banality to the extent technology has seeped into and permeates every aspect of lived experience and perhaps beyond. But that these entanglements are inescapable, boundless, and they have and will transfigure(d) our selves, subjectivities, and the social relations in between.5
New media art cannot and do not stand at a remove from these developments. Which is to say, the modes of understanding and situating new media art, and categorizing them cannot be disjunctive, stripped of the connective tissues that for better or worse enable and sustain them. Which is why, when engaging with new media art it is not technology in and of itself that is interesting, but workings of technology, from conception to development to deployment. Our algorithmic selves, our survellied selves, our atomized, alienated selves, our biotechnological selves, our autonomous selves separated from the other, are all inventions and interventions of technology and it is those inventions and interventions and the inquiries they generate, questions and answers they open and foreclose are where new media art inhabit.
Understood that way, new media art is not merely about the medium or the form. The medium is only a weak substitute for a multilayered practice and it is the practice that is paramount here. A system of categorization that relies on these qualifiers, developed from museum-based classifications of medium centric art, limits a full consideration of new media art, relegating the practice to instruments rather than an examination of instrumentalization. At a time when the mutual reconstitution of and symbiosis between IRL and virtual are apace, understanding and situating new media art require a similar reconstitution beginning with the category itself.

 References 
Domenico Quaranta, What's (Really) Specific about New Media Art? Curating in the Information Age. Rhizome. December 6, 2012.
Ibid.
Lorenzo Pereira, Why Is It So Difficult to Define New Media Art? Widewalls.
Domenico Quaranta, What's (Really) Specific about New Media Art? Curating in the Information Age. Rhizome. December 6, 2012.
Mark O'Connell, 'Your animal life is over. Machine life has begun.' The road to immortality.The Guardian. March 25, 2017.

PARSA SANJANA SAJID teaches at Independent University, Bangladesh and edits Fragments Magazine.

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