[iDC] REFRESH! conference, some impressions

Judith Rodenbeck jrodenbe at slc.edu
Wed Oct 5 07:22:18 EDT 2005

To the idc list:


I've just come back from "REFRESH! The First International Conference on the
Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology" in Banff. Hrewith some brief
impressions of the conference.


I am an art historian (and ex-performance/video artist, from the Studio for
Interrelated Media at Mass Art) with a longstanding but hitherto relatively
untapped interest in new media. My own field of expertise is performance of
the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Fluxus projects, but I also teach
on the early part of the 20th century and am currently leading an advanced
seminar on what I call "mechanical transcriptions of the real"-that is,
following Kittler, those analog copying technologies that have so defined
20th century experience and inflected much of its art. I attended the
conference as an observer, trying to learn more about the subject. What
follows is merely a report, but it comes filtered through that complex of
interests & preoccupations.


The first thing to be said is that this was an enormously ambitious
conference: its four days were packed from morning to evening with panels
and events the overall distribution of which, in terms of topics and time, I
thought was pretty good, given the mission. Sessions ranged from "media
histories" to a session on "collaborative practice/networking" to "history
of institutions"; there were 3 keynote addresses-Edmond Couchot, Sarat
Maharaj, and Lucia Santaella; a poster session; an optional hike (Banff is
in the stunning Canadian Rockies); a walk-through of the media labs; und so
weiter. Meals were had communally in the Banff Centre's dining room, and at
least for me, since I knew not a soul at the conference AND felt like what
one snooty panelist called a "clueless newbie," these became interesting
moments of social anxiety and unexpected social pleasure. While things did
tend to split out into the old pros and the young nothings, they did get a
bit more productively mixed up on occasion. Before I launch into the
problems with the conference, the feeling I got from those I spoke with was
that it was a mixed success but a success overall. I do think the conference
provided a very good starting point for something, and this seemed
especially true after the final session.


High points of the conference, in no particular order: 

*	Mario Carpo's paper on architecture in the age of digital
reproducibility, which dealt with the shift from a simply additive to an
algorithmic modularity in architecture. This was probably the most
professionally delivered paper at the conference, as well as the most
intelligently amusing, and what Carpo presented as a paradigmatic slide was
fascinating, provocative. I learned something.
*	Philip Thurtle and Claudia Valdes showing footage of Alvin Lucier
doing solo for brainwaves. I've forgotten what the paper was about, but was
thrilled to see the footage and to have the piece presented.
*	Chris Salter on a history of performance with media, beginning with
a fantastically forceful evocation of Russian Constructivis plays. I teach
this material, but Salter's presentation was vigorous and made a very strong
case for its inclusion in a "new media" history. 
*	Christiane Paul on curatorial issues with new media. This was also a
very professional (by which I mean good, clear, to the point) presentation
and very usefully laid out the difficulties involved, from curators having
to rebuild settings to house work to problems of bitrot to audience
development. Impressive and useful.
*	Machiko Kusahara on "device art" discussed Japanese aesthetics. This
was an art historically thin paper-no discussion of Fluxus, very loose
mention of Gutai and then Tanaka's electric dress but not the "painting
machines" of her husband-but the presentation of a different value-system
for Japanese "device art" (gizmos whose "art coefficient" is activated by
their use) was pretty convincing as well as very thought-provoking.
*	tour of the labs AND, surprisingly, the poster session, which was
cluttered and weird but also the one moment in the conference when people
really talked to each other's ideas
*	Tim Druckrey's screening of apocalyptic Virilio. He gave a very lazy
but passionate paper, basically asking why on earth new media would want to
be included in an old canon, and noting that a far bigger problem is present
in Nicholas Bourriaud's blythe "relational aesthetics" than in the October
cabal's control of high theory.
*	Michael Naimark's corporatist but useful analysis of the
sustainability of new media institutions.
*	Johannes Goebel's passionate and pragmatic overview of two such
*	the final, quasi-impromptu "crit, self-crit" session led by Sara
Diamond. This was where most of the lingering meta-issues were put on the
table, and it was done in such a way that those in the room I think felt it
was really a high point and a great note on which to finish. Left the
feeling that while there is work to be done it will be done.


I didn't go to everything, needless to say, and doubtless there were good
things on other panels. I heard that Claus Pias's paper on cybernetics was
excellent, for instance.


That said, the conference overall suffered greatly from what Trebor Scholz
and Geert Lovink have dubbed "panelism": a territorial structure in which
moderators also delivered papers within the format of a way over-tight
schedule and with virtually no time for questions; a few speakers went
beyond their alotted minutes in the first sessions and then panels were
policed to an almost draconian degree, making the entire assembly tense.
Discussions were notably truncated. In fact, to this art historian it seemed
weird that people would gather for a conference on something as shifting and
relatively openly defined as "new media" (how many papers in fact began with
loose attempts to list the salient features of new media) and then sit and
hear something they could have read already. for though the organizers had
posted quite a number of papers on their official website beforehand, it was
clear that most attendees hadn't read those papers. and then not discuss
what they had heard.


What surfaced in the tension around (non) discussion was a big mess of
anxieties. Topped by the anxiety over having "new media art" categorized as
"art" or as "new media," these inflected many of the panel presentations and
discussions, and not in a productive way. Part of the problem, as Andreas
Broeckman pointed out in the final crit session, was that the mission of the
conference was probably too broadly and vaguely defined. But what I heard
over and over again was "traditional art history" can't deal with new media.
The first thing I'd want to know is, what precisely is "traditional art
history"? From Simon Penny's castigation of art history as racist,
imperialist, classist, etc., it sounded to me like what was meant was
Berensonian connoisseurship; this seemed overwrought, but his excursus was
only the most vigorous and politically thought-through of a frequent plaint.
Yet while he was quite right to note that cultural studies wasn't mentioned
once at the conference his characterization of art history is way behind the
times. Art history and new media share Walter Benjamin and, for better or
worse, Rudolf Arnheim; new media people would do well to read Panofsky and
Warburg, just as I and at least some of my colleagues read Weiner and
Kittler. Art history may not yet be able to deal with new media, but perhaps
it is also the case that new media doesn't know how to deal with art


On this score a truly low moment was struck on the first day by Mark Hansen,
whose hatchet job on Rosalind Krauss was so lame that even the new media
theorists were bugged. Instead of new media bemoaning its lack of
recognition by art history and then its savaging of same ("we want to be
with you; we hate you" or "I love you; go away") it might be more productive
to stage a genuine encounter. Leaving aside Andreas Broeckman, who gave a
very nice but grossly amputated (ran out of time) presentation on aesthetics
and new media, and the truly awful presentation comparing the websites of
the Louvre and the Hermitage, the art historians who were at the conference
were either working with medieval Islamic art or with the visual culture of
science. That is, there were no art historians dealing with contemporary art
who were not already part of the inner circle of new media people; yet this
is precisely the encounter that needs to be staged. Meanwhile Mark Tribe,
not an art historian, gave an extremely art historically lame presentation
on appropriation, and while the broader point was, well, okay, his
presentation of the historical material was painful and for at least this
listener undermined his credibility. (On the other hand, Cornelius Borck, a
historian of medicine, gave a terrific presentation-historically nuanced,
intelligently read, and carefully researched-on the optophone of Raoul
Hausman and Hausman's complicated relationship to prosthesis.) From my
perspective this suggests a serious problem of disciplinarity: surely just
as new media artists/theorists expect a sophisticated treatment from art
historians (Simon Penny again: art historians should learn engineering,
cognitive science, neuroscience before they discuss new media.) so new media
artists and theorists should treat the work that comes before-both art and
media-with the historical complexity (without going to Pennyian excess) art
history at its best demonstrates. 


Other issues that came up: 

*	Problems of storage & retrieval of new media work. From an
historical point of view this demonstrates a remarkable degree of
self-consciousness on the part of new new media-something new, incidentally,
in the longer history of media, and interesting as a phenomenon.
*	Huge anxiety about the "art" status of new media, alongside a
subthematic of the relation to science and to scientific models of research.
*	Adulatory fetishizing of cognitive science, engineering, and
neuroscience (in marked contrast to the dissing of art history).
*	Lack of a fixed definition of new media, with repeated nods to
hybridization, bodily engagement, non-hierarchical structure, networking,
and so on.
*	Disconnect of the keynote speakers. Couchot had difficulty with
English and seemed, while emphasizing hybridity, to be speaking from another
time. Sarat Maharaj rambled for nearly 2 hours about Rudolf Arnheim and the
Other; I found this talk excruciating, though I later spoke with someone
(media artist, go figure) for whom it had been a high point. And Lucia
Santaella's beautifully delivered, rigorously near-hallucinatory and
religious but to me quasi-apocalyptic vision of the "semiotic" and
"post-human" present/future of the "exo-brain" was a chilling picture of
*	Ongoing problem of gender and geographic distribution. While
non-Western topics cropped up here and there at the conference, the one
panel that dealt in any extended way with non-Western paradigms was also the
one panel that was almost all female-and also the panel that got the most
flak in its few minutes of discussion, in part because most of those dealing
with non-Western paradigms were Western. This relegation of dealing with the
Other to the women is typical. There was also some grumbling that many of
the non-Western projects had been tucked into the poster session rather than
elevated to panel status. It would have been good to have some
representation from Africa, or even a panel on doing new media in less
media-rich environments than Euro-Ameri-Nippon.
*	Comical reliance on and then debate about Powerpoint.. And then, as
one member of the audience pointed out, nearly all of the people at the
conference in their ppt-critical right-thinking wisdom had little glowing
apples at their desks. No sign of Linux.


That's a sketch, replete with opinion. I'd encourage anyone interested in
more specific information about the conference to check the website at
www.mediaarthistory.org <http://www.mediaarthistory.org/> , which has some
papers up as well as abstracts.


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