[iDC] interesting article on new media scene in LA

Judith Rodenbeck jrodenbe at slc.edu
Sat Oct 29 09:47:24 EDT 2005

Hi iDC list,

The LA Weekly article reproduced below links new media with Hollywood,
business models and education. It ties in to some extent with what Anna,
Ryan and Jon have been discussing. 

Here's the link to the article itself:

I find the current unproblematized adoption and valorization of the
business-model model very disturbing--and it's present not only in new media
circles but also in the theorizing of "relational aesthetics" as in MFA
programs. This business-model discourse has a history too--see Allan
Kaprow's "Should the Artist be a Man of the World" as well as his "Education
of the Un-Artist"--and I worry that with the piecemeal dismissal of history
the nuances--historical, ethical, "aesthetic"--of its implications may get
lost. Certainly that's what's happened in Bourriaud. But then again maybe
critical vanguardism is hopelessly retardataire.



Digital Universe
With L.A. at its center

³I¹m going to put the phone down now ‹ just hang on.²

Media artist Michael Naimark was at LAX one morning a few weeks ago, on his
way to the Banff Centre¹s 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 UCLA¹s Erkki Huhtamo, a new-media theorist, wasn¹t 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.

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 (1995­2000), 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 Irvine¹s 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: UCLA¹s N. Katherine Hayles, who
has written about how we became ³posthuman²; USC¹s Marsha Kinder, who heads
the Labyrinth Project, dedicated to experimenting with interactive
narrative; UC San Diego¹s Lev Manovich, who wrote The Language of New Media;
Art Center¹s Peter Lunenfeld, founder of Mediawork, a consortium of
new-media thinkers and artists, and creator of terms like ³digital
dialectic² and ³technoVolksgeist² 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. CalArts¹ ViralNet and USC¹s Vectors,
online journals that address media art and alternative scholarship, were
launched last year. UCI¹s 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 Center¹s Alyce de Roulet
Williamson Gallery continues to showcase media art ‹ over the summer, it
featured a stellar survey of Naimark¹s 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, it¹s
nearly impossible to sell and it¹s a pain in the neck to exhibit. Generally,
the term ³new-media art² 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
there¹s room here for an evolving art form to grow. ³For something
interesting to happen, you need a little bit of a vacuum,² 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. ³There¹s
certainly an art scene here, but it¹s 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 that¹s kind of good when you want to see
things develop and incubate.²

Los Angeles also seems particularly conducive to certain themes prevalent in
media art ‹ the fluid mixing of fact and fiction, for example. ³That seems
to really fly here,² says Hoberman. ³The cliché explanation would be that
that¹s like Hollywood, where everything is a façade, but I think it¹s 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 don¹t look like
art. People don¹t 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 aren¹t, but they do what good
art does,² namely raise interesting questions.

³Is new media defined by the materials or by the questions?² 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 he¹s
far more interested in the questions. He wants art that doesn¹t really look
like art. ³Machine is not interested in screen-based stuff or network-based
stuff. We like stuff that has a physical presence. I¹m not interested in art
about art, or art about technology. I¹m more interested in people¹s weird
obsessions.² Pushed to define things more clearly, Allen offers an example:
³There¹s 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 it¹s absurd.²

L.A.¹s other main new-media venue is Chinatown¹s 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 Snibbe¹s interactive installation Visceral Cinema: Chien. And, like
Machine, Telic hosts various workshops and art talks.

³The key part for us is the visitor coming into the gallery and being
involved bodily in the work,² says Whitton. She¹s particularly interested in
electronic media as a site for collaborations among different people ‹
artists, architects, engineers, scientists. ³That opens up the work for
other people to engage with as well.² She notes that Telic¹s audience has
interacted with ³wind and oil and live geese and fish, hundreds of
fluorescent lights, the movement of air,² mixed with ³all 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.²

That diversity certainly characterizes the practices of L.A.¹s 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 Diego¹s 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.

³It¹s a three-channel video installation that looks at the psychological
dimensions of the new security culture,² says Crandall. ³There 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
don¹t 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.² 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. ³All of my work has been interested in issues
around power and pleasure,² he says, ³orchestrated through new technologies
of vision.²

Julian Bleecker, who heads the Mobile and Pervasive Lab at USC¹s Interactive
Media Division, is similarly interested in what people might do with new
forms, especially when they¹re out in the world. ³Right now I¹m very
interested in topics related to what our sense of place is in a
psycho-geographic sense,² he says. ³What 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?²

Bleecker offers an example of the kinds of questions he considers. ³I¹ve
been doing a lot of traveling to the Pacific Rim,² he says. ³It¹s a 15-hour
plane ride, and you can¹t tell me that there isn¹t someone on that plane
that I might have an awesome conversation with. But I¹m in 50J and they¹re
in 24F, and we¹ll never meet.² 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 Bleecker¹s 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 ³island Internet² accessible to those in
proximity. So, if you¹re 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, you¹d be offering other café-goers access
to your own self-contained network. And that network could offer any number
of things, depending on how you¹d like to provoke or entertain those around
you. Because many of us have only the vaguest sense of how the Internet
actually functions, Bleecker¹s 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

Bleecker is working on a series of projects with artist and programmer Peter
Brinson under the rubric ³Vis-à-Vis Games² that are designed to combine
console and desktop gaming with the games you played outside as a kid. ³No
one could have speculated what the Internet would do with social
formations,² says Bleecker. ³A lot of what I do is running things up the
flagpole and seeing what comes of it. I like the sense of possibility.²

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. ³When I started working in this medium, it was like I
was from outer space,² she says. ³People 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

Vesna offers a pertinent example. ³I just met with medical doctors and a
designer to help come up with ideas for communications strategies for
Katrina survivors,² she says. ³In a mediated world, media artists have a
certain expertise to put out messages, whether in an art piece that¹s purely
experiential or in terms of very pragmatic messages that have to go out

Vesna¹s 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 ³Nano² at LACMA last year,
which was created by a team of artists and scientists in order to illustrate
ideas about nanoscience. Vesna¹s 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 project¹s 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.
³There¹s one point when they¹re in sync and they will have sex on the desk,²
reveals Lew.

³In a linear film, you have a lot of footage, but eventually an editor will
place all of the shots in a timeline,² Lew explains. ³Here you have all
these shots, but they¹re 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.²

³Are you still there?² 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 ³tensely harmonious² and ³harmoniously tense.²
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. ³Hollywood is in a situation that hasn¹t happened since the
birth of television in the ¹40s and ¹50s,² he says. ³Immersion, 3-D and
interactivity all offer possibilities, and artists are the ones working in
these areas right now.²

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 ³they can take a meeting
with Microsoft, present a paper at SIGGRAPH and have an installation at
[media-arts festival] Ars Electronica.² In other words, when they are
business-savvy, smart and artistic. But there¹s a social responsibility,
too, he notes before boarding his plane to Banff.

³We¹ve made a real mess of the world since Bush, and this can¹t be
overemphasized. There¹s 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, there¹s a
real polarization in terms of politics. Eventually, we¹ll look back at this
period as a dark cloud over cultural production and thinking.²

And what does he imagine we can do about it? ³I 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.²

Naimark¹s 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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