Electronic Art Must be Destroyed
by Ian Haig, 2011
Ars Electronica and ISEA have positioned themselves as the world’s leading events showcasing electronic art over the years. However Ars Electronica with its own cyber art show, represents a title that seems decidedly dated. I also wonder the currency and value of these events in 2011. Ars Electronica’s own imperative of a 21st century, technological, futurist art, comes across as strangely retro and longing for 1993.
What is so often sorely missing in events like Ars Electronica and ISEA is a sense of playfulness in much of the work. Gestures such as banality, perversity, humour, pop culture and self-reflexivity all seem alarmingly absent from much electronic art. Such conditions these days one takes for granted within the visual arts. However In events like ISEA and Ars Electronica, the art, more often than not falls into the following categories: serious, earnest , dry, humourless, technologically sophisticated and most of all totally devoid of irony.
Electronic art posits itself in such a way, I can only gather because it is closely aligned to research funding, ARC Guidelines and university support and art as ‘research’ with its worthy outcomes – but really we don’t need more electronic art like this, the world is full of it. There indeed seems no room for other kinds of sensibilities or other kinds of thinking. What is needed is more electronic art that is more lateral in its themes, more messed up, more inspired by John Waters than Manual Delanda. More dirt, more filth and trash is just what is needed.
Maybe the answer is just get rid of Ars Electronica and ISEA and force those artists and academics who associate with those events to find other more lateral ways of exhibiting their work, and presenting their ideas. What’s so great about existing in a ghetto anyway? That’s the death of anything.
For at ISEA I just couldn’t take any new media academic seriously who uses the terms virtual space, cyber art, or is interested in 2nd life (which is the aesthetic equivalent of Siggraph graphics from 1989) or who evangelizes endlessly about user-generated content and the internet.
The stigma against electronic art has always been that it is chiefly concerned only with the form ie: technology, and less so with content. However it’s not the technology that is the problem, it’s the sensibilities driving it, which push the work into this kind of remote, dry, overtly serious domain. It’s as if electronic artists suffer from a degree of insecurity with their place in the world and pile on the po- faced technological agendas in order to compensate – but it’s not necessary. For technology, GPS data, programming, processing, databases are not content, they only become content in an artwork when you do something interesting with them.
Ars Electronica, like a lot of art at ISEA, trades in new media conceptualism, whereby the aesthetic experience of the work is often secondary to the concept underpinning it. However I feel if electronic art is eager to be perceived just like contemporary art, it needs to take on more ideas around materiality, viewer engagement and an aesthetic experience of some kind. Otherwise just tell me about it, don’t bother exhibiting anything.
One work at Ars Electronica that certainly fell into this category but was still memorable and managed to be both playful and self-reflexive was Caleb Larsen’s A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter. The work consisted of a black box, which has an internet connection. When plugged into the web it activates its own eBay account and sells itself, like the ultimate electronic art work, that defined its own value and its own existence as it distributed itself through the web.
Pop Culture too has caught up with electronic art in many ways. It’s no longer special, it’s everywhere, and new media artists certainly aren’t special, so why do we still need ‘special events’? Twenty years ago TISEA was presented in Sydney and many of those cheesy utopian proclamations around virtual reality, cyber culture and networked space have come to pass and filter through to the mainstream in different ways. In an art form that is so aligned with current technology in 2011, and treats it so seriously it too risks coming across as dated as the virtual reality of 1992.
For example Artists like Cory Arcangel and Paper Rad understand this notion of an already exhausted visual language of digital culture and perversely play with such ideas in their practice, doing so quite self consciously and successfully within the visual art world. Now this is the rub: electronic art seems incapable of critiquing its own culture from the inside, it is only on the outside of events like Ars Electronic and ISEA , with a degree of critical distance that this is really possible. Therefore aren’t these events obsolete?
The traveling club med fraternity of ISEA , is too uncritical of itself, too self serving of its own existence to see the problems with such events. While there were some interesting things exhibited and papers presented at Ars Electronica and ISEA, it could be so much more interesting. Invite a San Fernando Valley porn producer to talk about web technologies, or get a real convicted ex crim to talk about internet privacy: this would be much more interesting and certainly more entertaining.
Originally events like Ars Electronic and ISEA established themselves as a platform for showing electronic art in a world when the mainstream visual art world avoided the territory, but this is no longer the case. Events like the recent Venice Biennale had all manner of work one could describe as expanded media arts. While not self consciously ‘technological’ or ‘interactive’, media art works at Venice negotiate the technology in ways that combine it strongly with an aesthetic sensibility, playfulness, and content that works in ISEA and Ars Electronica so often stumble with.