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The past ten years has seen the extraordinary growth and development of modern computing and electronic network technologies which have become firmly integrated in our everyday and working lives. But what exactly do we mean by ?new media? and ?new media art?? Helen Cadwallader explains in the first of a two-part feature.
We experience new media through the computer and related electronic networks in our place of work or at home. It is something we engage with on a one-on-one basis through the interface of a computer screen or through a mobile unit such as a mobile phone. We can spend hours absorbed with it, either accessing and/or producing our own resources and information. It has transformed our lives, enabling us to communicate and exchange information with each other with great speed and with the minimal intervention of a mediating agency.


The unique characteristics of new media are computability, connectivity and interactivity. These are evidenced through the interactive graphical human-computer interface, computer programming (including software tools and multimedia) and wired and wireless networking. As users, our interactivity is complicit since we are placed in an active role making choices as to how we navigate through networks or, as participants, collaborate in the production of works. Computation lies at the heart of new media and refers to a particular system of processing, transmitting and storing units and interfaces (how we engage with this information) for the input and output of information in all digitally based forms.

What then are the characteristics of ?new media art?? Over the last four years, the Arts Council of England has supported up to sixty projects through the New Media Projects fund alone which reveal the many different strategies used by artists and artist collectives to intervene, deconstruct and critique mainstream and popular uses and applications of new media.

Networks and processes

In the wired network of the web and net, our engagement with and ability to navigate this electronic space is made possible through the use of browser software. This enables us to move from one site to another and within a site itself, and to surf through a range of options quickly without questioning this process. New media art interrogates process. In 1997, the artist/programmer collective I/O/D produced their own software mechanism, ?Webstalker?, which enables the user to search for links - a process which is automatically visualised in diagram form. This work was made during the time when Netscape and Microsoft were fighting in the courts for a majority stake in the browser software market. As an independently programmed tool, Webstalker is a compelling critique of the commercial interests at the heart of the new media tools and software market and the growing commercialisation of the net. Webstalker also challenges our experience of ?surfing? the surface of the net as a naturalised process implicit in the design of the browser mechanism, by deconstructing and making explicit the actual flow of data.

?Donald Rodney: AUTOICON? is another dynamic Internet-based project; but in this instance the work simulates aspects of the presence and elements of the creative personality of artist Donald Rodney, who died from sickle-cell anaemia in March 1998 shortly after starting the project which was then completed by a close group of his friends and artists. By visiting the site we encounter the virtual presence of the artist through the legacy of his work, interviews and shared memories of friends and colleagues, and are invited to participate in simulated dialogue and produce work in the style of Rodney?s practice. Donald Rodney: AUTOICON, is, effectively, an ?auto-generative montage-machine?, determined by a set of rules which maintain the constant production of images, sound and text collected from the web. The work opens up questions of the artist as the singular author of a work, with its emphasis on automation and the users? active participation in activating new work.

Time and real time

Time is an implicit dimension in computation processes which we accept without question, but notice immediately whenever a glitch occurs. But time, and more specifically real-time, represents a phenomena unique to new media. ?Realtime?, a CD-ROM by John Hayward, playfully invites us to engage with this aspect of new media. On April 17, 1998, Hayward recorded a continuous 24-hour period of life in his flat, inviting his friends to drop by and hang out eating, drinking and chatting. When the CD is played back in the computer, the recording is specially synchronised with the computer?s clock, ensuring it will always be heard at the ?real time? when the recording was first made.

In their web based project ?Possessed?, (2001), Paul Smith and Vicky Isley expose these hidden processes of computational time as a kitsch reference to the ?ghost in the machine?. The user is invited to install the 'Spook Generator' onto their own computer which, in turn, generates a ?digital entity? or ?Spook?. Over time, the ?Spook? asks questions through computer dialogue boxes or plays games, literally, such as ping-pong. The ?Spook? is developed through further visits to the website and downloads from the second element of the project, the ?Spook Player?. This virtual visitation of your computer can last anything up to a year.

Immediacy and interactivity

Computability and electronic networks provide us with instant access to information, fuelling and creating a desire for immediate gratification and speedy navigation. ?.sciis [sensitive cumulative intelligent immersive systems]? (2001), devised by Michael Atavar in collaboration with programmer Pascal Auberson, confounds our mouse-click happy sensibility. This is a virtual environment on the web comprising of six abstract settings designed to unroll at a gradual pace. The environment is constructed through VRML (virtual reality modelling language) which is used to create 3-D modelled computer animated spaces with numerous commercial applications including gaming. But Atavar rejects the 3-D naturalism of VR aesthetics and draws on the colour field painting of Barnett Newman?s work from the 1950?s to construct a landscape that is flat and abstracted. We engage with a space which is not driven by narrative or speedy navigation and we are forced to slow down to accept an experience that is both emotive and sublime.

With these very particular properties of open access, interaction and relative ease of information distribution through the electronic network, the Internet has developed as a social space defined by communities of shared interest. Virtual Exiles (2000) by Roshini Kempadoo, offers an invitation to those individuals ?who have left their country of origin and who are now at ?home? in another? to share memories and personal narratives through the formats of photography, video or text. The site is a reflection on the experience of ?being ?settled? and ?rooted? within one culture and yet having a deep sense of belonging with another?.

In his CD-ROM Encyclopaedia (2000), the artist Alan Currall, draws on the knowledge and opinions of those who have influenced his own education or way of thinking by inviting his relations and friends to adopt the position of ?expert pundit? in explaining a range of concepts and phenomena. These talking heads are presented to us as choices derived from a long-list of subject categories such as ?Society and Culture? or ?The Natural World?. In this way the authority of this form of knowledge base ? the encyclopaedia ? is playfully challenged subverted.

New media art and culture

The electronic domain is a cultural space, influenced and determined by a diverse range of values and attitudes which cross geo-political boundaries, and shaped by a complex range of interests. New media art exists in this virtual space in either online or off-line formats (e.g. CD-ROM or SMS) and includes tools and software applications. This area of practice is time based and is dependent on the interaction of the individual user to engage with the work one-to-one, usually through a computer at home or at work. As users, new media art places us in a position that challenges and questions our expectations.

Helen Cadwallader is Visual Arts Officer: Media Arts for the Arts Council of England.

The New Media Art Projects fund deadline for 2002 is May 3. Details are available from Nicola Hood, Assistant Visual Arts Officer: Media Arts and Live Art, t: 020 7973 6474 e: nicola.hood@artscouncil.org.uk.

New Media Art Website addresses

Webstalker ?
http://www.backspace.org/iod (note: refer to the ?readme? file)

Donald Rodney: AUTOICON ?

Realtime CD-ROM ? c/o emailing

Possessed ?

.sciis [sensitive cumulative intelligent immersive systems] ?

Virtual Exiles ?

Encyclopaedia CD-ROM ? c/o emailing