In part two of her exploration of the nature and impact of digital arts technologies, Helen Cadwallader examines the distribution of new media art.
The origins of new media art are many and various but a key influence is the development of the mass media and of communications systems. These prompted the critical debates of the 1960s and ?70s which challenged the values underpinning the cultural divide of art as ?high? and popular culture as ?low? and the power invested through mass media broadcasting and print. A strong counter cultural movement emerged which recognised the importance of harnessing media production and distribution to articulate alternative voices and visions and to challenge the prevailing mainstream culture and power base.

It is against this background that new media art developed during the early to mid 1990s. Unlike media such as video, which remained reliant on traditional modes of dissemination, the availability of computer technology on the mass market coincided with the emergence of the Internet. The result - inexpensive media production was coupled with unmediated access to a potentially limitless audience and user.

What we now have is a practice and context for an artform which mixes popular culture and entertainment. The net-based work of the internationally recognised artists Thomson and Craighead (http://www.thomson-craighead.net) playfully parodies the various cultures which have emerged on-line, from the commercial through to the populist and highly specialised niche interests of Yahoo?s ?Geo-Cities? site . Similarly, Sodaplay (http://www.sodaplay.com) has produced an online e-toy,?Constructor?, enabling the user to manipulate their own graphic animations ? a work which was recognised by BAFTA last year through the award for ?Interactive Arts?.

The immediacy of the net as a form of distribution free from mediation, has been mobilised and developed by practitioners and artist collectives with a radical and democratising effect. The UK-based artist collective, Irational, has led the way in exposing and challenging the power interests of e-commerce and particular social value systems at the heart of the mass media and the net (http://www.irational.org). The development of ?Net Art? through European based groups including Jodi (http://www.jodi.org/map for ease of use) and practitioners such as Vuk Cosic (http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk) directly challenge both the commercialisation of the net and the institution of ?art? as a mediating agency based on values through which work is considered worthy of critical approval and historicising and as a marketable product.

These specialised forms of cultural engagement and artistic production have created similarly specialised networks and collectives online. Organisations such as Rhizome (http://www.rhizome.org),?Art Entertainment Network? spaces of The Walker Art Gallery, USA (http://www.walkerart.org/nmi) and ZKM (http://www.zkm.de}), have led to policies for presenting and archiving work on-line.The UK-based CRUMB (http://www.newmedia.sunderland.ac.uk/crumb) offers an excellent archive for curating online.

Beyond these close networks and allegiances, new media art continues to have a relatively low profile existing precariously beyond, and in spite of, the established institutional infrastructures of the museum and art gallery.

How can established institutions and their audiences engage with new media as a creative form of artistic practice and not only as a design-led educational tool? The language and vocabulary of new media art is still developing, leaving open ideas of how this work might be curated, presented and interpreted. Purchasing and collecting such ephemeral and free-for-all work has hardly begun. This is further complicated by the works themselves, activated by technologies, software and plug-ins which are then superseded by endless revisions or whole new systems often resulting in technological obsolescence. The latent cultural resistance within the new media sector and the technical problems aside, it is vitally important for established institutions to develop a considered, systematic and informed approach to collecting and archiving new media art during this relatively early period to identify and record emerging historical and aesthetic trends.

Within the UK, capital investment in the arts through the Lottery funded Arts Capital Programme promises to create new contexts for appropriate presentation and engagement sensitive to the special attributes and operation of distributed media arts based forms. The soon-to-be-completed FACT in Liverpool (http://www.fact.co.uk) and the Baltic in Gateshead (http://www.balticmill.com) along with a refurbished Watershed in Bristol and the proposed Centre for Time Based Media in Hull (http://www.timebase.org) all promise to deliver informed contexts for the production and discussion of new media work. Smaller scale production spaces such as Vivid in Birmingham, The Lighthouse in Brighton and PVA in Bridport (http://www.pva-org.demon.co.uk) also offer excellent centres for production and skills development for practitioners. Agencies such as Film and Video Umbrella (http://www.fvumbrella.com) and e-2 (http://www.e-2.org) continue to play a vital role in commissioning and curating work online, whilst Media Art Projects undertakes a broad range of media arts related events and research (c/o http://www.southspace.org). The development of these production centres will enable the UK to operate on an international platform alongside the major European centres of excellence such as V2 (http://www.v2.nl) and ZKM and the Banff centre in Canada (http://www.banffcentre.ab.ca).

The future of new media art rests on better resources for research and production and informed engagement to the benefit of potentially unprecedented audiences. The challenge is also to acknowledge its inescapable impact and potential in the blurring of distinctions between artforms.

Helen Cadwallader is Visual Arts Officer: Media Arts at the Arts Council of England t: 020 7973 6474 e: helen.cadwallader@artscouncil.org.uk