[NMF] TEXT: Media Art - A Mixed History, book review by Horea AVRAM


Media Art Histories, Edited by Oliver Grau;
Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: MIT Press, 2007.
More information: mediaarthistory.org

Media Art Histories, edited by Oliver Grau aims to occupy a central
position among an increasing number of edited volumes of essays
or overview histories dedicated to new media art. Like other such
endeavours Media Art Histories proposes to fill the gap between
a full-speed developing practice, and the crystallization of a
systematic theoretical knowledge and the establishment of an organized
historical basis (and in fact legitimacy) for the phenomenon of new
media art.

The principal merit of this book is synthesized in the title itself:
it doesn¹t pretend to deliver a history, but histories, that is, a
pluralist account of media art. Indeed, the volume is comprised of
a mosaic of approaches and attitudes regarding new media art seen
from a historical perspective. However, there is a declared common
premise, which is, according to the editor, the need to put media art
and its histories on a more stable basis, to bring them to a sort of
mainstream institutional recognition, and introduce new media ³full
time² in the academic curricula. And there is something more: the
affirmed ambition of this book to understand media art not only as a
technical/technological gadget but also as a complex theoretical issue
situated in a historical context and seen in relationship with other
akin disciplines: film, cultural and media studies, computer science,
philosophy, and sciences dealing with images.

In the very first sentence of the editor¹s introductory note, Oliver
Grau makes a bold statement that ³the book will discuss for the
first time the history of media art within the interdisciplinary and
intercultural contexts of the histories of art². The book¹s aim is
neither more nor less than to lay the first brick for the construction
of an ³evolutionary history of audiovisual media². And how will this
ambitious goal be achieved? As the editor states, by opening art
history to media art, by putting media art against the background of
art history while employing reflections from neighbouring disciplines.
Now, of course, the tone of the first quoted sentence is a little bit
bombastic. This volume is arguably not the first to deal historically
with media art. Grau¹s own book, Virtual Art: From Illusion to
Immersion contributed much to the development of this theme. But
what is certain is that media art, as one of the major practices
in contemporary art, deserves broader attention, and this book is
intended to be a step towards a wider recognition and a deeper
understanding of media art.

Despite its increasingly wider use, ³media art² is still an ³unstable²
term that varies according to the author¹s background, institutional
engagement, or theoretical intent. In our case, Grau doesn¹t attempt
to offer a tight definition of the notion, but the few denominations
the editor puts forward in the introductory text are meant to
establish the framework for discussion in the pages to follow: besides
photography, film and video, a wide range of digital practices like
Net art, interactive art, genetic and telematic art, or even robotics,
a-life and nanotechnology are to be considered. Media artists? Grau
brings in a few names at the beginning, but surely the list of active
people in the domain is‹fortunately‹much, much longer (Char Davies,
Hiroo Iwata, Karl Sims, Daniela Plewe and David Rockeby).

When examining media art, considers the editor, it is important for
us to observe which aspects are new and which are old, and then to
familiarize ourselves with media history, with its myths and utopias.
We are living in a world of images, where open and/or mobile access
becomes more and more the rule (think wearable devices, cell phones,
Internet, TV, cinema)‹a visual sensory sphere that profoundly affects
our perception of the surrounding world. Yet, our perception is not
simply a physiological process but a cultural act, so, in order
to decipher the what, how, who, when about new media (art), it is
necessary to take a closer look at the legacy left by historical media
in literature concerned with (artistic and scientific) visualization.
Two possible models for constructing such a complex media art history,
believes Grau, are the ³older and successful² tradition named ³image
science² (a cultural history-oriented, inter- and trans-disciplinary
approach in art history developed by Aby Warburg), and Panofsky¹s
³new iconology², both of which emerged at the beginning of twentieth
century. This new interdisciplinary subject it is believed to be
in good company with other contemporary disciplines that deal
historically with scientific or artistic image.

So, the building of a media art history should start from its origins,
hence the title of the first part of the book: ³Origins: Evolution
versus Revolution². Part Two ³Machine-Media-Exhibition², goes further
and tries to clarify some of the key terms in media art theory. But
the concrete forms that nourish media art today are also of great
importance, therefore ³Pop and Science²‹the third part‹examines the
contemporary cultural context. Finally, Part Four, ³Image Science²,
deals with what already was mentioned above, the need to establish a
functional ³image science².

As is the case with almost every edited book, the texts gathered in
this volume are not equal in terms of value or ³scientific weight².
Nor do the authors have the same calibre. But Grau knew to find the
necessary balance between the more general, lighter texts and the
³heavy-duty², theoretically solid and accomplished writings. Among
the contributors are: Rudolf Arnheim, Peter Weibel, Dieter Daniels,
Edmond Couchot, Christiane Paul, Lev Manovich, W.J.T. Mitchell, Ron
Burnett etc. New media (art) is primarily characterized by immediacy,
by the use of ephemeral images, therefore discussing in the first
essay the ³coming and going² status of image is an indispensable
starting point (Rudolf Arnheim, ³The Coming and Going of Images²).
With its programmatic tone, this text is a call for considering
images‹even temporary ones‹necessarily in relationship with a more
stable historical context. The essays of the first section actually
try to consider such a context (see for example Peter Weibel¹s
discussion of (neo)-constructivist and kinetic experiments, Dieter
Daniels¹ treatment of Duchamp¹s bachelor machines as ³universal
machines², or Grau¹s examination of the tradition of a ³cultural
technique of immersion²).

Doesn¹t matter how ³new² new media art is, it stands in a continuum
with previous practices, even if lots of its intrinsic aspects
(especially technical) are radically changed. This is, at least, what
the majority of the texts in the second section let us understand.
For example, the tendency toward automation can be traced down to
primitive art (Edmond Couchot, ³The Automatization of Figurative
Techniques: Toward the Autonomous Image²), or, as Andreas Broeckmann
demonstrates, there is an aesthetic continuity between analog and
digital in what concerns the experiential qualities of art (³Image,
Process, Performance, Machine: Aspects of an Aesthetics of the

If there is not a clear dividing line between past/analog and
present/digital, new media brings, however, some profound changes.
The third section discusses these transformations and one of them
is blurring the differences between producer and consumer through
interactivity: responding to an old desire, new media offers the
viewer ³fully embodied experiences with screen-based media². (Ron
Burnett, ³Projecting Minds²). Another aspect of these changes is,
according to Lev Manovich (³Abstraction and Complexity²), the fact
that contemporary software abstraction relies rather on a paradigm
of complexity than on reduction and essentialism like the modernist

Indeed, new media brought image to an unprecedented status, and at
the same time they place image at the center of an interdisciplinary
analytic debate, one that is called ³New Image Science² (section
four). The questioning of the image as a purely visual medium is only
one aspect of this debate, and advocating medium¹s intrinsically mixed
status is W.J.T. Mitchell¹s goal in his provocative essay ³There Are
No Visual Media².

A good point is that the book opens media art histories also toward
non-Western territories (for example, medieval Arab automata and
contemporary Japanese art). Significantly, the editor avoids to
dedicate an‹almost mandatory, in academic publications‹section devoted
to gender and sexual aspects of the problem. Media Art Histories
prefers to talk about art and media themselves and not about the
sexuality of those involved in them. Despite the fact that it lacks
the so-useful index, overall, the book can be a good tool for research
especially by keeping a fine equilibrium between art history, media
theory, philosophy, cultural studies, image science and computer
science. Media Art Histories provides a wide view on the complex,
in-progress field of media art, in which this volume intends to stand
as one of the main bibliographical reference points.


Horea AVRAM is Ph.D. candidate in Art History and Communication
Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Canada. FQRSC doctoral
fellowship holder. Art critic and independent curator from 1996.

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