Article categories: Issue 78
December 16th, 2011

“Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”
The Borg, Star Trek

Twenty-five years ago when the First International Symposium on Electronic Art (FISEA) was held in Europe, electronic art was in its infancy and occupied a marginal position in relation to the mainstream art world and everyday life. Clunky computers the size of micro-waves were only just appearing on people’s desktops, and digital processes were rarely a part of contemporary art practice. Video art was largely practiced in ghettoised festivals, and techno-arts were seldom seen in biennales or museums.

Image: D. E. Pie

Today it is often argued that electronic technologies have moved from these margins to become a central component of mainstream culture, enabling the creation and consumption of a great deal of contemporary art, design and popular culture. Computer graphics, interactive games, electronic music, mobile platforms, digital video and networked experience may once have been cutting edge, but now they’ve been assimilated across so many artistic practices that they’ve become the mainstay of contemporary global culture. Artists’ experiments with new technologies may have contributed to the emergence of many familiar tropes of the present, but now such fascination is passé.

According to this line of thinking, the world’s resistance to digital and electronic technologies has proven futile, and electronic arts are now embedded in the heart of twenty-first century everyday life. Mission accomplished. Pervasive, ubiquitous, and undeniable, electronic art forms have gradually assimilated ye olde worlde ways of thinking and doing.

Or have they? In his beautifully illustrated and well-documented volume on the history of Art and Electronic Media, Edward Shanken convincingly demonstrates the close interconnection between technological advancement and artistic experimentation. He points out that despite this history, the significance of much electronic art has been under-recognised:

In our own time, electronic technologies have become so pervasive that it is hard to imagine contemporary music produced without electric instruments or to imagine an author writing or an architect designing without the aid of a computer. Yet, with few exceptions, electronic art has remained under-recognized in mainstream art discourses. This is true despite the deeply entwined histories of technology and art, and the impressive accomplishments of contemporary artists whose practices have both embraced and contributed to the development of emerging technologies. That lack of recognition has begun to change.

Things may be changing, but for many artists who use technological processes in their work, the challenges are as great today as they were at the birth of ISEA. While some of the electronic technologies that artists have worked with may now be ubiquitous, a number of questions seem more pertinent than ever.
Is it still important for artists to self-consciously engage with new technologies that have not yet entered into the mainstream of culture? How useful is the discourse of newness and invention, and is it worthwhile pursuing this avant garde strategy any longer?  Can we still argue that artists push the limits of new technologies in order to help us imaginatively experience and critically reflect upon life in the 21st century? And how useful is it for us to assert that digital or electronic art is a wellspring of innovation and the new norm in everything from publishing to TV, radio, games, film, fashion, music, architecture, design, applications and gadgets?

These are important questions, and form the starting point for some of the lines of enquiry that will inform ISEA2013, to be held in Sydney twenty-one years after ANAT hosted the Third ISEA in Australia (often referred to as TISEA). In 1992, TISEA proposed the dual themes of “Art and the Algorithm” and “Whither Cultural Diversity in the Global Village” in order to focus attention on the importance of critical reflection and debate around the use of code in art and the dangers of mono-culture in the rapidly evolving global techno-scape.

At that time there were many claims being made about the emergence of a bright cyber-future just around the corner, and artists found it important to make work that was critical of the instrumentalism often associated with such accounts. But how successful are the strategies of infiltrating museums and galleries, or of actively criticising what is now ubiquitous everyday techno-culture? Twenty-five years after the first ISEA, it’s pertinent to revisit these fundamental questions about the role and significance of technology in the arts and culture.

In his recent book, Synthetics: Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia, 1956-1975, Stephen Jones has shown that this complex interplay of art and technology between individuals, institutions and cultural contexts is not by any means new. His in-depth study of the conditions under which artists work with electronic means demonstrates the power of what he calls the “rolling new”.

Jones’s perspective on the artists and the artworks produced in the post-war period shows how the evolution of computing and video technologies could develop into powerful tools and new forms of media that artists could use. This constant technological flux provided vital opportunities for artists to renew and regenerate the relations between art and technology, which were often ignored by the mainstream art world, if not by the culture in general. This notwithstanding, Jones argues that there will always

… almost necessarily, be a period during which [technology] is immature and still being formed. It is especially in this period that the technology is open to change and it’s often precisely in this period that artists … discover the technology and make greatest use of it. Once a technology reaches maturity, it becomes simply a tool in the hands of the artist, invisible in its extension into the world, and its products become ubiquitous for the rest of us.

Over the past decade we have seen significant shifts in the ways that funding bodies, curators, and museums deal with the ubiquity of electronic art, which continues to oscillate between the margins and the central rubric of contemporary art and culture.

At this point we could ask whether electronic art and its proponents have been happily co-opted and generously included. Or has it been subjugated and ignored? Precisely who has assimilated whom?

The writer Darren Tofts has powerfully suggested that the pre-history of technological transformation (and especially the role artists have played) is “everywhere felt, but nowhere seen in the telematic landscape”. In this sense electronic art can be understood in its dual struggle for legitimacy and inclusion in wider histories at the same time that it is capable of mounting a strong rejection of and challenge to the structures of contemporary culture and art.

So has the cyber-future of the 1990s really arrived? Have we really been assimilated into mainstream culture and contemporary art? Yes, in more ways than we could possibly have anticipated (both good and bad). That’s why now, more than ever, we need to remain engaged in a critical dialogue with a technological culture that is more pervasive and intrusive than ever before.

Ross Rudesch Harley

Ross Rudesch Harley is an artist, writer, and educator in the field of new media and popular culture. His work crosses the bounds of media art practice, cinema, music, design, and architecture. Ross is Professor and Head of the School of Media Arts, College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He was Director of TISEA in 1992, and is Chair of the ISEA2013 Symposium Committee.

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