Two Camps of New Media Art

New media art includes all art made on computer programs, new technical instruments, and that which employs concepts such as “data” and “information”. That’s my definition for now.

Within new media art there might be two camps, two sub-styles. One camp leans hard into the “newness” effect of new media. Artists in this camp create artworks which experiment with unique forms of overlapping colors, high-frequency oscillation, geometric complexity, and much more. They use newly developed tools and repurpose them to create stuff that the makers of the tool did not necessarily intend. This camp revels in the surprise gifts uncovered through playing with these tools. Here, the process is as important as the final result.

The other camp of new media is concerned with materializing the ephemerality of media. It wants to take bits and attach them to atoms, and vice versa. It wants to make the computer’s basic elements — bits — and make them touchable, as physical atomic things. Unlike the first camp which takes the bit deep and enjoys how far detached from atoms a bit can be, this second camp is a connector personality, and prefers to merge the two together. This camp sees bits and atoms as compatible types of information. The outcome of this viewpoint is an attitude of hybridity and ultimately produces organic, life-like, system-scale art.

Another way to distinguish between these camps is between “formalism” and “materialism”, appropriately. Perhaps this first formalist camp is best exemplified by artists like Muriel Cooper and Lillian Schwartz, who were pioneers in the field of visualizing the forms of this previously-visualized digital realm. They created fantastic images, like in Cooper’s Information Landscapes, and dizzyingly cool geometric wonders, like in Schwartz’s animations. Today Zach Lieberman, a self-proclaimed “code sketcher,” embodies the mantra of formalism by iterating new media forms every single day.

The materialist camp’s style I think is best described by artist James Bridle, in his description of “The New Aesthetic”. The new aesthetic is the way the built environment starts to reflect new media. An examples of this is how military camouflage garb starts to appear pixelated, as if it were a low resolution screen, instead of the classic organic rounded blobs. I think of this reverse motion from digital to physical as an inversion of the design model of biomimicry: call it technomimicry. Instead of taking from nature a design inspiration, one could take inspiration from the gestalt alien-ness of what we’ve already built. A new media artist in this camp is comfortable using both biomimicry and technomimicry aesthetics.

Beyond aesthetic, artists in this camp are mimicking processes of the material world and leveraging it as a creative constraint on their work. Neri Oxman is an artist who merges the aesthetic of atoms and bits into sculpture. She once took a wire scaffolding and suspended it from the ceiling, and then placed thousands of silk worms on in, and allowed the worms to fill in the gaps and create their own shapes, implying a hybridity between algorithmic and biological creation. Or take designer Julia Watson in her book “Lo-TEK” who documented traditional ecological knowledges from all over the world, such as Bali’s terraced rice fields, arguing that these techniques are highly advanced mode of technological thinking. One could also include the researcher Ivan Sutherland, a historical leader in computer science and in what we could now call UX design, also as a “materialist” camper for he was concerned with making the bits interfaceable through atoms.

My effort in distinguishing in what I see as two camps of new media art are to say that new media is expansive. The point is not that the camps oppose each other, but in fact that they produce similar effects. Namely, they both expand the definition of “media” to a wider and wider degree. Media can mean anything from a microbe to a screensaver. Media can be bits and it can be atoms (Nicholas Negroponte would agree!). Media can be discrete and it can continuous.

New Media then is not a genre just about making art with newly available technology but is instead a practice that makes us newly aware of the extent to which media is everywhere. It tells us the whole world is a medium. It tells us this medium is something soft, malleable, delicate, robust, composed of complexity and nonlinearity. It tells us how much there is still unknown and unfelt about it. This mental frame — that all is media and media is all — is an empowering state to which all new media artists contribute to.

A student of Media Ecology. More work at https://www.instagram.com/tywensnotes/

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