Why Is It so Difficult to Define New Media Art ?

December 19, 2015

To define new media art is almost as difficult as to define art. Why is that? Why is there so much confusion over this term? One of the possible answers would be that the penetration of new media into contemporary art practices is an ongoing process – we can say when new media and technology began to emerge within the field of contemporary art; however, with never-ending development of new media and digital devices, there has never been a moment when theoreticians and experts could more theoretically define this important genre in contemporary art. What is digital art? What is new media art? What are the boundaries of new media art? I am afraid there are no clear answers to these questions, but let’s give it a try.

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It is difficult to give one definition of what is new media art or media arts - it includes all sorts of visual media as well as video and web and internet technology works
The Experience Machine exhibition at Ikkan Art International, 2012 (courtesy of artinasia.com)

Defining Art Movements and Genres

We already concluded that it’s a difficult task to define new media art. But, what about other movements and genres? It’s easier, but it’s still difficult. For example, we could say that conceptual art is art genre in which the concept(s) or the idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. Similarly, suprematism is an art movement, focused on basic geometric forms, such as circles, squares, lines, and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colors. These are pretty clear definitions; it’s clear what the movements and genres are about; not many doubts are left.

And What About New Media Art as a Genre?

On the other hand, when we see definitions of new media art or digital art, we are left a bit confused, and with a lot of questions to be posed. New media art is usually defined as a genre that encompasses artworks created with new media technologies, including digital art, computer graphics, computer animation, virtual art, Internet art, interactive art, video games, computer robotics, 3D printing, and art as biotechnology. But, then we could pose questions such as: What is new media? What is digital art? What is the difference between interactive art and new media art? Let’s try to deconstruct this definition, in order to better understand this important genre.

Virtual reality interactive installation works are a great example of new media art medium because it shows the history and evolution of this type of arts
World Skin (1997), Maurice Benayoun's Virtual Reality Interactive Installation

New Media

New Media is a term that is usually been used to any content available on-demand through the Internet, accessible on any digital device, usually containing interactive user feedback and creative participation. A defining characteristic of new media is a dialogue or interaction. Although the new media are not exclusively related to new media art (since it’s much more important for social and cultural changes in contemporary society), new media created a space for new contemporary art practices.

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As such, many topics that are recurring in "traditional" art forms, such as painting and sculpture, can be found within the realm of this movement too, like politics and social consciousness - due to the interactive nature of its tools. New media transmit content through connection and conversation – and this feature is something that is also characteristic of art, isn’t it? The interaction between an artwork and a viewer, between artists and audience, between an artwork and its creator – and precisely there is a problem while finding a precise definition of new media art: if one of the main characteristics of new media art is interaction, what differentiates this genre from other art movements?

International education about new media art and technology is available through internet or school book material and film video tutorials
Shih Chieh Huang, EX-DD-06, 2006 (courtesy of lipmag.com)

New Media Art as Interaction

First of all, new media art differentiates itself by its resulting cultural objects and social events, which can be seen in opposition to those deriving from old visual arts (i.e. traditional painting, sculpture). This concern with the medium is a key feature of much contemporary art and indeed many art schools and major Universities now offer majors in "New Genres" or "New Media". Therefore, we could say that the main part of the definition of new media art cannot be interaction or dialogue. What is performance art if not a dialogue between a performer and audience? So, we should focus on other characteristics of this genre; otherwise, it can overlap a number of other contemporary art practices.

It is difficult to give one definition of what is new media art or media arts - it includes all sorts of visual media and technology that is based on interactions suitable for gallery spaces
Eduardo Kac's installation Genesis Ars Electronica 1999

Terminology Problems in Media Art

When someone tries to define new media art, an additional problem emerges: there are so many terms that are often mixed, or misused for this genre. We wrote about computer art, abstract art, urban art, etc. We could pose a question: Aren’t all these art practices part of new media art? The answer would be yes, so we could conclude that new media art is actually a very broad term. Why would we have a separate name for an art practice which focuses on interaction (interactive art) if we already have a term for it? The main problem is that new media art could be understood as an umbrella that covers a number of different contemporary art practices – from pixel art to the art of gifs. In addition, so many other art movements use new media technologies in the process of displaying artworks. There is a vast majority of amazing installation artworks that cannot be presented without the use of new media. Can performance or conceptual artworks be collectible if they do not embrace new media art?

The Inheritance - New Media Art Performing

A Bright Future Awaits New Media Art

New media art still has to be more theoretically and conceptually developed. It seems that artistic practices are faster – experts and theoreticians are not able to follow all the new developments in this genre. But, let’s just mention there is a number of great art experts and theoreticians studying and examining new media art: Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Jack Burnham, Mario Costa, Edmond Couchot, Fred Forest, Oliver Grau, and many others. Thanks to their work, we can better understand the art of new media and digital artist (just to mention Ralf Baecker, Yannick Val Gesto, Kate Steciw, Cory Arcangel). And it seems that new media art has quite a bright future. First, with the unprecedented development of technology, it is probably to expect that the number of young artists will embrace this genre. It’s also expected that the popularity of this movement will be constantly increasing. Also, a number of artists from more “traditional” art movements are beginning to use all the possibilities new media art offers – they are not necessarily becoming new media artists, but they use some elements of the genre.

What's also on the rise is the festivals dedicated to this form of arts. We wrote about it at length here, and the number of these festivals seems to be growing fast exponentially. Today, we can talk about events on almost all seven continents, with some of them already achieving worldwide fame, such as the German Transmediale, or Silicon Valley's Zero1. Another important aspect is 3D printed art, gaining serious attention in the past five years alone and threatening to become the primary form of expression for many new media artists. This technology has allowed creatives to approach the traditional physical form of a sculpture by mixing the computational base of new media art with its basic concepts. A pioneer in this field was artist Jonty Hurwitz, who created the first known anamorphosis sculpture using 3D printing. Finally, a number of other questions could be posed: What is the position of curators within new media art (or, do we need curators at all)? Will new media art overlap all other contemporary art practices? However, this is a subject for another article.

 Editors’ Tip: Beyond New Media Art

Originally published in Italian with the title Media, New Media, Postmedia in 2010, this book caused some debate outside of Italy, which made the author, Domenico Quaranta, translate the book in English and call it Beyond Media Art. This volume tries to analyze the current positioning of so-called New Media Art in the wider field of contemporary arts and to explore the historical, sociological and conceptual reasons for its marginal position and under-recognition in recent art history. On the other hand, this book is also an attempt to suggest new critical and curatorial strategies to turn this marginalization into a thing of the past and to stress the topicality of art addressing the media and the issues of the information age.
Feature Image: Miao Xiaochun - Metamorphosis-Doubt, 2011 (courtesy of ionawhittaker.com). All Images used for illustrative purposes only.

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Kate Steciw