a. Art and Media:
The term "Media Art" is of course a rather silly term. All Art is "media" Art.
However, the current (i.e. permanent) crisis of confusion and decay regarding the meaning and value of Art suggests that dropping the term "Media" allowing a total dissolution into the category "Art" would be a loss of opportunity to revitalize both concept and practice of "Art".
The problem then is to define a set of boundary paradigms which separate (i.e. preserve) a healthy practical development from misleading and unwanted dogmas.
2. Some Boundary Paradigms:
a. Media and Art:
Except for literature, which essentially has natural language as immaterial medium, all art forms are imbedded in a physical medium.
Even the electronic Arts are eventually perceived in terms of light/sound patterns or controlled physical machines moving both in time and physical space. Telepathy, although long a dream of some is not yet a viable form of communication and one may seriously ask -if it did exist, would its lack of medium disqualify it as an Art form.
Surely, it is the sensory and aesthetic aspects of the medium that play an essential role in dividing Art from other related forms of human mental speculation such as Science, Religion or Philosophy.
It cannot be pure chance that categorization of Art forms generally are based on the medium used i.e. painting, drawing, photography, dance, music, etc..
The definition of the medium and the exploration of the consequences of the definition are an essential part of artistic practice.
b. Form and Content:
By placing the concept "medium" central to art practice, one becomes immediately confronted by the traditional problem of "Form and Content".
Essentially the problem arises when the duality becomes separated: There is no "Form" without "Content" (i.e. meaning) and there is no "Content" without "Form".
Both Meaning and Form are based on relationships: Relationships between actions and materials within a complex nexus of definitions and interpretations.
Form leads to Meaning and Meaning leads to Form. By creating Definitions we create mental patterns of related phenomena. Commonalities of function, construction or sensory nature in perceived phenomena lead to the construction of conceptual categories and the formation of labeled concepts.
By defining a Square we distinguish it from a Circle. The Form being then a direct result of the definition. Should we choose to interpret a Square as being Static and Stable while a Circle is assumed to be Dynamic and Unstable then it is because the Form of the objects exhibit these qualities when being pushed or rolled around. Starting from a material universe we may choose to interpret the square in abstract terms of Stability, but we may just as easily wish to interpret the immaterial concept "Stability" in the material form of a Square. The direction of the relationship between (mental) object and its interpretation is one of arbitrary convenience and not of inherent quality.
Variations in relationship between phenomena determine definitions. However the way phenomena are perceived (or interpreted) also affects the relationships that can be discovered between them. For example, the characteristics of a person will change depending on how we view them -as figure of authority, member of family, enemy, friend or lover. So the way we perceive things affect the formal relationships between them but may also have emotional, practical, logical or interpretational implications, possibly leading to conflict and paradox.
It is surely one of the tasks of "Media Art" to explore the implications of variation in formal relationships.
c. Medium and Image:
Clearly, the artistic process centers around the ability to use a medium for the generation of Images. In other words, the medium functions as a construction-kit for the production of Images.
Just like any other construction-kit, a medium consists of a collection of materials, or basic (elemental) objects, plus a set of operations or procedures which allow the basic elements to be modified, connected or transformed in some way or another.
Obviously, each Medium encourages production of some types of Images and inhibits the production of others. Moving images are difficult to produce in stone and video images are difficult to hold in the hand. Sometimes, part of the fun of the game is trying to make Images that appear to transcend the limitations of the Medium -i.e. statues that breath, dancers that fly, paintings that open windows into new spaces. At other times, this denial of the Medium may be denied and Images are produced which affirm the limitations (and qualities) of the Medium.
d. Physical Media and Conceptual Media:
Just as construction-kits can differ in complexity, so do Media. Some Media, such as photography, embrace complex mixtures of mechanical, chemical and optical systems while others such as modeling and painting consist simply of the addition or subtraction of a basic material such as clay, wax or paint. It is the physical characteristics of the Medium that determine the physical limits of the Image.
However, the possible is not always desirable. Different people have different interests and fascinations. Photography, for example may be viewed by one person as "Painting with Light" while another person may be more fascinated by the mechanics of the optical system, the possibilities of photo-chemical processing, the recording process and its seemingly objective nature, the selective segmentation of time and space or even the psychological, social or cultural implications of the images and their means of production. This personal approach to, or analysis of, the Medium we can call the "Conceptual Medium" because it also (partly) determines the Images that may be produced by the Medium.
One could say that the Physical Medium creates the total of possibilities of the Medium, while the Conceptual Medium restricts the possible to within the desired range of personal fascinations. However, the Conceptual Medium can also extend the Physical Medium by determining and specifying which limitations can be accepted and which must be transcended, often suggesting a way in which this can be achieved.
e. Physical Image and Conceptual Image:
Human beings, although skilled in manipulating their external environment seem remarkably poor in modifying their own internal states. However, the external environment does seems to affect the internal state.
From the dawn of time mankind has learned to manipulate Media to produce and modify Images in order to produce and modify Concepts, Thoughts and Feelings. To generate, explore and manipulate internal conditions through external Images.
f. Ideas and Concepts:
Concepts are not static Ideas like "God is good" or "Racism is bad", but are dynamic clouds of elemental "mental categories" which in fact form the basic parameters of mental space. Time, Space, Mind, Body, God, Goodness, Race, Nation, Culture, Colour, Context and Concept are all Concepts. We assume they exist, often assume that they are self-evident, and yet they are almost impossible to define convincingly or to prove conclusively. Concepts are like a mental "Medium" which allows us to develop Ideas. These "Ideas" are like mental "Images" and represent more stable relationships between the concepts probably stabilizing them by retrospective justification.
Concepts and Ideas are to be explored, not to be expressed. They are useful as points of departure and valuable as conclusions but are boring when unmodified by the experience of producing the work. On the other hand it is our "Idea" of what the work is about that determines how it should develop.
Interesting questions are: How do Concepts get abstracted (created) from our experience of the external world, which Concepts are relevant to an understanding of Media and how important are Media in determining the way we develop our concepts and view the world around us?
g. Cultural Media and Private Media:
One can buy a mass produced construction kit in the shops, or try to build ones own kit. One can follow standard construction rules or develop ones own rules, use standard materials or adopt new ones.
The more one follows standard procedures the greater the chance is that the resulting Images will be similar to those of others, although surprises may still sometimes be possible. Traditional materials can be modified by new techniques or old techniques can be applied to new materials. Often these developments have interesting implications for the Image, such as the way Film allowed the exploration of moving Images but also encouraged Futurist painters and sculptors to attempt the suggestion of movement in static images.
As Techniques and Images become commonplace among certain people they form a Social Language and become part of the Cultural Identity of the people who use them. By exhibiting new Techniques and Images in the Cultural Market Place one can enter the public discourse, or one can remain aloof from the masses and develop ones own private esoteric dialogue. Paradoxically, the greater the divergence between private Images and publicly accepted Images becomes, the more the potential cultural and social value of the private images may be increased, but their chances of being socially acclaimed will become less. This is because although the Images may suggest radically new areas of exploration the Social Context through which they can be evaluated and understood is, by definition, missing.
h. Producers and Consumers:
Art can be seen as a game in which the Image is the Medium for a game between the artist and the viewer, whereby the artist's Image forces a confrontation with the Images dormant within the viewer, in order to find its own new place within their internal library of Images.
However, the most important (and critical) viewer must always be the artist themselves.
i. Laboratory and Communication:
Art is not about communication of ideas, this is for designers and propagandists.
Art is about using a medium to explore the internal and external world of the artist. The Conceptual Medium and the Physical Medium in an Image generating dialogue. It is the art that should make the artist and not the artist that should make the art.
Without research we have little to say, by pretending to explain our research to others we clarify it for ourselves.
j. Formalism and Abstraction:
By externalizing our thoughts through Images imbedded in a medium we literally give them form. The externalization also offers us the opportunity to distance ourselves from them and to view them more "objectively".
By making the internal Images externally explicit, they also become more formalized in the sense that they can be manipulated by rule based systems. Although in the arts these rules are often more intuitive than the usual formal (scientific) systems. Nevertheless, the medium used has its underlying set of rules, the vision of the artist usually has some consistency otherwise the artists "style" would be unrecognizable, there are also socially accepted artistic conventions which may influence the way the Image is developed, rules of clarity of presentation and last but not least -aesthetic rules. By applying these rules intuitively over a number of works they too begin to become more explicit as experience develops and we can see which aspects change and which remain constant in different circumstances.
The search for similarities and differences between our internal images and the potential external images that represent them, together with the discovery of emerging patterns of consistency within the rules we use to manipulate them, develop our awareness and mastery of abstraction in the process of creative thinking.
k. Multidimensionality and Aesthetics:
Aesthetics is not about academic rules of superficial beauty, it is about the dynamic balance between apparently opposing forces. It is about the balance between the personal and the impersonal, the unique and the universal, chaos and order, intuition and rationality, ernest and humour or any other dialectic one can imagine. It may even be worthwhile to consider the relationship between Aesthetics and Ethics.
Art too is not about one thing but has many aspects, the material, the visual, the mental, the unique, the common, the individual, the social, the practical, the visionary and maybe even the financial.
It is the personal aesthetic choices each individual artist makes in balancing the different aspects of an art work that makes the work exiting and gives it its value for the viewer who is presented with new paradigms of equilibrium to consider. It is the exploration of the consequences of the aesthetic choices within the work that makes the artistic process so exiting and valuable for the personal development of the artist.
l. Multidimensionality and the Definition of Art:
"Art" has a different function for different people. For some people it is decorative and is part of home furnishing (in the house, the office or even the town center). For others "Art" means cultural status, is material for financial investment and profit, cultural conditioning and control or even for some a mystic experience.
Obviously, each of these definitions implies a different set of qualifying characteristics. For some "Art" will be defined by its decorativeness or even its beauty. For others, it will be its acceptance by a social elite, its financial value, its social message, its public popularity or the even the visibility of the magical radiating hand of the artist.
m. Multidimensionality and the Function of Art:
Because "Art" means different things to different people so that the same work may be evaluated completely differently (even contradictorily) by different people, one should avoid falling into the trap of believing that the definitions do not mean anything and are simply subjective equivalences.
In fact the definitions, the criteria, and the resulting evaluations are vitally important in determining the reactions of the individuals concerned, dependant on the way a specific work functions within their chosen world of activity. The task of the artist is to make art. Therefore the definition of art is of vital importance to the artist. They would therefore be wise to choose a definition based not on those of others (although these may be of interest) but to choose a definition for themselves which helps them in the production of their art.
a. The Student as Medium:
Perhaps the artistic process can be seen as a metaphor for the teaching process. The teacher as artist, the final student as the art work and the starting student as the medium.
Just as the art work must be found within the medium, so must the potential artist be found within the student.
Just as the artist should use their experience and vision to develop the work without forcing it to express their a priori dogmas, so should the teacher refrain from forcing their dogmas and curricula on the student.
Perhaps the most important role for teachers is as a viewer, to help the student to understand how others view the work and to integrate these views into their own viewing process.
b. Internal and External:
The introspective nature of the artistic process, both as student and as professional artist can easily generate a tension between the need to look inward and the need to look outward.
By ignoring the surrounding world, the artist or student can easily get a wrong impression of their own uniqueness and value. They can also become isolated from ideas and practices which may be of value to their work.
By focusing on the surrounding world, the artist or student can easily be seduced by trivial contemporary fashions and lose the power of concentrated reflection required to produce interesting images.
In a pedagogical context, it is the task of both student and teachers to work together to maintain an optimal balance between internal and external worlds, between students, between students and teachers and between the school and its (social and cultural) environment.
A diversity of interests, external contacts and focus of activity is essential for a stimulating educational team. There may sometimes be advantages in a "splendid isolation" but they should not be over estimated or exaggerated.
c. Chaos and Coherency:
Encouraging the personal development of a group of individuals without the aid of a fixed curriculum certainly presents a problem concerning the continuity of the dialogue with and between students. Knowledge and skills which a teacher might have which could be useful to a student may be difficult to communicate simply because the opportunity to determine the need and to present the information is not easily available. This is especially true when the subject cannot be treated fully in a single session.
The need to personally determine which skills are required -plus the struggle to find them, to master them and to integrate them into a personal working process make the task of the student difficult enough.
However the task of developing and applying skills need not, and should not, be attempted alone. Students with special skills can help others, practicing and improving their communication skills at the same time. Instructional documentation should be available and students should learn to use it. Students should also discuss both practical and creative problems with their teachers before attempting to solve everything themselves.
There is also a need for formal contacts between students and teachers. Regular meetings with a mentor with special responsibility for a group of students gives an opportunity to monitor progress and give advice. Group meetings allow viewpoints to be exchanged and common interests to be discovered and explored. Communal discussions allow coordination and development of common themes or solutions to common problems. They also help to clarify divergences of meaning or intention. Practice in the keeping of appointments and the fulfillment of commitments is also useful if students intend a professional career. Sharing the responsibility for personal progress with a teacher can also have its advantages during the half-yearly assessment especially if high standards are to be maintained.
d. Task and Expectation:
The production of artists should not be the primary aim of an art education.
If a student is able to develop and sustain a self-supporting work process which can function as an intelligent dialogue between mind and object, demonstrating the ability to use their mental and physical environment as a medium for personal growth, then they will have developed skills that may be useful in any professional or social context.
If artists cannot develop meaningful skills which go beyond a childlike scream of self-expression they will be of value to no one but themselves.
T.E. Batten Amsterdam Jan/July/Aug 1996