New York-based Zhang Ga sketched a history of his pioneering work in web art (acknowledging the presence at MAAP of Shu Lea Cheang, "one of the sisters of the NY new media dynasty") having moved from China to Germany to the USA. First he found his work influenced by digitisation but wondered why he was committed to painting when inspired by the possibilities of the web. So he gave up a very good studio in order to "materialise this immaterial reality", commenting in an aside that he imagined achieving some of the goals that Fluxus had aimed for.
While new media art is still low in economic potential, said Zhang, it has at least found an institutional base in the academy. But more important for him than its financial materiality is new media art's capacity to capture the intangible, "to create a real life art [in which] the virtual and the real become more and more interlocked." He thinks this "recombinant reality" is becoming so pervasive that we don’t notice it: "it's as real as the physical."
The outcome for Zhang is not an increase in abstraction but the use of and a new perspective on "the elements of real life." His People's Portrait, about to be launched on giant screens in Times Square and other public sites and new media venues in various countries, (http//apiece.net) will display images of people from around the world, "humanising the technology" and bringing together, says Zhang, "the home computer and the 7,000 square foot [Times Square] screen." The thousands of portraits won't offer a few seconds of fame a la Warhol, but presumably a sense of global community. Until we've seen People's Portrait it's difficult to imagine anything other than a cosy sense of togetherness underscored with the unease of anonymity. And just what intangible is being given substance? Let's see.
Brisbane-based artist Tim Plaisted's vision (Surface Browser)is more modest but no less concerned with making the immaterial real. Inspired by Yves Klein's conceptual leaps (Klein is MAAP 2004's patron saint), David Cronenberg's media meltdowns and committed to using accessible software, Plaisted addresses the user's experience of the net, and not simply of its contents.
Plaisted had noticed that the early metaphors applied to the web were liquid ones (data pipes, surfing, streaming) but the actual experience was "far from fluid." He became determined to "make the metaphors real." The result, created with stand-alone software, is not the usual book-based web pages but a journey through a curving and enveloping blue tunnel, a curious blend of flight and Alice's tumble into Wonderland. The latter is especially the case in the GRAVITY exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum where a non-interactive version of Plaisted's work takes up a whole gallery wall and can induce vertigo. There are still web pages, but they line the tunnel like billboards in underground railway stations, or a blue rectangle suddenly blocks the way and spins out into floating pages. To see how it works you'll need to go online.
Korean artist Kichul Kim describes his approach to sound and how we experience it as sculptural. His key interest is "in sound, which is not visible, as structural and material." He creates works which are "not just visual but physical", giving body to sound. Kim showed us images of an impressive range of works that seemed to achieve this magic, sometimes inviting active participation from gallery-goers as in his noisily engaging work for MAAP (see Gail Priest, "GRAVITY: Kim Kichul, Sound Drawing, "An Eye for Sound.")
Melbourne-based sound artist Bruce Mowson observed that getting audience attention for art that is a little less than tangible can be a challenge. A public audio work of his involving the sounds of buildings being demolished went largely unnoticed by passersby. Only the sounds of dogs barking and babies crying were likely to grab attention. For the MAAP sound tunnel at the Esplanade Theatres, Mowson has created a work using a mix of public announcements that sound like the real thing but which are tinged with the absurd, even with a sense of mortality: "Passengers for nowhere, please move to gate 5."
Mowson says that his interest in psycho-acoustics and perception comes in part from a fascination with the materiality of sound, stemming from rock'n'roll days "when the air was thick with sound." He wants to create works with "a heavy material or soft perceptual form", giving aural density to what people don't see, but feel.
MAAP's Kim Machan wants to make new media art tangible as art. We meet over lunch and file swapping via memory sticks and burning disks that drain Kim's laptop battery. Meanwhile she eloquently declares that the art-science field, bio-art and other wings of new media have staked their claims and secured their niches but that new media art needs to claim its rightful position in the history of art and in the gallery. It's not surprising then that Yves Klein is the spiritual mentor of MAAP 2004. Not only did he show how to make art out of the intangible (and recent Turner Prizes show that there's still big money in that) but also opened the way to the postmodern (drawing together radical impulses from the first half of the 20th century modernism) and had a sharp eye for mainstream respectability. It's a change from Duchamp and Fluxus as seminal culture heroes. The desire to anchor new media art to an artist, a movement, a tradition (whether in the histories of technology, art, film, literature, media) escalates by the year with multitudinous prefigurings. These serve the academy well and make investment in new media art more institutionally justifiable. What they have to say about the art is debatable beyond short term intellectual and aesthetic pleasure. The very strangeness of much of new media art, the difficulty of categorising it and the impossibility of predicting where it will take us, these are its power. In the meantime, yes to Klein: how and what we perceive as art is an open book, or screen or, better, something intangible made momentarily physical.
Artists' Talk, MAAP Conference, "New Media, Arts and Technology", Nanyang Executive Centre, Nanyang Technological University, MAAP in Singapore, Oct 2
RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004
© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org