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Bringing the new media artist to book

Anna Munster

Anna Munster is a writer and new media artist and lecturer in the School of Art History and Theory, College of Fine Arts, UNSW. Her research includes digital aesthetics, culture and embodiment.

Continental Drift, 1990 Jill Scott Continental Drift, 1990 Jill Scott
Jill Scott, Coded Characters: Media Art (with DVD-ROM), Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2003; ISBN 3 7757 1272 0 (Hardback)

Jill Scott’s art spans video, conceptual performance and interactive environments and has been exhibited in the US, Australia, Europe and Japan. Scott’s work explores relationships between the body, technology and experiences of real time and virtual space, most recently using computers, 3D Animation and Interactive Art. Born in Melbourne in 1952, Scott lectured in Media at the University of New South Wales, College of Fine Arts, Sydney and founded the Australian Video Festival. In 1993 she won an Award of distinction at Ars Electronica for Interactive Art. Based in Europe for many years, Scott has been Artist in Residence and project co-ordinator for the Medienmuseum at the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medien Technology in Karlsruhe (ZKM) and Research Fellow at The Center for Advanced Inquiry into the Interactive Arts, University of Wales, Great Britain, where she received a Doctorate in Media Philosophy. Professor for Installation Design in the Media Faculty at The Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany until 2003, she is now Research Professor at The University of Applied Science (FHA) and the Academy of Art and Design (HGKZ) in Switzerland. Eds.

When an artist publishes a book surveying the vast body of their work it is sometimes difficult to decide, as a reviewer, whether to evaluate the art it contains or the text that contains it. In such a case, the tasks of the writing, presentation and design, which fall to the book, should be to contextualise, historicise and indeed engage the art in broader aesthetic dialogue. A book, rather than say a retrospective show, should draw the reader into the world of art and artist, offer new possibilities for understanding the work and bring the artist into an exchange with external perspectives. Here the art book differentiates itself as a form and becomes a mode of inquiry that goes beyond simply the documentation or re-presentation of work. When this happens, reading about art and its producers turns out to be a rewarding and enriching activity. The balance between pictorial survey and textual engagement is infrequently achieved—Jill Scott’s Coded Characters is no exception.

Admittedly the job of translating time-based and interactive art into the static book form is a daunting one. A single image of an installation or video never does justice to the transitory qualities of these media forms. It is perhaps for this reason that Scott includes copious amounts of visual testimony to a career spanning the decades of the 1970s, 80s, 90s and forward into the new millennium. And yet given its inclusion of a DVD-ROM for the purposes of documentation and the inherent problems of photographing screen-based work, Coded Characters as an art book falls short of anything more than a simple catalogue of the artist’s work. It does not give us a good sense of how Scott’s work sits within the broader phenomenon of media art or where, as a result of her contributions, media art may go in the future. Instead we are presented with a rather standardised view of the history of technological development that serves as a mode for organising Scott’s pieces into 3 all too tidy categories.

Her first phase, spanning 1972-1982, Scott labels “Analog Figures” in deference to the body-based performative nature of the work. This quickly gives way to her video period of the 1980s, which she conceives of as “Digital Beings”, and is followed by an attempt to resolve this opposition between materiality and information technologies in the final label “Mediated Nomads.” This last period, with which Australian audiences may be more familiar, focuses upon her computer-based 1990s pieces such as Frontiers of Utopia (1995). This is an interactive installation that allows the audience to initiate dialogues between 8 fictional female characters from different decades of the 20th century. Scott, with many of her contemporaries such as Roy Ascott (who writes a brief introduction to the book) and Peter Weibel, sees the technologies themselves as the driving force of media art. Hence early work concentrating upon the performer’s body can be deemed ‘analogue’ because there appears to be a more direct or analogous relation set up between the performer’s body and its representation in the media of the performance. Furthermore, it is only the deployment of analogue technologies by politically informed media artists which undoes the distortions of identity commercial media interests produce when using these same technologies. As Scott states: “We wanted to explore these process-oriented mediums for their potential levels of mimicry and distortion of the figure (body), governed by a fascination to record ourselves, recreate our identities and rebel against our commercial environment.”

Similarly when discussing work produced using digital technologies, she unthinkingly draws an equivalence between the nonlinear capabilities of the software and a conception of digital art as aesthetically pluralistic. Although many artists have chosen to explore nonlinear systems during the late 20th century, they have not necessarily used digital technologies to do so: Hans Haake being one of the better-known examples.

There are 2 consequences of relying on this evolutionary, techno-determinist view of media art’s growth. The first is to completely miss the interesting connections to be made across Scott’s work and across the conceptual frameworks that underpin the technologies themselves. In an early media and performance work, Moved Up Moved Down (1978), Scott plays back a pre-recorded loop of herself climbing a giant staircase alongside a realtime video monitoring audience members climbing stairs. The audience complained that this had the effect of making their climb more difficult. This catapults the concerns of the piece, which investigates the experiential effects of mediated feedback on human beings, more firmly into a contemporary aesthetic terrain that explores the ecology of cybernetic systems. Breaking art down into neat eras that coincide with the use of particular technologies facilitates against more nuanced associations.

The second consequence of conceiving media art as the outcome of technological change is, paradoxically, to leave little room for the impact of its experimental currents. Scott’s narrative—beginning with the body accompanied by sound and video, moving to digital video and ending up with interactivity—sounds suspiciously like a history of the rise of the Sony Corporation. Media artists are always confronted with the social reality of consciously situating themselves in relation to the media industry and may choose to appropriate, infiltrate or simply occupy similar territories. But Scott fosters an old-fashioned and elitist approach to media culture by asserting that her mode of artistic intervention works in an intelligent way, ‘outside’ the intellectual desert of the media industry.

Today’s media artists know they cannot get away with this aesthetic avant-gardism and humorously, passionately and tactically insert themselves into the hub of any and every mediated experience. It is a pity that Coded Characters does not interrogate the relation of Jill Scott’s media art to the context of the media cultures within which she found herself working. Although the book offers us a number of essays and an artist’s interview, it seems that none of the analyses up to this task. Ultimately we are left with a slim view of where media art has been and an even narrower idea of where it might be heading.

Anna Munster is a writer and new media artist and lecturer in the School of Art History and Theory, College of Fine Arts, UNSW. Her research includes digital aesthetics, culture and embodiment.

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 26

© Anna Munster; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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