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A century of art crammed into a decade

Panelists cite thrills, threats to new media

New media art may be as subtle as a few digital white clouds floating across a sky-blue screen ("Super Mario Clouds," by Cory), or as audacious as the Yes Men, who famously posted an apology for the deaths at Bhopal, India, on a mock Dow Chemical web site. But in all its forms, it is not so much evolving as galloping in every direction.

What we're seeing is "essentially a hundred years of new media art crammed into ten years," said Beth Coleman, assistant professor in Comparative Media Studies and in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, who moderated a panel on "New Media and Art" on Oct. 26.

This rapid pace of change poses a challenge for museum curators, collectors and academics who find themselves dealing with mercurial change, a paucity of standards by which to assess the art, and artworks that resist traditional conservation and gallery display. An artwork of 1996, stored on a 5-inch floppy disc, is today unreadable to the vast majority of operating systems.

"New Media and Art" focused on what new media and art are, how they're changing, and what their joint future might be.

In her opening remarks, Coleman noted, "Some of what we're looking at in Comparative Media Studies is a change from mass media to a network information economy." Artists, and many people who would not define themselves as such, are collectively pushing back against the commodification and corporate consolidation of information, sometimes using parody and subversion, sometimes exploring entirely new forms of expression for their own sake, she said. Some outstanding examples of new media art are currently on view at the MIT List Visual Arts Center exhibition, "Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art."

Panelist Lauren Cornell, executive director of, an online platform for new media art, artists, curators, critics, gave the outlines of what is doing. Rhizome was founded by Mark Tribe, assistant professor of Modern Culture and Media Studies at Brown University, in 1996 as an e-mail list for "people who were thinking about how the Internet could be a creative medium," whether practitioners, academics or curators.

Cornell said, "Rhizome was and still is a space to explore art practices that are outside of the museum or gallery culture," and questions, still relevant, of how Internet art practice rewrites acquisition practice. Rhizome, which is now affiliated with the New Museum in New York, is one of the very few organizations that commissions new media art; it also sponsors exhibitions, publishes two periodicals, encourages curatorial and editorial work in the area, archives new media work in ArtBase and maintains a calendar of events and exhibitions worldwide.

Panelist Jon Ippolito co-founder of the Still Water new media program at the University of Maine at Orono, and co-author of "At the Edge of Art" (Thames & Hudson, 2006), described his work in the Still Water new media program, which is intended to address what he calls the "three threats to the survival of new media." Ippolito's three threats are:

  •  "too many archivists and not enough animateurs" (the preservation problem);
  •  "too many attorneys and not enough amateurs" (the intellectual property wars); and
  • "too many academics and not enough artists."

(You can read his manifesto on this topic at

The Pool at Still Water is an attempt to address these issues, offering a "collaborative online environment for creating art, code and text," asynchronously facilitating collaborative work among a variety of artists and media.

Audience members were divided and impassioned in their responses to the topic. One person questioned whether much of what is put across as new media art is in fact art: "It looks just like stuff that was on everyone's LiveJournal."

Bill Arning, curator at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and one of the curators of the current "Sensorium" exhibition, said, "We're past the era of trying to squeeze the new media into the museum context … The role of the curator is just to watch and see how we can be useful, until we get a new exhibition paradigm."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 8, 2006 (download PDF).

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