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<nettime> Fwd: [iDC] interesting article on new media scene in LA
John Hopkins on Mon, 31 Oct 2005 18:59:27 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Fwd: [iDC] interesting article on new media scene in LA

Forwarded from the iDC list -- I thought it might bring back memories
of the discussions around the "California Ideology" at the beginning
of the nettime list...

Hi iDC list,

The LA Weekly article reproduced below links new media with
Hollywood, business models and education. It ties in to some extent
with what Anna, Ryan and Jon have been discussing.

Here's the link to the article itself:

I find the current unproblematized adoption and valorization of the
business-model model very disturbing--and it's present not only in
new media circles but also in the theorizing of "relational
aesthetics" as in MFA programs. This business-model discourse has a
history too--see Allan Kaprow's "Should the Artist be a Man of the
World" as well as his "Education of the Un-Artist"--and I worry that
with the piecemeal dismissal of history the nuances--historical,
ethical, "aesthetic"--of its implications may get lost. Certainly
that's what's happened in Bourriaud. But then again maybe critical
vanguardism is hopelessly retardataire.



Digital Universe
With L.A. at its center

"I'm going to put the phone down now â just hang on."

Media artist Michael Naimark was at LAX one morning a few weeks ago,
on his way to the Banff Centre's Refresh Conference on histories of
new-media art. Another artist, Simon Penny from UCI, was up ahead,
also on his way to the conference, and UCLA's Erkki Huhtamo, a
new-media theorist, wasn't far behind. Not wanting to lose our
connection, Naimark put the phone into one of those gray plastic
containers and pushed it toward the X-ray machine.

On my end of the call, the sounds of the airport grew muffled, and
then everything got quiet. I held my breath as the phone moved along
the conveyor belt. In spite of sitting in my sunny office, I looked
around, poised for â what? A bright light maybe? But there was
nothing, just a soft whooshing noise and the faint hum of distant
voices. I hovered through another minute of stillness, suspended
somewhere between downtown and the airport, waiting for Naimark to

At once mundane and mind-blowing, my cell-phone journey through the
airport X-ray machine echoes a host of similarly strange moments of
technologized disembodiment and networked connection (and
disconnection) that make up daily life today. How to visualize the
places we go online, for example, or to imagine the invisible
crisscrossing lines of static that link cell phone to cell phone? And
Naimark, along with Penny, Huhtamo and about 100 other Southern
California artists, theorists and curators, are at the forefront of a
media-art movement destined to help it all make sense. Indeed,
Southern California has become the unrivaled international hub of
new-media art, design and theory.

One of the original design-team members for the MIT Media Lab in 1980
and creator of several amazing interactive installations, including
the celebrated 360-degree piece Be Now Here (1995â2000), featuring
panoramic views of four cities, Naimark moved here a year ago to take
a faculty position in the Interactive Media Division of the USC
School of Cinema-Television. Huhtamo arrived from Finland six years
ago and now teaches in the Department of Design | Media Arts at UCLA,
and Penny, originally from Australia, heads UC Irvine's Art
Computation and Engineering graduate program. Other relatively new
Southern California residents include media artists Perry Hoberman,
Jordan Crandall, Marie Sester and Michael Lew. And we can tout a list
of top scholars, too: UCLA's N. Katherine Hayles, who has written
about how we became "posthuman"; USC's Marsha Kinder, who heads the
Labyrinth Project, dedicated to experimenting with interactive
narrative; UC San Diego's Lev Manovich, who wrote The Language of New
Media; Art Center's Peter Lunenfeld, founder of Mediawork, a
consortium of new-media thinkers and artists, and creator of terms
like "digital dialectic" and "technoVolksgeist" in several books on
new media; and Brenda Laurel, who wrote the fundamental text
Computers as Theatre.

The various programs in media art at local universities have expanded
exponentially over the last five years, and they continue to grow,
each taking on different areas of focus. CalArts' ViralNet and USC's
Vectors, online journals that address media art and alternative
scholarship, were launched last year. UCI's Beall Center for Art +
Technology, a gallery space devoted to new-media art, was founded in
2000, and L.A. Freewaves, a biennial festival of video and new media,
is currently building an extensive online archive and new-media
resource to help create a focal point for the international exchange
of media art and ideas. Art Center's Alyce de Roulet Williamson
Gallery continues to showcase media art â over the summer, it
featured a stellar survey of Naimark's interactive and immersive film
environments spanning 30 years. And media-art spaces Machine Project,
Beta Level and Telic Arts Exchange were all recently founded to
showcase and foster discussion of technology-inflected art.

But why here? Media art is not only notoriously difficult to define,
it's nearly impossible to sell and it's a pain in the neck to
exhibit. Generally, the term "new-media art" designates artworks that
incorporate some form of electronic media, often entail viewer
interaction and frequently reflect back on our immersion in a
technologized world. Thanks to the proliferation of gadgets, more and
more new-media artworks use cell phones or GPS devices, and in
response to the explosion of online and console-based games, many
subvert or re-imagine gaming. (Artists often go into the first-person
shooter games and talk peaceably instead of shooting.) Other branches
similarly question biotechnology, surveillance and military

The practitioners of new-media art are remarkably eclectic, coming
from backgrounds in engineering, computer science, architecture, fine
arts, animation, graphic design and music, and many consider their
work to be hybrid not only in materials but in occupying a point
somewhere between academic research and artistic endeavor. As such,
the concentration of colleges and universities in Southern California
is a draw. Add the film industry and the rapidly growing gaming
industry, with their need for new ideas and talent, and L.A. offers a
lot to artists.

The development of the area as a hub also has to do with the fact
that there's room here for an evolving art form to grow. "For
something interesting to happen, you need a little bit of a vacuum,"
says Perry Hoberman, the renowned media-installation artist and
research professor in the Interactive Media Division at USC, who
arrived in L.A. in 2003. "There's certainly an art scene here, but
it's not the center of the city the way it is in New York.
Essentially, in Los Angeles, nothing can displace Hollywood;
everything is on the margins, and that's kind of good when you want
to see things develop and incubate."

Los Angeles also seems particularly conducive to certain themes
prevalent in media art â the fluid mixing of fact and fiction, for
example. "That seems to really fly here," says Hoberman. "The cliché
explanation would be that that's like Hollywood, where everything is
a façade, but I think it's also because, again, things are able to
incubate. If you put too much attention on them right away, they sort
of shrivel up. I think probably it also has to do with the fact that
there are ways of making art here that don't look like art. People
don't think of the Museum of Jurassic Technology as being the output
of an artist, for example, and the same is true of CLUI [the Center
for Land Use Interpretation], and maybe they aren't, but they do what
good art does," namely raise interesting questions.

"Is new media defined by the materials or by the questions?" asks
Mark Allen, the founder of Machine Project, a gallery located on
North Alvarado in Echo Park, and professor of art at Pomona College.
Allen says that he's far more interested in the questions. He wants
art that doesn't really look like art. "Machine is not interested in
screen-based stuff or network-based stuff. We like stuff that has a
physical presence. I'm not interested in art about art, or art about
technology. I'm more interested in people's weird obsessions." Pushed
to define things more clearly, Allen offers an example: "There's an
artist who has made a waterbed that has speakers that create
vibrations that induce trances â that is 100 percent Machine Project!
It has this use of technology and it's absurd."

L.A.'s other main new-media venue is Chinatown's Telic Arts Exchange.
Originally founded as the Electronic Orphanage by Miltos Manetas in
2001, the space was then adopted by Christian Moeller, professor of
Design | Media Arts at UCLA, who took over as curator in 2003 and
changed the name. In 2004, Fiona Whitton, whose background is in
architecture, joined as curator. The space has quickly grown to
become an important venue for showcasing various media-art projects,
with past shows featuring the processing art of Casey Reas,
alternative games curated by Eddo Stern and, most recently, Scott
Snibbe's interactive installation Visceral Cinema: Chien. And, like
Machine, Telic hosts various workshops and art talks.

"The key part for us is the visitor coming into the gallery and being
involved bodily in the work," says Whitton. She's particularly
interested in electronic media as a site for collaborations among
different people â artists, architects, engineers, scientists. "That
opens up the work for other people to engage with as well." She notes
that Telic's audience has interacted with "wind and oil and live
geese and fish, hundreds of fluorescent lights, the movement of air,"
mixed with "all kinds of technology, including robotics. The
integration of these materials with technology is interesting, but
one of the surprises coming out of those combinations is the way that
other people are affected by them. People are becoming more
comfortable with these diverse objects â and artists are pushing what
people will engage with."

That diversity certainly characterizes the practices of L.A.'s media
artists, who together offer an amazing cross section of the major
themes driving the field. Jordan Crandall, for example, is an
assistant professor in UC San Diego's department of visual arts and
moved to L.A. last year. He works consistently with materials and
ideas positioned at the intersection of technology and the military
and other institutions of power. In his most recent piece, Homefront
(2005), he examines the roles of surveillance, monitoring and

"It's a three-channel video installation that looks at the
psychological dimensions of the new security culture," says Crandall.
"There are three modes of seeing â live action, surveillance and
military vision â and they carry with them their own way of seeing
the world. For example, if you see a surveillance image of a place,
one has a sense that a crime is imminent. You don't see surveillance
footage unless some kind of deviation has happened or is about to
happen. A sense of an impending transgression comes with the
surveillance orientation." Crandall is also fascinated by the ways in
which we respond to the growing prevalence of technology in our
everyday lives, and not just as a threat. "All of my work has been
interested in issues around power and pleasure," he says,
"orchestrated through new technologies of vision."

Julian Bleecker, who heads the Mobile and Pervasive Lab at USC's
Interactive Media Division, is similarly interested in what people
might do with new forms, especially when they're out in the world.
"Right now I'm very interested in topics related to what our sense of
place is in a psycho-geographic sense," he says. "What makes a
physical location in space into a social place? How can social
formations that create a sense of place be facilitated by mobility â
walking, or driving a car?"

Bleecker offers an example of the kinds of questions he considers.
"I've been doing a lot of traveling to the Pacific Rim," he says.
"It's a 15-hour plane ride, and you can't tell me that there isn't
someone on that plane that I might have an awesome conversation with.
But I'm in 50J and they're in 24F, and we'll never meet." But what
would happen, muses Bleecker, if there were ways to use technology to
facilitate social interaction on the plane? What would that look
like? How could it work?

Another example of Bleecker's work is WiFi.Bedouin, which looks like
a high-tech backpack and functions as a mobile server and
transmitter, allowing the wearer to create an "island Internet"
accessible to those in proximity. So, if you're wearing the backpack,
you could go to your local café, sit down with a cup of coffee, and
meanwhile, your portable server would show up on nearby computers as
an access point. However, rather than offering access to the
Internet, you'd be offering other café-goers access to your own
self-contained network. And that network could offer any number of
things, depending on how you'd like to provoke or entertain those
around you. Because many of us have only the vaguest sense of how the
Internet actually functions, Bleecker's project is challenging to
imagine, but his work is all about rethinking how we use technology
and inviting more creative and active responses to things that
sometimes feel fixed or overwhelming.

Bleecker is working on a series of projects with artist and
programmer Peter Brinson under the rubric "Vis-à-Vis Games" that are
designed to combine console and desktop gaming with the games you
played outside as a kid. "No one could have speculated what the
Internet would do with social formations," says Bleecker. "A lot of
what I do is running things up the flagpole and seeing what comes of
it. I like the sense of possibility."

Surveillance and mobile or pervasive media are two key trends; a
third brings together media art and science, which is what most
interests Victoria Vesna, chair of the Design | Media Arts Department
at UCLA. Vesna joined the program at UCLA five years ago, and in that
time has helped establish the cross-disciplinary program while
watching the field and its audience grow more sophisticated. "When I
started working in this medium, it was like I was from outer space,"
she says. "People were either fascinated, or they thought it was just
too far out. But with technology becoming so pervasive, media art is
actually becoming more accessible, something people can relate to."

Vesna offers a pertinent example. "I just met with medical doctors
and a designer to help come up with ideas for communications
strategies for Katrina survivors," she says. "In a mediated world,
media artists have a certain expertise to put out messages, whether
in an art piece that's purely experiential or in terms of very
pragmatic messages that have to go out there."

Vesna's projects include the Web-based Bodies INCorporated, in which
visitors create virtual bodies, and Mood Swings, for which she
collaborated with Dr. Ken Wells on a piece about the effects of the
environment on mood. She also orchestrated the multiproject
exhibition "Nano" at LACMA last year, which was created by a team of
artists and scientists in order to illustrate ideas about
nanoscience. Vesna's own project, Nanomandala, uses the idea of the
mandala as the form through which to watch the evolving structure of
a single grain of sand.

While Vesna is collaborating with scientists, other media artists are
eager to connect with the film industry. One possible direction for
that collaboration is toward interactive cinema, a form that
particularly interests Swiss media artist Michael Lew. His
interactive film Office Voodoo, for example, relies on the input of
viewers to determine the arrangement of shots that make up the film.
The project's characters are two office workers who perform a series
of mundane tasks and interact with each other with varying degrees of
enthusiasm. To view the film, two viewers sit in a small space with a
screen; each holds a voodoo doll representing one of the characters.
Squeezing the dolls controls the sequence of shots, which are arrayed
on an emotional grid that goes from cold to hot, or indifferent to
passionate. Squeeze hard, and your character grows increasingly
flirtatious. Squeeze softly, and your character focuses on work
instead. "There's one point when they're in sync and they will have
sex on the desk," reveals Lew.

"In a linear film, you have a lot of footage, but eventually an
editor will place all of the shots in a timeline," Lew explains.
"Here you have all these shots, but they're in a media space, and you
have to program the interaction design in a way so that viewers will
explore that space in their own trajectory, assembling the film as
they watch it."

"Are you still there?" asks Michael Naimark. Having passed
successfully through the security check at the airport, he has plenty
to say about the possibilities of new-media art and Hollywood,
characterizing the relationship as at once "tensely harmonious" and
"harmoniously tense." Citing the explosion of home theaters, Naimark
figures studio heads will be looking for ways to make the movies
bigger and better than anything you can get on a DVD. "Hollywood is
in a situation that hasn't happened since the birth of television in
the '40s and '50s," he says. "Immersion, 3-D and interactivity all
offer possibilities, and artists are the ones working in these areas
right now."

Naimark advocates creative collaborations between artists in
tech-based subcultures and well-funded commercial entities beyond the
movie industry. His idea of success for his USC students is when
"they can take a meeting with Microsoft, present a paper at SIGGRAPH
and have an installation at [media-arts festival] Ars Electronica."
In other words, when they are business-savvy, smart and artistic. But
there's a social responsibility, too, he notes before boarding his
plane to Banff.

"We've made a real mess of the world since Bush, and this can't be
overemphasized. There's a gravitational pull toward cities like Los
Angeles, New York, Berlin and Tokyo, cities that are global power
centers, and away from places that are considered provincial. And in
that regard, there's a real polarization in terms of politics.
Eventually, we'll look back at this period as a dark cloud over
cultural production and thinking."

And what does he imagine we can do about it? "I think the U.S. is
ripe for a new kind of hybrid institution, one that focuses on
research and art, but is also viciously commercial in terms of
standing up in the marketplace, and yet is also not-for-profit."

Naimark's vision is a tall order, but Southern California just may be
the right place to fill it.

Holly Willis, a regular contributor to the Weekly, currently teaches
art, new media and digital culture at USC, Art Center and CalArts.

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