Location| Liverpool, UK: New Media "Art" at a Crossroads

Liverpool is a dynamic place with an amazing cultural vibe. This aerial shot showcases the now completed
Liverpool One metropolitan plan that has transformed the heart of the city (image: architecture.com)
My visit to Liverpool to attend and present a paper at Rewire: The Fourth International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology proved both eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable. First of all, Liverpool is an incredibly dynamic city—one that has recently undergone an amazing transformation in its metropolitan core and is clearly living up to its title as one of Europe’s cultural capitals (an honour it officially held in 2008). Housing three major universities, two art schools, and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Liverpool is also the perfect place to host a dialogue about the current state of new media art, with all of its challenges, opportunities, and rapidly changing parameters.

Coming from Vancouver, a city comfortable with the idea of accepting new media forms in an art context, I was most surprised by how many artists and art institutions represented at the conference from other parts of the world still face serious challenges exhibiting and finding audiences for digitally based media. Still, the conversation around the future of new media art I heard in so many of the papers pointed to the rapid changes that the uses of new technology are bringing about in how artists engage with digital platforms, transforming the very definition of what “art” can be.

Rewire 2011 was a three-day conference event hosted by FACT and held at Liverpool John Moores
University Art and Design Academy.
One of the ideas I explored in my own paper (titled "Intersecting Worlds of Commerce and Experimentation: Creating Legitimacy for the “Art” of Media") concerned how questions of innovation are increasingly dictated by consumer habits and end-user preferences as never before. At the level of simple application, the speed and accessibility of ever more sophisticated software platforms to non-specialist users has foregrounded the social dimension and speed of dissemination of new media, but also accelerated and blurred previously established boundaries in how the “art” of new media can be understood.

The "original" Abramovic performance
One very recent example that I shared, first brought to my attention via a link sent by a student (thanks Andrea!), raises these issues within a clever technological framework. Pippin Barr, an artist and media studies professor at the University of Copenhagen, borrows from the visual language and commercial context of gaming to reconfigure meaning around high concept art exhibitions such as Marina Abramovic’s recent retrospective of performance art at MOMA, “The Artist is Present”—an exhibition I attended and blogged about last year. As Barr explains on his blog, his project challenges artists to expand the potential audience for contemporary art by rethinking how notions of gaming, play, and interactivity operate in the conceptual underpinnings of their projects:

“Critically, these alternate games seem like they're not going to be fun. And it's all very well to talk about how games don't have to be fun, they can be "interesting" or "challenging" or "disturbing" and so on. This is true, but it's also true that basically nobody's going to play those games except the brave vanguard. The question then becomes whether the vanguard can convince anyone else to play them too.”

Three video stills from Pippin Bar's creative game "The Artist is Present"
reconfiguring Abramovic's performance into a form of gaming.
With these unusual juxtapositions, we see the unpredictable and unruly path that the blurring of boundaries initiates in conversations around what can constitute the “art” of new media. What then can be done in the face of these developments? And is there perhaps a new space for an avant-garde sensibility to re-emerge and challenge what is shaping up around entrenching notions of the “art” of new media?

To be sure, It becomes a question of how to engage audiences differently, and understanding that notions of the avant-garde, counter-cultural practice, social interaction are all elements immanent within the technological framework of new media. How, where, and through what means the designation of “art” is aligned to this framework is proving today, as it has in the past with previous new media forms such as photography and film, to be a constantly evolving discourse. As I left Liverpool, I couldn’t help think that much of the debate and critical discussion that took place at the conference only reinforced the productive potential of this evolving form of art. This should serve as some comfort then that the discourse around new media can never remain fully divorced from the potential for radicality and resistance.