Reinhard Storz

Thinking within the media
Interactive media art falls within a mechanized world where forms of man-machine-interaction have taken on a significant quality with regard to work and leisure time. Already in 1948, Norbert Wiener pointed out this perspective. Because art does not serve anti-autonomous purposes and can take its time where issues of form and significance are concerned, its task is to reflect upon the tendencies of social development and to analyze its own work ideas in their context. However, within the public cultural discourse, the competence of art schools to develop socially relevant models of interactive cultural work is already being questioned. This became evident, for instance, during the discussion at the Ars Electronica 2001 led under the heading "Takeover. Who’s Doing the Art of Tomorrow?". Reproaches have been made that classical art education, in the end, still plants the rituals of art into the unstoppable media evolution (Gerfried Stocker). It is said that new impulses come from the net activists’ scene and independent game factories, while the classical art system has halted in the face of philosophical laziness (Jon Ippolito).

Having said this, maybe, it nowadays just makes sense in art education to be beyond the commercially motivated acceleration of media culture. The avant-garde’s claim is being superseded by the art of critical sidelong glances; the deconstruction and transformation of existing media techniques within art can lead to significant insights. Even if one would like to have it otherwise, art schools cannot keep up with the resources of commercial art producers and technical universities. Instead of high-tech research into "artificial intelligence", the card of artistic intelligence still remains for them to play.

The demands on theory and studies in today’s art colleges have changed over the last years. For work with new media and art concepts aiming at the interactive participation of the viewer in the work, the following demands can be formulated: students are to become self-critical individual authors at the same time that they acquire the social ability to participate in collective authorship, since art work with new media often involves working collectively. Students are meant to do the intellectual work of the conceptual artist, since media art is conceptual art. At the same time they are to become media craftsmen, since the new media have revitalized an almost pre-industrial degree of technical skills. Finally, students are to have a profound knowledge of art and media theory at their disposal, since the ideas behind interactive media art are often reliant upon art and media reflection.

The basis of our practical media theory at the University of Art and Design Basel is the fact that, here in Switzerland, one of the oldest and most thorough art educations in the field of video is offered. Moreover, Basel has experienced a significant enrichment in courses of study and institutions which are concerned with different aspects of production, and presentation or reflection of new media (art). These unique opportunities include Plug in, a media art enterprise; Viper, an annual media festival; media-scientific courses at the University Basel; and HyperWerk, a sister department of the University of Applied Sciences Basel. Exchange and collaboration with these institutions support the department Visual Art/Media Art of the University of Art and Design Basel’s media work in which useful forms of cooperation are still being developed among the parties concerned.

What is noticeable about our student’s work is the presence of the body as a primary instance of their multimedia work ideas, whether as drawn body that can be viewer-animated in the work of Bruno Steiner, as unconscious "organ of control" in the work of Jan Torpus, or as bodily convergence in the contribution of Marc Mouci and his co-sleep action, for which the monitor just serves as a distant bedroom window. Technique is always being used to ask questions concerning the body on this side of the human-computer interface. Our school’s most recent project, the Video Orchestra, integrates the manipulation of technical interfaces directly into physical stage action. Here, strategies of immersion of virtual art are being carefreely transformed into a low-tech mix of bodies, sensors, and computers. Our society’s machine fixation is made a living spectacle as technical fetishism. John Cage’s demand for a work of art which should react to patrons instead of staying fixated and static, and British artist and theorist Roy Ascott’s 1966 idea that art within future telematic culture should be diffuse, immanent, and variable, as well as multifaceted and in constant motion, are unifyingly crucial elements for such art work.

The department Visual Art/Media Art of the University of Art and Design Basel tries to further artistic thought before any media decisions with its students. In a next step, a way of thinking within the media and out of the media, be it painting or video, spatial installation, Internet application or performance takes place. This reflection before and between the media often requires watering down a classical media fixation with first-year students. In that respect, art theory starts before every lesson in C+ or Lingo programming as an act of deprogramming obsolete art ideas. The museum script: onVisitMuseum {goto theWall (left, right); slowly walk along the wall; if (image) {stop (+-45sec);} else (stroll (on);} if (image=already seen) {gotoNextRoom ( );}} should no longer be understood as the sole possible model for the reception of art.

The interaction and technique euphoria of the nineties has long since vanished. The assertion that techno art will overturn the parameters of classic art and inevitably lead to the emancipation of the viewer via interaction (Peter Weibel) no longer appears credible in its absolute formulation. Net art’s "interaction fetish" (Roberto Simanowski) also must be judged by artistic quality standards. Here, some media utopia pales want to recognize the computer and Internet as tools of an emancipated political participation, and qualify interactive work of art per se as politically and ethically valuable, because it enables participation and participatory behavior.

While working in art schools, these overheated media theories must not yield to resignation, but to an old, and prolific art-immanent discourse. Actually, the role of the art viewer never has been really passive. As an admirer, as a lover, and as a thinker, the viewer has also been, through all phases of art history, a "user", an active element within the relationship system of artist-work-viewer. However, in the modern age the issue of interdependences within this system was considerably expanded. From Dada and surrealism through action and conceptual art to today’s computer-based art, artists and art theorists occupy themselves with the role of the viewer as work participant - a problem which is being formulated as the actual central issue of today’s art work. Since it is about re-assessment and redefinition of authorship and authority, it concerns a delayed process. A lot seems to be at stake – aside from the properties of museums and collectors, the actual copyleft discussion also questions the creative property of artists themselves. What is being declared as theoretic and practical open-heart surgery in the domain of art, actually is, above all, a bypass operation on the constricted appreciation of art pitted against philosophical laziness.

translated by Udo Breger

Text published in:
Association MetaWorx (Ed.): Metaworx. Approaches to Interactivity, Basel: Birkhäuser 2003