What is New Media Art?

What is New Media Art?

A range of new forms of contemporary art - many of which are found in this portfolio - are largely invisible to the general public. As a culture we tend to equate art with the products of film, television, and popular music. While these are well known by the general public, the new areas for expression in art have greatly expanded in the past few decades.

This overview provides a brief guide to the areas of New Media Art in relation to Traditional Art.

Art Form Description Example
A. Traditional Art Art which uses classical tools  
   1. Drawing Art using drawing tools (graphite, chalk, ink, pencil) Leonardo da Vinci
   2. Painting Art using colored pigments applied to a surface Pablo Picasso
   3. Sculpture Art using a combination of physical materials in
3D space
   4. Printmaking Art created by pressing ink onto a surface  
       4.1. Relief Printing Ink rests on the top of the surface (woodcut, wood engraving, linocut) Katsushika Hokusai
       4.2. Intaglio Ink goes into groves made in the surface (engraving, etching, mezzotint, aquatint) Gustave Dore
       4.3. Planographic Ink is selectively applied by treating the surface (lithography, monotyping) Fancisco Goya
       4.4. Stencil Ink is pressed around precut shapes (screen-printing, pochoir) Andy Worhol
B. Modern Arts Art which uses non-traditional tools  
   1. Photograph Art created using a photographic process Ansel Adams
   2. Filmmaking Art which to present a sequence of images  
       2.1. Pre-Film Special techniques for presenting temporal images Kinematoscope, Zoopraxiscope
       2.2. Film Based Filmmaking with a photographic process George Melies, Chaplin
   3. Video Art Art using broadcasting, television or video as the medium Naim Jun Paik, Bill Viola
   4. Kinetic Art Art driven by physical motion (closely related to Sculpture)  
       4.1. Naturally-Driven Art Kinetic art using natural forces (wind, air) Alexander Calder, George Rickey
       4.2. Mechnically-Driven Art Kinetic art using motors Duchamp, Tingley
       4.3. Puppetry Kinetic art using human-interaction to create motion in objects Jim Henson
       4.4. Performance Art Kinetic art using the human body as the medium Yves Klein
   5. Mixed Media Art which uses a combination of traditional media together  
       5.1. Graphic Design Art using cut shapes, drawing and type to create visuals Mayakovsky, Klutsis
       5.2. Photomontage Combination of drawing and photography Peter Kennard
C. New Media Art Art which uses digital tools  
   1. Multimedia Art Art which uses digital versions of traditional media  
       1.1. Non-Linear Editing Art of filmmaking using digital video Germain
       1.2. Digital Painting Art of painting using digital tools (e.g. photoshop) David Em
       1.3. Web Design Art of graphic design using web page as canvas  
       1.4. Interface Design Art of graphic design to create software interfaces  
   2. Computer Graphics Art using computer modeling and rendering to create virtual scenes Gilles Tran
   3. Interactive Art Art involving human-interaction  
       3.1. Indirect Interactive Art in which cameras and detectors passively record human motion Camille Utterback
       3.2. Directly Interactive Art in which direct manipulation is required of the viewer Sommerer & Mignonneau
   4. Internet Art Art using the internet, or web site, as medium Vuk Cosic
   5. Information Art Art using databases and social or statistical information as a source. George Legrady
   6. Algorithmic Art Art using a mathematical formula or algorithm as the source of form or structure. Peter Beyls, Jean Pierre Hebert

Defining New Media Art: A Theory of Meaning and Technique

Classically, we tend to think of art as consisting of drawing, painting, prinkmaking, sculpture and more recently photography. In the modern world, we might also including the production of film and television. The developments of computer graphics have brought digitally-based art to the general public through modern filmmaking. However, there are many novel art forms arising from digital and physical medium which are still largely unknown and relatively invisibile, but which have been in production from many decades now. Some fields of New Media Art include kinetic sculpture, information art, organic and algorithmic art, interactive art, machinima and game design. As an artist experimenting with several of these, I've found the most common response to my work to be: "You do what?". Who could have imagined that scientific and technological advances could provide so many new opportunities for expression? In the following discussion I hope provide a theoretical foundation for New Media Art.

When we look at a painting, such as Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory (click here), we experience much more than simply paint on a canvas. Art operates directly on the level of meaning and symbolism. We experience a message, an idea, directly by seeing. Look carefully at Dali's painting. If another viewer stands beside us as we stare at the image and ask, "What are you looking at?". We know we are being asked: What aspect of meaning do you find intrugining about this work? Dali's painting may invoke time, dreams, or subconscious experience. We could also reply "I am looking at a painting," and shift the level of discussion. In either case, the primary function of art is to directly convey an idea, message, or meaningful symbol through seeing. To transform the imagination.

If art is about ideas and meaning, why then do art schools divide themselves into the tools painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture? This is a philosophical question, not a criticism. Why not have a major in art of the body, another major in art of the emotions, and another in art of the sub-conscious? Physics has majors in quantum physics, kinetics, and thermodynamics, each different types of physics. As a discipline, physics is generally not divided according telescopes, microscopes and spectrometers - that is its tools.

So why is art, as an academic discipline, divided according to its tools? The reason is simply that art, covering all possible ideas of the imaginaion, would be far too vast to be organized on the level of meaning. In fact, Art History is dedictated solely to understanding the ideas of art past and present, and it does this primarily according to period (time) rather than meaning, which is still too vast a landscape to organize art. The purpose of art is to convey ideas, to communicate meaning. We can, however, make the observation that art is classically divided according to the techniques of painting, drawing and sculpture precisely because the meaning of art could be anything in the universe (and beyond).

New Media Art has often be criticised for having "no solid theoretical foundation". This is partly because so many new forms seem to defy traditional classification. For example, is game design a form of art, a subject in game theory, a problem in computer science, or a kind of literary narrative? Many of the objections to game design have to do with the content of games in comparison to more established arts. Many video games are violent, while classical paintings are considered beautiful. To the parent of a child, how could both of these be called art - a word usually reserved for something inspiring and uplifiting - while we tend to think of games as entertainment.

These complaints can all be summarize with a simple observation: On the level of meaning, all art is subject to criticism. The questioning and transforming of meaning is essential to art. The goal of the artist is not to structure our world as the natural sciences do, but to suprize us, to spark the imagination.. Thus, art is unbound by ideas. Yet organized by technique.

My goal here is to provide a foundation for New Media Art on the level of technique. Painting, drawing and sculpture exists as sub-fields in art because the artist uses these tools to create whatever ideas they like. The divisions of technique are a convenience - in a college painting class one student may be creating landscapes, another surrealism, yet both are using paint and canvas. The same may be true of New Media Art. As a starting point, we can define New Media Art according to common techniques without regard to their content. One possible organization is found in the list above.

Traditional art is defined by painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking. Modern Art introduces the use of non-traditional tools, starting with photographic film around the 1820s. Other non-traditional arts include kinetic art (using machines), video art (using television/video), and filmmaking (techniques to present a sequence of images). New Media Art is defined by digitally-based techniques, roughly from the introduction of computers in 1940. A major area of new media art is Multimedia, covering any technique which replicates traditional arts using digital methods. Purely novel New Media Arts include computer graphics (using simulated light to create images), information art (using stored data as a source), and algorithmic art (using math to generate form).

One of the wonderful aspects of New Media Art is truely vast number of ways in which expression may develop. Robotic art is mechanically-driven kinetic art (B.4.2) that attempts to recreate humanoid or insect-like motion. Evolutionary art is a form of algorithmic art (C.6) that attempts to mimic the biology of natural evolution. Why are robotic art and evolutionary art not included in the list above? We must distinguish ideas and meaning from the technique, just as traditional art organizes its discipline based on practice. One can have a BFA concentration in painting, but not in surrealism.

Similarily, robotic art is movement rather than a technique. Why not simply make robotic art a new category of mechnically-driven kinetic art? The definitive test for a movement, as opposed to a technique, is that it may be expressed through any number of other techniques. There is a field of passive-motion robotics which uses no motors, thus robotics could also be naturally-driven. Robotic art may also be found in computer games, i.e. game robots, and also through illustration in science fiction. Although the development of robots requires particular novel techniques, the combination of machine and humanoid form found in robotics is not a technique, but a kind of meaning referring to the human body.

Cyberfeminist art, mentioned in Christiane Paul's book Digital Art, is also not found above for the same reason. Feminist art originated in non-digital media, such as the Gorilla Girls in the 1960s, working primarily with photomontage. With the advent of the World Wide Web, cyberfeminism developed out of feminist art and shifted to the new "hacker" oriented medium of the internet. The message shifted from one technique to another. Cyberfeminism is about a particular meaning, expressed through the technique of Internet-based art. Yet it is not confined to this technique, and is thus a movement.

It is important to mention I am not attempt to define "art", only clarify it with respect of meaning and technique. Surrealism is a movement, pop art is a movement, cyberfeminism is a movement, dada is a movement, organic art is a movement. All of these are examples of art. Drawing is a technique, information-based art is a technique, computer generated art is a technique. A given work of art exists both as part of a movement, idea or meaning, and as a technique simultaenously.

Some prefer the term technology-based art, media art, or digital art for the contemporary situation of the digital medium. I prefer the term New Media Art to encompass all of the above forms because it carries no particular connotation toward any one technique while also distinguishing itself from Mixed media, which refers to a combination of traditional media, and from Multimedia, which consists of digital versions of traditional techniques. The essential point is that, if we understand the difference between message and technique, New Media Art can be more easily understood as a new discipline.

New Media Art covers all contemporary techniques for digitally-based art making, just as traditional Fine Arts is divided into majors according to traditional technique.

Although technique can clarify academic distinctions in New Media Art, finding meaning in any art form is the real challenge... In the authors opinion, all forms of art should be rich, and alive, with meaning. The beauty of art is that we may each define and evaluate meaning differently. A significant concern is that, in the presence of so many novel techniques, we may loose our sense and ability to evaluate what is meaningful. The result is that the general public, without context, may find all new art forms equally confusing. This can desensitize us to the appreciation of art, but can also cause us to be over-critical of it. It is easy to be blindly critical of new art forms.

The challenge is to be more open to novel forms of human expression so that our critical sense is shaped and refined -- to be scientific (analytical) as needed, and creative and imaginative the rest of the time.. A basic understanding of technique versus meaning can help us to clarify the discipline of New Media Art while allowing its meaning to remain open.

- Art is unique, relative to other disciplines, in that its meaning or message is unbounded.
      (for example, one could do art about physics, but there is no physics of art)
- Thus, art cannot be academically organized by types of meaning (as physics is)
- Instead, traditional and new media art are organized by technique (painting, sculpture, information art)
- A given work of art has both a technique and a meaning
- Meaning is unbounded, and ideally present in all art.

  Science <--> Art
  Analytical <--> Imaginative
  Technique <--> Meaning
  Formalized <--> Open
  Analysis <--> Synthesis
  Sun <--> Moon