Media Shoegaze

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Jun 2002 / media shoegaze :: email this story to a friend

Media Arts Alliance
By Paul Guzzardo
Videos by Alan Brunettin

MEDIA ARTS ALLIANCE, a St. Louis new media experiment, should be remembered fondly for offering students of new media, or students of contemporary culture — they are one and the same — an outline, albeit somewhat faint, of the apparatuses necessary to begin a critique of our info culture.

MediaArts started out life in 1982 as a not-for-profit arts organization with a mission to assist local documentary and film makers in raising funds to make work, to make a product — a product to be shown and distributed. In 1998 it became a NEW MEDIA arts organization, with a more modest goal; a critique of our slide into a cyber civilization. This essay/obit is a look back.

The MediaArts' mission statement:

Digital convergence will affect us spatially. The interchangeability, interactivity of data, broadcasting, telephony, film, music, education, and imaging will alter the places where we congregate. We will meet, share our stories, and build community in media saturated environments. The board of MediaArts wishes to explore who will determine the nature of these environments, and what aesthetic and critical criteria they will use in fashioning the public places of tomorrow.

This push to determine what aesthetic and critical criteria will be used in fashioning that public place of tomorrow was the "raison d'etre" of MediaArts. All the financially handicapped, stuttered, and often-ignored MediaARTS multimedia projects/experiments during the last three years really came down to one thing: how do you begin to critique our leap into Cybertown USA?

MediaArts remade itself into a new media organization about the time that a plethora of traditional media outlets — popular and academic books, web sites, cable channels, magazines and newspaper tech/IT sections — exploded with ongoing descriptions, predictions, running commentaries, analysis, and purported critiques of this ceaseless media torrent, and our ensuing super-saturation.

MediaArts posed the question of whether old media can critique where we are heading, or being shoved, by this "info glut." Putting it another way, can old media really tell us much about our culture of spectacle and electronic companionship?

The lesson to be learned from MediaArts Alliance's abbreviated life is NO. Old media, even when dressed up in new media lingerie, is still a bit of a hag.

click to watch the video The MediaArts media lab/incubator in downtown St. Louis was the chief venue for this inquiry. The lab, located on an amply windowed first-floor corner in the AD Brown Building, Tucker and Washington Avenue, offered the passers-by — that mix of motorists, bystanders, spectators and lost souls — a chance to watch digital media types work. The topical subject matter included meditations on film and digital editing, digital representation of art/science practice, the effect of IT on social organization, 9/11, the millennium, media theory, comic books, Orwellian media culture, and on, and on. An abbreviated sampling of lab projects can be found in footnotes below, and on the MediaArts web site.

Digital art was being made at the lab, while simultaneously projected on screens and monitor walls facing Tucker and Washington. Cameras inside the lab, looking out onto the street, added an interactive face. Passers-by, our customer/consumer, were given the opportunity to be consumed by convergent technologies while at the same time they were consuming some of those mighty fine new works of media art. This concurrent, synchronous state of consuming and being consumed is the essence, the hallmark of New Media. It is also the dominant DNA of our culture.

What did this incubator experiment, this street concoction of new media art, leave us with? (Other than a zine article bashing old media art types...) Well, I think I've a pulled out a rough draft, a sketch of some of the working parts, pieces of what is a sort of creaky critique mechanism. While no doubt it will be refined, its framework rests less on the individual digital art projects than on the simultaneous "whirl," which took place inside and outside, in the lab and on the street. The "whirl" was what was important. Content, for now, (and maybe for a long time), will be taking a break. What mattered was the sensitivity to the street, the street as stage, stage as an animated tableau, a tableau consisting of bricks and bytes and Joe Public.

What This Visionary Rough Draft Tells Us

  1. It's a mistake, a serious mistake, to evaluate and critique new media projects based on the voice of something called a "new media digital artist." This should have been apparent even before XBOX and Do Co Mo. If he or she ever was, that guy/gal is probably history. Nothing has been a bigger drag on understanding of this onslaught of virtual plenitude then the attachment to the idea of muse-infused artist. This anachronism has got to go.
  2. It's time to think in terms of new and evolving collaborations — collaborations of digital designers, musicians, architects and theater types. If this MediaArts memoir is of any value, it's that this type of "crew" was best able to dissect and scrutinize this emerging info streetscape world. The premium work done at MediaArts always involved these types of collaborations. Somebody of course will have to be in charge of this cast of collaborators, and we so do need heroes. The coming heroes — THE NEW MEDIA AUTEURS — most likely will be some sort of a mutant breed, urban architect/theater director.
  3. Given that an information spray-effervescence is almost everywhere, some places are more new media-friendly places then others. The street is a new media place; museums and galleries are old, very old, media haunts. As venues for new media critiques, they aren't doing very well, and they'll be a lot more barren in the coming wild blue yonder, otherwise know as 3G and 4G.

Despite this change of pace and place, time is being wasted — wasted in old media babble and supercilious gallery exercises. Too much time is spent on polite deference to dusty, old places. To act as though the last 20 years never happened, you'd have to be presumptuous, disingenuous, or stupid — select your poison. Or if I might borrow from that most gentle soul, Democratic political operative James Carville, "It's the place, stupid."

A DIGITAL CONVERGENT LOOP was the final work showcased at the Lab right before it closed. I wrote it, and it featured art design by Alan Brunettin. This preachy piece played on a continuous loop for ten straight days, twenty-four hours a day, visible from both Tucker Avenue and Washington.


Digital convergence will affect us spatially. The interchangeability, interactivity, and interconnectedness of data, broadcasting, telephony, film, music, education and imaging will alter the places where we congregate. We will meet, share our stories, and build community in media saturated environments. Who will determine the nature of these environments, and what aesthetic and critical click to watch the video criteria will they use in fashioning the public gathering places of tomorrow? Digital information technology, broadband wireless/streaming and the attendant compression technologies, while offering the possibility of bringing us together, raise the possibility of pulling us further apart. The nature of these technologies is too often to fragment society and isolate the individual. Could information technologies create insular, potentially socially dyslexic citizens? How can these technologies foster community, and engage and nourish the "CIVIC SOUL?" Digital convergence technologies give us virtual communities, telecommuting and distance education, but what do they do to us as steady and stalwart citizens? How do we assess the spatial consequences of digital convergence? How are our civic institutions and environment changed by our growing detachment from public places? What can you do to prevent the withering of the civic soul? What about that recently post-pubescent socially dysfunctional junk food eating cyborg wannabe, or the kid next door?

And one final thing, why is this an obit? Money, stupid — not enough of it!

Paul Guzzardo is president of the board of MediaArts and curator. Despite the current moratorium, the Board of Directors of MediaArts is hopeful that eventually MediaArts will be able to reinitiate programming.

This is an abbreviated sampling of projects from the lab. More detailed accounts can be found at the MediaArts web site.

Subject 1
A genre-crossing documentary about the event itself and a meditation on the nature of film and digital editing — they simultaneously projected the editing process on the wall. The artists juxtaposed the images from this process with another projection — a montage of live events and mixed textual commentary about mixing, cutting, image, and time.

Subject 2
It addresses cultural implications of new technologies, and how digital representation links art practice — connections between the scientific and artistic worlds, research and genome sequencing, meditation on DNA sequencing and sociobiology.

Subject 3
In the style of political street theatre, audiences are offered the opportunity to observe the impact of information technology on traditional narrative and dramatic art forms and a demonstration of the effect of information technology on social organization and social protest.

Subject 4
Tucker and Washington becomes a new media version of Times Square as a stew of images, including ponderous and playful millennium texts, were mixed and projected, while simultaneously displayed at a New Year's Eve party and projected on the side of a building.

Subject 5
Amidst the tragic imagery of 9/11 this multi-memorial included the scrolling names of those lost in the attack and the text of the sad and final phone messages of some of the victims.

Subject 6
A psychosexual, cerebral adventure took remediation out of the "rarefied world of media theorist" and put it right on the street where it belongs, when it inserted girlie web images into a 1930s detective comic book.

Subject 7
An Orwellian media culture where spying in on people's lives has entertainment value and worth, where the ethics of this intrusion are ignored. Web images and live video faded in and out of each other, making it seem like the view out on Washington was just another peek into cyberspace

Subject 8
Sound-generating materials were planted on the outside of the A.D. Brown building and inside the MediaArts lab. Captured sounds — people, cars and busses — were processed by a computer program, looped and repeated, the pitch and playback speed changed, and then played back and combined into a musical framework and broadcast to the street.

Subject 9
From the outside, no sign of projection equipment could be seen — the vellum was opaque enough to mask the telltale beam of light. But opaque as it was, the vellum allowed the resultant image to appear, startling as a ghost. The subjects have been taped in extreme close-up — an entire window panel about 6 feet high and wide with a face — making the faces appear to be the cornerstone of the building.

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