New media at the Brett Kebble Art Awards
by Charles Maggs
It is difficult to provide a succinct definition of new media. (Theorist Lev Manovitch offers eight different definitions over many pages in his introduction to the New Media Reader [Cambridge, 2003]). That being said, the 2004 Brett Kebble Art Awards offers an interesting platform to view and ponder new media trends within South African art practice.
Curator Clive van den Berg writes in the exhibition's catalogue of the need to deploy a variety of filters throughout the curatorial process: thematic, cultural and fiscal, among others. The exhibition as a whole speaks volumes about the effectiveness of filters and the management of cultural diversity.
New media art, arising from the information age, can also highlight the need for filters. These filters work against the overwhelming flow of information, avoid enslavement to technology and correct our view of digital 'reality'.
When it comes to digital tools, perhaps the most ubiquitous of all is the mobile phone. Almost everybody has one. Richard Scott uses a mobile phone to create his work Mars 2004. Both the connectivity and the limitations of the phone provide the framework for the piece. A series of naïve pop images has been created using the phone's drawing application. These can be e-mailed to the print studio to be turned into hard copies. Any possible anxiety about the fact that the physical presence of the artist is rendered obsolete, is absent from the work.
There is nothing new about the assimilation of elements of popular culture into the fine arts. However, it is the specific popular form that is of interest here. Both Colin Payne's A4 and Ivan Hague's Locusts deploy aspects of the language of computer games.
Payne's A4 fuses a 'Superflat' Nintendo-esque visual and sonic language with animated film narrative. It speaks about technological past. Two of Payne's cartoon characters traverse a linear realm engaged in a conversation that could be read as banal, existential and even critically aware of the artwork itself.
Hague's Locusts sees us focused on a militarised and bleak future or present. It is a 3-d rendered 'computer game meets social criticism'. Like so much of our digital technology, 3-d computer modelling comes from the so-called military-industrial complex. This term usually refers to the combination of the US armed forces, arms industry and influence in the wake of World War II, although it can also be used to describe any such relationship of industry and military .
Locusts examines hunger and terrorism and is typical of new media in both subject and execution. Hague's work also talks about globalisation and the environmental consequences and leaves us with the burden of social responsibility. A new media purist could be frustrated by lack of direct interaction as Locusts is presented as a video CD and not a playable game.
By contrast, Nathaniel Stern's Step Inside is vigorously interactive. The interaction is created by participants jumping or stamping their feet on the installation floor. These thumping sounds are echoed and in turn trigger a projected silhouette of the participant in white noise.
The performance space encourages contemplation of the self, identity and consciousness. According to Stern's statement published in the catalogue, the work provokes us 'to re-think ourselves as collage(s) in motion, and challenges the Cartesian notion of consciousness'.
The work comes from the realm of physical computing (pcomp), where the power of the computer is projected out into physical space. Pcomp is an especially dynamic new media form. It liberates us from the less than ergonomic trio of interactive devices we have to grapple with each time we use our computers. The monitor (fishbowl?), the keyboard (plastic typewriter?) and the mouse (potato?) fall far short of being as effortlessly usable as the humble pen and crisp paper, or the artful paintbrush and stretched canvas.
Fellow pcomp artist Ralph Borland describes his Vuvuzela as a found object that has been subtly manipulated to open it to new readings. It speaks of heritage, fusion and a typically South African paradigm where sport is the central pillar of our culture. The technical challenges of pcomp are highlighted by the early failure of the sound-triggering mechanism in Borland's work. There remains, however, an enigmatic air to this silent trumpet that prompts readings in perhaps inadvertent directions.
Moving away from interaction but remaining with pcomp is Nicola Grobler's The Enigma Machine, which hacks our perception of the banal and the everyday. Animated domestic appliances become characters in our daily reality where desire, emotion and mental states are forefronted. The twin paper towel rolls unravelling in a kind of sympathetic asymmetry are especially satisfying.
And There In The Dust by Lara Foot Newton and Gerhard Marx highlights the scourge of baby rape. The artists deploy what they refer to as an 'object-based language' to negotiate this contentious terrain. The overall effect is sensitive and considered as opposed to gratuitous. The work exists as a true hybrid of a multitude of media forms. Theatre, film, design and animation are ultimately united by digital authoring tools.
Marcus Neustetter's Digital Frottage explores the abstract aesthetics of the digital. It speaks about the digitisation of the visual, the digitisation of culture. And while it is neither interactive nor mediated by a digital device, it is an intrusion of the binary world into the flat but physical space occupied by photographic prints.
There is certainly much artwork on the BKAA 2004 that was created or presented with digital technology. Much of this belongs to well established fields like video or performance art. While broader access to creative digital tools does recharge these fields, they remain somewhat distinct from new media.
Where new media points to an interrogation of the digitisation of culture, it remains aware, for example, that much of these digital technologies emerged from the military-industrial complex. New media should be equipped to probe this militarisation of culture; it must re-purpose these tools of surveillance and control, soften and civilise them. New media may yet be able to provide very useful filters indeed.
1. Wardrip-Fruin, N. & Montfort, N (eds). 2003. The New Media Reader.
Cambridge (MA): MIT Press
Charles Maggs, a visual practitioner, is currently studying an MFA in New Media at UCT.