Reflections on a Life in Media Arts

As I have now been supporting cultural projects for over a decade, it seems a good time to do some introspection the nature of my path thus far. As I look back down the dusty trail one the questions I’ve been asked most frequently after trying to convey what it is that I do (quite a tricky task in itself) is, “Are you an Artist?” While I’ve come to my own peace with this question, it does interest me what the answer is for others because I believe it sheds some light on what people believe about the [digital | new media | immersive | interactive | computational | technological | cybermedia | hypermedia | multimedia | virtual] arts.

My services are normally sought when something doesn’t work. While I am far from the only person active in this niche, I have been blessed with being able to collaborate with many contemporary artists, musicians, cultural and technology workers. I’ve worked to create scores of pieces, a majority of them uncredited. This in itself isn’t a huge problem for me (my focus remains the work), but coupled with the “Artist?” question it does call for some definition of what the role of an artist working on technological collaborations is and ought to be.

I like to say I develop culture, because culture is really the something which is ideally created as a byproduct of any project that I do. However, the most succinct way apparent to describe my occupations is by saying I work in technology for arts. Even this is vague. The issue is that it takes such a diverse skill-set to complete a immersive or interactive installation or event that easy classifications for the functions involved are elusive. Also the interested parties are always shifting, I may be collaborating with an institution, other artist or organization.

I am most captivated by the way technology impacts cultural culture and catalyzes new aesthetics. I think it makes sense to use the tools available today to create these works because new technology begets new art. As I view most cultural history through the lens of technological development it is clear that we base most of our metaphors on the world and how we live based on what the most advanced technologies we have at the time are. So, it makes sense to work within this milieu. The tools and technologies involved only interest me insofar as they catalyze new aesthetics.

There seems to be a distinction that bears the weight of history between “time-based” and “static” arts, although this line is far from solid. For the traditional visual arts (painting, sculpture, basket weaving) the mantle of “artist” is usually synonymous with both the inspiration and implementation of the final work. I posit that these practitioners were historically celebrated first for their mastery of technique; for someone with no learned context for a work the first impression is always a sense of awe at the sheer technical difficulty of realizing a work that is either photorealistic, unwieldy or otherwise artificial. Conversely the lack of this quality is the reason that many don’t “get” many kinds of contemporary art. It turns out they never understood any art to begin with, they were just impressed by the superficial complexity of the craft.

However the production of time based arts (music, theater, dance, performance arts) grew to be so complex that a division of labor quickly developed. Clearly in, say, an orchestral production, the composer, conductor and instrumentalists deserve a higher billing than their supporting personnel. But, what of the instrument makers? Certainly those that make and refine the tools of sound creation have merited an equal footing, but yet they are known only esoterically. What of the concert hall designer?

While it seems simple to decide the relative artistry of all those involved, I would argue that media arts are both of a different nature entirely and imbalanced in regards to perception on what constitutes an artist. The relationship between a creative collaborators turns out to be extremely complex and can never really be partitioned into “conceptual artist” and “technician”. If we know anything about music performance it is that the performer lends vast interpretation and variation to a composer’s work. In one sense the relationship is absurd; who would think of being a painter that didn’t know how to use a paintbrush? But this is exactly what a collaborator in charge of technology is expected to do… have a mastery of technique in the use of a wide range of arts technology sufficient to realize a project to high aesthetic standards.

Another angle to consider this issue from is that of limitations. Usually when initially consulting on a project the first question I’m asked is some variant of “can we do X”. Ironically, the worst answer is “we can do anything you want” (the real answer entirely depends on budget). Michaelngelo famously commented on how the form was in the stone all the time, he just had to free it. However, it is equally as true to say that Michaelangelo set limitations on the potential of the stone. How do we know what these limitations are in a computational art work? It takes virtuosity and skill to intuit such things. So it appears that the distinction of artistry relies upon curatorial and creative control of the material. But, in the same vein as a performer, it is clear that those that perform the creative act are inexorable from the creative act itself.

So what then is the cultural fate of the creative technologist, the artistic collaborator, the event producer? Where is public celebration of the curator? I have no answers, but as the nature of art changes so too will the view of those that create it.