Relationship between new media and art examined

by Eugenia Xenos

Art may be more interactive than ever before, but it can also be more difficult to create. At a recent art history conference titled Art and New Technologies: The Real, the Virtual and the Auratic, four artists used examples of their work to examine how new technology is affecting the work itself and increasing potential interaction with participants or viewers.

The relationship between artwork and participant, where meaning is negotiated, was conceptualized as the "aura" of an artwork by cultural critic Walter Benjamin. Today, with new technologies playing an intrinsic role in many contemporary artists' work, the relationship between the construction of meaning and aura is undergoing fresh analysis.

Margot Lovejoy, a professor at the State University of New York, made a compelling presentation, asking difficult questions about the nature of interactive artwork.

"I was worried about people deriving meaning from my last work (Salvage, created with Myles Dudgeon) because I did not have control over its final outcome (participants would press sensors on the walls to activate images representing different aspects of a three-part programmed system, which were projected within an installation environment).

"Active participation in the work alters the relationship between artist and spectator. If an artwork has no final outcome, does it lose depth of meaning? A troubling question arises: Is the interactive work too 'game-like' -- mere entertainment without the poesis and depth we think of as part of traditional forms?"

Lovejoy referred to Benjamin's influence in her thinking about the relationship between art object and communication of meaning. Benjamin wrote that use of technology to create art places emphasis on communication and the function of a work, rather than the object. New interactive technologies heighten the need for communication by emphasizing the potential for participation in the work by viewers. Artwork no longer arises from a "flash of inspiration," as it did for the traditional artist, but from strategies on how to create new structures for communication.

Bill Vorn, a multimedia artist and Concordia Fine Arts professor, has been working with interactive robotic installations since 1992, creating the embodiment of life in inert matter. He has worked with machines to evoke certain animate forms, including beggars, thiefs and scavengers. In La Cour des miracles, he and Louis-Philippe Demers used violent lighting and sound with moving metallic, animal-like structures to create artificial life that instills a feeling of anxiety in the viewer.

In other works, Vorn has examined group behaviour, including one work, Espace Vectoriel, where motorized light tubes follow the movements of the viewers. In other words, they're "confrontational," leaving some viewers perplexed and others intrigued.

A third speaker, David Tomas of the Universitˇ du Québec à Montréal, presented his Internet/CD ROM work called The Encoded Eye. The work has its origins in a broader view of the concept of new technologies, one that seeks not to privilege the present or future over the past. The Encoded Eye was designed to explore the interface between the traditional book and new reading experiences provided by the Internet.

Concordia Communication Studies Professor Andra McCartney also works with the Web, but primarily focuses on sound. In particular, she does "soundwalk recording," which is the act of taking a record of sounds one hears while on a walk, including the movements of the person walking.

McCartney showed the audience her soundwalk Sounding Places CD ROM installation, on which a whimsical map of Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver contains icons that either have snippets of sound as they were recorded, or changed in various ways (elongated or shortened) to create different effects. McCartney hopes to communicate profound experiences with sounds that are often ignored. "I have epiphanic experiences with everyday sounds!" McCartney said.

The conference took place in the Maxwell Cummings Auditorium at the Musˇe des Beaux Arts, and was organized by Ernestine Daubner with the assistance of Sandra Paikowsky, publisher and mana ging editor of the Journal of Canadian Art History. The event was co-sponsored by Concordia's Art History Department and the Journal as part of the publication's 25th anniversary.

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