Media Art and Virtual Futures
by Simon Biggs, February 1991

Originally published 1991 in London Electronic Arts Catalogue, London, GB

In 1991 it would appear appropriate to consider where Media Art may be as we approach the millenium. What will characterise its technological platform, practise and conceptual concerns?

Before embarking on our projected decade it might be relevant to review the past decade in relation to previous Media Art practise so as to arrive at some view of the current situation and its recent history.

In Media Art - and particularly Video Art - the application or appropriation of sophisticated production techniques has increased in recent years. Although, for whatever reasons, the larger part of experimental video practise has not engaged with such "state of the art" production techniques and values, it is certainly evident that the majority of successful works have taken this route.

In the UK artists such as Cerith Wyn Evans and Marty St James and Anne Wilson have exemplified recent Video Art values. In the USA it has been the decade of Bill Viola and Garry Hill; in Germany of Maria Vedder and Gustav Hamos and in France of Robert Cahen and Jean Luc Goddard. Each of these artists has applied the latest developments in video production and/or the high production values associated with television. All of these artists, along with a significant number of others, have come to regard television as a primary means of diffusion, and therefore as a primary referent and context for their practise.

This situation, as evidenced in this more recent work, is significantly different to earlier approaches in Media Art. For artists such as David Hall (UK), Vito Acconci (Italy) and Richard Serra (USA) video functioned as a child of the artistic avantgarde. Its primary referents and sources were Performance Art, installation and experimental film. Television was a primary referent, but one defined as in opposition to Video Art practise and objectives.

Since then the relationship between video and avantgarde artistic practise has greatly diminished in importance. Television has remained a primary consideration, but it is no longer regarded from an oppositional position. Rather, there has developed a relationship of organic intertextuality and interdependence. This is not to claim that video has sacrificed its critical potential or alternative credentials, but is an observation upon the maturing values of what is no longer a technically innovative medium. Many video practitioners have now identified television as a medium with which they can work and further develop their personal vision. The question here is what will be the equivalent developments over the next decade, particularly with reference to new media opportunities?

As has been evidenced over recent years, with the convergence of video, film and television, the structure of the primary means of production/diffusion is that which contextualises the processes of consumption and functions most powerfully in defining the nature of the work produced. For the past decade this has been typified by an exploding televisual media with a voracious appetite for new product. Television has become less the mass-medium described by Marshall MacLuhan and more a fragmented territory, occupied by institutions and populations responding to an equally fragmented and diversified cultural context.

As the millenium approaches this process of fragmentation can be seen to be accelerating, allied to developments in the technological platform, promising to transform the media radically, if not to explode it all together. This technologically driven process will shape a variety of distinct but related media centred on the evolving role of the consumer.

Virtual Realities, Interactive Television, and Hypermedia are the emerging media standards. It will be media such as these, radically different to those with which we are familiar, which will come to dominate the processes of public and private cultural consumption.

In such a context it is likely that Video Art will lose both its means of production/diffusion and also much of its identity. It will, along with Cinema and television, pass into history. This is not a lamentable situation. Aside from the fact that art (meaning here painting, sculpture and the like) has survived a passing into museum culture, the emergence of new means will be an opportunity for artists to establish new forms of expression and discourse, offering potentialities at least as significant as these earlier media once did.

Virtual Realities are computer based multi-media systems which allow total sensory submergence of the user within a totally synthetic environment. However, there is more to this media than simply a form of "total cinema", as the user can interact with, and be acted upon by, virtual phenomena much as they would with real events and things. It has been noted by a number of commentators, most infamous amongst them the figure of Dr. Timothy Leary, that such systems are destined to have a far greater impact on the individual and society than television. If we consider the effects and legacy of television then it would appear that we are presented with developments of significant interest and concern.

The technological platform for these developments is already well established, the emphasis now being on the integration of distinct media.The Dutch PTT (Telecom and Post Office) has already cabled most of Holland allowing the parrallel sending/receiving of hundreds of audio-visual channels, and have already initiated research into Fifth Generation media - systems that learn and adapt to the preferences of the user, effectively removing the need to scan the TV Guide each evening.

In France a collaboration between Minitel (a sophisticated version of Teletext) and the Videoteque d'Paris has been experimenting with what is effectively the worlds first interactive TV system, allowing the viewer to choose from a vast library of material that which they wish to see by interacting with their domestic television set.

Both the BBC and the Arts Council have committed funds to Interactive Television research, and at MIT's Medialab in the USA there are various research programs into Virtual Reality, Hypermedia and Interactive Television. Commercial software and hardware, at low cost, is available for personal computers which bring broadcast quality digital audio-visual production facilities to the desk-top, allied to advances in interactivity and hypermedia. It will not be long before such media, based around an ubiquitous and almost invisible home computer, become the domestic and industrial standards for the production and consumption of cultural product.

What effect is this likely to have on production and creative practises? Will producers all be shifting to computer terminals, typing in data or interacting with on-screen menu's? Certainly, this is already the case for commercial practitioners and those artists with access to similar technology. However, this state of affairs is rapidly changing. From France has come the new, relatively cheap 3-D Space Digitiser, which allows the user to wave a "magic wand" in the air to define complex forms, animation paths or data for any other purpose you might imagine.

Such a device can be used simply as an alternative input device, or it can be employed as a means for the user to interact with simulated phenomena. This is but one example of developing advanced interface technologies, with the area of human/machine interface design emerging from an almost exclusively military research context into the relative light of day found in educational institutions and corporate bodies.

Stereoscopic video-helmets, an integral part of current Virtual Reality systems, entirely surround the user with visual information, but research is already underway to replace such interface technology with systems that scan the information directly onto the retina. It may be that we may never actually see this technology in use, as more advanced research is studying the direct stimulation of the optic nerve as a means of dispensing with inflexible and difficult to use hardware. It is implied here that such technology is poised to invade the human interior, blurring distinctions between hardware, software and user.

On such evidence it is possible to postulate that what will characterise such media is the convergence of the means of production and consumption upon the user. Media which we are familiar with as passive will become active, and thus the domestic means of consumption will also become the professional means of production.

With Virtual Realities will also come the development of Virtual Tools and Virtual Studios. In a sense this is already the case, with crude Virtual Tools being the primary elements in computer based paint programs and animation systems. Tools such as simulated airbrush and digital editors are defined by their symbolic character. Such tools exist only as part of a larger linguistic (digital) system, and due to this can be altered or extended through simple modification of their symbolic description. It is this idea of re-programming which underlines the fundamental definition of the computer as "the machine that can be all machines" (Turing). What does this imply as the distinction between human and machine is eroded through bio-digital symbiosis?

One of the implications for the artist here, with the de-differentiation of production and consumption, is that their practise and role will be radically shifted, coming to function within another paradigm of the social role of creativity. It is this concept of the individual functioning simultaneously as producer and consumer that underpins the nature of Hypermedia. Like interactive media, the user can choose what they experience, synthesizing media and phenomena in the process. Unlike interactive media, Hypermedia also allows the user to alter, delete and add to the work, and they are actively encouraged to do so.

This situation leads to the development of the idea that no one individual can claim artistic authority relative to a shared product. Each user is a producer, equally responsible for a works existence. This approach to creativity has already gained a number of exponents in Europe, with "open" groups such as Pool Processing (Osnabruck) and Ponton (Hannover) actively involved in an anarchic appropriation of these technical possibilities, utilising home computers, satelite systems and a variety of other media.

The conceptual terrain here is prescribed by ideas such as the notion of authorship, and therefore identity; the process of exchange, and therefore power; the relationship between human and machine, and therefore ontology. Perhaps these are not new issues, but these new media render them explicit by their very nature and therefore questions revolving around ontology, power and discourse will take on a renewed interest from a variety of new perspectives. Alternatively, such questions may be passed lightly in a quest for hyper-virtual pleasure?

So far as aesthetics are concerned it would seem likely that history is to repeat itself, at least in part. The same distinction that dominated the early Cinema is already a point of argument and dissension in a new media practise founded on simulation technologies. On the one hand there are the realists (not unlike the Lumiere's, their followers and apologists), seeking to accurately represent things as they appear. On the other hand the "magicians" (following in the footsteps of George Melies), seeking to exploit the new media's facility to synthesize new hybrids of imagery and meaning.

The methodologies of these two approaches can be regarded, in general terms, as quite distinct. For the realist there is a tendency towards procedural and systematic analysis of phenomena and its reproduction via equally structured methodologies. This tendency leads on directly from the scientific origins and applications of new technology, drawing on the mathematical discipline of modelling. In fact, with much of this work it is difficult to distinguish between scientific visualisation and work of a primarily artistic intent.

Perhaps the primary value of this approach is in this lack of distinction between the methodologies and intentions of art and science, and the potential impact of this upon each respective discipline. There is already visible the effect of computing upon scientific paradigms and methodologies, with the development of Chaos Theory in response to the overwhelming volume and detail of data now available, which has destabilised many of the primary assumptions underlying scientific method and its objectives. The probability therefore does exist for a similar development in art, which may not go amiss.

Complimenting the approach of the realists is that of the magicians. They are less interested in representations of phenomena and more so in the the pattern of ideas and asscociations made possible when tools allow the hybridisation of imagery, artifacts, history and events. The magician's desire is less to strike wonder in the viewer with their technical and observational expertise in producing a convincing simulacra, but rather to bring alive the fears and desires that function as a subtext to our relationships with real phenomena.

This latter group of practitioners undoubtedly work closer to the mainstream of artistic practise, and in this sense they represent less of a challenge to the method and intent of art than the realist school. The value of the magicians approach is founded upon the appropriation of a technological platform not intended for or associated with experimental art practise. Perhaps one of the most exciting signs in this emerging new media is that through a synthesis of these two approaches a potential exists for a fundamental shift in creativity; both in the sciences and the arts, one radically informing the other.

In conclusion, it should be pointed out that whilst the early cinema offers some useful parrallels for addressing the new media of nearly a century later, it would be erroneous to carry the analogy further into an application of film theory to new practises. These new media involve such different concepts of author, reader, the structure of the artifact and its means of production and consumption that the analysis of these new tools and approaches will require the development of equally new critical strategies. As has always been the case, theory will depend upon and follow practise...