Book Review: Art and Electronic Media
Last month, I suggested some “basic bookshelf” titles intended to help newcomers to the practice of doing experimental music to get “the lay of the land” – to connect themselves to the community of artists they’re joining, and to find sources of inspiration and for investigation. This month, I wanted to recommend a similar volume (or maybe two) for your bookshelf that would perform a similar service for newcomers to field of visual and installation art that the combination of Michael Nyman and Jesse Gottschalk’s books I talked about last month do for experimental musical practice.
If I were to confine my reviews and recommendations to video and visual work alone, then the task would be pretty simple, since there really is a single volume that appeared around the same time as Nyman’s and described its terrain with equal grace and clarity: Gene Youngblood’s 1970 volume Expanded Cinema. If you don’t know the book, you may have to pay something of a premium for a used copy, or you can download a PDF copy of the book here. I commend it to your attention.
Seeking to avoid the snares of confirmation bias, I crowdsourced – asking the circle of “trusted agents” to whom I go for advice. The group has very different people in it – practitioners, scholars, educators, and equally curious people like me, even. Their answers were instructive.
My friend Darwin Grosse first suggested Edward Shanken’s Art and Electronic Media, and – in another conversation and another context entirely, another colleague also mentioned it (in philosophy, we call that convergent evidence). Recommendations three through five clinched it – this is the one to start with – it combines a fairly exhaustive collection of works divided by areas of inquiry (coded form and electronic production, charged environments, networks and surveillance, culture jamming, and more), followed by essays and overviews that address each of those individual areas and provide continuity and context. Add and exhaustive bibliography of artists and authors’ biographies, and you’ve got what I consider to be a great introduction to the field.
I think there are several reasons that make choosing a volume that considers the broader situation of visual and installation art problematic. For one thing, the interplay of visual/installation art is a broader and more diverse terrain than experimental music. In addition, it arguably doesn’t have singular and towering a figures as John Cage – people who not only redefined the things we thought with rather than about, but also served as convenient figures who would let us cleanly separate an “avant garde” classical practice from a more explicitly experimental one. I’d suggest Marcel Duchamp as such a figure, but the differences still remain.
And when I consider you as a readerly audience for a Cycling ‘74 newsletter, the situation becomes even more complex – Max is now used for a much wider collection of work than merely video (you know who you are….). Perhaps the problem lies in a simple formulation: it is difficult to find books that seek to provide a technological history of art – that is, texts that treat the word technological as an adjective (similar to, say, feminist art).
To be sure, there is no shortage of scholarship or theorizing on the subject of art and technology, but many of those focus on difference and discontinuity. I personally think it’s more useful to orient oneself by considering the question in terms of similarity and continuity – in part, because the task we face in the present day has to do with making such connections ourselves as we work. It’s more instructive if only for the fact that when artists develop and create or improvise using new technologies, their development and use has always been there as an integral part of the process of making art – a process that (I think) generally does better when one pays particular attention to both continuities of practice, and their contexts.
There’s another slightly more practical difficulty that derives from the nature of the work one is discussing: while we do have scores and visual documentation of audio/musical practice, the nature of the work is predominantly impossible to display in visual form – the work must be heard. To that end, those books that are successful present themselves not only to explain/demonstrate historical connections, but as repositories of pointers to sources for the works themselves (something that the Nyman/Gottschalk volumes do exceptionally well). When we deal with the visual arts, we immediately encounter the question of how to represent the works in addition to links/bibliographies: Should they be an iconic slice of an experience that unfolds over long spaces of time? Images of something in which a primary sensory part of the experience must be imagined? Exemplars of something that is one in a series of works? Video links in the bibliographies?
Of course, I realize that there are some of you out there who may have very different views of the terrain. As an example, almost none of the academics with whom I spoke had a single book in mind – they tended to cite part of book A which theorized and and another part of book B which contained examples, or they told me that they had a folder full of clippings they used each semester.
I’d love it if you could add your favorites to the comments section of this review. Do you double-team using the Thames & Hudson Worlds of Arts series’ new media volume? Are you particularly devoted to Mark Tribe and Reena Jana’s New Media Art? Did Cat Hope and John Ryan’s Digital Arts: An Introduction to New Media do it for you? Should I have suggested that the intellectual realignments in Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History would sweep your cognitive floor clean?
Please let us all know – let’s hear it for your go-to orienteering book!