New Media Conferences
This article wrote with help essay writing services, stems from my experience of organizing four major international events over the past three years: NEXT 1.0 and NEXT 2.0 at Karlstad University, and Interactive Futures as part of the Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival. These events attempted to publicly present a body of artistic and theoretical work revolving around the digital as an artistic and cultural phenomenon. For each of these festivals I attempted to be as broad as I could in searching out figures who have influenced both the culture of interactive digital art and the wider cultural community. This has led me (occasionally circuitously) to artists as diverse as the proto-cyborg Stelarc, the bad-boy behind the Blair Witch and Requiem for a Dream websites Paul Miller of Artisan Entertainment, and the godfather of hypertext Michael Joyce.
In the context of these festivals I have tried to explore what the digital medium might have to offer that is unique to itself, and to provide a look into this nascent form in its infancy. The digital as an artistic medium is in a state of creative turmoil, not unlike the beginnings of film. New media artists are fumbling around, seeking out and occasionally finding new distinct ways of exploring this form, attempting to find (like Welles in Citizen Kane) the aesthetic imperatives of the medium. In my role as an artistic facilitator I have tried to give the audience a sense of the creative potential of this new digital medium, as well as the cultural pitfalls inherent in the attempt to broaden the appeal of the form.
As artistic director of these events, I was responsible for creating programs that would be varied and generally appealing, but would be both affordable and most importantly doable. While I have always tried to create programs that included major players in the digital medium, I found it essential to also include a general call for proposals. This has the value of both acquiring unexpected treasures (such as web-artist Mary Flanagan, who appeared at Interactive Futures), and (somewhat more prosaically) keeping the budget in line. For both NEXT and Interactive Futures, the program was made up of a diverse mix of invited senior media artists and people who responded to a call for proposals. This kept the content fresh and the organisers (relatively) happy. As long as the proposals fit within the themes of each event, the program in fact was aided by the presence of more junior artists.
An offshoot of this, that I hope to impart in this discussion, is that artists and theorists should always be keenly aware of the fit their proposal has with the stated themes and objectives of a conference mandate. In a frantic bid to have their work shown internationally many artists desperately try to fit their proposals into inappropriate contexts, or they propose grandiose and expensive pieces that none but the most monied institutions could hope to sponsor. In some cases these larger proposals have merit, but with most festivals, if these pieces were accepted, the entire budget would have to be spent on them. I have found that artists with a focussed idea of their context, an honest and realistic assessment of their budgetary needs, and a sensitivity to the program at hand will be the most likely to have their work presented at these events.
General Background: Before the Crash
NEXT 1.0 was the first conference that I organised, and it served as an example of how to conceive of and play out a large-scale event with a (moderately) limited budget. NEXT 1.0 occurred at Karlstad University in the Spring. I worked with two co-organisers, Robert Burnett and Andreas Kitzmann, the former handling the money matters and the latter taking care of most of the theoretical proposals. NEXT 1.0 occurred at an opportune time, just before the technology crash, when new media still had enormous cultural cache. This allowed us to work with a relatively good budget, to invite the keynotes we wanted, and to choose from an incredible array of proposals. In retrospect, by the sheer volume of the submissions that we accepted, NEXT also allowed a certain naïve positivism about technology to become the rule of the conference - and really, why not? The web design business was flourishing, money was flowing, and everyone thought digital technology was the wave of the future. In short everyone thought they could cash in. The mood of NEXT 1.0 was of relative optimism, despite the presence of serious critical media artists such as Michael Joyce, Monika Fleischmann and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.
There was an enormous amount of work shown in each of the three streams - Creating Content for Interactive New Media, Virtual Connected Communities, and Storytelling - as evidenced by the descriptions still available on the NEXT 1.0 website. Michael Joyce later described NEXT 1.0 as an "unlikely and unbelievable international gathering at a media center that seemed a Playmobile Village brought to life." There were various installations spread out all over the town, several performances with strange new interfaces (Andrea Polli’s eye-triggered music being the most notable), keynotes by well-known artists and theorists, DJs from London. In short: a dream for those working in digital technology. It was perhaps a little too good to be true. Or to last.
General Background: After the Crash
Given the current post-crash reality, it is unlikely that we would be able to stage such an event again. Both instantiations of Interactive Futures, as well as NEXT 2.0, were comparatively small events, and in reality perhaps more satisfying as forums for learning as such. Pre-crash digital art was a medium that attracted a lot of hangers-on. In the post-crash world the digital artists who survived after the dust settled are comparatively serious, committed and in it for the long haul.
In the post-crash world, Interactive Futures had the benefit of being attached to the Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival, and therefore had a built-in budget and promotional machine behind it. While the budget amount was limited, the contacts that I had built up via NEXT and as a media artist allowed me to compile a diverse program (by calling in some favours) while again keeping the organisers (relatively) happy. With the first version of Interactive Futures I specifically addressed the theme of the conference in response to the tech crash:
If there is one thing the recent decline in technology-based companies has taught us, it is that developers have been focusing too directly on what new technologies can do (bells and whistles), and not on what we can do with new technology (actual creative content). After all, it is fine to say that everyone will be empowered by the interactivity inherent in new digital technologies, but it is quite a different thing to actually make that interactivity meaningful for users of those technologies. That is why the varied content of Interactive Futures holds so much promise. Each presenter has made it a point to articulate the actual uses of the technology they employ - from the hard cybernetic futurism of the proto-cyborg Stelarc, to the narrative experiments explored by Kevin Shortt and Morgan Tincher in their interactive TV-series Suite 218. More importantly they show us how users will be involved in the creation of meaning in these works. (Steve Gibson, Interactive Futures Curatorial Statement. Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival Guide).
In the first version of Interactive Futures, artists came out in response to the loss of faith in interactive digital technology, showing that the form still had merit, that in fact its perseverance was due to their passionate belief in its long term viability, rather than its short-term trendiness. NEXT 1.0 had been very much about exploring technology and its meaning for digital art and culture. Interactive Futures became more about providing a meaningful form of expression with technology. In other words, Interactive Futures became centred on the process of developing the digital into a solid medium for creating art projects with more long-term arcs. Again the ties with the beginnings of film were obvious:
In this movement there is a logical connection with the film medium, much of which has been hinting at interactivity and non-linearity over the course of its development, from the montage experiments of Eisenstein to the irrational non-linearity explored by David Lynch. This history provides a context for new media art, even when the work deviates drastically from the film medium's inevitably linear time flow. This new context bears a striking comparison to the relationship between early film and its theatrical antecedent. (Steve Gibson, Interactive Futures Curatorial Statement. Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival Guide).
The Specifics: Interactivity, Narrative
With Interactive Futures I was interested in exploring the various trajectories that artists were taking the medium through. As digital art was developing into a distinct form based around interactivity, connectivity, non-linearity, and a distinctly irrational sense of time, I decided to focus on those themes as played out by a broader community of web artists, installation artists, commercial designers, and theorists. Whereas NEXT 1.0 had been primarily academic in nature (despite the populist nature of some of the research presented), Interactive Futures version 2 was more truly both an academic conference and a forum for digital media of all stripes. Therefore, in this second version of Interactive Futures we had presenters as diverse as Michael Wohl (who presented on the interactive elements of rock music and gaming sites) and Don Ritter (who presented a resolutely abstract algorithmic audio-visual installation). This pluralism of approach within a newly self-defined digital medium gave the viewers a taste of the richness of the medium, as well as the opportunity to actually see work that had a viewing life beyond the confines of the academic environment.
At the same time, this diversity exposed some of the theoretical weaknesses of the digital medium, particularly in its relationship with narrative theory. While it is slowly developing its own form, the popular conceptions of the digital medium are still focussed on the comparatively limited narrative conventions of the gaming and commercial web world. Given that Janet Murray critiqued the gaming world - way back in 1997 - as having incredibly banal narrative structures, it was rather distressing to see that in most commercial digital media "meet an interesting new alien - and kill him" was still the dominating meme being promoted. In fact, in part due to the dominance of the gaming "first-person shooter" approach, the digital has progressed very little in narrative terms in the past few years. Only a few hardy people working on the periphery have managed to give us a taste of the storytelling potential of this new medium.
The most compelling example of this was shown by Toni Dove in her DVD project Sally or the Bubble Burst (available from the Cycling 74 label). "Sally or The Bubble Burst is an interactive DVD-ROM that uses speech recognition and synthesis to allow viewers to enter the world of Sally, an inhabitable responsive narrative character based on the 1930s fan and bubbledancer Sally Rand. Sally creates a unique, intimate kind of interactivity as viewers speak and sing, and use mouse and keyboard to inhabit and converse with the unpredictable Sally as she casts an uncanny shadow into the present." The character of Sally takes on an otherworldly role as she is manipulated aurally and visually by Dove, creating a sense that a new form of avatar-driven interactive art might be possible if it is given the chance to develop more complex behaviours such as those envisioned by Dove. As Dove was manipulating Sally and creating poetic compositions from the simple movements of the mouse, I realised that there were genuine and unique possibilities for the medium.
The Specifics: Cyborgs, Shared Realities
Like Interactive Futures, NEXT 2.0 was a distinctly post-crash event: small, intimate, and full of presenters who had weathered the storm. The centrepiece of the event was a presentation by Stelarc, an artist who has come to define staying power in a medium that seems all too ephemeral. Stelarc gave us an overview of an incredible career that spanned non-technological suspension-events to his latest proposal to create a functional Extra Ear, to be grafted on to his arm in the near future. The relative intimacy of NEXT 2.0 allowed every participant to connect with Stelarc, and to allow him to look at and ask questions of their work. For the post-crash world, Stelarc stands as an artist whose oeuvre is so substantive and whose approach is so well-defined that it has set the tone for the concerns of the new medium. The philosophical clarity of his arguments, as played out in a huge body of work regarding human agency in the technological world, put him at the forefront of digital art. To have him in the audience for student presentations was a unique opportunity.
It was at NEXT 2.0 I realised that in fact the digital medium may be better off for the tech crash. The seriousness with which the participants addressed both their work, and their questions about the digital in general, demonstrated a medium that is maturing into a functional art form, with a history, a substantive body of work, and some common aesthetic precepts. The various pretenders and those hoping to cash-in had dropped off like flies and people with real passion were left to continue building the medium.
Speaking from the relatively rarefied position of conference organiser, I hold out hope that the digital can continue to develop as a form, to insinuate itself in the public consciousness beyond its limited roots in gaming and the web. NEXT and Interactive Futures have given me the opportunity to introduce some of the artistic concepts that are helping to define this new medium. For artists and theorists I am convinced that these forums are of primary importance for the exchange of knowledge, and the expansion of the medium. In the future we are planning to bring NEXT 3.0 to North America (Victoria) and hope to continue the work of building a intimate, substantive, non-elitist forum for disseminating knowledge and work in new media. We invite all of you to follow our website for news about this event. We hope to see you there!