Monday, January 22, 2007

Just an old stick in the mud

When I was a kid, my mother had a small psychiatric practice, so she got tons of free magazine subscriptions for her waiting room. I used to make collages by cutting pictures and words out of these magazines and pasting them to pieces of plywood. These collages didn’t have any composition or theme beyond a bunch of stuff I thought was cool. They were satisfying to make—part scavenger hunt, part puzzle, and I liked the way you could “read” all the words and pictures in different ways. But none of those collages survived my adolescence.

I get that collage-making feeling from a lot of the new media projects online. This new medium of the web has allowed us to conflate video, audio, image and text, and why wouldn’t people play around with such cool elements? But the truth is I’ve yet to see anything from this mashup that really speaks to me. There are great comics on the web and videos and stories and so on, but those are just stories and movies that have been placed on the web, not constructed for the web, as are the ELO projects. It seems to me that the web offers access, immediacy, instantaneousness, endless inventory and this ability to mix media. It just doesn’t seem that the artists know what kind of art will take advantage of these attributes yet.

The Daguerreotype, as we saw, was a medium that came into being fully formed, with artists who knew exactly what to do with it, and an audience that was hungry for it. It’s true that the Daguerreotype was very personal—there was one photographer, one subject, and one original. But the same phenomenon happened with radio, a mass medium that led to immediate music, comedy, drama and variety programming. People saw that medium and knew what to do with it—they began creating and people began listening; in 1933 Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio, and it was in half of American homes by 1934. The same could be said of cinema. Artists didn’t sit around a decade thinking about what to do with this new motion-picture camera thing. They started making feature-length movies right away, ones that mixed image, speech and soundtrack (even if preformed live in the early days.) It’s also interesting to consider the ways in which media fuse, like the movie score, the music video and the graphic novel.

And then there are communication devices that never become artistic mediums. As far as I can tell, no one ever composed a work of art for the telephone, a device that, like the internet, can connect every person on earth in an immediate and instantaneous way, using the human voice, the delivery system of theater, opera, song, and so on. (I know celphone soap-operas are all the rage in South Korea and Hong Kong, but those are really text messages.) What about the postal system? Or email? Why is there no email art? Is it possible to seriously speak to people in a captivating way via email? Would someone today write “Email from a Birmingham Jail”? The film short is an artistic category for the Academy Awards. Will people begin making art for Youtube, rather than just posting cool, interesting and crazy snippets? And the award for best 90 second movie goes to . . .

Do I sound like an old stick in the mud? Maybe. But then again, it might just take a while to figure out this new medium, which so far is a mashup of other, known media. I think of the printing press, brought online in the mid 15th century. We conceive of print media as a principle medium, one that has shaped us all culturally. But the movable-type press pretty much printed bibles for its first decade—not a new text, then classified in the “nonfiction” category. For fifty more years, most presses printed only classics. When we think of presses, we think of newspapers, magazines and what became the press’ true artform, the novel. But for a century, artists, knowing they had a fast, cheap mass outlet for writing, mostly wrote romances and character sketches. I know there were serious class, literacy and political/doctrinal issues, but the first candidate for the novel doesn’t happen for 150 years until Cervantes publishes Don Quixote, Part I in 1605, the same year the first newspaper was brought to press. The first magazine, the Spectator, doesn’t come out until 1711 (it was read, every day, by 60,000 people, a third of London.) By 1720, the novel has a firm footing as a very serious print artform. So it seems it took a couple centuries of relationship-building between artists, audience and the print technology to find the artforms that we turn to now for a literary experience.

Certainly it won’t take 300 years to figure out what new media writing holds in store. And I don’t think the web will leave us with the artistic equivalent of the telephone. But I have a feeling it will take some time. The writers of the ELO projects seem to be taking highly inventive and imaginative first steps.

Sorry for the long posting. A popular blog/portal page I use is Laughing Squid, sort of a San Francisco version BoingBoing that has the coolest arts events listings for the Bay Area. And maybe medium in the long tail is Metblogs, a blog that has a page for most major cities and asks a team of people to maintain a communal blog about their town. I read San Francisco and New Orleans, both ways to get great inside information about a city, even if you live in it!

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