Art and Electronic Media
Edited by Edward A. Shaken
Phaidon Press ($75)

This book, which in pictures and text draws on representative work from several hundred artists and critics who have an interest in electronic media, comes as a welcome addition to a small but fast-growing literature in the field of New Media Art. From its lengthy Pre-Face by Edward A. Shanken, a professor in the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Media Studies, to its collection of short insightful essays that range from a statement taken from Antonin Artaud’s The Alchemical Theatre (1938), to Steve Dietz’s 2003 essay “Interfacing the Digital,” Art and Electronic Media displays a breadth of connectivity between the various electronic arts.

“Techno culture” are the words Shanken uses to drive this book, two words artists are working to unite. He attempts to do this by completing a circuit of art practice that perhaps began when Zeus first hurled bolts of lightning at his adversaries, or when Prometheus stole fire from on high and brought it down to Mankind, paying the price for his insubordination by being chained to a rock, where, exposed to lightning, his liver was devoured daily by a vulture, then regenerated every night, as if recharged by a battery. More recently, techno-culture may have been initiated when Alexander Graham Bell’s lesser-known colleague, Thomas Watson, wrote, “I was now working with that occult force, electricity, and here was a possible chance to make some discoveries. I felt sure spirits could not scare an electrician and they might be of use to him in his work.” Since then, “Although electricity has become so ubiquitous as to be mundane,” Shanken writes, “artists continue to discover its poetic significance, if not magic. In doing so, they simultaneously humanize and mythologize electronic media, transforming it through artistic alchemy to stretch the imagination, expand consciousness and inspire others to new levels of creativity and invention.” (p.16)

My personal acquaintance with Electronic Art began in the early 1980s, when I was invited by the University of New Mexico’s Art Museum to curate an ill-starred collection of Video Art as an animated extension of the museum’s distinguished photographic collection. In the daily process of reviewing videotapes from around the world, and in my own research, I became acquainted with the work of many of the artists and theorists who appear, or re-appear, in this book. During those days, as the personal computer was beginning to emerge I saw in Video Art a bridge to Cyber Art. In the next decade, the Internet would become available to artists, along with the general public, and what is here called Electronic Art began to appear. Net.Art, Web Art, Digital Art, New Media Art… the taxonomy was, and still is, as prolific as the artists’ imagination.

After Shanken’s long survey, beginning with individual accomplishment and ending with collaborative projects “at universities in order to explore the potential of practiced-based transdisciplinary research,” (p.51) Art and Electronic Media is divided into two main sections: “Works” and “Documents.” Within these are seven subsections, including “Motion, Duration, Illumination,” “Coded Form and Electronic Production,” and “Charged Environments.” The same seven are repeated in both of the main sections, supplying the illusion of order to the natural chaos that is the practice of art.

One thing that separates electronic art from other types is what Shanken calls “making explicit the continuity of consciousness in the perception of art through time and space.” (p. 55) That is, within itself, electric-generated art moves through time and space by manipulating photons or electrons; movement separates this work from art that is inert, at least to the naked eye, on canvas, or frozen, as with free-standing sculpture. This highlights the irony of a book on Electronic Media, as its hundreds of color illustrations of dynamic art projects are themselves inert, just as early books on hypertext had diagrams of links that only led to more diagrams. Even the large format, lustrous typography, and copious color images cannot transport the reader out of the limitations of print on paper.

Art and Electronic Media contains an entry on subRosa, a group that “honors feminist pioneers in art, activism, labor, politics, and science,” and embodies “feminist politics nourished by conviviality, self-determination, and the desire for affirmative alliances and coalitions.” (p. 253) More importantly to the spirit of this book, subRosa enters the Second Genesis dialogue, in which “genetically altered creatures and organisms (are introducing) irrevocable changes to current existing life forms and ecosystems…” (p.253) This is representative of the interconnectivity—creative, scientific, and political—that avant-garde artists have embraced since at least the end of World War I. In this context, biogenetic concerns seep into art via the ubiquitous use of computer terminals that are connecting the lives of people around the world. The consequence of this looping is that no matter in which medium an artist chooses to work, everyone is interdisciplinary, as to be postmodern is to live in a net of coincidences.

In addition, at a time when universities around the world are beginning to reconsider the formidable walls they have erected between their science, humanities, and art departments in the midst of a functionally interdisciplinary world, a book that sweeps across several fields is always welcome. To quote Gregory Ulmer—an important Media Studies scholar Shanken has overlooked, along with several important artists and writers, especially those whose work is found mainly online—"To do academic research in the humanities disciplines, one must read libraries, not books." Although more, and updated, research into New Media is needed, Art and Electronic Media, with its generous display of foundational work upon which this century’s arts and sciences are being built, is an essential addition to the existing literature on this topic.


(C) Rain Taxi, 2009.