There were points in the early 90’s, when New Media was called Cyberarts, when I had not thought about the role fo the later sage New Media artist. What do I mean by this? When I speak of the later-stage New Media artist, I’m talking about the artist in their late 40’s or even 50’s who has a different set of experiences and skills than the 20-something who is whipping together amazing code-based works. It’s my belief that not only do their mental processes necessitate different practices, but their experiences provide a different civic responsibility for their utilization. However, this also necessitates a delicate statement to be made regarding the role of that artist in the creative process as well.
This position was driven by a conversation that I had with Ken Goldberg when he gave a talk at the Wexner Center at Ohio State University. After his talk, commiserated about hitting out forties, and that it was beginning to be harder to retain new information, etc. Sure we were becoming “Senior” new Media artists, but what exactly did that mean?
At first, I thought this meant that we had simply become older artists who could simply “no longer keep up” with the “kids” because we could not adapt quickly enough to the technological advances confronting us. To consider this as truth is only to buy into the Taylorist techno-capital paradigm of “produce or perish” that allows software companies to bring out questionable updates every year, demanding that these updates keeps the artist (or even company, at broader scales) “relevant”. This keep-up-or-fall-behind mindset, taken to its logical extreme, posits that only those with the most up to date technologies and techniques are the only ones who are equipped to engage with culture. This of course, is a blatant lie except in the case for very small numbers of commercial artists whose livelihoods are directly linked to the specific exploitation of new technologies. For the rest of us, this form of technofetishism has far less impact than one would expect.
Upon reflection as an academic, and in talking with others in the market, the advancing years have far more numerous issues than whether we can adopt (or even afford) new advances. These issues relate to the person in firms and in academia, as well as the older independent with a growing profile. These have to do with the increase of responsibility, the role of history and experience, as well as the changing nature of the older artist’s cognition.
The older New Media artist is called upon to take on larger administrative tasks than those encountered by their younger counterparts. Many, as their careers advance, take on larger numbers and scales of commissions, coordinator/directoral roles, and these responsibilities take the time that was taken up by endless late-night research in the 20’s. Personally, many of us have growing families, families in decline, and more complex personal matters than in the 20’s, although at that age, I could not have imagined more complexity. Although this may seem obvious, to think that one should be managing the festival and coding the website (as only a metaphor) would show a skewing of priorities. Therefore, although a lot of us in the mid-to-late stages might want to be doing all the work, it doesn’t make sense.
Secondly, we have the ambivalent burden of history and experience. In short, this a pragmatic issue, as this longer view might mean that rather than using an Atari 800 computer in an ironic/kitsch role since they had never really used one, one might try to recontextualize the ‘old’ technology in a critical sense because they knew the original context of the Atari itself! This is an apt metaphor for the increasingly complex sets of associations that the older artist (even being in your 40’s constitutes ‘older’ in New Media) constructs. This broader view comes from having more experiences, contexts and contacts and therefore creates the opportunity for more complex sets of associations. Therefore, it might be argued that while the mid-life person shifts from a learning to learning and reflection-based cognition (I say this only from experience and conversation, not from medical evidence), there is much more material that we as New Media artists can draw upon.
Given that the “OG’s” (as Rob Ray of Deadtech once put it to me) of New Media are moving into these positions of experience, historical context and responsibility, what does that mean? This was put very well as a metaphor in a conversation I had with my department chair…
Before saying this, I want to say very delicately that this is not a call for the subjugation of younger artists or adjuncts under “idea people”, that is, people who know what they want to do, but haven’t a clear idea how to do it, whether the current technology can do it, and delegate the work to junior artists and technicians. Although the “Idea Person” is a contemporary metaphor for the master’s atelier, there is also a problem in that they often do not have applied knowledge of the technology they wish to use. This is analogous to creating oil paintings without ever having taken charcoal to canvas. The artist (sic) has to be an individual with at least some applied knowledge of their medium so that they may ascertain the best usage of their resources and tools. In my estimation, the best mid-to-late career New Media artist is the one who can hack together most of an armature or organizational chart with specific methods for a project from which the development team can then flesh out the more intricate (and latest) technical details. However, in my opinion, it’s desirable that the artist, given the time and cognitive resources, they could do it themselves.
The question was what was the role of the mid-to-late career New Media artist in terms of larger and institutional practices. The problem was considering the need for many New Media programs or even practices to have expertise in cutting-edge technology, theory, history, and administrivia, and the time to deal with them all. My solution was that this was the role of adjuncts, junior faculty, and interns, if they could be afforded. This answer is not derogatory in the least; it is a matter of redistribution of skills and experience. For example, many adjuncts and interns are also freelance developers and designers who are more dependent on the cutting edge, and are therefore more adept at these skillsets. The people more linked to new technologies may be logical choices for the more technically-oriented classes. On the other hand, the tenure-track, tenured, studio masters, and so on are often responsible for more administrative/managerial functions than junior associates, limiting their time in learning new technologies. In addition, the experience of the senior New Media artist is something that is uniquely valuable for its novelty (for that historical New Media experience is relatively new), and should be channeled into conceptual/historical/cultural/experimental/organizational praxis. That is, the mid/late New Media artist is placed in
The problem with the pervious proposition is that it appears to create a new hegemony of seniority; this is something I am quite cautious about. The problem is that as I look at my 50’s and 60’s, I’m not going to be learning JAVA10 and writing XML parsers for BioGPS, nor are many of my associates are going to have the time either, not for lack of desire. And as the tools advance, I wonder how people will maintain their engagement without encountering obsolescence. This discussion is an attempt to question the demands placed upon later-stage artists and to derive possible solutions to offer developmental paths for artists in a field that is so defined by technological novelty. I hope that these suggestions are seen as constructive, and I welcome dialogue on the matter.
In the area of New Media, while not necessarily “new” as such (having been in existence for 40 or so years) I’ve seen an ahistorical bent which seems to detach earlier waves of artists as ‘obsolete’. Earlier artists coming to lecture at colleges seem ‘old-school’ to the students because they are not doing live data mining from Myspace (only as a metaphor; but similar instances have been seen). But are they? In my opinion, only to those who are in the context of latest technological advances as being the defining factors of ‘relevant’ art. This is a problem that should be addressed, and that there needs to be a negotiation for later artists to at least have an awareness of later technologies, while perhaps not having the time to know them intimately, knowing enough as to work with teams of differing skills and experiences to create larger works.
Is this a valid model for the maximum ‘bang’ for the mid/senior New Media artist? That remains to be seen, and this is assuredly one model. However, as technology advances and the field broadens, some of these issues need to be considered, and I hope that these suggestions are apt grist for the mill.