Key Ideas on New Media and Self-Reflexivity

October 18, 2008 at 9:37 pm Leave a comment


Nam June Paik, Budha TV, 1974

Whenever a new medium appears it must struggle to define its own field of actuation and pertinence against all existing mediums. This contributes to the development of a speech of self-specificity, as the struggle between painting and photography – when photography first appeared – testifies.
„As with the introduction of every new medium, video encompasses a process of development from a technical novelty to the formation of media-specific forms of expression, which reflect the basic technical conditions governing the apparatus aesthetically and, finally, culminate in the cultural connotations of a new medium, which can assert its singularity in setting itself apart from other media”.(Yvonne Spielmann, Video The Reflexive Media, MIT, 2008)

Opposing already existing mediums doesn´t completely describe this process, for each new medium also wants to achieve recognition from the others and even share some of their features. The emergence of the photographic in different media – in the computer for instance – is only but one example of this.
“The desire for immediacy leads digital media to borrow avidly from each other as well as from their analog predecessors such as film, television and photography. No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces. What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media”. (Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation, Understanding New Media, MIT Press, 2000)

In this sense, it seems that „all a new technology can do is to define itself in relationship to earlier technologies of representation“ (Bolter & Grusin, 2000)

As tools, and artists always seem to be the first ones to experiment with them -, and due to their inherent manipulative character new media possess an ontological feature which favours experimentation. This also leads to the development of a speech of self-specificity.

This self-specificity has erroneously been attributed. Nor the aesthetic dimension, nor the presentation dimension suffice as criteria for defining media specificity. This is easy to understand if we think of video. Ultimately its raw material is noise, which denote electronic signals, but these can be presented also as a sculpture or an installation. In this sense, nor the technical manipulation of the signals processes (its technical self-reflexion – Paik operating with magnets for instance), nor its presentation possibilities (single channel to multi video installations) are specific enough criteria to define the ontology of video.
According to Yvonne Spielmann, this must be found in video’s structure technological premise. She argues that “both Media (video and film) are concerned with visualizing an aesthetic-analytical discourse on picturiality, which brings into view structural phenomena from the medium in question”. (Yvonne Spielmann, 2008)


Morris Lewis, Alpha-phi, 1961
This strategy and belief is not exactly new, in fact it already occurred in painting. Formalism has always belived that everything necessary in a work of art is contained within it.
Clement Greenberg, who ambitioned using the characteristic method of a discipline (painting) to criticize the discipline (painting) itself, „not in order to subvert it but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence“, thought Maurice Denis’ early statement that a painting was ‘essentially a flat surface covered in colours arranged in a certain order’ through and through.
After his inquiry to painting Greenberg comes to determine that flatness and bi-dimensionality represent painting´s ontological qualities. Greenberg admitted that every medium incorporated conventions which had been borrowed from another art (narrative in history painting for instance), and which had to be necessarily expurgated so painting could be reduced to its absolutely unique characteristic(s). In this realm, „art“ became art’s only acceptable subject – art for art’s sake.
This notion of the arts as self-justifying (purily concerned with itself, striving to find its purity) was understood by Greenberg as a form of materialistic objectivity – in parallel to what contemporary science was doing. To Greenberg’s mind, this was being fulfilled by hard edge and color field painting.

Not only has New Media Art been concerned in exploring the medium’s structural characteristics but also its effects in general. In this way, the reflection about the use and meaning of images becomes very important and should perhaps be included as a part of the chapter on new media and self-reflexivity.
Images were always felt to be dangerous – we must only think of the Iconoclasm polemic – but technological apparatuses producing images do leave us the feeling that “it is out of control”. This fear is perhaps one more reason why new media are interested not only in exploring self-reflexive issues but also its effects, as if a way to get a hold on something which cannot be stopped.

From early on, new media – and not just video – took on a critical position against television and its system. Throughout History this critique was performed in different ways: the critique to Television as an instrument dictated and in service of corporate power; television as a flux of images which assumes the viewer as a passive subject; and whose only choice is the ability to change channel continuously (zapping).
Since there is no privileged image but a multiplicity of images in Television, our attention becomes slightly indifferent to content for it keeps changing very fast and no image is more important than the next. Susan Sontag sees in the type of image Television conveys, one of the reasons why we’ve become indifferent to horror images.

But more than opposing Television from minute one, Video has also adopted some of its features. In both mediums, image arises from its signal transmission technology and they both register rays of light onto a surface (in this miming Film, their historical precedent).

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Half a Live for One Kiss Key Ideas on New Media and Self-Reflexivity- in short

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