How does media art function in an era of electronic reproduction?
Media Art used to be commonly known as New Media during the 1990’s. It is considered incorrect to use that term now because media is no longer new. Once New Media as a term started to become obsolete there was a need for a replacement term. Media Arts is that replacement.
New Media functioned in an age of electronic reproduction as a much needed catalyst for discourse concerning all of the social issues that were being impacted by cutting edge digital technologies. Once that catalyst was no longer needed to sustain the discourse the idea media being new grew out of date.
There is a small industry of cultural production centered around the production of New Media. That industry needs a label to distinguish it self from other forms of cultural production. The label Media Art on first glance seems to fulfill that need. The longer that we have to live with that term the less it makes sense.
In order for a label to be useful it needs to provide some kind of constraints on the domain that you are addressing. Apple is a useful label because it excludes all of the other fruits. New Media seemed like a useful label because it excludes all media except for that which is new. Media Art is not a useful label because it includes any art comprised of media. And media can encompass anything. Canvas is media. Marble is media. Film is media. Everything is media. To say that I am a media artist essentially is to say that I am an artist. The word media is redundant in this context.
The question then becomes, ‘How does Art function in an age of electronic reproduction?’
The key concept to understand in that question is electronic reproduction. What are the main differences between electronic reproduction and mechanical reproduction? The primary difference is economic. The cost of production and distribution in the age of electronic distribution is practically zero when you compare it to the age of mechanical reproduction. The secondary difference is political and tied directly to the economic difference. Control over cultural production is fundamental to any political campaign. The traditional mode of control of the means of cultural production has been economic. A political ideology could control the means of cultural production if it first controlled the means of economic production. That level of control becomes exceedingly difficult when the cost of cultural production is significantly depreciated through hyper efficient digital technologies. Electronic reproduction is different that mechanical reproduction in the sense that the mode of communication necessarily shifts from a singular voice to a multiplicity. The means of control shifts from regulating the bottleneck of cost to monitoring the vast landscape of media and managing cultural ecologies through strategic influence.
Art seeks out new areas of representation outside of formal sanctioned cultural institutions precisely because economic access to the modes of production and distribution of media has been radically leveled. New creative blood now flows horizontally. Finding ways of channeling trends and movements in cultural production will become exceedingly difficult.
Media art as a label does not function in the age of electronic reproduction because there is no channel for it to exist within.