[iDC] Automatic Update exhibition essay

Patrick Lichty voyd at voyd.com
Tue Jul 10 10:15:57 EDT 2007

This is my draft-in progress of my review of the exhibition.
Please mind the missing references. They aren't finished, and the text
is posted only for timeliness.


In regards to the upcoming "Automatic Update" exhibition at the
MoMA NY, there seems to be a great deal of question about a number
of issues. These are; the re-writing of history, the relevance of
net-based art, the perception of popular culture, and the role of the
New Media movement/Genre in the contemporary scene. What seems to be
a key dialectic about the state of New Media as force in contemporary
art derives from two poles; one from the MoMA colophon about the
Automatic Update show;

The dot-com era infused media art with a heady energy. Hackers,
programmers, and tinkerer-revisionists from North America, Europe,
and Asia developed a vision of art drawn from the technology of
recent decades. Robotic pets, PDAs, and the virtual worlds on the
Internet provoked artists to make works with user-activated components
and lo-res, game-boy screens. Now that "new media" excitement has
waned, an exhibition that illuminates the period is timely. Automatic
Update is the first reassessment of its kind, reflecting the artists'
ambivalence to art, revealed through the ludicrous, comical, and
absurd use of the latest technologies. [1]

The other comes from the near-historical perception of the New Media  
community as “art ghetto”, residing in
festivals/enclaves such as DEAF, 
ISEA, Ars Electronica, SIGGRAPH [2], and others. As an aside, this writer 
would like to remind the MoMA that there have been other retrospectives of

New Media [3], but not of this profile.   What is ironic about Automatic 
Update is that it suggests that New Media's time has all but gone, and that

New Media artists have ambivalence to art in general. Perhaps this is 
evident from Roland Penrose's assertion of Rauschenberg's heritage to Dada

[4], and Rauschenberg/Kluver's role in constructing key discursive threads

in contemporary technological art through Experiments in Art and Technology

(EAT) [5] that would spawn many tech/art event/sites, including New Media. 

The questions posed by Automatic Update are many. First, is New
Media a genre that is quickly being assimilated/deconstructed
by the contemporary, or is its death, to paraphrase Twain's
commentary on his obituary in the NY Times, "highly exaggerated"? Secondly,

does this body or work aptly represent the "waning" dot-com/New Media era,

and does it represent the material/info culture that is reflected in the 
work? What are the linkages between the assertions of interactivity and 
response as absurdist reactions through technological art?

Before continuing this analysis of the exhibition, I want to frame
the argument of this essay more explicitly. On the CRUMB New Media
discussion list, Christiane Paul noted that most of the works in
this exhibition are from internal collections [6], which is a point
well taken. Even with this taken into account, there seems to be a
dys-connection between the absurdist practices of the artists in
context with how they fit with other contemporary threads, the role
of interactivity in the exhibition, and the locating of curatorial
focus in context of the conceptual grounding of the show in terms
of Automatic Update being representative of the "dot.com" era, which 
apparently is congruent with that of the historical framing of New Media. 
Lengthy sentences aside (which, by the way, coincide with early New Media 
works like Amerika's Grammatron [7] and
Davis' world's first collaborative sentence[8]), my analysis is not so much

a critique, but query into the dialogue between the contemporary and New
Media worlds and how their memetic trends translate.

First of all, let us look at some dates where we may frame some
of the considerations of art terminology and economic trends. The
dot.com crash can be located in March/April 2000, when the tech-heavy
NASDAQ stock exchange dropped from the 4300's to the 1400's [9].
the beginning locates somewhere in the mid-90's, with the 1995 IPO of 
companies like Netscape. This coincides with the rise of the Web in 1994, 
and the founding of Rhizome.org in 1996 by Tribe & Galloway [10], which
follows with the online publishing of many of Lev Manovich's essays that 
would become The Language of New Media [11] in 2001. If Automatic Update is

loosely suggesting the era of New Media to be approximately 1996-2000, then

it may also be ironic that Manovich's book may be an encapsulation of the 
time, being released the year after the genre's implied apex.

However, pre-Web, (let's say, 1995) there was the era of Cyberarts, as this

was the common parlance for digital/computational art. For example, Compu-

Serve Magazine published an issue in 1994 on the
subject [12], and the creation of Mondo 2000 in 1989 [13] to the
staff's proclaimed "end of cyberpunk" in 1993 with the release of the
Idol album (or possibly the founding of WIRED Magazine). The pattern that 
emerges is one from '89-'94 of a bohemian cyberpunk culture and related
based on digital technology to one that became more mass-cultural and
to capital with the creation
of the Web and its cooptation by business. What seems to be evident
with in the decade of the 90's and the emergence of the implied
era of New Media is the shift from Cyber to Wired.

If Automatic Update is truly a reflection on the era of New Media
and its cultural issues, then perhaps the greatest singular driving
force of the dot.com boom is unquestionably the rise of the World Wide
Web, and not robotic pets (the Sony Aibo robotic dog was introduced
in 1999 and Furby in December 1998), the cultural context for New
Media must be heavily tied to the Web. In the years stated here, there
were shows like net.condition (ZKM, 1999), Art Entertainment Network
(Walker Art Center, 2000), and the Whitney Biennial 2000 for which
web-based art figured prominently. In addition, during the renovation
of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's galleries in 2000-2002,
they hosted a partially net-based gallery during that time. Therefore,
from a formal perspective, at least three or four years of the
"New Media" art era of the dot.com boom saw some of the greatest
activity in web-based art.

What is ironic in the online exhibition is that there are no web-based
works online, only some net-based networking through de.licio.us,
and the only piece that seems to directly acknowledge the browser
is the video by PaperRad, Welcome to my Home Page. For that matter,
23 of the 25 works featured in the online documentation are largely
video-based. If one considers events like the "Sins of Change:
Media Arts in Transition" New Media summit (2000), which was the
successor of a similar video art summit nearly a decade and a half
prior, a key irony is the expression of waning media/media becoming
canonized in terms of a canonized, or stable, medium (video). As an
aside, the Automatic Update page borrows stylistically from late
90's Walker Art Center Gallery 9 New Media exhibitions,
including Art Entertainment Network, which was launched in conjunction with

the Sins of Change summit. From this, the question arises as to whether
institutional expression of media art forms can only come through the
translation into now-canonical media, such as video. It
reinforces the New Media community's dialogue as to whether
museums will be able to support Web-based or otherwise more
"formal" types of work from the genre, or whether the equivalent of
documentation will be de rigeur for the time being. While vaguely
disappointing, it is not far from this author's contention that,
due to the ephemerality of technology and technical upkeep required
maintain most New Media works, the key archive of New Media art will
probably be the book.

Another aspect of New Media that is often at odds with the 
sensibilities of the American museum patron is that of Interactivity. 
It is no surprise that of the 25 works documented, only 2 are         
interactive. While it is not surprise, it is at odds with the         
curatorial vision's emphasis on interactivity, and with the   
pervasiveness of interactivity in much, if not most, New Media. This  
stems from two factors; one, the traditional gallery practice of      
'not touching' the work, which is a known issue, but a
complex one that is beyond a full discussion in this essay. Secondly, and  
this is an issue I intend to write about more fully at another        
time, are the issues of time and engagement, what I call the          

What I mean by this is that for different venues, audiences expect
different slippages in time-based work for different contexts and
genres. In the case of the video festival, work must have the rhythm
and span more attuned for entertainment, i.e. shorter form, quicker
pace, etc. There are, of course, exceptions where the framing of
festival screenings specifically include experimental formats, but
this commentary is aimed at broader contexts. Moving on, the gallery
permits slower slippages. The time flow can be slower than the
festival, as the patron can engage with partial attention, contrasted
with that of the “captive” in the theater
seat. As long as there is the 
perception of change between glances, conversational pauses, or sips of 
Chardonnay at the occasional vernissage, the temporal contract
is fulfilled. What is more problematic is the context of the Museum,
where the role of the time-based screen/projection work must fulfill
the dual role of Sublime/Static and Cinematic/Kinetic. It must be read
as a single image in Gladwellian "blink-time", but then withstand the 
engagement of longer timeframes. A key example of this effect is Viola's 
"The Passions", where the figurative high-definition video reads as late

Renaissance painting, but also as protracted cinema.

The challenge of the time-function in the museum context is where much
New Media fails to engage Contemporary Art audiences. Interactive
New Media, by and large, do not convey their intent iconically in a
blink. Much interactive New Media requires the direct dialogue with
the viewer through touch or motion over numbers of minutes in order
for the intent/content to reveal itself to the viewer. Interactivity
in the museum is often restricted to gesture. Therefore, because of
the "attendance" of interactor and support personnel to
much New Media work of the 1995-2000, as well as its modes of 
representation, it would not be surprising to see little truly interactive

New Media in a larger museum context, even for a show reflecting on the 

In addition to the matters of time in the gallery, the issue of
cultural location in terms of time as era in context of Automatic
Update is an issue. Of interest is the inclusion of only 9 of 25
pieces from the 1995-2000 era, with Laurie Anderson's 1986
video, "What You Mean, We?" As part of the exhibition, Anderson's piece,
although seminal, is curious because it neither takes place within
the implied New Media era nor reflects upon the specifics of the
rise of computational media art, as Anderson's piece is clearly
about the 80's art milieu and late-stage analog video technologies. 

That leaves 15 of 25 works from the post dot.com boom era, given the
framing of reflection on the role of technology in contemporary art,
which is appropriate for the exhibition.
What may be revealed in the works of Automatic Update is not a reflection 
upon the "New Media era", but a filtration of technological artworks
US Contemporary Art agendas. This interface between art genres/communities

is important to understand the translation of works under differing 
institutional contexts (museum/market/festival/academia) that are more 
specific to the given bodies of work.  For example, many of the artists in

the show (Arcangel, Lucas, July, PaperRad, Rist) at the time of the works'

creation is a juxtaposition of the creation time of the work with the early

2000's obsession with youth/young artists.  The obsession with young
is rife in the art fairs, with personal experience at the 2007 BridgeArt 
Chicago, Basel, and others, and has been shown in recent years with the 
apparent doubling of Boomer geriatric anxiety, the rise of Millennial youth

artists, and the denial of acknowledging mortality in the US through mass 

The other art-meme evident in the Automatic Update exhibition is
that of the prevalent nature of the Neo-Pop/Superflat movement
created in part by Murakami and his KaiKai Kiki stable (Nara, Mr.,
Aishima, Takano, and others). Huyghe et al's "No Ghost, Just a
Shell" demonstrates the Western/Eastern dialogue in technological art, as
Murakami employed digital techniques to update Warhol's Factory
concept through contemporary Japanese terms. Conversely,
Huyghe's project juxtaposes virtual identity, intellectual property, and
post-millennial abjection through Murakami's "poku" (pop/otaku) lens of
"Kawaii" (cute) character of Annli. Anime, as a prevalently youth
although it does span well into late Boomer- aged culture in the States,
far beyond that in Japan) reiterates the desire for endless youth or even 
childhood in both cultures. Murata's "Melter" video also shows similar 
motifs in color and form to Murakami's flowers, without anthropomorphizing
them, but the influences/concurrence of styles is clear.

Some of the more interesting intersections of US and Japanese Neo-Pop, 
youth, and techno-cultures are in the area of 8-Bit culture  (like New 
Media, another oddly named genre). Ramocki'sdocumentary, 8-Bit, along with

PaperRad's 414-3-RAVE-95 that show at least the Gen Y nostalgia for 80's 
digital video game culture. The nostalgia  mentioned here relates to the 
fact that many of the artists working  in 8-Bit genres (Arcangel, Neill, 
Slocum) are just old enough to have taken part in the first wave of the 
Nintendo culture. Nintendo is probably the key term here, as while PaperRad

mentions their  intent of using machines that they can have complete
over so that artists' intents override any external programmers[], the 
cultural resonances of 8-Bit override technical formalism.  G4 television
releasing an animated series for young adult demographics entitled "Code 
Monkeys", along with mass-media influences in design from both the 8-Bit
Neo-Pop influences. And lastly, with Arcangel's Nintendo Duck Hunt hack, I

Shot Andy Warhol, the historical linkages are made explicit, from Pop to US

8-Bit Neo Pop, and thus through color styles and linkage to a gaming
mentality back to an intertextual conversation with Murakami & KaiKai
The importance of these linkages is that my assertion that Automatic Update

is only superficially about New Media, but actually it illustrates the art

world's ambivalence to the ongoing procession of technological forms and 
methods, as opposed to New Media artists' ambivalence to art.              
This ambivalence, not by the artists as much as the curators, is
part of the ongoing dialogue to understand the role of digital
technology and its intricacies in a contemporary scene still dominated
by Pop/Neo-Pop and the Sublime. The fractured dialogue between
cultural clades is well illustrated through a personal experience.
is encapsulated in a personal experience. In Fall of 1999, I was
given a Best in Show in a regional exhibition in Northeast Ohio for
a large mixed-media digital print based on recontextualized Japanese
pornography. When awards were given, and I stepped down, the curator
proclaimed to the audience, "By the way, the Best in Show was done
with a computer!" For the next three hours, almost every conversation
entailed analogies of programs and oil paints, and little about the
content at all. But this is a relatively universal experience for the
digital, let alone New Media artist, and endemic of the era.

What is evident in Automatic Update is a quirky show on "artists
and computers", and one that does not engage the issues and genres
related to new media, despite its linkage through the mention of
the "waning" of the era. The idiosyncratic Walker-esque
design, combined with ironic, Neo-Pop/ 8-Bit sensibilities with the focus
'younger artists' is in line with contemporary culture's Nintendo
nostalgia. Automatic Update does try to address a desire to understand
how artists could make use computers to make contemporary art,
and address that to an audience (MoMA) who (apologetically) has a
large non/pre-digital audience. The mass audience is wrestling with
contemporary art/entertainment issues in the mass culture, and are
still unreconciled with Duchamp, let alone Lippard, and how that could
possibly relate to technology or even personal computers.

As mentioned earlier, Automatic Update is a Contemporary Art show,
and not one that addresses the New Media art movement, its cultural
specificities and formalist concerns. The issues here are ones that
stem from Duchamp. Paik, Rauschenberg, and include Anderson. Actually,
they seem to be more akin to Murakami, Warhol, and Nauman. as
opposed to Manovich, Csuri, Kluver, Ascott, Davies, Verostko, Cosic,
Schwartz, et al. Again, as part of this conversation, Furthermore,
Whitney New Media curator Christiane Paul noted on the CRUMB New
Media Curating list that Automatic Update appears to be a show
compiled from the collection works from the MoMA. This may be just
the case, and as such, presents an interesting set of works in an odd
juxtaposition that illustrates the uneasy cultural dialogue about art
and technology, whether New Media has reached an apex, and what the
perceptual difference between practitioners, public, and institutions
regarding tech and art might be.

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