New Media in Late 20th-century Art
new forms of multimedia, performance, and digital art
There’s nothing like discussing ‘contemporary’ art forms for making you realise we’re now in the twenty-first century. When you look at developments which seem quite recent (particularly related to the Internet) you suddenly realise that these were in the LAST CENTURY!! – (to sound for a moment a little like Tom Wolfe). The latter half of the nineteen hundreds saw artists breaking up the boundaries of aesthetic genres and introducing all sorts of new technology into their work – as well as mixing disparate activities into one experience. New Media in Late 20th-century Art is a survey of the new media which evolved roughly in the period 1950—2000.
It covers the mixing of media and performance, video art, video installations, and the new forms of digital art. Starting from the notion that traditional Art has been a painting in two dimensions, Michael Rush looks at the extensions made by the twentieth century. It’s a beautifully illustrated book, with picture captions which explain the significance of each medium.
After an introductory consideration of the inclusion of Time, which is made possible by film, he passes into the early stages of media and performance. This covers the multimedia happenings which started with events organised by the painter Robert Rauschenberg, the composer John Cage, and the choreographer Merce Cunningham organised in the 1960s. These mixed together various combinations of film, acting, music, and dance, and there began the widespread use of video film around the same time.
Performances range from video films of ultra-minimalist events such as hand gestures or people asleep, to live broadcasts of people commenting whilst under local anaesthetic on their own cosmetic surgery operations. Yes, it’s true.
There’s a lot of combining performance art with video recordings of it. Artists put themselves into embarrassing and even dangerous situations and record the consequences as a work of ‘art’. The problem for a lot of the art works created between the 1960s an 1980s is that there is little easily recoverable record of them. On the plus side, there are lots and lots of artists represented here – and their work is illustrated in colour with stills from exhibitions and ‘installations’.
The general problem with the survey is that most of its emphasis is on the content of the so-called art works, rather than the art itself. There is nothing new in an artist putting her adolescent traumas of sexual identity into a work of art just because it’s in the form of a video film.
The older artist to whom most repeated reference is made in the context of cross-boundary works is Marcel Duchamp, and the contemporary names which come up most frequently are Naim June Paik and Bill Viola, both installation artists. Most of these works seem to add up to multiple projections, using TV monitors or giant split screens
Bill Viola – ‘Acceptance’ 2008
A section on digital art attempts to bring things up to date with digitally altered photography and virtual reality programs. But in fact it’s very difficult to keep up with the developments of digital multimedia. I think the publishers will do Michael Rush a favour by publishing a second edition which allows him to add material on the Flash and Shockwave movies which are now sweeping the Web.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Michael Rush, New Media in Late 20th-Century Art, London: Thames and Hudson, revised edition 2005, pp.248, ISBN: 0500203784
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