Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#1 Sonja Snoek 1 Jan 1992


Alex Adriaansens, Book for the Unstable Media, Stichting V2 Rotterdam 1992

The technology question, the one which addresses the influence of the new technologies on perception and world view, is one which constantly comes up. Not only because of the advent of the new media, but because it has become part of the postmodern repertoire.


Cover of "Book for the Unstable Media" -

The technology question is posed in every imaginable territory, from war to art and the body, to the extent that it has become an area of specialization in its own right, a shelf in the bookcase, a theme anyone can hook latch on to and talk about.

In the Book for the Unstable Media the technology question is formulated as the question of 'unstable media', the term the artists' enterprise v2 has given today's technologies when addressing their relationship to art.

v2 is not a new organization; the club has a ten-year history of creating multimedia art, audio performances and avant-garde music. In addition to radio art, 'moving sound creatures' (F. Hess), 'sound therapy' (D. de Ruyter) and 'mental rotation' (A. van Kerckhoven) – performances of which can be seen at the annual Manifestations of the Unstable Media – there is now a collection of essays in which artists and scholars philosophize about the unstable media.

Interactive art confronts the audience with (digital) installations in which they become directly involved in making an audio-visual performance. The book delves deeper in to the advantages of such a confrontation, by asking: What should art do with the image of reality which is created by the new technologies?
This is answered fairly unanimously in pieces by visual artists like Jeffrey Shaw and Gregory Whitehead and theorists like Peter Weibel, Florian Rötzer and Paul Virilio: art and technology are on the threshold of a new era which will unlock exciting, as yet undiscovered realities. Whether they view this positively or with pessimism makes no difference.

They agree that it is high time for contemplating the effects of present-day high-tech. The artist and architect can play key roles in this. Jeffrey Shaw, creator of video installations like Legible City, which lets the viewer wander about in a three-dimensional book, sees possibilities in his work for making the art viewer an explorer in the future, a discoverer in a latent space of audio-visual information whose aesthetics are embodied both in the coordinates of its immaterial form and in the scenarios of its interactively manifest form.

In the recent installation Alice's Rooms, Shaw equips a space with several monitors upon which a room is visible through which one can move using a joystick. The rooms behind the screen turn out to have the same dimensions as the space in which the work is installed. Virtual and actual space, paradoxically enough, can coincide.

Theorist Florian Rötzer emphasizes the limitless possibilities of 'techno-aesthetics': It is the exceeding of the inner, virtual worlds of dream and fantasy which fascinates techno-aestheticians, the overcoming of the distance to the real and the perceptible which these allow. The virtual worlds of the wishing machines must fulfil the imagination and, at the same time, leave it behind. Peter Weibel adds in his essay that contemporary environmental art is, or in any
case could be, the door to the electronic world towards which we are heading.

This is a valuable collection for practitioners and aficionados of media art, because it offers insight into a body of thought and future fantasies shared by a group of artists making the stuff. In fact the book is a manifesto, a snapshot of an artistic stream and its philosophical supporters at a given moment. What is most striking about this interdisciplinary clique is its (deliberate) lack of art-historical awareness. They do not place their own art in the tradition of interactive art, but in the context of older, static art. Video artists like Nam June Paik and Bruce Nauman, who were already making art 'talk back' to the media in the 60s, and who experimented with dislocating new technology and using it to their own ends, are not reference points here.

v2 prefer to see themselves as cultivators of new artistic territory, pioneers rowing against the current of 'existing art'. Their name for this art is 'the museum system', which they one-sidedly associate with massive Van Gogh exhibitions and the unique, absolute and faithful nature of the art object. With such a portrayal of things, sidetracking as it does the majority of twentieth-century art, they seem to want to reinvent the wheel. At the same time, there lurks a peculiar nostalgia in their stress on technological change as the cause of unstable media art.

As v2 remark: The proposition that traditional art has come to a deadlock because it cannot adequately cope with the problems of our time, and that media art takes over from there, is a bold one, but one which makes sense. Indeed, art which holds on to, and is based on, a static world vision, in which the idea of the absolute determines the conditions as to how we perceive and interpret the world, will gradually get out of step with a society such as ours, which has already changed into a dynamic, non-static society, where sign, language and tools are developing rapidly and communication is already largely determined by these new tools (such as telephone, television, fax and computer). It looks as though they aim to whistle art back to the ancient idea of representation: art should make use of the unstable media because they are determinant in the environment.
Art, however, deserves more than a representative role in the technological society. Reflection is possible in any medium, old or new. It is up to the artist to exploit these possibilities, and put them at risk when necessary.

In many of the contributions to Book for the Unstable Media we encounter the same references, speculations and discoveries. The fusion between the different disciplines that is being called for - architecture, philosophy, performance – has evidently not yet crystallized. The pieces by Georges Teyssot and Kristine Stiles, for example, are disjointed, barely readable cases of name-dropping. Dispersal, pretension and opacity: it may be a good diagnosis of the state of (media) art. So for recalcitrant artists and those involved in interactive media, the Book for the Unstable Media is an asset – as a source of questions, irritation and inspiration.

translation LAURA MARTZ