August 30, 2004

New Media Histories

by Mary Flanagan · , 12:48 pm

Since ISEA has been a theme not only in GTxA but in various lists, blogs, etc, I thought I’d add this. As noted by other drivers @ GTxA, the art and science distinction is still a discussion point even within a field developed from this assumption. I think that has more to do with the institutionalized spaces in which many ISEA participants work, and not an inherent difficulty in the topics or fields. But the important question is, how can this be addressed?

As Errki Huhtamo noted in his ISEA keynote on mobile technologies (with images thanks to Jill Walker), Carolyn Marvin’s words are appropriate when characterizing new media: ‘Media are not fixed objects: they have no natural edges. They are constructed…the history of media is no more or less than the history of its uses…’ Marvyn’s book, When Old Techologies Were New, has always been inspirational to me.

It seems as though looking at alternate histories of how we concoct these technologies in the first place is an important step in making sure we do not “fix” a medium characterized by its fluidity. All of us, especially teachers and lecturers in new media, must consciously avoid reinforcing a particular “accepted” history, but rather offer a multiplicity of histories of new media. These multiplicities could certainly include various art and design movements, in particular, fluxus and performance or everyday practices, or even alternate forms of experimental thinking such as sci fi. In the Rapunsel talk at ISEA on the “Cultural Softwares” panel, I noted that Yoko Ono’s “instruction paintings”, for example, might be a profound way to introduce instruction – based thinking to those not familiar with programming concepts. One could think of crossing disciplinary boundaries and remember the idealistic thinking of the Bauhaus participants rather than rely upon technology narratives alone. What do you think?

2 Responses to “New Media Histories”


  1. Scott Says:

    Mary — I thought your presentation of Rapunsel was great — it’s an excellent project that seems to be fulfilling an important mission in a very fun way. It also got me thinking that I should really learn how to program. I agree with you that the multiplicity of histories approach is a good way to go, especially with students. The interdisciplinarity of new media is one of the things that initially drew me to the field and it’s certainly one of the reasons why I’m sticking around. When my students analyze works of electronic literature we spend a lot of time talking about “other literacies.” A lot of them are shocked when they see the reading list from the New Media Reader — “But I thought this was a literature course!” It is a literature course, but one that introduces you to a lot of different literacies.

    Actually, the alternative histories of new media would be a great idea for a conference. It would be fascinating to hear people from all of the different fields involved present the history of how they came to, and how they understand, new media.

  2. michael Says:

    I noted that Yoko Ono’s “instruction paintings”, for example, might be a profound way to introduce instruction – based thinking to those not familiar with programming concepts.

    I think such exercises could introduce students to procedurality. But I’d still be concerned about their ability to transfer this procedural thinking to the computer. The computer demands a level of detail and specificity that you can avoid in non-computer-based procedural specification. When the instructions are for a person, you can depend on a level of interpretive flexibility that is entirely lacking with computers. Perhaps one could start with non-computer-based procedurality, then move to the computer?

    A lot of them are shocked when they see the reading list from the New Media Reader – “But I thought this was a literature course!”

    I have a similar reaction from students in Computation as an Expressive Medium, mostly with regard to the theory readings (e.g. Donna Haraway). Since it’s a “programming for artists” class, the students sort of expect the technical and art readings, but not the theory readings. Scott, I imagine it might be the opposite in your course (if the students are coming from a literature background).

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