New media art is a loose and ill-defined category that encompasses performance, installation, and sculpture, as well as digital and conceptual art. Against the backdrop of a consumer-culture that increasingly revolved around film and television, new media art arose in the mid-twentieth century as a way to open creative space within the realm of electronic communications technology. As the technologies available to work with have proliferated, so too has new media art branched out to reflect innovations in film, computing, robotics, and even biotechnology.
While the list of prominent new media artists is ever-growing, we take a look at some of the key figures that are worth exploring for anyone looking to learn more about the field.
Nam June Paik
Arguably the founder of new media art, Nam June Paik rose to prominence in the sixties with a series of quirky screen-based sculptures and installations. Although the truly multimedia artist would frequently experiment with music and performance, video and television would continue to occupy him throughout his career, and he would make the multi-screen installation his signature artistic gesture.
Paik’s work continues to inspire artists today and is on display in the world’s most prestigious galleries. Recently, an important survey of the artist’s oeuvre over five decades has been displayed in London’s Tate Modern and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk.
A master storyteller who began life as a print-maker and poet, Vera Frenkel’s artistic practice has become known for its narrative dimensions, combining film, photography, sculpture and print in the service of social and political critique.
Like Paik, Frenkel’s work often manipulates the context of the screening as much as what is being played. “From the Transit Bar” (1994) saw her construct a functional piano bar that incorporated multiple television sets in order to continue her career-long conversation on human migration. Likewise, Echoing Paik’s collaborations with composers, “Once Near Water: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive” (2008) overlayed documentary footage with the live performance of a sometimes-jarring, sometimes-chilling musical score by Rick Sacks.
Involved with the software art and net art scenes, Alexei Shulgin is an example of an artist whose work not only exists within digital media, but which explicitly orients itself towards the condition of digitality. Frequently incorporating website design into his artistic practice, Shulgin’s work typically combines elements of public participation with a wry sense of humour.
Of Shulgin’s online art, “Form Art” (1997) is the best remembered but these works have in common an unmistakable turn-of-the-millennium aesthetic. Easylife XXX (see above) even ripped off the cliches of the period’s internet pornography.
Equally tongue-in-cheek is “386DX” (1998–present), a musical project incorporating a text-to-speech module as its lead singer, described by Shulgin as “the world’s first cyberpunk rock band”.
Rafael Rozandaal is an artist for whom the Internet is at once brush, canvas and subject matter. He even got the word INTERNET tattooed on the inside of his bottom lip.
Building on the legacy of Shulgin and the net.art movement, many of Rozendaal’s works take the form of a website. Extending a Modrianesque fascination with bright colour and simple forms into the online space, domains like colorflip.com and fillthisup.com elucidate an interactive vision of the vector graphic as its own unique artform.
An artist whose work spans film, sculpture, performance, and even living organisms, Pierre Huyghe has been probing the ethics and aesthetics of new mediascapes since first coming to the art-world’s attention in the late-nineties. Perhaps most famously, “No Ghost, Just a Shell”, 1999-2002, saw Huyghe and Philippe Parreno purchase the rights to the stock anime/manga character, Annlee, opening space for what Parreno called “an aesthetic of alliances”, between over a dozen artists who would breathe life into her empty shell.
Always interested in things that have a life of their own, in recent years Huyghe has constructed installations that incorporate trees, fish, a dog, a swarming beehive, and in 2018's “uumwelt” exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, artificial intelligence (AI) generated art.
Ever since he was young, Lawrence Lek has been interested in world-building. With a background in architecture and a portfolio that spans game-design and immersive simulation, he is definitely well-placed to bring to life speculative futures and uncanny parallel realities.
“Dalston, Mon Amour” (2015), for example, depicts a dilapidated east London cinema that opens out onto a vast desert. While Lek’s feature-length film AIDOL (2020) tells the story of a fading superstar’s preparations for the 2065 eSports Olympics, and an artificial intelligence (AI) who wants to be an artist.
Prefiguring the kind of future AIDOL anticipates, Machine Learning artists and AI art pioneer Mario Klingemann applies deep learning and neural networks to blur the boundary between human and machinic creativity.
A resident artist at Google’s arts and culture lab, Klingemann was one of the first to engage with their DeepDream and Style-Transfer tools as artistic media. His work is both at the cutting edge of technological innovation and the forefront of debates surrounding the nature of AI and its capacity to create.
“Memories of Passersby I”, the first-ever piece of AI created art to be sold at Sotheby's comprises two screens depicting an ever-changing stream of computationally generated portraits. The machine that generates the images uses neural networks trained on a library of portraiture from the old masters of western European art, ensuring the eerie familiarity that characterizes Klingemann’s art.
If you have been on Instagram in the last few years there is a good chance you will have encountered teamLab’s enchanted installations. Combining immersive lighting with digital interactivity, the collective’s work, which concerns the increasingly intractable relationship between nature and artifice, is both whimsical and achingly photogenic.
Existing at the confluence of art, design and technology, the majority of teamLab’s explorations in virtual fantasy are housed in specially fitted permanent exhibitions in Tokyo, Macau and Shanghai. The Ministry of Culture in Saudi Arabia has also recently announced plans for teamLab’s new digital-art museum coming to Jeddah in 2023. And in 2024 the collective is giving their insanely popular light installations a new home in Utrecht, Netherlands.
A sort of post-internet Monet, as comfortable exhibiting in a gallery as she is on YouTube, Petra Cortright’s floral compositions might at first glance look painted, but a closer inspection betrays a practice rooted in software, even if the end result resembles the work of an actual paintbrush.
Despite their appearance, Cortright’s prints on metal cannot so easily be delineated from her experimental and politically charged videography. From “vvebcam” (2007), which sought to ensnare trolls with its provocative list of keywords, to “Vicky Deep in Spring Valley” (2013), which juxtaposes “virtual strippers'' against backdrops of lush vegetation inspired by animated screensavers, Cortright’s video work continually subverts expectations and plays with the tropes of digital media. This year MoMA New York has rehung a third of its collection allowing visitors for the first time to view Petra Cortright’s VVEBCAM (2007) in one of its galleries.
One of the most influential artists active today, Hito Steyerl is well-known for her essays, film and documentary work. In her own words, her art is about “the changing meaning of images in flow of media globalization”.
Interspersed with archival news footage and vintage cartoons, “Lovely Andrea”(2007) marks the highpoint of Steyerl’s prolonged investigation into the relationship between art and violence, and typifies her unique style, which is zany and poignant in equal measure.
Besides her phenomenal body of work in film, Steyerl excels in contemporary video art (see above) and has recently dabbled in augmented reality.
Arguably, any art that experiments with innovative tools and techniques can be classed as new media art. But although acrylic paint is a more recent invention than film, the changes it has brought about in the artworld are more subtle. What is “new” about new media art is something less tangible than mere technophilia, and will inevitably evolve with time. What the artists in this list have in common is not a specific medium, or even a shared affinity with newness itself—just witness Cortright’s timeless florals—but a commitment to using the full range of technology, old and new, to create, explore, and provoke.
James is a writer, lover of art , and digital culture enthusiast. He has a special interest in the way new media co-evolves with artistic practice and has written about blockchain technology, the darknet, and the history and sociology of the internet.
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