PNEK Seminar

On May 3rd 2011 I attended Structural challenges for media art in Europe and Norway, a symposium organised by PNEK, the production network for electronic art, in the National Museum of Art, Oslo.

The European continent as a whole feels continuing financial pain, with significant post-crash aftershocks in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and the social consequences of sudden poverty and loss of essential resources playing out. Even in more fortunate countries within the EU, funding priority for experimental art has diminished from low to off the list, pretty much across the board. A central purpose of this gathering was to understand and discuss the huge changes that are happening across Europe as a result of financial stringencies being implemented nation by nation, and to look at strategies to work in this new landscape.

Attendees were in the main from 11 different groups within Norway who are under the umbrella of ‘electronic arts’, including individual media artists, curators, administrators and academics.

Inside Norway, PNEK is an initiative to both coordinate artistic development and share useful information between disparate, often geographically distant groups making different kinds of art from the mainstream. Not all PNEK members receive funding from Norwegian coffers. Per Platou more than doubled the size of the network when he took on the task of coordination two years ago.

The field of electronic/digital/media arts is now an established, popular sector where great work is often done.

From their different perspectives, all three keynote speakers described a previously thriving art sector facing the need to adapt.

“The problem with net art is that it’s old hat. The problem with net art is that it’s too new” Dietz (1990)

Angela Plohman (Baltan Laboratories, Eindhoven, Netherlands) opening spoke vividly of differences of aims, expectations and methodology, as her lab begins working alongside the friendly local traditional institution in Holland. She was frank about the risk to the lab’s existence, including the possibility of it being subsumed.

A lot of electronic, lab-produced art is by its nature a hybrid form, the results of innovation and experimentation. It’s an uncomfortable moment when you realise your only hope of survival might be clambering onboard the traditional outfit up the road, whose funding is reduced but intact, in order to survive. But Angela’s measured positivity was more than keeping calm in a crisis, it was an optimistic choice and it was this attitude that set the scene for the day.

“A name doesn’t make the music. It’s just called that to differentiate it from other types of music.” – Art Blakey

Annette Schindler ( [plug.in], SHIFT, Switzerland) in the second morning session presented extracts and analysis from her ongoing research into funding, recounting not just the scale but the effect of the cuts, enforced mergers and reorganisations. As she carefully and forensically painted a bleak picture, the scale of the situation hit home. The losses already sustained of prized laboratories and small institutions sounded like a roll call of the fallen.

This blast of cold air woke up the room.

It was so bad that people began to fidget, but Annette was bravely confronting the beast. Her descriptions of the different kinds of funding chaos afflicting nations included her own country Switzerland, where there will be no electronic arts funding after 2011. The Dutch are facing different implementation of same financial policy as the UK, an effective immediate 40% cut. Most media labs are “heavily underfunded” already. For many small experimental groups still hanging on, the choice was obviously going to be jump soon, or be pushed. Along with funding reductions, new strings are being attached by the funders.

Annette Schindler: German government nearly closed their media lab down; now media arts must be more gov policy compliant, less critical. Harsh controls

This was actually priceless information for people who are making electronic art, as well as for those formulating strategies to allow such art to continue, and flourish.

Annette asked an important existential question: “Can we defend our Utopian world? Can, should we protect it from being distributed to theatre, dance, the visual arts?”

So began a thread which wove throughout: with options reduced, simplified, removed, exactly where do you put electronic and media arts in the larger scheme of things? Where do artists and curators wish the work to be put?

Since the invention of the ‘media lab’ 30 years ago, electronic art has moved a long way in popular estimation and many people choose to work in the field.

“Electronic Arts” is a term frequently filed under visual art, but the work may of course include music, text, performance, dance, film, as well as video, audio, computer graphics software and the whole gamut of physically interactive mechanisms, lasers, pressure pads, 3D headsets, cybernetics, the internet, etc. It is an art tree unto itself, albeit with many and various roots.

As I sat, listened and took notes, I began to ask myself whether Norway, itself relatively unscathed by the financial and political traumas which reduced a handful of European countries to pauper status and embarrassed the rest, was perhaps the only country represented in the room where ‘efficiency’ was not a euphemism for ‘cuts’.

But despite Norway’s self-confidence and progressive arts policies, on the basis of these discussions, this small country, well used to punching above its weight, does not believe it can continue in the same way as before, given the newly ravaged funding landscape, and this was evident via the level of engagement from the floor, and the serious faces throughout the day.

Angela Plohman: we need to stress the social connectedness which differentiates media labs

Art, like science and business, relies on exchange, and countries regularly send cultural ambassadors abroad. The situation outside Norway reduces options for Norwegian-based artists. Where do you send your nation’s bright, promising hopes to be cultural ambassadors if the labs and institutions that once hosted them no longer exist?

Sarah Cook: differences don’t matter too much, commonalities matter a lot more

After lunch, Sarah Cook (CRUMB, aka the Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss, Newcastle, UK) described the overnight decimation of the UK experimental art scene, and the arcane nature of the funding application protocols introduced by the UK’s austerity-led government.

Six hundred existing arts organisations in Britain were asked to re-apply in March 2011, no matter their previous history. Nothing can be taken for granted, and certainly not Arts Council funding, whoever you are. Gone are the days of loaf. From now on, funding is a much smaller piece of bread, broken up into thumb-sized pieces, to be distributed among the small.

One unexpected result of the reorganisation in the UK was an increase in previously excluded bodies appearing on the funding list, albeit competing for a fraction of the previous grants. Like Annette Schindler’s account of the wholesale removal of funds for electronic arts in Switzerland, a situation only slightly relieved by the appointment of a single advocate for the sector on the national funding board, this appearance of a few new groups in the UK funding basket felt like very poor compensation, at best slender straws for drowning media labs to try and grasp. The public sector is really paying for that bank collapse.

Sarah refocused the seminar on the art, confidently reminding us of inspiration, the reasons we were there. She showed Alfred Barr’s torpedo diagrams for MOMA, and asked what kind of torpedo would be created today. She described how MOMA’s original mandate had been to give the collection away to the Met as it ceased to be modern.

Conservation, a subject which spontaneously emerged in the seminar seemed to signify the gulf in the concept of art that exists to this day between the electronic/digital/media art world and the international art world.

The art world demands ownership, and puts financial value on objects. With electronic art, that can be tricky. But electronic arts do not exist in a vacuum; they stem from and are sometimes allied with the full panoply of cultural disciplines and traditions.

When a gallery or museum takes ownership, conservation of the work becomes an issue. The room chuckled at the story of traditional conservationists, who faced with a key component about to become obsolete, started buying dozens of CRT monitors from flea markets in order to future-proof a valuable video installation.

This object-fixated approach need not be applied, if digital artists worked more like musicians. Rather than leave instructions of how the objects currently fit together, it would be better, it was suggested, to write a script, or software which re-created or described the experience of the work using different objects, so long as analogous output mechanisms were employed. Just as a 17th century music score still has power to move our souls when converted from dots on the page using modern instruments of similar tone, pitch and function, its value not tied to the original period instruments, electronic art can be reproduced using future technology. Yesterday’s harpsichord is today’s soft synth.

Thomson and Craighead, recounted Sarah Cook, build their art to incorporate instructions for future versions in order to preserve and allow collection.

Still, the conservationists have a point. Electronic art without the electricity plugged in and doing what it should do is junk, or at least, less of a piece. Few are interested in coming to see/hear a non-functional piece of electronic art. Galleries don’t want to own a dead chipset when it’s supposed to be appreciating in value and bringing in the punters. As an artist, what do I choose to use? If you rely on art funding, this becomes important when options are vanishing.

So it’s difficult (but not impossible) to sell digital art, but there are other routes to funding, and these were hesitantly mentioned early on, resurfacing more vigorously during the panel session, an earnest and fairly energetic round up. 

Annette Schindler: Media arts now are normalised and ubiquitous but still not recognised by the mainstream

Electronic arts can be as engaging as music or a game, as sublime as poetry. But the main reason it brings people together is because it’s such brilliant fun.

Electronic art does things; you can play with it, it can be generative, interactive, useful, weather-dependent, waterproof, sun-powered… it changes before your eyes and ears, it can exist in time scales and at dimensions and at heights and depth beyond the human. It can cool or warm you. It can move you both emotionally and physically. Sometimes, it challenges the very functioning of your perception.

Experimental artists are often met with bafflement by the non-art aware, non-geek population, and a similar misunderstanding barrier exists between them and the über-wealthy art markets. However challenging, unique and appreciated a digital work may be, it’s difficult to sell electronic art in traditional ways via traditional routes. It’s difficult to scale, too. Would you like an art installation in your garage this weekend? No, I thought not.

You can sell innovation, however, and you can market skills, you can generate specific work for sponsorship, and here lies the kind of deeper level engagement with the commercial world which media labs have yet to exploit. It requires thinking about though. With digital, it’s usually greatness of vision, success of realisation, not potential sales price, that wins plaudits and commissions.

Angela Plohman: “One person with a big Rolodex can be the lab”

Spinning off bright ideas for profit might seem like a good idea, but the glass and concrete of the commercial world is quite different territory from these electronic nurseries, these greenhouses for ideas. The road to cash can be treacherous, and people from art institutions are not all well versed in commercial ways. Overheads go up, legal bills increase because of licensing and contractual demands. The balance between keeping true to your central mission, and meeting the needs of the source of your funding can be difficult to establish. Some artists would rather leave than be in that unreflective media environment.

The economic reality is that both institutional and private galleries need people to show up at exhibitions to justify their own existence, and in uncertain times, they are less likely to invest in art which they don’t understand and which is difficult to maintain, and more likely to stick to the predictable, tried and tested, big audience-drawing stuff. Yet, it’s very important that innovation is maintained and supported, or as history shows, art will stultify, and cease to be relevant, and everyone knows this. Art audiences melt away confronted with a menu of yesterday’s recipes, however expensive the meal.

Sarah Cook: I want more than one world to jump into.. I want lots of different kinds of art

Artists of all kinds, some of the greatest artists have used technology, been interested in machines. Electronic art shares with every other artform the same ancient instinct, the urge to find form for thought and expression, to communicate, to explain and to enquire, but with a luminous history, it is also sufficiently unique in itself, and deserves its hard-won status as a separate, distinct arts category.

With a typically experimental ethos and deep engagement with all kinds of interactivity, media labs estimate their value in ways other than hard cash. They justifiably count social connections built through workshops, the impact of art on a specific community space, the extent to which they are contributing to what is a genuine media revolution.

Recognising how little in common their work has with mainstream commercial fine art, its dealers and auctions, stocks and shares, it’s clear that electronic artists, media labs have as tough a time ahead of them as they have behind them; but the future holds opportunity.

If they do survive, they will ensure not only the survival of their genre, but must be able to thrive as a viable, different group of art practices and processes, because that art trading world, where the price paid for a single object would keep fifty labs running for ten years, is surely going to go the way of all bubbles, and burst, eventually.

At which point, kudos to those with working alternatives.

See: http://www.pnek.org/archives/1326?lang=en

Dean Whitbread, May 2011.

One Response - Add Yours+

  1. Per Platou says:

    A full transcript from the seminar is now available as a pdf at:
    http://www.pnek.org/archives/1387/pnek-seminar-transcript-030511