Inventing a Future for Art

By Michael Worthington, 26 September 2008


In the last two years interactive work has been coming out of art schools and colleges but only in the last six months has it began to be seen as a long term medium and not just a trendy catchphrase la .cyberspace*, 'hypermedia' et al. It has begun to make an impact on the design business and also the public conciousness. Multimedia, the Net and Futuretech are fast becoming mainstream news. A side effect of this media onslaught in favour of the future is the glut of small press rearguard action magazines that have recenly sprouted. Covering a multitude of subjects their common ground is that they seem to be fuelled by a fear of the future. This is traditionally true of the designer but not always of the artist - surely the ability to openly employ irony and comic elements make the new media more open to exploitation by fine artists? Besides shouldn't we all be embracing the new infant technology and helping it to grow? And irony is a necessary postmodern lesson to be learnt.

Already people have set themselves up as multimedia experts often on the evidence of little output or understanding of the medium, let alone any theoretical questioning of exactly how and what they are doing (there are notable exceptions such as Brenda Laurel). There is indeed very little work that satisfies the theoretical or creative criteria that exists in fine art/design critique. As design guru Mr Keedy says 'To be an authority you just need to be first'. At present first is not necessarily enough.

It is inevitable that interactive media will become a mainstream medium for communication and entertainment, and will develop its own visual conventions and constraints - its own language will be ready for use as parody and message carrier by the art world. However it seems at the moment this language is being decided upon by designers and programmers, and Its vast potential rarely considered by artists. Multimedia offers incredible scope for conceptual pieces. a chance to fuse a myriad of mediums experimented with in art since the 20s - sound, moving image, performance - so is this reluctance to take up the virtual gauntlet another example of technophobia?

What must be understood is that multimedia doesn't mean the death of art or the book or any other 'craft' (craft itself is merely a description of an outdated form of artmaking). Radio didn't kill books, TV didn't kill radio: what it did do was to alter their function. Where would the art world be (still in realism?) if the camera hadn't been invented and forced the use of the concept and communication techniques in art?

The technology that is currently cutting edge will rapidly become outdated and just another dull corporate implement, leading to a number of alterior possibilities, particularly a stimulating underground. Right now you can buy a writable CD player and create your own CDs for very little money and distribute them yourself. The next step is that soon you will be able to send complex digital works across the net, for access by thousands of people around the globe - the virtual gallery will become reality. The virtual gallery will exist in time but not in actual space. Everyone will be able to exhibit in a gallery that is infinite. Also the introduction of artwork onto the net makes the artist completely anonymous - what gender, race, age is the artist? You can enter into any role you wish, the individual is empowered to pose as anyone they wish to be. Will this facet of the future render irrelevant the current themes in art such as the body, and gender/ sexuality issues by hiding the identity of the artist?

The downside of the virtual gallery may well be that the experiential side of art is removed, at least until the net's virtuality becomes so real as to be indistinguishable from reality and eventually becomes hyperreal - considered more real than reality.

It seems that with science fact as well as science fiction there are optimistic and pessimistic viewpoints. On the optimistic side, the new media means personal agendas and opinions become more readily available for exposure to a larger audience, the pessimistic side is a Big Brother style network of censorship and control. Whatever the outcome of the new media, artists and designers should be looking to the future seeing what can be done, not what is being done now, as Alan Kay so precisely states 'The only way to predict the future is to invent it.'

As this future is being invented it is clear that many things will be different, the rules of modernism, postmodernism, classicism etc and their advocates will not be changed overnight. It is, however, clear that communication and the means of communication to the masses, will change radically especially with the advent of interactive and online TV. Art will undoubtedly become involved in this, art should encompass all fields of popular life after all. But how will art tackle the new ground?

In recent years much conceptual work and communication art has employed the visual language of design and advertising. Will the way the art world tackles multimedia rely on how designers tackle multimedia? As a designer having crossed over into multimedia one thing of interest to me is how typography will change - at present the main means of communication, in tandem with the image. It seems to me that, in multimedia, typography as a communicator becomes obsolete - noone wants to read from a screen - instead type will become more textural than textual, in short anything longer than a flash message will be communicated with sound, leaving the realm of typography to be used as either image or not used at all. The most important development of this may be the responsibility replaced on the image. Artists working with multimedia should be precise and accurate in their choice of image because the typographic language used to communicate in certain art (eg jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger) is destined to become more ambiguous. Type will be used as backgroud image for ambience and atmosphere - its secondary signifiers already established from a print tradition. Similar issues will also be raised by the use of video and sound, likewise the way they are read will already be established from current styles and genres.

Of course type will still have a role for information storage and retrieval but in terms of art, not design, its creative role will change. In the same way that photography reinvented painting by challenging its role as the prime carrier of realism, so shifting it and forcing it to become another kind of art altogether, so multimedia will also force new issues: a change in environment; the importance of role playing and gaming; a change in the medium; a new audience (at home, leisure based); a new gallery (the modern gallery will not exist in real life, nor will it be a virtual gallery resembling a physical one instead it will be truely interactive and exist with new works of art created for that medium, piped into people's homes); all these elements will have to be considered if art is to survive technology. The gallery experience itself will be challenged and reassessed. It may currently exist as an imitation/simulation but it will soon shift to something new, specific to the medium.

What remains to be seen is whether artists will follow the visual language being set up by designers or whether they will create their own, and whether they will participate in the creation of new types of work for the new medium or merely use the existing visual language for their own means.