Wish You Were Here

By Lucy Kimbell and Neal White, 10 June 1996

Pandaemonium festival at London's ICA.

The ICA is an island. In an unpredictable sea of technology and culture it has located itself in a geographically unique position. Lying somewhere between the warm currents where art and technology have spawned Toshiba-sponsorship, those in need of a retreat may convalesce away from the turbulence of the mass media's techno-honeymoon. This is a resort offering serious forums for debate, exhibitions of challenging innovation, a haven from the turds 'n' nerds of Ad-land fantasy. We know, we read the brochures.

As loyal members we return ritualistically to its shores to top up on our cultural tans. A recent attraction was Pandaemonium. This festival of the moving image had aspirations to go beyond "the traditional categories of experimental film, video art and installation" and "provide an opportunity for dialogue between these diverse practices in order to define and explore new creative contexts" (Catalogue p5). But in 1996 you can't do anything without a few new media plug-ins. In the case of Pandaemonium, these took the form of the Digital Laboratory masterclasses for invited artists, an afternoon panel discussion also called the Digital Laboratory, CD-Roms and Web access in the cybercaff in the ICA bar, and an interactive installation by Simon Biggs at the South Bank (a reshowing - not a Pandaemonium commission).

The Digital Laboratory forum (Saturday 9 March) purported to discuss the implications for artists using new technologies creatively. What should have been a wide-ranging discussion exploring why the computer is exciting for artists turned into a random feedback session about the masterclasses run in February (and we thought masterclasses were for master practitioners). Impressario and Lab coordinator Simon Biggs spoke from a position of long experience in computer-mediated creative work. Others were dipping in excited toes.

There is a need for newbie consciousness-raising but we question whether this merited a panel at Pandaemonium. The tour operator really let us down. Many members of the audience already knew the Web is slow and often tedious, CD-Roms are usually dull, and there's more to interactivity than point-and-click. We enjoyed receiving postcards from the edge but we wanted more than day-trippers' tales of forays into the far-flung shores of cyberspace. We want to hear from artists using new technology and confronting questions of aesthetics, interface, and interaction. We want to listen to artists able to contextualise their work. We want to hear them conceptualise their work. It sounded like the people running and those doing the workshops had a great time. However, having sat through many intellectually rigorous and diverse panels at the ICA, we expected more than holiday snaps.

As ever the brochure promised more. The currents that combined to bring us this essential event, appeared to have strewn a haphazard and chaotic selection of detritus onto the shores of our beloved isle. Examining the flotsam and jetsam we found the odd treasure, but this thinly spread excuse cannot distract from what proved to be a highly dissappointing bit of beach-coming. After weekenders like Technophobia and Terminal Futures whose remit was to explore the possibilities and contexts for the electronic era, it would appear that the ICA/Arts Council/London Electronic Arts brought little of the knowledge gleaned from an array of these events to Pandaemonium. Despite the highly informed debate brought to the ICA by speakers such as Sherry Turkle, Sandy Stone and Manuel De Landa, Pandaemonium and the Digital Masterclass panel were unable to bring on board the observations and critical analysis of pioneers in this field.

In the catalogue introduction, Arts Council Film and Video Officer David Curtis writes how artists are colonising the digital environment. Well, the colonists may well find that cyberspace is already inhabited by artists and the natives are getting restless. This is not to discourage investigation of new technologies by artists trained in traditional media. However funders and curators should enlighten themselves with a little research on the history of the intersection of art and technology. Montage is older than PhotoShop. Interactivity is older than Director. Distributive artworks are older than the Web. What is more challenging for the artist (funder, curator) is to consider how to harness the calculating power of the computer to create a new aesthetic. As the natives know, the Universal Machine is much more than a multimedia playback device. Friends of ours, bored by the Director movies on display in the bar during Pandaemonium, scripted their own and left it on the hard drive. Multi-media graffiti: now that's interactive.

In this developing medium, there is an urgent need for exhibitions that contribute to developing the aesthetics of computer-mediated artworks. There is no doubt that the ICA, through its theoretical programmes, is addressing the contextual issues. Trips out to the Deep Screen Diving showcases will, we hope, stimulate our aesthetic and critical faculties. But where are the shows? Britain has not yet hosted ISEA, has no Ars Electronica, no SIGGRAPH. We look forward to Love Bytes in Sheffield and to Northern Arts' Digital Dreams later in the year. And we look ahead to autumn 1997 when the ICA will open a new show curated by Helen Sloan and Lisa Haskel which, we hope, will bring the aesthetics back into the picture. Refering back to a ground-breaking ICA exhibition called Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968, this show will continue the ICA's investigation into the relationship between art and technology.

The forecast could be brighter. If the ICA (or Toshiba or even the Arts Council Lottery) would like to put its money where its mouth is, why not have an arcade of PlayStations instead of a part-time plug-in cybercaff? As visitors, indulging in some of the fastest Moving Images in town, we could then engage in a bit of cultural criticism grounded in our bodily experience of playing the bloody things. As we sip our cappuccinos we might try to work out why a few goes on a DeathDrive is a more compelling interactive performance than your average ICA Live Arts show.

Lucy Kimbell and Neal White