Everything Digit-al: Touching New Media at NEoN Digital Arts Festival

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The past week was probably my busiest yet this academic year. On top of my usual responsibilities as a graduate student, almost every day offered an amazing opportunity to see new work and meet the creators of a broad variety of new media artworks. This year, the North East of North festival had a special focus on bringing Asian creators to the city of Dundee, and for some of the artists it was even the first time their work was exhibited or performed in the UK. This brought an influx of new thought and practice, but also highlighted areas of commonality between local and international art.  

Even though it has a history almost as old as the first digital computers, new media art is still a contested and marginalized zone in contemporary arts practice, usually due to prejudices about working in a digital medium, rather than the content or effectiveness of the works themselves. The consequence of this attitude is described by Brogan Bunt in his essay ‘Pre-Socratic Media Theory,’ where he notes that influential contemporary art curators and theorists often borrow the structures and metaphors of digital culture, as in Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, where ‘programs become social models, networks become intersections among people, and interactive systems become participatory events.‘ Yet these curators and theorists also resist or outright refuse working with actual new media works. This indicates that digital thinking has irreversibly invaded our present mindset, since we reach so intuitively for these terms and structures, and yet, despite their pressing relevance to art as well as society, art that actually makes use of these ‘new media,’ which become less novel every day, is somehow less legitimized. Accepting one result of digital proliferation but not the other seems like a position that is inherently inconsistent.

Common criticisms of the use of new media in art include that artists may become too taken with the shininess and new capabilities of tech, and make work that is disconnected from what makes art meaningful, a lack of criticality or connection to the ‘real world.’ There is, of course, new media work that falls in line with these criticisms, but much of the work I saw at NEoN 2015 actually embraced tactility and social potential moreso than many artists in traditional fields. For me, the theme of the week was touching digital technology, moving beyond the idea of digital work existing in an immaterial, virtual space and rather making the nature of the digital medium, its workings and impact, explicit.  

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The obvious artist to talk about when talking about touch at this event is Eric Siu, creator of the performance-and-technology piece Touchy, a ‘human camera’ who can only see when he is in physical contact with the person he takes a picture of. Hold his hand (or shoulder, or nose) for 10 seconds, and the Touchy headgear snaps a real photo that is uploaded to the web, creating a chronicle of all the people Touchy has made contact with. Touchy not only serves as an effective icbreaker, and a sort of social game that can be used to engage groups in new ways, but it’s also an excavation of photography as a technology, transforming a digital camera into a device that harkens back to when photography was more deliberate, took more time, and may have even been a bit uncomfortable. Siu offered further insight on his work with a Pecha Kucha talk, revealing the prototyping process that went into developing Touchy 

The workshops offered as a part of the NEoN program also offered opportunities to engage with technology on a deep, tactile level. I helped with the realization of one of Shu Lea Cheang‘s Bodies of Planned Obsolescence video works, documentaries about the impact of e-waste designed to play on stripped, battered laptops. Prying away almost futilely at the case while on the screen expert scrappers disassembled parts with ease emphasized the materiality and social consequences of the ‘immaterial’ digital world that are often forgotten.  Taeyoon Choi was also present to give a workshop on poetic computing, an approach which imagines the basic electronic parts that make up the binary logic upon which every computer runs as lively metaphors and images. Making working AND, NAND, and OR gates with LEDs, switches and wire using this philosophy helps to demystify the semi-magical ‘black box’ of the computer, which almost everyone uses but the finer points of which very few understand, and also leads to increased appreciation of computing’s simultaneous complexity and elegant simplicity. 

Artists at NEoN also frequently used the multimedia quality of digital art to combine body, image and sound. Ei Wada drumming on his instruments made from CRT tubes in his first performance in the UK was an unforgettable sight, combining the kinetic energy of traditional percussion with rich electronic soundscapes. All of Wada’s work involves using one’s own body as the activator of some sort of electronic instrument, whether it be CRT drums or a machine that generates a tone in response to the frequency of stripes on your shirt. Jung In Jung was also present at the symposium to discuss her works which combine choreography with video art, using the string-like sensors from a golfing simulator to simultaneously transform a dancer’s movement into video and sound while also ensnaring them.

Usaginingen, a duo who mixes their music and accompanying kinetic video work live admitted that, while they are invited to new media festivals like NEoN to perform and speak at symposia, their work does not contain much in the way of ‘new’ media. Emi Hirai assembles the videos on a specially crafted machine for live animation, using papercraft, colored inks, and optical lenses. These are just a few of her many methods for creating beautiful, twinkling and swirling scenes to accompany a combination of traditional and electronic sounds from Shinichi Hirai, who uses a specialized  of his own. However, the creative hybridity of their work, combining sculpture, performance, sound and image, makes it almost like a non-digital manifestation of the principles of New Media.

The final day of the festival was marked by Scotland’s first Internet Black Market, a concept developed in Japan by I.D.P.W., a ‘secret society of the internet going back over 100 years.’ This Black Market isn’t illegal, but is instead a creative space to sell ‘internet-ish’ goods and services. For most events, I attended as a volunteer assistant or observer, but in this case I decided to participate and open my own stall of internet wares. I sold individual search terms from my google history, as well as strange, unique or otherwise interesting videos with less than 10,000 hits on YouTube. For me, these works are about sharing my experiences as a young woman who grew up with computers and the internet as almost a constant presence, and I was proud to be able to show them off alongside other tables selling glitched-out embroidery of popular e-business logos like Google and Paypal, real-world spacer .gifs, cat-themed software games, and Inter-nettle Tea. Buying the internet made into a real-world object, wearing it as a fashion statement or simply holding onto it as a keepsake seems natural to me, and is possibly a way to help others who do not understand that for many of us the boundary between internet and ‘real life’ has become increasingly blurry, and why the meeting point is  so precious to me. For a true NETGAL the Internet Black Market is like a natural habitat, I suppose, because already the distinction between internet and real life doesn’t exist, it is just a natural quality of her environment.

Digital technology has become so ubiquitous, and its terminology has spread to be frequently used to describe and contextualize things that don’t have a direct or traditional connection to technology. However, the etymology of these terms naturally returns to pre-digital terms. The digit itself refers to our fingers, the way we generally touch and effect change in the world around us, and later the fingers became the vehicle through which the first numerical systems were developed, which led eventually to all varieties of computing up to the versatile and multipurpose systems we now know as ‘digital.’ Clearly, there is no clear line between the digital and non-digital, what is computing and what is not. ‘New Media’ is also no longer new, and as the works at the NEoN festival have demonstrated, it is by no means inherently disconnected from our real, material, digital world.

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