Between Body and Image: On the “Newness” of New Media Art
The Bergsonist theoretical aim of Chapter 1 as listed on the handy chart just a page before its beginning is “To liberate the body from its strict correlation with the image.” This chapter addresses the “newness” of “new media.” Mark Hansen realizes that the discussion in the field is limited to two opposite opinions – there usually seems to be no grey area. There are those who believe that new media is truly radical and novel, while the others are more of the glass-half-empty type, who have a hard time believing that new media is actually offering anything “new” as the nomenclature claims.
Right away, we realize that Hansen does believe that there is something new going on with digital art. He is using the “vocation” of Bergson, who is concerned with the relationship of the physical human body to art. Digitization complicates the relationship between art and the body. Staring at a painting is much different than navigating a database installation artwork. As the media becomes increasingly multi-faceted and less specific in its form, the body has more options in interacting with it. We no longer just look. We click, listen, watch carefully, etc. Information is made perceivable. The body is more involved “as a selective processor of information.” Along with having many choices within a digital piece of art, the body can also choose to ignore certain aspects of the work. Another thing that often happens is that the body (user) can try to break the piece of digital art by finding its technical flaws. This is not usually possible in more traditional pieces. Paintings are kept behind glass or velvet ropes. Sculptures often have museum guards. It is not in our social behavior vocabulary to physically interact with the more traditional media. We could start doing this, but we might get arrested. Even digital video is interactive. We choose to press play; we can pause, rewind, or stop watching after 30 seconds.
What actually makes new media “new” is also the fact that the “flexibility brought by digitization” provides an opportunity for the body to dictate the limitations as opposed to the medium itself. I would like to state that my own beliefs tend to lie on the spectrum of “nothing is new” if only for the fact that as humans we have been creating for a plethora of years. Any kind of art is based on the human experience, and we are all human. So, really, nothing can actually be “new.” However, I do see how, with the advance of technology that did not exist years ago, our interactions with our own human experiences can definitely be argued to be “new.” This seems to be what Hansen is referencing. The possibilities that the digitization of art provides us are almost infinite, but the feelings and statements being expressed are finite. There are only so many emotions or statements we as humans ever really express. What we think are complex emotions or statements can usually be boiled down into a few basics.
Moving images in digital media, such as in James Coleman’s film installation, are closely linked to the body and, more specifically, the body’s pulse. It is hard not to automatically relate the movement of an image and/or sounds to the rhythms of our own bodies, the blood flowing through our veins to the beat of our hearts. Digital media definitely has something “new” to offer in this sense. There are so many choices for the artist to make, and all of these choices – just by the nature of the digital medium – affect our bodies as we engage with the material. We see a painting with our eyes. We may notice our body while we are viewing – our leg may hurt from an earlier incident, we may be tired – but probably not in relation to the artwork. When we watch a video installation or listen to an audio piece, there is movement. We are more apt to noticing the quickening of our hearts, or that the piece matches the rhythm of our hearts. Not every installation or digital artwork is as blatantly pulsatile, but on some level digital art always relates to bodies differently than just a surface image.
As artists engage digitally, a new set of forms, questions and concerns arises. However, as Hansen states, we “must await the (purportedly inevitable) moment of its technical obsolescence” in order “to support an aesthetic practice.” It is hard to notice patterns or make statements about a whole movement until it has passed, or until it has existed for a significant period of time. Many digital artforms are still emerging and though one can begin to analyze, it is only until there is a distance of time from the work can we look back and make grander statements about digital art as “aesthetic practice.” It is helpful to have hindsight of 20/20 within a larger context than just the here and now to truly compare what we are calling our “new media” to the “old.” That is why, I presume, there is a large field of study called “Art History” and not “Art That Just Happened An Hour Ago.”