Cellular telephony began operations as a commercial concern in 1977. The Internet became public in 1993. In between there have been a lot of important innovations at the consumer end of the market: CD-ROM, DVD, mp3, GPS, SMS, etc. and a very large number of upstream, production-end changes that have transformed the way things are made, from chip cameras, NLVE, affordable 3D graphics, Max-MS and so on.
My research indicates a significant production of consumer technology about every eight months. This is a challenge for media teachers, who have to plan not for the four or five years of a typical business plan, but for the forty or more years a student can cheerfully look forward to spending in the workforce. Needless to say, it also makes crystal-ball gazing deeply difficult.
Equally hard is to work out which technologies will disappear. Charles Acland has recently edited a fascinating collection on Residual Media (University of Minnesota Press) which enquires into the fate of those media that got left behind; and those that remain, in the margins, but often enough as the bedrock of current practices. Few of us use typewriters any more, but the QWERTY layout remains dominant, perhaps more so than in its analogue days. Screen aspect ratios developed in the 1930s still provide the format for projection and screen displays. Transoceanic fibre-optic cables still follow the trade routes used by the earliest navigators. The past stays with us, not least because old media are often more robust storage devices than new: paper lasts better than film, film than magnetic, magnetic than optical. The huge data files for digital features are increasingly being printed to film for archiving nowadays. The Soviet-era Krasnogorsk 16mm camera I bought for my department secondhand in the early 1990s is still functioning, long after the video cameras of the day were picked apart in some godforsaken recycling village in southern China.
The past cycles round again. Old things inform the new. The recent flurry of interest in the early periods of video and digital art are a case in point. The Tate Galleries in the UK have hosted several shows of the film and video art which the establishment assiduously avoided during the 1970s and 1980s, to considerable interest among a new generation of makers. The network of digital art archives established at the Refresh! conference in Banff in 2005 has been working hard on ethical, technical and communications issues for two years now, and is moving towards some powerful tools for the interoperability of archives and shared expertise on preservation and emulation. As I write, a significant show of video art history from the Beaubourg collection, curated by Christine van Assche, is on tour in Sydney and Melbourne. Alongside the sad loss of some of the pioneers, there is now a generation in their fifties and sixties who have been working with electronic media for most of their creative lives, and whose cumulated experience is visible in some extraordinary recent works like those of Gary Hill and Robert Cahen.
The new is always beguiling. Last year it was locative media, a development of the mid 2000s which deployed mobile media, often alongside GPS technologies, to create fluid virtual experiences in real locations. Along with new movements, there are regularly wonderful pieces that embody and define the spirit of the movement, such as the Urban Tapestries project, an experimental software platform for knowledge mapping and sharing developed by UK-based artists and researchers Proboscis.
Despite a few stand-out projects, some locative works seemed trivial, some politically naive to the point of being dangerous. One attraction however is lightness of touch, the readiness to use off-the-shelf solutions like Google Earth, and the content-driven aspect of some of the best works. While a considerable number of code and software works are interesting in themselves, or for what they tell us about the functioning or possible functioning of digital communications, many are self-absorbed, pursuing a course similar to the neo-conceptual line in contemporary art, where the products are opaque until placed in a tradition of ideas about art, rather than art itself. Something similar has happened in some bio-art projects, though more forgivably, as the tools and the issues are still far from familiar.
Net.art still works, and new formats are allowing new kinds of social networks where projects like the collaborative web graffiti site Drawball are of considerable interest. I rather miss, however, the sense of beauty and achievement that went with the field of media art.
The problem, and the challenge, is this. The basic entry level skills the community demands of media artists are in general far higher than those required of contemporary artists at large. Knowledge of materials and techniques is an absolute prerequisite to making things in audiovisual formats. Unfortunately, video works whose technical basics would embarrass a first year student, still get exhibited, and indeed lionised. The excuse is often that the concept is more important than the realisation, yet I wonder how much time and energy such artists expect me to put in, when I feel so deeply undervalued by the shoddy work they present. A four-square projection on a matt white wall will only ever be interesting if it is well-lit, framed, performed and edited. By interesting, I mean: worth spending time with for someone who is not otherwise intimately acquainted with the artist. Those artists who have spent time on their craft like Isaac Julien or Shirin Neshat will hold attention not just because they have something to say that is intrinsically interesting, but because of how they say it, and indeed because, in these cases at least, how and what are integral to one another.
The media arts are capable of beauty in a way that is very difficult for older art forms. Because painting does not occupy much of the general population's time, it is hard to speak through it in ways that are genuinely moving. One would expect that music might be capable of something like the power of media art, but it seems split between a formalism that pursues its own logic to the exclusion of all else, and a populism that feels constrained to banal ideas. Of course there are media works of exquisite presentation which seem to have no substance whatever: Jennifer Steinkamp's work, for example, immerses the viewer in movement and light, what the critics call 'statements' about space, and do not need to do anything else.
In the meantime, it is exciting to see how powerful the lure of the political remains, for example in Latin American video art; how committed so many artists are to the purposes of their work. Something similar is true of the growing number of shows devoted to ecological themes. Data visualisation and sonification technologies are becoming far more widespread; and the interactive elements which once functioned more or less for the sake of it are beginning to articulate with themes involving the relationship between the hyper-individual posited by accelerated capitalism and the new masses of actuarial probabilities in societies of control.
There are scales of participation undreamed of in the days when the historic avant-gardes went searching for their lost audiences; new tools as radically empowering as the invention of oil paints or aniline dyes; the realisation of Brecht's dream of a transmitter in every radio. We shouldn't be so grumpy. If the number of great pinnacles of artistic achievement seems to have diminished, perhaps it is simply because the average level of achievement is so much higher, and so much larger, than in any previous generation. Any gifted child or teen can produce music, video, radio, and distribute it. Art may in fact be the name of the last attempt to control distribution on the old gate-keeping model: art as the Encyclopedia Brittanica trying to stem the tide of wikipedians. Would that be why Cory Arcangel's Super Mario Clouds (2002) has been one of the most lauded of recent works: because of its refusal of interaction, its parasitic relation to the hacked game, its high-concept pointlessness?
It is no longer a matter of 'Either you get it or you don't'. Neoconceptual hegemony is based on the principle that you get it and you don't: the gag (in both senses) of Ceal Floyer's light switch.
In Robert Cahen's L'étreinte (the embrace) (2003) almost unrecognisable footage has been processed into a hard grayscale mutation with some of the most sumptuous blacks I have seen in electronic media. The work is emotional, it speaks to a sexual embrace that is also a bereavement, an illness, a shattering. It moves in strange leaps, little flutters, pourings and staccato judders in a shallow space beyond which, backward in time, there lies a truth that we can no longer ascertain. Gina Czarnecki's Spine (2006) makes sculptures from dancers' bodies where a cadaverous blue has begun to invade the rose and flesh tones, and musculature reveals its armatures of bone. The very difficulty of being a body, or of approaching another body: the responsibilities, the cruelty, the ease with which they break. The lyricism of memory, the powers of sleep: these I have seen and felt in media artworks in ways that I have not in any others. It is I think partly because of that professional formation but partly too because we know how to react to these things. We understand that the images are or have been people, and that in some way they still are, and still demand from us responsibilities we might otherwise not like to take on.
The old arguments come round again. Where photographers used to distinguish between their work and the amateur on the basis of knowing what film to load and how to develop, there is a school of digital art especially which has held for decades that programming is core to digital creativity, and that end-using proprietary software is something other and lesser. Like the art funders, the distinction between amateur and artist is defining of the notion of art, and perpetuates the idea of art. As art becomes more and more an idea and a trade in ideas, the chances of it being capable of escaping from the domain of the concept seem more and more remote. It seems increasingly that the word 'art' is the problem, not the media arts, which straddle a spectrum from special effects to artists' animation, and do not much care whether the maker calls themselves an artist, a programmer, an activist or an animateur. Nicholas Bourriaud's brave attempt to carve a purpose for art from its formalism couldn't have the impact of old arguments that have come round again. Formal perfection or the beating heart? In the best media arts, the question scarcely arises: at least as emotionally satisfying as the television series Deadwood, we tell our students; at least as intellectually stimulating as the news; at least as well made as a Michel Gondry video – or why would you bother making something you call art? This is not a question of budgets but of the purpose of making work. Unless my self is profoundly wonderful, self-expression is self-indulgence. Unless I have the tools to express with splendour, it will not even occur. While composing the Symphony of Psalms, Stravinsky was heard to observe that he was sick of music that neither sings nor dances. Surely this is the least that we can ask of contemporary work?
The hard nugget of the world; its secret treasure, is that it is unbearable, if not always then at those times when you stand back from domesticity to see how ugly the modern is, in its poverty, its injustice, its violence, its wilful waste and its toxicity. For Adorno, who remains the most potent aesthetic philosopher of the last hundred or more years, the result of such contemplation, which it was the artist's duty to undertake on behalf of the rest of us, would be the minimal act of a cry of anguish in the dark, a Beckett play. It is no longer safe to seek shelter under the wings of that negative dialectician. Our task today is the job of finding a positive aesthetic that points outward from the delinquency of the selfish hyper-individual, and does more than refuse the pratings of fundamentalists and the mantra of necessity that emanates from the World Trade Organisation. The media arts are works whose raw materials are matter and energy, space and time, emergence and entropy. The new tools allow us more and richer achievements, spread among more people, than at any time in the past. To lock this potential down in the name of the stewardship of art is not just absurd; it is wrong.