Guest Editor’s Statement: FALL 2012: V.08 N.02

FALL 2012: V.08 N.02: FOUND – SAMPLED – STOLEN – STRATEGIES OF APPROPRIATION IN NEW MEDIA

 

GUEST EDITORIAL STATEMENT

Although the term “appropriation art” came into widespread use during the 1980s to describe the work of a particular group of artists, appropriation-based concepts and practices are at the core of many of the key moments in modern and postmodern art history. Media artists today emulate appropriative movements from across the past century, from Dadaist readymades, to Pop Art’s ironic reuse of mass media detritus, to Hip-hop’s sampling and DJ remixing. Indeed, appropriation strategies and remix thoroughly permeate contemporary artistic practices of creation, archiving, and dissemination. Although appropriation is now a familiar part of contemporary art, recent evolution in the legal, conceptual, and technological landscapes of media art have brought to the fore newer discourses concerning copyright, sharing, memes, data, and the ever-increasing penetration of networked computing into all aspects of daily life. This issue of Media-N brings together a fine assortment of artists, art historians, curators, and theorists to present a lively chorus of viewpoints on the state of appropriation in new media art.

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

Use of appropriation almost by definition implies taking a prior work and representing it anew. In “Routing Mondrian: The A. Michael Noll Experiment,” which opens this issue of Media-N, Grant Taylor revives a little-known chapter in the formative history of computational art to argue that from its earliest manifestations digital art has shown a preoccupation with remaking the work of previous artists. The debate that surrounded these preliminary experiments presaged later contentions over who could lay claim to originality when digitally appropriating another artist’s oeuvre. Further, these innovations initiated concern over the philosophical implications of surrendering control to autonomous image-appropriating machines – a preoccupation that persists to this day.

For present-day media art practitioners as well as casual media consumers, appropriation is often second nature. Indeed, in the present zeitgeist acts such as “re-tweeting” and “re-blogging” are not only ubiquitous but are also recognized as expressive gestures comprising part of current artists’ creative repertoires. This circulation of memes through social networks, and the process by which such tropes are continuously reinvented, may be the most distinctive creative mechanisms of our era. In such practices the internet most closely fulfills its reputation as a decentralized, participatory gene pool. From this thoroughly contemporary wellspring of mashups, cute animal videos, and autotuned spoofs, artists are finding surprising linkages to past creative forms. In “A {Digital} Stitch in Time,” Alexia Mellor introduces the work of a series of artists who translate and comment on social media, memes, and digital culture through the use of classic needlecraft techniques. Mellor argues that traditional craft forms such as the “sampler” remain relevant to current Open Source creative practices, and that contemporary craft, despite its connections to the past, demonstrates a renewed vitality as a vibrant realm for activism, parody, and participatory community-building.

Just as Mellor’s crafters find inspiration by re-inhabiting earlier low-tech reproductive modes, so too does the immediate future of high-tech image-making seem to be based on the reflexive use of appropriation and an obsession with the translation of computerized processes into the physical realm. Over the last year a phenomenon known as The New Aesthetic has captured the attention of artists, designers, and cultural observers. As Eduardo Navas notes in his critical assessment “The New Aesthetic and The Framework of Culture,” The New Aesthetic is never clearly defined by its proponents. Such celebrants do share some common preoccupations, however. They bring an obsessive attention to computers’ prominent role in everyday visual culture, an inclination toward posthuman porosity between human consciousness and digital processes, and a fascination with visions of an awakened machine in possession of an autonomous gaze. In some respects, these themes harken back to preoccupations with machine agency evoked by the earliest computer-generated images, as described in Grant Taylor’s essay. We appear to have come full circle. Navas argues that although The New Aesthetic appears to have strong resonance for the current generation, there may in fact be little that is genuinely “new” in the aesthetic as currently articulated – it relies on reflexive, uncritical remixing that seems to largely recycle new media gestures from the past, albeit on a meta level where each innovation and its ironic commentary are recapitulated in a near-instantaneous feedback loop.

DECONSTRUCTED PLATFORMS, CRITICAL MODS, AND IMAGINARY INTERFACES

While contemporary artists’ recapitulation of “old” practices may not be a new phenomenon, what does seem to be distinctive about the present moment in new media practice is the state of the technologies employed by these artists. As with previous waves of ‘art & tech’ practitioners, for whom innovations like xerography, portable video recorders, and interactive authoring platforms were similar catalysts for creative experimentation, current generations of digital manipulation software and networked communication platforms allow artists to mash up, archive, and disseminate found materials with unprecedented ease. Further, they enable new expressive and critical strategies, avenues for distribution, and even conceptual roles for artists to perform relative to their sites of intervention.

Marialaura Ghidini characterizes one such technological and conceptual shift in her piece entitled “Appropriating Web Interfaces: From the Artist as DJ to the Artist as Externalizer,” focusing her analysis on the work of three artists whose appropriative works are staged on ubiquitous Web platforms such as YouTube and Wikipedia. Ghidini articulates a transformation she observes amongst practitioners of appropriation art, from their earlier emphasis on the use of digital and web-based platforms as a means for remixing and re-contextualizing pre-existing media, to their more recent attention to the structure and mechanisms of the web interfaces themselves as a site of appropriation, with an emphasis on the distributive properties inherent to these platforms.

For Steve Gibson, video games supply another novel site of critical experimentation, providing opportunities to disrupt normative ideologies and consumerist passivity. In “Dadaist Game Art: The Digital Ready-Made and Absurdist Appropriation,” Gibson presents his Grand Theft Bicycle project along with Wafaa Bilal’s Virtual Jihadigame, drawing inspiration from Dadaist readymades while ‘modding’ pre-existing video games into provocative and outrageous interactive art experiences.

For Mark Amerika, current digital art technologies are insufficient to actualize his vision of the ultimate automatic live remixing machine. In “Remixology (A Theoretical Fiction),” an academia-inspired reverie that playfully mashes up samples of theory, philosophy and conceptual art, all while putting us into the highly caffeinated brains of a remix-obsessed professor and his students, Amerika imagines the Playgiarizer, a fantastic engine for auto-generating remixed conceptual artworks.

FROM COPYRIGHT INFRINGERS TO FREE ARCHIVISTS

Although maturing technological paradigms allow new media practitioners ever greater freedom to find, manipulate and share data, legal systems have largely failed to adapt to the shifting landscape of remix culture, and legal definitions of fair use remain unsettled. Copyleft, Open Source, and Creative Commons advocates have proposed alternative schemes that are better suited to the needs of fine artists, seeking to address the widening gulf between cultural innovations based around creative reuse of intellectual property and an entrenched and largely commercially-driven copyright system. New media practitioners must frequently grapple with this tension between access and restriction when using materials from vast networked media archives and databases, from user-generated but corporate-controlled entities like YouTube, to collections of out-of-copyright or rights-unrestricted materials like those housed at Archive.org, to databases that elude legal or state control such as Wikileaks or The Pirate Bay. Confronted by this environment of legal ambiguity, artists are exploring the creative potential in the interstices between these realms of control and radical openness.

In this spirit, Sarah Cook offers “Curatorial Experiments in Liberating Copyright-free Material for Artistic Re-use,” presenting several artists’ projects that serve as models for creatively freeing public materials from the constraints of the archives that house them. In her case studies, Cook examines the distinctions between “public,” “open,” and “free” archives, advocating for a robust public domain that can be freely accessed by artists.

One such example of a creative, highly personal archive that engages both metaphorically and literally with state systems of control is described in “Soup & Yogurt: A Guantanamo Archive.” Margot Herster reflects on the evolution of her archival art project, which consists of media sourced from the attorneys and families of prisoners at the infamous detention center. Herster conceives the project as a “shadow archive,” an alternative history voiced by “unofficials” that competes with official narratives.

Whereas the artists and curators described in Cook’s article explicitly sought to use materials that were free from legal constraint, and Herster uses archival materials as a means to highlight the plight of their original authors, Cordelia Sollfrank’s “Copyright Cowboys Performing the Law” takes on the case of artists who deliberately flaunt copyright restrictions. Sollfrank scrutinizes appropriation artist Richard Prince, who is notorious for his blatant plundering of copyrighted imagery, and whose artwork is the subject of the high profile Prince v. Cariou case that has catalyzed much recent debate over the limits of “fair use” in artists’ reuse of intellectual property. Sollfrank’s essay seeks to reconcile postmodern theoretical notions of authorship with copyright law, providing a conceptual background that she argues is essential to (and often absent from) an understanding of the implications of appropriation art, while performing an institutional critique of the commercial art world’s embrace of appropriation artists.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

From this constellation of voices, a multifaceted portrait of the state of appropriation in new media art emerges. I’m grateful to each of this issue’s authors for their thoughtful contributions to the examination of this topic. I’d like to extend special thanks to my Associate Editor Kevin Hamilton, whose generous and thorough feedback greatly enriched this compendium, and to Media-N’s Editor-In-Chief Pat Badani, who sagely and supportively guided me through the editorial process.


Bio

Joshua Pablo Rosenstock is a multimedia artist, musician, and educator currently based in Somerville, Massachusetts. He examines the relationship of humans to technology, employing an ever-expanding repertoire of analog, digital, and craft techniques to create dynamic intermedia works that incorporate moving images, sound, sculptural installation, and interactive performance. He earned a BA in Visual Art and Semiotics from Brown University and an MFA in Art and Technology Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Rosenstock’s exhibition and publication highlights include the UC Berkeley Art Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the Cambridge Maker Faire, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, the Dislocate festival in Yokohama, Aspect Magazine, and the Leonardo Music Journal. He is currently an Associate Professor of Art at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, and Associate Director of the Interactive Media and Game Development program.

http://joshuarosenstock.com