Looking out for Small Fish
a commentary on The Goethe Institut's "New Media Art" seminar
by Sonia Khurana

'Finding' by Laurie Spiegel


Cyber art, quite like film, is indisputably a mass medium; it is also an information and entertainment medium. This means that its genre conventions, the expectations of its audience, as well as the conventions regarding its consumption differ from those of the "finer" arts, as does the relationship between the work (of art) and the spectator.

In August and September this year The Goethe Institute in Munich hosted a seminar called: New Media Art ~ from interactive installation to cyber art. The idea was to get together a group of artists, curators, media philosophers, writers and academics from different parts of the world to give them concentrated information as well as an overview of the new and the latest in digital art happening in Germany today, and exchange thoughts on the actual and conceptual levels reached in this area in each one,s local environment. The seminar comprised of presentations and discussions, and visits to four cities in Germany - as well as the noted Ars Electronica festival in Linz in Austria.

To me, this was an opportunity to get a glimpse behind the scenes of digital art in the economically developed world today. My own work includes a great deal of video installation, often the end result of performance. Concurrent to the time based and lens based media is the use of drawing and of "hands-on" objects. Moving with fluidity across continents and media has entailed a re-contextualisation of my interests. These traces of interest are gradually processed and made tangible through whole range of media that traverses paths between film, video, photo, performance and text, and more recently, a tentative inclusion of digital media using the cyber space.

Within this context , I engage with cyber art more on a conceptual level. In real terms of practice and experience in India, there is still a want of ready availability of resources, technology and equipment. One is still struggling to make visible, and indeed create an audience for video art.

I must point out here that despite the superficial similarities, video art and net art can well be the two ends of the spectrum of Media art. Conceptually, digital art is closer to music than it is to other new modes. As Gerfried Stocker, Artistic Director of this year's Ars Electronica Festival explains: "Most media art is more related to music than to video, film and photography. Once we recognise this, we will be able to design a formal structure to understanding it. For instance, the music lies in each interpretation made by the conductor or the team rather than the score itself, just as in digital media it is each new configuration of the software which brings about the new form."

Stocker believes that in order to develop an independent understanding of new media one has to put away ~albiet for a moment~ the old concepts so as to not use these as a filter to view Media art through. Indeed, the Agenda of the Ars Electronica 2001 (where we began our seminar) states: "Let's take a look at the thing formerly known as art!"

This seems to point at an interesting discrepancy not only between old and new forms of art, but also between the situation at home vis-a-vis net art, and concerns at something like the Ars Electronica, where the discussion was around new ideas and potential application "to save conventional VR systems from the fate of the dinosaurs." And where Running Pixels, Interactive Art, Net Vision, methods and processes of biotechnology and bio-informatics as artistic tools and CAVE technology are the by-words.

Despite the ongoing boom in edutainment and infotainment, we here are yet to begin to focus on strategies to integrate interactive media into exhibitions and museums.

A very obvious difference to my mind is that cyber art in India comes not from a rarified space of the Arts and/ or scientific interventions but via the streets: via the cybercafes (the idea of personal computors for the masses being distant and out of reach ).

For that part of the seminar that was devoted to discourse, we dabbled with sounding the depths of the constellations and framework conditions of the art of tomorrow, about the paradigm shift, new role definitions, working models and the creativity burst. However, for me one of the key points of the seminar was to see pioneering works of interactive media art archived at the ZKM-Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe.

This very special collection casts a light on ideas and concepts of the practice of art in view of the variegated, forking paths programmatically offered by the medium, as well as the perspectives of artists whose terrain is not primarily media.

I especially liked the work of Masaki Fujihata ~ artist-in-residence at the ZKM.

Fujihata's work is concerned with investigating virtual systems and examines concepts of information storage and communication. His interactive installation Beyond Pages is a virtual book which take the shape of installations.

On the table, the book is reflected as an image of the computer; however, when the pen in one's hand touches the image, the image comes alive, the pages turn and new pages appear one after the other.

The functions of the books are moved to the computer and they are produced with interactive format which could not be possible with ordinary books.

Another profound work at the museum is Jeffrey Shaw's : Place - a user's manual.

Since the late 60's Jeffrey Shaw has pioneered the use of interactivity and virtuality and as the current Head of the Institute for Visual Media at the ZKM Center, he leads a unique research and production facility where artists and scientists are working together and developing profound artistic applications of the new media technologies.

Place.. extends the tradition of panorama painting, photography and cinematography in the vector of simulation and virtual reality. The interactive interface in this work is a video camera that is controlled by the viewer. When locating himself at the center of the surround pictures the viewer can completely reconstitute the original 360 degree In this way the virtual and actual spaces are made coactive on many levels of signification. Carrying forward this concept, the team of researchers at the ZKM are developing a liberated, camera using a fish eye devise, that would overcome restictions that a navigator ( viewer) has with selecting audio. According to Shaw, the future of Cinema is going to be altogether interactive.

(Juxtapose this with a typical sample from the pacy, Ars Electronica futurelab: an elaborate appararus and Net set-up that employs serious, strategic devicing and very expensive equipment to enable you to water your plants through for you when you are away, on a holiday! One looked askew.)

Concerns with content as opposed to the medium being the message with often little regard for content, were a commonly shared one amongst the participants at the seminar. One could see a healthy skepticism towards the seduction of technology, designed to overwhelm. There were people from Germany Spain, Singapore, New Zealand and the U.S., but the majority of us were from nations of developing economies: Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Israel, India, Portugal, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland. Most of the participants straddle various media, New Media being one of these. Those more closely engaged with the immediate title of the seminar happen to be in the academic field.

One of the Seminar participants: Gilberto from Brazil is currently recreating a live, landscape of the region he comes from for the net. He turns database information into poetic information. For instance, the information about visitors (viewers) from different countries can change the colour of the Sao Paolo sky on the screen. Also, you can come in like an eagle or a snake or a jaguar. If you don,t like your 'avatar' you have to log out. As in a shamanic dream the choice is not made by you.

According to Gilberto a lot of what one encounters through the electronic media could be seen as virtual mythmaking: the desire, and indeed the need to replace as well as substantiate, (and add to) old myths with renewed understanding arising out of a newer sensibility of the virtual.
Art on the net is conceptually and essentially a lot more interactive, in that one can sense, the virtual presence of other people in the the space alongwith themselves. The lack of interactivity, by contrast, has a reductive effect on the Self.
Another workshop participant, Margarita Schultz ( from Brazil) is engaged in developing the philosophical meaning of the term interactivity, and the problematics of the use of concepts of aesthetics for new media. She draws an analogue between the multiplying effect of interactivity on the biodiversity in the universe. With the development of the Self in a climate of interactivity: "analogical thinking and digital thinking are not really opposite, these infact convert themselves into a superior level that is strongly inside the main idea of the metaphor, in art. Metaphor becomes the solution or the link."

An interface between the imaginary space set up by imaginary , virtual device, in interaction with the body and physacal space has come to be termed as mixed, reality. The Mars Institute in Bonn, Germany is an institute for mixed, reality, interactivity, poetic interfaces , knowledge discovery and semantic web. Mixed reality is mainly about taking back the digital/ virtual into the real space, as opposed to the principals of virtual reality where everything including out physical bodies, disappear into the virtual space. Building up an experimental field for the interaction of mixed reality stage which can, however, also extend to an everyday work space.

Monika Flieschmann, joint head the Mars Insight candidly sums up the funding criteria in Germany today: "art couched in the lingo of high technology has more and better chances of attracting State funding."

Further insight into attitudes towards the monetary aspect of Media work comes across through Axel Writh, the seminar organisor and director of the organisation Media 203. "we don't care how much it costs. Crying poverty is a cop-out. We want to achieve any and all that is and may be possible. We want not one New Media but 50 New Media and that is what is crucial."

At this , a mild protest ensues amongst us third-worlders,! A brief excerpt from one of the discussions amongst the seminar group:

Axel: we need not one bue fifty different New Media Arts and that is what is crucial, whatever it costs.

Catherine: But where is the content?

Karin: It is interesting how the different centers approach the infrastructures for making media art. Here in the West we spend the entire day in and with our computors , with Media. So in this context it is very important for me to make some sense of what does it mean and how to make art, out of this context.

Sergio: High tech art is doomed not to make much sense because of the mega-money involved. One gets an Apocalyltical feeling.

Axel: But it is important for the expensive science tools (genetics, robotics) to be used for intellectual art purposes.

Deborah: a direct contact with the artists would for us be more useful than the well-financed, well resourced perspective of the organisors.

Jorge: The poorest art we saw was the best.

Jose-Carlos: Let us not dwell on the question of science, because intellectuals really use only the basic concepts of science rather than their applications.

Karin: But are the artists ready to discuss it at all? No. Because these science conferences are totally powered by rich sponsors. There is little discussion about ethics.

Margarita: discussion about art or no-art is sterile.

Piotr: In the climate of very radical changes, since fine art is not becoming the mediator, and media art is the mediator between knowledge and application, I think media art therefore is the hot spot of discussion.


Whether-and how-digital art can make sense and be preserved for the future is not only a question of the technical competence of museums and archives, but is also inherent in a fundamentally new conception of self that is emerging among artists. Be it New or Old media, we do need artists as an interface. As for the fuzzy area they may belong to , it is best summed up by Johannes Goebel, noted director of the ZKM Institute for Music and Acoustics in Karlsruhe:

"Certain smal fish, while still young, swim in shoals that from farther off resemble a very large fish, and no predator dares come near them. Once they have grown into adulthood, the young fishes swim their own way, no longer needing the protection of a deceptive form.

Many artistic applications of digital technology are like these small fishes. They are still young compared to other art media ~brush, stone, string instrument~ and have garnered their experience merely within the last few decades, as opposed to centuries and millenia. Such applications hide behind big words like multimedia, interactive, networking, thus swimming with the times. They think their scales need to glint as variously and colorfully as the much bigger fish, but sometimes one wonders if anyone has ever seen the big fish they are imitating.

We ought to be aware that the big fish are secretly watching the small ones, fearful of missing any change in movement and direction. For who knows if new feeding grounds might not be in sight?"

Sonia Khurana is a visual media artist. She works in the area in-between video, photography, performance, installation and public art. Sonia received the INLAKS Grant to study art at the Royal College of Art in London, between 1997 and 2000.

For the year 2002 she has been selected for a long-term workperiod at the Rijksakedemie in Amsterdam.

Sonia currently lives and works between Amsterdam and New Delhi.