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Just What Is It that Makes New Media So Different, So Appealing?

Patrick Lichty
Assistant Professor, Interactive Arts & Media, Columbia College Chicago
plichtycolumedu


Rather than taking the question at face value, perhaps it is better to consider the cultural underpinnings that caused the framing of this very “silly” question (according to Quaranta).(1) However, given the historical context of the source of our pun, its historical context in regards to its source reference, and the relevance to the subject of New Media, it is the silliness of the question that demands that we take the matter with utmost gravity. Because, as to paraphrase Grosz, “this is bloody serious”.

What may seem like an offhand reference to Richard Hamilton’s seminal collage, Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?(2) is actually a probe driven deep into the antecedents of New Media. We live in a resurgence of Pop times in 2008 with the current Japanese Neo-Pop and Murakami’s SuperFlat movements, as well as the American 8-Bit movement. In addition, there is a resurgence of Pop cultural structures such as (micro)celebrity where everyone can have 15 seconds of fame on YouTube, as well as the centrality of consumer culture, mirroring Hamilton’s collage. There are curious similarities and differences of the Dada, Pop and New Media times, where the differences have to do with an atomization of social and cultural scales through progressive rhizomatic distribution through the increasingly distributed networks. However, key issues remain in place.

The emergence of Hamilton’s collage work undoubtedly comes from his 1950s research on the Dadas. In 1952, after meeting Roland Penrose at the ICA London in 1952, Hamilton was introduced to Duchamp’s Green Box notes. Subsequently, Hamilton would later develop a friendship with Duchamp, which among other things, would result in his creation of a replica of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) for Hamilton’s curatorial retrospective of Duchamp at the ICA in 1966. From Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? Hamilton distills Dada collage reminiscent of Hannah Hoch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife and juxtaposes it with a mix of post-atomic anxiety and consumer/kitsch giddiness for the excess in the 50’s industrial era. This actually makes great sense, given that Hamilton was also active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it echoes the moral outrage after World War I that would result in the emergence of the Dadas,

The era of Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? also reverberates the elegiac feeling after World War I in Weimar culture after through Adorno’s After Auschwitz.(3) Briefly put, Adorno states the impossibility of the justification of art after the atrocities of the Holocaust, but as with the Dadas, Hamilton persists. However, in contrast with the brutal satire of Dadas like Grosz through publications such as Der Blutige Ernst (Bloody Serious), Hamilton balances his critique with a playful style reflective of advertising and spectacular design reflective of the American automotive industry. Here, Hamilton incorporates signifiers of the idealized “new” life; Ford, Mr Universe, pulp romance framed as art, a scantily-clad burlesque girl, all in a new California living room. In many ways, I feel that Hamilton ironically advertises the marvelous new world of industrial plenty, born of dual Atrocities. But as Hulsenbeck once said, “we lived in Dada times”,(4) and so Hamilton is speaking to a neo-Dada sensibility that would also be heralded as the beginning of Pop through his piece. Hulsenbeck lived in Dada times, Hamilton ushered in Pop times with a Dada sensibility, and as we’ll see there are echoes of all this in New Media times.

Segue: Hamilton, Consumption and Technology

In many ways, Hamilton represents numerous bridges between the early 20th Century Avant-Garde and the fin de millennium technological arts. For example, the Independent Group, of which Hamilton was a part, had a keen interest in ideas relating to the new electronic age, that is, by thinkers such as McLuhan and work being done in Cybernetics. In addition, the ties that the Independent Group had to the ICA London led to Jasia Reichardt’s seminal curatorial project at the ICA, Cybernetic Serendipity (1968).(5) It’s interesting to note that Reichardt also consulted with Max Bense, father of the Stuttgart School of computational art, again linking the influences of Dada and the ICA. In addition it would lead to the emergence of other early New Media by artists such as Roy Ascott, a student of Hamilton’s, who would lead the Caiia-STAR program and found the Planetary Collegium, a leading institution for the exploration of speculative thought in art and technology. From this, it only makes sense that Hamlton’s collage is actually a touchstone between Dada and the coming of New Media and even Neo-Pop.

Secondly, mass production and consumption has a pivotal role in the lineage from Duchamp to the digital. For example, the rise of cinema and mass media in the Weimar era would cause thinkers such as Benjamin to raise question regarding authenticity of the art object. It is the shattering of this authenticity of “Art” as auratic fetish that Hoch and Schwitters would perfect through collage and Merz-Assemblage. Duchamp would also pioneer this through the Readymade, urinals, snow shovels, and bottle racks. Therefore, through Hamilton’s obvious influence from Hoch, et al and his research and friendship with Duchamp, the lineage from mass production/consumption, and industrialization and it’s interrogators from the early Avant-gardes would remap to the rise of consumer culture, mass media, and the coming of the telematic and cybernetic in the time of Hamilton.

However, from Duchamp’s questioning of the mass object in the form of the Readymade, Hamilton also presages the emergence of mass consumer culture in his collage. The signs of mass excess are evident through the invocation of Mr. Universe, the new car, the California home, the girl-as-fetish/fetish-girl, and even the electronic media devices in the room, announcing the great ironies of Pop. Pop, as Warhol would show, would center mass media communications technology firmly within the production of contemporary art through film, commercial printing techniques and in the decade, video. Therefore, the progression of leaps from the fetishization of the mass object (Duchamp) to mass consumption (Hamilton) and mass media (Warhol – Pop), to mass storage (New Media) is not so outlandish.

Lastly, there also seems to be a progression of scales in regards to the production of objects during the span of the Twentieth Century and the first decade of the 21st. For example, Duchamp’s Readymades still imply the centrality of utility – that is, the coat rack, the snow shovel, the urinal. These objects, while still mass produced, are still “objects of utility” and ones that are consumed by institutions as much as individuals. However, in the era of Hamilton’s collage, excess capability from wartime production engaged for the creation of consumer goods centered on pleasure. Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? shows the individual house, the profusion of luxury and comfort items like electronic appliances, entertainment, and lingerie that will be expanded through Warhol’s legends of soup, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.

However, a key difference seems to be in the scale of commodity in those 40 years or so, in the mid 50’s the scale of the economy suddenly shifted to individual consumption with society’s encouragement for the individual to buy the new home, the new car, the TV. All of these are still relatively significant in size; they are still relatively “durable” goods, representing Industry as such, But what is also significant is that there is also the emergence the rise of throwaway consumer culture, also alluded to by Pop, and shown in Hamilton’s collage by the framed Pulp magazine. This illustration of the coming atomized ephemeral culture presages the coming of the “micro”-, or even “nano-“ culture, which is the domain of New Media.

New Media Pop: Microatrocity, Microcelebrity, and Snack Consumer Culture

Up to this point, I have been constructing a matrix of trajectories attempting to show the similarities and developments in art and cultural milieus. From the Dadas, including Grosz, Hoch, Schwitters, and Duchamp, to Hamilton and the Pop and cybernetic eras, trajectories of production, concepts, cultural trends, and technological developments draw vectors towards the current New Media age. There seems to be a cyclical relation between significant aesthetic developments, cultural upheavals, and resultant market effects that draw us into engagement with recurrent subjects between the times of Duchamp, Hamilton, and perhaps Manovich. I feel that the trajectory that modulates the cultural effects from Dada to New Media in regards to fame, atrocity, and consumption have to do with their deconstruction, “miniaturization”, and ephemeralization. I believe that these nano-effects are essential in understanding Just What Is It that Makes New Media So Different, So Appealing?

MicroCelebrity

One of the defining elements of the Pop movement is its play with and criticism of the exploding mass media. Hamilton opens the dialogue with his many referents to the profusion of media; the pulp magazine as painting, the tape deck, the TV, the formal nature of collage itself. This is only logical, as Dadas like Hausmann and Grosz were some of the first to hint at tactical media by their use and recombination of mass media to create notoriety. Of course, Warhol and others would expand on the linkage of media and celebrity through his creation of silkscreens, films and publications (such as Interview and his Screen Test series), pronouncing that in the future, everyone would have “15 minutes of fame”. Perhaps that has happened, but now it is a second at a time, perhaps at best.

A recent issue of WIRED Magazine has speculated about the concept of Microcelebrity(6), in which a person develops a media following through their blog, YouTube posts, or even Second Life or World of Warcraft exploits. This can be from a few hundred to a couple thousand individuals, mirroring the niche culture of cable television, blog aggregation, and customizable media. In short it is the fracturing of mass media to what I call “you-media” in which the centralized broadcast/distribution channels have become targeted at the individual. That is media targeted so that the individual need only consume only what they desire to consume, and as I will mention later, in bite-sized chunks. Notoriety and celebrity now comes as fifteen emails, fifteen posts of press about your blog, fifteen clips on YouTube.

In addition, New Media times are a recursive pastiche; a mash-up of styles and influences where the movement, the “-ism” has imploded (Em) where Neo-Pop (including Superflat and 8-Bit) is consuming anime, fan culture, video games and expressing concepts in terms of the local context of the time and place. The contemporary art world has mirrored the Net and Cable Television by becoming hundreds of micro-genres or communications channels. We have 500 channels, but is anything on?

Microatrocity/Microeconomy

Both Dada and Pop, if we extrapolate from Hamilton’s influences, sensibilities, and as seminal progenitor of Pop, were born of atrocity, i.e. World War I and the Holocaust/Hiroshima. However, in the era of New Media, we live in the era of micro-atrocity in which the notion of horror/terror is simultanteously atomized and made ubiquitous. While events like Rwanda, 9/11, Kosovo, Darfur, Iraq (Wars 1&2), as conflict or genocide creates horror and response. However, their media attenuation, frequency, or visibility make them seem more frequent, eliciting a feeling of abjection. Or, taken in context with Baudrillard’s assertion that “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”,(7) perhaps abstraction in that he felt that the first Gulf War was turned into a video game via distortions created through mass media (CNN). In addition, while the two World Wars were life-altering events that were major disruptions, G.W. Bush encouraged people after 9/11 and in the early days of Iraq War II to “get back to normal” and go shopping as not to disturb the American consumer economy.

The irony in the Neo-Pop culture is that the primary engines of Pop culture, that is, consumer culture based on post-war excess industrial capacity has proliferated and become distributed through networks, hundreds of distribution channels, and global production. To counterpoint Baudrillard’s idea in the Transparency of Evil,(8) stating that cultural functions have rhizomatically distributed to everywhere except their source – politics becoming sex and sport, sport becoming war and politics, etc. Everything has semiologically decentered, or as McLuhan said, the walls are all knocked down.(9) What has happened from this is that cultural artifacts, war, economy, art movements, consumption, have become (largely) ephemeral. That is, to the point where Pop’s “quick hit”, and flatness has created an equally flat culture equivalent to a sea of quantum noise where events’ importance are ultimately devalued, and art is something that cannot demand more than the fifteen seconds’ attention, let alone fifteen minutes.

Microproduction

This statement that art cannot demand more than fifteen seconds of attention may seem shocking, but this is the result of the excess capacity of media production created by networked culture. Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail (10) states that the explosion of media production capacity will create an increasingly specialized niche culture of increasing numbers of genres and niches. If one is to apply the principles of supply and demand, product in expanding niche markets devalue and proliferate like dust. The movie becomes the episode to the webisode to the podcast to the YouTube clip. The record album returns to the single track, or even the sample of three seconds or less (if one is to avoid copyright issues). The mass-market toy is collapsing from the mass market to the limited edition (like vinyl toy boutiques such as Kidrobot, Rotofugi, et al), and one-off fabrication made possible by emerging rapid prototyping technologies. It is the smorgasbord of culture, with the collapse of fame to microfame, production to microproduction, and consumption to microconsumption.

Microconsumption, or “Snack Culture”

With the flattening and atomization of culture created by Anderson’s Long Tail and the increasing niche-ing of culture brought about by exponential production, the Neo-Pop era is one of microconsumption, or “snack culture” as proposed by Nancy Miller in WIRED(11) 15 second clips, 99 cent singles, and free wallpapers, and do-it-yourself weekend science projects. In addition, online environments like Second Life valuate their currency at a virtual dollar equalling ¼ of a cent; entire clothing ensembles are a dollar. It is the era of the dollar menu at McDonald’s, a dollar music track, a dollar burger, a dollar car in your virtual world. Everything’s a dollar or less (metaphorically speaking)...It’s YouTube and YTMND.com (a website with single-page webmedia ‘vignettes’, largely of pop cultural and crass social themes) – it’s experiential snack culture of the quick, fun and ephemeral. However, as Anderson states, there are shiploads and servers full of it; immense quantities of cultural fodder for pennies on the dollar for the consumer to graze upon. Welcome to the cultural Value Menu!

Conclusion

It’s ironic that what was first posed as a tangential question became a knife cutting to the heart of issues pertaining to New Media times. “Just What Is It that Makes New Media So Different”, So Appealing?” cuts to the quick of quantum media culture, where one is continually bombarded with continuous streams of snack-sized cultural content, celebrity, microcurrency content, micro-holocausts, pocket toys, and forgettable webisodes. Forget fifteen minutes of fame, we all get fifteen seconds and fifteen die-hard fans, from Bruxelles to Bangalore. Actually, that’s very democratic – everyone and everything becomes roughly equal, culturally speaking. Grab your favorite media clip, then format your digital video recorder and get ready for the next snack. New media has the capacity to be what you want it to be when you want it, where you want it, on whatever platform you wish. That’s sexy. It’s different. It’s appealing! But Duchamp and Hamilton showed it was coming. It’s bloody serious, but what fun!

Here, have some culture. Have all you want. Don’t worry, we’ll make more.


Endnotes


1. Domenico Quaranta & Patrick Lichty, Email Conversation, Nov. 2007, in a personal email regarding the creation of an essay for the Holy Fire exhibition at IMAL New Media Center Brussels, Quaranta commented that the original question which frames this essay was “perhaps a little silly, (but asked a good rhetorical question)”

2. Richard Hamilton, “Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?” Retrieved Mar.2009 from http://artarchive.ucr.edu/displayimage.php?album=517&pos=0

3. Theodor Adorno, Can One Live After Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003)

4. Richard Hulsenbeck, quote from Germany-Dada (video), (Specialty Video Company, 1987)

5. Jasia Reichardt, Cybernetic Serendipity Catalogue, (New York, New York, Frederick A. Praeger, 1969)

6. Clive Thompson. (2007). “Clive Thompson on the Age of Microcelebrity: Why Everyone's a Little Brad Pitt.” Retrieved Nov, 2007 from http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/15-12/st_thompson

7. Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton, (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1995)

8. Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. James Benedict, (New York, New York, Verso, 1993)

9. Marshall McLuhan, (Clip compilation, posted October 12, 2006). “Marshall McLuhan on YouTube,” Retrieved January, 2007 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7GvQdDQv8g

10. Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, (New York New York, Hyperion Press, 2006)

11. Nancy Miller, (2007), “Minifesto for a New Age.” Retrieved January, 2007 from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.03/snackminifesto.html.