Fifth Annual New Media Caucus Showcase & Reception
Columbia College Chicago, Conaway Center, Chicago
Presentations by the following NMC members:
//benitez_vogl, Sid Branca, Peter Chanthanakone, Coalfather Industries, Philip Galanter,Ben Grosser, Peter Kusek, Joyce Yu-Jean Lee, Kerry Loewen and Cheri Ibes, Paul McCormick, Mark S. C. Nelson, Niki Nolin, Nicholas Sagan, and Robert Woodley and Adelheid Mers.
Tiffany Funk, Ph.D. (ABD)
Adjunct Professor Department of Interdisciplinary Arts, Columbia College Chicago
In 1968, the British art critic, curator, and writer Jasia Reichardt opened her catalog for the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London’s ground-breaking cybernetic art exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts, with an explanation of her curatorial ethos:
Cybernetic Serendipity deals with possibilities rather than achievements… New media… inevitably alter the shape of art, the characteristics of music, and the content of poetry. New possibilities extend the range of expression of those creative people whom we identify as painters, film makers, composers, and poets. It is very rare, however, that new media and new systems should bring in their wake new people to become involved in creative activity, be it composing music, drawing, constructing or writing.
This has happened with the advent of computers. 
If we interpret Reichardt’s use of the term ‘computers’ as loosely as she intended – as evidenced by the diverse and exciting curatorial selections included in Cybernetic Serendipity – it becomes clear that new media, in its conception, was meant to provide a welcoming environment for emergent creatives. Considering the varied disciplines of digital art, computer graphics and animation, virtual and Internet artworks, robotics, and biotechnologies, we can begin to understand what has made new media such a dynamic and distinct branch of art history, theory, and practice.
This spirit of inclusion also explains why new media is sometimes marginalized by those who identify its diverse range as a lack of rigor, a catchall ‘home for misfits toys’ genre accused of corrupting the straight-laced programmer or luring the classically trained artist away from tradition and technique. However, we know better. At its best, new media is a welcoming platform for lively conversation and experimentation in contemporary topics as wide-ranging as social justice, collaboration, open-sourcing, identity politics, the state of telecommunications, surveillance, and hacktivism.
In this way, it should not be surprising that the New Media Caucus should offer the College Art Association Conference events that highlight the dynamism of its own membership. Though separated by more than 45 years, the fifth annual New Media Caucus Showcase – this year held during CAA 2014 in the Conaway Center – still holds the same ethos as Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity did in the late 1960s. The showcase, perhaps more than any other New Media Caucus event, celebrates its mission as a bastion of pedagogy and egalitarianism by providing a sample of its membership of artists, designers, practitioners, historians, theoreticians, educators, students, scholars, and a host of interdisciplinary researchers devoted to diverse emergent media the opportunity to present their work through a lottery system, as opposed to a juried panel. Because spots are provided for graduate students currently enrolled in an MFA or PhD program, the rapid-fire, Pecha Kucha-inspired presentations feature a variety of artworks by emerging and established artists. This year we saw presentations from fourteen members and collectives, including Sid Branca, Peter Chanthanakone, Philip Galanter, Ben Grosser, Peter Kusek, Joyce Yu-Jean Lee, Paul McCormick, Mark S. C. Nelson, Niki Nolin, and Nicholas Sagan, as well as collaborative project presentations by //benitez_vogl, Coalfather Industries, Kerry Loewen and Cheri Ibes, and Robert Woodley and Adelheid Mers. Presenters were instructed to show as many or as few in-progress or finished artworks as they chose, with time – six minutes – the only limiting factor.
Many of the presenters found the very nature of interaction central to new media art research. //benitez_vogl, the collaborative name of Margarita Benitez and Markus Vogl, explore issues concerning technological mediation of information and its effect upon our lives through interactive installations, sound works, and open source tools. Guided by the words of Marcel Duchamp – “the spectator … adds his contribution to the creative act” – //benitez_vogl are interested in the new behaviors and methods of engagement that spawn from technological relationships.  They state, “Our media rich and technology filled life has given rise to a different level of understanding of digital structures. Media developers and artists alike introduce fresh behaviors in the way we communicate and deal with virtual data.” For example, their installation i<3 (iheart) invites viewers to tweet certain hashtags to light up five suspended hearts. The interactive installation VS (Versus) :: 0.01 [eight-ball] derives unique sound compositions from data created by billiard balls moving around a pool table.
Their most recent projects concern the creation of tools for artists. For examples, Coded :: Fashion is a computer application that manipulates imagery and prepares files for prêt-à-faire (ready-to-make). The software upends the expectations of the designer and consumer through interactive coding experiences.
Sid Branca, currently an MFA candidate in Columbia College Chicago’s Interdisciplinary Arts and Media Program, creates performances blending classics of the Western literary canon and contemporary pop culture through collage, pastiche, clowning, and puppetry. Her most recent work combines the classical tragedies with American pop music signifiers. These multimedia performances highlight the juxtaposition of ancient and modern performance tools.
In keeping with this aesthetic of anachronism, Branca presented several collaborative works that combined traditional theater with digital tools. The Distance of the Moon, developed in collaboration with First Floor Theater as a part of a Summer Inc residency at the David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts, adapted Italo Calvino’s short story of the same name using live video feeds and real-time compositing effects to manipulate the choreographed movements of the actors and puppeteers. Equally literary and pop-culture savvy, the multimedia collaborative project Inter was inspired by the works of Borges, Cortázar, Tarkovsky, and Antonioni, as well as the aesthetics of horror movies and pop music videos.
Her presentation ended with a surprise performance complete with four backup dancers, mask play, and electronic music soundtrack, choreographed especially for the audience of the showcase. Branca explains, “The text was inspired by both pop song lyrics (particularly Beyoncé) and monologues from classical Greek tragedies (especially Agamemnon). I wanted to not only speak about and show images of my work in the showcase, but to give a glimpse of what some of my performance pieces are like as live experiences, and to shake up the Power Point-driven format a bit. The audience was very receptive to that, which I think speaks to the new media audience’s open-mindedness and enthusiasm about manipulating standard forms.”
This open-mindedness, especially the willingness to share work but retain agency over one’s own creative practice, stands at the center of many practitioners’ convictions about the genre. In his presentation, Peter Chanthanakone emphasized how 3D animation allows a level of agency in filmmaking previously unattainable; its form allows for creative control and contents only limited by the imagination and tenacity of the creator. However, he also enjoys how the 3D animation industry is one of collaboration and innovation. While he can conceive of a project and set his own timeline, the 3D animation community, both practitioners in industry or operating independently, provide invaluable support.
While his aesthetic remixes video games and children’s television in a comedic fashion, a constant theme that replays in all of Chanthanakone’s works is the effects of technology on society. For example, his 2013 short TouchFree skewers the idea of the ease of ‘touch-free’ bathrooms, his protagonist unable to wash his hands even though countless increasingly ridiculous but undeniably cute characters – sentient cameras, stuffed toys, and fast-food items – use the facilities without problems. In the short Perfect Lover, a woman working at a local comic shop finds herself alone for Valentine’s Day. Pained by always watching everyone else in love, she tries to create her ideal boyfriend on an Internet website. These shorts ultimately ask, who here is ‘real,’ and who is ‘imaginary’?
Confusion about what constitutes ‘real’ also forms the nexus of Craig Newsom and Kara Jansson’s collaborative work. Coalfather Industries, an artistic collaboration between Newsom and Jansson, was established as a ‘pseudo-corporation,’ critiquing the concept of corporation as body. They state, “Coalfather Industries is an anti-corporation, or, more to the point – an anti-body. As an anti-body, our function is largely curative.”
Coalfather’s first subsidiary, the WanderGranvik company, specializes in candy, infant care, firearms, sickroom supplies, and the social media site Neighbr. Neighbr’s intentionally misspelt, text message-esque infomercial states:
With Neighbr, we bring innercommuncativization into the bold new fourfront of the 20th Centruy. WanderGranvik will control ur infourmation for you. You do not need. Int he 20th Century there is not need for privacy as all social media profiles are proconstructed for you and operated exclusively by our trained professinals. There is no need to log in as you will not be the one posting information about urself. Ur journey begins and ends with our capable renderding of the information we handpick from ur information. Seesoned professionals will consider the types of informatin relavant to you and present it to others pretending to be people who, in tern, LIKE the information presented to the seasoneed professionals acting on your behalf. On Neighbr, there is no need for concern.
However, Neighbr presents a nightmare landscape of user-controlled grotesque character profiles and corporations, individuals and corporate entities indistinguishable from one another; Neighbr’s corporatized landscape allows users to manipulate fake corporations like Chunz, Burger Nurse and Cheese Castle, as well as individuals with ‘corporatized’ names like Nivea, Plavix and Cremora. Coalfather identifies the problems with extant social media by emphasizing its most negative and pernicious content, explaining, “Narcissism runs rampant, spelling and grammar are non-existent and miscommunication happens more often than communication.”
Ultimately, through Neighbr, Coalfather identifies the main irony of social media: “As a mirror, Neighbr reflects the unfulfilled promise of social media. It’s not really social.”
Philip Galanter’s generative artwork explores the actions of cellular automata and emergent pattern-making through sound or light, taking the form of large, experience-based hardware installations. These investigations of complexity science and emergence supplement his research into the intersections of the sciences and humanities.
Chaotic Conductor creates generative sound dictated by the action of a chaotic system. Four pendulums, each with a downward-facing camera, suspend above four stretched and mounted canvases. Every time a pendulum scans a colored mark, the computer triggers its corresponding, unique timbre. Galanter calls the pendulums together “a quartet, with each player reading and playing a score.” Because of the nature of its construction, the installation’s pendulums tend to start, stop, and start again as the energy in the system ‘sloshes’ about from one pendulum to another. Galanter further explains, “The careful listener will be rewarded with repeating patterns (due to the periodic swinging of the pendulums over the same colored pieces), synchronization of different timbral lines (due to the pendulums having the same period), and the alternation of instrumental parts (as energy transfers from one pendulum to another).”
RGBCA 1 and RGBCA 2, though conceptually and technically similar systems, provide variations on a theme; each is a study in complexity using cellular automata and colored light. In a simple cellular automaton, communication only happens locally, between a cell and its closest two neighbors.
Galanter states, “This piece uses three cellular automata running different rule sets and colored lights that include red, green, and blue elements. The three elements can mix to produce virtually any color. The individual cells are simple but en masse, depending on the rule set, they can exhibit a remarkable diversity of behaviors. Such behaviors may be static, periodic, patterned, or even chaotic verging on random. Every minute or so the rule sets are changed and a new clock rate is set.” Different configurations with identical color-mixing capabilities – as evidenced by these two installations – provide a stunning amount of variability.
Generative art such as Galanter’s emergent systems raise questions regarding the differences between machine and human aesthetics. In a similar fashion, Benjamin Grosser asks, “What does it mean for human creativity when a computational system can paint its own artworks? How does machine vision differ from human vision, and what does that difference reveal about our culturally-developed ways of looking? Why do we become emotionally attached to software systems and what does this attachment enable for those who made them?” His interactive experiences pose these questions by making the familiar unfamiliar, revealing the ways in which software can fundamentally alter our behavior.
Grosser’s web browser extension ScareMail makes email “scary” in the service of disrupting NSA surveillance. Grosser explains, “Extending Google’s Gmail, the work adds to every new email’s signature an algorithmically generated narrative containing a collection of probable NSA search terms. This ‘story’ acts as a trap for NSA programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, forcing them to look at nonsense. Each email’s story is unique in an attempt to avoid automated filtering by NSA search systems.”
Computers Watching Movies uses computer vision algorithms and artificial intelligence routines in order to allow the system to ‘decide’ how to watch movies. The scenes, from popular films 2001: A Space Odyssey, American Beauty, Inception, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, and Annie Hall, are each analyzed by the computer, its vision illustrated as a series of sketches. Grosser explains, “Viewers are provoked to ask how computer vision differs from their own human vision, and what that difference reveals about our culturally-developed ways of looking. Why do we watch what we watch when we watch it? Will a system without our sense of narrative or historical patterns of vision watch the same things?”
New media becomes an especially provocative way to critique the methodologies of the use of more traditional media. Peter Kusek uses a multimedia approach in order to upend expectations of the time-based tools of early film. By mapping real-time processes to physical controllers he navigates virtual spaces through expressive gestures. This real-time process dictates the outcome of both image and score. Kusek states, “The resultant work blurs delineation between documenting a performance and post-composing, in which recording studio conventions of multi-tracking, spatial processing, and creative editing create further distance from original source material.”
Kusek describes his process of developing Mnemosyne through its media-archaeological trappings:
During the 1940’s, 8.1 miles northwest of our conference location at Columbia College, the Mills Novelty Company produced and distributed the Panoram, a coin-operated video jukebox that played a selection of 16mm short films called “Soundies” for exhibition in restaurants, bars and clubs. One such film featured Scarlett Knight, a famous burlesque dancer, whose weekly income rivaled that of any Hollywood entertainer of the era.
As one of the 20 films contained in a Panoram unit, Scarlett was a genie in a walnut-grained cabinet…
Seeking out ways to mine the generative archive that refrain from the cut as primary method of constructing meaning, In Mnemosyne I deny the ocular payoff of the striptease by recasting Scarlet within a digital void, embraced and enveloped by celluloid artifacts in a new systemic constellation.