PhD Candidate at The National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET)
Universidad de Buenos Aires/Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero
Keywords: Latin America, Argentina, new media art field, imaginaries of modernization, identity, institutional strategies, art, science, technology, politics
On Shaky Ground
The intersection between art, science, and technology around the globe has become an extensive, complex, and relatively undefined territory, shaped by certain characteristics in constant struggle.  Its practices embody the convergence of multiple disciplines, media, and methodologies, which not only elude fixed categorizations of technological artistic practices, but also challenge the traditional conception of material and object-oriented artwork, individually or collectively produced. As a matter of fact, these conventional notions still largely dominate the history, theory, and aesthetics of contemporary art. In this regard, Domenico Quaranta has defined the new media art field as an independent art world, since its development has taken place quite separately from the growth of the broader world of non-technology-based contemporary art.  In the same vein, Geert Lovink asserted that new media artworks are forms in search of a form. He claims: “New media, to its credit, has been one of the very few art forms that has taken the programmatic wish to blow up the walls of the white cube seriously. This was done in such a systematic manner that it moved itself outside of the art system altogether.” 
At the crossroads of artistic, scientific, and technological spheres, technology-based projects are generally conceived as artworks, although they may also be described as inventive devices, machines, apparatuses, artifacts, or experiments. These classifications derive from their focus on the research phases, the primacy of the creative process over the finished work, and the successive instances of trial and error that guide their execution. Due to their inner condition of new media artworks, they often function under the logic of a machine. Their operations don’t admit mistakes: if the piece doesn’t work, the aesthetic experience cannot be fulfilled. This is one of the main reasons why artists involved with technology-based projects need to acquire knowledge from other fields, such as robotics, informatics, physics, and neuroscience. Furthermore, on several occasions artists team up with engineers, biologists, and/or mathematicians, which enables them to go through the multifaceted investigation and production process.
Despite the fact that these aspects have determined new media art produced throughout the world, I argue that in the Latin American context, and especially in Argentina, this situation is even more complex given two principles that I recognize as identitarian and institutional. Whereas the first aspect is related to the imaginaries of modernization that have weaved through the Argentinian new media artistic framework, the second refers to the arduous development of the institutions that aim to promote the exchange between art, science, and technology in the country.
Imaginaries of Modernization
According to Beatriz Sarlo, Argentinian imaginaries of modernization have been shaped by a dichotomy between European modernity and local traditions.  The country has been run through poetic and ambivalent conceptions. Throughout its history, it has faced several attempts to build a local industry by appropriating technologies and by adopting European models, and later on, North American ones. The utopia of Argentina as an icon of a modern nation that emerged by the end of the 19th century and persisted into the following one, gave birth to local, cultural, and technological spheres taken as universal domains, executed by universal men. Based on ideas of progress and growth, both deeply rooted in positivist philosophy, the so-called “Generation of ‘80” stood for the concept of “civilization” against “barbarians” (the indigenous population that inhabited the country back then).  Thus, Argentina is commonly known as the “Paris of Latin America”: instead of recognizing itself as a mestizo country, it has erased its indigenous history, chasing the illusion of the “white nation.” Imported models have been considered exemplary and neutral paradigms that were uncritically introduced and pursued. In this sense, the mimetic repetition of exogenous codes turned into a common strategy to legitimize Argentinian practice.
Nowadays, the outcome of this process has given way to the creation of a local new media art field that repeatedly highlights technology—for instance, by putting a strong emphasis on lighting effects or automatizing rapid movements of the devices that compose the work. An example is the recent call for submissions from Centro Cultural Recoleta, a well-known cultural center in Buenos Aires, for events focused on innovation to be included in its annual program. The initiative is mainly interested in all kinds of artistic projects that deal with innovation in terms of astonishing technological developments: attractive laser installations, impactful interactive screenings, frenzied DJ and VJ mixes, etc. In consequence, the utopian imaginaries of modernization that have built a partnership between technological novelty and cultural progress are still active. As a result, the characteristics of our local context are usually ignored or viewed from the perspectives of other realities, thus avoiding the foundation of a personal and independent discourse.
Neither attitude considers the inherent reciprocal tensions between art, science, technology, and politics. As Claudia Kozak puts it: “Since the technical/technological phenomenon of each era is bounded by a certain society, this implies certain historical and social hegemonic construction of the technological meaning.… As long as the technological poetics take over their contemporary technical phenomenon, they are also political.”  When the author points out that new media art overlaps the artistic and technical phenomena in a particular social fabric that intertwines individuals, tools, institutions, and systems of thought, she is suggesting that the encounter of art and technology is not a neutral junction. Therefore, it is possible to overcome the common position that tends to accept, passively and uncritically, the modern technological project as an undeniable mandate, understanding instead that it has evident political nuances. 
The imaginaries of modernization enter institutions, and institutions shape specific “ways of being-with technology.”  Consequently, institutions embody a particular technological rationality and sensitivity, which are projected onto their programs. This shows that the meaning of technology goes beyond its instrumental definition, understood as the practical application of knowledge. It follows that technology implies a complex map that not only interconnects material objects, rules, and operations, but also the use that particular individuals give to them, as long as they decide institutional action lines. In other words, the imaginaries of modernization are expressed in the institutional programs, while all their decisions and activities—the institutional management as a whole—contribute to devise the aforesaid imaginaries. The study of both the imaginaries of modernization and the institutional practices aims to subvert certain paradigms of thinking and action that have marked the Argentinian new media art field.
If we go over some of the initiatives implemented by Argentinian institutions during the last years, we notice that many of them haven’t undertaken criteria to promote an analytical perspective regarding the local implications of the relationship between art and technology. For example, this is the case of Noviembre Electrónico, an event held in the Centro Cultural San Martín, which depends on the Ministry of Culture of Buenos Aires. On the government’s website, it is described as a space of convergence for artists, developers, designers, and thinkers of digital culture and electronic arts. This definition highlights the encounter of the main actors of the field, but doesn’t focus on the conceptual lines that justify this confluence.
Tracing the history of the Argentinian venues committed to fostering the exchange, production, exhibition, and study of new media art, we see they’ve faced several difficulties that have affected the sustainability of their projects. The growth and expansion of institutions have not been continuous or linear. Due to political, economic, and sociocultural circumstances that have taken place in the past decades, important endeavors came to an end. As an example, this was foreseen by the closure of the Instituto Di Tella during Juan Carlos Onganía’s dictatorship in 1970: and later on, by the end of the ‘70s, the cessation of the interdisciplinary activities developed at the Centro de Arte y Comunicación, two pioneering places for this research. The aforementioned episodes announced a pattern that seemed to be repeated in other cases caused by appalling political circumstances, which cannot be compared to later democratic regimes. This pattern was the result of institutional strategies that, once boosted and disseminated, impacted the cultural scene and eventually dissolved. This dynamic could be called “outbreak growth” and remains valid today. A recent case study is Espacio Fundación Telefónica in Buenos Aires, whose changed management in 2013 shifted its interest from new media art towards other topics related to innovation and the role of technology in contemporaneity. Nowadays, Argentina still lacks museums, cultural centers, or foundations entirely dedicated to new media art.
As a result, the identitarian and institutional factors hampered the investigation and encouragement of an Argentinian new media art language. Despite the fact that the country has become the scene for a great number of artists who have been experimenting with the many possibilities offered by technologies, there is still not enough critical reflection about the course that the local production is taking.
To reverse this trend, the institutional platforms must face a different direction through the implementation of programs that could deconstruct the established imaginaries, and hence explore local mindsets connected to Argentinian research and the creative context. They should bring transformations by stimulating a local new media art that doesn’t necessarily stick to the exposition of regional, historical, and political events, nor to low technologies (e.g., dismantling and recycling all kinds of devices). It is required to outline a discourse that may assume the local condition without placing technologies at the epicenter of the artworks. Instead, technology should be used in a relevant way, in accordance with the concepts that the artworks develop throughout the exploration of possible relations among materials, devices, and poetics.
In this line of work, some interesting projects have been carried out. Espejos de cobre (2015) is an installation by Claudia Valente conceived as an iridescent acrylic mirror. Its folds arise from the detailed investigation of the growth pattern of copper sulfate crystals, which were grown by the artist. Her observations have shown that the atoms of the crystals present an ordered distribution and that their angles remain fixed during their reproduction. The encoded mathematics in nature has been transferred to a mechatronic object that replicates the crystal’s morphogenesis while reflecting the visitor on its faceted structure.
On the other hand, Guadalupe Chávez and Gabriela Munguía have been investigating the relationship between art, science, and robotics through the development of Eisenia (2014), a robotic sculpture that considers contemporary technologies and models of production. The engine is made from mechanic and electronic devices based on the functioning of 3D printers. The sculpture has motors that regulate the dripping of hydro nutrients produced by numerous Californian worms that live inside the machine. Accordingly, the printing mechanism causes the seeding of wheatgrass, which grows on a semi-hydroponic substrate.
Another interesting case is the work of Sebastián Pasquel, who has been creating useless machines integrated by automaton mechanisms that perform simple actions and collect portraits of the artist’s family found in photo albums. f-242 (2015) consists of different pictures engraved on gypsum boards, which are gradually grinded by rotary polishing machines that turn gypsum into powder. This constant action gives the installation an ephemeral nature that contrasts with the remaining small mounds of plaster displayed next to the boards. The slow and incessant motion reappears in 120 80 mm/Hg (2013), where a fine red thread moves from the spool to a light box with the portrait of the artist’s mother, crossing a cartography of newspaper obituaries. As the thread goes from one point to the other, it seems to sketch the graphic recorded by an electrocardiogram. In fact, 120 80 mm/Hg makes reference to normal adult blood pressure.
Germán Sar’s reactive installation entitled Mecánica de la dialéctica (2014) presents two opposite typewriters disposed on independent bases, three meters apart. Their keys are locked and don’t present any characters on them. A long reel of white paper, with no inscriptions on it, joins both machines. When a motion sensor detects the proximity of the visitor, the typewriters automatically begin to type spaces, generating repetitive mechanical sounds. This action propels the continuous movement of the paper, which creates a sort of analogic loop. By means of the inquiry of opposed ideological positions, Sar creates a metaphor for the dialectical game that comes with all kinds of power clashes. Additionally, the title alludes to the dialectical-logical process that defines the intellectual work.
An analogous metaphor of machine and human behavior characterizes Juan Rey’s works. Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) show different images (such as the artist’s brain and paper balls) traced by thin copper lines, connected to photovoltaic panels and LED lights. Once the device is illuminated, the current pulse goes through the copper lines, the circuit is completed, and the light turns on. Besides referring to the features of electronic circuits, these pieces suggest metaphors of the circulation of ideas and the possibility of “shedding light” on new ones.
Due to their autonomous functioning, these are prime examples of works that undermine the traditional notion of new media artwork. What is more, they were created with fairly simple and affordable parts, even though they neither pursue a low-tech aesthetic, nor try to address “Latin American-ness.” Like Valente, Pasquel, Sar, Chávez, and Munguía’s installations, the technologies involved are always choreographed through the formal, aesthetic, and conceptual axes of each artistic proposal, depending on personal investigations that concurrently introduce singular poetics to the Argentinian scene.
In short, interesting, local, and technology-based art may often arise when artists do not attempt to speak about Latin America as the region is seen from abroad, for this ultimately tends to reinforce the confrontation between peripheral and core countries. Rather, they forge their own discourse from Latin America that might end up outlining a new way of thinking and perceiving the art of the region and the region itself.
- I refer to all kinds of artistic practices that make material, aesthetic, and conceptual use of electronic and/or digital technologies in different phases of the creative process. It is a broad scene, constituted by a wide variety of manifestations, such as interactive installations, immersive environments, virtual and augmented reality, artificial life, data visualization, locative media, parametric design, bio art, etc. Although certainly video in all its forms—video installation, video performance, video sculpture, etc.—is part of the new media art field, it isn’t included in this study because its development has had a different logic than the one examined in this essay.
- Domenico Quaranta, Beyond New Media Art (Brescia: Link Editions, 2013).
- Geert Lovink, “New Media: In Search of The Cool Obscure,” 2007, accessed February 25, 2016, http://bampfa.berkeley.edu/media/lovink.mp4.
- Beatriz Sarlo, Una modernidad periférica: Buenos Aires 1920 y 1930 (Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 2007), 15.
- Between 1880 and 1910 Argentina was governed by the Generación del 80 (Generation of ‘80), whose members held the highest political and economic positions. Among other policies, they intended to turn Argentina into a modern nation by establishing a European-style liberal political regime.
- Claudia Kozak, ed., Tecnopoéticas argentinas: archivo blando de arte y tecnología (Buenos Aires: Caja Negra, 2012), 182–183.
- Héctor Schmucler, “Apuntes sobre el tecnologismo o la voluntad de no querer,” Artefacto (December 1996), accessed February 26, 2016, http://www.revista-artefacto.com.ar
- Carl Mitcham, “Tres modos de ser con la tecnología,” Anthropos, no. 94/95 (1989): 14.
Jazmín Adler is an Argentine art historian, researcher, and curator who lives and works in Buenos Aires. She is pursuing her doctoral studies with a scholarship from the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). Her research interests cover the relationship between art, science, technology, and politics in Latin America.
She is a member of Ludión: Latin American Exploratory of Poetic/Political Technologies (Instituto Germani, Universidad de Buenos Aires) and teaches “Theory and Aesthetics of Electronic Arts,” “Theory and Aesthetics of Interactive Art,” and “Development and Production of Electronic Arts Projects” in the Masters in Technology and Aesthetics of Electronic Arts Program (Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero), as well as “Digital Art II” at Universidad Maimónides. Over the past years, she has curated new media art exhibitions such as Sincronías en abismo (Buenos Aires Photo), VISCERAL (Panal 361) and Mecánicas de pensamiento: obras en proceso (Museo Castagnino).