Relive: Media Art Histories
by Sean Cubbitt and Paul Thomas, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
384 pp., illus. 73 col. Trade, $40.00
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
The general context for this collection is twofold. First, the growing need for a critical and historical reflection on the history or histories of what has often been frozen in an eternal now (that of "the new" and "the contemporary", or that of "the next thing"). The success of but also the fruitful interdisciplinary exchanges with media archeology (which is the European term for what is elsewhere sometimes called media revisionism) are proofs of the usefulness of such a historical turn within the study of the here and now of media art studies. Second, the emergence of a new materialism in media studies, which can be seen as a reaction against the often very abstract fascination with the immateriality, spirituality, contextboundlessness of certain strands within media studies. A stronger input from actor-network based theories on media, but also the increasing influence of medium theories elaborated outside the world of media and communication studies (such as for instance film studies, e.g. in the wake of Stanley Cavell, or comparative textual analysis, to use the term recently coined by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman in their eponymous collection recently published with Minnesota UP) are certainly playing a major role in the inspiring return of the medium's materiality, which the editors of this book characterize in the board cultural studies approach as proposed by Raymond Williams in his classic study on television.
This is not to say that the approach in this volume is not innovative or new. In their illuminating introduction, Cubbitt and Thomas spend much time explaining the complex relationships between notions such as convergence, hybridity, and medium-specificity, and their reflection is an excellent update of the current debates on this crucial subject. Corollarily, they are also very explicit in their critique of the mutual ignorance of the art scene, on the one hand, and media art, on the other hand. The essays gathered in this book can certainly be seen as an attempt to bridge a gap that has become almost a caricature. Finally, Cubbitt and Thomas sketch also, albeit in rather general lines, a very sound program of historical media studies, making excellent methodological and theoretical proposals and observations.
The essays in the book can be seen as partial answers to these general questions that are "concerned with the idea of history, the intersections of history and geography, the temporalities of life, and the concept of the future" (p. 17). The key word of the title, "relive", acquires then a very strong meaning: It refers to a way of writing history that wants to bring back to life in order to imagine new futures.
Although well edited and well illustrated, not all chapters of the collection manage to achieve this ambitious goal. Often, they tend to devote too much time to the mere description of historical events, characters, works, settings, and contexts, and not enough to a larger methodological reflection. True, all contributors tackle this kind of issues, for example when they are confronted with the difficulties of storage and archiving of ephemeral and technically hyper-obsolescent material, but in various cases the answers remain too close to the specific body of work under scrutiny. From a similar point of view, one can regret also the quite narrow literature used in certain contributions. In a book like this, where "interactivity" is a key notion, both from a technical and from a political point of view, one would have expected a stronger debate with, for instance, actor-network theory inspired readings (famously exemplified in new media art by the work by Serge Fourmentraux) or, from a more political point of view, with David Joselit's Feedback. Television Against Democracy (MIT, 2007). Certain chapters do have that theoretical and methodological opening (Schenken and Kahn are outstanding), but quite some others don't.
A positive aspect of the book is the focus on more peripheral cultural contexts (Australia and New-Zealand, but also Yugoslavia or Poland). The room given to these understudied areas is a clear statement that new media history cannot be reduced to the major centers alone (even if we accept that that centre of these centers is permanently shifting). Also refreshing is the very broad approach of medium, which explains for instance the inclusion of an excellent chapter on Edward Ihnatowicz (by Joanna Walewska) or a thought-provoking essay by Andrés Burbano on punched film stock in the first computer experiments by Konrad Zuse. However, the general impression remains that the stimulating archival material and historical work gathered in this book remains a little underused due to the lack of a strong general framework so that one does not always see very clearly the possible creative relationships between the various essays and that the link with broader theoretical and methodological issues currently raised is not as obvious as it should be.