by Oliver Grau, Editor
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
477 pp., illus. 63 b/w 22 col. Trade,
Reviewed by Dene Grigar
Digital Technology and Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
If ever a book was needed, it is this
one: MediaArtHistories, a collection
of essays focusing on the history of media
art, edited by Oliver Grau. MediaArtHistories,
as Grau tell us in the Introduction, "explores
and summarizes the mutual influences and
the interactions of art, science, and
technology and assesses the status of
digital art within the art of our times"
And explores and summarizes it does. Twenty-two
essays discuss the origins, technologies,
cultural influence, and science of the
media arts. Contributors are among some
of the biggest names in the field: Sean
Cubitt, Douglas Kahn, Barbara Maria Stafford,
Ron Burnett, Lev Manovich, Christiane
Paul, and Edward Shanken are all represented.
Such an approach means that it is not
a typical art history booka
Gardners art history it is not.
Instead, it "opens up art history" through
a "many-voiced chorus" of scholars knowledgeable
about the field and how it developed.
The inclusion of so many experts also
means that the history of media art is
not presented as a linear one nor as a
monolith with set methodologies, canon,
or single perspective.
For example, the reader receives numerous
explanations of the notion of interactivity.
Erkki Huhtamos "TwinTouchRedux:
Media Archaeological Approach to Art,
Interactivity, and Tactility," examines
interactivity from the perspective of
touch and provides "cultural, ideological,
and historical ramifications of touching
artworks" and how these views may impact
our views toward interactivity (72). In
"The Automatization of Figurative Techniques:
Toward the Autonomous Image," artist-theorist
Edmond Couchot distinguishes between a
"first interactivity" and a "second" one,
pointing out that the former involves
"interaction between human beings and
computers" and the latter, on "action"
as influenced by Francisco Varela (185).
A little later in the book Ryszard Kluszczynski,
in his essay entitled "From Film to Interactive
Art: Transformations in Media Arts," discusses
interactivity from the perspective of
a "dialogue . . . between the interactor
and the artifact" (216). And a few essays
later, Ron Burnett looks at interactivity
as a "set of assumptions about human experience"
(309). While all of these views see humans
at the center of activity, the subtle
differences among them highlights the
complexity of the term and provides a
broader view of what it can be.
While all of the essays are important
contributions, some do stand out for their
compelling content and clarity. Andreas
Broeckmanns "Image, Process, Performance,
Machine: Aspects of an Aesthetics of the
Machinic," for example, provokes us with
the question, "What does it mean to think
through the machine in artistic practice"
(194)? Looking critically at the image,
execution, performance, process, and machinic,
he asks us to ponder "a contemporary aesthetic
theory that uses the experiences of digital
culture to rethink art" (205). Those teaching
media art will find Christiane Pauls
essay, "The Myth of Immateriality: Presenting
and Preserving New Media," very helpful
in that it lays out clearly the issues
surrounding the debate about the materiality
of media art.
Those looking for artists (and their works)
will also not be disappointed. Char Davies,
David Rokeby, Roy Ascott, Nam June Paik
and many, many others are all here. Early
influences, like Duchamp, Moholy-Nagy,
and Gabo, are evoked in the books
various pages. Numerous color plates as
well as black and white images of some
of the works mentioned in the various
essays are included and add to an understanding
of the points made, not to mention enjoyment
of the material. This last point brings
me to the one weakness of the book: Other
helpful offerings like an index, list
of plates, and even names of artists and
works mentioned in the text are missing.
While it is understandable that the editor
would resist the reference style approach
to art history, including these tools
does not necessarily simplify the complex
ideas expressed in the bookthey
just make the task of scholarship easier.
With the growth of media art (and media
art programs), MediaArtHistories
is an importantand timelybook.
Scholars, teachers, and artists all have
much to gain from reading it.