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by Oliver Grau, Editor
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
477 pp., illus. 63 b/w 22 col. Trade, $40.00
ISBN: 0-262-07279-3.

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" (xiii).

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 book––a Gardner’s 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 Huhtamo’s "Twin––Touch––Redux: 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 Broeckmann’s "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 Paul’s 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 book’s 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 book––they just make the task of scholarship easier.

With the growth of media art (and media art programs), MediaArtHistories is an important––and timely––book. Scholars, teachers, and artists all have much to gain from reading it.



Updated 1st July 2007

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