Essay 8: The Cult of the New

Especially in this day and age, there is an obsession with change and the new. In many fields the new makes for better processes and products, greater efficiency, higher yields, and in general, incremental improvements. I don’t believe that these same changes have as profound an effect in the traditional visual arts. While there is a history of artists taking or adapting commercial tools and methods to find ways of using them to make fine art, often they do this long after those methods have matured. My own work in digital vector-based imaging is an example of this, though it is debatable whether the medium has matured yet. What we see today is many artists using immature tools and as such the expressive language is still expanding.

Simply adding technology to an existing “old” idea does not necessarily create works of lasting value. It may lend itself to works that can be revered as innovative but we live in an age of so many “firsts” that this kind of achievement is soon eclipsed by new namemakers, sensationalists, and pioneers. In the documentary film Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies, exploitation film executive David F. Friedman—quoting director Herschell Gordon Lewis about their notoriously violent 1963 exploitation film Blood Feast—says this about innovation:

Herschell Lewis put it all in one very succinct sentence. It’s like a Walt Whitman poem: it’s no good, but it’s the first of its kind therefore it deserves some consideration. (Friedman in Greene 2000)

While I don’t necessarily agree with Lewis’ assessment of Whitman—I haven’t read any Whitman—his point about people noticing and noting the firsts in a field is well taken.

To me, it is more important to create works of lasting value—pushing edges from within the concerns of the work—than to make innovation the primary concern of the work. Innovation and change are a byproduct of the process rather than the goal. This relates to my tendency towards incremental change in the evolution of work and practice, with shifts happening occasionally based on various stimuli. My approach comes from the experience of what works for me in the studio rather than from having read about evolutionary biology and subsequently imposing an intellect-driven interpretation of Darwinism to the process of making art. Still, not too long ago I chanced again upon the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium, having studied it many years ago in high school biology class. I was struck by how similar it is to the way I view my practice. I haven’t recently studied the theory in detail—it was an aside in a book I was reading—but from what I remember the theory posits that any given biological system strives for equilibrium, but is occasionally forced into changing. These changes—punctuations in the equilibrium—are caused by external stimuli that can include climate change, migration of predators, and so on, or stimuli from within the system such as genetic mutations. The changes are eventually integrated and a new system eventually emerges and settles into equilibrium.

Because my influences are so varied, in my art I try to integrate new ideas through evolution, not invasion. I make work, and from this activity comes reflection, which feeds back into the work, and so on. The work evolves over time, punctuated by shifts in my attention. For me, the act of grafting on revolutionary attitudes from outside the practice has often been more harmful than useful. I’ve found that positive growth in the work comes more often from a depth of understanding reached through disciplined practice and that theory comes from a strong practice rather than practice coming from theory.

At risk of repeating myself, I strongly believe media should be used as expressive tools, not for their own sake. As such, the very moniker “new media” is problematic for me. The techno-fetishism of a lot of contemporary artists and their work seems to be the product of solutions in search of problems rather than the other way around. This is not a defense of conservatism, but a critique of the pervasive techno-fetishism as characterized by the constant quest to find the next “newest greatest thing.” While I like to understand what is possible with technology—versus what can be created under ideal or wishful thinking conditions—I find that too much work today is done just because it’s possible, rather than because the producer has anything to say. This may be the influence of the software industry, where the tendency is to upgrade software by adding new features rather than by fixing the bugs in the existing code. The software life-cycle continues with end-users becoming enthralled by the new features, using them whenever possible regardless of whether they are appropriate. They then get frustrated with the bugs in the system and wait for the next upgrade, which starts the cycle all over again. One wonders whether this is an aspect of the technologically-based society we live in, or whether our society is simply manifesting inherent cultural values.

Computers have made animation tools even more readily available than before to people outside of the field of animation. When Macromedia released Flash—their vector-based animation software—many artists enamoured with digital media suggested that my digital work would lend itself to animation. They reasoned that because my digital work was already vector-based—see Essay 7 (Why Did I Go Digital?) for technical details—I should leverage my artwork into this new-to-non-animators medium. While this would be a logical technical extension of the work, I found myself explaining that my work was about evocation, not linear narrative. I didn’t have appropriate stories to go with each piece nor a desire to invent them. I felt that in the absence of appropriate stories, time-based narrative animations were simply going to be a technology demonstration without substance. Still, I did make a few short experimental animations, if only to confirm my assumptions about the medium.

Later I discussed some of these issues with Canadian film maker Justin Stephenson, who suggested that a film could be an exploration of texture or a visual poem, and that a storyline—a term which implies linear narrative—wasn’t always necessary. This enlargement of my understanding of the way cinema can be used is a key part of what made me think it would be possible to make the video from my sculptural installation Crossroads (2002). It has also been influential on my most recent body of digital works, where I considered the pieces to be—to a certain extent—poems rendered in image rather than words. Still, it was a long time—only a few years, but this can seem like an eternity in the time scale of technology—before I began to explore these aspects of practice, and only after thinking deeply about what I wanted to achieve and finding an appropriate subject.

Hand in hand with an obsession with rapidly-changing technology and the new, we are often faced with declarations that this or that medium is dead. I would ask if novelists exploring new subject matter in using a familiar format face criticism for not being innovative enough. Sometimes the answer is yes. So too with painting, film, and probably every other medium. But people still write and read novels, make and watch films, paint and look at images, and so on. Challenging the originality or creativity of the medium without offering a viable replacement is either an attempt to give credibility to a less accepted format—that is, a marketing ploy—or, at its worst, simply whining. Art forms evolve over time, sometimes decades, sometimes centuries. Much of twentieth century life was about novelty, the new, and the idea of newness for its own sake. Art practices have been so transformed by technology in recent decades that artists are still searching for their voices. And indeed the changes wrought by technology have not only affected the media we use, but the way we interact with the world and what we view as important subjects for artistic practice. In some ways, the maturity of our technological society can be compared to a developing country or a former colony that is searching for its own identity, and in which the profiteers and fortune seekers are more visible than those trying to knit together a cohesive social fabric. As an artist who sometimes uses digital technology, I see it as my job to continue this knitting process, creating works of lasting value and meaning in an area that is dominated by superficial novelty.