Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, November 3, 2006

New Media Art - Characteristics And Challenges For The Future: An Analysis By Andy Oram (Part III)

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New Media Art Future - Key Characteristics And Major Challenges Shaping The Future of Art.

In the previous
parts of this article about the future of art, we have started analyzing how the internet and the new media are reshaping art by opening many and new doors to its evolution. This article has perhaps been too bold already in defining how new art forms will look and behave, given that few instances exist so far. But it's still worth drawing some lessons from the traits just discussed.

steel objects in the sea.jpg
Photo credit: Bergoiata

The collaborative requirement

Upon reading that art is becoming a collaborative effort, many will immediately object that any artistic expression of value must come from a single person, or at least receive strong leadership from someone like a movie or theater director. And perhaps it's true that successful new artworks have a director or ultimate authority.

According to media analyst Clay Shirky (in his epilogue to Perspective on Free and Open Source Software), many attempts were made at the beginning of this century to do collaborative story writing over the Internet, but they failed. Collaborative writing seems to require strict definitions of roles and goals, as is offered by the Wikipedia project.

But if artwork fails to become collaborative in some fashion, the Internet will not do for art everything the Internet does well. The Internet will simply be a gigantic library from which it is easy to check out art, but the art itself will be molded along old lines. This is true no matter how complex the practice of sampling and reuse becomes.

If musicians have been able to improvise together for thousands of years, humanity should be able to find ways to collaborate on new art forms with stunning results. New art needs to find a way to form group consensus that does not bury the individual.

Maintaining narrative and intent


A work created by a single author or artist in a fixed period of time can have an integrity that gives it the power that makes us return over and over to our favorite works. In literature, a narrative underlies the work that may infuse it an many levels; even if the explicit progress of the plot does not demonstrate a unifying theme, other aspects of the work that are less obvious may fill in the narrative.

These less apparent aspects are also responsible for giving many musical works an implicit narrative. A visual work may provide a narrative at a glance or maintain its integrity in some other way. In all these cases the artist's genius is responsible for creating a single intent.

The new collaborative art certainly faces the challenge of keeping coherent. The babble of twentieth-century broadcasting led to a dismantling of meaning and its dissolution into manipulative phraseology, as caught by Samuel Beckett in Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot. The blogosphere threatens to be worse: scads of little-known individuals contributing minuscule comments on evanescent controversies from unknown perspectives with unstated assumptions.

Works that are digitized and therefore subject to being broken up and reused can easily lose the subtleties that give great art its integrity. The malleable, convivial, and topics aspects of a work that can be modified by many loosely associated people over time threatens integrity still more.

Who can be expected to grasp and maintain the unconscious aspects of the work that conveyed its intent? We risk a generation of works that offer the viewer only superficial textures and references to other familiar works as organizing themes.

Motivating artists


As we've seen, there are powerful incentives to make art on the Internet open and free to all. The old pay-per-unit model clearly won't work for something that is ever-changing, and even a subscription model would have to determine what is fair to charge people who view the work at various times, not to mention people who contribute to the work. Payment models would probably have to be unique to each artwork, and the complexity would drive viewers away.

This leaves unanswered the question of how great artists could be encouraged to contribute their efforts. Great art requires lifelong training and full-time concentration. And while viewers are used to thinking of payments as reimbursement for an artwork already created, from an economic standpoint the payments function more as funding for the artist's next work. Keeping the artistic ecosystem going is a delicate matter, and there are plenty of examples of market failure in traditional media. The new media may have to experiment for quite a while.

Aesthetic constraints


So far, most interactive, computer-mediated art falls into a particular form. One approaches a screen or other playback device, which may display anything from an abstract pattern of moving dots to a map or video. The viewer can then change the artwork: perhaps by moving levers to affect the movement of the dots, or just by letting the machinery behind the show capture his breathing and heart beat. In short, the artwork is fixed to some extent and provides parameters that act in predictable ways (at least to the original creator of the work).

One can well ask whether the viewer is manipulating the art, or the artist is manipulating the viewer. Most art is successful to the extent that it violates existing parameters. It does something new while preserving enough of the familiar old forms to speak a language its viewers understand. Parameterized art may allow the original creator to go beyond normal boundaries, but it does not invite the viewer into the same endeavor. So the viewer is not a collaborator; not an artist at a level equal to the original creator.

The viewer is just part of the artwork.

Any artwork that withholds part of its software from the collaborators - and this goes for games as well -fails to elevate the collaborators to the true level of artist. They are even less empowered than the students copying a master's work in a fine artist's studio.

Legal constraints


Movie-goers were exposed to newsreels in the movie theaters before television became ubiquitous, and later, packaged news became a staple of television. The editor of each news segment shaped it to his agenda, and the viewer could do little but react - even to regard it dispassionately and analyze it was a feat too demanding for most viewers.

It would have been inconceivable for a viewer to chop up and remix a broadcast and then release his own version for the amusement or consideration of his fellow viewers, as dozens of Germans have done recently with video broadcasts of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Most likely, the altered broadcasts of Chancellor Merkel are formally illegal. As parodies, they may just barely escape the charge of copyright violation. But they are probably violations of the Rome Convention mentioned earlier in the article, which requires anyone rebroadcasting material to get permission from the original broadcaster. This dilemma illustrates the kind of legal encumbrances that could prevent us from taking advantage of the technical developments in modern media.

Topical art is sure to infringe on copyrighted work (and possibly trademarks) at some point. The human impetus to reflect the most important elements of current life in art - the characteristic of the new art that I have called "topical" - routinely leads to incorporating material covered by copyright or trademarks.

The draconian extent of modern copyright legislation then comes into a head-to-head collision with innovative media, as it has already with music sampling.

We have to find ways to relax the copyright regime in order to make the field safe for new ventures. But the attractions of copyright - one of the few monopolies guaranteed by the state - are so powerful that well-heeled beneficiaries will fight to the death to keep it in place.

Some protections for author's rights could be found in existing law even if copyright disappeared overnight. As a model, the Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication of their Phonograms (Geneva 1971) allows governments to use unfair compensation laws as an alternative to copyright in order to prevent unauthorized duplication and distribution.

Leaving aside the legacy of the second cultural era, the third era will develop its own restrictions. Some may be imposed to extract payments. Even free art offers several reasons for restrictive licenses.

Creative Commons licenses, which originated in the United States and have been adapted to copyright policies in several other countries, allow recipients of copyrighted material to share it with various provisions, such as restrictions on commercial use. But plain Creative Commons licenses may not be enough for some authors, who may want to prohibit uses that they find offensive.

As an example of offensive reuse, consider North American folk music. Because many people in the American South had English, Scottish, and Irish roots, they had a habit of updating folk songs from those traditions. In particular, some songs reflecting the Irish struggle against English rule were adapted to glorify the struggle of the slave-owning Confederate South against the North in the U.S. Civil War. Some Irish patriots would feel fine about that change of scene and some wouldn't.

It's worth noting the doctrine of droit moral, or moral rights, which is part of the European copyright tradition and is codified in the Berne Convention (Article 6bis). This doctrine gives authors the right to claim authorship; to prevent distortion, mutilation, or misrepresentation; and to prevent use or representation in such a way as to injure the author's reputation.

The U.S. has not generally acknowledged moral rights, but courts in the U.S. have offered authors some of these rights in other ways. According to the overview Boorstyn on Copyright, the courts use contract law or tort of unfair competition to prevent such practices as substantial cutting and release of "an edited, garbled, distorted version" of a work (Boorstyn on Copyright, section 4:8. p. 112).

The article "Inspiration and Innovation: The Intrinsic Dimension of the Artistic Soul" by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall offers more background on laws and court cases in the United States that either cite moral rights explicitly or provide similar rights to authors under the guise of other doctrines. Another article by Kwall, "Author-Stories: Narrative's Implications for Moral Rights and Copyright's Joint Authorship Doctrine", points out that the U.S. prefers to recognize the rights only of the dominant author and fails to deal well with situations where multiple authors contribute to a work.

Margaret Chon's article "New Wine Bursting From Old Bottles: Collaborative Internet Art, Joint Works, and Entrepreneurship" highlights what a limitation this is for the convivial, open, ever-changing works facilitated by the Internet.

The wording of the Berne Convention seems to offer authors ways to prohibit reuses of their work that they disapprove of, but it hasn't been interpreted that way. Instead, it is seen as a way for authors to stop publishers from distorting their work.

If collaborative art becomes popular and works start to take off in directions not anticipated or sanctioned by earlier contributors, it may be worth examining whether the doctrine of moral rights is relevant, and if so, whether earlier authors can use it to constrain subsequent authors.

Balancing the tendency toward immersion


Something about online games and virtual worlds leads a lot of people to spend huge amounts of time online - often spending more time in the virtual world than in working. And indeed, the ever-changing and convivial aspects of the online worlds seems tailored to draw people in whenever they can find a free hour.

Call it addiction or just an absorbing experience; the virtual worlds have more of a hold on their visitors than books, television, or other online media. And while a few people show great devotion to other activities - sports, television, collecting, or starting the next revolutionary start-up business in a garage - these have not been identified as problems by researchers, whereas some do consider online immersion to be a problem.

Perhaps the new arts could be designed to encourage participants to draw on their real-life experiences in the artwork. That would require them ipso facto to return at healthy intervals to the real world. This might be doubly beneficial because people who abandon themselves to online experiences without checking them against their real equivalents can start to believe that distorted views presented online are realistic - the same problem generated by twentieth-century mass media.

Bridging language and cultural differences


The last challenge this article examines is that of differences and disparities. First of all, for people to participate in the new art forms, they need computers and Internet access. There are several initiatives to make this possible, such as the One Laptop Per Child project, but the goal is far off.

People at all economic levels and in all geographic areas need to express their needs and viewpoints to the rest of the world. Without this capability, they are doomed to be trampled under decisions made by powerful forces without their input.

How are people supposed to understand and contribute to art created by someone with a different language and culture? Must everyone learn English and accept the Western canon of art and literature (to which this article has referred a lot)?

Finally, art that can be viewed anywhere in the world must also deal with the inevitability that it will offend some people. Software filtering does not work well, unless people are ruled by an arbitrary and repressive system of all-encompassing power. Still, there are vulnerable people in the world who would not do well under a steady diet of anything that goes out over the wire.

New media in context

This essay may leave readers dubious about prospects for greatness among the potential art forms and media. But please remain optimistic about the power of human thought and communication. No one has reached the level of Shakespeare at his art, or Michelangelo at his, but new traditions have brought new joys. And the new media rarely start with masterpieces; it takes time for a culture to assimilate the medium.

Furthermore, old forms hardly ever disappear, and artists often move in quite a protean manner between media. The flexibility of their participation in the arts may inject new life in, and give a boost to, old media.

We can assume that when people find they can instantly update their favorite works, they will jump in with a vengeance as they have on Wikipedia and some free software projects. The number of people engaged in art will go sharply up; imagine if you could be even the least of the students in Michelangelo's studio? Perhaps the word studio will be reclaimed as a place for intensive reflection and creation, rather than referring to a corporation that throws the efforts of a staff into a grinder and emerges with a commercial product.

The new media is not as conducive as the old inner-expressive culture to individuation, but more conducive than mass media culture to independent and analytical thinking. People ask themselves what they could do to change the artwork; this awareness of potential empowers them in a different way from the texts of the past.

The evolution of advertising on the Internet is a token of what the new media are doing to social relations. Advertising is a feature of centralized twentieth-century media.

While advertising has taken hold on the Web and even made possible the existence of such major corporations Yahoo! and Google, the medium's interactivity and "pull" aspects (readers tend to choose for themselves what to view, rather than be passive recipients of "pushed" information) lead companies as well as individuals to search for more collaborative ways to generate interest in their work. Networks of respected commentators seem to do more to spread an idea than an advertisement.

Like the twentieth-century mass media,the new media creates community through shared experience - but the new media is critically different (pun intended) from the older media in that the shared experience is built from contributions by many and embodies the thoughts of the viewers.

We have a romantic notion of a lone artist or writer struggling with her soul in an attic; the new artist and writer may still be physically alone in the attic but isn't withdrawn from other people; she has to consciously unplug her optical fiber in order to have a moment alone with her soul.

The imagery of Internet media is probably even less realistic than the romantic moments, gun battles, or hospital scenes in the twentieth-century mass media. But the participation of many people in creating the media undermines its hypnotic danger, making the artifice behind the imagery more obvious. When anyone can potentially help construct an online reality, its becomes less of a medium for controlling viewers' reactions to the world and more an expression of their own experiences.

The goals and aesthetics of what emerges in this experimentation may turn out totally different from the goals and aesthetics of what we currently think of as the arts. Perhaps what's described in this article won't be called "art" at first (although the trend in the past thirty years has been to use the term "art" quite broadly).

We must remember that when Impressionist painting began, its masterpieces were banned from traditional art galleries. And the old-fashioned gallery owners may have been justified, because what the Impressionists were asking of their viewers was so different from the standard artwork on display.

Similarly, at least one late twentieth-century composer recommended that modern compositions not share programs with Mozart and Beethoven; again, what was being asked of listeners differed too much.

Eventually, the shocking becomes the familiar, and the continuity between old and new styles becomes evident. So Impressionists now share galleries with Old Masters, and audiences accept recent compositions on traditional music programs

This article has achieved its purpose if it encourages traditional artists to try some of the experiments suggested here, and if it points out areas that need further attention to experimental artists already pushing forward the new media.

But the article is important for potential viewers too: it calls on all of us to look for great things in the new media, to tolerate the sometimes sophomoric quality of early experiments, and to give artists in these media the resources and encouragement they need.

End of Part III of 3

Read Part I: New Media Shaping The Future Of Art, Music And Literature: An Analysis By Andy Oram
Read Part II: The Future Of Art - How The Internet Is Reshaping Artists' Universe: An Analysis By Andy Oram

Originally published on October 8, 2006 as "Characteristics of new media in the Internet age" by Andy Oram on The author integrated the original article with comments and suggestions provided by the readers, as this essay is available in a wiki at, where others can edit and contribute to its development.

About the author


Andy Oram is a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. He works as an editor for technical publisher and information provider O'Reilly Media, specializing currently in free software and open source technologies. His Web site is and his email address is andyo (at)

Photo credits: James Steidl, Branislav Ostojic, sgame, Ryan Pike, Ciprian Dumitrescu.

Andy Oram -
Reference: Praxagora [ Read more ]
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posted by on Friday, November 3 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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