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  • Special Section Introduction:Catching the History of the Media Arts
  • Sean Cubitt

These two papers were originally given as presentations at the Refresh! First International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology, at the Banff New Media Institute in Banff, Canada, 30 September-1 October 2005. For the title of the event, the conference organizers clearly had in mind the multiple senses of the word "refresh." Refresh, as in the refresh rate of visual displays; refresh, as in recall and make new; refresh, then, as a way of understanding how we might retrieve the first generations of new media arts for archival, curatorial and scholarly purposes at a moment when, sadly, many of the pioneers—and even many of those who experienced their works when they were fresh—are dead or elderly. At the same time, how might we recover that freshness for a new generation of artists, scientists, technologists and audiences?

That similar projects in new-media art history are under way in several countries through such well known agencies as ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany and the Fondation Daniel Langlois in Montreal, Canada was an inspiration for the event. So, too, are the multiple projects under way in the United Kingdom, Sweden, New Zealand and elsewhere to archive, document and provide living histories of the first generation of film, video and television arts and artists. The challenges of this undertaking encompass issues of the instability of electronic media, not just as storage formats but also as machines that have staggeringly brief shelf lives compared with older mechanical media such as film or print. These challenges include the difficulties of restoration and emulation, as older works are migrated to new platforms, the response times and general look and feel of which are quite different from those of the original platforms. Emulations and reconstructions in particular ask us to consider not only such technical issues as the changing color gamuts of different systems but also the changing aesthetic and cultural landscapes inhabited by these pioneers: still in living memory, but colored by all the controversies that always surround remembering.

The two essays in this sample reflect a particular set of emphases and methods. Ryszard Kluszczynski undertakes a historical survey of both familiar and (in the English-speaking world) unfamiliar exemplars of media arts practice, which he reads, as it were, in reverse, seeking among the earliest pioneers evidence of what he considers the most characteristic attribute of contemporary media arts: the social, collaborative and in many instances interactive quality of works that displace the Romantic and even Modernist concepts of the artist as sublime individual. In his essay, Chris Meigh-Andrews traces the history of the technical and artistic project of Peter Donebauer, a British pioneer of analog video synthesis who would later helm one of the country's leading independent television companies and who now is returning to art practice. Meigh-Andrews bases his research on extensive interviews with Donebauer, documentation and the background of his own use of the Videokalos synthesizer as an emergent artist in the 1980s.

These modes of research share a concern for the continuities of media art history and in particular for the ways in which the recent past, which in its own way is an even stranger country than the deep reaches of history, can inform current and, more importantly, future creative and intellectual work. Each in its own way emphasizes the significance of sheer newness in artworks and art practices that at first glance from a contemporary eye seem either [End Page 460] quaintly dated or, perhaps even more disparaging, "surprisingly contemporary," as if the contemporary were the only vantage point from which an artwork might be judged. As several other contributors to the Banff discussions pointed out, it is not only the artworks but also the institutions, cultures, ideas and expectations that surrounded them that made up the full experience of these artworks as they first appeared. Of course we can no longer reproduce those ambient determinations and perhaps should not try to. However, the ghosts of those severed articulations with, for example, the countercultural spirituality of Donebauer's early work are the new ghosts in the machine. These...


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pp. 460-461
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