Global Village, Cyburbia, or Something Else?
Some British New Media Art
- Beryl Graham -

[music by Arjun Sen]

When the hype about new digital imaging first hit Britain, there was lots of utopian talk about how we would be somehow 'put in touch' by the Internet, and in a very democratic way we would all be communicating in some kind of 'global village'. Then, when it was realised that access to these new technologies remained mostly in the hands of those who already had the old technologies, there was talk that new media was just another "Cyburbia", like some exclusive and security-obsessed yuppie suburb for Cyborgs, which deliberately excluded the problems (as well as the vitality) of inner-city life.

The current situation seems to lie somewhere between the Global Village and Cyburbia, in a shifting landscape where nomadic artists roam!

There have certainly been artists using the Internet in order to make the most of the fast exchange of images that it allows: Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie for example, did a project called Homespun <http://www.somewhere.org.uk/HOMESPUN/about.htm> which involved them swapping images, words and video from their parents' houses in towns hundreds of miles apart, on a theme of 'Home'. In a rather wider context, 'home' is also a theme in Roshini Kempadoo's "Virtual Exiles" ("http://www.mediascot.org/exiles/ve/index.html") , which explores place and identity for those who have migrated from country to country. Her work uses both her own images, and some family snaps sent in by viewers of her web site. On the Internet, there is not only the potential for artists to show their own work, but the chance to invite others in to contribute their own images or words. The ArtAIDs project(http://www.illumin.co.uk/artaids/pages/gallery/), for example, includes a section called "Derivatives" where one artist may start an image and pass it on to another artist to elaborate, and so forth, rather like a visual version of the old 'exquisite corpse' game which Denning and Ficara have reworked (http://www.panix.com/~repo/html_ec_main.html).

It is not only individual artists who have been seeing the benefits of new media. Large and respected arts organisations have been commissioning and 'collecting' web-based art, including the Tate, London. Tate Connections (http://www.tate.org.uk/webart/) includes some rather subversive artworks which threaten to absorb and take over the whole 'official' web site, by hijacking logos and taking parts of images from paintings in the Tate collection. The organisation Channel (http://www.channel.org.uk/) could be said to have a 'collection' of web artworks, which are archived, and show the changing fashions and developments in the field. New art centres such as the Baltic Centre for the Arts (http://www.balticmill.com/) are being designed with digital media as well as traditional artists' studios in mind.

Much web-art might be called 'conceptual art', perhaps as a response to the difficulties of showing large images or video on the Internet. There are also, however, artists working with documentary and other traditions. Geoff Broadway (http://www.intentional.co.uk/), for example, made a CD-ROM called Salt Passages (http://www.intentional.co.uk/passages/index.html) which was based around interviews with people in Middlesborough (a declining industrial/chemical city in the North of England). The CD-ROM combines music, voices, video and still images to help tell the stories of personal experience.

It is not only in India that there is debate about 'the digital divide' and who has access to new technologies. There are some parts of England which have a lower percentage of households with access to telephone lines than in parts of Delhi. Coming from the 'community arts' tradition of the 1970s, there are still media workshops in some parts of the country where people who usually would not have access to computers are helped to make multimedia products. Often these are campaigning or social activist CD-Roms, such as Jubilee Arts' CD-ROM "Lifting the Weight" (http://www.jubilee-arts.co.uk/JWS/past/sgs/sgs.html) which aims to help young prisoners avoid crime when they are released. The CD uses a 'game' format to help ex-prisoners make the right choices when faced with temptation, and relates to the popularity of video games with young men. Artimedia (http://www.artimedia.co.uk/) are another community-based organisation working with children, young people, immigrant and activist groups.

Perhaps as in India, the regions which have benefited most from new digital design industries tend to be centred in areas of existing media or digital industry, such as London and Manchester, but other cities are busy crossing over between art and industry by encouraging young designers to publicise their work in on-line portfolios such as 53 Degrees (http://www.53degrees.co.uk/main.asp).

New Media is not confined to the Internet and CD-Roms however. Many artists have become interested in how an 'installation' using interactivity can involve its audience. My own artwork Individual Fancies (http://www.sunderland.ac.uk/~as0bgr/fancies.html) used a real table, chairs and teapot, combined with sensors and a data projector. Images of hands, cakes etc. are projected down onto the table top. The projected images and sounds responded to the audience sitting in chairs and 'pouring tea', and tried to get the real audience to talk to each other, with the help of the programmed 'characters', who were all isolated in some way.

Although access to such expensive technologies as VR and digital animation is still relatively rare for artists, there are a growing number of people experimenting with what these new technologies can do. There are also now many courses at Universities which offer BA degrees in digital media, including fine art approaches, and courses for more commercial multimedia designers. Often the leading artists are part-time lecturers at such universities, and can use college resources. It may be no coincidence that some of the most interesting and unpredictable artwork uses the cheaper and more accessible technologies such as the Internet.

As for the hybridising of digital and other print media, this has now become very common. Just as a person might take their family snaps into a shop, and choose either digital or photographic prints, then artists tend to use digital prints, photographs, photocopies or laser prints almost interchangeably, depending on the contexts. Artists have used the opportunity to make large outdoor billboards or banners such as Car Park Greeting (http://www.pavilion.org.uk/projects/index.html) by Pierre d'Avoine and Catherine Elwes.

My own artwork reflects my high-tech/low-tech interests. I've made a series of paper games based on ancient children's fortune-telling games, designed digitally, and printed out on paper, using whatever print technology comes to hand . They are 'interactive art' using very few resources (http://www.stare.com/beryl/moscow.html).

This brief  introduction to some British new media art of course only scratches the surface of a lively and fast-changing digital scene. From what I've seen so far of Indian digital art, the scene in India is equally lively and diverse!

~

Above: Screen shot from the web site Virtual Exiles (http://www.mediascot.org/exiles/ve/index.html), by Roshini Kempadoo


Above: Screen shot from Salt Passages, a CD-ROM by Geoff Broadway (http://www.intentional.co.uk/passages/index.html)


Above: Interactive installation Individual Fancies by Beryl Graham (http://www.sunderland.ac.uk/~as0bgr/fancies.html)


Above: Paper game made for Moscow by Beryl Graham (http://www.stare.com/beryl/moscow.html)

Dr. Beryl Graham is a researcher, curator and artists specialising in new media art. visiting Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai in November-December 2000 to meet with Indian New Media artists and organisations. For more details, see her home page (http://www.stare.com/beryl/), or her extended list of European and North American New Media Arts web sites (http://www.sunderland.ac.uk/~as0bgr/asunder/lblinks.html).