michael naimark

Leonardo Electronic Almanac, vol. 3, no. 2, February 1995, MIT Press

New Media International Symposium

Moscow, 24-27 November 1994


Michael Naimark

(thank you Kathy Rae Huffman, Lev Manovich, and Erkki Huhtamo)

(1) "This one's for the Internet." FLASH!

Geert just caught me with his camera. It's well after midnight saturday and several of us from the symposium are at an artist's loft near Moscow's center where a party is going strong. George Legrady, a San Francisco-based artist teaching in Budapest comments that this could be the East Village and asks which one of us should introduce ourself to the striking woman with a partially shaved head. (I did. Student at the Institute of Cinematography. Hates all American films except some Woody Allen.) Geert Lovink, with the camera, is an Amsterdam-based artist and writer responsible for several books including one on Amsterdam squatters and their use of media, another on radio pirates, and a new one called "Data Dandy" about people who seek electronic soapboxes on the Internet ("a dandy needs an audience"). If anyone is capable and mischevous enough to get this picture out on the Net, it's Geert. But most everyone at the symposium, both the Russians and outsiders, have Internet accounts now.

The three-day symposium, along with an ambitious arts exhibition, was Russia's first government-supported media arts forum. About 25 Russians and 25 outsiders participated, with a symposium audience of about 100. The Russians were mostly from Moscow but some were from St. Petersberg, Krasnojarsk, Kiev, and Odessa. The outsiders came from Spain, France, Switzerland, Holland, Finland, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and four from the U.S. Most participants are art academics and curators; many are also practicing artists.

Kathy Rae Huffman, an American living in Vienna and co-organizer of the symposium and exhibition, explains that its main purpose was both to expose the outside world to Russian approaches to new media arts as well as to expose the Russians to the latest developments in electronic art in the West. Kathy spent the 1980s center-stage in the emerging video arts scene, ending up at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston with David Ross (currently Director of the Whitney Museum) and Bob Riley (currently the media arts curator at the SF Museum of Modern Art). She left an attractive position running one of the largest arts funds in the U.S. for Austria several years ago. Now she finds the emerging Eastern European and Russian media arts situation most exciting.

(2) Moscow is not Disneyland.

Disneyland, Tony Hiss once observed, was designed and built at 3/4 scale. The effect is subtle: the castles, bridges, boats, and walkways appear unintimidating and inviting. Moscow is the architectural opposite. The buildings are monstrous in scale, doors and ceilings are all high, and the streets are twelve lanes wide. If someone wanted to engineer a city to make its citizens feel small and helpless, you'd have Moscow. It's not without its beauty - the Moscow subways are the world's most beautiful - it's just not the happiest place on earth, especially now.

The economic state of Moscow is one of just getting by. Door handles are broken, plumbing leaks, walls are cracked and dirty everywhere, and telephones work on a random, and often costly, basis. Inflation is runaway: the ruble went from 200 per U.S. dollar at the time of the 1991 coup attempt to 2,000 several months ago to 3,000 today. Older people on fixed incomes are having a difficult time, although many locals insist it's not as bad as the Western press makes it to be. But within the chaos new opportunities have arisen.

"New Russians," they're called, people getting rich off the chaos. They range from hard-working honest entrepreneurs with outside contacts to blatantly illegal activity, with a lot of gray area in between. The scary part to most Russians is that security has shifted to the private sector. Both criminal mafia (a word used generically here) and private bodyguards carry guns. Under communist regime at least everyone knew who had the guns, the situation today is less stable and more confusing. The New Russians are not a small group, estimated to be about 500,000 out of Moscow's 11 million. Consequently, everything is openly purchasable now, from designer drugs like ecstasy to BMWs.

(3) "Everyone here is a philosopher."

This was whispered by Minna Tarkka, a writer and curator from Helsinki, sitting next to me as yet another Russian speaker was introduced as being an X, a Y, "and a philospher." This was largely intentional, since many of the speakers were art theorists. But Russians take their ideology more seriously than most. They've had to, since up until recently you either agreed with State ideology or you were a dissedent.

Vladimir Levashov, curator of the exhibition, connected the current interest in new media art to the "Moscow Conceptual School" of the 1970s, which addressed the problematics of centers, borders, and margins (e.g., Soviet official art versus underground "margin" art). Its "collective action groups" sought "clean spaces" for performance sites - spaces not contaminated by Soviet ideology - often outside of Moscow in a field or a forest. Such activity had an "existential and psychedelic component." (A twenty-something reporter later asked me what I knew about John Lilly.) Tatjana Mogilevskaia, the organiser of the symposium, said that new media art, based in networks, eliminates this issue since there are no longer margins or borders.

But even the dissendents have a pride in the rich art history of communist Russia, particularly cinema. Oleg Aranson from the Institute of Philosophy made the analogy between early avant garde Russian cinema and new media today, both requiring a new grammer. While it is well-known that Sergei Eisenstein formed a new grammer of montage, Aranson described how other filmmakers of that era made equally significant contributions. Dziga Vertov, best-known to the West for his documentaries, created a "new sensuality" based on "anti-bourgeois," "non-anthropological," "language of communist futures." Alexander Dovzhenko's seminal 1930 film "The Earth" was "almost tactile," suggesting an expansion of sensual perception.

Some of the presentations were lofty, with periodic references made to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, Umberto Eco, and Jacques Derrida. (Contrast this with the more religious and grounded attitude of North American Natives, some of whom mocked such loftiness at the Art and Virtual Environments conference at the Banff Centre). One Russian media critic hypothesized that because today's video cameras are toy-like, that video is doomed to "an isolated aesthetic." A lecturer from the Institute of Philosophy condensed her "three hour lecture" on how, as art turns from classical to interactive to telematic, we must "find the treachery and lies and turn to play."

(4) What did they think of us?

Presentations by outsiders were intermingled with the Moscovites throughout the symposium. Roughly speaking, ideological similarity was proportional to distance travelled. Ryszard Kluszczynski, a film professor and curator from Warsaw, argued that autonomous or self-adaptive artworks pose a fundamental dilemma to the modernist view of artist-as-creator since once the rules are set, these artworks are "out of control" of the artist. He showed a short video of "A-Volve" by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau and noted that one of the major debates at last year's Ars Electronica was who should control an artwork, the artist or the audience.

Most of the outsiders showed video. Alla Mitrofanova, a Russian critic and theorist but from the more secular St. Petersburg, showed a video performance of a naked Amsterdam artist being tourched in his back by a blast from a flame thrower (in the genre of Stelarc and Survival Research Labs), then drenched with cold water spray. Piotr Krajevski from Poland's "WRO" Festival showed another performance tape of a half-naked artist videotaping his body, then smashing open the cassette and wrapping himself with the videotape. Michael Bielicky from the Academy of Fine Art in Prague showed some of his student's work, but not before pointing out that "robots" (RUR), film integrating live performers (Laterna Magica), and interactive cinema (EXPO '67) were all Czech creations. Erkki Huhtamo, curator of the ISEA artshow in Helsinki, showed video of Paul Sermon's telematic sofa, which networked two sofas together creating a single "shared" one. Andre Iten from Geneva showed some locally-produced performance and interactive work.

Of the four Americans invited, three had some Russian or Eastern Europe connection. Lev Manovich, who was born in Moscow and currently teaches electronic media at the University of Maryland, spoke of the history of the computer screen, anchoring it in the MIT Lincoln Labs' development of radar to detect the "Red Menace." George Legrady, a San Francisco-based artist currently teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, showed his multimedia piece, a personal album fitted in the layout of the Hungarian Propaganda Museum. Computer industry observer Esther Dyson, speaking bilingually, gave a lively presentation asking for help with her new premise: economy on the Internet is based on scarcity of attention rather than scarcity of goods, that people will pay to be listened to rather than to read. One Russian in the audience reminded her that there are two different opportunities for artist's support: sponsorship and shareware. "Shareware IS sponsorship but by many people" she replied. Another Russian spoke that if Stalin had his files on computers, things would have been much worse. "If computers existed then," Dyson snapped back, "Stalin would never have gained power."

(5) The Artshow

While the symposium was talk rooted in theory, the art exhibition was production rooted in practice. For one thing, there was equipment, partly due to the Soros Centers for Contemporary Arts supporting a "New Media Art Lab" in Moscow and partly due to support from the lucrative new commercial studios. One local says "there was a ten year standstill here" up until 1986, when the first graphics computer arrived in Moscow. Doors began to open in 1989, and by 1991 386/486 computers with bootlegged copies of graphics software began to appear (in sync with an emerging TV advertising market for flying logos). The first SGI machines arrived in 1992. Now there are about 30 SGIs, including several Onyxes.

Like everywhere else, uneven access to equipment has resulted in a gap between the independent artists and the commercial studios. The tension was subtle to outsiders but not unfamiliar: artists staffing these studios have access and experience but less time and control (and attitude) as the independents. Consequently, the works in the artshow ranged from high-end videographic/computer-graphic compositions to home video. All works were selected months ago from submitted proposals.

None of the artworks were explicitly interactive (in terms of having any electronic input) and all were installations in their use of multiple media, physical artifacts, and space. Of the seventeen artworks, all but two used pre-recorded video (the exceptions being slide projection and holography).

A personal favorite was by Oleg Migas, an artist from Odessa, who computer-altered a video image of a bather in a bathtub shot from above to make the plane of the water opaque and metallic, like a flat metal casting with holes for the head, arms, and knees to emerge. In front of the video monitors was an actual metal cast, identical to the virtual one in the image. Another favorite of a similar ilk was a "VR" parody piece by Alexei Shulkin of Moscow. It was a small low ceiling about four feet high with a hole in which to stick your head up. What you saw was an "immersive" projection on the inside wall ten feet in front, video from a zany wobbling camera of a street scene. This was one of the few humorous works here.

The visually strongest work at first sight was called "Cloud Commission" by Tatjana Detkina and Arkadij Nasonov, both from Moscow, consisting of two video monitors facing each other, each tethered with thick rope to large bird models suspended from the ceiling. The imagery on one monitor was of pages flipping and on the other, scenes relating to the pages.

The most finished (i.e., polished) work was an installation by Moscow artist Vladislav Efimov, which consisted of six video monitors in a line and a seventh above and to the left. On the six monitors were black and white images of various meter gauges (electrical, temperature, etc.) computer-altered to have auras around their borders. On the monitor above, a hazy black and white image of the whole earth.

The rawist, and most blatantly political, piece was by Moscow artist Alexander Revizorov. In the center on a pedestal were several cannisters labelled to look very poison, like pesticides. To its left was a slide projection of a normal person and to its right, a slide projection of a mutated person.

An installation about trains and travel was made by Krasnojarsk artist Oleg Ponomarev, using video as well as hand drawn sketches hung on a wall (appearing as if made by different people, non-professionals). This installation was intriguing but inaccessable, and it was difficult to determine whether this was intentional or not. (We later learned it was an artistic experiment involving the contributions of many ordinary commuters.)

The most hardware-intensive work was by Alexej Isaev of Moscow, using eleven monitors (each with its own VCR), ten arranged in a circle around the eleventh. The imagery was cyberpunk, gory images of eye and brain surgery surrounding the center, where every hour the artist would take part in a performance with the video material.

(6) The Jury

The jury's role was to award three main prizes (all-expense-paid trips to Ars Electronica in Linz) and two honorary mentions ($250 cash). It consisted of a French, a Finn, a Dutch, a Pole, three Russians, and me. Two other Russians were invited but apparently declined (awards and cash were involved, high stakes).

This was a tricky and challenging jury. On one level, we (the outsiders) were the experts, with experience and, presumably, well-developed senses of aesthetics. On the other hand, who were we to impose an outside voice knowing so little of the culture and the contexts?

We had to discuss with our Russian counterparts.

We first went around the table each frankly describing what works we liked and disliked the most. Then we heard some comments from the Russian jurors about the contexts (about the work, about the environment, about the artist), then we'd discuss more.

My two favorites, the bather and the VR parody, received mixed acclaim from both the outsiders and Russians. Admittedly they were both formal, and dealt primarily with the line between actual and virtual. Another personal favorite was the aura piece, which I also described as formal. Louis Bec, the French juror (from the Ministry of Culture), elaborated that it was more contemplative than formal. I agreed.

One of the lively discussions centered around whether being "a finished piece" should be necessarily considered an attribute. We agreed that emerging works should be considered even if they may be a bit rough.

Another discussion centered around reflexivity, i.e., how much the piece is about its medium. Piotr Krajevski, the Polish juror, earlier showed the video work of the artist wrapping himself in videotape - very reflexive. I argued that early video art in the U.S. was almost entirely about TV, that this was a sign of an immature medium, and we outgrew it. Most everyone agreed but also believed that it was a necessary step. I couldn't disagree.

Geert Lovink, the Dutch juror, felt strongly that equipment-heavy works send out a bad signal, suggesting that the more technology, the better the work. I agreed. No one else did.

Our final selections: main prizes went to birds, auras, and pesticides; honorary mentions to surgery and trains.

We collectively cobbled an "official statement" for Erkki Huhtamo, the Finnish juror who we unanimously appointed Chairman, to read. It went like this:

We hope this competition will encourage more self-confidence and help give art a more central role here. It is important to view this exhibition as the first of several, to mature, to become the beginning of a tradition. We tried to emphasize two things: quality and maturity. But also promising emerging work even if a bit raw. Most important, we feel that the artist's message and intent should drive the technology, not the other way around.

We all felt good about the statement.

(7) Back at the party . . .

I asked the outside jurors how they felt about the final selections and everyone said "OK." The Russians involved in the organizing all felt good.

Everyone was partying now. Spirits were high. We all had a chance to get to know each other quickly and intensely, we all came from drastically different places, and there were no bitter fights.

Why should there be? This wasn't about life, it was about art.