In 1968, the British art critic, curator, and writer Jasia Reichardt opened her catalog for the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London’s ground-breaking cybernetic art exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts, with an explanation of her curatorial ethos:
Cybernetic Serendipity deals with possibilities rather than achievements… New media… inevitably alter the shape of art, the characteristics of music, and the content of poetry. New possibilities extend the range of expression of those creative people whom we identify as painters, film makers, composers, and poets. It is very rare, however, that new media and new systems should bring in their wake new people to become involved in creative activity, be it composing music, drawing, constructing or writing.
This has happened with the advent of computers. 
If we interpret Reichardt’s use of the term ‘computers’ as loosely as she intended – as evidenced by the diverse and exciting curatorial selections included in Cybernetic Serendipity – it becomes clear that new media, in its conception, was meant to provide a welcoming environment for emergent creatives. Considering the varied disciplines of digital art, computer graphics and animation, virtual and Internet artworks, robotics, and biotechnologies, we can begin to understand what has made new media such a dynamic and distinct branch of art history, theory, and practice.
This spirit of inclusion also explains why new media is sometimes marginalized by those who identify its diverse range as a lack of rigor, a catchall ‘home for misfits toys’ genre accused of corrupting the straight-laced programmer or luring the classically trained artist away from tradition and technique. However, we know better. At its best, new media is a welcoming platform for lively conversation and experimentation in contemporary topics as wide-ranging as social justice, collaboration, open-sourcing, identity politics, the state of telecommunications, surveillance, and hacktivism.
In this way, it should not be surprising that the New Media Caucus should offer the College Art Association Conference events that highlight the dynamism of its own membership. Though separated by more than 45 years, the fifth annual New Media Caucus Showcase – this year held during CAA 2014 in the Conaway Center – still holds the same ethos as Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity did in the late 1960s. The showcase, perhaps more than any other New Media Caucus event, celebrates its mission as a bastion of pedagogy and egalitarianism by providing a sample of its membership of artists, designers, practitioners, historians, theoreticians, educators, students, scholars, and a host of interdisciplinary researchers devoted to diverse emergent media the opportunity to present their work through a lottery system, as opposed to a juried panel. Because spots are provided for graduate students currently enrolled in an MFA or PhD program, the rapid-fire, Pecha Kucha-inspired presentations feature a variety of artworks by emerging and established artists. This year we saw presentations from fourteen members and collectives, including Sid Branca, Peter Chanthanakone, Philip Galanter, Ben Grosser, Peter Kusek, Joyce Yu-Jean Lee, Paul McCormick, Mark S. C. Nelson, Niki Nolin, and Nicholas Sagan, as well as collaborative project presentations by //benitez_vogl, Coalfather Industries, Kerry Loewen and Cheri Ibes, and Robert Woodley and Adelheid Mers. Presenters were instructed to show as many or as few in-progress or finished artworks as they chose, with time – six minutes – the only limiting factor.
Many of the presenters found the very nature of interaction central to new media art research. //benitez_vogl, the collaborative name of Margarita Benitez and Markus Vogl, explore issues concerning technological mediation of information and its effect upon our lives through interactive installations, sound works, and open source tools. Guided by the words of Marcel Duchamp – “the spectator … adds his contribution to the creative act” – //benitez_vogl are interested in the new behaviors and methods of engagement that spawn from technological relationships.  They state, “Our media rich and technology filled life has given rise to a different level of understanding of digital structures. Media developers and artists alike introduce fresh behaviors in the way we communicate and deal with virtual data.” For example, their installation i<3 (iheart) invites viewers to tweet certain hashtags to light up five suspended hearts. The interactive installation VS (Versus) :: 0.01 [eight-ball] derives unique sound compositions from data created by billiard balls moving around a pool table.
Their most recent projects concern the creation of tools for artists. For examples, Coded :: Fashion is a computer application that manipulates imagery and prepares files for prêt-à-faire (ready-to-make). The software upends the expectations of the designer and consumer through interactive coding experiences.
Sid Branca, currently an MFA candidate in Columbia College Chicago’s Interdisciplinary Arts and Media Program, creates performances blending classics of the Western literary canon and contemporary pop culture through collage, pastiche, clowning, and puppetry. Her most recent work combines the classical tragedies with American pop music signifiers. These multimedia performances highlight the juxtaposition of ancient and modern performance tools.
In keeping with this aesthetic of anachronism, Branca presented several collaborative works that combined traditional theater with digital tools. The Distance of the Moon, developed in collaboration with First Floor Theater as a part of a Summer Inc residency at the David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts, adapted Italo Calvino’s short story of the same name using live video feeds and real-time compositing effects to manipulate the choreographed movements of the actors and puppeteers. Equally literary and pop-culture savvy, the multimedia collaborative project Inter was inspired by the works of Borges, Cortázar, Tarkovsky, and Antonioni, as well as the aesthetics of horror movies and pop music videos.
Her presentation ended with a surprise performance complete with four backup dancers, mask play, and electronic music soundtrack, choreographed especially for the audience of the showcase. Branca explains, “The text was inspired by both pop song lyrics (particularly Beyoncé) and monologues from classical Greek tragedies (especially Agamemnon). I wanted to not only speak about and show images of my work in the showcase, but to give a glimpse of what some of my performance pieces are like as live experiences, and to shake up the Power Point-driven format a bit. The audience was very receptive to that, which I think speaks to the new media audience’s open-mindedness and enthusiasm about manipulating standard forms.”
This open-mindedness, especially the willingness to share work but retain agency over one’s own creative practice, stands at the center of many practitioners’ convictions about the genre. In his presentation, Peter Chanthanakone emphasized how 3D animation allows a level of agency in filmmaking previously unattainable; its form allows for creative control and contents only limited by the imagination and tenacity of the creator. However, he also enjoys how the 3D animation industry is one of collaboration and innovation. While he can conceive of a project and set his own timeline, the 3D animation community, both practitioners in industry or operating independently, provide invaluable support.
While his aesthetic remixes video games and children’s television in a comedic fashion, a constant theme that replays in all of Chanthanakone’s works is the effects of technology on society. For example, his 2013 short TouchFree skewers the idea of the ease of ‘touch-free’ bathrooms, his protagonist unable to wash his hands even though countless increasingly ridiculous but undeniably cute characters – sentient cameras, stuffed toys, and fast-food items – use the facilities without problems. In the short Perfect Lover, a woman working at a local comic shop finds herself alone for Valentine’s Day. Pained by always watching everyone else in love, she tries to create her ideal boyfriend on an Internet website. These shorts ultimately ask, who here is ‘real,’ and who is ‘imaginary’?
Confusion about what constitutes ‘real’ also forms the nexus of Craig Newsom and Kara Jansson’s collaborative work. Coalfather Industries, an artistic collaboration between Newsom and Jansson, was established as a ‘pseudo-corporation,’ critiquing the concept of corporation as body. They state, “Coalfather Industries is an anti-corporation, or, more to the point – an anti-body. As an anti-body, our function is largely curative.”
Coalfather’s first subsidiary, the WanderGranvik company, specializes in candy, infant care, firearms, sickroom supplies, and the social media site Neighbr. Neighbr’s intentionally misspelt, text message-esque infomercial states:
With Neighbr, we bring innercommuncativization into the bold new fourfront of the 20th Centruy. WanderGranvik will control ur infourmation for you. You do not need. Int he 20th Century there is not need for privacy as all social media profiles are proconstructed for you and operated exclusively by our trained professinals. There is no need to log in as you will not be the one posting information about urself. Ur journey begins and ends with our capable renderding of the information we handpick from ur information. Seesoned professionals will consider the types of informatin relavant to you and present it to others pretending to be people who, in tern, LIKE the information presented to the seasoneed professionals acting on your behalf. On Neighbr, there is no need for concern.
However, Neighbr presents a nightmare landscape of user-controlled grotesque character profiles and corporations, individuals and corporate entities indistinguishable from one another; Neighbr’s corporatized landscape allows users to manipulate fake corporations like Chunz, Burger Nurse and Cheese Castle, as well as individuals with ‘corporatized’ names like Nivea, Plavix and Cremora. Coalfather identifies the problems with extant social media by emphasizing its most negative and pernicious content, explaining, “Narcissism runs rampant, spelling and grammar are non-existent and miscommunication happens more often than communication.”
Ultimately, through Neighbr, Coalfather identifies the main irony of social media: “As a mirror, Neighbr reflects the unfulfilled promise of social media. It’s not really social.”
Philip Galanter’s generative artwork explores the actions of cellular automata and emergent pattern-making through sound or light, taking the form of large, experience-based hardware installations. These investigations of complexity science and emergence supplement his research into the intersections of the sciences and humanities.
Chaotic Conductor creates generative sound dictated by the action of a chaotic system. Four pendulums, each with a downward-facing camera, suspend above four stretched and mounted canvases. Every time a pendulum scans a colored mark, the computer triggers its corresponding, unique timbre. Galanter calls the pendulums together “a quartet, with each player reading and playing a score.” Because of the nature of its construction, the installation’s pendulums tend to start, stop, and start again as the energy in the system ‘sloshes’ about from one pendulum to another. Galanter further explains, “The careful listener will be rewarded with repeating patterns (due to the periodic swinging of the pendulums over the same colored pieces), synchronization of different timbral lines (due to the pendulums having the same period), and the alternation of instrumental parts (as energy transfers from one pendulum to another).”
RGBCA 1 and RGBCA 2, though conceptually and technically similar systems, provide variations on a theme; each is a study in complexity using cellular automata and colored light. In a simple cellular automaton, communication only happens locally, between a cell and its closest two neighbors.
Galanter states, “This piece uses three cellular automata running different rule sets and colored lights that include red, green, and blue elements. The three elements can mix to produce virtually any color. The individual cells are simple but en masse, depending on the rule set, they can exhibit a remarkable diversity of behaviors. Such behaviors may be static, periodic, patterned, or even chaotic verging on random. Every minute or so the rule sets are changed and a new clock rate is set.” Different configurations with identical color-mixing capabilities – as evidenced by these two installations – provide a stunning amount of variability.
Generative art such as Galanter’s emergent systems raise questions regarding the differences between machine and human aesthetics. In a similar fashion, Benjamin Grosser asks, “What does it mean for human creativity when a computational system can paint its own artworks? How does machine vision differ from human vision, and what does that difference reveal about our culturally-developed ways of looking? Why do we become emotionally attached to software systems and what does this attachment enable for those who made them?” His interactive experiences pose these questions by making the familiar unfamiliar, revealing the ways in which software can fundamentally alter our behavior.
Grosser’s web browser extension ScareMail makes email “scary” in the service of disrupting NSA surveillance. Grosser explains, “Extending Google’s Gmail, the work adds to every new email’s signature an algorithmically generated narrative containing a collection of probable NSA search terms. This ‘story’ acts as a trap for NSA programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, forcing them to look at nonsense. Each email’s story is unique in an attempt to avoid automated filtering by NSA search systems.”
Computers Watching Movies uses computer vision algorithms and artificial intelligence routines in order to allow the system to ‘decide’ how to watch movies. The scenes, from popular films 2001: A Space Odyssey, American Beauty, Inception, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, and Annie Hall, are each analyzed by the computer, its vision illustrated as a series of sketches. Grosser explains, “Viewers are provoked to ask how computer vision differs from their own human vision, and what that difference reveals about our culturally-developed ways of looking. Why do we watch what we watch when we watch it? Will a system without our sense of narrative or historical patterns of vision watch the same things?”
New media becomes an especially provocative way to critique the methodologies of the use of more traditional media. Peter Kusek uses a multimedia approach in order to upend expectations of the time-based tools of early film. By mapping real-time processes to physical controllers he navigates virtual spaces through expressive gestures. This real-time process dictates the outcome of both image and score. Kusek states, “The resultant work blurs delineation between documenting a performance and post-composing, in which recording studio conventions of multi-tracking, spatial processing, and creative editing create further distance from original source material.”
Kusek describes his process of developing Mnemosyne through its media-archaeological trappings:
During the 1940’s, 8.1 miles northwest of our conference location at Columbia College, the Mills Novelty Company produced and distributed the Panoram, a coin-operated video jukebox that played a selection of 16mm short films called “Soundies” for exhibition in restaurants, bars and clubs. One such film featured Scarlett Knight, a famous burlesque dancer, whose weekly income rivaled that of any Hollywood entertainer of the era.
As one of the 20 films contained in a Panoram unit, Scarlett was a genie in a walnut-grained cabinet…
Seeking out ways to mine the generative archive that refrain from the cut as primary method of constructing meaning, In Mnemosyne I deny the ocular payoff of the striptease by recasting Scarlet within a digital void, embraced and enveloped by celluloid artifacts in a new systemic constellation.
Joyce Yu-Jean Lee investigates transcultural concepts of enlightenment through the creation of video installation and photographs. She describes the process: “I digitally animate green screen footage with pastel drawings, then I project them as life-size videos onto walls, floors, and into corners – transcribing pictorial space into three-dimensions. Quiet light forms emanate from dark spaces and interact with figures or architecture. I actively draw upon art historical prints, photographs, and film in order to reframe them in alternative, interdisciplinary contexts.”
Both Last Light and Circle of Light explore spiritual rebirth and the afterlife. These works investigate the experience of projected space through scale, deliberately slow pacing, and gallery placement. Last Light, a corner projection, forms an expanding portal that eventually consumes the life-sized figures peering into it. Circle of Light, a vertically-oriented video projection, features a cross-legged figure whose chest emits an orb of light that floats and expands, eventually consuming the figure, representing the issues of reincarnation and Nirvana.
The works San Shui Sights and JinYu Mirage illustrate the figure in landscape; as Lee explains, each offers “… differing cultural viewpoints on the role of the human as a creature relative to the natural environment.” For example, San Shui Sights depicts a traditional axonometric Chinese landscape painting rendered in pastel, then activated by a woman, enshrouded in mist, standing on monumental mountains. JinYu Mirage – made in collaboration with traditional Chinese painter Betrand Mao – is a digital goldfish pond projected onto a pile of sand on the floor, its form an interpretation of the idyllic Chinese landscape.
Similarly, Kerry Loewen’s The Survey, a collaborative exploration of Henry Thoreau’s career as a land surveyor, underlines the difficulties of scientifically expressing the inexpressible. The soundtrack of The Survey features Loewen and Cheri Ibes, a Santa Fe-based installation artist, simultaneously reading ‘discourses’ that quote Thoreau, extrapolate on natural beauty and anti-capitalism, as well as journalism discussing the exploitation and destruction of the environment. Loewen states, “Our two voices speak at the same time so they are often difficult to comprehend but particular phrases will stick with the viewer.”
The video track further questions the struggles and failures of Thoreau, casting Loewen as the consummate logical surveyor attempting to examine locations and concepts that resist his studies: the ocean, a moving boat, a motel bed, clouds, and sky.
Paul McCormick’s work explores the mingling of digital and physical self-representation by focusing on selfie culture. Fascinated by this recent entry into the Oxford English Dictionary, McCormick found that this method of self-representation through digital means provided fertile ground to “… critically respond to the relationship each of us develops with an increasingly networked lifestyle, every deed witnessed in front of our own, seemingly invisible, audience.”
McCormick draws a link between selfies and currency in his installation Coined. This installation projects a cache of 1,000 collected and modified selfies from Instagram onto 100 Apple iPhone 5 replicas. By searching for commonly-used hashtags that indicate location, as well as certain situations and events where selfies are prevalent, McCormick collects and then removes the backgrounds of these images leaving only the selfie-taker. These now context-less portraits invite the viewer to, as stated by McCormick, “question the homogenization of identity through situation, location, pose, and composition within these offerings of social currency.”
Just as McCormick plays with the iconic form of the iPhone, Mark S. C. Nelson’s work uses Chicago’s iconic art institutions and architecture to explore the modern mashup of body, space, and design. Nelson was inspired by the flurry of responses to architect Zaha Hadid’s proposed design for the World Cup stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar. When multiple pundits and talking heads joked that her design resembled a vagina, Hadid, angered, claimed the reaction would never have arisen if a man had designed the building. Nelson responds, “Rather than becoming embroiled in a discussion of whether a particular building resembles a body part, I proceed with the belief that all buildings are extensions of the human body, and that buildings should consciously emulate the body.”
Through his company Edificial Piercing & Tattoo, Nelson and his partner Elk Norsman have been producing multiple imaginary ‘enhancements’ for boring architectural facades. For example, they designed a genitalia enhancement for the edifice of the Arts Club of Chicago. Nelson also designed a virtual installation of nipples, hair, tongues and piercings for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Next, Edificial Piercing & Tattoo tackled the Hancock Tower.
The Hancock Ring is a practical performance-enhancing product that can be used for any Modern building, and I believe there is potentially a huge untapped market. The images and video are part of a proposal for an art installation that dramatizes the Hancock Ring as a product while also raising questions about gender and the fate of Modern architecture. The completed installation will consist of a fabric model of the Hancock Building (with attached ring) and a blower. A web scraper will scan architecture sites, looking for words associated with Modern architecture (such as strong, intellectual) and other types of architecture (such as beautiful, sensual). When posts include a higher percentage of Modern terms, the ring will constrict, (hot) air will be kept in the tower, and the building (along with architects’ egos) will stay inflated. A surplus of non-Modern terms will loosen the Hancock Ring, and the hot air will flow without inflating the building.
Hancock Ring Installed, 2014, Mark S.C. Nelson, virtual representation, ©Mark S.C. Nelson & Elk Norsman.
He concludes, “Ironically, my own conscious efforts to design buildings that resemble body parts have gone unnoticed in spite of fairly wide publication of these projects while Ms. Hadid has prompted discussion without meaning to.”
Also focusing on issues of the body but through video portraiture, Niki Nolin works between the traditional and digital, challenging the notion that historical and technological methods need be separated. She explains, “Creating and controlling beauty, images that anticipate, an intuitive extension of internal/external poetics expressed through light, text and motion– a mix of old and new. I have an interest in empathy and sharing personal information. Interest in light as a form of information, interest in controlling experience: making the still move and the moving still. The technology allows a layering of meaning expressed through defining and orchestrating the moments of seeing and the poetics of space.”
“Skin,” explains Nolan, “is a series of video paintings, self-portraits, that investigate how we age, how we see age and how we see more slowly as we age.” These portraits directly quote the traditional methods of painting, not only through framing, but their compositional use of light and shadow. These elements, combined with their deliberately slow movement, make the audience question whether they are moving or still images. Nolan’s explorations in Skin appear to ponder: what if Vermeer or Rembrandt had access to use video and digital manipulation?
Questions of viewership and interpretation based upon visual cues also concern Nicholas Sagan. He asks, “So how does the artist or scientist go about constructing trustworthy elements of reality? How do we define what is real in light of this constantly fluctuating in-and-out flow of knowledge and information – two very separate things – and how do we engage a healthy skepticism about our world and the things we are told and learn?”
During his 2012-13 HATCH Projects residency at the Chicago Artists Coalition, Sagan created the installation For the Love of…, comprising hundreds of various scales of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs – ‘unmanned aerial vehicles,’ or more commonly, ‘drones’ – and a wireless surveillance and projection system. Meant to combine the contemporary air show and technological global aggression, Sagan investigates the ‘theater of war’ not simply as a metaphor, but as a site for both destruction and spectacle. The installation serves as both a critique of the paradox created by the juxtaposition of these phenomena, and a litmus test to gauge audience response: how aware is the public of the capabilities of the contemporary military industrial complex, and its own complicity in the myths perpetuated by the Cold War-era military might and flag-waving national pride? Are we too dazzled by the spectacle of jets streaking through the sky to the tune of Kenny Loggin’s 1986 top 40 hit “Danger Zone” to react as responsible global citizens?
Another aspect of surveillance and its varied technologies was explored by Adelheid Mers and Robert Woodley’s presentation of their collaborative software Anti Face. Woodley and Mers’ Anti Face is a play on facial recognition software, upending the expectations we have about facial recognition technology and the role it plays in surveillance. Instead of using facial features to trace identity, as is the predominant goal of most facial-recognition software, Anti Face uses Eigenfaces analysis, a computational face recognition technique, to create the image of a face meant to be the exact opposite of your own.
The process is explained by the duo:
Eigenfaces analysis is a statistical face recognition technique. It uses Principal Component Analysis to calculate a set of Eigenvectors, or Eigenfaces. These Eigenfaces can be thought of as ‘face ingredients’. To calibrate the model, we calculated 60 Eigenfaces on a training set of over one thousand faces. Whenever an image is uploaded, it is subjected to a subspace projection that reconstitutes it as a linear combination of these Eigenfaces. Normally at this point, a face recognition algorithm would look for the closest match in this 60-dimensional Eigenface space. However the anti-face calculation is not a face recognition algorithm. Instead, it creates a face opposite to yours, rather than finding a face similar to yours. It does this by multiplying each eigen value by -1.
1. Jasia Reichardt, Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts (London: Studio International Special Issue, 1968), 5.
2. Marcel Duchamp, “Session on the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of the Arts,” (Houston Texas, April 1957). Published in Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp (New York: Paragraphic Books, 1959), 77-8.
Tiffany Funk (Ph.D. ABD) is an artist and art historian living in Chicago, Illinois. She develops work that explores technological intervention in biology though traditional and digital practices, alternately taking the form of critical and conceptual writing, drawing, software, video, and installation. Funk’s current work explores our present and historical relationship with software in order to make visible the disruptions and distortions inherent in our technologically-mediated ‘human’ interactions and critically analyze our preconceived notions of autonomy. She received her MFA in 2012 from the University of Illinois at Chicago in New Media Arts, and has shown in galleries and media festivals in the U.S. and abroad. Currently she is researching and writing her dissertation focusing on John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s HPSCHD (1967-1969) and its legacy in generative software art.