Oct 26, 2008

End of New Media at ICA

Ekow Eshun, Artistic Director of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, announced last week that he plans to close the institution's "Live and Media Arts" department.

The ICA was a key center for early computer-based art, with its pioneering 1968 presentation Cybernetic Serendipity curated by Jasia Reichardt.

Eshun wrote an internal email about the closure that has since become widely circulated. It was the subject of this Blog post in the Guardian by Lyn Gardner. Gardner quoted Eshun's inflammatory remark that "it's my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks depth and cultural urgency." Eshun was targeting new media, but Gardner suggested his comment was aimed at live and performance art as well. Eshun tried to qualify his statement with a followup comment, but too late. All are offended.

Eshun did display a lack of tact in his email. But I find myself sympathizing with his decision to close the department, though for different reasons.

Media-based categorization is less than helpful in art today. All too often these categories constuct walls rather than dismantle them. Medium-specificity was a modernist ideal, one of Greenberg's tenets. With all the changes in production methods, media categories have become increasingly blurred. Many artists have hybrid practices. There has also been an expansion of the forms and methods of art practice. As the curators of the Whitney 2008 Biennial write, "Today there are more artists working in more genres, using more varieties of material, and moving among more geographic locations than ever before." In other words, everything is more messy.

Schools and institutions need to adapt and shift their programs reflect this. Many are. For example, Goldsmiths last year folded its textiles program in with fine art, and renamed the department, from "Department of Visual Arts" to simply the "Department of Art". These kinds of changes are always disruptive. Hopefully, the new arrangement is also more open.

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