JD Jarvis on the New Media and Shoot the Bird

Hey Kids, What Time Is It?

For those of us old enough to remember, the proper response was, "It's Howdy Doody time!" And, thus was formed, shortly after the arrival of television in my parents' home (circa 6/9/53), my first interactive experience mediated by a form of mass communications. After several years of avid viewing, I had come to notice that even if I failed to shout the prescribed response, the kids in the peanut gallery did anyway and the show went on with or without me. Already I had become the jaded, media savvy connoisseur, aware that there was a lot more (or less) to "new media" than meets the eye.

With its most recent revision (circa 3/24/02) MOCA, under the direction of Don Archer and with the expertise of New Media curator, Candice Robinson, has taken its first step into the digital arena of "New Media". Whether this is a step into a whirlwind or a quagmire remains to be seen. Is "New Media" the whirlwind of innovation, the newest newness on the block, and the best hope for re-aligning the course of art history? Or, will it pull the dialogue down into a swamp of technically advanced tools that deliver lots of flash but little actual art?

Without doubt, "New Media" is the current darling of the fine art scene. Recent exhibits at MOMA L.A., the Whitney, the Guggenheim, et.al. bristle with web art, animations, and interactive installations; all of these falling under the somewhat catch-all descriptor "New Media". But, how "new" is it? And, is it so new as to defy critical analysis? Perhaps, but there are certain precursors to this work that could eventually allow us to get a handle on this, as yet, formative artform.

"Shoot the Bird", MOCA's first exhibited Flash animation created by the artistic husband/wife team, Joseph and Donna McElroy, is a respectable entrée into this genre of New Media; having been included in the Electronic Orphanage online Whitney Biennial 2002 exhibit, it is a fine example of the current work being done. After the program loads we are presented with a comparatively generous size screen which exhibits a continuous pan across an interesting collage of digitally altered and composited images, a landscape of faces, hands, feet and nature. Above this panorama fly the silhouettes of two ducks. Mousing over the lead duck reveals the grabber icon and taking the cue from the title, a click on this duck appears to "shoot the bird". Cleverly, it is the other duck that falls from the "sky". With this first click the panorama stops its motion and another layer to the animation appears. Faces of the artists welcome us and are replaced by other figures from history. Artists, philosophers, scientists and despots share this space, while a red blob of color approaches from the left, then later, a collection of white branch-like shapes come into frame from the right. Joseph McElroy's likeness then appears and receives some entertaining eye treatment and graffiti-like over-drawing, reminiscent of Monty Python. Subsequent clicking on the bird can start the panorama in motion again and the whole thing repeats whether you "shoot the bird" or not. It's all in good fun, colorful and quirky.

At first, no particular "hidden" or "deep" meanings occurred to me; then, being the media savvy sort, I decided to bring some earphones in to see if there was any sound to accompany the piece. Brilliant! But, before you say "duh", consider that one of the obstacles to be overcome by New Media is that not everyone is equipped to participate at the same level. I do most of my web related stuff at work where the link performs at high enough speeds to at least see what's going on. At home my 56K modem snails along between 14 to 26K; therefore, I never bother with this downloaded stuff at home and the phone company is in no hurry to upgrade my neighborhood. (Comcast has backed out of DSL twice in my service area.) At work I take what they give, which is faster downloads but no sound, no speakers.

But, once I am back home with sound, albeit a slower download, I discover the richer meaning to "Shoot the Bird". I have stopped the world, and I am now told that I have joined all the best and worst of mankind. I think of the unintended results of many of these people's actions, especially the despots who felt that they were doing the right thing but actually committed widespread murder. I hear the red blobs represent blood on my face, the white branches are light on my face. I am invited to perform an interactive ritual, a chant, ("hey, kids what time is it" echoes in my memory) to get the world moving again. And, hey, it works! The next time I shoot the bird the world begins to move. A little later I discover that even if I shoot the bird before the ritual is over, I can get the world moving again and the ritual simultaneously. Although this may not be the intention of the artists, I am struck by that old "with me or without me" feeling.

Taking New Media as a whole, I have several ideas on where such work derives. I'm not asking that such a new and experimental artform fulfill all the expectations of great art, but here are some of the things we might consider as critical precedents for this sort of work.

Kinetic Art, both 2D and 3D, introduced the aspect of performance into fine art beginning with the Futurists and continuing through Calder and the self- destructive installations of Jean Tinguely. Motion becomes gesture and, as in dance, these gestures hold and communicate meaning.

Animation has reached a very high degree of commercial, dramatic and esthetic success and will always form, in the minds of the purveyors of web art or new media a sort of background against which these works must operate and compete.

Interactive children's games, such as Mr. Potato Head, Operation, Battleship and Colorforms, to name a few, seem to be a large contributing factor to the tasks and rewards that are expressed when interacting with "New Media".

Finally, it occurs to me that one can be simultaneously in a whirlwind and a quagmire. And, as with the case for "New Media", such a situation could never be described as boring. How will our heroes escape the quagmire? Will the whirlwind carry them off to some stranger land? For now we are left hanging on that cliff. So, boys and girls, keep your modems tuned to this channel as MOCA seeks to answer the proverbial question, "What's next?" And, my personal favorite, "is it Art, yet?"

JD Jarvis
March, 2002
Las Cruces, NM

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