Conceptual and Professional Fluidities

Niina Simanainen (Master of Social Sciences, Ph.D. student)



Conceptual and Professional Fluidities -

New Media Artists Discuss New Technologies






Digital technologies, especially from the mid-1990s onwards, have pervaded all areas of culture and created new forms of art. This paper is an exploration in the way new technologies have been moulding conceptions of the artist and artistic work. ‘Artist’ as a concept and an occupational category is regarded as fluid and therefore under constant negotiation. This main focus in this paper is to examine how new media artists (or net artists) discuss the meaning of technologies in terms of their artistic work and artistic practices they carry out. The empirical data consists of interviews with 13 new media artists. The tentative analysis discusses the way artists emphasise their position as pioneers of new media art (pioneer discourse) and the way artists articulate their relationship with other fields of expertise and multiple jobholding. New media artists of this study are a heterogeneous group of people who share an enthusiasm towards new technologies, but exploit them in various different ways.





The technological development of the 1990s, especially the spread of information and communication technologies, has been seen as a powerful source of change in all sectors of the (Western) society. These technologies have denoted a transfer into what is often depicted as the “new technological paradigm”, “digital revolution”, “network society” or “network culture” (see e.g. Castells 1996, 1999, Lash 2002, Terranova 2004). Accordingly, new technologies and digitalisation have pervaded all areas of culture and created new forms of art. This paper focuses on the ways in which new technologies have been moulding artistic work and artistic practices. The underlying assumption is that new technologies have, indeed, had a considerable influence on the way artist, artistic work and artistic practices can be articulated or understood. Since digital technologies are still a rather new phenomenon in the field of art, the language depicting this phenomenon is quite diverse and fluid. Therefore, further exploration of these issues is needed in order to clarify the terms and concepts relating to artistic work and practices (see also Simanainen 2004).


The main focus in this paper is to explore the way new media artists – or artists working with digital technologies – discuss the meaning of new technologies. I observe what kind of discourses (or counter-discourses) artists construct when talking about the meaning of new technologies in relation to their own work as an artist and artistic practices they carry out. Accordingly, I also discuss how new technologies have been influencing the artist profession. Is it reasonable to argue that these technologies have in some ways been (really) changing – or extending - the artist profession? Or do these assumptions mainly derive from the strong (societal) rhetoric of the digital revolution? I examine the meaning of new technologies on authorship and conceptions of the artist and artistic work/artistic practices. The focus is on artists’ own views on technology. The empirical data used in the analysis is a discursive outcome of e-mail interviews carried out with 13 new media artists.


Firstly, the paper discusses ‘artist’ as a fluid concept that is constantly under negotiation. Artist is a concept and an occupational category that has presumably gained new ingredients along with evolving technologies. Secondly, I describe the data and touch briefly upon methodological issues. Thirdly, I outline two themes: pioneers of new media art and professional artists vs. multiple jobholding. These themes (or discourses) bring forth different tensions between artists and new media artists, artists and other professionals, professionals and amateurs, pioneers and newcomers and artists and his/her other professional identities. Although this paper does not (yet) aim to provide in-depth analyses on these themes, I outline some possible ways to understand and analyse the complex relationship between contemporary artists and technology.


The Fluid Concept of Artist


‘Artist’ is in many ways a highly controversial concept. When examining artists as an occupational group, there is no commonly shared criteria of who or what can be regarded as an artist. Statistically, ‘artist’ is a challenging category (Karttunen 2004, 17). As Karttunen (ibid.17) states, the number of artists is dependent on the data and criteria used in each particular study on artists. In much the same way as art as a concept is prone to various definitions and interpretations that may change over time and in different contexts, so are the concepts of the author and artist. The challenge of defining an artist thus relates to the challenge of defining art. Although there has been a strong tendency to institutionally construct and regulate the borders between art and non-art, it still remains ambiguous (see also Sepänmaa 1972).


Various myths about artists and artistic work continue to prevail in our conceptions of the artist. Myths about artist as a “genius”, “chosen one”, “bohemian”, “social outcast”, “martyr” or “prophet” have, indeed, persisted all through art history (see e.g. Royseng, Magnset & Borgen 2004, Lepistö 1991, Haynes 1997, Schildt 1972). Dedifferentiation and de-institutionalisation processes in the field of art, largely in tune with postmodernist thinking, have been peeling some of the power off these myths.

However, they seem to be constantly rebuilt (or in-built) in different contexts – also in the current digital working environment.


Co-existing with historical myths and roles of artists there can be found ideas about artists as “entrepreneurs”, “nomadic techno-artists”, “product designers”, “co-production artists” or “collaborative artists”. The current emphasis on technological development as a primus motor of soc(iet)al and economical development and well-being has been an influential agenda also in the field of art (e.g. In From the Margins 1997). One may well ask to what extent artists working with digital technologies, too, are conditioned by expectations laid out by this techno-economical discourse. In this light, how should we discuss new media artists (or net artists)? Paul (2003, 112) argues that art on the Internet is often characterised by the tension between “the philosophy of the free information space and the proximity to a commercial context”. Similarly, ‘new media artist’ or ‘net artist’ as a concept (or a metaphor) is build upon tensions, entailing both traditional myths and roles posed upon artists as well as the contemporary enthusiasm around technology and expectations deriving from the neo-liberalistic ideology. Artists working with technologies have, of course, their own say in this all.


New Media Artists and Net Artists


Along with new technologies and digitalisation in the field of culture and art, the question of defining an artist and criteria for artistic work and artistic practices have become ever more challenging. What specifically new ingredients have new technologies brought to conceptions of ‘artist’ or ‘authorship’ (or accordingly ‘artistship’). Have digital technologies been renewing – or even revolutionizing - conceptions of authorship and artist?


New media artists are a heterogeneous group of artists deploying technology (often combining various “old” and “new” technologies). New media artists may include net artists, web artists, software artists, computer artists, multimedia artists, interaction designers, even graphic designers (see more on definitions of new media/digital art in Paul 2003). In my research, I frequently use both the umbrella term ‘new media artist’ as well as ‘net artist’. With the term net artist I broadly refer to artists whose artworks are primarily located on the Internet, those who use digital technologies in creating their artistic work, those who “exist” or identify strongly with the Internet as the “space” of their authorship. This involves various practices (both artistic and non-artistic) which artists carry out via the Internet. The question of net art (and the early genre - or rather a movement - called net.art) has been under severe discussion, for instance, in the Nettime mailing-list (see http://nettime.org).


Although conceptions of what net art - or any other “subgenre” of new media art - is may vary, what is noteworthy is that all these new forms of art presuppose novel ingredients as far as artistic work and artistic practices are concerned. The works of art become evermore technically mediated – and the same goes for artists. In my research, the Internet plays a major role as the central medium and “space” of artistic activities. The communicative use of the Internet, such as collaboration between artists and other professionals, and participation in different global networks, is crucial. Artistic work thus consists of various ingredients, the actual production of artworks being only one (although very important).


Practices not directly related to the creation or production of art have been gaining a new kind of visibility along with the development of digital technologies (the Internet in particular). Artists are expected to be more and more engaged in, for instance, developing technological tools, marketing their artworks, exploiting media to “brand” one’s artistic persona, participating in networks and seeking strategic alliances. New technologies have increased the demand for these skills, and much of this involves the ability to attend and exploit global communication networks. However, these practices, such as networking, do not originate from the “era of digitalisation”. The collaborative production of art is by no means an invention of our contemporary technologised society. In reality, art has more often than not by nature been collective action. Waenerberg (2004, 4) reminds that authorship has had different appearances through ages, “work has been done in groups, bottegas, or ateliers, with several workers and functions, parallel to new media teams”. It was in the 15th century when the subjective aspects first became stressed, largely due to the emerging concept of the genius (Schildt 1972).


The global communication networks have, however turned this networking and collaboration more global – and more virtual. Moreover, authorship and conceptions of the artist face challenges in the digital environment. In discussing web art, Divila (2002) states that “this reproductive medium exists without originals and thereby suggests that ‘if art could no longer be original’ then the concept of the ‘artist as an individual genius’ has become an outmoded idea.” Although Divila is discussing web art (artworks that can only be experienced via the World Wide Web), analogies can be drawn more generally with new media and digital art. According to Divila’s line of thinking, there is a clear lack of authorial centre. Digital technologies enable different ways to cite, coin, combine and share. On the other hand, the artist seems to be re-placed back to the authorial centre by, for instance, copy right laws and support for artists’ rights to get compensation for their innovative ideas and artworks. Having said all this, it is clear that there is no easy way out in this ongoing process of defining new media and new media artists. Indeed, the whole concept of new media could be seen as an empty category or “black box” by its very nature. Therefore, its contents need to be constantly negotiated.


The Data and How to Analyse It


In this paper, the content chapters introduce some samples from interviews that form the central data of my Ph.D. research. The data consists of interviews with 13 artists. These interviews were conducted through e-mail during 2000-2001.


The artists interviewed for this study are a heterogeneous group. They deploy technologies in various ways (for creating virtual environments, artistic websites, CD-ROM artworks, digital photography, performance art). They also differ in their nationality and location. In a way, these artists are “global”, since national borders do not play a significant role as far as their work, physical location or audience is concerned. The Internet thus forms the central space in the present study in many ways. For the purposes of my research, the artists included within the empirical data “exist” first and foremost through the space and through communication possibilities provided by the Internet. In fact, the primary “physical” traces only come in the form of text produced by artists (that is, their e-mail responses to my questions). In some cases also other material is used (such as artists’ web pages, texts written by artists).


My research (as a whole) will be first and foremost textual analysis. In this paper I explore the way artists discuss the meaning of technology in relation to their artistic practices and the artist profession more generally. Thus, I trace articulations – or discourses - by artists. When mapping out artist discourses, I also trace definitions of artists; possible ways in which ‘artist’ could be re/defined in a contemporary situation. I reflect artists’ own views with different artist roles or myths. The technological development and strong echoes of the techno-economical discourse in the field of art form the context which is the point of departure in the data analysis (see also Simanainen 2004).


In my doctoral dissertation, I will apply (critical) discourse analysis and the study on rhetoric. In this paper, which is a tentative outline of a forthcoming article (which is to be included as part of my doctoral dissertation), I do not yet fully exploit discourse analysis (or rhetorical analysis, for that matter). I consciously remain on a relatively general level when speaking about discourses here. At this stage, I rather introduce thematic orientations that emerge during the (tentative) analysis. That is, I discuss the way new media artists express their status as pioneers of new media art, and the way this could be understood as a manifestation of expertise and professionalism. Furthermore, I explore the way artists talk about artistic work in relation to other fields of expertise and multiple jobholding, a feature that so many artists seem to share.


Pioneers of New Media Art


In the data, a majority of artists could be regarded as “pioneers of new media art” in one way or another. Most of them have an extensive experience in making art with technologies available at each particular time. Many artists interviewed for this study have been working with various technologies for a relatively long time. As one artist states:

New technologies mean a lot of things to me. They have, over a 20 years period, become my primary means to make work and one half of my creative and thinking process (in the same as painter thinks partly with their hands).


For this particular artist, technology is not “just a tool” but it is regarded as an integral part of his creative and intellectual process. Another artist, with a career spanning some twenty years, argues:

For an artist like me who has worked already 20 years, technology brings also a new audience – which is world wide.


Technology is thus seen as a possibility of reaching a (new) global audience. Several artists in the data have gained nationally or internationally established status in the field of art (especially in the field of new media, but often also within the more “traditional” field of art). What is common to all the artists is that they seem to move quite smoothly in various fields (discussed in more detail in the following chapter). This also makes it more difficult to identify these artists to a specific genre or category. On the contrary, new media artists seem often to have careers that cross-over many media and various genres of art. Many artists, although often implicitly, express their historical perspective to the development of different technologies within art. This, as I interpret it here, can also be regarded as a pioneer discourse. In what follows, I look at the ways in which this pioneer discourse is constructed by artists.


Many artists emphasise that they have been involved in different forms of technological or computer art (only later developed/divided into digital art, net art, software art, etc.) for a relatively long time – some even for their whole artistic career. There is an obvious need to make a distinction between authorship that has been developing over a long period of time, not just during the “digital revolution”, “techno-hype” or “IT hype” of the last decade. This is also a reminder that new digital forms of art do not appear from a vacuum (see also e.g. Paul 2003, 11). On the contrary, they are heavily influenced and inspired by preceding technologies and genres of art, such as Fluxus, Dadaism or conceptual art (see e.g. Popper 1993, Huhtamo 1995, Paul 2003).


However, during the technological development of the last couple of decades some specific features have emerged. The importance of “networks” and “networking” has become especially highlighted, and the Internet is seen as playing a revolutionary role in this. This resonates with Lash’s (2002) argument in which he states that in the digital environment (especially in the Internet) traditional institutions become replaced by networks that he calls disorganisations. Accordingly, co-existing with traditional art institutions, such as museums or art galleries, we have been witnessing more network-like disorganisations in the digital environment. Most artists of my data recognize “networking” as a (more or less) taken-for-granted situation (“I feel networking very important. It’s so easy via the Internet”). Some of the artists, however, construct a counter-discourse in, for example, the following way:


To me networking means that I use the e-mail and telephone for communication. That’s all there is to it at the moment.


I have been a practising network-based artist for almost 20 years, before the common use of the Internet. I am involved with a single human network – mine! – that I have been actively constructing for 25 years. The individual nodes/people in this network are themselves part of other human networks, and together these span a huge range of areas.


The first citation is a practically-oriented comment that seems to peel off the revolution from digital technologies. In the latter citation, the artist not only stresses his skills in building up and maintaining networks as an artist, but he also manifests his pioneer status by emphasising his long experience dating back to the time before “the common use of the Internet”. Moreover, one artist states that instead of participating in networks “I’d rather build them” and, continues, “I have quite a network because of 10 years constant travelling, lecturing and exhibiting. I like to help my young colleagues, especially women”. Again, the pioneer discourse is clearly embedded in this statement. This artist has a recognised status as an artist, and, therefore, she is also in a position to assist newcomers to the field. In general, questions about networking seemed to invite responses which backed up one’s status as a pioneer in the field.


Expressing one’s pioneer status could also be seen as a way of reconstructing the myth of the genius. As one pioneer artist formulates it: “I think at the moment the most talented people are working in the field of new medias”. This comment can be considered to include both artists and other professionals working with new media. In other words, this suggests to a sort of genius collective that produces art (or other contents) by using new technologies. This, of course, clearly deviates from the “traditional” view of the single artist genius working alone in his or her atelier or studio (cf. Lepistö 1991, Royseng, Magnset & Borgen 2004). To interpret this somewhat provocatively, could this idea of genius collective that works in teams be seen as the updated version of the genius myth?


Technical skills are also a part and parcel of this pioneer discourse. Some artists – although in rare cases in the data - even have experience in developing technological tools, especially software. One artist formulates the need for participating in the development of new technologies in this way:

For us new technologies are essential for our creations. We are not interested in technology for the sake of technology itself, but it is rather a tool that allows us to express our ideas and artistic concepts.

…we often create our own technologies to realise new ideas ad new concepts about human-machine interaction and interactive art. In this respect we are ourselves contributing to the forefront of scientific and technical developments and explore and develop also new art practices.


Again, there is a strong manifestation of pioneer status present here. It is not only addressed as the outcome of novel artistic practices or artworks, but also in developing new technical tools to express artistic ideas and innovations. This artist could be seen as one example of the postmodern “product designer” (cf. Lepistö 1991). The technical product (tool) and the artistic content come together and thus form a single work of art.


As discussed above, the pioneer discourse relates both to the length of artistic career and to the experiences and skills in deploying and, in some cases, also developing different technologies. Pioneer discourse may also relate to the ability to create or participate in various networks. In the data, also more “traditional” means of stating one’s success are used, such as mentioning awards and grants. What remains less visible in the data, however, are those artists who could be truly considered as “newcomers” in the field of new media or net art. There are few who were art students during the time of the interview, but the stage of artistic career did not really become an issue during the interviews. Moreover, all of them had already been engaged in various artistic projects. I do not therefore tackle with the differences between pioneers and newcomers or the way “youngsters” (in terms of artistic career) build up their career or establish themselves in the field of (new media) art. Despite of the background or professional stage of these artists, I usually immediately got the message that I am interviewing an “expert” in this field. Moreover, when considering that digital technologies per se are but a recent phenomenon and new media is constantly evolving along with technologies, it could be argued (although somewhat provocatively) that everyone working in this field is a pioneer.


Professional Artists vs. Multiple Jobholders


This chapter deals with artists’ multiple role as actors in the field of art and other fields of expertise. When interviewing artists, one of my questions concerned whether in addition to working within the field of art they also associated with other (closely related) fields. The motivation behind this was to find out how artists themselves articulate the seemingly multicontextual nature of their practices. Do artists experience tensions in fitting their work as an artist with other areas of expertise? Is it more a rule than an exception that a new media artist is, in fact, a multiple jobholder, who makes art mainly during his/her freetime? How does this possibly relate to having a strong (or weak) artist identity?


In addition to the mythical view of artist as the “chosen one”, whose art is somehow “divine” or “magical”, one easily tends to think about the other side of the coin, that is, the highly professional nature of artistic work; the know-how and the exceptional skills and endless creativity that artistic work demands. There is the idea of “good” or “great” or “serious” artist, and this has traditionally been associated with artists working in the fine arts. Although more and more artistically educated people are included in the artist profession nowadays, the idea of “good” or “successful” artist does not necessarily always have to do with being artistically educated. Especially when we think of the digital environment and artists working with digital technologies, it is crucially important to think about these issues anew. This relates to the potentially changing conceptions of artists along with the increasing use of new technologies in art. What kind of skills does an artist need in order to become a “great” net artist or digital artist?


One artist with a background in engineering argues in the following way:

I have always worked with whatever happens to be around, from the mind, to the body, to any particular “technology”. With an engineering/hard science background I have always been positioned in a trans-disciplinary space – I resist being labelled, and find the whole concept of disciplinary “boundaries” to be too arbitrary and restrictive to have much use.


This comment clearly expresses the need to reconcile various dichotomies that often become highlighted when discussing technology and art, such as that between hard science (e.g. engineering, programming) and “soft” science (especially the arts and humanities). The idea of artist-engineer easily becomes but an oxymoron, consisting of two seemingly opposing elements. In the data, there are several artists who address these issues. Two of the artists also use different technological objects attached to their own bodies in their artistic performances, thus making their own body a “space” of technological experiments. This kind of artistic practices or artistic performances usually precede serious consultation with “medical, engineering, robotics and software fields that go beyond my expertise”, as the other artist comments. The challenge lies in finding a common ground, common language. The same artist continues: “It is difficult to collaborate as art ideas are not easily conveyed to people working in these areas…” Another artist depicts this in a more positive tone: “(…) in our team artists/engineers or engineers/artists closely collaborate: artists adopt engineering methods and engineers adopt artistic methods”. In general, there seems to be a need for mediators, who can translate the language of art into the language of engineering or computer science – and vice versa.


All the artists that I interviewed clearly expressed the trans-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary or cross-disciplinary nature of their practices. None of the artists seemed to have any major difficulties in reconciling the multicontextuality they face in their work.

My own practice is multi-disciplinary, in that I work with image, installation, interactive systems, programming, etc. I also work with sound and choreography and video direction and the like. Further I collaborate often with composers, choreographers, dancers and actors. as well as cinematographers and lighting designers. Beyond closely related fields to my practice I am also active as a writer, educationalist and curator and in these roles I often work with people and disciplines that at first sight seem somewhat distant to my practice as an artist. All of this diversity functions to invigorate and broaden my work.


I work as an artist, researcher and producer. These areas support each other.


Moreover, the often stated (and criticised) commercial character of the Internet did not - surprisingly - cause too much tension either. Producing art specifically for commercial purposes is usually seen as a separate project and, thus, differentiated from the “authentic” making of art, at least according to these two artists cited below:


There was a time when I faced the commercial character of art working in Finland and probably all over the world and yes, I did felt great contradiction between artistical and commercial purposes and ways to work. Nowadays I can live with that fact and if needed, I can separate artist work and my commercial work. Generally I do like to produce art which is appeal to the eye so maybe I am more commercial artist.


Yes, as computer artists do, I’m also working in internebusiness making what I’m asked to do (…)


What is obvious, on the basis of the data, is that all the artists interviewed for my study are multiple jobholders. Despite of this fact, most of them (with one exception) consider themselves professionally as artists. The positive tone in depicting the various areas of expertise and collaboration suggest that this multicontextuality is seen as supporting artistic creativity. However, at the same time it becomes clear that multiple jobholding is not only a voluntary choice but a necessity that often, in fact, enables the actual artistic work.  


Concluding Remarks – Artist Profession in the Digital Revolution?


Artists working with new media technologies are a diverse group of people who share an enthusiasm and thrive for exploiting and experimenting with new technologies in order to express artistic creativity, carry out various artistic projects and create artworks. However, there are differences in the way new technologies are used for artistic (or other purposes). Some artists use new technologies more like a “tool” whereas some also exploit the communicative possibilities they enable (“medium”). There are also artists who actively engage in developing technologies, and those who take a critical stance towards the technologies they use (artist’s role as a critic). The tentative empirical analysis of the data thus clearly shows that new media artists are highly heterogeneous in their artistic practices.


However, artists do not generally see as much revolution in new technologies as could be expected through the strong rhetoric of digital revolution so widely expressed in the public media, in parts of the research literature as well as in various documents concerning artists and information society or artists and digitalisation. The strong rhetoric of the digital revolution that has been so influential from the mid-1990s keeps on producing visions in which new media artists become evermore dispersed and displaced by various other actors (programmers, curators, users/audience, etc.). The artists of my data, however, seem much more moderate in their statements. Some artists do, indeed, think that the Internet has revolutionised the way art is currently distributed, but at least those interviewed for my study, do not seem to suffer from the lack of authorial centre. They are also highly aware of the copy right laws. Many of the artists depict their own position in the field of new media as that of a pioneer. Their work is multicontextual by nature and they work and collaborate in various fields. At the same time, however, they express a strong artistic identity.





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