An apple in a truck of tropical fruit: Some thoughts on Vancouver and new media art

My friend and dance colleague Melanie Kuxdorf recently filed a report on (a “collaborative local news site” which assigns reporters to stories that are suggested by the public) about the informal dance+theatre+technology meetup that I recently organized. The article accurately highlights my motivations for organizing the event, and I have nothing more to add to it that I haven’t mentioned elsewhere, but I did want to comment on one section from the article:

Another potential outcome of these partnerships is pioneering new art forms. Compared to artwork in Asia and Europe, Maranan thinks Vancouver lags behind. [emphasis mine]

A few points come to mind:

  1. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
  2. If this is seen as a criticism, it is one that is leveled against other disciplines, not just the arts.
  3. Depending on how you limit or broaden the scope of “pioneering”, “art”, “Europe”, and “Asia”, this isn’t necessarily true.

The idea of a discipline or field of inquiry (or, more generally, some area of expertise) “lagging behind” connotes a race. And not just any race, but a race worth running. New art forms are deeply interesting, but the pragmatist conservative in me (who could have known I had one?) is skeptical of novelty for its own sake, particularly when they are associated with hegemonic, colonialist cultures that threaten artistic traditions and communities that have existed for generations (although countless examples exist of new media art that seeks to counter imperialist agendas).

Utilitarian arguments for novelty abound. Scientists engaged in theoretical research justify their work (and thus keep their jobs) by insisting that a discovery that has no use now may be useful for solving some problem in the future.  This is true. It is also true that in the process of attempting to solve existing problems, we create many, newer ones.  This may be the fate of humanity, blessed with an inquisitive mind and doomed to live in a resource-limited world that “only spins forward”, to quote Tony Kushner, drawing from the philosophy of Walter Benjamin. I do think that new forms of art, especially those that draw heavily from the evidence-based reasoning, benefits those who engage with them. In my experience working with or reflecting on science-meet-art, I value the way it can deepen capacities for critical assessment, intellectual empathy, and emotional engagement with people and their ideas.

Instead of damning Vancouver as “lagging behind Asia or Europe” (which is a bit like comparing an single apple with a truckload of mixed tropical fruit), my admittedly limited experience living and practicing art in Vancouver has made me conclude that as a whole, contemporary art that engages scientific reasoning and/or the development of new technologies and that are exhibited in galleries and museums, are not as visible or as widely-funded in Canada as in some some other countries. (If the reason why Vancouver/BC is behind on this is because it has been prioritizing other things like improving socialized healthcare, alleviating poverty, or redressing imperialist damage done to traditional aboriginal societies, then hey, I can forgive it. I’m a believer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and of the idea of decolonization. But that’s a big “if”.) I’m thinking for instance of Austria (where one of the most prestigious new media art events, Ars Electronica, is based), Switzerland (where artist organizations such as the “open source biological art” group Hackteria is based), Belgium (home of the super creative artist-run centre, Australia (where some of the most cutting edge work in biology-based new media art is being developed), and the tiny city-state Singapore (and here I’m thinking of the Mixed Reality Lab at the National University of Singapore).

To end on a positive note: Vancouver has at least three [hack spaces]/[art+tech groups]/[craft+tech groups]: EATArt, the Vancouver CoLab, and the Vancouver Hack Space. I’m not sure how the three work (or not) together, but I’m going to find out because ASIAGOOGS (“as soon as I get out of grad school”), I’m totally going to see what they’re all about.

Image credits: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by nebarnix

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