Much More than “Paintings on a Wall”

March 29, 2010

What is “new media art”? Recently I asked that question of a group of kids at the new arts high school, Central Los Angeles High School #9. Since January, LACMA educators Elizabeth Gerber and Jane Burrell have been running an after-school course called Art Museum 101. Over the last few months, the students have toured the museum with director Michael Govan, met with president Melody Kanschat to talk about architecture and building projects, and heard from other leaders in the museum on topics ranging from finance to gallery design.

Elizabeth invited me to talk with the class about new media and museums. I showed some examples of the ways that artists use computer code, cell phones, and social media as raw material. The first project I presented was the homepage takeover that was part of last year’s exhibition Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists From Korea. The piece, by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, consisted of a series of paranoid and poetic narratives that unfold in an animation involving text and voice on LACMA’s homepage.

We also looked at Natalie Bookchin’s Laid Off, part of the artist’s Testament series where she uses found videos from YouTube to create a multichannel video installation presented at LACMA.

We talked about how artists use “found” media, how they can provoke a response by interrupting or disrupting an ordinary online experience, and what it means when art exists outside the physical realm of the museum. One student said he’d like to write a bit of code that would cause users’ computers to go dark for a minute; when they come back online, the program would prompt the user to record how they felt during the experience. Another participant said she’d create a faux sidebar ad leading to an online presentation of photography of food made from fantastic ingredients and an interview with a “chef” about seemingly impossible dishes. The kids admitted that museums often seem like a place to see “paintings on a wall,” and the discussion about digital art expanded their view of what art is and can be.

This spring, LACMA will introduce some exciting artist-led digital media projects. Steve Fagin and a small group of fellow artists are creating a piece that will unfold entirely and exclusively via text message. When our exhibition The Fruit of LACMA, curated by Michele Urton and the artist collective Fallen Fruit, opens in June, it will include videos uploaded by the public on the theme of “show us how you eat”—we’ll have more to say about that soon. And we’re already thinking about how to present other web and mobile-based artist projects on campus.

Amy Heibel