The Historical Roots of Emerging Media Art

Gretchen Larsen
Summer 2021

Personal Statement

As both a fish who swims in the murky waters of EMA practice, and a fisherman (researcher) trying to capture it, here I practice bringing the knowledge of both worlds to the table.

Outlining the Term Emerging Media Art (EMA)

To trace the historical roots of Emerging Media Art (EMA) requires us first to understand, to be able to identify or group, the thing that we are tracing. EMA is interchangeably called by the names New Media Art and Digital Art. These names have different connotations. “New media” distinguishes itself from “old media.” Digital Art references “the digital,” or the technical aspects that distinguish it from other art forms. Media, the plural of medium, references particularly communication media— the press, cinema, broadcasting, photography, and the like. Emerging media art, strictly as a term, attempts to reconcile the limitedness and inaccuracy of the term “new.” And, in contrast to Digital Art, it connotes not just technical practice, but social and cultural processes as well.

Personal aside: understanding EMA has never been hard for me. Reading others’ (particularly media scholars) definitions of it has. My understanding of the term is rooted in my experiences. I taught myself frontend coding to obtain a job shortly after undergrad. I spent a year immersed in it, wound up practicing it freelance for work, and eventually landed a job teaching it (frontend design and development) in Southeast Community College’s Graphic Design & Media Arts program. The class I taught was the class that no student preferred. They viewed coding as a requirement that pulled them away from their creative, artistic practice using digital art tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. They viewed coding as a strictly technical tool with a narrow function, much like Microsoft Word might be to a creative writer. In order to teach, I quickly learned that I needed to find ways to broaden their conception of what coding could do. When you know how the tool works, you are freed from boring, mediocre conventions of web design and development (see here) and are able to use the tool in unconventional, but nonetheless profound ways (see here). Emerging media practice, to me, has always been about freeing a (new, emerging) technology up from its restricted/existing form, and doing something else with it.

One of my favorite examples of this way of understanding EMA is Nam June Paik’s first major exhibition in 1963, Exposition of Music — Electronic Television. Paik is considered by many to be a Godfather of EMA, and I see him this way myself. Exposition of Music — Electronic Television was on display for just 10 days at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany, which was actually the (extremely large, expensive) home of a progressive and experimental architect (Joselit,  2007). This was Paik’s first major show, and what he did was fill the home—which was undoubtedly replete with a grand piano or two and the new/extremely expensive piece of home furnishing, the television—with pianos and TVs, alright. Except they aren’t exactly pianos and TVs, they are totally modified (mutilated, as I call it, “prepared” as Paik calls them). The TVs are all flipped on their side, or hooked up to speakers or other inputs that allow viewers to change the visualization (Figure 1). And the visualization “playing” on the TV is not the proper German program that was broadcast every evening at 7:30pm — Paik’s made the TVs “play” themselves. He modified their internal circuits, so that instead of playing a program, the television screen is “playing” the network signal itself, which is in effect some abstract, curvilinear lines that grow and shift, and are all color and pattern. So there is this technology, the TV, but Paik uses it for totally different purposes than what it was intended.

This is a somewhat personal definition of what EMA is, however I don’t mind some of the scholarly definitions of it, and I even believe that scholarly attempts to “nail down” what EMA is take us deeper into its intricacies. Critical EMA scholars Lister et al. (2009) describe EMA as “on the one hand, a rapid and ongoing set of technological experiments and entrepreneurial initiatives; on the other, a complex set of interactions between the new technological possibilities and established media forms.” This definition gets at the fact that EMA is at once technically focused— literally focused on technique, on technology— and simultaneously wrapped up in more social and cultural processes of how the technology is used.

Other definitions distinguish EMA practices based on the technique alone, calling attention to those which merely use digital technologies at some point in their “creation, storage, or distribution” as distinct from actual EMA, which are “created, stored, and distributed by digital technologies and use the features of these technologies as a medium” (Paul, 2011, p. 1). Media theorist Lev Manovich (2003) points out that cultural objects like feature films and magazines, although they use digital processes at some points in their creation, ultimately do not use it for their final distribution and therefore are excluded as EMA. This emphasis on the digital, and on particular, how much use of the digital is necessary to qualify EMA, is somewhat new. Previous theorists emphasized the technical distinction between analogue and digital technologies (now that many things are digital, further distinction has become necessary, as described above) (Lister et. al., 2009; Paul, 2016).

Digital technologies stand in contrast to their predecessor, analog technology. In the shift from analog to digital media processes, inputs (sound, light, etc.) are converted to numbers (sometimes Digital numbers 0-9, sometimes binary), stored as numbers, and then are ultimately decoded for display on a screen or for some physical “hard copy” (Lister et. al., 2009). Digital processes are distinct from analogue processes, where input data is converted from one physical state to another. In analogue processes, the input doesn’t go through a total transformation to coded numbers — it just shifts form (live recording to electric pulses). The term Digital Art, as opposed to EMA, places an emphasis on this shift from analogue to digital. The issue I take with this term, which places the emphasis on technical processes, is that sometimes the boundary between analogue and digital is unclear. And, although the term “digital” seems to boast a new/modern connotation, in fact often digital media processes are just recreations of analogue media processes.

Take, for example, how I listen to music. In the analogue realm, I pull a record, which has converted the input audio of Carole King into bumps and grooves on a plastic record. In the digital realm, that same sound input is stored as numerical data and is decoded and played out through my computer. I take issue with the emphasis on digital vs. analogue, because it undercuts what EMA is really about— creative, subversive, or otherwise unusual uses of a technology, which might involve the creation of a new technological tool altogether.

Emphasis on technical processes is limiting, if not misguided. Although digital processes are significant, EMA practice is equally concerned with the social and cultural aspects of a technology, in some cases going far into the past to “mine” earlier technologies in search of hidden gems that might be put to new use, which is the primary endeavor of a strand of EMA called media archeology.

Just like the term Digital Art seeks to emphasize the shift from digital to analogue, the term New Media Art sought to distinguish EMA from old media. EMA was referred to as New Media in the 1980s. The use of the word “new” was meant to capture a sense that was held at the time that the world of media and communication was radically changing (Lister et. al., 2009). EMA scholars write that “the nature of change that was experienced warranted an absolute marking off from what went before” (Lister et. al., 2009). This sense of radical change was apparently (I didn’t live then) apparent not just in the realm of media, but in social, economic, and cultural territories as well, which were related to globalization and the move from an Industrial Age (production of material goods) to a post-industrial Information Age. I think the use of the word “new” is telling — the shift felt seismic.

The word “new” also carries with it more heft. Yes, it reinforces a seismic shift, but it also references a sort of technological optimism — an embrace of technology as some sort of grand solution, and conveys the notion of new = better, improvement, cutting-edge/race to the top, and the like (Paul, 2016). New media, even as a mere term, suggests the hopes and claims attached to it — that there would be “increased productivity and educational opportunity,” among others (Lister et. al., 2009). I think that the word “emerging” implies a newness with more humility. The growth is new, and the word emerging suggests how closely and intricately connected it is with the past, and with uncertainty about the future.

To overemphasize the technical aspects of EMA practice goes some way to exclude more tinker-ist recreations of old technologies, but risks over-emphasizing the “new,” blocking us from any untapped  potential of technology from older eras, as well as maintaining the myth of some profound technological solution waiting just on the next horizon (and the next, and the next). Pacey (1983) distinguishes between a technology’s technical aspects, and its cultural and organizational aspects (Figure 2). He offers the example of a snowmobile. In its isolated form, the snowmobile is all technical, all technology, all machine and engineering principle. However in use, the snowmobile is caught up in “the web of human activities surrounding the machine, which include its practical uses, its roles as a status symbol, the supply of fuel and spare parts, the organized tour trails, and the skills of its owners” (Pacey, 1983, p. 3). To me, it seems possible that even the underlying application of engineering principles to physical form are caught up in culture.

Returning to the previous example of Paik’s TVs, we can see how the underlying technology is wrapped up in cultural values that define its use. Paik unwound those cultural bindings, quite literally undoing and modifying the TV’s internal circuitry, using it not to receive the broadcast studio’s signal, but to center the technical parts, and actually wrap them in a more open and exploratory environment that encouraged visitors to intervene with the technology. Paik is, in a way, defining new cultural values for the technology. The point is that technology actually has both strictly technical aspects and extremely human aspects, and sensitivity to both are really what the practice of EMA is all about.

EMA’s Art Historical Roots

So far, we’ve been focused on defining what EMA is. In the following, we’ll more linearly trace the history of EMA practice, which will continue to reinforce what EMA practice is. It’s important to mention that this linear tracing will focus on several artistic movements — ZERO, Fluxus and E.A.T. — however there are many early artistic movements now recognized as sites of early EMA practice, including New Tendencies which emerged in Yugoslavia, GRAV in France, Independent Group (IG) in England, and the Neo-concrete movement in Brazil (that included artists Lygia Clark, Lygia Pappe, and Helio Oiticica) (Paul, 2011; Paul, 2016; Fritz 2016).

I have a certain amount of gratitude for the early traces of EMA practice in the late 1950s and early 60s, for it is at this time that the EMA practice, to me, feels most comprehensible. The artists who would eventually form these groups were born in the wake of WWII. The work that would ultimately be considered foundational EMA practice emerged as a response to the atrocities of war.

Late 1950s and early 1960s - ZERO group

It was clear to most artists involved in the artmaking practice that merely representing the world, or even using the “universal” language of abstraction, could no longer assist artists in grappling with the horror and crisis that many had experienced firsthand (Kettner, 2018). Artists in the German ZERO group, before its inception, first turned to a strand of abstract expressionism—tachisme—which involved a thick, almost guttural application of muted color to canvas, along with the physically embodied approach characteristic of abstract expressionism. In this practice, the canvas became less a place to put a picture, and more a surface to explore, to manipulate, to transform. This practice was a sort of physically embodied opportunity to wrestle with the war, and one’s experience of and even complicity in it (Kettner, 2018).

Ultimately tachisme felt unsatisfactory to the young artists Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, who would form ZERO group, partially because it was the practice of the previous generation of artists who had more direct experience of the war. Piene and Mack had more distance from it, and larger hopes for the future, from the perspective of a German present that felt rife with a kind of soul-despair. The two took up the study of philosophy to try to find answers to their frustrations with painting. They encountered the work of then-modern philosophers of existentialism and phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre), who helped them to break free and ultimately inspired the core artistic activity of ZERO group: creating art that catalyzed sensory experience. Rather than using paint to represent experience, ZERO artists began to use paint— and other emerging technologies— to create sensory experiences for the audience (Kettner, 2018).

EMA practice didn’t “just happen.” Mack and Piene were continually experimenting with painting and trying to work out their frustration with it in their studio. Simultaneously, they were reading philosophy that had them thinking critically about art — about what it was or what it could be. Also, the artists were working in industrial fabrication joints, and were beginning to have new industrial materials strewn about their studio (Kettner, 2018). One such item, a bit of tin foil aluminum, served as a sort of gateway out of painting for Mac, when he accidentally stepped on it and made a textured relief that caused a shimmering light effect. Figures 3 and 4 show Mack’s movement from paint to new industrial materials. In these two works, it is clear that the aesthetics of Mack’s investigation hasn’t changed much. The two works are strikingly similar, considering how different their materials and creation processes were. Seen together, it’s clear how Mack is able to use new materials to further explore his ideas.

Piene, the other ZERO founder, had a similar moment of inspiration working at a lamp fabrication company. Light projected through a metal stencil, and ultimately inspired his Archaic Lichtballet (Archaic Light Ballet), a live performance first shown in 1957.  Piene stood up on a ladder in a darkened studio and made light swim and dance on the walls through his control of a set of stencils and a flashlight (Figure 5) (Kettner, 2018). Piene met Jean Tingueley, an artist already famous for incorporating motors into his work— and created new versions of lichtballet that were self-moving light machines (Figure 6). Mack was also encouraged by Tinguely and he incorporated motors into his rotor works, which looked like a boxy TV set on a stand, with glass and acrylic lenses rotating together to a dizzying/dazzling optical effect (Figure 7).

ZERO group had a number of critically successful group shows, and as their fame increased so did the criticism. Some critics related their work to Nazi spectacle, considered it empty, or considered it a rude attempt to avoid the war. One critic felt that “the use of technology in art [was] a tool of capitalism to create spectacle that encouraged complacency and to avoid coming to grips with recent history” (Kettner, 2018, p. 124) The artists were, after all, using industrial materials, which could be seen as materials of war. Still others accused the artists of stealing ideas from other artists.

The ZERO group defense was that the artists themselves had, in their infancy, experienced firsthand the horrors of the war, and that the use of technology was an attempt to imagine new uses for it. Piene explained:

“Up to now, we have left it to war to dream up a naive Light Ballet for the night skies, we have left it to war to light up the sky with colored signs and artificial and induced first of flame… why do we not pool all human intelligence with the same securities which attend its efforts in time of war, and explode all the atom bombs in the world for the pleasure of the thing, a great display of human perceptions in praise of human freedom.” (Kettner, 2018, p. 107)

The artists intended their audience to experience pleasure from their work. They said they wanted to “empower the spectator to apply their senses, physical and mental” (Kettner, 2018, p. 126). ZERO group also talked about their distrust of the “merely optical” or “mere appearance.” At first glance, it’s unclear what, then, their work offers outside of “mere opticality.” If anything their work feels entirely optical. Take Mack’s Silberrotar (Figure 7). Seated on a pedestal, a disc-shaped lens revolved behind another lens, creating a dizziness optical effect. Like a modern screensaver, the movement is mesmerizing.

It’s likely that their work was more specifically about the optical experience, rather than the sort of optical illusion offered by a landscape painting, for example. The artists meant for their work to bring spectators into a very present, embodied experience— for him or her to become aware of their physically embodied experience. The essence of ZERO’s work seems to be about trying to bring the audience nowhere except to the present moment, to perceive themselves perceiving, to see themselves seeing. They did this through the creation of optically enchanting, glittering objects that people wanted to spend time among, to get lost in.

1960s - Fluxus

Another group associated with early EMA practice in the 1960s is Fluxus.  Fluxus is closely tied to the development of intermedia, which strongly shaped emerging media practices and programs present today. However whereas intermedia more specifically referred to the medium artists were working in (intermedia artists were forging connections across media, inventing new hybrid media), Fluxus emphasized the political and social (Higgins, 2001; Harren, 2015).

Fluxus has an interesting history. It was defined and promoted not by the artists themselves, but rather by a “promoter,” a graphic designer and politically passionate individual, George Maciunas. The word “Fluxus” intentionally connotes “flow and change,” as well as chemical fusion and “the sense of purging” (Rothman, 2015, p. 311). Fluxus was against a lot of things, including much of modern culture and particularly the existing art establishment. Maciunas wrote about purging “the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art…” (Rothman, 2015, p. 311). Maciunas said in a letter that “Fluxus objectives are social (not aesthetic)”(Rothman, 2015, p. 311). His movement was against “the art-object as a non-functional commodity.” He imagined an art that was useful, that had “socially constructive ends,” even calling for an “applied art” (like his own graphic design/Fluxus-promoting role, perhaps!) (Robinson, 2008, p. 58).

In spite of all that Maciunas said and felt, the actual artists associated with his movement were not always in agreement with him (Robinson, 2008; Kawamura, 2009). Not all artists claimed, as Maciunas did, to be “against consumerist society.” Many emphasized the constructive quality of Fluxus (Kawamura, 2009; Harren, 2015; Rothman, 2015). Rothman wrote that “The vast majority of Fluxus seeks not to dismantle, but to assemble. It aims not to expose fallacies, but to play games”(Rothman, 2015, p. 310). A spirit of playfulness, anonymity, joy, and collectivity, then, are as important to Fluxus (if not more important) than “institutional critique”(Rothman, 2015).

Nam June Paik is a seminal Fluxus artist, and he worked specifically with emerging media technologies, although his work could also be entirely performative and “object-less.” Paik grew up studying music in Japan. He moved to Germany to study philosophy and art history as well as music. It was in Germany, working at a radio station, that he met John Cage and Joseph Beuys, two early Fluxus artists. Paik joined the community of experimental artists in 1961, and in 1963 he had his first solo show, “Exposition of Music — Electronic Television,” which represents an intersection where Fluxus and emerging media meet. Paik’s experimental, “technical tinkering” practice opened the raw methods of the TV technology up, inviting the viewer in to help imagine what the technology could be used for. He invites a shift for the audience from a consumer to a creator role.

Paik lived in Germany at the time that ZERO group was active, and he experienced Piene’s lichtballet. He said it ”would change my life many times” (Kettner, 2018, p. 134). The influence is evident in Paik’s similarly experimental and cavalier attitude that embraces emerging technology as the raw material for artwork. However where ZERO members presented a more finished and refined vision with technology, Paik’s modified TVs were at least equally involved in interrupting how technologies were being used (cultural/social critique) as with building a new vision. Paik’s vision is comparatively more playful and incomplete. It’s as if he is saying “I’m not quite sure what to do with this technology, but anything has got to be more interesting than the lame TV show Germany is broadcasting.” ZERO’s work and corresponding vision is more complete. ZERO members seem to say, “we know exactly what wonderful things to do with this technology,” and their vision is as total, as complete and even much more awe-inducing, than the capitalist cultural industry had yet imagined.

Shigeko Kubota is another Fluxus artist whose work is more difficult to find and less theorized than that of her husband, Nam June Paik. In spite of this, Kubota’s work to me represents an exemplary EMA practice, one that is a bit more personal than Paik’s or ZERO’s members. Kubota became famous early in the Fluxus movement for her Vagina painting (Figure 8), in which she wore a short dress and affixed a paintbrush to her underwear, and proceeded to paint with the paintbrush suspended from her crotch, like a penis, while crouching over a large canvas on the floor. It was a significant and feminist statement about the masculine expressionist painting of the day, and it earned her a connection to Maciunas. However Kubota didn’t really begin diving deeply into her practice until later on, becoming first a curator of emerging media art before making it herself (Zippay, 2019).

Kubota’s work with emerging media technologies — including video, motors, and television — feels extremely personal. Take her piece Berlin Diary: Thanks to My Ancestors (1981) (Figure 9) and compare it with Paik’s Magnet TV (1965) (Figure 10). Kubota’s piece features a piece of rope that attached a piece of “pink crystal with Japanese calligraphy of Kubota's ancestor's names” across a five-inch Sony monitor. Her piece is highly personal. It is like she is imagining what should be on TV, what is meaningful and important for her to see and connect with, and instead of bothering to write a computer program to display the names of ancestors, she practically tapes the names to the TV. In the process she gives the cheap bit of plastic a bit of hope, letting it use its pale glow to let her own vision shimmer. The personal doesn’t seem to enter into Paik’s piece. It feels, by contrast, more to be operating within the technological realm itself, making jokes about the raw technological materials, than about bringing the personal or cultural into it.

In another of Kubota’s pieces, River (1979) (Figure 11), three monitors are suspended face down over a metal trough. The monitors play video of Kubota swimming, although the images are heavily manipulated with color and shapes, rendering them more abstract. The metal trough further abstracts the already abstract images, making just a whirl of light in the metal tub. The videos have no sound, but there is a wave motor in one end of a trough that makes mechanical repetitive sound. In this piece, Kubota reproduces the natural world with technology tools. She’s using the technology to not literally show a serene woman swimming, but rather in an attempt to recreate the experience of it. It’s as if the viewer could enter into the trough and be transported to the shimmering water. Nature is gleefully and playfully re-created with technology.

Kubota’s work is dazzling and enchanting, but her vision feels much more personal and less concerned with dazzling everybody than the work of ZERO group. Kubota’s art is imbued with the personal. Although she too creates works that have an experiential quality, with light that beams out and sounds that resound in the audience’s ear, they are also conceptually complex and deal with themes of feminism, family, and culture. It feels clear that her vision isn’t meant to be universal, but nonetheless it strikes me that the personal quality of it manages to function much the same. In Kubota’s honest vision, perhaps the audience can come closer to their own.

Late 1960s - E.A.T.

E.A.T. differs from Fluxus and ZERO groups in that it was not an art movement, but actually an American non-profit organization that worked with artists from any other group or affiliation. E.A.T., or Experiments in Art and Technology, was founded in 1966 by two engineers and two artists (including the famous American artist Robert Rauschenberg). The goal of E.A.T. was to promote the collaboration of artists and engineers through “industrial cooperation and sponsorship” (Fritz, 2016). Founder and engineer Billy Klüver believed “The artist is a positive force in perceiving how technology can be translated to new environments to serve needs and provide variety and enrichment of life” (Fritz, 2016, p. 53). The idea was that industry benefited from artistic vision, and that the artist benefits from the access to technologies (Fritz, 2016). The group arranged artist visits to technical labs at Bell and IBM, among others, and created a database “profiling system” that “matched artists and engineers according to interest and skills” (Fritz, 2016, p. 53).

E.A.T. put on several large events, including 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering in New York in 1966. The event was a milestone for technology-based art, but also involved a lot of primarily analogue technology that broke often. E.A.T also organized a group of artists and engineers to design the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, which was a controversial event that many artists of Fluxus and other groups chose to boycott due to its political affiliations (Fritz, 2016). E.A.T. responded by undertaking a series of projects after Expo ’70 that were more socially engaged.

Late 1960s — the LACMA A&T Failure

The working principle of E.A.T. — that bringing together artists and engineers would be mutually and societally beneficial — departs from the practices of Fluxus and ZERO artists. The Fluxus artists had such a playful and improvisational attitude as well as a general dis-interest in industry and critique of consumer-driven culture that formal collaboration with the industrial complex would have been at odds with their way of working and their social and political attitudes. ZERO artists embraced new industrial materials and methods, but pursued these new technologies independently. In a sense, for the ZERO group, the artist (Tingueley, Piene, Mack) became the engineer. There was no need to partner with one.

The E.A.T. scheme to promote collaboration has roots in the artistic movements of the Bauhaus and Constructivists, where artist guidance was honored and given the powerful position of helping shape society (Kozloff, 1971). The organization didn’t do anything to mandate that societal vision. E.A.T. was a really open initiative — it created opportunity for collaboration, but didn’t necessarily strive for specific outcomes. Another project, begun around the same time and with similar goals of bringing artists and engineers together, did strive for particular outcomes, and its unequivocal failure managed to taint the perception of EMA practice for at least a decade.

In 1967, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) undertook the Art and Technology (A&T) program, under the lead of curator Maurice Tuchman. The museum acted as a sort of agent that partnered artists with an industry counterpart, including IBM, Kaiser Steel, and Teledyne. The museum pitched the idea to industry partners that the artist would serve as a sort of industrial intern. To artists, it was pitched as an opportunity to work with new materials and processes. Two hundred artists were recruited and partnered. Ultimately, for the final exhibition four years later, only 16 projects were realized. The projects realized included Andy Warhol’s collaboration with Cowles Communications of 3D photographic prints of daisies (Figure 12), and Rauscchenberg’s Mud-Muse (1968-71) (Figure 13) created in collaboration with Teledyne, in which a basin filled with mud spurted out bubbles in relative frequency to the amount of noise in the room.

A report on the project described the clash between the artists and industry partners. Art critic Kozloff wrote “from the artist, the unaccustomed medium of corporate production seemed to thicken before his eyes… for the engineer, the planning of the artist turned often into the most hare-brained and ludicrously expensive schemes” (Kozloff, 1971).

The timeline, planning, defined end goal (a final exhibition), and reporting on the project served to nail down some challenges in its aftermath. Kozloff called it a conflict between “literalists and visionaries… between those who would shrink all questions about phenomena down to a matter of testing know-how, and those who would expand all affairs of making into pure conditions of being and concept” (Kozloff, 1971). The collaborations that Kozloff deemed minimally “successful” were those completed by artists either overly enthused by the technical possibility at the expense of the works’ significance or sentiment, or those for whom the technical processes provided improved “aesthetic packaging” (pop and minimal artists).

It’s possible to imagine good intentions going into the project — the desire to help artists keep pace with technology and the underlying belief that artistic direction could change the course of rapidly-expanding capitalist culture. It also speaks to the apparently good intentions of industry, which opened their doors to the most critical class of individuals — artists — and vowed to work towards unclear ends. However ultimately the project ended up being more about what each side could get for itself — the artist from industry, industry from the artist. In only a few rare cases were life-long artistic/scientific collaborations formed (Robert Irwin and NASA psychologist Ed Wortz, for example).

In 1971 the world was much different than it had been just four years earlier. Kozloff (1971) explained, “In 1971, unemployment, recession and inflation had so decimated the economic prospects of the masses, including those in the Californian aerospace industry, that even the most rabid conservatives realized that capitalism was suffering a possibly mortal disease.” This state coincided with the A&T final exhibit, which was meant to champion new technologies and new futures. The exhibit was punished in critical reviews. The report on the project appeared about the same time as the Pentagon papers, which revealed the hapless and violent greed of the American military complex. Many of the A&T industry partners were actually involved in creating technologies for warfare, including missiles, ships, and aircraft. That so many artists had willingly chosen to collaborate was disillusioning for the up-and-coming generation of artists.

1970s - the death of EMA

EMA died back significantly in the 70s. Shanken (2002) explains,

“Art and tech, which had offered a useful path of aesthetic experimentation throughout the 1950s and 60s, no longer appeared to be a viable direction for many artists in the 1970s. Critics opined that it was dominated by the materiality and spectacle of mechanical apparatus, which was anathema to the conceptual project. Technical failures … widespread skepticism towards the military industrial complex after may 1968 and  amidst the vietnam war, the cold war and mounting ecological concerns all contributed to problematizing the artistic use of tech— and the production of aesthetic objects in general— within the context of commodity capitalism.”

Technologies like computer-generated graphics found a home in the mainstream film and military industries (Fritz, 2016). “Media-oriented conceptual artists” worked primarily with analogue technologies. EMA practices with digital technologies did continue, and included the use of video and satellite technologies, but they were not picked up by the mainstream art world (Paul, 2016; Fritz 2016). Artists associated with EMA found alternative avenues for supporting their practice, including more technically-focused conferences (Fritz, 2016). E.A.T. presented at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and ACM’s Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH).

These conferences actually gave out awards for emerging media artists, however some artists lamented that the awards emphasized technique rather than cultural or social content (Fritz, 2016). Other back alleyways for emerging media artists included the Computer Arts Society (CAS) which offered workshops and classes, the publication Leonardo which launched in 1968 (the oldest EMA publication still published today), various magazines on EMA, and Ars Electronica, an annual festival that launched in Austria in 1979 and continues to this day.


It wasn’t until the late 80s, almost 20 years after the EMA boom and bust, that EMA art returned to the contemporary art world (Fritz, 2016). Artists began to use more digital technologies including virtual reality, computer-generated art, and animation. The work tended to encourage visitor interaction or participation, the likes of which were experimented with in, for example, the A&T Rauschenberg project Mud Muse (Figure 13). The 1985 exhibition, Les Immateriaux, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France, represented an historic milestone for emerging media work.

The show proposed a “new sensibility of material being” as a result of advances in telecommunication technologies (Lucarelli, 2014). The show was really organized by a sense of newness in the realms of art, science, and theory, with questions and anxieties about the future appearing on the cliff-edge postmodernity for each. The show included recreations of artists associated with ZERO, including Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Lucio Fontana (Laslo’s Licht-Raum-Modulator, Fontana’s Ambiente). The show also included a minimalist light piece by Dan Flavin (to Donna, 1971), the work of MIT professor Stephen Benton with rainbow holography (rind II), and Annegret Soltau’s experimental and cinematic photography collages.

1990s and 2000s - EMA in the University

EMA more fully re-emerged in the 90s, under the monikers New Media and Digital Media. The advances in technologies and growth of digital cultures contributed to its place, once more, in the world, although it wasn’t until the end of the 90s that the “art institution” really began to pay attention to EMA practices. It was actually universities and art schools that first took up EMA practice and made space for it within their walls, predominately on the West Coast (Manovich, 2003). Manovich (2003) states that “by the beginning of 2000, practically every university and art school on the west coast had both undergraduate and graduate programs in new media. A couple of years later museums such as Walker Art Center began to mount a number of impressive online exhibitions [of new media work].”

Emerging Media Art fit into the world of academia for a variety of reasons. For one, it hadn’t been accepted by the mainstream art world, and so emerging media artists were forced to find other ways to support themselves. Also, universities’ proximity to labs, equipment, and research centers made sense for the technical aspects of EMA practice (Paul, 2011). EMA artists had already been finding alternative avenues for growing their practice, through festivals like Ars Electronica, DEAF (Dutch Electronic Art Festival), and Transmediale in Berlin, as well as technically-oriented conferences like SIGGRAPH (Fritz, 2016). Universities offered another path forward. Three of the most prestigious EMA programs in the United States are NYU’s ITP program, UCLA’s Design Media Arts Program, and MIT’s Media Lab.

UCLA’s current program was paved by the efforts of individual professors, who shared experiments with computers and other new technologies, and also brought in visiting artists like Nam June Paik (UCLA Design Media Arts, 2021). In 2000, the work of a departmental review committee to emphasize the use of digital technologies, alongside rigor in art historical and design knowledges for students, was formalized under the new name Department of Design | Media Arts (UCLA Design Media Arts, 2021). The use of the “|” symbol was meant to signify the departments’ commitment to transdisciplinary practice, a devotion not to silo technical or cultural practices, but “an active collaboration of people who willingly let go of their roots and work together to develop more complex ideas of how culture operates” (UCLA Design Media Arts, 2021).

EMA had made its way into art schools earlier, in the late 60s and 70s, through the intermedia movement, which is associated with Fluxus, but whose emphasis was not on socio-cultural critique, but rather on artistic processes that fell outside of or between traditional media, including video sculpture and new media performance work. In 1967, NYC-based intermedia artist Hans Breder moved to the university of Iowa to build the Intermedia program in the school of fine art. He defined the program as “an arena in which he and his students could explore, in theory and in practice, the liminal spaces between the arts: art, music, film, dance, theater, poetry.” The development of the program was in some ways similar to UCLA’s — one enthusiastic professor led the way with his own practice and invited similarly inclined artists working in performance, time-based work, and installation to visit.

Dick Higgins, one of the intermedia founders who worked closely with Fluxus founder Maciunas, had an explicitly skeptical view of emerging technology. Harren (2015) explains he did not share the “technological media fetishism” of others, and rather viewed the intermedia project as using art to “address [the] political and social situation in a more direct, that is to say, less mediated, fashion.” It is safe to assume that, depending on the origins, history, and present instantiation, any department of Emerging Media will have different views about the emphasis on technology versus more social or cultural dynamics.

The current institution for which I work, UNL’s Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Art (JCCEMA), is no exception. The JCCEMA was “born from” an existing film school, thanks to the Johnny Carson Foundation’s determination to grow a future-forward program that would depart significantly from a film school. The product, the JCCEMA, strives for a balance between technical prowess and cultural/historical contextualization. Its four foundational pillars are storytelling, code, entrepreneurship, and design. Nonetheless, controversy over this shift away from traditional film and into Emerging Media can be felt, with strong opinions on either side from both faculty and students.


EMA has a long and rich history. Looking back on it, a key issue keeps coming up. It is the controversy over whether artistic practices that use emerging technologies are merely buying into or recreating the same consumer-driven mentality, and serving to distract or numb audiences, rather than make them critically aware of the state of things. This controversy comes out in many places — the reason for EMA’s exclusion from the art world, in modern criticisms of Ars Electronica (“Ars Electronica only continues with a long tradition, by uncritically incorporating a positivistic view of science while riding the waves of hype about technological innovations”, Medosch, 2013), in the criticism of ZERO group, and in modern departments of Art and Emerging media. Connected to this key challenge is how EMA is defined. Those who advocate a practice that emphasizes the technical do so at the expense of the socio-cultural.

I will return to Pacey’s (1983) delineation of the multiple dimensions of any given “technology” — that it is only or purely technical in its most narrow definition, and that technology is always embedded in cultural and organizational settings. To work with technology in isolation as a technical process is not to practice EMA, but rather to be working in computer science, programming, frontend development, advertising, video-effects, electronics engineering, mainstream cinema. To practice EMA is to simultaneously deal with the technical aspects of any technology and the complex, changing, uncertain conditions of humanity. This way of conceiving it has vital implications for teaching it.


Albu, C. (2011). Five Degrees of Separation between Art and New Media: Art and technology Projects under the Critical lens.

Galloway, A. R. (2011). WHAT IS NEW MEDIA? TEN YEARS AFTER" THE LANGUAGE OF NEW MEDIA". Criticism, 53(3), 377-384.

Goodyear, A. C. (2008). From technophilia to technophobia: the impact of the Vietnam War on the reception of “Art and Technology”. Leonardo, 41(2), 169-173.

Grau, O. (2016).The Complex and Multifarious Expressions of Digital Art and Its Impact on Archives and Humanities. In Shanken, E. A., & Paul, C. (Ed.), A Companion to Digital Art (2016). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Fritz, D. (2016). International Networks of Early Digital Arts. In Shanken, E. A., & Paul, C. (Ed.), A Companion to Digital Art (2016). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Harren, N. (2015). The Crux of Fluxus: Intermedia, Rear-guard. In Art Expanded, 1958-1978, edited by Eric Crosby with Liz Glass. Vol. 2 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015.

Higgins, D. (2001). Intermedia. Leonardo, 34(2001), 49-54.

Huhtamo, E. (2016). Art in the Rear‐View Mirror: The Media‐Archaeological Tradition in Art. In Shanken, E. A., & Paul, C. (Ed.), A Companion to Digital Art (2016). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Joselit, D. (2007). Open Circuits. In MIT Press, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, 1-41.

Ketner II, J. D. (2017). Witness to Phenomenon: Group ZERO and the Development of New Media in Postwar European Art. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.


Lister, M., Dovey, J., Giddings, S., Grant, I., & Kelly, K. (2008). New media: A critical introduction. Routledge.

Lucarelli, F. (2014, July 16). Les Immatériaux (an exhibition by Jean François Lyotard at the Centre Pompidou, 1985). SOCKS.

Manovich, L. (2003). New media from Borges to HTML. The new media reader, 1(2), 13-25.

Pacey, A. (1983). The culture of technology. MIT press.

Paul, C. (2016). From Digital to Post‐Digital—Evolutions of an Art Form. In Shanken, E. A., & Paul, C. (Ed.), A Companion to Digital Art (2016). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Paul, C. (2011). New media in the mainstream. artnodes, 11.

Robinson, J. (2008). Maciunas as Producer: Performative Design in the Art of the 1960s. Grey Room, 56-83.

Rothman, R. (2015). Fluxus, or the Work of Art in the Age of Information. Sympoke, 23(1-2). Posthumanisms (2015), 311.

Shanken, E. A. (2002). Art in the information age: Technology and conceptual art. Leonardo, 35(4), 433-438.

UCLA Design Media Arts. (2021). General History of the Department of Design Media Arts. UCLA Design Media Arts.

Zippay, Lori. (2019, March 7). It Rains in My Heart, It Rains on My Video Art. VoCA Journal.

February 2024
designer & educator

— Sculpture and Installation
— Creative Code Research