The Antennae of the Race
by Nina Colosi
The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments by a generation and more has long been recognized. In the last century Ezra Pound called the artist "the antennae of the race":
Art as radar acts as "an early alarm system," as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression.
-Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964
An examination of the arts at the dawn of the 20th century reveals ideals, developments, and problems that would later have a defining impact on our culture. While still in the shadow of great master artists such as Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Munch, Cézanne, Degas, and Renoir, and composers Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, Brahms, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, and Rachmaninoff, the emerging avant-garde expressed the thoughts, subjects, techniques, and moods of that time.
Artists such as Matisse, Picasso, and Kandinsky, and composers Schoenberg, Ives, Stravinsky, and Debussy were at the cutting edge of new progressive ideas emerging within the arts. Eventually they became the revolutionary figures that created the new languages that defined and set the course for the new century. The visionary inventors of new technologies such as cinematic, photographic, and audio recording devices, and electronic musical instruments philosophized on the infinite possibilities for creating and recording images and sounds, sparking a renaissance that further expanded the boundaries of art and music.
Throughout civilization the question, "But is it art?" has been argued by those opposed to innovation, among them Plato, who stated that "any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state and ought to be prohibited." For example, during the 1913 Paris premiere performance of Stravinsky's Rites of Spring, the audience jeered and hurled objects at the orchestra.
Not unlike photography, which took more than a half-century to be taken seriously as a fine art, video spent years on the cultural fringe before reaching the museum gallery. Although Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik first used video in the 1960s, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that video installations moved to the forefront of new expression in contemporary art, and artists such as Warhol, Paik, Bill Viola, Dara Birnbaum, Gary Hill, and others began creating large and compelling bodies of work. They are today's imagery revolutionaries and the progenitors of a wide range of new approaches made possible with computers in the creation of digital art.
Today's avant-garde music has developed through the invention of new instruments and unique ways of creating and using sounds. It draws upon a tradition that dates back to 1898, when Thaddeus Cahill invented the Telharmonium, an electronic music synthesizer that generated music via telephone lines, and 1913, when the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo published The Art of Noises, a manifesto calling for the inclusion of the noises of everyday life into music. This concept spread further in the late 1930s with John Cage and the French musique concrète movement in the 1940s, which incorporated chance and manipulation of sounds into compositions.
Current trends in today's avant-garde music have evolved in the last half of the 20th century through works by John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, and many others. These artists have opened up music to include all sounds, presenting us with new technologies that compose and transform sounds, therefore interacting with musical instruments in new ways. As Joel Chadabe, pioneer composer, historian, and President of the Electronic Music Foundation points out, today's music is about the integration of the sounds of the world around us into dynamic structures that allow for public interaction. In his words, "The most important trend in music today, made possible entirely by electronic technology, is that ... it is moving closer to life."
As with the 20th century, the cultural production at the dawn of the 21st century signals the ideals, developments, and problems that will have a defining impact on our culture throughout the next one hundred years. Art critic Jerry Saltz points out that we face such issues as how or whether digital technologies might be fundamentally transforming life or art, how information theory might alter the way we organize our thoughts, and how the speed of digital media could in fact stimulate what Milan Kundera calls "the pleasure of slowness."
Vectors: Digital Art of Our Time is a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the New York Digital Salon, one of the first organizations to exhibit and promote digital art. The exhibition presents benchmark visual and sound artworks created by present and past pioneers responding to a world increasingly influenced by technology. They have been selected by curators of leading museums and cultural centers around the globe who are active in groundbreaking initiatives showcasing new media arts.
Vectors demonstrates the impact of digital art in fostering cultural understanding, and allows the participation of artists and the public in international collaborative and interactive works. The U.S.-Eastern European cultural exchange organization, CEC Partners International, states in its mission, "The arts are a society's most deliberate and complex means of self-expression and communication. International partnerships in the arts can help us to overcome a long history of reciprocal distrust, insularity, and conflict. By developing human resources in the arts, and by supporting the excellence of artists and arts organizations, we achieve benefits for our societies."
Vectors not only presents innovative art, but is itself innovative by nature of its curatorial process and concept. Christiane Paul, the Adjunct New Media Arts Curator at the Whitney Museum, said, "I think it absolutely should be made clear that this is the first time new media art is presented in a historic retrospective, and that the curatorial process is being handled differently." It provides a forum for critical discussion of issues of art and technology that will spark new ideas and professional relationships. Jon Ippolito, the Adjunct Curator of Media Arts at the Guggenheim Museum, has observed that "the beauty of this project is in the controversy it will instigate."
By asking, "How did we get here?" we are also asking, "Where are we, and where are we going?" The past flows through the present to the future. Vectors celebrates pioneer artists who drive the development of new ideas that transform the way we live. These artists are "vectors" who use rhythms, sounds, words, colors, movement, and images to create works that function as portals to new worlds of thinking.