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Dirty New Media Art

Erica Peplin

Technology is a field typically associated with smooth screens, organized interfaces, and on a larger scale, with the pride and “progress” of western civilization. Dirty New Media, a branch of New Media Art, seeks to subvert these unquestioned assumptions by problematizing, rather than idealizing, common technologies. The “dirty” stems from the movement’s deliberate incorporation of brokenness as artists, hackers, and activists alike intentional hack, reconstruct, and complicate aspects of computer culture. By embracing the cyber flaws, short circuits, and disjointed components, Dirty New Media refers to a menagerie of alternative practices and subcultures spanning from punk and digital sampling to piracy and pornography.

Most New Media artists are interested in exploring the ways in which technological systems and equipment can be realigned, modified and played with critically. While typically embodied by the forms of New Media Art, including Web Art, Software Art, Realtime Audio Video Performances, and Noise Music, Dirty New Media is distinguishable in its more experimental and purposely transgressive approach. Their critique catalyzes artists, critics, and audiences to ask important questions about the value of art as a commodity, the exclusionary power dynamics of art markets, and consumer computing within corporate cultures.

Still from Knew Glasses, one of many frenetic GIFS created by jonCates

The graphic and industrial design styles of Apple Computers is one example of the kind of clean, smooth, slick style Dirty New Media is attempting to interrogate. Jon Cates began to use the term Dirty New Media, as he explains, “to express a contrast with the kind of cleanliness that I associate with more commercial or corporate styles of digital art and design.” A professor at the the Film, Video, New Media and Animation Department at the SAIC and developer of its New Media curriculum, Cates helped originate the raw, direct, unkempt, and noisy, style with colleagues and students. In 2005, Cates co-founded a micro-festival series called r4WB1t5, a program of digital art projects which ran successfully through 2007. Jason Scott, archivist for Archive.org, has called the Chicago-based community the “birthplace of dirty new media.” Rosa Menkman, the consummate Glitch Art theory practitioner from Amsterdam, has written that Cates and company have foreground Glitch Art in a way which has become a ‘pivotal axis’ of the international gitchscene.

The trend of experimentally revising and perverting technology is rooted in much of the early video and conceptual art of the 1970s, most notably in the work of Phil Morton. Chicago was a prominent location where early media-centered endeavors were taking place and in the early 70s, Morton founded the Video department and the Video Data Bank at the SAIC and developed a concept which he called “COPY-IT-RIGHT”, an anti-copyright approach to making and freely sharing Media Art. Morton’s individual and collaborative projects were released under his COPY-IT-RIGHT license. Collaborating with Jane Vreeder, Morton produced work that catalyzed the pioneering computer graphics community of Chicago and encouraged people to make faithful copies whilst caring for and distributing media art works as widely as possible. In alliance with Dan Sandin, Tom DeFanti, and Bob Snyder, a close-knit association of artists, musicians, educators and students gradually emerged around these ideas and practices.

Notes on the Aesthetics of "copying-an-Image Processor" by Phil Morton

Curator Diane Kirkpatrick outlined in the catalogue for the 1978 exhibition, “Chicago: The City and Its Artists 1945-1978″ how Morton, Sandin, DeFanti and Snyder’s efforts in projects such as RYRAL, a realtime audio and video performance, were only possible through the unique technical, conceptual and social combinations of their backgrounds and abilities. Kirkpatrick states that these Media Artists “developed an interactive performance mode of working together” in both pre-planned and improvised forms. Jon Cates and a wide gamut of artists continue to draw directly from the legacy of the vanguard Chicago Media Art community. In 2007, Cates founded the Phil Morton Memorial Research Archive (located at the SAIC), containing Phil Morton’s personal video databank, stretching across 30 years of Media Art Histories specific to the early Video Art and New Media Art cooperatives in Chicago. Cates is currently finishing a book on the subject which will be released as an entirely Free and Open Source work of Media Art Histories scholarship.

RYRAL, a realtime audiovisual performance, presented in Chicago, April 1976

Perhaps the Dirty New Media movement’s growth can be partially attributed to the ease of access offered by the internet as both a material, medium, and means of reception. A breadth of websites centered around both media art, both New and Dirty, are accessible, entertaining, and perpetually growing. The Chicago-based website Dinca was founded in 2009 with the aim of expanding the sphere of avant-garde film, video, and New Media art. Rhizome is another media art website, founded in 1996, and  dedicated to the creation, compiling, sharing, and preservation of artistic practices that engage technology. Through open platforms for exchange and collaboration, sites such as Dina, Rhizome, and Upgrade Chicago encourage and expands the digital communities and the ever-evolving trajectory of media art.

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