The Paradoxical Arts of CMS/W

Art, like pornography in Justice Potter Stewart’s view, is one of those things that you know when you see. Certainly in an era where artists, publics and markets have challenged traditional arbiters of taste, Justice Stewart’s logic is hard to dispute. But despite what we as individuals may think, the social reality of art ­— of producing and assessing it, of circulating and preserving it ­— persists. It’s culture, after all, and therefore socially situated, even as it feels defined by the eye of the beholder.

Scholars from Becker to Bourdieu have explored art’s social contingency and institutional forms, and education invariably enters their stories. Whether as an agent of reproduction, a shaper of hierarchies, or simply a microcosm of the larger order, education plays an instrumental role in the value chain of art. One of the great things about MIT is that, even in the arts, it manages to be an exception to the rule. Yes, it hews to the patterns that sociologists of art have discerned, but it does so with a major difference. The Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST) marks MIT’s latest endeavor to push the boundaries of artistic convention, drawing on micro- and nanotechnology, neuroscience and anthropology (among many other disciplines) for its work. And ongoing activities in ACT (the Program in Art, Culture and Technology) and MAS (the Program in Media Arts and Sciences ­— aka, the Media Lab) offer their own variations, drawing on MIT’s rich tradition of artistic innovation rooted in engineering and science. At the same time that it pursues these ‘outside-the-box’ innovations, the Institute has been enormously successful in its commitment to artistic excellence in a more traditional register ­— theater, music, the visual arts — and in the process assuring a dialogue between the known and the emergent, the established and the yet-to-be-defined.

CMS/W encapsulates this two-sided interaction, compressing it into one department. Creative writing, especially in the hands of such luminaries as Junot Diaz, Joe Haldeman, Helen Lee, Alan Lightman and colleagues, speaks to artistic excellence of the known and widely accepted variety. Indeed, they have garnered virtually every literary prize of any importance. But others in CMS/W are pushing the boundaries of art through less familiar means. Consider Nick Montfort and Fox Harrell’s work with computational media; or the courses that explore the making and expressive capacities of games, films and videos; or research projects that engage with civic art (The Center for Civic Media), location-based storytelling (Mobile Experience Lab) and interactive documentaries (the Open Documentary Lab)…. Each of these (and many more like them!) has pushed the boundaries of art, embracing new technologies and deploying them in unexpected ­— and unexpectedly powerful ­— ways.

Given this elegant match, it would seem that CMS/W is the place to be, infused by artistic currents both traditional and emergent, and blessed with an abundance of excellence in both categories. But there is a catch, and it’s not the W-word to the right of the slash….

An Excursus on Media…

iSkyTV, 2013. By the Institute for Infinitely Small Things with Sophia Brueckner. iSkyTV is an online artwork that recreates Yoko Ono's video artwork "SkyTV". In iSkyTV you can point Google's StreetView cameras at the sky anywhere in the world.

iSkyTV, 2013. By the Institute for Infinitely Small Things with Sophia Brueckner. iSkyTV is an online artwork that recreates Yoko Ono’s video artwork “SkyTV”. In iSkyTV you can point Google’s StreetView cameras at the sky anywhere in the world.

Media may be central to how we experience the world, connect with one another and represent ourselves, but, in Jack Roy’s immortal words, they get no respect. Photography, film, comic books, television, games…aesthetically speaking, each has its own history of being treated with active indifference if not outright contempt. The roots of this narrative might be traced to the Reformation, where the abstract word trumped the visceral image. But by the end of the 19th Century, concerns grew more specific. Photography and film were initially dismissed as little more than technological tricks, mere instruments of mechanical reproduction. And while any film student can rehearse the theoretical volleys of Arnheim, Bazin, Balázs, Kracauer, etc. to recover the medium’s aesthetic potentials, Hollywood’s mass popularity and industrial mode of production introduced another set of withering critiques to the mix, including everything from (lowbrow) taste to (corporate) authorship. And then there were the social panics. Sweating palms, bad eyes, demoralization…a school in crime…these and even more lurid charges seemed to cling like bad memories to popular media. Add the Frankfurt School’s critique (as much an indictment of the audience’s critical capacities as the ideological agenda of media industry), multiply by Bourdieu’s wary stance (the conformity at the heart of all that is middle-brow), and the contours of media’s ‘image problem’ begin to emerge.

True, artists from Fernand Léger and Erik Satie to Samuel Beckett and Andy Warhol worked with the film medium, Nam June Paik and the Fluxus crowd with television, and nearly every –ism in 20th Century modernism’s lexicon had its media moment. For the resolutely avant-garde, it approached something like perfection, doubly outside the bounds of the respectably quotidian. The less popular the form, the greater its artistic potential!  But something like redemption for the pleasures associated with popular media seemed out of the question until the arrival of British Cultural Studies and the ferment in the field that followed in its wake. The demystification of power, the joys of fandom, the creativity of resistant readings, and more, all offered ways — after decades of indifference — to recover some elements of value in legacy media, even if it wasn’t exactly old school art.  Creative thinking about the cultural operations of media texts ­— hierarchization, affiliation, anxieties, deployment and repurposing ­— opened the doors to long marginalized (and extremely popular) forms, even in literature, music and advertising. The Pop movement did its bit as well, (a Campbell’s soup can could be art when viewed from the right perspective). And persistence even paid off, with the film community’s long-repeated claims to their medium’s artistic status finding increasing traction atabout the time that film reached the grand old age of 100 (and the photo-chemical grain began to give way to the pixel).

To the casual observer, it might almost seem as though respectability (and thus aesthetic potential) in popular media is a relational affair. Film entered the university as an object of study shortly after television appeared on the scene and attracted the attention of the nay-sayers. Television, in turn, became an object of study with the coming of a more enticing target ­— the computer game. And games gained ground as fresh rounds of hand wringing attended the new kids on the block…Facebook, Twitter and their ilk.

But while today’s computational media, with potentials for interaction, widespread participation and algorithmic creation, and their mobile, app and social media cultures, pose new challenges, they have also entered the scene differently positioned than their mass media predecessors. Tainted to some extent because of their popularity, they also enjoy the allure and productive associations of their computational platforms. As a result, they have largely sidestepped the curse of mass media. That said, despite the convincing efforts of their artist-practitioners, they have not been deemed as sufficiently mature in their expression of aesthetic capacities. So they, too, remain caught in something of a no-man’s land, although for different reasons than film and television.

Like nanotechnology and neuroscience, media have rich aesthetic potentials; unlike them, they are burdened by their troublesome cultural histories and suspected for their popularity. So how might we conceptualize them as objects of study? In what domains should we place them? And how might their framing in an academic setting bear upon our ability to see their aesthetic and expressive potentials to move, to provoke insight, to foster affiliation?

Media, the Academy…and Art

Image from "Highrise/One millionth Tower", a short documentary celebrating the unique process of collaboration that brings the story of One Millionth Tower to life on the web. By Katarina Cizek.

Image from “Highrise/One millionth Tower”, a short documentary celebrating the unique process of collaboration that brings the story of One Millionth Tower to life on the web. By Katarina Cizek.

The disciplines that constitute the Humanities in many cases emerged with 19th Century models of institutionalized education, at least in the US. By mid-Century, as a wave of nationalism crystallized into invented traditions, disciplines joined in, forming professional societies and reifying their identities (MLA 1883; AHA 1884). The social sciences followed a bit later (AAA 1902; APSA 1903; ASA 1905). But the latecomers, the post-World War Two spate of ‘studies’ programs (American Studies; Women’s Studies; Science, Technology and Society; Film Studies…), were cut from different stuff.  American Studies, for example, drew on history, literature, political science and sociology for its work; and Media Studies were equally undisciplined, drawing on art history, literature, linguistics and sociology among other areas.

The point is simple: not only did media have a lingering whiff of suspicion about them, but when finally admitted into the hallowed halls of higher education, they were studied in a disturbingly undisciplined manner. For media, this has proven to be something of a blessing and a curse, with some universities distributing the study of media into different faculties: media studies (film and television) in the Humanities; mass communications (press and broadcasting) in the Social Sciences; media making in the Arts; and ‘new media’ in an array of locations, including Computer Science.

MIT’s constellation of perspectives as embodied in SHASS offers a great opportunity, since CMS/W courses make sense variously within Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts frameworks. Some courses explore the work of texts, styles, systems, meanings and contexts; while others consider their social operations and reception patterns; and still others are concerned with the art and design practice of making and evoking. The problem is that from a disciplinary perspective, where even one of these tents can seem over capacious, this seems somehow, well…wrong. It violates the inherently conservative, tradition-steeped commitment to a particular intellectual stance. But from a CMS/W vantage point, where precisely the ability to make comparisons across theoretical domains and to broker the creative tensions between mens et manus is core to our mission, what could be finer?

What to do with this awkward (from a disciplinary perspective) or perfect (from a CMS/W) fit? It poses a dilemma common to studies areas, but one that gives ‘comparativists’ their particular dynamic. Art as practice and site of critical reflection and even activism is central to the mix. But somehow, media ­— both legacy and emergent ­— keep slipping from sight in the arts agenda. Is media’s shadowy past to blame? Or should we look to their refusal to be properly disciplined as part of the problem? Or might we turn the question around, get out of a defensive posture, and look at what’s really being done with media at places like CMS/W?


Created by REV- (lead artist: Marisa Jahn) in collaboration with The National Domestic Workers Alliance, the NannyVan is a bright orange mobile design lab and sound studio that "accelerates the movement for domestic workers' rights nationwide." With its pull-out table, colorful design, and acoustic recording booth, the NannyVan convenes domestic workers workers and employers alike to produce and provide new fair care tools.

Created by REV- (lead artist: Marisa Jahn) in collaboration with The National Domestic Workers Alliance, the NannyVan is a bright orange mobile design lab and sound studio that “accelerates the movement for domestic workers’ rights nationwide.” With its pull-out table, colorful design, and acoustic recording booth, the NannyVan convenes domestic workers workers and employers alike to produce and provide new fair care tools.

Is it art? Taking Howard Becker’s “art worlds” perspective, one would look to endorsements by “authorized interpretive communities” such as the National Endowment for the Arts, which supports Fox Harrell’s media work in the Imagination, Computation, Expression (ICE) Lab and the work of the Open Documentary Lab (ODL); or MIT’s Visiting Artists Program, which supports Emmy Award-winning documentary maker Kat Cizek’s year-long residency with ODL. One would consider the actual practices that students and faculty engage in — the games and videos made, the interactive poetry programs and documentaries produced. One would look to the Civic Art program at the Center for Civic Media and Catherine D’Ignazio’s remarkable public space projects or Marisa Jahn’s activist art, including the NannyVan. And one would look to discourse ­— from the many artists who have spoken at the CMS Colloquia, to the framing of the creative work coming from the classroom. And of course, one would look to the program’s graduates and especially those active as storytellers, creators of virtual worlds, filmmakers, and digital artists. Media ­— and media at CMS/W ­— as art? Becker would certainly answer in the affirmative!

Art as act, as production practice, as mode of interrogation, as a means of engaging, connecting, mobilizing… defines a robust and coherent strand of work in CMS/W. Much of that work plays out with emergent media forms and in newly-enabled constellations of networked publics. Like the embrace of neuroscience or micro-technology for aesthetic ends, this work is highly exploratory, defining the ever-shifting borders of artistic engagement. In the case of media, the legacy of inherited prejudices also happens to be a font of knowledge that can inform ongoing artistic practice on the frontiers of the new. And better, the triangulation of humanities, social sciences and arts perspectives on media enriches each, revealing developmental patterns, offering context and yielding insights into the reception process.

So what’s the balance? On one hand, when it comes to art, the (mass) media seem unduly burdened by their popularity, limited by their technology, and challenged by their lack of disciplinary coherence. On the other, these very elements constitute the sources of their power. Popularity holds the potential of broad aesthetic engagement, not art as a mere ornament of distinction and taste hierarchization. As the aesthetic interest in nanotechnology attests, we inhabit an increasing technologized age — what better means to inscribe and reflect upon in our artistic practice?  As the pace of change accelerates, not only does technology’s relevance but also our awareness of its importance to the artistic practices of the past, and media in this sense bring extra value to the table. And as for the challenge of the undisciplined, can there be a stronger endorsement of radical potential?

The pages of In Medias Res, like CMS/W research labs and classrooms, like the work of many of our colleagues, students and graduates, all attest to a deeply rooted engagement in artistic traditions…and those from the humanities and social sciences…and to an ongoing commitment to artistic practice.

William Uricchio

About William Uricchio

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.


Share this Post