Friday, November 07, 2008

ICA Live and Media Arts Department Cancelled

This news has been going around in media art circles for a few weeks, but enough people have asked about it that it seems worth posting. In October, the director of the ICA in London announced the dismantling of that institution's Live and Media Arts department. It's not so much what Ekow Eshun did as how he said it, essentially disparaging the entire area of artistic output using the medium of interactive technology as sub-par.

From the now-notorious internal memo that's been making the rounds:

"New media based arts practice continues to have its place within the arts sector. However it's my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks the depth and cultural urgency to justify the ICA's continued and significant investment in a Live & Media Arts department."

Perhaps the ICA's decision could be seen as reflective of a broader shift in focus, from delineated New Media programming toward a new emphasis on integrating intermedia and cinema, that is happening throughout the contemporary art sphere. However, Eshun's confrontational and dismissive language suggests that this decision may have more to do with current art-world fashions than with any real concerns about this medium. Considering that the department's current exhibition features Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, whose contribution to the Mexican Pavilion at last year's Venice Biennale made a huge splash, even this argument is perplexing.

The saddest part of the whole sorry affair is that the ICA has historically been a home for some of the most innovative, least tech-nerdy media art installation projects. The department has consistently challenged assumptions about how an exhibition space might be used. For example, in the current project Dream Director, artist Luke Jerram is inviting the public to spend the night in the gallery, participating in a dream-state feedback loop that allows visitors to experience art in the subconscious. How a project this creative, communal and simply romantic "lacks depth and cultural urgency" completely escapes me.

Having been on the receiving end of curatorial downsizing myself, I regret the short-sightedness of this action and wish outgoing curator Emma Quinn the very best. May this turn out to be a blessing for her as she moves on to some greater challenge and much stronger support for her terrific programs.

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