Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Technology-Driven Visual Art in Upstate N.Y.

Not much has changed attitudinally since the 1960s. Visual artists who utilize electronic mediums are still hitting walls in the quest to define and legitimize their work in the world of “high art.” The obstructions and objections to new media continue from inside and outside of the art world and involve questions of aesthetics, relativity, verification and categorization.

Although the central debate regarding electronic mediums is an extension of the eternal expression “what is art,” the situation of new media artists is unique for two reasons: 1) advances in technology significantly correlate with the creation and quality of their craft. 2) “The history of video art is a special case because it exists within living memory.” (Art Journal, Winter 95, Vol. 54, Issue 4).

While the question of legitimacy remains in many community art circles in the States, it was answered early on in upstate N.Y. In the late 1960s a handful of artists began experimenting with such new mediums as digital photography and video art as a response to commercialized media. The response to their efforts in mid-sized upstate cities was a majority “yea.”

Several factors contributed to the friendly upstate environment during the development of electronic media. One such early important influence was the influx of state aid for artistic endeavors, including new media.

The birth of new media coincided with the establishment of the New York State Council for the Arts, circa 1965. NYSCA’s purpose was and is to fund a wide variety of culturally relevant, free-form and community enriching art. NYSCA often funded new media projects throughout the state, helping institutions like the Ralph Hocking Experimental Television Center in Binghamton to emerge as an outlet for developing art.

Government assistance also promulgated video art and other forms of digital imagery on public access stations throughout the U.S. This gave artists and the first emerging fans the ability to show their work in a public arena. Many have quoted these public access art shows as paving the way for stations like MTV.

Funding for electronic art was an especially pertinent issue during this infantile stage because often the equipment used, like primitive video cameras and televisions, was high-priced and not available to the general public. Grants from NYSCA and later the National Endowment for the Arts allowed a level of accessibility that might not have otherwise occurred.

That was the case with Mary Ross, a Binghamton resident and pioneer of digital imaging. Ross was originally interested in traditional photography, but after a few visits to the Experimental Television Center in 1976, she became intrigued by the innovation of digital imaging. Today she is a professional in the field, often producing multi-media shows with avante musician and husband, Eric Ross.

Experimental visual artists found promoters at institutions like Syracuse’s Everson Museum of Art, which established one of the first nationally recognized new media programs in 1971, while under the direction of James Harithas. Soon after, Harithas, a backer of progressive art, anointed Syracuse University graduate, David Ross, the world’s first video curator for the Everson.

Despite much public scrutiny in the community because of his display choices, Ross continued to supported new media and helped to publicize electronic art and its practitioners. One such artist, Syracuse University graduate Bill Viola, premiered at the Everson museum in 1973, with an aptly titled installation, “New Video Work.”

Viola is now one of the most recognizable names in the international video art scene, while Harithas moved on to become the director at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston and is currently the director of the Art Car Museum. Ross served as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and later as the director of the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art.

These figures along with the Everson institution served as a catalyst for the acceptance of new media and helped established Syracuse as a new media capital. The Everson continues to be marginally involved in displaying and archiving electronic media, but more importantly it has spawned copy-cat galleries throughout the city of Syracuse.

One institution, the Spark Gallery, is an internationally known, student run center for video artist from around the world. Spark is loosely affiliated with Syracuse University and students curate a video display once a month that features work from all over the world.

In Buffalo places like the Carnegie Art Center and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery continue to be channels for visual artists. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery concluded its most recent biennial “In Western New York” exhibition in June. The showing, which displayed art from artists upstate N.Y. and parts of Canada, included electronic media artists John Knecht and Tammy Renee Brackett, among others.

New outlets for visual artists who use the technology medium are emerging currently as well. Curator and video artist Courtney Rile is helping to create a video art gallery in a novel downtown Syracuse venue called Ohm. This so called “Videohm” project will feature non-narrative work by international, national and local video artists.

On the education front upstate colleges have set up programs and studios for electronic media studies. Rochester University was one of the first to catch on to the modern trend; in 1973 their faculty created the Visual Studios Workshop and set up corresponding concentrations and training centers for technological mediums.

Currently there are programs set up in many schools around the upstate area including and standout syllabus offered Troy, N.Y. The Rensselar Polytechnic Institute’s iEar curriculum focuses on a “multidisciplinary approach to the arts with a focus on the use of electronic media.” Gradating students take home a Bachelor’s of Science in electronic media and arts and communication.

On the other hand, today’s artists are facing new challenges because of funding cuts, scattering of friendly centers and the emergence of publicly accessed technology. Now that the equipment is available to the general public anyone can claim to be an amateur video artist or digital photographer. It is becoming harder and harder to define a genre that never really established clear principles in the first place. It is equally as hard to market it, but that isn’t keeping dedicated proponents from trying to reach a mediated place in the vast legend that is visual art.



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