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- Paradise lost or utopia regained?
- Tofts, Darren
- The American literary critic Northrop Frye described utopia as a 'speculative myth', a concept that is visionary rather than grounded in the realities and realpolitik of social facts. It is designed to enable speculation upon what might or could be, under specific conditions. It is a myth in that it could never be real. Thomas More's 16th century text that introduced the word utopia into the English language was an allegory for thinking about the Golden Age of the Tudor monarchy, a political commentary on its power and sovereignty on the cusp of discovering and conquering the New World. Like its Other, paradise, utopia bespeaks an ideal state of desire that may never be achieved, a projection of how we would like things to be. I'm afraid, though, that my gloss on it today leans more towards its ambiguous and less positive connotations of no place and nowhere, that which can be imagined but not seen or realised. For a couple of years now I have found myself reflecting that media art was, in fact, a speculative myth. In increasingly frequent moments of disquietude I would pinch myself to try and snap out of a delirium in which I was convinced that media art had never been; a confused, disorienting sensation much like those weird moments when we are not sure if we are awake or still dreaming. For some time I took solace in reflecting that my lugubrious state of mind to do with the disappearance of media arts from the cultural landscape was isolated, was my problem, the symptom of a bad attitude. Perhaps, like those hapless mariners who sailed into uncharted waters and failed to find utopia, I was looking in the wrong places for it, or not looking hard enough. Hence the optimism with which I anticipated the Re:Live 09 Media Art Histories conference in Melbourne last November. Surely here my fears would be assuaged, surely I would regain my confidence in the reality of this elusive thing called media art. Now as any student of rhetoric will tell you, more than one use of the adverbial entreaty 'surely' spells trouble. Far from being reassured my fears were in fact accelerated when I participated in the Leonardo Education Forum, which preceded Re:Live. Now the Leonardo Education forum is, of course, a touring think tank associated with high profile, signature conferences to do with the techno and media arts, such as Ars Electronic and ISEA. Surely here Paradise would be regained. To my dismay, however, prominent media art historians and theorists, among them Oliver Grau and Ross Harley, spoke in very concerned tones about the need to integrate media arts into culture, the need to ensure that it finds its place---note the future perfect tense. They too seemed to be looking, searching for something that was nowhere. Evidence given at this event for this conspicuous invisibility---and you will have to indulge this apparent oxymoron, since ambivalence is what defines utopian conditions, its Latin roots blurring the notion of ideal place and no place---was the international struggle facing media arts to be exhibited in mainstream art institutions. Indeed, the general feeling among participants in the forum was that media art had not yet arrived on to the international scene as a vital and conspicuous branch of contemporary art. Had not yet arrived. At the end of my 2005 book Interzone I had gone on the record saying that media art was indeed in the process of consolidating its cultural as much as conceptual place in contemporary culture. And yet here, barely four years later, my colleagues were in fact reinforcing the miserable conclusion I had already reached myself since publishing Interzone. Trying to remain optimistic, I found myself, like previous navigators in search of ideal states, turning to deconstruction for solace. The struggle for presence, like arrival at a distant port, is always imminent, perpetually in transit, what Derrida refers to as l'avenir, that which is to come. What else but the sensation of imminence, the promise of that which is to come, sustained all the Renaissance explorers who never actually made it to the new world, yet died in the knowledge that it was somewhere, or rather elsewhere, to be found at another time, a potentially impossible time? But rhetorical thought experiments aside, I was clearly not alone in my fears. A common theme emerged throughout the day's deliberations and it centred on the need for an integrated network of media art practitioners, scholars, critics, historians, as well as curatorial and funding organizations. This need for a network, I now realize, was a yearning for paradise lost.
- Publication type
- Conference paper
- Research centre
- Swinburne University of Technology. Faculty of Life and Social Sciences
- Keynote paper presented at the Melbourne launch of the Experimenta International Biennial of Media Art: Experimenta Utopia Now, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, February 2010
- Publication year
- Publisher URL
- Copyright © 2010 Darren Tofts. The author's version of the paper is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.