Extraordinary Freedom Machines
Vignettes in the History of a Multimedia Century
In this three-part lecture series, Michael Century presents a fresh reading of today’s experimental media art scene by surveying key works, personalities, and movements of the past century and laying out a framework for forecasting its future. Organized around an intertwined pair of narratives, the lectures are richly illustrated with stills and video, sound recordings, and live musical demonstrations.
The underlying narratives are driven by contrasting conceptions of the role of the artist and of time. The first sees the artist as anticipating the powers and dangers of techno-scientific progress through idiosyncratic experiments, with time as linear and progressive. The second sees the artist as re-constituting past historical ruptures and forgotten pathways to envision alternative ways of being contemporary with a more cyclical sense of progress.
Après le Deluge, 1913-1947
Surveys key moments and tensions within the historical avant-garde, with examples from dance, abstract film and animation, experimental music, and critical theory.
The Panacea That Failed, 1948-1974
Balances the celebratory heyday of art and technology against a rising tide of disillusionment and media-archeological irony.
Virtuality to Virtuosity, 1974-2011
Moves beyond what some have termed the crisis of new media art today—its relegation to “cool obscurity” by the institutional art world, and its simultaneous co-option by the information industries—by sketching out an anti-anti-utopian view of the potential of experimental artworks as “extraordinary freedom machines.”
By framing the future of art and technology in terms of creative freedom, this concluding lecture weaves together and synthesizes strands from the first two. The argument unfolds in two parts, examining in turn the micro-temporality of specific media art works, and the macro-temporality of aesthetic systems designed to enable future creativity. In the first part, “virtuality” is explained as an intensification of time; selected works by David Rokeby, Bill Viola, and Steve Reich illustrate the potential in art to vitalize and open new horizons of experience. The second part embraces political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s notion of freedom as “virtuosity”, entailing the creation of a sustainable public space for creative dialogue and collaboration. Examples are drawn from the histories of video art in the 1970s (Dan Sandin’s Image Processor), the history of computer music in the 1980s (the invention of the MAX programming language), and recent new media art (Loops by the Open Ended Group).
Michael Century is a professor of new media and music in the Arts Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As a practitioner and educator for over 30 years in the intersections between classical and experimental arts, Century brings a unique vantage to the history of art, technology, and culture. In his early career, he worked at the Banff Centre for the Arts, heading its inter-arts program and founding the renowned new media research and production unit. During the 1990s, he worked as program director at a national IT lab, and as policy advisor for art and new technology to the Department of Canadian Heritage. He was responsible for creating opportunities for collaborative research among artists, technologists, and scientists in a host of settings, from studio and lab practice to setting national policies for media innovation. As a new media consultant, Century advised numerous clients, notably authoring the widely cited report Pathways to Innovation in Digital Culture for The Rockefeller Foundation. At Rensselaer, he teaches courses on the history and theory of art and technology, music history, and also leads the Rensselaer Contemporary Music Ensemble.
In 1971, poet Louis Aragon published an impassioned open letter to his collaborator in the Surrealist movement, André Breton, in which he described the theater of images of American artist Robert Wilson as the culmination of all that he and Breton had dreamed of creating 40 years earlier. Sensing a “strange proximity” between science and art in Wilson’s captivating yet disturbing images, Aragon likened them to an “extraordinary freedom machine.”