Is new media art strictly Western?

Two scholars with an intercultural approach to new media art will be sharing their methodology with academics and artists alike on June 8.

Substantial Motion Research Network will host Cross-Cultural Roots for Media Practice, a three day discussion-based workshop at Vivo Media Arts Centre. The facilitating scholars Laura Marks and Siying Duan, aim to inspire and enrich the participants’ media projects with their respective understanding of Islamic and Chinese cultural philosophies, history and media art roots.

Non-Western cultural roots of media art

The West has been synthesizing or borrowing influences from all over. There tends to be this ethnocentric thing that happens where the influences get conveniently forgotten,” says Marks. “I find this especially with influences from the Muslim world in Europe during the early modern period”.

Marks, a Ph.D in Visual and Cultural Studies and Grant Strate University Professor, has found that Islamic art specifically set an incredibly strong precedent for digital media art and algorithmic media art. She explains the connection between bureaucratic processes and certain tendencies in digital art, providing an example of Sunnigeometric art being developed synonymously with the art of the Abbasid Caliphate in 9th century Baghdad.

“There’s an idea of proportion in writing and other kinds of iterative and measurement-based arts,” she says. “I had to study the entire history of Islamic art in different regions and also the theology and philosophy and science that was current in those regions when those craftspeople were developing these aesthetics.”

As a result, she published Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art in 2010, where in depth parallels are drawn, including Sufi intonations of mysticism with the medium of virtual reality.

Duan, Marks’ post-doctoral fellow with a Ph.D. in Art Theory at Shanghai Film Academy, echoes the sentiment of non-Western roots playing a large role in the development of modern art media.

“In my research, I found several exhibitions focusing on Asia and philosophy on Western contemporary art. Especially around the 1960s within the American post-war new forms of artworks; a burdening time for a lot of very different art forms than before. For example, John Cage was inspired by the Book of Change, a classic Chinese philosophical text. He incorporated ideas of change from this book in his music,’ she says.

A cross-cultural approach

Azadeh Emadi, a digital media artist who thinks of pixel as occupying a divine temporality, contacted Marks with a proposition to start a network for scholars and artists interested in the unusual cross-cultural exploration of digital media and philosophy.

Gemini, by Nakkaş Osman, from the Ottoman Matali’ al-sa’ada (Book of Felicity, 1582) showing influence of planets on personalities. | Photo courtesy Laura Marks

Marks and Emadi formed Substantial Motion Research Network, which not only opens up this exploration to Islamic digital connection, but also to other people looking at approaching digital media from other cultural points of view. They develop and share methods, tools and bibliographies that people can use while hosting an online platform for collaboration.

Duan began completing research under Marks’ supervision as her postdoctoral fellow after resonating with the cultural approach Marks used in her research into new media.

“I’m trying to introduce and compile theories in this area and try to introduce them to Chinese readers in the academic world,” says Duan.

The two are eager to collaborate because of their shared interest in bringing various cultural influences to new media art. Marks describes that there is interesting cultural traffic between China and the Muslim world, further connecting their work together. Duan and Marks, with Emadi included via video conferencing, will represent Substantial Motion Research Network in delivering their methodology in an intimate workshop setting.

The workshop

Marks explains that the workshop itself will be driven by what the participants are working on. Some will be doing scholarly research and others, art-making.

“I’ll give an overview of the steps that I suggest for how to go about deepening the non-Western roots of media practice, starting with the connections that can really be proven historically,” says Marks.

She seeks to inspire the participants to fabulate by inventing influences if none can necessarily be proven, referring to the whole process as an important anti-colonial or de-Westernizing strategy.

“In addition to methodology, we encourage people to think beyond already taken for granted ideas with new media and digital art. The first step is to acknowledge the possibility of using what they already have to incorporate their interest in other cultures, or of their own. To broaden their attitude towards these mediums by experimenting and bringing in other cultures to their own creation. It’s a discourse, a way of thinking,” says Duan.

Marks wants people to understand that media is not necessarily nor exclusively Western. To have a limited point of view about media would be to miss the potential of other mediums, she says.

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