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Caroline Langill, Shifting Polarities

Exemplary Works of Canadian Electronic Media Art
Produced Between 1970 and 1991

Caroline Langill, Shifting Polarities: Selected works
The canon of visual art is always a site of resistance for artists who have been excluded from it. It is in flux, it is contestable, and it is inevitable. My intention for this research project has been to reconstruct the history of Canadian new media art through an assemblage of pioneering works produced by artists working across the disciplines of art, science, and technology. Canada’s important contribution to the history of this genre has not been recognized by its art historians, curators, or collectors. While this is not intended to be a comprehensive list, the artworks described herein have been significant in establishing Canadian artists as pioneers of new media art. The anti-canonical and anti-institutional nature of electronic media art raises the question: Why propose a canon of electronic media art at all? If canons are inevitable and created through “official” channels such as academic scholarship, curated exhibitions, and museum collections, and if there are no attempts made to reconstruct the excluded history, then electronic media will suffer the same consequences that others excluded from the canon, such as women, have experienced.

In the absence of scholarship or an established methodology I have chosen the following criteria to select electronic media artworks that I consider exemplary and worthy of the cultural weight afforded canonical works: i) their recognition as precedent-setting for future artwork in electronic/interactive/digital/new media; ii) their inclusion in precedent-setting exhibitions; iii) their recognition as works that change the relationship between the audience and the artwork through interaction; iv) their dual nature as artworks and tools that can be employed by artists to advance the field of new media.

Fundamentally, the works listed are groundbreaking because they acted as precursors for the burgeoning field of new media art. Electronic media artists in Canada developed an internationally-renowned new media art community through tool-building, writing, critical theorizing, the curating of exhibitions, and community building. Scholars of new media art history have cited the inclusion of technologies associated with the sciences, particularly computer science, as one of the factors in the exclusion of new media art from the art historical record. (1) Nevertheless, artists persisted with labour-intensive methods of fabrication associated with electronic media art, knowing there were steep learning curves and with little chance for exhibition of the work once it was finished. Producing work in the 1970s and 1980s, prior to the domestication of digital technologies, they set the bar surprisingly high for artists in subsequent decades who had access to hardware and software bought off the shelf. That they achieved so much with so very little attention from curators and collectors during these two decades is a testament of their commitment to their practice as early new media artists.

Caroline Langill © 2009 FDL