ICA gives Media Art ‘the chop’ under Ekow Eschun

A week or so has passed since Ekow Eshun sent his infamous ‘internal email announcing the closure of the ICA’s Live and Media Arts Department. And boy… has it been kicking off in the Media, Computer and Live Arts forums ever since.

Quite right too…

Opinion round up…
As Abs commented on this blog earlier in the week, the most high profile comment in response to Ekow’s decision was made by Lyn Gardner on the Guardian Theatre Blog, Thursday 23rd of October. Very much from a ‘theatre background,’ Lyn’s piece provided a voice for ‘Live Art,’ in response to Ekow’s decision. Reading between the lines, the article exposed Mr Eshun as a strategic ‘tactician’ who has ‘squeezed’ the investment and profiling of Live and Media Arts at the ICA since becoming Director in 2005. He did this Lyn argues, to claim it ‘useless,’ ‘irrelevant,’ and close the department down.Link
I have absolutely no idea if this assessment of Eshun’s character as Director of the ICA is a fair one. Like most people, I’ve seen him exercising his intellect with Mark Lawson on late night TV, and admittedly found his critical gymnastics off putting, but that doesn’t really give much to go on. What has really stood out though, is that neither Ekow or any other representative from the ICA or Arts Council has responded specifically to this somewhat damning character reference. A guilty conscience or an oversight? Who knows, perhaps someone would like to comment here..?

It’s also worth mentioning (as many comments on Lyns article do) that Philip Dodd, Ekow’s predecessor at the ICA, also worked pretty hard to hammer the first few nails in the Media and Live Art coffin. So, shame on Philip too.

It’s Media Art that’s irrelevant, not Live Art Lyn…or am i just confused?
Character slamming aside, the element of Ekow’s statement that understandably inspired the most vigorous and concerned response from Live and Media Art communities is this one:

‘New media based arts practice continues to have its place within the arts sector. However it’s my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks the depth and cultural urgency to justify the ICA’s continued and significant investment in a Live & Media Arts department.’

Ok, so it seems that Ekow has an issue with the ‘quality,’ of media based art practice. The question remains, is it really acceptable for the Director of the ICA to reference such blatant ‘personal consideration,’ when deciding the future of an art form at the ICA? Expanding a little on Ekow’s email for example, it’s not at all clear of the kind of media art based practice to which he refers in his statement and damning words. What examples of media art lack depth and cultural urgency? Is it really any more than found in other arts practices like fine art, dance, film, music and theatre? Sadly, Ekow offers no definition, further insight or examples. So it’s difficult to accept.

Continuing along this line of appropriateness, it’s also worth considering the position Ekow’s comment puts other organisations like Folly, OneDotZero, FACT, Watershed, Broadway, Animate Projects, HTTP:// Gallery, Body Data Space, Dana Centre, Furtherfield and SCAN in. Organisations whose purpose is to support media based arts practice in the UK.

Looking at these agencies for instance, there is no doubt that they produce, commission and platform some truly fantastic work. They work hard to attract cross cutting audiences and many receive regular funding from the Arts Council. In this context, isn’t it pretty irresponsible of the Director of the ICA to say that Media Art is ‘lacking,’ at all? It’s almost like saying – what a waste of public money and time you lot are…you’re so bloody irrelevant…

Not cool Ekow, not cool.

A short history…
In an effort to move forward from my personal view of Ekow’s misjudgment, I must admit, as a consequence of recent events at th ICA I momentarily questioned my own views of media art. Why do I care so passionately about work emerging from this area of arts practice? Could I be wrong and Ekow be right? Of course not – and after a bit of thinking time and ‘looking back,’ I arrived at the following…

One of the main reasons I set up InterventTech: >> was because I found that I was constantly coming away from contemporary art exhibitions, performances and events feeling profoundly disappointed. A sinking in the stomach. For me there always seemed to be something missing in the art I was experiencing. When I worked it out, that something was connection and reference to the world in which I lived. The one I breathed, traveled through, loved in, danced to and experienced on a daily basis. The fact was, the majority of work I came across just didn’t say much about the information driven, media rich, global, networked and technology infiltrated urban world in which I lived.

Where was the media, the internet, electric soundtracks and the games? Where was the credit bubble and invisible data networks underpinning extended communication, P2P networks and global economies? Where was mainstream visual culture, the digital mass and pop! the lo-fi pedestrian hardware and wizzy innovations that shaped and defined the contemporary moment – both on and offline? Who was really exploring the impact technological advancement had on people and society. And who was looking creatively at new possibilities? As many have argued in the forums over the last week, in such a technologically permeated world, Media Art is really located at the centre of ‘cultural urgency,’ not lacking in relevance or depth at all.

So why is Ekow so keen to get rid of Media Art?

Fragmented = low-vis

One thing that really struck me about responses to the ICA’s recent decision has been the difference in coordination between the ‘Media’ and the ‘Live,’ Art communities. The former being somewhat personal, behind the scenes and scatter gun and the later more cooperative, driven and strategic.

‘Live Arts,’ has the Live Art Development Agency to help drive and rally support on it’s behalf. Lois Kaiden is a well respected and active voice in the broader arts world and has established the platform and experience to organise a level of ‘on message,’ communication when things like this occur. As an art form, ‘Live Art,’ is also reasonably clear in definition. Audiences and funders broadly know what it is, and what it involves as a form of contemporary art practice.

‘Media Art,’ on the other hand is quite different.

Media art is cross-cutting. It doesn’t fit into any one clear genre or medium of creative arts practice. In its broadest sense, media art can occur across visual, performance, sound, video, computer, game, networked, activist, site specific, animation, mobile, AI and Net Art. It can both embrace and subvert conventional art practices. As a result, many artists that work under the ‘Media Art,’ umbrella don’t necessarily recognise themselves as connected in any way. They hold different creative interests, they work in wildly different ways and explore distinct areas of media form, process and subject. Some even find the term ‘Media Art,’ unhelpful and old fashioned.

Unlike Live Art, Media Art also doesn’t have an official lobby group or development agency to represent it in the UK. Communities of artists, festivals and cooperatives like Node.L, Futuresonic, LoveBytes, DorkBot London and London Games Fringe are often too temporary, regional and/or rely on individuals giving their time and skills to make things happen. Not particularly conducive for establishing a consistent, strategic and public voice.

On top of this (and outside of the world of ‘JISC lists’), there isn’t really a UK agency committed to sharing the news and whereabouts of media art to other interested artists or audiences. There is no ‘one stop shop’ to find out about what is going on and where in the UK and where the new opportunities are. Well known online zines like Boing Boing, Rhizome, Make, Eyebeam and WeMakeMoneyNotArt that do shout about media art, tend to focus their profiling on work emerging out of the US and Asia. Passing the UK by.

One purpose of IntervenTech: >> is to help improve this situation for UK artists. Like many others however, InterventTech: >> is unfunded, part-time and a bit of a labour of love as opposed to a ‘legitimate,’ and ‘supported,’ public service project. As a result, the service is not only limited in what it can achieve, as those of you that use it on a regular basis will know, information updates are wildly inconsistent and unreliable. A fact that I feel awful about on a regular basis. I just can’t apologise enough…

Acknowledging such realities in the UK media art scene is important in the context of recent events at the ICA. Particularly when the Director of this established and publicly supported organisation throttles support for the area. Not only is it difficult for the media art community to act collectively with any level of public visibility, focus and strategy, it’s also just tough to get heard at all.

Reflecting a broader trend
Many voices in the media art community have expressed their unsurprised disappointment in Ekow’s decision to chop Media Arts at the ICA. They say it’s just another sign of a broader trend. Both the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York and the Australia Council have halted their Media Art activity in recent years. And despite placing Digital Media at the heart of their strategy for moving forward, Arts Council England’s restructure still offers no dedicated media or moving image program. Another clear signal they say.

A more optimistic way to look at this decision is to consider whether the ICA might be integrating rather than ditching ‘Media Arts,’ in terms of its artistic program. The Australia Council for example decided to close their media program because ‘everyone uses new media now.’ For them, it no longer made sense to have a specific department dedicated to this work. The problem with the case of the ICA however, is that Ekow has made no reference to continuing to embrace media art moving forward. And sadly, if the comment he made on Lyn Gardner’s article is anything to go by, the plan really is to abandon it all together.

‘For the past number of years the ICA has run a Live & Media Arts department which has focused primarily on new media based artistic practice. In my internal email to staff that you quoted, I was trying to make the point that I didnt feel that we could financially or artistically justify a whole department devoted primarily to that relatively narrow area of practice.’

*Narrow area of practice!!* [I shudder…]

As well as a string of ill informed ICA Director’s, another fundamental challenge facing media art is that it’s problematic for funders. In other words, it doesn’t fit neatly a ‘funding stream’ offered by the Arts Council. ‘Media Art! Oh no we don’t do a grant for that here.’ You need to be Visual, Interdisciplinary or Theatre based..’ I dare say the ICA came up against this issue too…

Media art also can’t be packaged by art institutions in the same way more conventional mediums (like ‘fine art’) can. You can’t very often hang it on a white wall or offer short descriptions of ‘aesthetic value,’ you can’t sell it easily in the domestic or private art market or attach it simply to an accepted or broadly known art ‘canon.’ As a publicly funded organisation focused on ‘the contemporary moment,’ though, surely the ICA is precisely one of the organisations that should support artists working against the grain in this way, and challenging imposed systems. After all, aren’t these the very same artists producing work that may otherwise not be made or exhibited extensively elsewhere?

Not lacking anything…BIG UP media art UK
In his post on behalf of Animate Projects, Gary Thomas referenced a number of artists that the company have recently commissioned that buck the imaginary ‘lacking trend,’ that Ekow refers to. They include Thomson & Craighead, Semiconductor, Manu Luksch and Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. These artists have all produced exceptionally relevant work of late. Work that easily falls under the “Media Art,’ title. Many of these artists enjoy significant international success too.

The SK Interfaces exhibition at FACT earlier this year was one of the most popular the organisation has put on to date, and the HTTP:// Gallery say that its exhibitions have also gained in interest with new audiences this year. Not only are audiences growing they say, but they don’t represent a specific ‘type of visitor,’ either. And just in case you’re wondering, other artists that work in the UK and produce great and relevant work include Blast Theory, Julie Freeman, Christian Nold, Julian Priest, David Rokeby, Active Ingredient, ISAN, Mongrel, Proboscis, Corrado Morgana, Ray Lee, Michael O’Connell, Fiddian Warman, MeekTV, Alex Reuben and Boredom Research…the list goes on here.

The situation in UK universities and research organisations is also worth a mention here. Professor SR Golding from the University of Greenwich says that the institutions MA-PHD course in Media Arts Philosophy and Practice has increased by 300% over the years reflecting broad home, EU, and international appeal. Other universities that offer world class courses and R&D opportunities in media arts include Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts, CRUMB, Manchester Metropolitan Media Arts Department, Media School at Bournemouth, SMARTlab at University of East London, Planetary Collegium at Portsmouth (thanks Roy), Goldsmiths Media Research Centre, ResCen, Drama at Brunel University and Culture Lab at Newcastle University. So, as well as a wealth of professional media arts activity, there’s also a growing creative thirst in this area of creative practice from young and emerging artists. And my instinct tells me this is only going to grow.

So what does the future hold…
On a closer inspection of Arts Council England’s announced plans it seems one future for Media Art in England could emerge out of the organisation more closely aligning to broadcast initiatives like 4IP, BBC Multi-Platform and other initiatives that underpin the UK’s overall switch over to Digital TV in 2012. Some believe the broader implications of this for artists and small organisations is potentially quite dramatic. Such a move for example could present a shift away from artists and small organisations working in their own self-organised networks in favour of large institutions in the context of UK public arts funding for example.

Now it’s hard to know if a move like this presents us with a cause for concern. We simply won’t know until these initiatives start commissioning stuff. My own understanding of projects like 4IP for example is that they are designed to enable the media arms of public broadcasters to commission small and experimental digital projects as well as large scale multi-platform ones. Potentially a great opportunity for new media artists and organisations. So I guess it’s a case of watch this space.

One of the things that I have frequently noticed about public investment in media art projects in the UK for example, is that commissions tend to be small and inconsistent. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for experimental projects, but that we should also aim to commission large scale and mass projects with broader public impact as well. The fact is, small and experimental does limit what an artist can achieve in terms of scale, quality and ultimately audience impact. The kind of media art ecology I’d like to see develop in the UK is one that commissions small, medium and large scale projects across the nation. A model that provides artists with the time, training and resources to produce fantastic work under the right conditions, and where it makes sense, collaborate with other skilled people (e.g. media producers, programmers, developers, academics, AI specialists, experience designers and scientists) to make their ideas a reality.

The worrying thing is…If other organisations go the way of the ICA, they’ll be no where placed to commission, promote, talk about or show it!

Some final thoughts…

In all honesty I think combining Live and Media Arts at the ICA was a fundamental mistake. It reeked of an institution clubbing two perceived ‘niche,’ arts practices together because they didn’t know what else to do with them. This duality was probably also unhelpful for commissioning and representation within the ICA. How do you compare the work on your slate? How do you decide what to commission, what to platform and what to support from one week to the next?

Because it’s cross cutting, ambiguous and diverse in form and practice, media art is also problematic for conventional venues like the ICA whose spaces aren’t necessarily fit for purpose. Some of the most powerful media based work that I have seen for instance, actually take place within and between public and art spaces. Nuage Vert, Rider Spoke, Graffitti Lab, Blu, Usman Haque and Blinkenlights for example. These are projects that don’t require an ‘established venue’ or a white wall to be exhibited at all, they go directly to the public. On the other hand (and important to remember), one thing that artists do often need access to is the benefit of association with established and credible contemporary arts organisations like the ICA. Such association can offer access to broader and more mainstream audiences alongside the opportunity to gain buzz across the national and international art scene. This can result in future commissions and interest from funders, curators, buyers and other opinion leaders.

While recognising that it’s not easy, media art in the UK may also need to consider re-inventing itself somehow. Whilst continuing to enable artists to work distinctly under its umbrella, as an overarching term, media art must also aim to help its broader community connect up, find out more about each other and feel part of a stronger force. If this doesn’t happen, a concern is that media art based practice will continue to be the ‘first thing to go,’ when cuts are on the cards. When organisations like the ICA are under financial pressure, small and more fragmented communities of art practitioners are politically easier to sideline. There’s just less public fuss.

So, plenty to think on. And if you’ve managed to make it to the end of this post…many thanks. I hope it’s offered some food for thought. And of course, if you’d like to share your own thoughts, please do take the time to comment. I’d love to hear from you.


~ by claire_w on November 3, 2008.

2 Responses to “ICA gives Media Art ‘the chop’ under Ekow Eschun”

  1. Comment posted by Anonymous 7th Nov 2008

    This is a well balanced article and I am glad that Claire has written about the subject…

  2. Comment posted by Ghislaine Boddington 7th Nov 2008

    Thanks Claire

    this overview is much needed and I agree with you, the media arts sector is far more fragmented than Live Art. This is true as digital technologies are naturally and rightly integrating into all forms of art in this decade, so we have no true common base. It is experimentation that can hold some of us together if anything, and work that approaches critical issues and makes contemporary commentary.

    At this time body>data>space, a digital design collective focusing on the live body at the centre of the digital, has an exhibition of our work in Paris at CDA Enghien-Les-Bains focusing on the future of the virtual and physical body in work and play.

    We also have just come back from the Forum for our EU Culture 2007 project Post Me_New ID in Dresden, where, with an excellent range of speakers, we looked at network creation processes and multi-identity issues emerging from digital mobilities.

    body>data>space will no longer receive its regular fixed term funding from the Arts Council from 2009, we were cut in the culling last December. Our funds were transferred to other media organisations, and no new funds were made available for new digital based organisations.

    bodydataspace survives now on professional fees, very few of which are available in the media art sector in the UK which seem to survive through barter and run very tiny budgets for what are put forward outwardly as huge multi partner projects. We question this as a valid way forward.

    In France and Germany for these two projects this autumn we have received strong and professional support, good fees, genuine respect, great press coverage, and catalogues/books/dvds are published on our work.

    In my 18 years of working with new media in the UK, as shinkansen, Future Physical and since 2005 as body>data>space, none of this has happened really, not in this way ( although we have worked with some great people). I have seen only pockets of strong coverage or really good professional support for other media groups either.

    We need to find a way to encourage the funders and venues in the UK to understand the value of experimentation in the chain of evolution from the new to the mainstream. It is an imperative to allow true innovation and the Live Art sector also aims to enable this.

    In my view one of the key issues is that, in the constant push for “large scale new publics” by the funders and the venues, the little support that there is goes to traditional mutators, rather than to true innovators.

    This is big mistake as the UK then produces niave and under developed work by big names jumping on the digital band wagon. Often venues and established artists totally ignore the previous 20 years of work by the digital pioneers.

    My projection is that unfortunately we will see much re-inventing of the wheel over the next years, as mainstream arts integrate the digital, and this work will be placed out there with ” the first time ever” marketing catch line attached.

    It is already happening at the Opera House, and my gut instinct is that the ICA will also do more of this – motion capture projects with pop stars, net art pieces made by well known journalists, robots commissioned from racing car stars and such like will become the known and supported outputs of media art within the UK.


    Ghislaine Boddington
    Creative Director body>data>space

    Post Me_New ID Forum, looking at identity, the post human body & digital practices taking place in conjunction with CYNETart festival / TMA Hellerau in Dresden 
between 31st October – 2nd November 2008.


    Post Me_New ID is a co-production between body>data>space (London, UK), 
CIANT (Prague, Czech Republic), CYNETart / TMA (Dresden, Germany) 
and Kibla (Maribor, Slovenia) supported by the European Union within the Culture 2007 Programme.

    Centre des Arts Enghien-les-Bains, Paris
body>data>space exhibition ‘Virtual Physical Bodies’
9th October 2008 – 11th January 2009.



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