MEDIA ART LAB: Dossier of a Virtual Community

Alexei Isaev


As an initiative, the "MediaArtLab" creative group was originally established in 1997 by Alexey Isaev, Olga Shisko and Tania Gorucheva as part of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA). It was founded with the intention to build a bridge between activities in the fields of culture and new information and communication technologies. The participants of MediaArtLab projects have included artists, film directors, critics and theoreticians, journalists, producers and curators working in the field of contemporary culture and art, as well as Internet and electronic media experts, and the representatives of most "media-active" professions. From the beginning the goals of MediaArtLab included focusing the attention of scholars, creative communities, representatives of state organizations, and the public at large toward the impact (as well as the problems and potential solutions) of the development of new technologies upon general cultural processes.

Since March 2000 the initiative has become independent of Soros, and is registered as an autonomous non-profit organization - "MediaArtLab" Center for Culture and Art. The time of its foundation as an independent organization coincided with the crisis of the institutional structure of contemporary art in the post-soviet period, a structure that was based primarily on the investments of Western foundations. Among these, the most important was the Soros Foundation, which financed from 30 to 50 per cent of the projects in the sphere of "actual art" - a situation that proved very suitable for the Russian Federation Ministry of Culture as well as for other state organizations. And, suddenly, during one single year almost all the programs of contemporary art that were financed by the Soros Foundation art were closed.

By the time this crisis spread, the MediaArtLab group had already acquired substantial experience in organizing and conducting Russian and international events in the field of media culture. Up to 2000, while it was still part of SCCA, MediaArtLab realized two Da-Da-Net festivals - on-line events dedicated to Russian information resources on contemporary culture and art, as well as presenting art projects on the Net (1997-1999). Their aim was to discuss and provide solutions for integrating various projects coming from contemporary culture and art into electronic systems of data exchange. Another major initiative was the Trash-art international Net art festival (1999) an artistic experiment unique in Russia, based on ideological and aesthetic provocation. It included both a conference with a roundtable discussion, and also, importantly, an artistic competition in which the most prominent Russian and European artists and theoreticians took part, thus changing the traditional perception of Net art as simply a technology. Media mentality and contemporary art, their interaction as a love-hate relationship were presented through an approach that was both theoretical and practical. In 1999 the MediaArtLab website presented a discussion about Russian Internet, the Internet community and Net-art in the bilingual English-Russian edition View from the East. These events and activities provoked interest among artists and the artistic community in the field of new media technologies, especially in the internet.

After the Soros Center for Contemporary Art was closed, the MediaArtLab group was able to continue its existence, becoming primarily a "virtual" organization. Without a stable residence, the group was able to reject the office routine and shift the emphasis towards the creative part of the project. The primary advantage of this situation was the increased mobility and artistic potential of the organization as a whole and in its individual participants. The work of organization as a process was able to become one of creation, not of administration. Thus the actual space become less important than virtual presence, which allowed the activities of the group to spread. This was a very important period in the development of MediaArtLab, as it acquired a radically different position. A micro- and macro-partnership network both in Russia and abroad was created as a result of MediaArtLab's project activities in interdisciplinary fields (at the borders of culture, scholarship, society, politics and technology). Secondly, a survival strategy for independent art initiatives during this transition period was developed, which later acquired the status of a general cultural policy in a period of financial instability.

It is important to point out that during this period, the intellectual activity of MediaArtLab differed significantly from the concepts of Russia's leading political technologists (for instance, Gleb Pavlovsky) - who served the official powers and exploited the terms "new media" and "cultural policy" in order to create an image of a "democratic" Russian politics (which remained on the level of a mere image).

After the changes in 1991 in Russian political and economic life, and again after the subsequent changes of 2001, contemporary art began to loose its actual status on the international art scene (as it lost the actuality of raw material resources and the focus shifted from the production of artistic kitsch that could be consumed in exhibitions). The orientation of the art system gradually transformed into a form of business activity, but this activity still remained largely unprofessional since it never really took into account the specifics of its profession. Russian actual art got stuck between the political and economical ambitions of the Perestroika regime. The crisis of art accompanied the political and economic crises.

During this crisis, there was a gradual transfer from emphasis on the sphere of contemporary art to the sphere of contemporary culture, or to be more specific, to the field of contemporary media culture - as the whole complex of culture and mass media interrelation became more central in Russia. MediaArtLab's existence at this stage as a "virtual" community and its activities in uniting the interests of artists, critics, cultural studies scholars and the general audience can be understood as a form of art activism, which represented the interests of the international net-community. The Internet as a communication space for both creative and business activity was instrumental for the emergence of new communication spheres during the period plagued by the financial instability of cultural institutions.

As Tatiana Mogilevskaya has written in her diagnosis of "Art on the Internet," the "WWW is not only a space towards which Russian cultural life, weakened by the current crisis, is shifting, but it is also a place where it could come to necessary unity. Let us keep in mind that Russian cultural life stays extremely centralized in Moscow, and its Internet representation could overcome this fatal Russian peculiarity. The Net could become the place of existence and survival of culture which is now being forced out from the off-line world called Russia ..." (included in the collection of articles View from the East).

During its existence, MediaArtLab has devoted its activities to the creation of a practical and theoretical basis for the development of media culture in Russia. It has organized all-Russian and international interdisciplinary projects, with members from humanities as well as technical communities, together with contemporary culture managers from Russia, countries of the former USSR, Eastern and Western Europe, America, Australia and Japan. Its most recent activities have included the international interdisciplinary symposium Pro&Contra during May 2000, and Media Forum as part of the XXII Moscow International Cinema Festival during 2001. MediaArtLab has also focused on developing new education models, and forms of archiving and distributing contemporary art and culture. An important part of developing these models has been the creation of internet resources (in Russian and English) on the site. MediaArtLab has published theoretical and research materials on the intersections between media culture and contemporary art, politics, society, information sciences, education, and institutions. These collections are published both in traditional print media and on CD-ROM and Internet, always in bilingual Russian and English versions, comprising works by Russian and foreign authors. In this way we have sought to disseminate "foreign" ideas among a Russian public, and Russian ideas abroad - aspiring toward a mutual exchange between Russian culture and the international community.

November, 2001

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