July 24, 2003

New Media: Theory and Practice

by Michael Mateas · , 1:43 pm

A week or so ago I had a nice chat with Jay Bolter about the function of New Media theory. Just to be clear, since “New Media” is a very squishy category, what we were talking about is computer-based work. Our discussion raised a number of questions that I would love to hear comments on.

1. What’s theory for?
For me, theory is for making. Theoretical frameworks are contingent constructions that inform the creation of artifacts. Jay sensibly points out that theory can be purely descriptive – a “purely descriptive” theory presumably doesn’t directly inform an artifact, though perhaps it provides a background against which design occurs. This got me thinking more generally about what role new media theory plays in the work of new media artists. When I think about my own work and that of my colleagues at Georgia Tech, my own work is informed much more by science and technology studies than by new media theory, Sha Xin Wei’s work is informed by performance studies, phenomenology and mathematical theory, and Diane Gromala’s work is informed by phenomenology and theories of subjectivity. So here are at least three new media artists who practices aren’t strongly informed by new media theory. When working on specific pieces, I often construct temporary, contingent theoretical structures to inform that particular piece, but the theoretical construction is in some sense part of the craft practice of making the piece. What do other artists and media theorists feel about the relationship between theory and making?

2. Code
For me, the process of programming and the program code are an essential part of the theoretical and conceptual content of a piece. Code is the plane where the material craft practice of computer-based work plays out (of course, new media work often includes multiple practices, such as sculpture, image making, animation and so forth – there are many interesting questions to explore about the relationship between code and other media). For Jay, in theoretical discourse about new media art, code can be essentially black-boxed – theory can operate purely in the domain of the audience experience. This is similar to our own Nick Montfort’s position regarding interactive fiction; he argues that, when describing the aesthetics of interactive fiction, the code level can be effectively bracketed off (at least, this was his argument in an earlier draft version of Twisty Little Passages). As an artist, I want to understand how to achieve specific effects, and so want to understand the connection between code and the phenomenology of the audience experience. What do other people think?

3. Theory essentialism
Jay is a media non-essentialist and theoretical pluralist – he immediately distrusts arguments that start with “The essence of new media is…”. While I normally don’t consider myself an essentialist, I suppose my position is mighty close to something like “the essence of new media is computation/procedurality.” I’m curious to hear what other essences of new media people hold, and how these essences play out in their work.

4 Responses to “New Media: Theory and Practice”

  1. Jesper Juul Says:

    On theory:

    I guess I feel that theorizing is great inspiration for making “new media objects” (art, games), but for it to work, it does require that you at some point suspend your belief in the theory and rather ask the question “is this an interesting design”?

    The reason, for example, why much hypertext fiction is horrible is that it is didactical – it is simply designed to correspond to a theoretical checklist of “what is good”, and hence becomes as uninteresting as didactical socialist or didactical Christian literature.

    As an oversimplification, I think that enduring art pieces are often those where it’s clear that the artist was completely into whatever theory was en vogue at the time of creation, but where the work at the same time manages to express fundamental doubts about the theory.

    PS. The fear of essentialism is also one of those theory checklist points – who would make an artwork today that didn’t criticize essentialism? So I become doubtful that a complete denouncement of essentialism is really all there is to it.

  2. Diane Gromala Says:


    It is always comforting to wake up to the creaking lid of Pandora’s box.

    This issue is at the crux of many discussions among CAiiA-STAR students who are working on their PhDs in the U.K., so I’m hoping they will join in as well.

    I think the first thing to do is to be boring and ask you to define what a theory is, and specifically address the “systematic” nature of it.

    The second thing to do is to ask “for whom”? Artists? Users? Everyone? As an artist, my view of the theory/practice issue takes the form of something like two intertwined snakes eating each other’s tails. Theory is sometimes useful on its own, by providing explanatory force, before, after, during, and beside the creative process. It is often useful to artists in the manner you describe, and/or in enabling one to examine the preconceptions and conditions they operate within. It is useful to do sinful things like legitimize one’s work, to situate it within certain frameworks and contexts, relate it to similar endeavors in other disciplines, especially in practices that are sustained investigations.

    My question is, how would/could you define “theory” if it were not textual? Must it always assume textual form? Can artistic forms, artifacts, and practices be “theory” or only “informed” by theory?

    Winners will be awarded WD40…


  3. drew Says:

    this theory/practice thread kinda reminds me of the earlier programmer/artist thread… do you have to know theory (programming) in order to practice (be a new media artist)

    and so, i don’t think theory need be relegated to the textual only… coming out of performance study… scholars/performers do theoretical work on stage through/with the paralinguistic semiotics of staging, movement, body (and words… also, there’s ekphrastic art which i think could be seen as theoretical (or at least rhetorical)

    in part, my interest/practice in new media stems from performance and ekphrasis… as i think one can do both scholarship and art in new media (simultaneously even) in a medium in which one can mix text, images, sounds, motions and interactions… and it seems to be something that many on this list strive to do both/and…

  4. nick Says:

    Michael, good questions. And, regarding that black box around the code, you’ve given me a chance to clarify something I haven’t made clear before …

    My point in Twisty Little Passages is only that some sorts of theory, for instance a formal theory which is aesthetic or otherwise about the experience of the interactor, should never refer to details of implementation that are invisible to the interactor. If we have to peek inside the program in order to understand what’s going on, then we’re not developing a theory that is genuinely based on the way the program functions and on the experience of it. We would be cheating and developing some different type of theory. One effect of this perspective is that if I have two different programs that behave absolutely identically but are implemented differently (one in Fortran, for instance, and one in MDL), we can consider them to the be the same – for this type of aesthetic, formal analysis. Of course, I do think that this is one sort of analysis that is worthwhile to conduct. I don’t think it tells the whole story, but I think we’d miss a lot of insights if we never subjected works to this sort of analysis.

    That doesn’t mean that the way new media works are coded is completely unimportant. It’s just the equivalent of saying that if we consider the sonnet to be a form [*], whether or not a poem is a sonnet shouldn’t depend on whether it is typed, handwritten, or spoken, or what process was used to compose it. That doesn’t mean the the way people compose, inscribe, and publish poems is unimportant; it just means that when we do want to make formal distinctions, we should make sure that they’re really formal.

    In my book I specifically make the point that the way interactive fiction is coded is an important part of its history and is important in explaining how it has developed. That’s why I quote ZIL code and try to explain the essentials of some of the major IF development systems and langauges, which I wouldn’t do if I thought that this black box should stay in place for all sorts of analysis and all attempts to understand IF. I just don’t want a formal theory based on narratology to have to refer to these aspects, since these aspects aren’t what such a theory is dealing with.

    [*] The sonnet is not just a form; it is also, for instance, a tradition.

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