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Introduction by Michelle Kuo

Letter from Philip Leider to Matthew Baigell, October 30, 1967.

THE MESSAGE WAS BRIEF. Typed as if for telex, a 1967 memo from this magazine’s editor, Philip Leider, responded to a writer’s pitch with characteristically lapidary concision: “I can’t imagine Artforum ever doing a special issue on electronics or computers in art, but one never knows.” And, really, how could one know? The contingency of the moment is right there in black and white. Leider’s skeptical words said one thing, but the memo’s blocky, futuristic design, as if auguring a world defined by computer terminals and communications media, said another.

The magazine Leider helmed—which, with this issue, marks its fiftieth anniversary—was committed to the most advanced art of the day. In that sense, Artforum was very much dedicated to writing the future, whatever that might look like. So it’s safe to assume that it wasn’t a discomfort with the likes of punch cards that gave Leider pause. Rather, he was rightfully loath to pin art too closely to any one kind of media or technology—just as we are loath to do now, whether to avoid lapsing into a retrograde medium specificity, on the one hand, or technological determinism, on the other. Today we still cringe at manufactured genres like “computer art,” even if art as we know it could barely exist without computers. Technophilia and technophobia alike pervade museums, galleries, and art-fair booths; the language of new media and social media—platform, network, algorithm, sharing—abounds in press releases and exhibition titles, slaking our thirst for 1960s-cum-1990s cyber-euphoria. At the same time, Leider’s doubt echoes in the distance, a critical reminder that art’s affair with media is always prone to historical amnesia, to lazy conflations of vastly different positions and practices, to abrupt shifts from the faddish embrace of progress to a pining for the obsolete. We are nostalgic; we want to move on.

This special issue of Artforum aims to move on but not forget. In the following pages, we’ll take stock of five decades of conversation and contestation that helped forge art’s manifold possibilities and that now stand as a vital record of history. More broadly, we’ll reflect on the past fifty years of media, technology, and art, from the Plexiglas and Porta-Paks of the ’60s to the networked art of the present. For the story of media is, in many ways, the story of contemporary art—both its history and its future.

Media was the message. Indeed, Leider’s missive was written at the exact moment when artists were attempting to leave behind the good old medium categories of painting and sculpture, the stuff of so many museum departments. It was the moment when innumerable artists traded flatness and turpentine for intermedia, language, video, systems, information, expanded cinema, and theatricality. If the promise of this exchange was that art might usher in a new era, that it might transform the world, the risk was that art might be revealed to be nothing more than an aftereffect of technology, swallowed whole by whatever emerging media had appeared on the horizon.

This ambivalence is, in fact, inherent to media. Not only are media everywhere; they are in the middle of everything, as the word’s etymology suggests. They are conduits rather than discrete objects: unstable constellations of machines, signals, theories, processes, and materials. And what better way to understand this capricious network than through close readings of its nodes, of individual works or projects? In this issue’s series of “Close-ups” we find that some artists have decided to redefine or reinvent a given medium (singular) as a heterogeneous field of activity, recognizing that the coherence of the traditional medium was always conditional, an artificial convention. Rosalind E. Krauss appreciates Tacita Dean’s FILM, 2011, as just such a project. Other artists have plumbed the implications of new media as mass media—irreducibly plural. Accordingly, David Bordwell tracks the CGI velociraptors of Jurassic Park (1993); Scott Rothkopf follows the trail of Kelley Walker’s shape-shifting PSD file schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitener, 2003; Anne Wagner revisits the landmark “Software” exhibition of 1970 at the Jewish Museum in New York; Bruce Sterling scrolls through Petra Cortright’s glitchy e-book HELL_TREE (2012). And more than fifty international and intergenerational artists weigh in on their own media—from material formats to streams of distribution—in a series of “Media Studies.”

How can we look forward as well as back? How can we rethink the art medium in terms of new media, while reckoning with the fact that new media is always becoming old? These incessant shifts need not be seen in terms of linear technological progress—or deliquescence. Instead, the question of art and media opens onto a vast and ever-shifting terrain, one that various contributors have elected to explore here. Pamela M. Lee and Eric C. H. de Bruyn each take Artforum’s very first cover—June 1962, featuring a Jean Tinguely mechanized sculpture—as a starting point for reevaluating the oft-derided postwar genre of kinetic art and its surprising resonance with contemporary media, materiality, and spectacle. Claire Bishop diagnoses a disavowal of the digital, highlighting our strange attachment to outmoded 16-mm projectors, slide shows, and musty archival vitrines. Anthony Vidler unearths dreams of the cyber-city in art and architecture and suggests what we may divine from them in our postparametric moment. John Kelsey takes us to “next-level spleen,” parsing what’s left of affect after relational aesthetics and amid the unprecedented omnipresence of information and discourse networks. Wolfgang Tillmans points out the stunning ubiquity of ink-jet printing—over and against tightly held, archaic medium boundaries, positing that such artworks may be less dependent on any material support than on fluid activities of scanning, screening, storing, sending, interfacing, word processing, painting, programming. Finally, we consider four figures who have profoundly shaped our understanding of medium and culture: Marshall McLuhan, Friedrich Kittler, Antonin Artaud, and Gregory Battcock.

Artforum is, of course, a form of media as well. So we also gauge our own attention to media and technology, from Barbara Kruger’s mordant column on TV in the ’80s, to Jack Burnham’s utopian “Systems Esthetics” (1968), to Lawrence Alloway’s “Network” (1972), the critic’s largely forgotten but highly prescient diagnosis of the “art world . . . as a system.” And we track the magazine itself as a medium for criticism and for art (commissioned photographs, musical flexi-disc inserts) while looking at the ways in which it registered sea changes in how information is transmitted and indeed defined (Web reportage, sci-fi). In the spirit of such media experiments, artists John Baldessari and Maurizio Cattelan have contributed pieces for the occasion, presented here as exemplars of the currently boundless and elastic arenas of photography and visuality.

As it unfolds in these texts, the question of art and media seems increasingly crucial to our time, to our world of obdurate materials and diffuse networks, form and dissemination, institutions of power and decentralized control. Media allow us to perceive, to talk, to transmit—but they also always introduce contingency, an unknowable universe. In revealing the unseen to us, they remind us that there is still more to see. Media resist unification. They resist ontology. They are much like art.

And art, we might say, is always becoming media. Nothing could be more emblematic of this flux than the persistently vanguard, turbulent fifty years of this publication, in which the manifestations of art are always in oscillation, always in transit between the world and the page. The cusp of object, image, and language in transformation is what cover artist Lawrence Weiner captures with such aplomb. And it is this unpredictable and unremitting movement—art’s most radical departures from itself, its advancement of new modes, forms, ideas, ways of being—that we hope to further: an art that continues to promise more.