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Wednesday, October 25, 2006 

new media at its best

The past couple days, we have visited two of Amsterdam’s leading new media groups: the Netherlands Media Art Institute and the Waag Society. Each group welcomed us graciously, excited to hear about our work and share theirs.

The Netherlands Media Art Institute collects, preserves, displays, and distributes media art. They are also involved in some artistic projects, most notably Elephants Dream, a study in the capabilities of the open-source animation software Blender. During our visit, we were treated to a screening of a hand-picked series of single-channel video art pieces, the first set of which established the most common techniques and goals of the genre, and then a second set of more recent pieces. All of them are available for viewing by the public in their mediatheque (in photo at left), where they have both physical copies and electronic ones available at viewing stations. This is the third place we have visited that is involved in the preservation of media, but the first that has committed to storing it all electronically. Both the Anthology Film Archives and the ARChive of Contemporary Music in New York adamantly collected the best copies they could in the piece’s original form, whether it be film or records, and then focused their work around preserving these. The Netherlands Media Art Institute, on the other hand, is storing all of their collection electronically in uncompressed form, using terabytes of space on hard drives that need to be replaced every three years.

I, like the organizations in New York, am skeptical about the viability of storing important pieces electronically because of the speed at which technology is changing and the danger of malfunction of equipment. But, at the same time, there is no guarantee that the old forms will be practical to view far into the future, both because of changing equipment and technology and decay of the physical film or video. It seems that neither way is a guarantee, and both are very costly, but some intervention is necessary because it would be a shame to not work to somehow preserve these art pieces.

The Waag Society was a real treat to visit because they are not typically open to the public. They are located in the oldest non-religious building in Amsterdam, the 600-year-old former city gate, and actually the site of Rembrandt’s famous Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Now the building stands alone in the middle of Nieuwmarkt Square, in central Amsterdam, and offers a beautiful view of the rooftops from its upstairs windows (photo at right). When we arrived, Floor van Spaendonck and Sam Nemeth gave us a presentation on the group and their purpose. They are funded by the state, and their goal is not to create art for art’s sake, but rather make things that are useful for society. One of their more recent projects is Amsterdam Realtime, where people were given the chance to carry a GPS unit during the day in order to compile a map of the city through the routes a collection of individuals take. The group is also behind an educational game for school groups that uses mobile phones as an interface between the actual city and medieval times. They are even at work on the global scale, trying to implement Creative Commons in India.

After telling us about everything they have been working on, they invited us to make our own projects in response. We had an hour to make a piece around the theme “Circling the Waag”. For mine, I chose to take the theme quite literally, focusing on the architecture of their building and the connections it has with the surrounding area. The building has a central spire, surrounded by six smaller towers topped in spires. For each of these spires, I lined it up in front of the central spire and walked away from it as far as I could while keeping it in view. I then took a photo of the building and from the same location, a photo of something in my vicinity. So, I ended up with six pairs of photos (two pairs are shown at left) taken from the farthest points where unobstructed views of the lined up spires occur. Through this mini-project, I had the chance to explore the surrounding area a bit, taking notice of the differences in architecture and environment between the Waag and the areas around it. I found a wide variety of shops, residences, and people, but they were all connected by their views of the Waag spires.

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