Introduction to the Development of Media Art in Germany

It is a difficult undertaking to survey the diverse forms and styles of media art, for it is a genre that was ignored by aesthetic theory for decades and that even experts find hard to define.

What is media art?

Contrary to other authors, I would prefer not to restrict the term “media art” to electronic and digital media, but rather to emphasise its roots in the field of experimental film and the avant-garde of the 1920s. As a basic technical parameter, it could perhaps be agreed that media art is an art that requires electricity for either its production or reception. In this way, we need not extend the word ‘medium’, which in the original Latin meant a means or mediating element, to all other (older) genres of art, although media scholars like Siegfried Zielinski have pointed out that films could also be shown using gas lamps or candles and that cameras and projectors could be cranked. Eadweard Muybridge’s “chronophotography”, which was developed in 1872, could also be counted among the precursors of media art.

In his book Mythos Medienkunst (i.e., The Media Art Myth), the media scholar Hans Ulrich Reck has proposed differentiating the terms “media art”, as a definition of art that reflects on media, and “art with media”, so as to distinguish the now widespread use of new media within the fine arts for the treatment of individual or social themes from “classical” media art. But this logical distinction also has its pitfalls, since in quite a number of works we may meet with both intentions.

At the Berlin media festival transmediale in 2007, experts discussed the idea of replacing the problematic term “media art” by “digital culture”. This, however, would not only neglect the non-digital roots of media art but also extend the term to cover other tendencies.


Thus contemporary media art covers so extensive a spectrum of categories that alone its genealogy could make up a field of study of its own: from experimental film, expanded cinema (including film installations, multi-projections, film performances), videotapes, video installations, closed-circuit installations, video performances, computer art, computer graphics, computer animation, interactive CD-ROMs, DVDs, Internet and net art, software art, virtual reality, augmented reality, sound art, visual music, multi-media installations and performances (interactive and non-interactive), net Radio and net TV, live broadcasting and podcast, VJ raves, wireless technologies and locative media, uses of mobile phones and palm pilots, computer games, fon and fax art to robotronics and BioArt – all may be counted among the branches of media art as soon as artists occupy themselves with these technologies.

An interesting aspect here is that much of the technology used was originally developed for military purposes. Thus video was developed for air traffic control, computers to decipher enemy codes and evaluate radar data more speedily, and the Internet to improve military communications. Many artists are aware of the power inherent in media and reflect on it, subversively undermine it or counter media manipulation with their own images.

Germany as the starting-point for new processes

It is further difficult to define media art in national or regional terms, since it has always been a nomadic form. This trait is inherentin the field. Artists go where training, production resources and jobs are available. Hundreds of international festivals and events, and not least the Internet, also ensure for a brisk exchange of information. All the same, Germany has repeatedly been the starting-point of new processes and tendencies in this art form. My observations here are confined to developments in West Germany up to the reunification of the two German states in 1990, for the limited access to technologies such as video and computers went towards making the development of media art in the GDR practically impossible. One exception is the small super 8 underground scene of the 1970s and 80s round artists such as Lutz Dammbeck, Cornelia Schleime, a.r.penck and others, which is very well documented in the book Gegenbilder - Filmische Subversion in der DDR 1976 – 1989 (i.e., Counter Images – Cinematic Subsversion in the GRD, 1976 – 1989).

Unfortunately, due to limits of space, this survey can make no claims to completeness, and will instead have to name a few individual styles and artists as representatives of many others. And, of course, such a survey is inevitably subjective. For further study, I recommend the book and CD-ROM Media Art Action and Media Art Interaction and the web site Media art net, based on these publications. I also recommend the DVD and book 40YEARSVIDEOART.DE and the international online database for experimental film and video art cinovid, where the reader will find further information on the classics of experimental film and video art.

Siegfried Zielinski: Backwards to the Future, in Future Cinema (ZKM Karlsruhe / MIT Press, Cambridge MA, USA, 2003), p. 566; ISBN: 0-262-69286-4, out of print.

Hans Ulrich Reck: Mythos Medienkunst, Kunstwissenschaftliche Bibliothek, vol. 20, (Walter König Verlag, Köln 2002), ISBN: 3-88375-558-3

Karin Fritzsche / Claus Löser: Gegenbilder - Filmische Subversion in der DDR 1976 – 1989; (Gerhard Wolf Verlag, Berlin, 1996), ISBN: 3-928942-38-7

Dieter Daniels / Rudolf Frieling (eds.): Media Art Action and Media Art Interaction (Goethe-Institut / ZKM Karlsruhe, Springer Verlag, Wien, 1997). Books and CD-ROMs in English, French and Spanish), ISBN 978-3211829967 and 978-3211834220

Dieter Daniels / Rudolf Frieling (eds.): Media Art Net 1: Survey of Media Art (Springer Verlag, Wien, 2004), German/English, ISBN 3-211-00570-6

Dieter Daniels / Rudolf Frieling (eds.): Media Art Net 2. Key Topics (Springer Verlag, Wien, 2005), German/English, ISBN 3-211-23871-9

Rudolf Frieling / Wulf Herzogenrath (eds.): 40YEARSVIDEOART.DE (Hatje Cantz Publishers, Ostfildern, 2006), ISBN: 978-3775717182.
Peter Zorn
The author is a film-maker and media art curator, co-founder and chairman of the Werkleitz Society at the Centre for Art and Visual Media in Saxony-Anhalt, and a member of the executive committee of the Werkleitz Biennale.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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February 2008

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