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A Companion to Digital Art by Christiane Paul

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3Art in the Rear-View Mirror: The Media-Archaeological Tradition in Art

Erkki Huhtamo

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.

Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage (1967)

Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying, quoted above, perfectly characterizes one of the vital trends within contemporary arts: a growing number of artists have been drawn toward the past for inspiration. Devices that have disappeared not only as material artifacts but even from cultural memory have been unearthed, dissected, reinvented, and combined with ideas from other times and places. Such activities may at first seem motivated by a nostalgic quest for a simpler time when gadgets were few and easy to master, and media culture itself less all-embracing than it is today. However, such an interpretation would be misguided, unless one wants to consider all the silly “steampunk” concoctions, created by hobbyists from fleamarket junk, as art (I do not). Intellectually and emotionally challenging works are created by ambitious artists who have done their historical homework. The trend has grown significantly since I first brought it to public attention with my curatorial activities and the essay “Time Machines in the Gallery: An Archeological Approach in Media Art,” written in 1994 and published in 1996 (Huhtamo 1996; Hertz and Parikka 2012, 429; Strauven 2013, 65).

I began paying attention to technological art that references the media of the past in the late 1980s. Rather ...

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