*Center/Not Center: Situating the Media Arts Co-Op Where We Are

*A title and line of inquiry formulated according to the 2016 ASA Conference and Presidential Address of Robert Warrior Jr., PhD (Osage)

Every URL has an IRL. Bodies operate cellphones on the couch and in the street. The public library houses specialized computer work stations outside the financial and physical infrastructure of university art schools or corporate spaces. Digital facades of ambiguous access are just that. While many are seduced by the ethereal Cloud, we’re interested in the 15+ industrial server farms that span the state of Iowa and add a techno-botanical crop to the corn that roots “America’s Heartland.”

The dramatic rupture of our digital and internet era makes for a compelling story; we can appreciate pop culture’s taste for the monumental. But did MTV truly “kill the radio star?” The supposed obliteration of living people, embodied places, and mechanical things is never the end of the story.

We have no burning nostalgia for the past or its (re)iterations of the future. Yet, networks-as-concept have all but consumed contemporary considerations of 21st century media. Bits and bytes are less material objects and more so the shifting boundaries of time and space as information is consumed, masticated and regurgitated — passed along from one body-cum-machine to the next.

To use Descartes’s words: we don’t “deny that these hands are [ours].” In fact, our hands are typing on keyboards at the old PATV-18 studio in Iowa City. The history of this space comes to bear on the content of our work, realized through labor, and mediated by the racialized, classed, gendered, and sexualized technological forms of our contemporary present (cf. American Artist, Marisa Elana Duarte, PhD). 

Good or bad, bodies and infrastructure converge to define the IRL of a supposedly digital community. Ours stems from the mechanical infrastructure for cablecast, which grounded the promise of public access across the United States. This shuttered studio housed an opportunity for Iowa City denizens to mediate their creative impulses and intellectual interests into cablecast television. The studio space was not just a node on the network, but a mode of community organizing.

When George Stoney and Red Burns co-founded the Alternate Media Center at New York University, they described their work as “an exploration of the ground on which people can interact electronically” (Alternate Media Center Handbook 2nd ed. – emphasis added).

Overgrown and/or depleted – these grounds remain. The mode/node of public access may no longer be central to the world wide web, but the media arts center is part-and-parcel to our vision of contemporary art.

Most breathtaking is their description of public access as center: “Alternative media allow the audience to talk back to the TV – to be seen and heard as well as to see and hear. Carried to its logical end, this capacity can completely destroy the concept of ‘audience’ as we ordinarily use the word – since, when individuals or groups of people communicate back and forth using television simply as a medium of communication, neither is ‘audience.’ Both are participants” (5).

The proverbial “footprints” of public access are traced through that dialogue – the cycles of creation and reception that took place within public access media centers. Producers, engineers, and administrators were known within their communities. They weren’t creating for “x” number of nameless viewers across the globe. They were speaking directly to people they knew and encountered in the multi-faceted contexts of their daily lives. The interplay between AV broadcast and embodied, mutual encounter was not just a reality, but the defining factor of their community media network.

We neither wish to fetishize embodiment and its often co-occuring ableist impulses nor falsely equate technocapitalism with access and justice. Instead, we merely want to highlight that digital (re)presentation and mediation does not erase the bodies and grounds that are our physical lives, but infiltrate and play with their porous boundaries (cf. more work by Sins Invalid & Lydia X. Z. Brown). 

As the contemporary Media Arts Co-Op, we ground ourselves in that vision for community media. Our spaces and technological tools bear the active trace of that collaborative and dialogic impulse. By grounding these opportunities that always already bleed beyond the borders of “creator” and “consumer” or “artist” and “audience,” we push back against the totalizing narratives of technology that have come to define (the oft disembodied) “digital life.”