Golan Levin and Collaborators

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An Open Letter to the NEA

2 December 2014 / reflection, studio

Dear NEA Grants Officers,

Today I had the pleasure to review the NEA’s latest (2014) group of grantees. I wish you my heartiest congratulations on selecting such a large, diverse and unquestionably deserving group of grantees. We are thrilled, honored and privileged to have been selected for one of these awards.

In reviewing the grantees of the “Media Arts” category, to which we had originally applied, it became exceedingly clear that our proposed project would have had no chance in this category. I therefore express my sincere gratitude to you for transferring our application into a category in which it had any sort of fighting chance at all. Thank you.

I am, notwithstanding, concerned about the purview of the current category and the use of the term “media arts” to describe it. Of the 61 awards in this category, not less than 50 went to curated film festivals. Only five awards had any connection to interactive or computer-based arts whatsoever (BAVC, CAAM, NAMAC, Parallel Studios, and Tribeca Film Festival), and none of these have an exclusive or even predominant focus on digital arts, particularly digital arts research and production, with the possible exception of the event hosted by… the Tribeca Film Festival… that is concerned with helping filmmakers “interpret their work in digital platforms”. It is not an exaggeration to say that the awards in this category overwhelmingly went to organizations devoted to the presentation and maintenance of what I might call “mature 20th-century recorded media” — namely film, cinema, video, television, audio, and radio.

While the NEA’s grantees are unquestionably deserving, as I have said, I am concerned about who is not listed. Specifically, I am concerned that there is no NEA grants program which supports the work of the many United States artists working in the discipline(s) of emerging media. Such artforms might be things like (without an attempt to be comprehensive) interactive art, generative art, mechatronic and robotic arts, game arts, biological arts, app art, online & networked arts, and so on — and naturally, this list of media is constantly evolving.

I believe that the emerging media of today will become the “mature media” disciplines of the next century. Just as film and radio were born some 100 years ago, the interactive media being developed now are the hatchlings of what are rapidly developing into the rich art forms of the very near future. As an investment in the future of American arts, I hope that the NEA could realize the value of supporting these nascent forms and their struggling vanguard of practitioners. Just as the invention of film led to the multi-billion-dollar economy of Hollywood, the economic justification for such an investment in emerging media arts (if one requires it) should be clear, especially as the United States enters an era of increased global competition.

I believe it is essential to know where we have come from, yet also see where we are going. The NEA visibly supports and promotes the former, with (for example) a program dedicated to “Traditional Arts”; yet where is (by simple analogy) a grants program dedicated to “Emerging & Future Arts”? I fret that the only project in the Visual Arts category to even mention the word “computer” or “software” (among 70 grantees) is dedicated to restoring a 30-year-old sculpture by Nam June Paik.

If a consideration of emerging media is anywhere on the NEA’s table, I would be very glad to assist or consult in any way that I can, and/or to direct the NEA to others with expertise in these artistic disciplines.

Yours sincerely,

Golan Levin
Director, Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry
Associate Professor of Electronic Art
Courtesy Associate Professor of Design
Courtesy Associate Professor of Computer Science
Courtesy Associate Professor, Entertainment Technology
Carnegie Mellon University
Twitter: @golan

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