The book New Tendencies – Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961-1978) by Armin Medosch presents thorough research into the international New Tendencies movement that was active in the 60s and in the 70s. In his book, Medosch gave contextualisation of the New Tendencies movement and framed it in the political, social and cultural context of its time. The New Tendencies movement arose in a culmination of high modernism in the 60s, with its centre in Zagreb, Croatia, in former Yugoslavia. This country was itself a modernistic project of the 20th century. However, semi-peripheral in industrial development, the climate of modernism in Yugoslavia influenced art and culture and thus prepared conditions for the country to become a knot in a network of artistic centres of European Fordism like Milan, Munich, Düsseldorf and Paris. One of the first who restored the memory of New Tendencies was Croatian artist and curator Darko Fritz with his research Amnesia International, which transferred the memory of NT to the newer generations of Media Art practitioners.
The New Tendencies movement had momentum in the 60s, while in the 70s, it shared conceptual art’s crisis of faith in late modernism. In the 80s, New Tendencies was almost forgotten. Medosch writes that New Tendencies’ “politics of form” was strongly influenced by its disavowal of the artist as a producer of commodities for the art market”. For the first exhibition in Zagreb, artists consciously used inexpensive new materials and new media from mass production, such as punch cards, plastic ribbons, cardboard, and plywood. In the third New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb in 1965, organizers wanted to create a new synthesis between the art they applied art through the creation of Multiples, as reproducible art, but this idea was not received well. They wanted to democratize art and were against the scarcity principle that was deeply embedded in the art system. Although ideas around the demystification of art were not new, there was a novelty in “the specific way New Tendencies tried to achieve this — through the formula of art as visual research.” Art was redefined as visual research, and mass production and abundance were not considered negative. Ideas of interactivity, the democratization of art and the participation of the public in New Tendencies exhibitions were sometimes seen as seductive, especially when, in the late sixties, political movements and counter-culture started to influence the art world and became much more explicit in demands for political and social change.
The book New Tendencies – Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961-1978) is valuable material for a non-western centric approach to the history of art (it is worth noting that the histories of computer and digital art are not exempt from western-centric historicization). Still today, there are many examples of ignorance of what was happening outside North America and Western Europe, despite more and more stories, research and documentation about post-WW2 art. Medosch is not looking for the “Other”, trying to fill the geo-holes in the history of arts, or fixing “colonial guilt”, but he is using New Tendencies as a case study of an art movement that connects the early history of art & media with social issues. As secondary, it came out that the centre of this movement was Zagreb and former Yugoslavia. However, non-intentionally, Medosch uncovers the story of the soft power of that time in Yugoslavia – an uncovering which proves thought-provoking as a counter to western-centrism.
As Medosch outlines, the Croatian artist and curator Darko Fritz was the first to suggest reading New Tendencies as a network – or rather a network of networks that included group Zero from Germany, the groups N and T from Italy, Equipo 57 from Spain, and Paris-based Group de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), to name just a few. Also, in Zagreb, New Tendencies had direct precursors such as EXAT 51 or GORGONA, whose members had close ties with the movement.
The formation of groups and networking in New Tendencies includes two processes. The first is standard practice in art history: young artists gather to strengthen their position in art and the social system. The second also showed renewed trust in common destiny and solidarity, corrupted by collective totalitarian experiences and disappeared during and after WW2. New Tendencies artists are of a generation that renovated belief in social progress, common interest and direct democracy. Therefore some groups like GRAV, Equipo 57, and N experimented with collective authorship, a model that, for the market, is not easy to deal with. This group ethos was present in artistic practice and in curatorial and organizational practices. The curatorial boards of New Tendencies exhibitions and events engaged in joint decision-making, often actively communicating with artists about the content they produced. For example, the small details involved in artists filing “application forms” about themselves and describing their works was a self-managed bureaucratic procedure which developed into more complex research and decision-making.
New Tendencies artists embraced Fordist technological innovation; rather than opposing technological acceleration, as most other artists at that time were thinking of a future technological society beyond alienation and oppression. Similar to their “artistic relatives” Situationists, some NT artists used playful elements envisioning post-Fordist conditions where repetitive work was viewed as oppressive. In his book, Medosch analysed the similarities and differences between these two groups that shared much common ground.
In his book, Medosch emphasized the connection between social analysis and developed a critique of New Tendencies groups and new readings of Marx, particularly those of Operaismo in Italy and Praxis in Yugoslavia. A central element of these new readings was “Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism applied to artwork and its ideological function in the capitalist world.” Medosch intends to minimize the current tendency to re-inscribe movements that developed a half-century ago in favour of investigating theoretical frameworks and political conditions of that time.
In August 1968, in Zagreb, a symposium Computers and Visual Research was organized at the same time as the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in London. The exhibition in Zagreb, called t-4 (Tendencies – 4) in 1969, followed the symposium and Cybernetic Serendipity, which was the inaugural moment of international computer art. The symposium Computers and Visual Research marked the line between the first phase of New Tendencies’ analogue “programmed artworks” (as Umberto Eco defines it in the exhibition catalogue) and the second phase in which NT embraced art that used computers.
Although Medosch’s idea was not to emphasize Yugoslavian context beyond the extent needed for general contextualization of the movement, the fact that Zagreb had the logistical, infrastructural and intellectual capacity to be the centre of the movement for almost 2 decades showed certain “properties” of Yugoslavia of that time. For the book’s readers in former Yugoslavian countries, the book brings certain discomfort since, after the Yugoslav wars in the nineties, there is a general tendency to forget the heritage of the Yugoslav modernist project. Also, the “eagerness” of activity in Zagreb could be because, after the breakup of Yugoslavia’s ties with Stalin in 1948, Zagreb wanted to restore connections with the cultural context of what historian Eric Hobsbawm called the “main mountain range or crest of European economic and cultural dynamism”, an area that encompasses Paris, the Rhine valley, north Italy, south Germany and Switzerland.
In a way similar to New Tendencies in the ’60s and ’70s, Media Art (a generic term that covers new media art, net.art, net cultures, and digital art at the end 90’s and beginning of 2000) experienced a “specific” relationship with the mainstream art system. The first thing that connects both New Tendencies and later Media Art is a reluctance to be incorporated into the contemporary art system. This uneasiness has fuelled recent debates ranging from considering that Media Art is part of the contemporary art system to opinions that Media Art is a completely different category. This relationship has similarities with that of the New Tendencies movement concerning the contemporary art system half a century ago. The other is something that is unfolding in front of our eyes, a kind of new Amnesia International 2.0, slowly covering memories of media art and culture of the 90s and early 2000.
Armin Medosch’s book makes a structural connection between early media art and culture and the media art of the 90s and early 2000s. Concepts of sharing, critique of the commodification of art objects, the de-elitization and democratization of art, demystification of art, and the embracing of discussion of pluralistic techno-political impacts of technology; these are common denominators that connect art at the threshold of the Information Revolution with the art of late Informationalism in the late 20th and early 21st Century.