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Multimedia art: contemporary forms

Multimedia Art showed it’s first signs of evolving in the late 1960s, but truly came to be in the Contemporary Art period as the number of mediums began to increase almost exponentially. Often confused with mixed media art (which mixes visual media such as oils and pastels on a single canvas), multimedia revolves much more around enhancing visual art with non-visual media such as sound, literature, or dramatic performance. As such a mixed media piece, could be incorporated within a multimedia artwork, but not the other way around.

The broad concept of multimedia can be found as far back as the 19th century when the composer Wagner had the idea of combining multiple art forms into a singular theatrical experience, which he believed would lead to the most profound art. It really moved forward in earnest in the 60s; an American artist, Dick Higgins had theorised about “intermedia”, and two years later in 1966 the singer and artist Bobb Goldsteinn promised a multimedia performance to launch his new show.

Pop Artist Andy Warhol also had a role to play, in addition to creating some of the first video art, Warhol also organised a range of events with the band The Velvet Underground, which combined live music, film projection, photography, lighting, and performance. Bringing together evolving ideas like art happenings, performance art, and video art, these were by definition multi-media artworks, delivered at a time when people were mostly used to taking in just one thing at a time; you look at a painting, or you listen to music, or you attend a play, but not all three together.

The rise of multimedia inextricably linked to computers and the Internet

A long evolution would follow with the multimedia term being applied to a range of ideas, in the 70s one popular format was a multi-projector slide show set to music, but by the 90s it was becoming the multimedia we think of today. This was no coincidence; more and more media forms were emerging, and the after effects of modern art were to experiment in the search for something truly new. The rise of computers provided a helpful way to bring it all together, display it, provide opportunities to interact with it, or, in the style of the Internet, provide a networked collection of media elements for the viewer to navigate through via a linking system.

Some of the first contemporary definitions of multimedia art specified that it should be delivered by computer. This may not always hold true, but the emergence of the Internet has shown it to be an ideal multimedia delivery system, enabling quick and simple combining of different media, distribution of the results, and an interface for viewers to interact with or explore it further.

But within that lies a complication; almost the entire Internet combines video, still images, audio, text, interactivity, and hypertext links, though when considered in the context of a screen being the modern canvas, perhaps it is just mixed media after all.

Multimedia became the medium of the contemporary age

Looking back to Wagner’s concept, and the early definitions of multimedia, just watching a screen feels like an anti-climax; it really needs media happening external to the computer to cross into the true multimedia world; such as a video projection with a symphony orchestra, live actors, and fireworks. There’s also a strong argument that as long as everything is based around computers, surely it is digital art; these lines of definition can be hard to draw as artforms, mediums, and tools continue to evolve and combine.

And within all of that, lies the issue of whether multimedia art really is a true art movement, or just an evolution of what we think of as a medium. Almost all forms of creative art and entertainment delivered by screen combine multiple elements; almost every modern film features dramatic performances, music, computer graphics, literature, and still images, by definition the entire medium of film is multimedia using a huge team of variously skilled artists to bring it together. But we all think of film as a single creative medium, it is to the contemporary world what a canvas was to people of the 19th Century, technology has just made it capable of moving and making noise.

We still hear of multimedia exhibits and artworks in galleries, and many meet the true definition, but multimedia has become such an everyday experience that it is almost a medium unto itself, and any idea of a defined multimedia art movement or style has dissipated, a victim of it’s own success.