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Rethinking the medium

Repenser le médium

Matter, technique and transmission in contemporary art and cinema

Matière, technique et transmission dans l’art contemporain et le cinéma

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Published on Wednesday, December 09, 2015


Dans une certaine mesure, les usages des termes « médium » et « média(s) » sont encore organisés aujourd'hui autour d’un strict partage théorique et disciplinaire : d’un côté, l’étude des médiums et, de l’autre, l’étude des médias entendus au sens de mass media. Le développement dans l’art contemporain de pratiques artistiques qui se situent à la croisée de plusieurs médiums (intermedia, mixed media, multimedia) ou qui ont recours aux « nouveaux médias », tout comme dans le domaine du cinéma le passage de l’argentique au numérique et l’apparition de nouveaux dispositifs et de nouvelles formes de captation, de manipulation, de visionnement et d’archivage des images en mouvement, ont précipité la nécessité de repenser ce qu’est un médium. Face à un panorama artistique, cinématographique et technologique en constante transformation, ce colloque se propose de rouvrir la question de la définition du médium en interrogeant la distinction entre « médium » et « média(s) ».



Organized by the research program “Contemporary Art, Cinema, Media” of the Contemporary Art section of INHA in partnership with the Université Paris 3 Sorbonne-Nouvelle / LIRA (Laboratoire International de Recherches en Arts), Goethe-Universität Frankfurt-am-Main, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, and IKKM-Weimar.

To a certain extent, there is still today a tendency to distinguish the terms “medium” and “media” following a strict theoretical and disciplinary divide: on the one hand, the study of mediums, that is, artistic mediums understood as the material supports, techniques, and forms of representation studied by the history and theory of art and cinema, and, on the other hand, the study of media in the sense of mass media, that is, the means of mass communication addressed by communication and information studies.

However, over the past twenty years, an important new field of research has emerged that addresses all forms of mediation occurring within a given cultural context. Transdisciplinary and open to a variety of methodological influxes, this expanding field, better known as Medienwissenschaft or media studies, looks at the technical and material conditions of all forms of perception and experience, representation and communication, as well as the different cultural techniques implied in the production of meaning, overcoming thereby the distinction between “medium” and “media”

The development within contemporary art of practices that combine different mediums (multimedia, mixed media) or move between and across mediums (intermedia, transmedia), just as, within the field of cinema, the transition from film to the digital, and the rise of new modes of recording, manipulating, and viewing moving images, have made it necessary to rethink what a medium actually is. Responding to an artistic, cinematographic, and technological landscape in constant flux, this conference seeks to investigate the definition of what a medium is by questioning the rigid distinction between “medium”  and “media”. 

In order to do so, it is important to consider the various meanings and connotations ascribed to the latin-derived word “medium” within a long genealogy that can be traced back to the Aristotelian notions of metaxu and diaphanes and that finds its key moments in the 20th century with the writings of László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Benjamin, Rudolf Arnheim and Clement Greenberg, Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler. Seeking to present the most recent research on these topics, this symposium aims at the same time to contribute to the dialog between the disciplines of art history, cinema studies, and media studies. 

Main themes

Papers may address the following topics:

1. Medium, Specificity, Modernism 

In the field of art history, the notion of “medium” is often used with reference to the geographically as well as theoretically circumscribed notion of “medium specificity” such as it was defined by Clement Greenberg’s formalist modernism. This is true even of attempts to transcend this model, several of which demonstrate in fact a return to modernist issues that appeared to have been discarded. Similarly, in the context of cinema studies, there is today a revived interest in the notion of medium specificity put forward most famously by Rudolf Arnheim and Siegfried Kracauer, while in the field of Medienwissenschaft there is a new discussion about the way in which the reference to one specific medium (photography, film, radio, television) determines the production of an overall theory of media. To what extent is the medium a modernist concept? What is the current relevance of the notion of a strict compartmentalization of artistic mediums? How may we address the historical and cultural foundations of this notion? Particularly welcome are proposals for papers addressing approaches not limited to the American context. 

2. Medium, Milieu, Environment

The understanding of the medium as a technical instrument or channel of communication, as well as the theories of medium specificity within the fields of art and film theory, have relegated to the background the concept of the medium as an intermediary entity or ambient space: a milieu, or an environment. However, this idea has gained new currency in  contemporary art and cinema, starting with the “environments” of postwar art,  Op and kinetic art, as well as with expanded cinema and video installations. This conception of the medium belongs to a long genealogy that has its origin in Aristotle’s philosophy, and that has known various developments among modern thinkers: in the theoretical biology of Jakob von Uexküll (with his notion of “Umwelt” ), in László Moholy-Nagy's idea of “light as a plastic medium of expression,” in Fritz Heider’s distinction between Medium and Ding (later reformulated by Niklas Luhmann in terms of a distinction between Medium and Form), in Benjamin’s understanding of the relation between the technical Apparate and the “medium of perception,” in McLuhan’s understanding of media as “environments,” as well as in the contemporary “meteorological,” “physical,” and “geological” approaches to media. This section considers works that explore the materialities and the densities of the medium conceived as an intermediary region, extending in space and plastic, capable of conditioning our forms of perception and experience.

3. Medium, Materialities, Gesture

Rethinking the notion of medium by exploring its long history and its several genealogical lines leads to a reconsideration of what is meant by matter and materiality in reference to art and cinema. How does the study of the technical networks that structure the recording, processing, and storing of knowledge and information (Kittler's Aufschreibesysteme) or that of the “cultural techniques” whose operations constitute the fabric of culture, help us understand in a new way the materialities and the technical dimension involved in artistic practices ? In which way do such approaches help us reconsider the idea of the immateriality of so-called “new media” ? Do the new materialities and techniques at work in contemporary artistic practices determine the development of new positions and gestures on the side of both the artist and the spectator ?

4. Medium, Memory, Transmission

After considering the archaeology of the concept of medium and how it contributes to the history and theory of contemporary art and cinema, this section considers the archaeology of media proper. How does the new approach known as media archaeology shed light on artistic practices and cinematographic and audiovisual forms that engage with the temporality of media and the way in which they record, process, and transmit cultural memory? How do contemporary artists and filmmakers depict the radical changes affecting the access to this memory and the places, forms, and technics of archiving such as the library and the book? 

Submission guidelines

The deadline for proposals (title and abstract of 300 words and short cv of 2 pages) for papers of 25 minutes is 

January 5, 2016

Please send proposals to larisa.dryansky@inha.fr. 

The colloquium will take place on the 22-24th june 2016 at the Galerie Colbert, Paris

Symposium organizers and scientific board

  • Larisa Dryansky, INHA / Université Paris-Sorbonne
  • Oliver Fahle, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
  • Vinzenz Hediger, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt-am-Main
  • Antonio Somaini, Université Paris 3 Sorbonne-Nouvelle / LIRA (Laboratoire International de Recherches en Arts)
  • Riccardo Venturi, INHA


  • Tuesday, January 05, 2016


  • médium, spécificité, modernisme, milieu, environnement, matérialité, geste, mémoire, transmission

Information source

  • Elsa Nadjm
    courriel : elsa [dot] nadjm [at] inha [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Rethinking the medium », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, December 09, 2015, https://calenda.org/350176

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