Tom Sherman: What is Transmedia?December 17
The term transmedia is often used to describe the way a corporation establishes an idea by implanting similar messages across a range of media concurrently. An idea (or image or sound) is implanted simultaneously in video, television, radio, print and through the Web, thoroughly infecting a media environment. Audiences make connections between multiple representations of the same idea. Ideas are reinforced as various content sources resonate and are firmed up through redundancy. The goal is establishing a presence, and ultimately a saturation of the environment. Logos, slogans, and simple narratives often emerge as dominate messages in transmediated media environments. Content with reduced complexity is easier to recognize.
A transmedia approach to pushing information across and through media can also be employed as a strategy for artists, whether artists are working as individuals or in cooperatives. Today many artists choose not to specialize in a particular medium. In fact, increasing numbers of contemporary artists choose to work in a range of media that effectively embody the ideas (or images and sounds) they want to convey. Artists are free to choose media that will effectively convey particular ideas and forms. For instance, e-mail and the Web are extremely effective for conveying messages in written texts (as are books, magazines, and most recently cell-phones). Radio and telephony are excellent media for the spoken word. Magazines, websites and billboards are great platforms for photographic images. Galleries and museums are wonderful places for art that looks like art.
Artists in the 21st century are information providers. They must understand media environments, knowing how media function and overlap, and be able to create information that moves easily from one medium to another. No medium is pure and discrete. All media overlap and shadow each other. Digital media technologies shout out this interconnectedness. The translation and migration of ideas from medium to medium is a generative process. Ideas moving across media change shape and transform into new ideas, often flourishing in new contexts. Audiences associated with particular media, say radio or blog audiences, are assembled through transmediation. An audience that likes to listen is mixed with an audience that prefers to read and write, etc., etc.
Many individual artists work in multimedia or engage in intermedial strategies. Individual artists with limited media knowledge and skills may cooperate with others with different knowledge and assets to form transmedia collectives. The goal is to assemble teams of people with a broad range of expertise and skills. Collaboration across a range of media makes social and political goals attainable. Whether a single individual is as psychologically complex as a ’society’ of minds, or a dozen people choose to indulge in a unified, disciplined version of group-think, intent is permitted to build and sweep into action in an environment ripe with transmedia activity.
The key is to understand a media environment as an ecological context. Transmedia artists, whether operating individually or cooperatively, must recognize opportunities to plant ideas and adopt strategies to orchestrate the presence and growth and evolution of ideas in local or global media environments. Whether one works conceptually or perceptually, it is important to study the way a message moves through and resides in various media. The amplification, replication, distortion or dampening that occurs when ideas are placed in various media is the result of content becoming form.
An aesthetics of transmedia must consider environmental factors. An artist is not only responsible for the balance of content and form in his or her messages (how visual and sonic and symbolic languages are formed to transmit ideas), but for the contextualized impact of these messages in a media locale and throughout all adjacent media. The actual place where an audience experiences an artist’s work has always been a defining aspect of the work. Whether one encounters the work in private or public, in an art gallery, on a personal computer screen, in a book, on the street or through a network, the context of exposure is part and parcel of the work.
When environments are considered, issues like pollution and waste must be confronted. Artists can be guilty of excessive packaging, or of distributing empty messages, an art devoid of content. Corporations barge into media environments by purchasing space and time and bombarding audiences with redundant, obnoxious messages, saturating environments with
brute force. Artists seldom have the financial resources to buy their audiences. Instead artists must craft elegant, efficient messages and maximize opportunities to place these refined, but generally underfinanced ‘objects’ of thought and perception within niches in environments that will foster their growth and replication. There is no guarantee that artists will take the high road. Seduction and exploitation are synonymous with seeking and holding attention. Self promotion is an art form in this era of identity theft and zero privacy.
Artists must think about ways of maximizing the impact of content and understanding economies of form. When it is advantageous to recycle, do so with a twist. Create value out of discarded waste. Update or spin the media all around us. Always be suspicious of copyright legislation. Access to the media environment is critical. Cannibalize your own work–multi-version it whenever it makes sense to do so. Survival is diversity. Diversity is survival. Transmediation is the name of the game.
The environment you inhabit and work in will always determine your media. Why limit yourself unnecessarily as an artist specializing in a single medium? If you want to effectively interface with your environment, drive your form with content, and look for opportunities to connect with audiences. Make the most of every opportunity to effect the environment as an author (active literacy in all media involves reading and writing).
Work across and through media. Consider taking a transmedia approach to creating an effective presence in your local and global media environment.
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Tom Sherman (*1947) is an artist, writer and professor. He works in video, radio, text and live performance. His interdisciplinary work has been exhibited internationally, including shows at the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Musee d’art contemporain, the Museum of Modern Art, Festival International des Film sur l’Art, Wiener Konzerthaus and Ars Electronica. He represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1980. In 2003 he was awarded the Canada Council’s Bell Canada Award for excellence in video art. He performs and records with Bernhard Loibner (Vienna) in a group called Nerve Theory. His most recent book is Before and After the I-Bomb: An Artist in the Information Environment, The Banff Centre Press, 2002. He is a professor in the Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University in New York, but considers the South Shore of Nova Scotia his home.