Mary Flanagan – Digital Media Artist – Columbia University Talk


Mary Flanagan –  Digital Media Artist and Researcher

Mary Flanagan is a Digital Media Artist, a lot of her projects and activist work comes from her ‘Investigations of the everyday practices of digital culture’ – creating the experience of the everyday environment in a world of ubiquitous consumption of the digital. Mary is also interested in ‘Spacial Paradigms’ and ‘Feminist Cultural Geography’.

I am interested in Mary’s work because it incorporates ‘Viewer Participation’ and ‘New Media’. Also a lot of her work is comparable to activist ideals. In her lecture for Columbia University dated 4th April 2009 she talks about some of her activist projects and states herself that she considers a lot of her work to be activist based. She states that she is a ‘Tactical Media Artist’

“Thus the autonomous production of media for grassroots campaigns has been widely established as a core concern for contemporary political movements, not least thanks to the Tactical Media pioneers of the 1990s. However, its increasing reliance on commercial infrastructure is introducing new points of failure are becoming apparent as the policing of the commercial platforms is getting more intense.”

Some of the media that Mary uses include Web Art/Networked Art, Game Design, Sculpture, Electronics etc. 

I am currently investigating the potential pit falls of constant use of immersive technology particularly in regards to how it might affect young people today as they develop into adulthood. It is interesting to see how Mary Flanagan uses this technology as a positive force.

In the lecture for Columbia University Mary talks about how new media artists juggle between high tech and low tech, sometimes incorporating both. Something I don’t have an issue with as I have limited high tech abilities for now. Mary also touches on issues surrounding the ‘Economics’ in relation to artists using a digital media, how it is difficult to market and also the possible legal issues and constraints that are involved.

Mary Flanagan’s Contemporaries

– Allan Kaprow

American Performance Artist and Theoretician

“The integration of all elements – environment, constructed sections, time, space and people has been my main technical problem” – Allan Kaprow

Allan Kaprow coined the phrase “Happenings”, as he and artists like him rejected the current fashion of Abstract Expressionism being more interested in how the works were being created. His “Happenings” often blurred the lines between art and viewer. One of his most influential pieces was ‘Yard 1961’ – Kaprow built a junkyard within the Martha Jackson Gallery’s back yard. Viewers were invited to participate with the work thus becoming a part of the work.


Kaprow’s ‘18 Happenings in 6 Parts’ in 1959 was presented at the Reuben Gallery in New York. This was time Kaprow was able to present this new style of art to a larger audience. This is were the term ‘Happenings’ was born. It means ‘something spontaneous, something that just happens to happen’. (Tate, 2012)

What was interesting is how Mary Flanagan draws a connection between what Allan Kaprow was doing in 1961 and digital art today. Kaprow looked at ‘life as art’ while Mary’s own research involves ‘engaging in the everyday’. There is also the point that both Mary and Allan need viewer interaction to complete their works. So participation plays a huge part. Mary says that what the ‘Surrealists’ and fluxus were doing relate just as much today particularly in the digital art realm.

– Claes Oldenburg


Mary compares how some of her students want to make alternative stores similar to Oldenburgs ‘Store 1961-64’ that was full of fake, funny and witty recreations/sculptures of popular commercial culture items such as food stuff, burgers and cigarettes etc. – The students create theses fake stores firstly because it is a good way of learning how to construct databases while learning technical skills. They also create the stores with ‘Culture Hacking’ in mind.

“Culture hacking is all about finding the little things you can do everyday, to make iterative change, like the engineering sprints that software developers do, it’s about focusing on small things more frequently rather than only trying to tackle and change the big things. Fundamentally, a culture hack is simply an intentional action taken to affect positive cultural change within your organisation” –

What a wonderful little concept – Culture Hack

Other influential works by Claes Oldenburg at around the same time was ‘The Street 1960’


Oldenburg created ‘The Street’ from cardboard and newspaper. His finished piece created a haphazard panorama of a busy grimy city.


– Rauschenberg and Hays – Open Score Performance 1966

In this work you can see the incorporation of technology as sensors were inserted into the racquets (Found Objects). You can also see the participatory element by how the audience interact with the piece. It is also a real life experience of attending a game of some form (not an everyday occurrence). I can see why this would be of interest. The technology would have been quite hight tech at the time. I particularly like the participatory element of this piece.

– Alison Knowles – On Scores 

Mary is looking at Alison Knowles in relation to her artist fluxus scores as they could be said to relate to coding in computing. Concentrating and following the instructions to completion is something Mary says crosses over to the Science and Engineering world. A Venn diagram where the two fields collide. I was quite interested in how Alison says the the best salad is created by following the instructions, paying attention to what you are doing, not becoming distracted in a similar way to the ethos of ‘Mindfulness’, being lost and absorbed by the process.

One piece Mary Flanagan refers to is ‘Bean Rolls’, designed by George Maciunas in 1963, that Alison used in 1964 for performances and participatory events.


– Yoko Ono – Instruction Painting

Again we are confronted with an artist who uses instruction in her art. In fact Mary compares these instruction paintings to ‘sudo code’ used by programmers. (An interesting idea) Yoko’s instruction paintings are never fully complete as the stories from each will be different to each reader and if the instructions are followed outcomes will differ too. I believe they can only be complete when the last one is lost and the last witnesses memory fades.

Yoko Ono also refers to her paintings as ‘Happenings’ though she prefers to call them paintings.


Modern Contemporaries

Continuing the theme of instruction Mary introduced us to some of her more modern contemporaries. Such as:

– Christiane Paul – CODeDOC (Whitney Museam)

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                                                                                         –  Code by Golan Levin

Christiane Paul invited a dozen artists to code in respond to some basic rules similar to the types of ‘Scores’ discussed used by Alison Knowles and Yoko Ono. They can use a code language of their own choice to complete the task and the results can be as abstract as they want as long as they follow the assignments basic instructions. They then have to share their code with each other and invited to comment. Christiane Paul is more interested in looking at the process (Code) rather than the very different outputs the code creates.

“One does not need to be a programmer and have an in-depth understanding of computer languages to establish a connection between the code and its respective results: even a glance at the artists’ source code will reveal certain mathematical functions, and in many cases, the artists’ comments on their writing clarify the functionality of a line or section of the code. In some cases, reading the source code will enhance the perception of the work; in other cases, the code doesn’t necessarily add to the projects. CODeDOC is an endeavor to take a closer look at the process of this particular artistic practice, and to raise questions about the parameters of artistic creation.” –

I use code myself (Very Basic Arduino)and have thought of it as like trying to read stories from a different culture, not quite understanding the colloquialisms. I was interested to see that other have a similar opinion. I paraphrase Sam Aaron (Sonic Pi) here by saying, coding is the new language and everyone should get on board. I struggle with my own desire and love for technology and my fear for the future due to peoples over dependance on technology, over consumption of resources to create technology, and how we have become so immersed as to remove ourselves from the natural world. This for me is a real tug-of-war.

I find the collaborated quality of this project exciting and would have loved to have had the ability to take part. The artist comments on each others works are interesting to read. It has spurred me on to contact a local organisation (CARIAD) that works in areas like this and offer my help.



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