Friday, June 08, 2007

ISALTA for the Twenty-first Century

Remembering the spectacular vision of David Ecker in the 1980s, I find the emergence of the International Society for the Advancement of Living Traditions in Art as a presence and project on the web to be a promising leap into the future. Spearheaded by Dr. Carleton Palmer, many of the practitioners of ISALTA of the past thirty years now have a home and a multifaceted voice that can extend some of the most original ideas of all arts into an energy for preservation and change.

In a world that treasures modernity over substance, ISALTA offers a vision that extends to the spiritual and aesthetic foundations of creative work. Yet, the organization, born out of the momentum of 1981, is in need of renewed vision and energy. ISALTA's website is an impressive articulation of a vital spirit, but now that this sleeping giant has emerged in cyberspace from the collective of artists that spawned world wide research and arts events, it seems to have nowhere to go. Yet, if I Google "living traditions in the arts" I find more than 22,000,000 hits, and ISALTA does not emerge as a prominent player.

ISALTA is aware of its plight. Visiting the website reveals a globe that serves as a link to this message:

ISALTA is changing. Since 1981 Members of the Board of Directors
and members have passed away, retired and moved on to other
interests. It is up to the membership to set the direction for
in this century, and all input will be welcomed at

ISALTA needs more than new ideas. It needs artists from all media with vibrant passions about the past, present, and future. The strength of ISALTA in the past is that its members had strong convictions about the present and the vision to shape the future.

If you examine about 30 pages of the 22,000,000 hits for living traditions, you are struck by the obsession of those websites with the past. This is certainly admirable and consonant with an objective of ISALTA in the 1980s, but ISALTA also was intent on creating tradition and bringing the latest technology and arts practices to bear so that boundaries were broken and crossed and new affiliations and collaborations emerged, sometimes with breath-taking speed. One such artist is Sandro Dernini, a contributing member, whose monumental work Plexus spanned Time and Space in an elaborate ongoing collaboration of artists and performers. Dernini was also an important figure in the initiatives surrounding the 500th year of Columbus' voyage to America which led to the creation of Navigating Global Cultures at NYU. NGC no longer exists, but as Web Arts Collaborative suggests, a new era for interactive creative work has emerged, and ISALTA might seize this opportunity for its own initiatives.

ISALTA needs to extend beyond the visual bias that presently is reflected in its membership, research, and coursework. Perhaps a performance-based conference aimed at attracting thinkers and practitioner's from all media, intermedia, mixed media, and multimedia could provoke a new revolution of thought. ISALTA's phenomenological-based stance is most welcome in this new world of quantitative dominance. Whether David Ecker's work is enough to propel this facet of ISALTA may not be relevant. Ecker's work is important and significant, although lately somewhat overlooked. But there are many others such as Don Ihde, Merleau-Ponty, et al., who philosophically underpin the work of this organization and embrace its raisone d'etre.

Yet, one cannot help but admire the tenacity of ISALTA. After all these years, its efforts and work have coalesced, and it can manage to somewhat defiantly shout in the wilderness of the 21st Century (with apologies to Sondheim):
Good times and bum times,
I’ve seen them all and, my dear,
I’m still here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the insightful observations about ISALTA. Technology has made practical what was unreachable twenty-five years ago because of logistics and cost.

The ideas of an encyclopedia of living traditions in art, research journal and artist/researcher magazine might now be realized as interactive, co-operative projects along with enhanced communication tools at a single website. The existing site,, is merely a sketch, and definitely a work-in-progress that can be continuously reshaped by the artist/researchers themselves.
The underlying concept of art as qualitative problem solving transcends medium and material; it is inclusive rather than exclusive, and challenges preconceptions about art and empty definitions that drain art of meaning. The dissertations whose abstracts are available through the site encyclopedia, and the varied art they discuss give some idea of the breadth and utility of this idea, although they do collectively reveal a visual bias, that is the product of historical circumstances not philosophy. Discussion of "a performance-based conference aimed at attracting thinkers and practitioner's from all media, intermedia, mixed media, and multimedia" excites the imagination and would be a highly desirable development.
As you observed, the philosophical groundwork for those particular dissertations lies to a greater or lesser degree in Dr. Ecker's work (some of whose papers are being digitized and made available onsite as quickly as possible), but he would agree that they represent only a small part of a story yet to be written. Serious contributions and documentation are requested for inclusion in the Encyclopedia and publications. It is hoped that ISALTA will be a place where that story can be written, seen and heard, and every interested artist/researcher is invited to the space.