Photo: Ivo Farber.
Cast your mind back to the late s, when we got our first e-mail accounts. Most art today deploys new technology at one if not most stages of its production, dissemination, and consumption.
So why do I have a sense that the appearance and content of contemporary art have been curiously unresponsive to the total upheaval in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution?
While many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital?
How many thematize this, or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence?
K [Section A] , Each suggests the endlessly disposable, rapidly mutable ephemera of the virtual age and its impact on our consumption of relationships, images, and communication; each articulates something of the troubling oscillation between intimacy and distance that characterizes our new technological regime, and proposes an incommensurability between our doggedly physiological lives and the screens to which we are glued.
But these exceptions just point up the rule. While this split is itself undoubtedly symptomatic, the mainstream art world and its response to the digital are the focus of this essay. And when you look at contemporary art since , the year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, it is striking that so little of it seems to address the way in which the forms and languages of new media have altered our relationship to perception, history, language, and social relations.
Its subterranean presence is comparable to the rise of television as the backdrop to art of the s. Manon de Boer, Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, Rodney Graham, Rosalind Nashashibi, and Fiona Tan are just a few names from a long roll call of artists attracted to the materiality of predigital film and photography.
Overnight, VHS became obsolete, rendering its own aesthetic and projection equipment open to nostalgic reuse, but the older technology of celluloid was and remains the favorite. Artists like Dean, the preeminent spokesperson for old media, stake their attachment to celluloid as a fidelity to history, to craft, to the physicality of the editing process; the passing of real film is a loss to be mourned.
The sumptuous texture of indexical media is unquestionably seductive, but its desirability also arises from the impression that it is scarce, rare, precious. A digital film can be copied quickly and cheaply, ad infinitum; not so a mm film.
But today this assertion needs to be subject to scrutiny. The continued prevalence of analog film reels and projected slides in the mainstream art world seems to say less about revolutionary aesthetics than it does about commercial viability. Manon de Boer, Attica , , 16 mm, black-and-white, 9 minutes 55 seconds. Installation view, Lunds Konsthall, Lund, Sweden, Another contemporary mode steeped in the analog is social practice.
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In the past decade, socially engaged art has tended to favor intersubjective exchange and homespun activities cooking, gardening, conversation , with the aim of reinforcing a social bond fragmented by spectacle. In , Lev Manovich presciently observed that in foregrounding two-way communication as a fundamental cultural activity as opposed to the one-way flow of a film or book , the Internet asks us to reconsider the very paradigm of an aesthetic object: Can communication between users become the subject of an aesthetic?
Both iterations suggest some of the pressures that current regimes of technology and communication have placed on the object, which becomes increasingly fragile and provisional, as if to assert subjectivity and tactility against the sealed, impregnable surface of the screen.
These forms of repurposing differ from appropriation art of the s, when artists seized imagery from art history Sherrie Levine or advertising Richard Prince with a view to questioning authorship and originality while drawing attention, yet again, to the plight of the image in the age of mechanical reproduction. In the digital era, a different set of concerns prevails. Faced with the infinite resources of the Internet, selection has emerged as a key operation: We build new files from existing components, rather than creating from scratch.
Questions of originality and authorship are no longer the point; instead, the emphasis is on a meaningful recontextualization of existing artifacts.
Often refuting established taxonomies as a systematic organizing principle for their work, these artists embrace subjective rationales or arbitrary systems. Presented as carefully displayed collections, their installations belie the extent to which everyone with a personal computer today has become a de facto archivist, storing and filing thousands of documents, images, and music files.
Artists select and aggregate not only in the production of individual works but also in the exhibitions they curate. From a twenty-first-century perspective, it is the act of surfing: the pursuit of impromptu, subjective connections via the aleatory free assocation of navigating the Web.
Unlike previous generations of artist-researchers such as Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, and Martha Rosler , who tended to examine the social, political, and economic conditions of their present moments, contemporary research-based art e.
The presentation of research-based art and archival installations is typically at pains to confer aura and value on carefully selected physical objects; moreover, these objects remain fixed and static rather than being adaptable by users. Acknowledged or not, the research possibilities afforded by the Internet have made themselves felt in other aspects of contemporary art, too. In the early s, Susan Hiller amassed a series of postcards that she found in British seaside towns, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists , — The postcards, largely sourced via eBay, attest to the possibilities of Internet searchability.
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But our consumption of this work in turn reflects the changing patterns of contemporary perception: It is impossible to take in all four thousand postcards, so our eyes just scan the surface, in the rapid-fire skimming with which we browse news and reviews on our smartphones.
The result is that we filter and graze, skim and forward. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel.
From Documenta But why is contemporary art so reluctant to describe our experience of digitized life? These formats, however, were image-based, and their relevance and challenge to visual art were self-evident. The digital, by contrast, is code, inherently alien to human perception. It is, at base, a linguistic model.
Convert any. Faced with the infinite multiplicity of digital files, the uniqueness of the art object needs to be reasserted in the face of its infinite, uncontrollable dissemination via Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. At its most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialized, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture; at its worst, it signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself.
Claire Bishop is associate professor in the Ph.
Even traditional forms of art, like painting, are supported by a digital apparatus: PDFs sent to the press or to collectors, JPEGS on gallery websites, etc. I will leave aside painting for the moment.
Its recent exponents in the US, at least have consciously deployed digital referents: Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker, for example, produce hybrid analog-digital paintings. Rather than downloading images from the Internet, Walker sources his imagery in library books, which are then scanned, and altered on his computer, before being transferred to canvas for one-off paintings. Again, however, these works use technology and rather decoratively rather than reflecting on digital visuality per se.
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Of course, digital files are also subject to degradation through resizing and compression; the products of these processes are referred to as lossies. Like performance art, social practice increasingly depends for its production and documentation on e-mail and digital photography.
His formulation plays off and departs from current theories of scanning and saccadic vision.