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Making the Digital Divide Cheap and Nasty.

08/09/2012
Robert Jackson

So ArtForum have launched a special September issue investigating the, lets say broader, relationship between new media, technology and visual art.*

Of worthy mention is the essay Digital Divide by the art world’s antagonistic critic of choice Claire Bishop, a writer whom a little under 8 years ago, deservedly poured critical scorn over the happy-go-lucky, merry-go-round creative malaise that was Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and all of the proponents involved. Since then Bishop’s critical eye has focused on the acute political antagonistic relationships, within the dominant paradigms of participatory art and the concomitant authenticity of the social.

In Digital Divide, Bishop asks a different question, and its delivered even more bluntly than usual. Why has the mainstream art world, for the most part, refrained from directly responding to the ‘endlessly disposable, rapidly mutable ephemera of the virtual age and its impact on our consumption of relationships, images and communication.‘ This is not to say the practices of mainstream artists do not rely on digital media (in almost all cases, it now cannot function without it), but why hasn’t the shifting sands of digital culture been made explicit? In Bishop’s words;

“[H]ow 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?”

Clearly, there are exceptions and she mentions three examples by art stars Frances Stark, Thomas Hirschhorn and Ryan Trecartin which flirt here and there with digital thematisation. Conversely artists who once specialised in digital art, Cory Arcangel, Miltos Manetas – to name two very famous examples – have previously broken out into the mainstream.

But for Bishop, there is of course, “an entire sphere of “new media” art, but this is a specialised field of its own: It rarely overlaps with the mainstream art world (commercial galleries, the Turner Prize, national pavilions at Venice)” – (one could add art fairs here). But nonetheless “these exceptions just point up the rule“. Bishop’s focus is on the mainstream and, moreover, she contends that “the digital is, on a deep level, the shaping condition—even the structuring paradox—that determines artistic decisions to work with certain formats and media. Its subterranean presence is comparable to the rise of television as the backdrop to art of the 1960s.” True enough, this structuring paradox is an implicit problem with the mainstream art world, but thats not the problem tout court.

From the responses I’ve read both in the article comments and in subsequent blog posts, a particular issue has been marked with Bishop’s statement that “new media” art is a specialised field. Whilst it doesn’t qualify as a dismissal, one could certainly suggest that Bishop is partly guilty of the same disavowal she throws at the mainstream art world when she relegates this sphere as an ‘exception’. In a blog-post response, Kyle Chayka makes a similar point; “Bishop understands that digital technology forms a seedbed for art as well as life, but fails to uncover the artists who are already critiquing that context.” I’m not a Lacanian, but maybe this is a symptom of something.

If mainstream art is ‘the rule’, (and I’m insinuating ‘the rule’ as anti-metaphor here) perhaps ‘the rule’ isn’t worth paying attention to, considering that the new media art exception is too much of a ‘specialisation’. In as much as one can only agree with Bishop’s call for mainstream art’s negotiation with digital thematisation, has she not missed the same aesthetic questions already posed and re-composed in this exceptional sphere? Why should the qualifier of the mainstream be such a factor of importance here? Why not cut off the need to reconcile digital thematisation with a set of historical, and commercially ideological principles which may not take kindly to the more ambitious and darker questions that the social and political arena of global digitalisation have thrown up. This is not to say that Bishop isn’t seeking those questions nor does she wish to reconcile those principles, but the specialised sphere of ‘new media art’ may quench the questions she herself raises.

Case in point: all Bishop would have needed to reference is something like the Dark Drives exhibition for the transmediale festival earlier this year; the tag line “uneasy energies in Technological Times” sums up her main descriptions of a digital epoch quite nicely. For instance, the artist group Art 404’s 5 Million Dollars 1 Terabyte, renders explicit one subset of the absurd, copyright, exploitative logic of proprietary software, by saving one terabyte’s worth of unlicensed software onto a single hard drive. Next to it was JK Keller’s idiosyncratic piece Realigning My Thoughts on Jasper Johns, which showed off a glitchy, abstract bastardisation of a Simpson’s episode Mom and Pop Art – regurgitating haggard mainstream perspectives. Crucially the success of the show was down to the implicitness of the exhibition’s technical triumphs – where technical jargon is often touted as a reason for the mainstream’s averted gaze. Whilst the viewer didn’t need to know the technics, but a richer understanding emerged should they have wanted to know.

There isn’t any need to clog up this article with a bottomless plethora of pieces from other equally important exhibtions and shows (I’m sure many others are better qualified in doing so); my point here, is that Bishop cannot relegate new media art as an exception to the rule, when the digitalisation of media is becoming the rule, which she herself explicitly admits. Choosing to focus on the failure of the mainstream in this arena gives the essay a healthy line of questioning, but in relegating an entire sphere which has – for some time – repeatedly dealt with these questions and more, it raises what is effectively a pointless query. To be fair to Bishop, she isn’t trying to force a fecund translation of new media with mainstream values, but looking for methods where digitalisation can instigate the change of those values.

Granted, Dark Drives is one major show in a major Berlin new media festival – the top of a very extensive collection of disparate voices and influences – but it inadvertently highlights a salient thought. What if Bishop’s call to bridge the ‘Digital Divide’ was actually met by a new generation of artists thrust into the mainstream, where digital themes were translated into its own methods of commercial production? We’ve gotten over the myth that ‘virtual’ commodities are unmarketable, so it’s not as if I’m being negative for the sake of it. Where would this leave festivals like transmediale, or not-for-profit collectives like Furtherfield – how would they respond? It’s an uneasy question, one which for speculative purposes cannot be answered quickly at present, if at all.

In the throws of conjecture, there is perhaps another division at play here. Towards the end of her essay, Bishop makes a reference to the difference between the non-existent embrace of the digital medium today, and the rapid embrace of photography, film and video in the 60s and 70s.

“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 .jpg file to .txt and you will find its ingredients: a garbled recipe of numbers and letters, meaningless to the average viewer. Is there a sense of fear underlying visual art’s disavowal of new media?”

This is a division which is even more striking; more aesthetically and philosophically significant in comparison to marketable rules and unmarketable exceptions. I think Bishop is really on to something when she chastises the hybrid solutions of old media nostalgia, evidently favoured by the market and contrasts it to the alien nature of code, but it’s not without problems.

Some may consider there to be nothing inherently alien about digital media; many artists, who also work as programmers and write, design and engineer artworks together with code without any recourse to an alien nature (however I vehemently disagree with the notion that code be solely reduced to human production, but it must be pointed out) Likewise, any 90s utopian reading of the ‘digital revolution’ is mired from the start, once you take into consideration, closed proprietary devices and services which falsify other meaningful alternatives (one only needs to trace the important work of the Telekommunisten art collective to realise how advanced these questions are, in what is supposed to be a specialised field).

If there is a fear underlying visual art’s disavowal of digitalisation, it’s not just a critical bemusement of code, but of the material which composes computational media; wires, LCD screens, motherboards, caches, firmware, sorting algorithms. Bishop’s call for mainstream contemporary art to be aware of its own conditions and circumstance is admirable, but unless art can actually get its hands dirty with the material processes of new media and more importantly the underlying computational conditions concerning the digital (because thats what it is), the project of explaining these circumstances will be quagmired from the start. It’s not enough to explain ‘our changing experience’ with computation, but to explain the experience of computation in itself.

But for now, lets keep the divide going, not least because antagonisms are fun (Bishop should know), but because the contemporary digital arts are not hindered with the burden of seeking the mainstream’s attention. They can get away with a lot more as a result. Digital or Computational art needs to be cheaper and nastier, as the artist’s tools of use are getting increasingly dirty with critical engagement and proflierfation of code (one cannot avoid mentioning Julian Oliver et al’s important project of critical engineering in this sense). Only then, can Bishop speak of a moment, where the “treasured assumptions” of mainstream art are brought to bear through the criticality of the digital.

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* Just to make it clear, I am aware that key terms in this article such as ‘new media’ ‘digitisation’, etc carry little to no relevance anymore, (I prefer computational to be more relevant myself), and they’re only used as a replying dialogue with Claire Bishop’s essay which relies on them throughout.