What is the future of digital art?

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 4.37.56 PMOn Tuesday, I spoke on a panel discussion about the future of the digital art landscape at Heron Arts in San Francisco.

The event was hosted by Depict, and featured The Lab’s Dena Beard, YBCA’s Ceci Moss, the Wattis’ Anthony Huberman, and moderator Alexander Nemerov of Stanford. It was an interesting talk, and since it was recorded, you can watch the entire thing on YouTube – but only if you have over an hour to spare. If that’s not the case (lol), I thought I’d compile some of my notes to Alexander’s questions here, since there was a good amount I didn’t have a chance to bring up during the panel anyway.

Let’s just get right into it.

Given the remarkable range of reference available to a digital artist–culling material from any number of sources and manipulating that material as need be–what is to differentiate digital art from the slick and grooved speeds and tracks of global capitalism and the notions of personhood it supposes and invents? What, in other words, is the *resistant* nature of digital art, if any?

As I see it, this question could be reframed to be more interesting by addressing how digital artists approach the process of deciding what to make, then what sources to pull from, only AFTER they’ve thought about what commentary they’re hoping to give rise to. With more material and references available, it’s even more important for artists to have something to say, and then use these innumerable tools at their disposal to say it in an interesting, artful way.

A lot of (usually bad) digital art can have a corporate, too-slick aesthetic – when it isn’t concept-driven, art can often run the risk of looking sleek, over-produced, and lacking of substance. But good artists use the tools of the digital age to create work that illicits a lot of the same patterns of thought and reaction that great painters, conceptual artists, surrealists, or any number of other types of artists would illicit. I feel like “digital art” gets type-cast as one thing, when it’s really just contemporary art that happens to exist in a digital format.

Obviously, it depends on the artist, but is there a particular emotional tonality to the most accomplished digital art? Morehshin Allahyari‘s work, for example, seems melancholy not just in subject matter but in form.

No, I would never make a blanket statement like that. It would be like saying all painting is joyful, or all photography is nostalgic. The best artists pushing the possibilities of the digital realm create complex emotional situations/tonalities for their viewers. I think Morehshin’s art is interesting because it displays a restraint, a level of intentionality that some digital art lacks. You can tell she had a desired impact and knew how she wanted to accomplish that emotion, visually, then she used digital tools to execute that intention.

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 4.50.33 PMWhat is the relation of digital art to history, to the past? Even as historical eras and persons may be mixed and matched digitally, producing striking combinations of disparate materials, the old indexical notion of the “thereness” of the past, of some obdurate otherness of the “long ago,” and the relation of art to it, seems at risk of disappearing. Thoughts?

I think digital artists are in a sense coping with how much material there is to work with, not only in the sense of abundance of raw imagery and information, but also art historical knowledge and influences on artistic practice. We live in mash-up culture, where sources of inspiration are endless, and it can be overwhelming. Again, it all comes back to artist intentionality – the best artists will have some concept of how their work engages with art history, and they will be able to include referance points and subtleties that allow the viewer to understand this nod to history, to the past. This is a big piece of why, despite there being tons of digital art out there, the best work of the genre comes from artists who have learned about art history and who are engaging with the art world as a part of it by recognizing their unique situation within place and time.

While digital technologies have in a sense democratized the production and dissemination of art, systems are still needed to read and understand artwork – this is where art education, cultural institutions, and curators come into the picture as key players in the way this new work will be viewed, understood, and recorded for future generations.

Also, to note: a lot of digital art references the past in order to shine a light on how conditions of contemporary art making continue to evolve at an exponentially rapid pace. At the same time, great new media/digital art can pull together these seemingly disparate points in time by reminding us that the activity of art-making is one that stretches across our species’ entire history. Remix culture both brings us closer to the past, as well as further from it. It’s fascinating.

What historical periods does the present art-world moment–that is, a moment of digital art–remind you of? Is this a watershed or crucible moment where something transformative is happening? Or is the very idea of transformation passé, as in the familiar notion of the obsolescence of avant-gardes? If that is the case, what is the critical gesture of digital art?

As an obvious example, think of the early days of photography, when people weren’t sure how (or if!) this new technique for creating images would fit into the art world – many art historians/dealers looked down on it, or didn’t see it as “fine art.” When any new tool or technology is created, artists will rush to experiment with it, and these experiments often produce work that isn’t in line with existing systems. This then produces a very interesting moment where everyone has to scramble to figure out what to call it, how to sell it, where to put it, etc. That moment is happening now for art that relies on computers to exist. It’s very exciting.

I always am reminded of early mail art (essentially, Ray Johnson) when I think of networked art. This was one of the first times in art history when a work of art was created as it traveled through a system, and when object-hood began to come into question. (I wrote about this for Art21 here). The avant-gardes were interested in presenting a counter point to mainstream culture and traditionally held beliefs about what art should look like and how it should react. When the avant-gardes startes pushing boundaries of how an artwork could look/exist, and bending the rules, this induced a whole new way of approaching “art” from an experimental, edgy viewpoint where the sky was the limit, and an artwork could be anything, so long as an artist called it art.

While I actually think a lot of digital art is really in line with mainstream culture – most of post-Internet art tends to look like advertising, because it’s art that is trying to look good, self-consciously so – the best digital/new media art pushes the boundaries of mainstream culture and helps us to see technologies from a fresh, critical perspective. In this line, the “critical gesture” of digital art is very dependent upon what the artist is intending to critique, subvert, or comment on. Digital technologies are simply tools that artists can use to create their work. I think the tools of the digital realm are quite profound, since networked sites allow artists to connect with a wider public in many exciting new ways. Plus, social media offers a place for artists to engage with their viewers on a more involved level that goes beyond the old idea of an artist creating work for months and months in isolation, then finally presenting the finished work to the public. With digital art, everything can be instantaneous – which, depending, could be a blessing or a curse.

There’s definitely a sea change happening. The Internet is helping more people see more art, which helps a greater number of people develop a visual taste. However, I think the Internet is not living up to its potential to bring new ideas to a wider public – due to the over-saturation of the art landscape online, it’s incredibly hard to stand out among the chaos. The utopian vision of ‘anyone can make it on the internet’ has dried up a bit now that we’re at the point of complete saturation. Now, to be noticed, you still have to be discovered and championed by somebody – this just looks different than it used to look. We like to talk about innovation and change but it’s really just a lot of the same situations/objectives/problems/solutions wearing different clothes.

What is the affect of a piece of time-based digital art displayed in a gallery or museum alongside more static pieces? What claim on our attention does it make beyond the simple fact of asking to be seen over time? Does the work “feel okay” with being seen only in fragments, for a second or two at a time, by many a passing viewer? What about the poetics of the “start button,” if such a button exists, that will change the screen from blank to the start of the piece? What are the poetics of the “loop,” where a piece is shown over and over again, starting up indefatigably through the museum or gallery day, coming to rest only at closing time, when the guard pulls the plug or presses the off button. What is the peculiar “life” or presence of a work of digital art?

Don’t all pieces of art ask to be seen over time? If an artwork draws you in with its aesthetic or narrative, then you linger and look for longer. It’s not like when you’re looking at a painting, you stare at the entire thing until you’ve seen every inch and corner – it’s more impression based. You look until you’ve seen enough, gotten something out of it, and then you move on. It’s the same with digital art. Obviously moving, flashing artworks can drain your attention, which is why a lot of GIF art looks like crap when it’s shown outside the Internet browser context. Art online is always glimpsed, and rarely seen. The loop is simply an imposed facade of never-endingness used to display time-based work, nothing more. The “on” and “off” state of digital art is something that makes it inherently interesting – it is the belly button of digital art, the symbol reminding us of its conception. Digital art relies on technology to be summoned, viewed, experienced, embodied – without someone to bring it to life, it is nothing. It’s difficult to own something that defies exact object-hood in this way, because parts of it are made out of code, a language that a human cannot understand without the aid of a machine being turned “on.”

What else should we be talking about?*

*I added this question 🙂

We should be talking about how to become empowered, amped up, thrilled and filled with the electricity and exhaustion of all that’s possible. Simply the fact that we have the power to create the art world of the future is something to talk about. We can speculate on how it might end up looking, think about what we like or don’t like about how that future might look, then take actual action in the here and now.

From my perspective here in the Bay Area, I believe there is a risk of art becoming excessively decorative, especially when it is presented as a “beautiful thing.” What does beauty even mean? I think we need to focus on telling artists’ stories, especially when those stories present ideas that can help us see the world differently, more sensitively, more deeply. A common misconception about art is that it’s simply there to be beautiful, which is just not true. This is obviously something that art education helps with, but to become more mainstream and earn more buy-in (which needs to happen to help stimulate the creative economy), there really needs to be a sea change where everyone is encouraged to understand the ideas and criticality behind art.

When art and technology collide, especially when the tools that make the art are foregrounded, you end up on a slippery slope where often you can just create things that “look cool.” I recognize that this is its whole own thing, but what I’m interested in is seeing art that can be spread through networks digitally, but also in ways that ask people to think, digest, and ponder – much like a book or a good film. Maybe if people were educated slightly more about what they could possibly get out of looking at art, they would have better experiences with the good, difficult stuff that I care so much about. Not all art is about beauty. Tell that to a person you pass on the street, why don’t ya!

 A final thought:

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