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(General indifference towards) The Digital Divide

Emily Jacir – Mateiral for a Film

Emily Jacir – Mateiral for a Film
Emily Jacir – Mateiral for a Film

How might we explain the ascent, pervasiveness and popular appeal of digital art? This is not the question that CUNY Graduate Center associate professor Claire Bishop chose to answer in her recent “Digital Divide” article, published in the September issue of Artforum. Instead, Bishop conducts a broad survey to scan for acknowledgment (or at least trace elements) of ‘the digital everyday’ in contemporary art. In mounting this well-crafted consideration of technology and aesthetics, Bishop makes the rather dubious error of entirely dismissing “new media” art (her quotations, not ours) to instead focus on more traditional practices like sculpture, video and installation. Despite this questionable omission, this discussion is worth a glance for two reasons: first, it very capably schematizes some general categories for considering projects and practices in 2012, and secondly, the article has inspired a roster of A-list reactions that refute Bishop’s scope and reasoning.

While Bishop’s analysis exudes a general sense of unease towards the social web and mediated experience she most certainly can translate the implications of these phenomena into a means of reading work. The bulk of her argument is a meticulous classification of the following themes explored by contemporary artists: media archaeology, social practice, remix culture, research-based practice and the artfully titled vernacular of aggregation (which scales up from individual projects to encompass curation as well). While it might be easy to turn up one’s nose at these fairly pedestrian categories when coming at this argument from a ‘been there, done that’ new media or creative technologist milieu, this is some whip-smart commentary. In particular, Bishop’s discussion of Thomas Hirschhorn’s meditation on haptic perception in Touching Reality (2012) and Emily Jacir’s “diaristic” Material for a Film (2004-07), that reconstructs the life of (assassinated) Palestinian poet Wael Zuaiter is rock-solid. However eloquent Bishop is in reading the selection of projects that she’s arranged, her undertaking goes off the rails when she describes code as “alien” and fumbles an analogy about file formats. With a little help from poet Kenneth Goldsmith, Bishop ultimately concludes that the role of the digital may be to “open up a new dematerialized, deauthored and unmarketable reality” and <gasp> perhaps even “signal the impending obsolescence of visual art itself”.

It is hardly surprising that these claims of a potentially “deauthored” reality were met with widespread disdain in media art circles. Bishop’s willful omission of approximately two decades of digital art allows her to rather conveniently examine her selected projects in a vacuum. Citing a recent curatorial decision at the Berlin Biennale to invite Occupy activists into an exhibition for the duration of a show is a great example of post Web 2.0/social platform networked performance, but one can’t help but note there is a whole body of work produced over the last eight years that actually interrogates and problematizes networks – structurally, representationally and experientially. Much of Bishop’s analysis is founded on projects that could be read as internalizing and emulating the logic of various facets of digital culture, and it is indulgent to dwell on these readings when there is virtuosic work and established practices that does explicitly address these topics. That said, why should digital artists, hackers, creative coders or <insert crude practice description here> even bother seeking vindication within the contemporary art world? What is to be gained? Jon Ippolito’s comment on the article was quite astute: call new media a niche field if you like, but “500,000 people are walking around with Scott Snibbe’s work on their iPads.” Julian Oliver was even more direct, noting that the rift that seems to block access to the contemporary art world is not an obstacle at all, and that we should all just keep focused on making stuff.

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Thomas Hirschhorn – Touching Reality
Thomas Hirschhorn, Touching Reality

  • kham (@complexfields)

    Been waiting for your weigh-in on this Greg – Thanks for the post. I’d been thinking for some time about a need to ask the sort of questions Bishop asked here, given that plenty of gallery work in Chelsea et al these days would have qualified for the 010101 or Bitforms shows 12 years ago. I will only add that I think some chastisement and warning is in order towards some of Bishop’s more indignant respondents. The emotional impact of a perceived disciplinary snub is real, and not to be ignored. However, if as a counter we start to measure relevance or importance based on who is more engaged with technologies we consider “everyday,” or even on page hits, then we’re at least missing a chance to create spaces of substance, and at worst slipping into the technocratic. The discussion threads came too fast for me to engage at length given that a new semester is starting up here, but I hope that there will be some occasion in the future for more reflection on what the response to Bishop’s piece tells us about these other fields and practices, their situations and stakes.

  • john jon

    We have just gone through one of the most fundamental changes in the history of humanity and I have not seen a single artist tackle it in any meaningful way. Three books that I would recommend everyone reads, and compare the recession, the power of Facebook, the digital future, kurzweil and his technological singularity and utopian TED talks with what happened pre world war II.

    Hitler and The Power of Aesthetics

    Fascism, Modernism and Modernity

    MIT Mood Meter

    Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab

    How to hide from machines

  • john jon

    “Tomorrow has become today, the feeling that the world is ending and given way to the sense of a new beginning. The ultimate goal now stands out mistakably within the field of vision now opening up before us, and all faith in miracles is now harnessed to the active transformation of the present”

    Sounds like a TED talk, but is Julius Peterson, The Longing for the Third Reich (1934)

    “It appears, in fact, that modernist radicalism in art – the breaking down of pseudo tradition, the making new on a true understading of the nature of the elements of art – this radicalism involves the creation of fictions which may be dangerous in the dispostions they breed towards the wordld”

    Frank Kermode “The Modern Apocalypse” 1967

  • Hey Kevin,

    Right on with the Bitforms/010101 comment… everything has ‘ingested’ the digital and Bishop is definitely correct that everything is made with/through media and digital technology now. I mean if you want to split hairs there is basically no difference between public sculpture and digital fabrication, it is the exact same techniques (some ancient, many new) being used to craft work into different spheres.

    While I think Bishop deserved all the critiques levied against her in that comment thread I agree that it is not valuable to get bent out of shape due to a disciplinary snub. I really think Bishop did a stellar job in her analysis, but I don’t think her curious decision to ‘pass’ on acknowledging digital art can go without comment. All of her conclusions are problematized when you look at digital art practice today. Materiality is more important than ever, the author is alive an well… and, well, maybe I’ll concede on that point about ‘unmarketable reality’ as everyone knows that the jury is still out on the commercial appeal of digital art (in a gallery context at least).

    I’m left feeling quite torn about the value of the Bishop article for the audience reflecting the broader art world. On one hand she did a good job of schematizing tropes/themes that are out there being explored at the moment, on the other she’s left her readers in the dark due to her omission.

  • @complexfields

    I agree, the article was applying the right lens, but at an odd scale, or pointed in a weird direction. But I often feel the same about her critiques of “participatory art” and relational aesthetics. Historians of tech would also likely argue that work with “old media” is a way of understanding current media forms – thus work with film can be about the digital, etc. At Documenta there was plenty of research-based work engaged in mediation in ways that are unique to contemporary technological conditions. (There was also work that was utterly not, but there lies the pluralism of the artworld.)