Reactor

Do Artists Actually Confront Our New Technological Reality?

by Kyle Chayka on September 4, 2012

Michael Mandiberg, “OMG LOL” (2009) at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center Open Studios (Fall 2009) (via flickr.com/seeminglee)

Art historian and associate professor at New York’s CUNY Graduate Center Claire Bishop has taken to the pages of Artforum’s September edition to issue a kind of rebuke for contemporary art. She argues, in an extended essay that only briefly detours into egregious artspeak, that though the new realities of technology and the internet provide the fundamental context for art currently being made, art and artists have failed to critically confront this context and are too content simply to respond and adapt to it. Bishop writes simplistically of digital art that “somehow the venture never really gained traction,” and 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.” Is it really the case that art has been so nonreactive to such a huge change in our world?

Bishop rightly notes that, “Most art today deploys new technology at one if not most stages of its production, dissemination, and consumption.” Like any time in history, artists have taken to contemporary technology, adapting computers, portable projectors, and server networks as art-making materials (see Stan VanDerBeek’s 1963-66 “Movie-Drome” at the New Museum’s Ghosts in the Machine exhibition for one such example). Yet the author goes on to cite contemporary artists who aren’t exactly the names one immediately comes up with when considering the avant-garde of digital art. She considers Frances Stark, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Ryan Trecartin as artists who do make some effort to be technologically engaged, but Bishop fails to acknowledge other artists who truly confront digital technology, both appropriating it and reflecting on it critically.

Detail of one of Jon Rafman’s images from his “Nine Eyes of Google” series (via 9-eyes.com) (click to enlarge)

Bishop references work made with an iPhone by painter Amy Sillman, but Sillman’s animated drawings are about as good as David Hockney’s iPad doodles in commenting on our use of technology. What if the Artforum writer had considered the recent work of the seminal internet art duo JODI, who made an iPhone app that forces its users to contort into postures that satirize our perpetual smartphone-induced slouches? Apparently Bishop hasn’t seen the conceptual, often hardware-based work of new media artist Kyle McDonald, whose hacks underline the fundamental instability of our current technological reality while moving through that same medium.

The Artforum essay argues that contemporary art largely “declines to speak overtly about the conditions of living in and through new media.” For the youngest generation of artists, this statement is patently false. Take a look at Petra Cortright’s YouTube videos, which satirize the trope of the internet camgirl and present a poignant take on what it is to go through life with an online alter-ego. German artist Aram Bartholl replicates virtual objects in real space, commenting on our memories of places and things that don’t actually exist but have a vivid life in the mind. His Google Maps-riffing “Maps” sculpture and “Dust” replication of a video game space clearly speak on the conditions of life in the new media era. The recently rising artist Jon Rafman’s deliriously beautiful “Nine Eyes of Google” is the travelogue of a dazed wanderer through a virtual copy of Earth, only made possible through recent technology. The list goes on.

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. “At its most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialized, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture,” she writes. “At its worst, it signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself.” We don’t have to worry about that apocalyptic prophesy; artists, as they are forever wont to do, are already turning new technology into yet more fodder for creativity.

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  • mariuswatz

    Try living through a week of installing a contemporary art show where there’s no wifi and only one Ethernet cable, and you will witness true desperation.

  • http://twitter.com/tina_rivers Tina Rivers

    FYI, his name is Stan VanDerBeek (not Steve Van Der Beek)

  • http://twitter.com/tina_rivers Tina Rivers

    also, Edward Shanken has an essay on the rift between the mainstream and new media art worlds, which apparently still have to cover a lot of ground to find each other: http://hybridge.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/hybrid-discourses-overview-4.pdf

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Thanks for adding that, it looks really interesting. I think plenty of internet/digital art isn’t critical enough and has a ways to go before it meets the more established art world, but Bishop is clearly missing some art and artists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexhfischer Alex Fischer

    It was a scattered article. In the third paragraph Bishop mentioned that she was focusing on the reasons that digital art has not made its way to “the mainstream art world” (commercial galleries, national pavilions, etc.) but it seems she lost track of that objective or found it too presumptuous to write about.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      I found it really scattered as well. The asides that she made trailed into multiple paragraphs and it never really focused on a single topic.

  • http://twitter.com/juliaxgulia Julia Kaganskiy

    I’m trying to find the time to write a proper article in response for The Creators Project, but in the meantime, I wanted to throw a few thoughts out there on this email list while the topic is still fresh.

    What’s interesting to me is that I almost feel like I read a different article than a lot of people. Sure, Claire makes some inflammatory and dismissive, maybe even misinformed comments in there, but in general, her tone is very tempered overall (maybe I felt this because I read Honor’s article and a few other reactions to her piece before I read the actual piece, so I was expecting the worst when I came to it).

    In any case, what I took away from it was that a lot of her critics seem to be missing the point when they hone in on the fact that Claire is dismissing an entire community of media artists while at the same time lamenting their disenfranchisement from the art world and the art world’s lack of engagement with the pressing issues of this technological moment.

    To me, what her article actually seemed to be about is how, despite the contemporary art world’s apparent dissavowal of technology, it is still producing work that is informed by technology in spite of itself. The current trends in performance art, sculpture, video, etc. are informed by the logic, systems, social interactions, etc. of our present day culture, which is so infused with the technological that it’s completely unavoidable.

    The article seemed to be trying to hold a mirror to the art world and saying, “You think you’re above this? You’re deluding yourself.” And she did this not by talking about the artists that they’d be quick to dismiss as “the others” as those part of that “specialized field” that isn’t part of their domain, but by drawing examples from among their own, so as to make the message more powerful and poignant.

    I know we’ve all got our feathers brustled about the repeated poor choice of language used by Claire, some brilliant examples of which have been quoted heavily in this response and others, but this paragraph (below) is the one that seemed to be the point she was driving at, and one that I’d argue is quite a valid one:

    “In fact, the most prevalent trends in contemporary art since the ’90s seem united in their apparent eschewal of the digital and the virtual. Performance art, social practice, assemblage-based sculpture, painting on canvas, the “archival impulse,” analog film, and the fascination with modernist design and architecture: At first glance, none of these formats appear to have anything to do with digital media, and when they are discussed, it is typically in relation to previous artistic practices across the twentieth century.² But when we examine these dominant forms of contemporary art more closely, their operational logic and systems of spectatorship prove intimately connected to the technological revolution we are undergoing. I am not claiming that these artistic strategies are conscious reactions to (or implicit denunciations of) an information society; rather, I am suggesting 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. One word that might be used to describe this dynamic—a preoccupation that is present but denied, perpetually active but apparently buried—is disavowal: I know, but all the same . . .”

    • http://twitter.com/pixlpa Andrew Benson

      I agree with Julia. I find a lot of things in the article that concern me, such as the usage of Contemporary Art as a unified subject that can take specific actions. I find that particular grammatical quirk to be misleading. It is predictable that the group of artists that identify with New Media will loudly complain about being left out of the discussion (they struggle hard against the divide), but part of the problem – that I believe she is attacking – is that as a widespread practice, we leave these topics to the New Media Ghetto to sort out. I personally don’t identify as one of these “specialists” and count myself among a generation of artists that aren’t concerned with drawing a thin line separating modalities of practice. I do find it often the case that artists within a particular medium gravitate toward subject matter and content that is safe for that medium to engage with (personal narrative->video, pop culture and image->painting, the internet and gadgets->New Media, etc.), and that this general gravitation can come to define what is acceptable within a form. So, who is responsible for what Contemporary Art does and doesn’t do?

    • Domain Admin

      I completely agree with Julia too. The article had true moments of hard hitting honesty in it’s survy of contemporary art. I also think it’s really insightful that Bishop pointed out the undercurrent of technologies influence within the more institutionally accepted/applauded works. Yes, she meandered over and failed to mention that there actually is a growing active set of young artists addressing technology head on but I don’t think that was her point. The point seemed to be a call to action for more institutional / commercial art players to perk up and notice that they may be missing the boat on what is truly contemporary as they continue their dollar chasing. “New Media,” and new technology has always felt a bit taboo in the realm of the mainstream of the art world, most likely because those making decisions don’t understand how it literally works as a process. It’s a complicated practice and I think the art world is a bit removed from that, even in the more day to day interactions with digital tech, i.e. they are not working on computers all day at their day jobs so there is a bit of personal disconnection to the conversation.

    • punktoad

      I also agree with Julia. Claire is taking on a subject that is only beginning to find its nomenclature let alone accepted definitions. And as Domain states, “They may be missing the boat on what is truly contemporary as they continue their dollar chasing.”

      The context of art/life has so utterly changed that the “art world” doesn’t even know the rug has been pulled out from under it. The audience is no longer just an arbiter, they are a co-creator. Work of art is not only defined by its context, the audience/context continues the creative process as long as the work persists in a networked world. Things like Creative Commons, open source and crowd sourcing are just the tip of the iceberg. The future will be $0.00 for those dollar chasers.

      As long as we are mentioning artists who have been recognized in confronting the approaching singularity, I was thinking of Cory Arcangel. For example, his “Three Piano Pieces” finds enough cats playing piano video-clips on YouTube to splice together the complete Schoenberg’s Op11. It is all out there waiting to come together.

      A resource I recommend in the quest to develop a vocabulary for defining the evolving technological context is “Situated Aesthetics: Art Beyond the Skin” [Riccardo Manzotti]

  • Aaron M

    Avant Guardism is over – there are no new eggs, cream or milk to be discovered. All the recipes have been mulled over and baked. This conversation is stale. Move on to the real conversation – how are we to relate to each other in a networked system where everyone who matters has a smart phone.

  • http://twitter.com/PatrickRiot Patrick Hussey

    Thought people might wanna read a response from a cold, drafty digital outpost known as Britain http://honorharger.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/why-contemporary-art-fails-to-come-to-grips-with-digital-a-response-to-claire-bishop/

  • Caroline Byrne

    Oh jeez, seriously? what about the focus on kitsch/nostalgia. Plenty of art (too much?) is dealing with the changing nature of materiality in the digital age. Read Bishop’s critique in ten years, and it will not make sense.

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