Reactor

Let’s All Argue About Digital Art

by Kyle Chayka on January 23, 2013

Aaron Sherwood's "Firewall" (Image via Vimeo)

Aaron Sherwood’s “Firewall” (Image via Vimeo)

You’re digital! I’m digital! We’re all digital! No better way to stir the pot than to bring up the post-IRL condition that has us all confused: What does it mean that we spend so much time online? How are artists engaging technology? Everyone’s arguing, from the curmudgeonly Artforum-approved art historian Claire Bishop to curator Lauren Cornell and author Eleanor Heartney. Here’s what they’re saying.

Claire Bishop is the one who really kicked off this most recent wave of new media dialogue in the mainstream art world with her September Artforum article dismissing the current crop of digital artists as making work more about fascination than critical questioning. There was plenty of pushback from the art and technology communities, but others approached the topic differently.

Wired, by Drue Kataoka 

Over at Wired, artist Drue Kataoka echoes Bishop’s critique that works of new media art rarely “make the viewer ask questions.” “New art has to resonate at a deeper level than simply provoking the viewer to think ‘Oh this is weird!’ or ‘Oh cool!’ or ‘Oh how pretty!'” Kataoka writes. That artists go for the novelty factor too much is a totally valid complaint, but Kataoka’s own work, which will soon be presented at Davos, of all places, combines a brain-computer interface with a live tree and traditional paintings. If I’m being honest, it sounds more gimmicky than critical as well.

Artforum, by Lauren Cornell and Brian Droitcour 

Curator Lauren Cornell and critic Brian Droitcour wrote a letter back to Artforum responding to Bishop’s article. They critiqued the art historian for overlooking a wide swath of critical new media artists. “We would argue that even here the ‘divide’ she describes is actively being bridged and, because of a critical blind spot, she is forcing it back open,” they write. “Art that critically engages network technologies proliferates and art institutions recognize the undeniable importance of the Internet.”

Artforum, by Claire Bishop (Part II) 

Claire Bishop writes in response to Cornell and Droitcour’s response! Celebrating accomplishments of new media is “beyond the purview of my article,” she writes. Meaning that it’s okay to ignore examples that disprove your argument? “The article’s core question was why so little mainstream art reflects on what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital,” Bishop argues. “I’m not talking about individuals and institutions using new media, but about how new media changes us.” I’m definitely on the Cornell-Droitcour team here — Bishop continues to be aggressively ignorant.

Brooklyn Rail, by Eleanor Heartney 

Writing in the Brooklyn Rail, author Eleanor Heartney cites the controversy surrounding Bishop’s article as an example of the vitality of criticism and how critics, participating in the community, can “enrich the art world.” It’s nice when people get up in arms, because it inspires actual debate! Taking sides, it sometimes seems, is an increasingly rare act in the postmodern milieu of dozens of small, interconnected art worlds. “When substantive issues come up in art magazines, as in Claire Bishop’s recent commentary on new media art in Artforum this fall, the response from readers is close to overwhelming,” Heartney writes.

Maybe that’s because we need more grist for our outrage mills. Any volunteers?

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  • John Redmann

    This is a weird space, lots of generalities are being tossed around.

    Generally speaking though, most artists aren’t great artists* or making mind blowing pieces, why would we expect all the digital art to ask deep questions? I think art will do what it wants, and eventually if these deep questions are what the world is looking for, an artist will come along and create them. Right now it just seems to be something that a critic is looking for, perhaps a commission is in order?

    I’ll go out on another limb, I don’t know a lot of artists that are electronically inclined, or capable of writing their own code. Pushing into new territory requires those abilities, until then it’s manipulation and derivatives of OTC or off the shelf items and methods. Learning how to do something from scratch can be very labor and time intensive (not to mention cost prohibitive). I think artists have tried to reinterpret digital into means they can do well, like pixel art.

    Or maybe it’s more latent and less obvious, maybe the current crop of art has been so permeated and influenced that the digital story is embedded in the art subconsciously Maybe it doesn’t have to be super obvious and maybe the fact that we don’t see it as easily is a testament to how ingrained it is in the artist and the viewer.

    * NYS alone has over 400k citizens graduating college each year, assuming 5% are in arts related programs is about 20k, there aren’t enough galleries in the city to support those numbers… or you get a lot of bad art that doesn’t make the cut, some good art, a little great art, and a few amazing works. Now what are the odds that they’ll have a background in electronics and art, and produce amazing artworks? I would rather play the lottery.

    http://www.census.gov/easystats/

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.foxx.37 Scott Foxx

    I think Ms. Bishop has taken a much needed, though uncomfortable position, that being of the ‘garde’ who must rail against the advent of the new and the heresy of the new media, whatever that may be. It makes us all a bit more comfortable, I think, to know our place and have a battlement to either defend or assail in noble conflict. New media is only called such now because of its age, and to be sure, it will simply be consumed into ‘media’ in due time and such conversations will be thought of fondly as necessary evil, and perhaps ‘quaint’. Sort of like looking at a rotary phone and wishing you could still use one.

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

      Hey Scott, I definitely agree that Bishop is taking a stance that’s unavoidable and perhaps necessary — someone’s gotta be the troll. Too much new media art is overly optimistic and lacks self-criticality. The genre will definitely be integrated into “media” eventually, but since it’s still more independent, it’s worth protecting or publicizing as well as critiquing.

  • uffthefluff

    Claire Bishop thinks there was a “total upheaval in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution”. This did not happen and if it did it would be impossible for art a whole to ignore so she is either wrong or wrong.

  • uffthefluff

    I take that back. Given the amount of porn-related content online there is clearly a deficiency of porn-related new media art that critically filters our collective porn-affectation.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=28124954 Jennifer Chan

      And we could say that about online gambling then, before social media took precedence. Why isn’t there more art about the wonders of online gambling or cats? Maybe it’s too banal. In this case, causation is not correlation I guess.

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