Do Artists Actually Confront Our New Technological Reality?

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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