Art numerique: un art contemporain
Written for and published in: Documents — Collecting digital art — Volume 2–2007–2018, Les presses du réel, Dijion, November 2018. Preface by Florian Bouquet and Marie-Claude Chitry-Clerc. Foreword by Valérie Perrin. Texts by Cécile Dazord and Domenico Quaranta. Co-published with the Espace multimédia Gantner. English — French, ISBN: 978–2–37896–019–3.
“Today, one must struggle, not — as Greenberg did — for the preservation of an avant-garde that is self sufficient and focused on the specificities of its means, but rather for the indeterminacy of art’s source code, its dispersion and dissemination, so that it remains impossible to pin down — in opposition to the hyperformatting that, paradoxically, distinguishes kitsch.” i
Digital art (at the time, mostly identified as Computer Art) came about in the early Sixties as an artistic response to the emergence of the computer and digital media, and as an articulation of one of the most interesting moments in the history of contemporary art — the one that, as it is widely recognized, shaped the contemporary art world and the very notion of contemporary art as we know it. In the effort to go beyond the Art Informel / Abstract Expressionist esperanto, that dominated the previous decade, artists started to look back at the Avantgardes, and to build upon that part of their legacy that was left discarded by the artistic movements active between the two World Wars: their attempt to merge art and life, to bring art everywhere and to make it with all the available means, thus rejecting the traditional media of modern art and experimenting with all available media, either borrowing them from other artistic fields (such as theatre) or from the world of industrial production, mass communication or technological innovation. At the beginning of the Twentieth century, it was mass produced objects (collage, assemblage, readymade), photography, cinema, theatre, graphic design and industrial prototyping; in the Sixties, it was again mass produced objects (Neo Dada) and mass media images (Pop art), industrial materials and processes (Minimalism) photography, cinema (evolved into a highly codified mass medium, to which the Neo-avantgardes replied with experimental and expanded cinema), the performing body, the natural environment (Land art), video, radio and television, and the computer. Digital art — not only computer generated images and animations, but also cybernetic sculptures and computer-controlled open systems — emerged in this complex environment, and had the chance to be presented in some top level exhibitions and events, from 9 Evenings. Theatre and Engineering (New York, 1966) to Cybernetic Serendipity (ICA, London 1968), from The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (New York, MoMA 1968) to Sofware (Jewish Museum, New York 1970) and Information (New York, MoMA 1970).
The Post-medium Condition and the Rise of the New Media Art World
And yet, when things started being more codified and less experimental, Digital art found out that there was little or no room for her in the art world shaped by the artistic revolution she was part of. This happened for many reasons, the main one being a paradigm shift that Digital art was not, at the time, ready to embrace. This paradigm shift was silently recognized and accepted by all the main players in the field of contemporary art, but was explicitly formulated only at the end of the Twentieth century, when art theorist Rosalind Krauss explained that, from the Sixties onward, parallel developments in the field of contemporary art (the rise of Conceptual Art) and in the field of media (the rise of television and broadcast) brought to the end of the notion of “medium-specificity”. Please welcome the post-medium condition. ii
When, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, this shift started to take shape, the computer was not a medium it was easy to have a take on. In order to use it, you needed to have an entry pass to universities or corporate research centers. In order to know how to use it, you either needed to be an engineer yourself, or to collaborate with engineers. It required a training and media literacy. If you wanted to use it, it was hard not to be medium-specific. For video art, it was pretty different: cheap and easy to use, video cameras allowed artists to include video in their practice without focusing on the new tool, and without the need to master it; and although it took some time to artists and critics to reject this “medium-specific” label (Video art), when it finally happened video became one of the main articulations of the late Twentieth century visual arts.
Although things changed a lot along the Seventies and Eighties, with the emergence of the personal computer and the graphical user interface, we had to wait the late Nineties for artists to gain true access to the digital medium, and for the computer to evolve into a home appliance, cheap and easy to use. Meanwhile, Digital art didn’t disappear, but it survived by carving out a self-built niche that gradually developed in an art world of its own, with its own platforms of production, distribution, consumption and commentary: the Digital or, if you prefer, the New Media art world. iii
Unsurprisingly, segregation and independence increased and crystallized the distance, rather than reducing it. Born to support artistic and creative research with computers and emerging media technologies, the New Media art world welcomed any kind of creative practice exploring the potential of the digital media, no matter how close they were to corporate research, experimental media design or mass entertainment. Grounded on an idea of art which incorporated the notion of medium specificity, it made it survive up to the present day, in labels such as Digital art, Media art, Internet art and New Media art.
Things started to change in the mid Nineties, when the computer started to be as affordable and easy to use as video was in the late Sixties, and much more widespread. Enter the Digital Revolution: the moment in which the computer, and digital communication networks, on the one hand changed the way we communicate, express ourselves and relate to each other, affecting politics, economics, social dynamics, the way we produce and circulate goods, the way we impact on our environment and a bunch of other matters beyond imagination; and, on the other hand, the moment in which computers revealed something that was there since the beginning, but that only at the end of the century came to full visibility: their nature of metamedium.
The notion of metamedium was first introduced by Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg in 1977, in a short essay in which they basically invented the personal computer (actually, the laptop, which they call Dynabook). “The essence of a medium is very much dependent on the way messages are embedded, changed, and viewed”, they write.
“Although digital computers were originally designed to do arithmetic computation, the ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided. Moreover, this new “metamedium” is active — it can respond to queries and experiments.” iv
This “design idea”, as they called it, would shape the development of computers in the following decades: the computer became an emulation machine that re-mediated all media, from text to sound to static and moving images; the same tool allowed you to paint, to write poetry and music, to shape objects and to design buildings.
From today’s perspective, we can easily see in the advent of the “metamedium” one of the main attacks to the notion of medium and medium specificity, as Lev Manovich already suggested in 2001. v An ideal, much needed improvement of Rosalind Krauss’ seminal text should include the advent of the metamedium, together with the rise of Conceptual art and television, as one of the developments that heralded the post-medium condition.
This is, we could say, the tragedy of Digital art: marginalized and perceived as irrelevant for insisting on medium specificity, while its very medium was making the notion obsolete. Focused on the computer and its creative potential, it wasn’t able to understand — for lack of a broader gaze — that her own “medium” was changing the conditions of art making as a whole, in a way that was turning the exploration of the creative potential of a given medium into a dead end.
The Digital Revolution and the Rise of Net Art
But let’s go back to the late Nineties, and to the Digital Revolution. The mass adoption of consumer electronics, the new accessibility of the digital medium and the advent of the World Wide Web brought to the rise of Net art, a form of Digital art that had little in common with the Media arts of the Seventies and Eighties, and a lot in common with contemporary art. It was conceptual, subversive, ironic, political, performative, often amateurish in the use of the media. It changed the field of the New Media arts beyond recognition. The contemporary art world recognized it immediately, understood this new cultural relevance and made any effort to integrate it in its discourse and its platforms. Artists knew it, and made any effort to engage the contemporary art world.
But the integration of Digital Art in the larger field of contemporary art didn’t happen back then. The practice was still under the curse of medium specificity. You can’t pretend to be a “contemporary artist” if you are still defining yourself, or are still promoted by others, as a digital / net / new media artist; if your practice only consists of digital files, datas and softwares, and mainly takes place in the networked space between computers and computer users. The market started to engage, but it wasn’t ready yet. Digital Art was supported by a dedicated crew of “special interest” art critics, theorists and curators, but “broader interest” professionals were still suspicious. Top level museums organized some “special interest” exhibitions, but only rarely digital artworks were presented in other exhibitions, and only under special conditions and treatments they entered mainstream contemporary art events such as Documenta, the Venice Biennale or the Whitney Biennial. In order for a true integration in the field of contemporary art to happen, a new step had to be taken. What happened between the mid Nineties and the first years of the new century prepared the ground for this new step.
The Present Shock and Post Internet
Gradually, this new step started to take shape circa 2005. Digital / net / new media artists started to reject this definition, and to present themselves simply as artists, or to recognize themselves in labels like “post internet” or “post digital”. In artist bios, a frequent formulation became “s/he is a conceptual artist working with digital means / interested in the effects of the digital etc etc.”. They also started to explore ways to translate their work into material form, or to engage with traditional media. What was happening is actually very simple, and didn’t concern just the visual arts, but culture and society at large: digital culture was becoming mainstream. The digital revolution was over, and we were all entering what I like to call the “digital evolution”: the condition in which innovation and change take place every day, and every day affect the life of all of us, who are forced to adapt to what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff defined as “present shock”. vi
Back at the time, this transition was understood, and well put, by artist Olia Lialina in a speech she had at Transmediale, Berlin:
“Yesterday for me as an artist it made sense only to talk to people in front of their computers, today I can easily imagine to apply to visitors in the gallery because in their majority they will just have gotten up from their computers. They have the necessary experience and understanding of the medium to get the ideas, jokes, enjoy the works and buy them.” vii
Meanwhile, artist and curator Marisa Olson had started using the term “post internet art” to describe her own work and that of other artists (mostly gathered around the “surfing club” Nasty Nets), which was the result of the daily use and abuse of the internet, but without keeping necessarily a digital form, or being necessarily online. viii The increasing success of some of these artists in the contemporary art world, and the widespread use of this term in contemporary art discourse, soon turned post internet into a viral trend in the art world, with some serious consequences: ix oversimplified, post internet started being identified with a fashionable visual style (often including references to digital effects, internet-based subcultures, software tools and the desktop interface), and with a fixed set of topics and solutions (i.e., creating poor material objects meant to be photographed in the white cube and redistributed online); and became a kind of “internet flavor” that could be easily added to any kind of work, “as a fucking condiment” as artist Constant Dullaart would put it. x
These developments, of course, brought artists, critics and curators to get tired of the post internet label very soon, but the coin has also a bright side. Along the last decade, the practice of addressing the exhibition space with languages and formats that suit it better than a computer screen with (or without) an internet connection became the norm for all former “digital artists” who wanted to access the white cube, be they comfortable or not with the post internet label. The number and quality of commercial galleries and institutions addressing the topics and languages of the digital increased, and the international recognition and institutional and market success of artists like Cory Arcangel, Ryan Trecartin, Jon Rafman, Oliver Laric, Ed Atkins, Cécile B. Evans, Katja Novitskova, Petra Cortright, Trevor Paglen, Simon Denny and others made these topics and languages increasingly crucial within the mainstream contemporary art world, and opened the path for a better understanding of the practice of many others, both from older and younger generations.
Back in September 2012, Claire Bishop wrote in an Artforum issue focused on “art’s new media”:
“So why do I have a sense 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? While many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital? How many thematize this, or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence? I find it strange that I can count on one hand the works of art that do seem to undertake this task”. xi
In 2012, the interest about these topics in the visual arts world was already rising, as Bishop’s questions and the very fact of Artforum doing a monographic issue on “art’s new media” make clear; but, with a few exceptions, the artists dealing with them were either marginal figures in the art world or respected celebrities in the media art world, that Bishop explicitly avoids to consider in her essay. xii
Six years ahead, and a few months after artist, writer and media art professor Hito Steyerl topped Art Review’s list of the 100 most powerful people in the art worldxiii, we can safely say that the situation has changed dramatically. Now more than ever, the artists mentioned above, and the many not mentioned, can’t easily be squeezed within a label like “Digital Art”. They are multidisciplinary artists, and “digital art” is one of the many ways in which their work manifests. They do work with and about the digital. Sometimes they do work which is net-based, net-specific, or that needs one or more computers to be run. Sometimes they experiment with cutting edge technologies. More often, in the gallery space their work takes the more familiar shape of prints, paintings, tapestries, sculptures, photographic prints, installations, video installations and so on. They inhabit our hypermediated, hypercontrolled, digitized environment, and their work often confronts with “the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital”, as well as with the aesthetic, social, economic and political implications of digital technologies. As Hito Steyerl said about her own work,xiv they want to keep up with the latest consumer technologies because they expose some kind of technological, social and political condition — so to keep up with that is to keep up with the “nexus”, the complexity of the present time. Their relationship with the digital has nothing to do with medium specificity anymore — it’s rather their specific form of contemporaneity, to borrow Inke Arns’ formulation:
“What defines Media Art today is not its range of media, but rather its specific form of contemporaneity, its content-related examination of our present, which is to a high degree typified by media. […] Which media are used becomes progressively more irrelevant. In other words: Media Art is no longer the formal category or formal genre it was considered to be, above all in the 1990s […] Rather it defines itself through an intensive content-related examination of the world surrounding us, one increasingly medialised and based upon new technologies.” xv
Back in 1998, in his influential book Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud claimed that “the main effects of the computer revolution are visible today among artists who do not use computers.” xvi Bourriaud’s resistance against the artistic use of technologies, which contrasts with his unusual interest in the cultural impact of technologies — manifest in all his critical production — was rooted in his acrimony against medium specificity, “a sedentary notion if ever there was one, and one that amounts to cultivating one’s field”xvii as he writes years later in The Radicant (2009). As we have seen, this refusal of media specificity made him — and many others in the contemporary art world — blind to digital art for years. He writes, again, in The Radicant:
“home computing has gradually spread to all modes of thought and production. At the moment, however, its most innovative artistic applications stem from artists whose practice is quite distant from digital art of any kind”. xviii
However, today such a statement — and its implicit distinction between direct use / indirect influence of technology in the arts — doesn’t really make sense anymore. It has been turned obsolete by the way our relationship with digital technologies evolved in recent years, and by the work of the artists who rejected the idea of medium specificity and embraced the post-medium condition. In this process, digital art may have faded as a discipline, as an autonomous practice, but only to resurface as one of the main articulations of contemporary visual arts — the one more involved in the struggle “for the indeterminacy of art’s source code, its dispersion and dissemination.” Of course, it may take some time until institutions, production and discursive structures, and audiences — in short, the art worlds, which are always slower than art — would change accordingly. But it would happen — it has to happen, as artists are going that way.
i Nicolas Bourriaud, The Radicant, Sternberg Press, New York 2009, pp. 138.
ii Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage in the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, Thames & Hudson, London 1999.
iv Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media”, in Computer 10(3):31–41, March 1977. Reprinted in Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort (Eds.), The New Media Reader, The MIT Press, Cambridge — London 2003: 391–404.
vi Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock. When Everything Happens Now, Current, New York 2013.
ix For a more articulated analysis of post internet, cf. also my essay “Situating Post Internet”, in:Valentino Catricalà (Ed), Media Art. Towards a New Definition of Arts in the Age of Technology, Gli Ori, Pistoia 2015.
x A. C. Esposito, “Don’t use the internet as a fucking condiment: Net Art at Art Dubai”, in Art Fag City, March 30, 2012.
xi Claire Bishop, “Digital Divide. Claire Bishop on Contemporary Art and New Media”, in Artforum, September 2012, pp. 434–442.
xii “There is, of course, an entire sphere of “new media” art, but this is a specialized field of its own: It rarely overlaps with the mainstream art world (commercial galleries, the Turner Prize, national pavilions at Venice). While this split is itself undoubtedly symptomatic, the mainstream art world and its response to the digital are the focus of this essay.” Ibidem.
xiii ArtReview’s Power 100 is a list of the previous year’s most influential people in the contemporary art world. Steyerl entered the list in 2013 and her influence and reputation grew along recent years to bring her at the top of the list in 2017, followed by artist Pierre Huyghe, theorist Donna Haraway and curator Adam Szymczyk. Haraway’s position is significant in the frame of our discourse, too: the author of The Cyborg Manifesto (1984) entered the list only in 2016, and moved from 43 to 3 along the last year.
xv Inke Arns, in “Media Art Undone”, conference panel at transmediale07, Berlin, February 3, 2007.
xvi Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse du Reel, Paris 1998, p. 67.
xvii Nicolas Bourriaud, The Radicant, Sternberg Press, New York 2009, pp. 53–54.
xviii Ibid., p. 133.