First published in the November/December issue of THIS Magazine.
In 1987, John Knoll was sitting on a beach in Bora Bora with his future wife, Jennifer. It was a perfect, private moment in a beautiful place. So Knoll did what most of us would do: he took a picture and shared it with strangers via digital technology. This may seem quaint now, but back then it had never really been done. What made John’s photo different than any photo that came before it was that it was bundled and distributed with the original demo version of Photoshop (he was a developer working on the software). The photo, “jennifer_in_paradise.jpg,” would become the first image the general public could digitally manipulate using the software that would become synonymous with digital manipulation.
For a lot of reasons, “Jennifer In Paradise” can be called one of the most significant photographs in history. That’s why Dutch artist Constant Dullaart used it as the focus (and name) of his most recent exhibition, an examination of the rise of information technology and its effects on people and privacy and culture. Dullaart isn’t the first person to create art about and using digital technology. Jon Rafman (profiled in the July/August 2013 issues of This) uses images of famous paintings, clips from video games and other media in his work, eschewing the “traditional” and creating something that couldn’t have existed before Jennifer was in paradise. (He also maintains the fantastic 9 Eyes blog, which might be the best example of curation-as-art on the Internet.)
Art has always leaned on technology, which makes sense since most art forms are as much technical endeavours as creative ones. But this relationship means that when technology changes, inevitably art does, too. The go-to text when discussing art and technology is Walter Benjamin’s treatise “The Work Of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The essay is cryptic, deeply political, laced with a few half-thoughts and is somewhat difficult to parse. Like any good culture critic, Benjamin is still confusing after decades of people unpacking his work. That being said, the crux of his thinking is this: while objects of art were once artifacts, each tied up in its own rich history and cult status, the technologies that led to mass reproduction changed this. Art was stripped of its original body, removing what Benjamin called the “aura” and “authority.” Reproduction didn’t just change the way people make or consume art, it fundamentally changed the very meaning of art. The Dadaists and, later, pop artists like Andy Warhol demonstrated this best by making reproduction part of, if not the entire point of, their work.
Benjamin focused his ideas around photography and film because, well, it was the 1930s and those were the new, hot things. He couldn’t possibly have seen just how far we would (or could) take it. Today, we live in a world where a work of art can exist as pixels and data, no “original” to speak of, with an infinite capacity for reproduction and distribution. So the question needs to be asked: what is and what isn’t art when anyone with a computer (or even just an iPhone) can make and view and remake and spread creative ideas?
When Constant Dullaart puts a router on a pedestal or Jon Rafman recuts scenes fromMax Payne 3 into a commentary on death, is it art? (Most certainly.) When a designer turns Smiths songs into paperback covers, or a project manager Garfield from Garfield, or a baseball fan turns statistics into a book of beautiful data visualizations, is it art? (Quite possibly.) When I take a photo of a hamburger and post it on Instagram with a filter that makes it look like I soaked a Polaroid in a jar of urine for 30 years, is it art? (Sort of, maybe?)
Unfortunately, art isn’t like pornography, difficult to define but easy to spot. Sometimes artistic merit, especially in contemporary pieces, is hard to see and comprehend. It challenges our notions of what art is, almost by definition. Works of art benefit tremendously from time and hindsight and historical context, and we just don’t have enough of those things where digital art is concerned. Chekhov said that the role of the artist is to ask questions. If we believe the value of art can be measured by the volume and, hopefully, quality of discussion it generates, then art in the digital age is probably doing just fine.