My point is that mainstream contemporary art simultaneously disavows and depends on the digital revolution, even—especially—when this art declines to speak overtly about the conditions of living in and through new media. But why is contemporary art so reluctant to describe our experience of digitized life? After all, photography and film were embraced rapidly and wholeheartedly in the 1920s, as was video in the late 1960s and ’70s. These formats, however, were image-based, and their relevance and challenge to visual art were self-evident. The digital, by contrast, is code, inherently alien to human perception. It is, at base, a linguistic model. Convert any .jpg file to .txt and you will find its ingredients: a garbled recipe of numbers and letters, meaningless to the average viewer. Is there a sense of fear underlying visual art’s disavowal of new media? Faced with the infinite multiplicity of digital files, the uniqueness of the art object needs to be reasserted in the face of its infinite, uncontrollable dissemination via Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. If you borrow an artist’s DVD from a gallery, it usually arrives in a white paper slip, with VIEWING COPY ONLY marked clearly on the label; when a collector buys the same DVD in a limited edition, he or she receives a carefully crafted container, signed and numbered by the artist.
Ironically, Goldsmith refers to contemporary art of the 1980s as one model for poetry when promoting his theory of “uncreative writing,” citing the history of twentieth-century art as a chronicle of thieving and stealing, from Duchamp to Warhol to Levine. In actuality, visual art’s assault on originality only ever goes so far: It is always underpinned by a respect for intellectual property and carefully assigned authorship (Warhol and Levine are hardly anonymous, and their market status is fiercely protected by their galleries).¹¹ Unlike the poetry world, where the flow of capital is meager and where works can circulate freely and virtually on the Web, visual art’s ongoing double attachment to intellectual property and physicality threatens to jeopardize its own relevance in the forthcoming decades. In a hundred years’ time, will visual art have suffered the same fate as theater in the age of cinema?
Goldsmith points out that the linguistic basis of the digital era holds consequences for literature that are as potentially shattering and vitalizing as the arrival of mechanical reproduction was for visual art: “With the rise of the Web, writing has met its photography.”¹² It is telling that two of the works I cited earlier, by Trecartin and Stark, make language central to their aesthetic. It’s possible that literature, and particularly poetry of the kind championed by Goldsmith in Uncreative Writing, might now be taking up the avant-garde baton, finding ways to convey experience in ways adequate to our new technological circumstances. Yet the hybridized solutions that visual art is currently pursuing—analog in appearance, digital in structure—seem always biased toward the former, so favored by the market. If the digital means anything for visual art, it is the need to take stock of this orientation and to question art’s most treasured assumptions. At its most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialized, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture; at its worst, it signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself.
Oh, great. My PhD project proposal was basically to expand on Claire Bishop’s writing on participation to talk about the internet, archives, and conceptual writing. But (why am I surprised?) she already saw that as the next move and just did it herself. This quoted passage already includes almost everything I was hoping to say on the subject. So I have a lot of catch-up to do if this is the conversation I want to add to.
I think a key thing might be where Bishop talks about how code is alien — for one, I don’t think she’s entirely correct (humans write code, after all), and for another, I think OOO can do great work analysing our relationship to technology in the context of art and aesthetics. So maybe that’s something I can bring to the table.
This response to Bishop by Honor Harger takes her to task for writing off “new media art” as a specialist sphere that only occasionally overlaps with mainstream contemporary art. Harger mentions some artists (Trevor Paglen, Rafae Lozano-Hemmer, etc.) whose work could certainly contribute to Bishop’s argument and shouldn’t be ignored, but in the main, I tend to agree with Bishop that “new media art” is a ghetto, mainly because digital technology isn’t a “medium” in the way that film or photography are. The digitization of culture is, rather, a revolution in the way we use and consume all sorts of existing culture. It changes our interface with reality. So I actually agree with Bishop that the most telling commentary on this shift in our sensibility often comes from artists who may actually be primarily creating physical artifacts and using analog means, even if this commentary is primarily operating in the mode of disavowal or resistance against the impact of digitization.
Also, I have a greater appreciation for artists who self-identify as “post-internet” (or who could conceivably fit that designation) than I do for “new media” artists. I think the former have a better understanding of the expanded nature of the internet’s effects — I think making work about the digital is more interesting than making work with the digital, though obviously the two aren’t mutually exclusive. And, more importantly, most of us will encounter art works primarily through digital means anyway. The distribution networks are more significant than the production-end tools.