Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Unfailing Digital Art

Below is an extract from an email I received the other day from a friend followed by my reply.
“I recently went to an event which was organised by the DACS. The theme of the debate was "Artist Futures and the Digital Domain." It turned out to be quite an interesting debate with Paul Hobson and Sonia Boyce representing the Luddite side (as they described themselves) and Simon Faithful, Paul Bennun and Klaus Thymann being quite liberally pro-internet. Basically this discussion circled mainly around possibilities of how artists can use the digital medium (primarily the internet) for their own financial benefits, which I must admit, was only moderately interesting. What became interesting though, was the resulting discussion I had (after the event)… I do agree, that the digital domain is a difficult one, as it takes away from depth: anything consumed via the internet is digested only shortly and then the next "click" comes. There is little room for contemplation. Even I notice (to my disgust), that my concentration span often is the length of a bbc iPlayer documentation. Although I acknowledge these severe downsides with the internet, I do believe that it is crucial for artists to engage with this new medium. I feel that as a society we still have little knowledge of how to use it properly and to our best interests. That way, very much of digital art (dare I say most) is doomed to failure. But isn't it this failure that leads us to a greater understanding of where the digital can take us and of which cliffs to steer clear? Don't the artists' experiments help us understand the boundaries more adequately? Besides that, isn't it most interesting to find out ways how to communicate something deep, something profound? The fact that it is difficult to achieve should be all the more reason for artists to engage with the medium, or not? I am not sure that I am up for the challenge, but I am interested in the debate nevertheless..”

…One thing that struck me recently was something John Dewey wrote in Education and Experience: “The effect of an experience is not borne upon its face”. In other words, we can’t know exactly how our experiences will affect us. You’re absolutely right though, that there’s little room for contemplation (especially online) these days and even this becomes a measure or interval of our attention. But, on the other hand, perhaps it’s not only about commandeering passages of time for contemplation. Have you ever noticed yourself in a museum, like I do, passing by famous old masters in the knowledge that you simply don’t have time to give (or take)?

Perhaps there’s also the possibility of an art that is experienced through brief portions of time but which builds its significance through repeated encounter – like acquaintances becoming friends. Perhaps the idea that the ‘event’ of art as something that is consumed all at once is a delusion and always has been. When did an artwork ever offer up all its ‘secrets’ in one viewing anyway? If this is the case, then the briefness of online experience is not the issue so much as the necessity of return. Each repeat taking us deeper into the work. Idealistic? Probably. I just don’t think we’ve worked out what online art means just yet. Perhaps the contemplation thing is a door that’s forever closed to online art but perhaps we just need more time for things to establish themselves. I have to say though that it’s not so much an issue of contemplation for me as a lack of tangibility that leaves me un-awed by much online art – whilst the challenge of the digital is its demand for depth, in the world of tangible things we have raw obdurate processes and materials to fashion into form – and that’s bloody hard, full of pit falls and failures but is equally exciting. In some ways it seems to have a lot to do with the very fact (nature) of failure and the way digital methods banish as much of this as possible from the scene of working: Cmd-Z and we’re back where we were, with a neat comprehensible iteration of the process. No rough edges, no need to revaluate, no need to convince ourselves that a compromise is a better outcome and no need to reconfigure our perspective (to learn). Someone once said “there’s no such thing as failure, only feedback” - perhaps this is a clue to the problem: what possibility of feedback is there when failure has become so managed, so regulated, so constrained?


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