thanks to Honor for starting this thread. I've written some things which I will post here, and then post a shorter version on the ArtForum comment thread... and then get to Twitter. Apologies that CRUMB has not sorted out and integrated its Twitter/Facebook/Blog functionality yet -- this is a task for the new school year once we get our physical office move completed! This week we are gearing up to get settled over on the main city campus and to welcome new PhD students and new MA Curating students, so having this discussion now is timely.
My first reactions to Claire Bishop’s ArtForum essay is that it will be useful for teaching. Especially for teaching my students who already know that the art they should be paying attention to is the ‘art after new media’. Without getting bogged down too much in why new media art emerged in its own scene and why contemporary art has ignored it, her essay asks a bigger, and just as useful question – why does contemporary art ignore our digital condition? Cue Lyotard as Bishop’s first of many missing references (and I don’t mean his show but his report on knowledge!). It is telling that her first evidence of the works she “can count on one hand” which do address our digital age are three videos works – not remotely commenting, to my mind, in form and behaviour, on the digital in terms of means of production and dissemination. Cue the first of Bishop’s many confusing contradictions as to what kind of work might comment on the digital, and her stated wilful ignorance of the work that actually does. As I read the article I kept wanting to insert examples from the missing field of new media art to round out her argument given that she had said she wouldn’t. Indeed I almost just did a Steve Dietz-ish rewriting of her article, swapping all the examples for different ones. For the postcard example she uses I’d put in George Legrady’s Slippery Traces (1995. http://www.mat.ucsb.edu/~g.legrady/glWeb/Projects/slippery/Slippery.html) For the archive example she uses I’d add Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996. http://rhizome.org/artbase/artwork/1729/), etc.
But tit for tat is rarely a good tactic, especially when it is a well written article with plenty of food for thought anyway. What I agree with are roughly the following sentiments:
“…that the digital is, on a deep level, the shaping condition—even the structuring paradox—that determines artistic decisions to work with certain formats and media…”
Yes. Because part of the artistic decision making process is familiarity, choice, and consideration of future endeavours (wanting to continue to make art, to be a ‘success’ – as discussed in the salon at the AND Festival last Thursday). If you are the kind of artist who wants to make works which will sell into a collection, or last a long time, you might be inclined to stick with more stable media, or techniques you know and have practiced a lot. New media artists do this too. Or formats which can be documented and which have a market based on documentation.
Bishop hints as much herself when she says,
“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.”
The need to reassert the object of course is only important if you are playing in the Art World and not just practicing art. There is a difference I think.
The second argument I agree with is one that Bishop doesn’t fully take up:
“Lev Manovich presciently observed that in foregrounding two-way communication as a fundamental cultural activity (as opposed to the one-way flow of a film or book), the Internet asks us to reconsider the very paradigm of an aesthetic object: Can communication between users become the subject of an aesthetic?”
And here there is both a long history of art which can be mined, as well as new work which could be considered which enacts protocols, which questions the technological basis of the work, which reflects our condition. There is not nearly enough art history written about this. Cue Lyotard again (the show this time).
And Bishop’s third observation that I think is true and useful is that,
“Questions of originality and authorship are no longer the point; instead, the emphasis is on a meaningful recontextualization of existing artifacts.”
I agree in part because I think this is also the case – sometimes has always been – in new media art as well. Only we are not always dealing with artifacts, but network traffic, ‘artefacting’ in a new media sense of traces (think of GPS mapping/drawing works for instance).
The difficult part of Bishop’s article to reconcile is her positing of a ‘disavowal.’ On one hand she is right, that it has been a wilful disregard (though I would argue far more on the part of institutionalised curators, gallerists and art critics/art historians, including herself here, than on the part of artists – and I speak from experience, having been encouraged to embrace the disavowal by some of my teachers when I did my MA in Curating at Bard College in New York way way back in 1997-8. I recall that I visited the offices of artnetweb, and ada’web, and I came back to college very excited about curating my final degree show entirely online and I was very strongly warned against it. I was told I had to work with art objects and was arranged to have an internship in a sculpture garden, which I turned down in favour of working with the Art Metropole collection…. But that’s another story for another time). On the other hand, the disavowal could be looked at, in retrospect, as laziness, as lack of capacity, as ignorance of opportunity. Her conclusion is that,
“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.”
This actually makes me very happy. As we all know there is no chance that art will become obsolete, but there is a good chance that Art and the trappings of the Art World could, and for some in the new media sector, that’s what we’ve been working towards – not getting included within Art’s boundaries, but obliterating boundaries altogether, seeing art not as a noun but as a verb, as something one does, one practices, not something that is. Hooray for that!
Okay, so having written that before having read any of the comments on the article, either on ArtForum, here on CRUMB, or on Twitter, here are some other comments from me.
I agree with Mark Garrett that
“The art world is stuck in a rut, and it can only remain relevant to others, by expanding and letting in new ideas beyond its hermetically sealed silos.” Keep up the good work Furtherfield!
Honor Harger is completely correct to call Bishop on her comment that code is not intelligible to humans – this is exactly the kind of laziness around truly engaging with the ‘artefects’ of digital culture which I am referring to above. When I worked at an American contemporary art museum I was often called into the chief curator’s office to get the net art on his browser ‘to go away’ as he was reluctant, downright resistant, to engaging with it and learning how it behaved even enough to turn it off. Curators are busy people, they like their browsers to enable their research, not to be spaces where their research competes with viewing actual art rather than just documentation of it. Okay, I’m being flippant.
I love Jon Ippolito’s use of numbers to indicate, as in the words of Caitlin Jones from her great article in the Believer Magazine about Cory Arcangel, “my art world is bigger than your art world”. This is exactly the kind of thinking we need – audience led – rather than one which excludes because it doesn’t fit the argument.
Many people have raised the problem of art history – do we wait until it pays attention after the fact to the art being made now and points it out as having been significant? If we write it now, how do we (especially when, in my case anyway, academic funding bodies don’t recognize what you do as art history and resent your implication that their field has missed something because it is stuck in old ways of prioritizing authorship or media-specific analysis)? These are difficult questions with no easy answers, but they are up to us to solve, which is why I agreed to co-chair Rewire, the media art histories conference. Such platforms are themselves problematic, as like all academic endeavors they often seek to reaffirm boundaries of a discipline, or if having invented a new discipline to egotistically protect it from incursions… I hoped that through Rewire my cochairs and I would expand the discussions around media art to include more about networked practices, protocols and databases than had been included before, to move discussions about craft and making forward from old media nostalgia, to widen the geographic scope. I think we succeeded in parts, but it’s an ongoing concern that I, as you also, can only address through my continued curatorial, publishing, and academic work.