A disjointed conversation – Claire Bishop, The Digital Divide, and the State of New Media Contemporary Art.
I found Claire Bishop’s landmark essay on Digital Art, ‘The Digital Divide’ in Artforum’s 50th Anniversary issue three months late through Lauren Cornell and Brian Droitcour’s equally polemic response, ‘Technical Difficulties’ in the January 2013 issue. Since September, there have been excellent conversations, both inside and outside the New Media community. There are a plethora of positions on Bishop’s highly successful essay; success in that it has created such a stir. The problem with the conversation, and I dare not say dialogue, is that the rhetoric resulting from ‘The Digital Divide’ is disjoint along several lines, in some ways schematizing some of the reasons for her polemic. Secondly, the resulting cross-takedown between Lauren Cornell/Brian Droitcour and Bishop remind me that I no longer live in the relatively generous era in which we built the genre of New Media in the 90’s.
The irony that I see in this cacophonous conversation is that we seem to be somewhere in the middle. Digital art and New Media works are more evident in the art market, art-institutional complex and community than Bishop lets on, but critics like Bishop take the position in places like Artforum to drop a mind grenade into the Contemporary Art milieu. I actually see this as a healthy irritant, as it has obviously spurred its proponents into action.
In the online responses to ‘Divide’, answers from Harger, Jackson, Quaranta, and the CRUMB New Media Curating Maillist (Cook/Graham) stand out, although they take on distinctly varied aspects of Bishop’s discourse. Honor Harger, in her wonderfully even-handed treatment of the essay, points out structural problems and gaps in knowledge. Harger points out the human construction of code as not being alien at all but inherently anthrpomorphic, and Bishop’s structural reiteration of the Contemporary’s disavowal in the essay’s choosing not to talk about Contemporary New Media. This disconnect leads to a blind spot of not seeing artists of note such as Paglen, Koblin, or Arcangel who are clearly evident in the Contemporary. Quaranta aptly notices Bishop’s choice to impose certain limitations by categorization. He replies that we are speaking about niches; Contemporary Art in itself is a niche within High Art which digital art and New Media infect or intersect, all which lie within the great schematics of Higgins and Barr of larger artistic practices. He perceptively notes that Bishop is not addressing New Media as a genre, movement, or community, but is engaging in a phenomenology of questioning her perception of digital art in the Contemporary. Jackson reiterates Harger’s question about the alien quality of code (what would we say about Le Witt from this?), as well as also questioning Bishop’s exceptionality of New Media as such. As a segue, Cook et al’s conversation about ‘art after New Media’ on the CRUMB list is exceptionally rich as it already posits the integration of New Media practices into the Contemporary as they suggest a post-New Media position.
My argument of a middle point in regards to evidence in the contemporary is a blind spot that Bishop seems to willfully disavow, and I think this is one of the flaws in her argument. There is far more evidence of the digital, at least in the Biennial circuit than Bishop gives credit. We can look at Cosic’s instigation of hacktivism in Venice in 2003, the 2000 Whitney Biennial, Cao Fei’s involvement at ProspectOne, Yokohama, and Venice, and I can list many more, including my colleagues’ mention of A-listers like Lozarno-Hemmer, Arcangel, and MacMurtrie. In addition, I even chaired a panel of artists, gallerists and collectors at Art Brussels dealing entirely with the area of New Media that had A-list people like curator Domenico Quaranta and Steve Sacks of Bitforms Gallery. I think the fact that Claire Bishop has not seen these effects does not mean they do not exist, and I almost feel like she heads for the back door of admitted inexpertise in (or with) the field, which surprised me. I don’t think that New Media was ever going to take over as once thought, but it has been far from the shadows as well.
This brings my discussion to two points of clarification of which I’m inspired by discussion on the Crumb Listserv. These have to do with the distinctions between digital art and New Media practice and the difference between being a Contemporary artist using these practices or locating one’s praxis within the niche of New Media, a distinction key to understanding Bishop’s argument. Digital art as such can be said to be extant since the late 50’s and 60’s, or if one were technical about it, could go back to the Jacquard Loom as a ‘digital art’ tool. New Media is, as I understand it, a set of practices, many of which are laid out clearly in Manovich’s ‘The Language of New Media’, as a subset of digital art that have been defined for discursive/taxonomical purposes. New Media defines a clear set of cultural/computational practices, where digital art encompasses an arguably larger cultural milieu that New Media does not. For example, I might argue that the practices of ‘glitch’ media are New Media where some of their artifacts might be classified as digital art (image/video).
Secondly, we are confronted with the focus and visibility of the artist and the milieu they have emerged in or chosen to engage with. This is the difference between the New Media niche artist, and the Contemporary artist using digital technology, which is one of Bishop’s key points. I would return then to my observations of the biennial and art fair circuits in noting that there are many artists showing who affectively reflect the digital condition far beyond the examples given. I remember watching Condon’s video game server at Art Brussels, which had a real affect towards baroque aesthetics in first-person games, and seeing works by Salavon or Raaf at collector friends’ homes that reflect on the forms and ironies of the digital quite well. It is important to say then, that there is a practice of engaging with Contemporary modes of culture in art-market/institutional dialogue. This is a different, yet overlapping niche than the New Media artworld as it can intersect with the Contemporary, but does not implicitly do so.
Returning to Quaranta and his analysis of varying niches of art practices and their specific/exclusive milieu, there does exist a New Media art niche, this is not any question. New Media has its own festivals like ISEA, Ars Electronica, FILE, and Transmediale, and journals that service it, like LEONARDO, Media-N, Intelligent Agent, Neural, Mute, and so many others. This is a rich environment that has been rigorously built by those committed to New Media and Digital Art. Is it a bad thing that New Media has its own paddock to run in? No more than the fact that there are video festivals, but we must make the distinction between these and the rarefied biennial circuit and its set of agendas. One could liken it to R&D vs. the luxury market, perhaps. It’s a good thing there are exclusive spaces for the discussion of genres, but saying that one genre must be mapped onto another, like the pronouncement that Ars Electronica should be held in the same regard as the Venice Bienniale, is a bit of a misnomer. New Media and digital art do have qualities that are often exclusive to their forms, and to pronounce the ignorance of the vulgar Contemporary is as unproductive as Bishop’s disavowal of digital art.
One point in Bishop’s retort to Cornell and Droitcour that resonates with the period is her exemplifying the video of Acconci as particularly successful in its delivery of affect. In addition, on the CRUMB Listserv, there was discussion of the possibility that New Media and/or digital art is still in its theoretically formative stages in regard to its relation to larger art historical traditions. This broader set of concerns rings true with me, as while theorists like Manovich have obviously penetrated the Contemporary through mention by Bishop, there are not many theorist/critics who exhibit this sort of penetration, or elucidate the cultural shifts intrinsic to the genre/time.
David Antin, in his essay, Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium, clearly explains video as a cultural inversion of the industrial complex of television, to the individual/intimate, which Acconci shows us. Video flips the gaze of the camera backwards, in a way. Easy. That begs the question – what are the basic cultural effects of New Media, and who are the critics writing about it? I would surely go to scholars like Galloway (protocol) and Thacker (The Exploit), but many times while the New Media theorist is apt at specificity, there is not a great deal of work that I see that frames New Media’s effects within culture with the conciseness of Antin or Foster.
Is the apparent fact that New Media criticism seems to either be exclusive, disparate or unseen the fault of the writers, the superstructure eliding it, or perhaps the ‘medium’ itself? I will take a second to not necessarily blame the New Media community offhand, as there surely are institutional blind spots as we are seeing in this discussion. However, on the other hand, can it also be said that Bishop’s declaration of the pervasiveness of digital culture has problematized its criticism? Is digital culture so subterranean that it presents a Hydra that one simply cannot define? This is a conflation of terms between the definition of digital culture and the art that describes it, as while parallel, one is far more specific than the other. In addition, if one is to talk about digital culture through the lens of Contemporary/art historical practice, this might be a key to interpreting digital art and New Media to the Contemporary crowd. It’s all in how the discourse is framed and distributed, and in many ways, I feel that we are still developing a Contemporary discourse of digital/New Media art as sets of practices rather than technologies or discourses specific to the genre. Perhaps this is one of the functions of the Media Art Histories Project; to create a historical scaffold for media that also includes New Media and digital art so that we can have the critical tools to derive insights like those of Antin. Regardless, a concise art historical theory of digital or New Media art seems to still be a work in progress as of 2013.
The fact that I feel that, and let me just shift hereon in to ‘New Media’ as my term as I feel it to be the accepted cultural mnemonic, is still developing, does not also mean that I place the onus of its disavowal by critics like Bishop on the New Media community. ‘The Digital Divide’ is an essay that was crafted as a certain position in a certain key issue of a magazine that strategically took a certain position that draws from Bishop’s vilification of Relationalism roughly a decade earlier. The essay draws good points, but as I have described through its critics, it has flaws in its logic, as I am sure that I do here.
What I see in the essay is a strategic disavowal of digital art and New Media as an (inflated) threat to the objective art system, as she suggests in her parting sentence suggesting the coming obsolescence of visual art. I think that there is a fear of rapid technological change, especially in the high art world as it creates environments of exponential scale and destructions of preciousness as Arcangel points out in ‘My Artworld is Bigger then Your Artworld’. Just as downloads are disavowed by the recording industry, the idea of infinitely printable sculptures on Thingiverse reduce gallerists to service providers, or eliminate them altogether. For the high art world, this is a problem, and it seems that Bishop suggests that the response of the Contemporary art world has been to dig its heels in the pre-digital/analog to preserve the hallmark of value, and that is the principle of scarcity. The exponentially productive network, especially with the rise of fabrication, is a major threat to material discourse, and one way to try to solve the problem is to discard it.
A New Media response, if we are to assume that the published response by Cornell and Droitcour as ‘a’ face of emerging institutions is that of the deterministic eventuality of technology and proclamations of the coming irrelevance of traditionalists or Contemporaries like Bishop. I find the discourse aggressive on both ends, but from my end, there is no need to decry Bishop; as rather than claiming our territory, we can be assertive about the inevitability of our presence, as Bishop herself has stated the pervasiveness of the digital. In the 1990’s when we were building New Media as a genre, I found the community warm, very dedicated and generous. I know the art world to be a very competitive place, but I see no reason to change the spirit of many of the architects of New Media art. It is for that very fact that we ‘are’ that 800-pound gorilla; that thing that popped out of Pandora’s box, and we are the agents of change that are now becoming undeniable that reactive texts like Bishop’s only makes clear. New Media culture is steadily creating its own culture that is pervading all aspects of society, including the art world. Now that the digital is has pervaded culture, I for one would like to sit at the table with a cup of tea, a twinkle in my eye, and watch the future unfold as we are met with uneasy glances.
It’s actually pretty cool to be here at this time in history. I like it.
Ghetto bun fights