Why contemporary art fails to come to grips with digital. A response to Claire Bishop.

Scatter (2008) by Marko Peljhan – commissioned by AV Festival 08.

This month, Art Forum published a very timely, and beautifully written essay by Claire Bishop entitled, Digital Divide: on contemporary Art and New Media“.

In it, Bishop analyses the contemporary art-world’s reluctance to conceptually engage with the changes which have been wrought by the proliferation of digital technology. She wonders why so few contemporary artists confront “the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital, [and] reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence?”

However, I would contend that one of the central reasons the contemporary visual art world hasn’t come to grips with digital, is that it explicitly disavows the visual art that has. Bishop’s article is emblematic of this.

She begins by rightly saying that “contemporary art [has] been curiously unresponsive to the total upheaval in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution”.
But then somewhat alarmingly, Bishop states that she will not be addressing contemporary art that could be considered “new media”. She writes, “there is, of course, an entire sphere of ‘new media’ art, but this is a specialized field of its own” …

It is this so-called ‘specialist sphere’, which includes many artists who exhibit widely within contemporary art forums – such as Rafael Lozano Hemmer, Trevor Paglen, Cory Arcangel, to name but a few – that has consistently produced works which do address the “total upheaval in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution” with acuity and intelligence. To rule out a discussion of this practice perpetuates the very problem Bishop is attempting to address within the article.

This becomes clear later in the essay, where Bishop makes awkward statements such as, “the digital, by contrast, is code, inherently alien to human perception”.

Code is written by humans. It is a little absurd to describe something created by people as “inherently alien to human perception”. It’s certainly not alien to the humans – who are, it should be noted, often artists – that write it.

Later, in Bishop’s analysis of contemporary research driven art, she concludes that there’s a turn away from examining “the social, political, and economic conditions of the present”. Where does that leave the work of Paglen, for example, or Marko Peljhan (pictured), or many others we might cite, who create rigorous research-driven work that examines how our contemporary human experience is being shaped right now by (for example) covert military technologies?

The problematic point of the article resurfaces at this juncture. Perhaps Bishop deems these artists too close to the specialist “sphere of new media art” to warrant relevant consideration.

Towards the end of the piece, Bishop asks, “is there a sense of fear underlying visual art’s disavowal of new media?”. A somewhat ironic, or perhaps obsolete, question given that Bishop herself has disavowed it right from the beginning of the article.

Bishop concludes by perhaps providing a reason for both the fear and the disavowal:”at its worst [ the digital revolution] signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself”.

I greatly enjoyed reading the article, and respect Claire Bishop enormously, and am grateful for these issues being raised in Art Forum. But I think it’s highly problematic to dismiss the practices of so many visual artists who do address the fundamental societal shifts brought about by the proliferation of digital technology.

It does tempt one to wonder if that obsolescence Bishop alludes to, is really the worst case scenario.

Honor Harger

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11 comments
  1. It’s nicely written, but it fails on the crucial points:

    – Media art is what contemporary art becomes when it engages with technology. The divide has more to do with art world politics and the self-imposed ghettoization of media art than with the lack of artists.

    – Why beat about the bush? The mainstream art world pretty much hates media art. At best it is considered immature or ahead of its time. At worst… well, fill in the blanks.

    – Nostalgia is a powerful force in the art commercial market, collectors want to own precious objects and a nice thick patina is a big plus. You could easily argue that contemp. art is willfully anachronistic.

    There’s plenty more that could be said, but suffice to say I find Bishop’s article too poetic, too ignorant (tho I don’t necessarily think Bishop is ignorant) and too unwilling to spell things out. Subtle musings about “old media” and digital revolutions in archiving and research doesn’t quite cut it.

    • santi delgado said:

      Yes!!! I totally agree with Marius. Thank you.

  2. santi delgado said:

    True

  3. Interesting article and I agree with all your points. I think that the digital and analog will forever be linked, especially in the visual arts. As stated in a comment above, as soon as technology engages with contemporary art it becomes media art or digital art. I just opened a solo exhibit that includes a stop motion video of a wood sculpture that I made. The sculpture is completely analog but the video was shot entirely on my iPad, the editing was done on the iPad and the music score was also created on the iPad. Artists of ages ago had the camera obscure “tool” (amongst others) at their disposal, we have iPads and apps at ours. Different age, different tools to use. But they are only tools. Don’t fall in love with the tool, fall in love with what you can create with it.

  4. I was surprised and disappointed by Bishop’s feints or possibly disinterest (?) in issues of audience, market and participation concerning the very extensive body of critical work dealing with technology and society, which does get regular exposure in contemporary art biennials, fairs, and exhibitions of all kinds…. her positions seem a little out of touch. In this crisis period post-wall street crash/current great recession, when so much seems to turn on reactivating May’68 values no matter how vitiated– that no one can afford to be too sure that a comprehensive read of ‘what is the actual’ complicity of technology, society and art practice can rely on old tropes from perhaps the early 2000s or nineties. If her hypothesis is that high-earning mainstream contemporary artists are not engaging with such, then it might have been apropos to explore, next, how or if the cliche / stereotype of mutual disdain presumed to exist between so called new media and so called contemporary practices– is no longer much of an issue, via a wider survey of artists’ works in prominent venues especially since 2008. Since technological discourses and practices are quite enmeshed with one another on many levels including materiality, design, site, and conceptual development in contemporary cultural production— as the other artists on this blog and you, Honor, have noted—it would have been very interesting to read how Bishop would critique the phenomenon of the mystique surrounding a mutual alienation, in terms of market, reception, and the theory of the avant-garde; much as she did so cogently with ‘relational aesthetics’.

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