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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

"Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi" by Timo Arnall (with Jørn Knutsen & Einar Sneve Martinussen). To be exhibited in Invisible Fields.

If you’re going to be in Barcelona, at any point over the next six months, please do drop by Arts Santa Mònica on the Ramblas to see the Invisible Fields exhibition I’ve curated with José Luis de Vicente.

Full details below:

Invisible Fields: Geographies of Radio Waves,  14 October 2011 – 4 March 2012, Barcelona

Invisible Fields is a major new international exhibition at Arts Santa Mònica in Barcelona Spain, co-produced by Lighthouse. It brings together over a dozen internationally known artists, designers and scientists to explore the radio spectrum – the invisible environment that underpins contemporary technology. Co-curated by José Luis de Vicente and me, the show includes significant works by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Trevor Paglen, Timo Arnall, Joyce Hinterding and many more. The show is presented in the Laboratory space of Arts Santa Mònica, directed by Josep Perelló.

Invisible Fields explores how our understanding of our world and our cosmos has been transformed by the study of radio waves. With the invention of telecommunication technology at the end of the 19th century, the radio spectrum became a tool for rethinking the world we live in. Radio collapsed geographical distance, crossed borders and cultures, became a powerful catalyst for commerce and enabled scientists to study the cosmos in entirely new ways. Yet whilst the radio spectrum is the invisible infrastructure that enables the technologies of information and communication, most people are unaware of the way it works, how it is managed, and how it is has shaped our understanding of our lived environment. Invisible Fields aims to shine a light on this enigmatic landscape.

The exhibition differs from past explorations of these topics, in that it is conceived as an interdisciplinary blend of social-cultural analysis, science communication, and artistic practice.  It includes: Timo Arnall (BERG), Thomas Ashcraft, Matthew Biederman, Anthony DeVincenzi (MIT Media Lab), Diego Diaz and Clara Boj, Joyce Hinterding, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Trevor Paglen, Job Ramos, Semiconductor, Luthiers Drapaires, and Rasa Smite & Raitis Smits (RIXC).

A catalogue in Spanish, Catalan and English editions is being published and will be available in November. It features essays by Douglas Kahn, Adam Greenfield, Martin Howse, Josep Perelló and others.

DATE/ TIME / VENUE

Dates: 14 October 2011 – 4 March 2012

Times: 1100 – 2100, Tuesday – Sunday

Venue: Arts Santa Mónica

La Rambla, 7

Barcelona, Spain

CREDITS

Organized by Arts Santa Mònica

Produced by Arts Santa Mònica, in association with Lighthouse.

Curated by: José Luis de Vicente and Honor Harger. Assisted by: Irma Vilà