I wrote an essay for Aeon Magazine about art, literature, theatre, dance and digital at the core of the creative process. It's sort of about the structural problems facing algorithmic and generative art forms.
You can read it here: Aeon Magazine
Here is the longer version which that essay was based on:
In July 2014 The Barbican opens the doors to Digital Revolution - a survey of the digital arts since the 1970’s - “An Immersive Exhibition of Art, Design, Film, Music and Video Games”
In bringing together the best in ‘digital creativity’ the exhibition website indicates that they expect to include immersive and interactive installations from Usman Haque and Nitipak 'Dot' Samsen, the duo behind Umbrellium; a new work by Chris Milk, director of Arcade Fire’s seminal 2009 digital video Wilderness Downtown; and a new installation by Matt Pyke’s Universal Everything, along with an exhibition about digital creativity.
In a world without a neatly defined avant-garde creating the next generation’s music or art, this sort of exhibition should also offer some fascinating questions about what digital culture is. Or, more importantly, what ‘digital’ means when it reaches the heart of culture - the act of creation itself, why we still feel a need to define it and refer to it, despite it approaching a half-century of ‘revolutionary’ importance. Ideally, Conrad Bodman’s show will make us look at who the next generation of cultural practitioners are, who their audience is and why they make their work. To ask ourselves, when might digital ‘art’ just be art.
We all understand digital at the periphery of culture. We understand the internet as a place to find reviews, watch trailers, buy tickets, or where to park. That is what we use our computers for. We even understand that we can interact with the creators, the actors, the stars - we can like them, friend them, follow them, speak to them or just watch them. But actually the content of mainstream ‘culture’ - the art, design, music, film of the Barbican’s show - are remarkably unaffected by the actual digital revolution. The artists may use digital tools to create where before they used brush and ink, or a biro. The public may use digital products to consume via digital channels: YouTube, eBooks, iPads. But the actual content, and the form of cultural products remains traditional - and the Barbican is a neat example of this in how exceptional all of its exhibits will appear to us. This is not a survey of great mainstream digital culture, this is futuristic interactive oddness.
The Barbican’s indicative billing includes fairly commercial entities: will.i.am, is a “global music artist and entrepreneur”; Paul Franklin (“Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor”); Fred Deakin, Amon Tobin and Philip Glass are all musicians; then we have Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, a contemporary artist; Chris Milk, the interactive film-maker; and Aaron Koblin, a digital media artist working at Google. Doubtless there will be other names but it is interesting that over a 45 year ‘revolution’ there are so few conventional ‘artists’ on this list, and so few from the garrets or the art-world’s avante-garde, instead the ‘break-through artists’ are rock-stars and film-makers, sponsored by multinationals. This is remarkably untraditional. Undoubtedly there will be spaces for Ryoji Ikeda, Jon Rafman, Yung Jake, John Gerrard, James Bridle or Dries Verhoeven - artists producing high quality international work with digital at the core without emphasis on the digital. But spread over a 45 year timeline this ‘revolution’ must be one of Western culture’s slower and more ponderous epoch shifts. You can confidently walk into any major gallery, music hall, theatre or bookshop and find the conventions of popular culture being transmitted in the same way as the past hundred or hundreds of years. Even at the very cutting edge of theatre or art you will not find shows that are entirely dependent on the data carried by an individual, or ballet derived from the gestural history of the audience. Physical and analogue culture are entirely dominant - exactly as we would expect it. There is a lot of painting. In oil. As van Eyck may have used in 1434. When you visit the students degree shows of 2014, unless you go to special ‘digital media’ courses lost between art and architecture in the labyrinthine confusions of academic school structures, you will expect to see some reference to digital culture, perhaps even some digital work - but for the most part it will look backwards, towards van Eyck, Shakespeare, and Dickens. So this is a very strange revolution.
As I write this, in late 2013, I became aware of The Wrong. I didn’t know about it, you probably don’t either. However The Wrong is a digital biennale with nearly 500 artists, 30 ‘pavilions’ and a two-month run. A lot of my work touches on the world of digital art. So it struck me as surprising that, until the biennale organiser personally emailed me, I was literally unaware of this huge ongoing exhibition. In his subject line he quoted an article of mine. That got my attention. How had I missed this?
The answer to that question lies in something more altogether structural, the growth in creativity that we are experiencing in our daily lives. We do not have a life-span long enough to understand how few ‘artists’ or writers were really producing work in the 1700’s or during the Renaissance, but it probably wasn’t possible for 500 artists to have an exhibition without anyone noticing. Additionally, the passage of time acts as an excellent filter - removing the noise and the superfluity of each generations cultural output. Distilling it for us. In our new era of instant and unlimited information we are forced to create our own filter bubbles to distill. These are either constructed or preference-based, planned or unconscious in order to reduce the amount of information in our lives down to an acceptable and parse-able quantity. The world has become so open, with so many content creators, making geography so irrelevant that we have been forced to create our own islands, and once in your bubble, or on your island, or buried in your echo chamber - whichever metaphor you choose - you can be almost entirely oblivious to the world around you, there is no ambient noise except by choice, little coincidence, and for the uninquisitive it is a very narrow, algorithmically comfortable existence. This is the walled garden problem and it does not just apply to art but for every aspect of information in our lives.
Hearing about The Wrong made me realise that I cannot write this article without acknowledging that I write from my own bubble. It is not just other writers that I may not have read - but entire festivals of digital art I may have missed, entire catalogues of digital theatre, entire eisteddfod of digital literature, music and performance. I am filtered. You are filtered. So from that perspective - let us continue.
Why are we still talking about digital culture at all? I find it interesting: we don’t talk about photographic art, or amplified theatre. Again, this is just a matter perspective, of my own impatience; photography took well over 100 years from it’s birth as a truly technological innovation to become fully appropriated and accepted as an artistic medium. I am not convinced that London’s Royal Academy of Arts even accepts ‘photography’ as a practicing art form today, I believe they are referred to as ‘printmakers’. Interestingly the ubiquity of photographic technology in our lives is challenging those cultural credentials before they have even been fully accepted into the establishment. Although, much like another piece of technology, the pencil, it’s still possible to make great art - regardless of how many people use the technology. The camera is an extraordinary tool - but it is not camera art.
So with that in mind it is easy for cultural traditionalists to dismiss contemporary tools and technology as having no place in art. And for apologists like me to decry their lack of recognition. In fact it is traditional, normal, it is part of a conventional cycle. We appreciate the artistic foresight of the past, but we rarely appreciate the artistic foresight of the present. It feels ugly, and difficult. From Kandinsky to Koons it has always been so. In fact technology is nearly always at the heart of culture, it is just that we consume our culture like comfort food. Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable, but rarely, and even more rarely do we celebrate being truly uncomfortable. If culture is pattern recognition that the shock of the new is about patterns not yet recognised, not yet subsumed into the zeitgeist. The reason so few of our favourite artists find favour in their own lifetime is because their work is not for an audience alive in their lifetime, it is for the next audience.
That’s what sets artists apart - they look forward. The artists that future generations will know will always have utilized our contemporary technology. If you look at artists who explore the boundaries of technology in their time you get artists like Ryan Trecartin, or Nam June Paik, or Dan Flavin or William Egglestone or Man Ray, Duchamp, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Gutenburg or Ucello. The interesting question is whether individual artists can continue to explore these boundaries, Rafael Lozano Hemmer, has an entire studio of developers, and requires corporate or civic sponsors to create his work - a clear return to the Renaissance model. The artist in the garret is limited by his own technical ability. This dearth of digital culture makes more sense when you remember that this nineteenth century ideology of the “solitary genius” is still completely dominant in art schools across the world. Individuals make art, yes, but they will make bad digital art, just like they made bad video art; and teams of writers write better theatre, television and, maybe, eventually, literature.
So is it any good, this biennale? The Wrong? I have no idea. Certainly it tends towards the tropes of net art, the low-grade incoherence of what you would expect to see. A lot of poorly edited audio and fractured cinematic montages; a lot of illogical 3D modelling; a huge variety of cut-ups and mash-ups of anything that you can scrape off the net. Re-use and re-cycle is the re-appropriated motto for this re-hash of popular culture. It is all ironic. And it is all animated. And there is a lot of it. There is so much to look at that it is almost impossible to engage with either an artist or their work - just the slight sense of lucky dip. Imagine going to the Frieze art fair in London, or Art Basel, and having never heard of any of the artists or any of the galleries - or Edinburgh Festival, or Frankfurt Book Fair without either a map or a guide - the only criteria you would have for quality would be the size and location of the physical spaces. It is much the same with The Wrong, there is so very much, and yet there are no spaces, no spatial hierarchy; it is a wilfully flat democracy of talent.
But it is fascinating and extraordinary that it exists. And slightly disappointing that there is so little interest in such a structure or such a collection. There is little criticism, and whatever critical discourse there is probably lost in it’s own filter bubbles. It simply ‘is’.
The digital revolution that we seek has created a huge range of potentials for art. Many are both opportunistic and problematic. For example: 1. The tools of distribution are ubiquitous. 2. The tools of production are ubiquitous. 3. Our ability to pause for discernment and consideration is decreasing. 4. Appropriation is instantaneous; meme’s evolve, explode and die in days and weeks.
In other words, any work can be created, distributed, consumed, copied, compromised and collapse under it’s own globally parodied self-referential state within a few days.
All of these are symptomatic of a more fundamental move from static objects to dynamic information. There are more prosaic issues as well. The structure of our cultural world - schools, publishers, museums, galleries and markets, who do not know how to teach, show or sell.
The digital tools that we use every day are not being taught as a creative medium because we are waiting for at least a generation to retire, the generation that doesn’t understand them, or thinks artists work alone, or that patronage has no place in art. It seems too much of a challenge to reconfigure this incomprehensible technology to make art, to much of a challenge for art schools to see the creative plasticity inherent in the new tools, rather than simply teaching Photoshop as a vocational tool.
It’s not shown commercially because it is physically hard to show, and hard to explain and really hard to sell. The format by definition makes it very hard to create unique artefacts so there is nothing to sell. Even the documentation is cheap.
It isn’t supported institutionally because there is no provenance, no legacy and the institutions with the capacity to preserve art, music or literature with digital at the core see themselves as bastions, not explorers of culture. Hence we will have had three decades of ‘digital’ as a lost lobby art.
For those brave enough to try, like Rhizome or the New Museum it is expensive to commission, complicated to maintain, and impossible to restore.
Ironically as the hardware manufacturers update and upgrade their operating systems this work too is being lost. It is a truly ephemeral period.
And it is not profitable because we need new models of commerce for these art forms. We see grass roots in projects like [s]Edition and Paddle on, but the classic models either grant-maintained culture or the mysterious art market used to calculate (and inflate) the value of scarce resource doesn’t translate into work which defies scarcity or physical possession. There is a new model, one of conspicuous patronage, driven by the same mysterious force that gets rich peoples names on the marble walls of new buildings. This new format of ownership will allow them to ‘sell’ their patronage of a digital artist or artwork; dividing work into fractions for the truly popular, the creation of dividends on annual performance. Art galleries effectively need to become a stock-exchange for their artists; as unpleasant as that may sound it certainly beats their current disreputable status as the largest unregulated market in the world after the drug trade. Until that time we will continue to see great creative talent disappear into the basements of creative agencies and advertising firms.
Let us return to The Wrong. What makes it digital? We can get lost in it - but it is not the work that makes it digital - rather than the fact that the exhibition exists. Images may refer to their origin, flat jpegs may show the ‘marks’ of their manufacture - yet this does not infer the essence of digital any more than digital music benefits from being performed as an mp3. Art is not digital because it is created or exhibited on a computer. There is a nice plea for a higher standard of curatorship within The Wrong from Joseph Henry who reviews it for BlouinArtinfo “These kinds of digital forms should alter temporalities, change paces, and reorient how we perceive and process our online networks.” This work should transport us to new realities in ways that simply were not possible before the binary revolution, before we were able to encode and organise data. Is that too much to ask?
Digital culture cannot be a label for culture made on a computer - EVERYTHING is made on a computer. Digital isn’t a medium, it is not video, or audio or words that could have existed on video tape, or in a book, it isn’t a distribution channel like YouTube or Tumblr. Those are just words or pictures, both of which firmly predate the internet and computers.
Digital is a range of potential:
Digital is data-led and algorithmic. (The potential for every solution to be unique)
Digital is generative. (Culture that is builds upon itself and draws on it’s own process)
Digital is contextual. (Theatre that builds around you, in a timely and relevant way)
Digital is collaborative. (An opportunity to use the volume, to curate or create together)
In my more idealistic moments I can be found arguing that artists should seek to hold a mirror to society - and that it stands to reason that they should be using contemporary tools of that society to create an accurate mirror. Most art forms: literature, theatre, fine arts seek to take you away from where you are and stimulate a response that is not rational to your physical context. To create a virtual reality. Hence the dramatic suspense of the theatre evokes a state of virtual reality. You are transported to a fairy glade with Titania and Bottom’s Ousel Cock. In the West End art gallery you are sublimely submerged into white room that removes all sensory distraction. Even cave paintings were meant to evoke a dream state.
So if culture is a kind of “virtual reality” it’s quite important not to get caught up in those words or what they evoke - we are not interested in the tools that we use to create that state of mind, but the effect; Art is what you do to the viewer, not how you did it.
Books, paintings, theatre, dance - all of these fire the imagination. They literally force the imagination to willfully transport you. Unlike with television - everything we consider ‘higher culture’ causes the brain to work to complete the altered state and to bring you comfortably to a place where you have, in your mind, created a magical reality of your own. It appears that art and culture are just mental exercise, training us in advanced pattern recognition and creating psychological reward structures. It is hard work for high reward.
Perhaps that is why we are disdainful of the clickable, swipeable collections of net imagery in The Wrong. It seems unlikely that we will afford this ‘easy’ net art a place in that cultural cannon. At least not until it transforms and transcends its form and creates a sense of unreality that confronts our expectations.
The shift in the availability of creative tools and platforms, and the decrease in cultural scarcity is reflective of a broader shift in our interaction with information. Not just the internet, or phones or tablets or Google. We are moving from a time when information was static, held in time and place in books, or on stage or in images. We are moving towards a world where information is entirely fluid. Where anyone can know everything about anything anywhere.
Contemporary art and culture should probably be exploring tools and paradigms that will make sense to that audience, not this one. What might that mean - what is the art, theatre and music that actually uses these tools look like? Again, I cannot answer that - but I think you can look at the technology that we can expect to be commonplace within a few years and really interrogate ourselves and ask if our ‘art’ is still using 19th century technology whether we are really on the right island, in the right bubble - whether our comfortable appreciation of art is really in the right echo chamber. If, in 100 years time we will be looking at work made by artists who actually challenge how we perceive the world, rather than adhering to legacy and traditional economic structures. Any work appreciated as visionary and exciting by future audiences will feel as uncomfortable and electric to us as Duchamp, James Joyce, or Pina Bausch?
None of this should detract from the value of the artefact, the object. The physical chemistry of actuality has several significant advantages over non-physical solutions. Old is still frequently better than new: books, theatre, pens - a stage with 600yrs tradition is better story-teller than social media in an infinite variety of ways. It is not the product that is the problem it is simply that we are moving so slowly. As a technologist I find that the more time I spend with digital technology the more I understand it as something best consumed by humans in completely natural ways, through speech and gesture, through reflected light, and organic, physical surfaces. There is no reason to expect that our interfaces won’t ultimately perfectly mimic nature. There is no reason to expect that theatre will not continue to rely on the intensity and the intimacy of an electrical physical proximity, we can only enhance this, we cannot change it.
Physical books have far more peripheral or ambient information and useful features: tactility, patina, usability, access, power efficiency. The stylus and paper, almost certainly your preferred default for taking notes - is clearly a better technology - until we are able to mimic the qualities, to retain the value whilst augmenting that experience with the potential of digital fluidity. So books stay. Hurray!
Live music is incomparable, and now the digital product is almost given away to promote the live experience. There are ways in which we will use virtual reality, motion capture and real-time streaming to create pretty astonishing live music experiences that can scale to a global audience, but, at the end of the day being serenaded by a cute boy on a guitar will always win.
However we can take a look at this trajectory - from fixed and static to fluid and dynamic.
We can expect the art of the future to be fluid and sentient. To be time and location specific, to be built on personal, historical, geographic data that can shift and morph to adapt the experience to wherever you experience it.
We can expect the creative processes to become more collaborative and team-based as more skills are required - so little in the world is created by individuals, why exactly does art stay in that box?
Physical surfaces are likely to become more adaptable to digital information, both visually and at a sensory level, so we expect the physical world around us to become more malleable and transitional, depending on you.
Virtual culture, as mentioned earlier the tools are not the problem, perception of the tools is the problem - the arrival of truly immersive 3D virtual reality with high definition and multi-sensory aspects cannot help but change the way we experience culture. From any seat in the Opera House, for any performer, or any orchestration, even live motion-capture performances streamed live to any living room in the world. Performing live to an audience of 17 million people may not look nice but it is a truly transformational and incredibly exciting possibility for performative arts.
And we will see a huge rise in authenticated art; cultural experiences that are related to your physical proximity and personal history within an artwork or experience. Whether that is within the physical boundaries of a ‘gallery’ or simply out in the real world. Art may well come shopping with you.
There will be a comprehensive split between work that is artist-led, purely passive and experienced as a broadcast experience and the idea of engaged culture. As a participant, as a viewer or an audience member you may either actively engage within a cultural work or not (“He’s behind you!”) for example in the immersive theatre work of PunchDrunk, or the installations of Olafur Eliason. This is a growing dichotomy between passive and engaged consumption of culture. Almost everything falls into one bucket or the other. Engaged, ultimately, is about games - and as we enter the micro-era of the tablet, a device firmly about consumption we break neatly into broadcast and gamified. Passive and engaged. One-way or two-way culture.
If all of this sounds horribly uncomfortable then at least that is a start. The best art, theatre, dance, of today - will be seen from the future. Paintings are not going to cut the mustard. These are the complexities of today’s society that artists will show us back to ourselves. Multi-linear, time-agnostic, fragmented and discordant. And there is a generation of fantastic artists doing amazing things today. Could we work harder to create structures and enable artists to create work that looks forward into a world we don’t understand. Yes, most certainly, we can preserve, and we can curate, but we must also promote and help create. I will be happy when no one talks about digital art or digital + culture. When today’s intimidating technology seems as natural as a pen, or a camera. On this journey from a world of static information to the fluid we are still only a small way along. Our screens and gadgets are a clumsy phase, an awkward moment of clay tablets and bullrush stylus. Our phones will look idiotically out of place, our insistence on mediating the world through edited video will hopefully pass as an insidious but dull threat to the power of the imagination. Maybe the Barbican’s Revolution is simply the very first chapter on this trajectory to a whole new cultural world.
It is incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to help artists, writers and creators to envisage a future where information is a fluid, infinitely accessible commodity, a future where their output can channel all of that potential into rich, rewarding and challenging art.