The digital revolution will not be televised – to the contrary, is it possible that no artist or medium can be said to have adequately addressed the information age?
Zizek once sumerised Marx as having said that the invention of steam engine caused more social change than any revolution ever would. Marx himself doesn’t seem to have provided a useful soundbite to this effect (at least not one that I can find though Google), so I’m afraid it will have to remain second hand. It’s a powerful sentiment, whoever originated it – which philosopher’s views cannot be analyzed as the product of the social and technological novelties of his day?
It’s easy to see that the technology that is most salient in our age is the internet, which has been made possible by consumer electronics. Have our philosophers stepped forward to engage with the latest technological crop?
Moving on from philosophers, what of our artists? Will Gompertz recently posted to share an apparently widely held view that no piece of art has yet spoken eloquently from or about the internet. He cites Turner prize winning Jeremy Deller describing “a post-warholian” era, presumably indicating that Warhol was last person to adequately reference technological change in the guise of mass production. I wonder if the Saatchi-fueled infloresence has also captured something of marketing-led landscape we currently live in, but whatever the last sufficient reflection on cultural change afforded by art was, I think we may be on safe ground in stating that the first widely accepted visual aperçus of the digital era is still to come.
Which is some surprise when you consider, for example, how engaged the news agenda is with technology: I was amazed to see that Google’s Wave technology (still barely incipient) got substantial coverage on BBC news.
With my employment centering on the web, and my pretensions at cultural engagement, this weekend I visited the Kinetica Art Fair. Kinetica is a museum which aims to ‘encourage convergence of art and technology’. The fair certainly captured one aspect of contemporary mood – a very reasonably priced bar was a welcome response to our collective financial deficit.
Standout pieces included a cleverly designed mechanical system for tracing the contours of plaster bust onto a piece of paper and a strangely terrifying triangular mirror with mechanically operated metal rods. It looked like a Buck Rogers inspired torture device designed to inflict pain by a method so awful that you’d have to see it in operation before its evil would be comprehensible. The other works included a urinal which provided an opportunity for punters to simulate pan-global urination (sadly not with real urine) by providing a jet of water and a globe in a urinal. I would defy anyone not to be entertained by spending time wondering round the the fair.
However, Will Gompertz’s challenge was not answered at Kinetica – the essence of the technological modernity was distilled into any of work – not even slightly.
I’ve been mulling over various possible reasons for this failure, and quite a few suggestions spring to mind. Do computers naturally alienate artists? Is information technology to visually banal to be characterised succinctly?
I’d like to suggest that its the transitory nature of our electronic lives that makes them so hard to pin down. Mobile phones, web sites, computers and opperating systems from a decade ago all look ludicrously dated – it’s almost impossible to capture the platonic form of these items because they have so little essential similarity. Moreover, their form is almost an accident, and not connected with their more profound meaning in any way. The boats of the merchantile age and the smoke stacks of the industrial age all seem to denote something broader – how can communism be separated from its tractors? Yet the form factor of my computer is trivial. Form and functional significance are of necessity separated by digital goods, their flexibility is the source of their power.
In someway I think films give us tacit acknowledgment of the contingent nature of the digital environment that we spend much of our lives in: no protagonist is ever seen using Windows on their computer, in films computer’s interfaces are always generic. When we see a Mac in a film it impossible to see it as anything other than product placement.
So, the Kinetica Art Fair may not have been able to help society understand its relationship with technology, but actually, despite their rhetoric, I think it was a little unfair to expect it to. Really the fair was about works facilitated by technology, rather than about it.
But, in case you think I’ve picked a straw man in Kentica, let me say that the V&As ongoing exhibition Decode really does no better, though its failures and successes are another topic.