The Outmoded in Contemporary Digital Culture: On Claire Bishop’s ‘Digital Divide’

Conference Paper (PDF Available) · January 2013with 281 Reads
Conference: Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, At Melbourne
Abstract
In a 2012 Artforum essay titled " Digital Divide: Whatever Happened to Digital Art? " Claire Bishop, the well-known art critic and associate professor of art history at the City University of New York, asked: " While many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital? " Bishop's essay, which provoked much criticism from digital art advocates, reflected on contemporary culture's pervasive interest in " the analog, the archival, the obsolete and predigital modes of communication, " as signified by the proliferation of retro or vintage aesthetics. Limiting her argument to mainstream contemporary art, Bishop suggests that, over the last 20 years or so, the artworld has shifted its perspective on digital art – from the hype about virtuality in the 1990s, to the current situation where contemporary artists are more inclined to employ digital media as discrete tools within their installation or sculptural practices. The proposed paper will detail these issues pertaining to Bishop's essay, in attempt to provoke discussion about the nature of contemporary digital art, and its relation to outmoded forms and technologies. Culture today is infatuated with the styles of the past. We can see this not just in music, music videos, advertisements, film, fashion and a huge array of social media platforms, but, of course, in art as well. The artworld's preoccupation with the nostalgic past has been characterised by some key commentators over the last few years as a kind of return to modernism, in part as an attempt to address the perceived inadequacy of postmodernism as a theoretical concept, and the widespread scepticism over the new. In turning one's attention to digital art, which is a relatively recent area of concern for art historians, the proliferation of retro aesthetics and outmoded forms is particularly apparent, defying the future orientation often expected of new media. Digital photography applications such as Instagram, with its filters that imitate the period-look of photographs taken by old film cameras, are emblematic of the nostalgia permeating today's creative disciplines. We could also think of Lana Del Rey's National Anthem (2012) music video as a popular representative of this; a video in which rapper A$AP Rocky plays Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy to Del Ray's own Jackie Kennedy and Priscilla Presley persona, filmed in retro settings through Instagram-type colour filters. Del Ray emerged a few years ago at the peak of mainstream interest in 1950s and '60s music, associated with singers such as Adele and Amy Winehouse,
Wes Hill | The Outmoded in Contemporary Digital Culture: On Claire Bishop’s ‘Digital
Divide’
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WES HILL
The Outmoded in Contemporary Digital Culture: On Claire Bishop’s
‘Digital Divide’
Abstract
In a 2012 Artforum essay titled “Digital Divide: Whatever Happened to Digital
Art?” Claire Bishop, the well-known art critic and associate professor of art
history at the City University of New York, asked: “While many artists use digital
technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think,
see, and filter affect through the digital?” Bishop’s essay, which provoked
much criticism from digital art advocates, reflected on contemporary
culture’s pervasive interest in “the analog, the archival, the obsolete and
predigital modes of communication,” as signified by the proliferation of retro
or vintage aesthetics. Limiting her argument to mainstream contemporary art,
Bishop suggests that, over the last 20 years or so, the artworld has shifted its
perspective on digital art from the hype about virtuality in the 1990s, to the
current situation where contemporary artists are more inclined to employ
digital media as discrete tools within their installation or sculptural practices.
The proposed paper will detail these issues pertaining to Bishop’s essay, in
attempt to provoke discussion about the nature of contemporary digital art,
and its relation to outmoded forms and technologies.
Culture today is infatuated with the styles of the past. We can see this not just
in music, music videos, advertisements, film, fashion and a huge array of
social media platforms, but, of course, in art as well. The artworld’s
preoccupation with the nostalgic past has been characterised by some key
commentators over the last few years as a kind of return to modernism, in part
as an attempt to address the perceived inadequacy of postmodernism as a
theoretical concept, and the widespread scepticism over the new. In turning
one’s attention to digital art, which is a relatively recent area of concern for
art historians, the proliferation of retro aesthetics and outmoded forms is
particularly apparent, defying the future orientation often expected of new
media.
Digital photography applications such as Instagram, with its filters that imitate
the period-look of photographs taken by old film cameras, are emblematic of
the nostalgia permeating today’s creative disciplines. We could also think of
Lana Del Rey’s National Anthem (2012) music video as a popular
representative of this; a video in which rapper A$AP Rocky plays Barack
Obama and John F. Kennedy to Del Ray’s own Jackie Kennedy and Priscilla
Presley persona, filmed in retro settings through Instagram-type colour filters.
Del Ray emerged a few years ago at the peak of mainstream interest in 1950s
and ‘60s music, associated with singers such as Adele and Amy Winehouse,
Wes Hill | The Outmoded in Contemporary Digital Culture: On Claire Bishop’s ‘Digital
Divide’
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as well as the intentionally derivative work of Lady Gaga, who draws heavily
from the 1980s. It is easy to think of a plethora of visual artists who could be
similarly placed within this Instagram mentality of contemporary culture;
choosing to speak to the present moment through obsolete technologies or
through retro-looking imagery and materials.
This was the subject, in a roundabout way, of a 2012 Artforum essay by Claire
Bishop, the renowned art critic and associate professor of art history at the
City University of New York. Titled “Digital Divide: Whatever Happened to
Digital Art?,” the purpose of Bishop’s essay was not to show how
contemporary artists are uninterested in digital media, but rather to reflect on
what she sees as a shortage of artists who really capture, or intend to
capture, what it is like to live in a world that has been reshaped by digital
media. The essay focussed on the mainstream art world, arguing that artists
are less interested in confronting digital media directly, and are more
interested in the analogue, the archival, the obsolete and pre-digital modes
of communication.
In focussing on the mainstream art world, Bishop’s essay – which provoked
much criticism over its narrow view of digital art sought to diagnose why
artists working with the latest technologies and digital tropes are still very
much the fringe dwellers in the dominant discourses and institutions of art.
Here I will discuss the essay at length in order to take this argument further
than Bishop. I will try to show that the prevalence of outmoded aesthetics
and outmoded technologies does not so much highlight a division in the
representation of digital or new media art, but instead indicates that the
outmoded is the most effective language to communicate something of the
speed, chaos and uncertainty that marks life in the Internet age.
Bishop begins her essay with a well-grounded passage that is worth
reproducing here at length. She writes:
Cast your mind back to the late 1990s, when we got our first e-mail
accounts. Wasn’t there a pervasive sense that visual art was going to
get digital, too, harnessing the new technologies that were just
beginning to transform our lives? But somehow the venture never
really gained traction which is not to say that digital media have
failed to infiltrate contemporary art. Most art today deploys new
technology at one if not most stages of its production, dissemination,
and consumption. Multichannel video installations, Photoshopped
images, digital prints, cut-and-pasted files (nowhere better
exemplified than in Christian Marclay's The Clock, 2010): These are
ubiquitous forms, their omnipresence facilitated by the accessibility
and affordability of digital cameras and editing software. There are
plenty of examples of art that makes use of Second Life (Cao Fei),
computer-game graphics (Miltos Manetas), YouTube clips (Cory
Arcangel), iPhone apps (Amy Sillman), etc.
So why do I have a sense that the appearance and content of
contemporary art have been curiously unresponsive to the total
upheaval in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the digital
revolution? While many artists use digital technology, how many
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really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter
approach the contemporary through the digital? How many
thematize this, or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are
altered by, the digitization of our existence?”
1
Here one can imagine the inspiration for Bishop’s hypothesis as stemming
from her search for timely reflections on digital culture in leading commercial
art galleries and large-scale exhibitions but instead finding mainly nostalgic-
driven works. It is fitting then that early on in the essay Bishop turns her
attention away from the likes of Arcangel and Trecartin to focus instead on
those artists who seem to avoid the tropes of digital media but nonetheless
still suggest a relationship to our contemporary culture pursuing what Bishop
calls a “contemporary mode steeped in the analog.”
2
Bishop claims that many of the artists whose work revolves around
obsolescence adopt archival forms, and she goes on to discuss artists such as
Zoe Leonard, Tacita Dean, Rodney Graham, Matthew Buckingham and Fiona
Tan. These artists, although displaying a fidelity to the past, do not obviously
direct their work towards a critique of medium, reinvention of medium or a
critique of the institutional context of art. This is particularly apparent when
juxtaposed with the archival- and outmoded-themed work of earlier artists
such as Fred Wilson and Mark Dion, who, in reflecting on issues of institutional
context, employ a didacticism that younger artists often try to avoid.
In discussing Tacita Dean’s and Zoe Leonard’s work in particular, Bishop seeks
to go beyond the readings of Rosalind Krauss which, she claims, reiterate
Walter Benjamin’s idea that the critical potential of an object may be
unleashed at the very moment of its obsolescence. In this earlier theoretical
model which is marked by the writings of the Frankfurt School theorists, the
true potentiality of a new technology was considered to be present at its
conception, but is quickly shrouded in its adherence to utility and
commodification. Because capitalist life all things become obsolete within a
certain nexus of capital, technology and labour, obsolescent technologies
in their very failure were thought to heighten an awareness of State and
capitalist directives that might otherwise be hidden.
In Reinventing the Medium (1999), Krauss expanded on Benjamin to show
that, through outmoded media which, in her argument, concerns the
adherence of photographic and video technologies to the law of
commodity production between the 1960 and 1990 artists are able to
redefine prior determinations of medium. James Coleman and William
Kentridge are understood by Krauss as distinct from those earlier conceptual
and post-conceptual artists who used photography as a critical or theoretical
object those who were representative of Krauss’ post-medium hypothesis.
Instead, Kentridge and Coleman employ outmoded technologies in ways
that reinvent the expressive potential of their given technical supports. Such
practices open up “new relation[s] to aesthetic production,” and aid Krauss’
claim that medium is still relevant to interpretations of art if understood as
1
Bishop, 2012, p.436.
2
Bishop, 2012, p.437.
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comprising the given technical supports through which expressive possibilities
and aesthetic conventions are performed.
3
While within the frame of much media theory, discarded technologies remain
relevant because they can reveal past ideologies, contradictions, material
conditions and failures that contemporary culture might otherwise be blind to
(due to the relentless innovations of capitalism), Bishop claims that the use of
such technologies in contemporary art no longer speaks to an earlier
vocabulary of re-invention, revelation, oppositionality and critique. Citing how
fashionable it has become to use old film stock in video art, or to use slide
projectors and other old-fashioned mediums, Bishop essentially argues for a
new way to comprehend the critical directives of these works. In making her
point, she refers briefly to Nicholas Bourriaud’s essays on relational aesthetics
to remind the reader of how he posed old-fashioned face-to-face relations
over the virtual and the representational. Here she draws a direct connection
between the prevalence of analogue technologies in contemporary art and
the widespread shift over the last decade towards more homespun,
unrefined and handmade art activities.
While Bishop cites history as important to contemporary artists, she attempts
to show that historical critique is not performed in the same way that
preoccupied modernist and postmodernist artists. In discussing the
prevalence of “retro-craftiness,” she argues that the German artist Isa
Genzken is representative of an older model of bricolage because the
histories behind her objects are treated as if incidental, compared to the way
younger artists such as Carol Bove or Rashid Johnson maintain the “cultural
integrity” of their reused artefacts. Bishop’s main point is that artists such as
Bove, Johnson, Dean and Leonard approach the contemporary through
disavowal; their works appearing as if they are stuck in the past yet ultimately
maintaining something of the “operational logic” of the digital era. Towards
the end of her essay she employs the phrase “the new illegibility,” coined by
Ubuweb founder Kenneth Goldsmith, to describe contemporary art that
declines to speak overtly about the conditions of living through new media.
This new illegibility is in line with Bishop’s account of contemporary art’s
propensity to reject direct classification, and is perhaps yet another term for
what many have called the post-critical condition of contemporary art.
Works such as Zoe Leonard’s You see I am here after all (2008) which
comprises more than four thousand postcards of Niagara Falls attest to the
possibilities of internet searchability but are ultimately situated between the
historical and the contemporary. In a way, such a work is also caught
between critical reflection and pastiche or formal play staging a
spectatorial condition characterised by the skimming or scanning of a work
or an exhibition for information, similar to how we skim or scan online
information. Following this line of thought, Bishop refers to the expansion of
festival-style art exhibitions over the last decade to claim that they enact a
similar mode of interaction, with exhibitions that are so large no one could
3
Krauss, 1999, p.296.
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ever possibly see their entire contents, and so viewers are compelled to view
works quickly.
4
While Bishop discusses many artists who favour anachronism over more direct
confrontations of digital media, she refers to just a few artists, including Ryan
Trecartin, Cory Arcangel and Thomas Hirschhorn as “exceptions [that] just
point up the rule.”
5
However, a cursory glance at their work would actually
suggest that these artists similarly rely on outmoded, retro or out-of-fashion
aesthetics, belying her diagnosis of a digital divide. Against many of the harsh
responses to Bishop’s article by proponents of new media and online art, my
understanding of Bishop’s essay is not, despite its flaws, that she is ignorant of
the value of new media or experimental online practice which was not her
focus anyway but that she could have gone even further in claiming that
outmoded and anachronistic forms dominate mainstream contemporary
art.
6
Ryan Trecartin, who was named by the New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl as
the “most consequential artist to have emerged since the nineteen-eighties,”
clearly has a preference for late-1980s and early-1990s digital graphics, old-
fashioned editing techniques and clunky post-production.
7
Although
prompting reflection on contemporary digital culture, his aesthetic sensibility
draws from many earlier digital forms, and exploits what the New York Times
critic Holland Cotter has called “the retinal extravagance of much 1980s
art.”
8
Like Trecartin, Cory Arcangel’s work is similarly steeped in early digital
nostalgia; an artist best known for his hacked computer games Super Slow
Tetris (2004) and Super Mario Clouds (2002), the latter comprising just the blue
backdrop and slow moving clouds of a Super Mario Brothers landscape. The
humour of past (failed) technologies and past critical visions forms the thrust
of Arcangel’s work, emphasising the re-use-value of tools such as Photoshop,
1990s plotter machines, and early video games, in dialogue with an art-
historical vocabulary of readymades, Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism and the
avant-garde.
Less ironic than Trecartin and Arcangel, the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn can
similarly be situated in terms of this outmoded trend. While unquestionably
tackling the effects of digital culture on our perception of social change and
social injustice, he often expresses this through forms such as old mobile
phones, old television sets, pixelated prints from the Internet and numerous
other symbols of outdated, outmoded or cheap technologies. Signs of the
historical are often blended with the Amateur or Makeshift; as in his ongoing
series of altar works that memorialise historical figures such as Piet Mondrian
and Raymond Carver. Sharing an affinity with Trecartin’s own experiments in
4
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13 with its side events in Afghanistan,
Egypt and Canada is indicative of this trend, as if emulating what might be termed
the curatorial sublime.
5
Bishop, 2012, p.436.
6
See: Paul Teasdale, “Net Gains,” Frieze, Vol. 153, March (2013). A collation of online
responses to Bishop’s article can also be found here:
http://artforum.com/talkback/id=70724 (accessed 14/1/14).
7
Schjeldahl, 2011, p. 84.
8
Cotter, 2011, p. 56.
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DIY sculptures of human figures and domestic objects, Hirschorn’s work stages
a gulf between the act of detachedly trawling through online information
and the more difficult reality of being able to effect social change or prevent
social injustice.
Perhaps if Bishop addressed the language of the outmoded in those artists
who she believes do confront what it means to live with digital media, she
could have focussed more explicitly on why the contemporary moment finds
its expression through older forms, and her essay might have been less
polemical. Because I began studying visual art at a tertiary level in 2000, this
shift in the representation of digital art from a futuristic vision to a tool for
revitalising the past seems particularly clear, so too the diminishing of
artworld hype about its revolutionary future. Digital technology has in many
ways moved away from being associated with big utopian or dystopian
themes as in the digital works of, say, Mariko Mori or Patricia Piccinini to its
more normalised representation today, in which digital technology typically
appears more as a tool than as a central theme. I could go further to say that
mainstream examples of digital art have shifted from being located around
virtuality as an ideological remnant of postmodernism to in more recent
years being located around obsolescence and technological precursors.
The British cultural critic Simon Reynolds has noted this fundamental shift
towards retro forms of cultural expression, stating in his 2011 publication,
Retromania, that “never before has there been a society so obsessed with
the cultural artefacts of its own immediate past.”
9
9 Reynolds makes the
distinction between vintage and retro in his analysis; the former referring to an
interest in the actual objects of the past, the latter referring to the simulation
of past styles. From this generalisation we can understand Bishop’s essay as
focussing primarily on those artists who adhere more to a vintage
aestheticism; those who stage obsolete media in order to “maintain the
cultural integrity of the reused artefact to invoke and sustain its history,
connotations, and moods.”
10
10 However, this prioritisation of technical
apparatuses over imagery has resulted in Bishop overlooking some of the
more pressing questions raised by her premise. Whether retrieved or simulated
which might correspond to a distinction between historical and pastiche
treatments of media why are past forms so ubiquitous in contemporary art,
and why do their invoked histories often appear as at once factual and
indeterminate?
In an increasingly connected world in which digital technologies are rapidly
evolving, artists can be understood to be employing outmoded aesthetics in
order to beat the inevitable out-of-fashion-ness of their work to the punch. In
this fast-paced context we are living in, such artworks are not relegated to
history so much as immediately aligned with a history of the artist’s choice.
However, as Bishop alludes to, these artists rarely seek to explicate a singular
message, or to essentialise their relationship to the past. Taking advantage of
the speculative possibilities of signs that have already been deemed dead,
many contemporary artists portray historical context as both real and
imagined, treating their historical analogies open-endedly.
9
Reynolds, 2011, p. 351.
10
Bishop, 2012, p. 438.
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In the 2013 film Her, Spike Jonze tackled the speculative genre of science
fiction to produce a vision of our future aesthetic that was informed by the
tastes of early-20th-century sophisticates. This is typified by Joaquin Phoenix’s
character, Theodore, whose clothes and glasses are suggestive of the 1940s,
and whose Smartphone-like device that he falls in love with was based by
Jonze and production designer K.K. Barrett on an Art Deco cigarette lighter.
Loss and the contemplation of death are prominent themes in the film that
Jonze used to structure his account of artificial intelligence and the ways in
which the body might make an inexorable contribution to cognition and
being. While toying with the idea of technology as alive, Her ultimately poses
life with technology as a (paradoxical) sense of ease with the uncanny. Both
dead and alive, digital technology is depicted as a mode of animation
programmed yet not bound by the intentions of the programmer, and with
the capacity to animate us in turn.
The proliferation of outmoded forms in contemporary culture might be
considered along similar lines, with past tropes being animated to shape our
present in ways that acknowledge both their factual (programmed) historical
status as well as their relative agency. This contemporary stance is somewhat
different from the heady revisionism associated with postmodern art, and is in
keeping with the relevance of less prescriptive and more pragmatic accounts
of culture in recent years; suggesting an impasse with critical reflection that
strangely manifests itself in our seemingly endless conversations with the past.
Biographical Statement
Wes Hill is an art historian, critic, artist and curator who is currently employed
as a lecturer of Art Theory and Curatorial Studies at Southern Cross University
(SCU), NSW. He has a PhD in Art History from the University of Queensland
(supervised by Dr. Rex Butler), and his critical writing has appeared in
magazines and journals such as Artforum, Frieze, Broadsheet and Art and
Australia. Hill has conducted extensive research on digital art which
underpinned the curated exhibition This is What I Do (Metro Arts, Brisbane,
and Contemporary Art Tasmania, Hobart, 2012) and the paper Self-Broadcast
Aesthetics delivered at the Pop Culture Association of Australian and New
Zealand (POPCAANZ) in 2013.
Bibliography
Bishop, 2012: Claire Bishop, ‘Whatever Happened to Digital Art?’ Artforum,
September issue, 2012, pp. 434 442.
Cotter, 2011: Holland Cotter, ‘Like Living, Only More So,’ New York Times, June
24, 2011, p. 56.
Krauss, 1999: Rosalind Krauss, ‘Reinventing the Medium,’ Critical Inquiry,
Vol.25, No. 2,1999, pp. 289 305.
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Reynolds, 2011: Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its
Own Past, London: Faber and Faber, 2011.
Schjeldahl, 2011: Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Party On,’ New Yorker, June 27, 2011, pp.
84 85.
Teasdale, 2013: Paul Teasdale, “Net Gains,” Frieze, Vol. 153, March (2013), p.
15.
This research hasn't been cited in any other publications.
  • Whatever Happened to Digital Art?' Artforum
    • Bishop
    Bishop, 2012: Claire Bishop, 'Whatever Happened to Digital Art?' Artforum, September issue, 2012, pp. 434-442.
  • Like Living, Only More So
    • Cotter
    Cotter, 2011: Holland Cotter, 'Like Living, Only More So,' New York Times, June 24, 2011, p. 56.
  • Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past
    • Reynolds
    Reynolds, 2011: Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past, London: Faber and Faber, 2011.
    • Schjeldahl
    Schjeldahl, 2011: Peter Schjeldahl, 'Party On,' New Yorker, June 27, 2011, pp. 84-85.