Essay by Shaun Wilson
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|DIGITAL: How artists use 'the digital' to talk about being human|
As a practicing interdisciplinary artist with a strong connection to painting, programming and electronics, during the Covid lockdowns in Melbourne I began to notice more artists who use traditional mediums like painting on canvas referencing ‘the digital’ in style and concept. The use of digital data as a basis for art making has been occurring since Vera Molnar and Manfred Mohr began making algorithmic art in the 1960s, but I began to really take note because at that moment I actually had the time to stop and look around a bit. During lockdown, people were forced to connect socially and professionally online, and artists seemed to thrive having uninterrupted opportunity to focus on making work. All of this extra time, combined with an increased use of social media and computers during this period highlighted for myself, a strong connection between the digital and our human need to connect with others for our wellbeing. These concepts, which at first seem to contradict each other, create meaning through an oscillation or as van den Akker et al (2019) explains, ‘a movement between (opposite) poles: not a binary so much as a continuum that stretches from one to the other, not a balance but a pendulum swinging between various extremes’. The common association of detachment or, ‘dehumanizing tendencies of the computer’, (Taylor 2014) at first can seem cold and clinical, but in hindsight can reveal aspects of being human that may not have been obvious to us before, by showing them in a different light.
The works in this exhibition all use ‘the digital’ to express personal interests, ideas, feelings, hopes and dreams and draw upon a metamodern affect. This affect or a metamodern structure of feeling, relates to the dimension of being human (Timmer 2017), or what it is to be in the world. Cunff (2019) agrees when they describe the a metamodern structure of feeling that refers to, ‘genuine connection, empathy, and community’. Terms like post-internet, post-digital and post-analogue apply to the work in the exhibition because they are all of these things, but don’t necessarily talk about them as subject matter.
Ironic sincerity, which makes up part of a metamodern structure of feeling, combines postmodern cynicism with modern enthusiasm. This metamodern oscillation between opposing ideas gives artists room to explore and express sincere personal opinion and issues through the use of irony. Timmer (2017) talks about ironic sincerity as being useful to artists, ‘especially for those who were brought up on a steady diet of post-structural theory,’ because sincerity, ‘for a long time seemed secluded, off-limits, almost unimaginable and certainly intangible’.
An example of this is ironic sincerity and the contradictory nature of these ideas, can be found in one of the works create by Sam Leach that utilises machine learning object detection to establish if the viewer is a polar bear, to talk about the metacrises of the collapse of our environment, power imbalances and control, and how AI is beginning to shape our world. While in another piece by Danny Jarratt, viewers are encouraged to have fun by playing a computer game that explores being ‘the other’, or an ‘error’ or failure in the heteronormative game of life. The artist in this case is expressing his feelings and personal experience of being ‘the other’, as a gay man in Australia.
Post-analogue art making and the New Aesthetic
It isn’t just about the concepts or tools we are using that are reflected in art, but the way digital culture has affected the way we think, do and look at things. The wonky pixelated aesthetic of lines drawn with a finger on a smartphone screen, the Algospeak used on TikTok beginning to permeate everyday language, and bright artificial screen colours, that are evident in the work in this exhibition, all contribute to post-analogue art making practices and how the synthesis of, new technologies of mass production that have had a profound impact on everyday life and new technologies of distribution have transformed domestic life. (Stallabrass 2003)
Seen through a post-analogue lens, the Impressionist painter Seurat’s use of coloured dots, are comparable to pixels and screens due to the use of repetition to build up the image, however the works made by him and the impressionists retain the aspect of being human through imperfection. Similar in technique is the work of Michelle Hamer, who builds up an image using small embroidery stitches, following a diagram or instructional and is endowed with humanness through this process and the texture of the wool. This is also comparable to the Instruction Based Art made by Sol LeWitt, a member of the Conceptual Artists from the 1960s, that involved following a simple set of instructions, similar to an algorithm, that could be understood and translated differently by each person. Irene Barberis, an Australian artist whose mentor was Sol LeWitt, makes work that has been strongly influenced by him since the 1970s.
Seen through a Metamodern framework an ‘oscillation between analogicity and digitality’, (Hoy 2017) can readily be found when looking back on the process of making work used by these artists. The transformative nature of instruction based art reveals the in-between, as part of the process of making these works, where errors, like glitches could appear as a result in each interpretative rendering. These glitches created as part of the physical process of making the work, expose the materiality of the digital file, a subject that Corina Bernt is exploring in her work Text(ure) Map II that uses an app that converts 2D images into a 3D space. Fitting under The New Aesthetic first articulated by James Bridle in 2011, this process of transformation, when looked at closely, also uncovers the abstract nature of work made through the use of data, and like the process used by the impressionists, the 3D image is made up from smaller abstracted forms in order to create the image.
Tommy Mintz creates work that is also made using a multiple of layered images in order to create the work. The artist employs an algorithmic time-lapse to create a collage described as an Automated Digital Photo Collage. These works are then transformed into Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and housed virtually on a blockchain for viewing and selling. This relatively new medium has opened up a different and interesting way of looking at what an object actually is from an ontological point of view. Claudia Hart (2021) likens this link to the cloud that the code creates as an agnostic version of ‘heaven representing the ephemeral, metaphysical space of mind’, and that it ‘endows NFTs with a magical cultural power’.
These abstracted concepts are also evident in the work of Linda Loh who makes virtual worlds stored on the cloud and built for exploration using a virtual reality (VR) headset like Oculus Quest. VR requires the involvement of the viewer as active participants because the work doesn’t exist physically and requires the participation of a person using a VR headset to activate the work and make meaning. When talking about participation and affect as part of a metamodern structure of feeling, Atkinson (2013) says that, ‘art needs human participation because the art is in the reaction’.
The ideas presented here reflect a transhistorical shift in contemporary art through the genres of post-analog and post-digital art making, as the work has characteristics most commonly associated with electronic and especially computerised technology and tackles ideas associated with the intersection of technology and the human hand. The Digital isn’t just a tool—our entire culture is mediated by new technologies, and this is reflected in this exhibition.
Thank you to all the artists who enthusiastically participated in this exhibition.
Atkinson, D 2013, ‘Participation and Affect’, Notes on Metamodernism, viewed 7 August 2022, https://www.metamodernism.com/2013/07/02/participation-and-affect/.
Hart 2021, ‘Digital Combine Paintings - Claudia Hart’, Claudia Hart, viewed 15 November 2022, https://claudiahart.com/Digital-Combine-Paintings.
New-aesthetic 2021, ‘The New Aesthetic — About’, viewed 25 November 2022, https://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com/about.
Cunff, A-LL 2019, ‘An introduction to metamodernism: the cultural philosophy of the digital age’, Ness Labs, viewed 7 August 2022, https://nesslabs.com/metamodernism.
Stallabrass, Julian 2003, Internet art: the online clash of culture and commerce, Tate Publishing, London.
Taylor, G 2014, When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art, 1 edition, Bloomsbury Academic.
Timmer, N 2017, ‘Radical Defenselessness: A New Sense of Self in the Work of David Foster Wallace’, in Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth After Postmodernism, Rowman & Littlefield International, London, pp. 103–115.
Van Den Akker, R, Gibbons, A & Vermeulen, T 2019, Metamodernism: Historicity, affect, and depth after postmodernism, Rowman & Littlefield International, London.
All artists in this catalogue retain rights to their work