Artists have been working with technology since the beginning of the 20th Century. This represents an important moment in artmaking’s evolution, which until recently collectors and institutions haven’t wanted much to do with—the result is a lack of historical presence for such works. Without recourse to a history, every few decades promoters herald the emergence of an exciting new realm of expression or experimentation related to a new media, which appears to the uninformed to be without precedence—most recently it was the crypto-driven NFT market. It is this lack of a sense of history that makes it possible for the organizers of Beyond Digital to claim that this exhibition brings together pioneering artists whose works explore the possibilities of bridging the digital and physical realms. Problematically, this project is more than 50 years old and is built upon one that dates back to the start of the 20th century, when artists working in the modernist tradition started to adapt technology to art to produce light organs, slideshows and kinetic art.
To sort out this confusion relative to Beyond Digital’s claims—we can start with the fact that the digital (binary coding) is a universal medium with the capacity to mimic all other mediums and by programmable means execute an existent task—that is, drive a machine, or generate an effect. Its presence in art dates to the 1950s as can be deduced by Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age 1952–1982, an exhibition recently mounted by LACMA. Meanwhile, later this month the Museum of Modern Art will present the New Order, Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century. If this is not enough to debunk the claims made for the work in Beyond Digital, there is the fact that photography has been predominantly digital for the last 30+ years and video has always been digital. Add to this, thanks to Photoshop and various animation, 3D modeling and editing programs, neither photography nor film are any longer lens based and the photographic is little more than a digital effect as can be witnessed in many video games, animation, and films.
Part of the confusion around art’s digital production is that in the 70s the category of New Media promised to be expansive and inclusive, but by the 90s came to be predominantly identified with video and performance. Meanwhile digital media —given its commercial applications, need for expertise (e.g. programming skills) and expense — came to be separated out and principally identified with animation, film, industrial design, and architecture. Despite this, since the 70s, there have been various modes of digital production in terms of input and output i.e., computer graphics, net art, asci, and computer driven and interactive kinetic art. Robert Mallery in the early 70s was using computers to map out, scale and fabricate his sculptures. Then there is the painter Harold Cohen and the installation artist Lynn Hershman, who for decades worked to develop to very differing ends AIs. His makes paintings of differing subjects at its own behest and hers constitute a personality one can interact with. On a grander scale, there are more recently the immersive multi-media environments created by such production houses as Olaf Eliasson’s studio and Team Lab. All of such projects use digital and analog technologies to produce material experiences and objects.
Without a historically constructed discourse there is neither context nor criteria by which to understand or evaluate the undertaking of producing machine-based art. Most often such works come to be judged for their novelty and as such come to be short lived critically and in the marketplace. It is often argued they are insubstantial: lacking aesthetic and conceptual depth when judged against other practices. In our post-Modern era the recounting of histories has been made optional so much so AIs such as ChatGPT because they are word and not information based have been found to be fabricating their own reference material — in part this is because whatever is syntactically correct is taken to be true. In addition to the present state of historical knowledge, the history of artists working with sound, light, and motion is under erasure, having been barely written into the history of modernism. There are a number of complex reasons for this exclusion. To make a long story short, the vision of the artist as a tinkerer, collaborating with technicians, and dependent on machines does not fit with the historical craft model of the artist as a skilled-maker whose studio is their workshop.
My knowledge of artworks employing digital technologies as either input or output is informed by the fact I curated an exhibition in 2001 called No Websites, Please. The artists, I included all used various digital technologies and programs to produce works that took the form of photographs, videos, animations, sculptures and paintings. More recently in 2021, I wrote the catalog essay for the exhibition Digital Vision, organized by the multi-media painter Matthew Klauber. This show included painters, sculptors, photographers, and multi-media artists who have integrated digital technologies into their studio practices. That exhibition featured sculpture, inflatables, photographs, and videos as well as paintings which incorporated video, animations, light projections, and glitches. There are no such hybrid works included in Beyond the Digital.
Drawn from the Pablo Rodríguez-Fraile, and Desiree Casoni collection, which has been built over the last 12 years, the works that make-up Beyond Digital minimally address how artists may now build into their production—repetition, variation, and evolution as ways to supplement existent forms. In the main, what is here is the domestication of the flat-screen wall-mounted monitor. Almost everything image-wise is derivative of abstract painting, photography, trading cards and graffiti turned into the equivalent of a QuickTime video file or running on a program by which they will evolve in time. So relative to claims of innovation, new frontiers, and novelty; the question to be asked is, are the works that make up Beyond Digital challenging aesthetically or conceptually and would they hold their own in an exhibition less specialized than this? The answer is no.
What the selection of works presented here represents is the most recent trend in digital art; the production of static and dynamic NFTs ( which are a type of digital files) that can be displayed on monitors, as projections, printed as photographs, or 3D printed as physical objects. In other words, much of the work in Beyond Digital uses programming as production tools and fairly conventional digital means of display as output. None of the works actually explores the realms of VR, audience interactivity, augmented reality, the meta-verse, etc. or even traverse into the realm of augmented reality. At best these artists basically use algorithms and machine learning to modulate their work’s temporality rather than their format. Given the nature of much of the work in Beyond Digital, one can assume the next generation of works to enter the Rodríguez-Fraile, and Casoni collection, once they come to be integrated into the marketplace, will be deep-fakes made by AIs and Chatbots.
Beyond Digital Venus Over Manhattan
120 East 65th Street
New York, NY 10065 Through March 14, 2023
About the Writer: Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.