Zizek has summarised Marx as having said that the invention of steam engine has 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, as made possible by consumer electronics. Have our philosophers stepped forward to engage with the latest technological crop? Perhaps Wikipedia is proof of a consensus theory of truth? I’m sure many theses are addressing concerns in this vein as you read.
But 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 our era as “post-warholian”, presumably indicating that Warhol was last person to adequately reference technological change – meaning, in this instance, mass production and consumerism. I wonder if the more recent Saatchi-fueled crop of artists has captured something of marketing landscape we currently inhabit, 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 acclaimed artistic portrait of the digital era is still to come.
Which is some surprise when you consider how engaged the news agenda is with technology: I was amazed to see that Google’s Wave technology (still barely incipient) got substantial coverage in the news, while a certain Cupertino based company recently received more than a sprinkling of press when it announced its tablet based computer….
Earning a living from the internet, as I happen to, I’ve been curious about the Gompertz question for some time, and the Kinetica Art Fair seemed like a good place to satisfy my pretensions at cultural engagement. 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 (and my personal) 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 [Unfortunately I can’t find the artists names in the catalog]. The mirror and rods 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 varied from the malfunctioning to a urinal which provided an opportunity for punters to simulate pan-global urination (sadly not with real urine) via Google maps [by Ric Carvalho]. I would defy anyone not to be entertained while wondering round the the fair, its certainly not boring art.
However, Will Gompertz’s challenge was not answered at Kinetica – the essence of the technological modernity was not distilled into any single work, or indeed represented collectively.
I’ve been mulling over various possible reasons for the difficulty of the problem, and quite a few suggestions spring to mind. Do computers naturally alienate artists? Is information technology to visually banal to be characterised succinctly?
My favorite theory is that the transitory nature of our electronic lives that makes them so hard to pin down. Mobile phones, web sites, computers and operating 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 between incarnations. Moreover, their form is almost an accident, and not connected with their more profound meaning in any way. The square riggers of the mercantile age and the smoke stacks of the industrial era seem to denote something broader – how, for example, 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 some way I think films give us tacit acknowledgment of the contingent nature of the digital environment that we spend much of our lives in: characters are never seen using Windows on their computer, in films computer interfaces are always generic. And when we see a Mac in a movie it’s 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 in fairness that might be a misunderstanding on my part. Really the fair was about works facilitated by technology, rather than about it.
I may have picked a straw man in Kinetica. However, the V&As ongoing exhibition Decode really does no better, though its failures and successes are another topic. In this case I think we can say that Decode exhibition does addresses itself to the Gompertz challenge, and it too fails.
As if to illustrate the perversity of the digital landscape the Gompertz post has become a de facto collection of net art, which is well worth checking out. In a still keener illustration of the era of mass participation, despite the author’s instance that he is questioning the “eminence not of existence” of net art, commenters continue to post links in the belief that enough evidence of the existence of net art will somehow make it eminent.