Claire Bishop recently wrote a piece for Artforum that kicked up a bit of a storm. She contended, rightly, that the contemporary art world ignores the media art world. If she is correct, what is the controversy? Perhaps it wasn't so much what she said, but how she said it. And perhaps the stir is also a little bit about who is doing the speaking and on which platform, since Bishop is a respected critic and academic, and Artforum an influential publication. When she says there is a divide between the media art world and the contemporary art world, it is remarkable because of the source: long have practitioners and curators of media art complained of being relegated to a ghetto. At last, someone from the other side of the fence decides to acknowledge this, and moreover, to highlight this as a troubling issue. Bishop writes, "the digital is, on a deep level, the shaping condition—even the structuring paradox—that determines artistic decisions to work with certain formats and media", asserting that this divide is no small thing to be ignored.
A recurring point in Bishop's essay is an issue relevant to both Turing-land and Duchamp-land (as Lev Manovich calls these two worlds) and, like the schism itself, is too big to ignore: she discusses the notion of "commercial viability" and states that in art, "desirability also arises from the impression that it is scarce, rare, precious". It is absolutely true that in art (as in anything) money is the bottom line, and perhaps dealers, collectors, and curators making acquisition decisions all still feel that, in the solidity of the object touched by the hand of the established artist, there is inherent value. However, Bishop also ominously notes that "visual art's ongoing double attachment to intellectual property and physicality threatens to jeopardize its own relevance in the forthcoming decades". The influence of the market on Duchamp-land cannot be underestimated, and digital art still barely registers in this market through the traditional gallerist/dealer channels. Why this is the case is the subject for an entirely different essay, but I cannot resist quoting artist and curator Marius Watz when he wittily summarizes the current situation in the comments on the article: "Sadly, the arrival of a generation of millionaires that grew up with computer games has done little to increase the collector base. Startup CEO's invariably buy Warhols for their shag pads."
By way of highlighting the similarities between these two worlds, Bishop also devotes considerable space to describing how the immensity of the Web and how we browse it has influenced modes of exhibition and display, "even when the outcome is decisively analog." She points out how massive biennials and festivals containing more artworks than can possibly be seen are mirroring the perceived infinitude of the Web and its ever-growing contents. Whether this tendency in curating is actually a result of how people experience the Web or if it is due to an increasing desire to impress and attract audiences with massive spectacles is hard to say.
Her points about the media art world's failure to penetrate the art market and how the pervasiveness of technology itself influences the art world whether it likes it or not are thought-provoking. Difficulties emerge in this essay with hackneyed arguments about how the "soft warmth" of film "feels intimate compared with the cold, hard digital image". This "digital is cold, analog is warm" analogy has been done to death (mostly by lesser writers) and is frankly so purely subjective as to be nearly meaningless. I suppose one could call a Mondrian image "hard" as well (in the visual sense Bishop is getting at), but you could also call it joyous, invigorating, and fun, which are far more flattering adjectives. Bishop also blunders when she gets into talking about code, one of the building blocks of media art. She asserts that code is "inherently alien to human perception", "a garbled recipe of numbers and letters, meaningless to the average viewer". I suppose when I attempt to contemplate the atomic structure of a piece of steel in a Richard Serra sculpture, or ponder what the pigments in a Rembrandt painting are actually made of, that information might be meaningless and alien to my perception too. In the case of Serra, Rembrandt, and all the art I look at, I never consider these things; I think I can safely assume that most other viewers don't either. However, the "digital is cold", "code is alien" biases persist, despite how easily they are revealed to be ridiculous. Based on anecdotal experience, I find that it is also still acceptable to make self-deprecating remarks about not comprehending technology, and somehow being ignorant about media art also creeps into this category of fashionable ignorance.
For as curators Jon Ippolito and Sarah Cook both pointed out in the comments to Bishop's article, it is ultimately a fear of not knowing that drives this continued schism. Ippolito states: "As a fifteen-year curator at the Guggenheim, I recall it took until 2000 for the chief curators to admit that the most interesting thing happening in the art world was video. So, at that rate, the 'mainstream' art world should catch up to the rest of us by 2040." Recently I sat in a room where the director of a major contemporary art centre in Amsterdam referred to a recently-launched online exhibition space as a "new and innovative" concept, revealing a complete ignorance of the entire history of online exhibitions by both major institutions worldwide and independent artists and curators.
In Turing-land, we are well-aware of not only the history but the current trends and movements in Duchamp-land; while for the residents of Duchamp-land, it seems nothing exists outside of its borders. And so when Bishop darkly suggests: "At its most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialized, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture; at its worst, it signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself", I have to ask if that is really the worst case scenario. The worst case would be that the contemporary art world continues to trundle along, appearing to many as though it has completely run out of ideas or, at the very least, is a good forty years behind, instead of taking the opportunity to get to know the richness of the world it is ignoring, and to engage fully with its past, present, and future. The obsolescence of the visual art world could only come about by continuing to view media art as an alien, separate category of art, "cold" and "hard" and governed by some imagined mysteries of computer code, as opposed to viewing it as newly-discovered territory to discover and embrace.
Michelle Kasprzak is a Canadian curator and writer based in Amsterdam. She is a Curator at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media and the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF). In 2006 she founded Curating.info, the web's leading resource for curators. She has written critical essays for C Magazine, Volume, Spacing, Mute, and many other media outlets. She is a member of IKT (International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art). She is also Akimblog's European Art + Tech correspondent and can be followed @mkasprzak on Twitter.
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