Digital technology and culture continue to radically change the conditions for art’s production, distribution, interfaces, and forms. Apart from offering new tools, it contributes to the reconfiguration of the lives and imaginations of artists. Globally and instantly interconnected, artists are able to quickly touch and affect the world at scales beyond locality. Digital technology and culture inevitably change what artists do, and how and why they do it. As a consequence, places, meanings and the roles of art in societies change and with that change comes the evolution of art and ideas.
As science and technology expand the artistic toolbox and nurture skills in crafting with code and digital material, the artist is cast as a figure of extended agency — as (co)-producer, creator, craftsperson, social or collective facilitator, investigator, advocate, scientist, and ‘world-maker.’ Art temporally engages with, affects, acts on, and sometimes even changes the world while moving still further into spaces, labs, and environments of real-world cycles of production and innovation. 1
- A survey of artist testimonials collected for the book Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art (Intellect, 2019) reveals how artists explore different modes of practice, enabled by digital-technological tools, infrastructures, and cultures.
Yet art’s new processes have launched both excitement and concern with art’s ecologies of making the ‘new.’ This is a concern about what is realized and aided by art, with how art becomes an operative program entangled with precarious dynamics of the digital and its industries. It is a concern about the ecological implications of what art makes — not least in perspective of the growing interest in the making of art from industries offering residencies, technology, and resources for art’s production (and co-production of industrial products). Artistic creativity feeds emerging narratives of who we are, what experiences we evolve through, and what we aspire towards. In a way, the arts seize the moment to finally impact the world as the pragmatists, the constructivists, the futurists, the system aestheticians and others dreamed about. It takes the invitation from the world beyond art as an opening to enter the inner production room, write the blueprint, engineer the black box. Art’s ‘new making’ concerns the exploration of new roles for art.
With a point of departure in the book Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art (Intellect, 2019) that examines how digital technology and culture influence contemporary art, this conversation addresses the topic of ‘art’s new making’ by asking: What drives creative artistic pursuits today? How can we understand art’s ecologies when involved in making the ‘new’? What might the pursuit of art’s ‘new’ making promise, demonstrate, and feed forward? 2
- The topic of ‘art’s new making’ was discussed in the panel and public meeting Digital Dynamics: Art’s New Making during the Screen City Biennial 2019. The conversation extends to this paper with the participation of authors of chapters in Digital Dynamics and panelists from this event.
Participants of this conversation include (in order of response) Laura Beloff, Elizabeth Jochum, Saara Ekström, Morten Søndergaard and Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen. It is initiated and introduced by Tanya Ravn Ag and edited by Vanina Saracino.
Laura Beloff is an artist, Associate Professor and Head of ViCCA studies at Aalto University – School of Art, Design and Architecture (Helsinki, Finland). The intersection of philosophical issues related to art, technology, biology and the manipulation of living matter are at the center of her research. Elizabeth Jochum is the Head of the Research Laboratory for Art and Technology at Aalborg University (Copenhagen, Denmark). Her main research interests are robotic art and performance. Saara Ekström, based in Turku, Finland, is a visual artist working primarily with photography, video and film. Post-anthropocentric worldviews on ecologies are an important aspect of her work. Morten Søndergaard is a curator, exhibition designer and Associate Professor at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, Denmark, working at the intersection of art, science and technology. Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen is a researcher and art critic within the fields of digital art and digital culture. She is Assistant Professor in Aesthetics and Culture at Aarhus University in Denmark. The conversation took place between May 30th and June 15th 2020.
Tanya Ravn Ag: What drives artistic, creative practices of ‘making’ today?
Laura Beloff: In the experimental art scene, especially younger generations are looking into practices that require less materially-based resources and do not necessarily focus on the construction of artifacts and commodities, but rather develop experiences, gestures and network-based actions that are considered meaningful. This has resulted in an increase towards performative practices and other experimental forms that are seen to be non-materially based and often temporal —even if they actually use resources and materials. Especially the use of various digital tools and the continuous flow of social media posts is often extensive in these practices. However, these are signs of an ideological shift against commodified material artifacts.
Additionally, to these kinds of experimental practices, collective and collaborative working has become prominent in today’s cultural world with the emergence of small grass-roots organizations that are bringing forth important and novel topics, education, exhibitions, discussions, the inclusion of diversity, and overall the creation of active communities often regenerated via online platforms. These types of art practices can be seen as a deliberate resistance to the development of the art market and museum administration, both of which are to a large extent embedded in the current dominant neoliberalist and capitalist logic. As John Roberts points out, these types of practices represent a collective negation of capitalist culture (Roberts 2019). The results are seen in, for example, the rise of socially engaged art practices, if we extend this term to also encompass the biological arts and non-human and environmental concerns by calling it worldly-engaged art.
All of the above is in principle considered a positive development, although there is another (emerging) side to these new practices. There appears to be a strong moral expectation for making art that is ‘correct,’ not only politically correct but also morally correct — and for very obvious reasons concerning the state of our world with its environmental, political and societal challenges. Nevertheless, one can also question art’s role in this: should art be the moral guardian or rather re/presenting the world with its complexities and pushing people to form their own opinions about these complex issues — even through art that is intentionally made to be ‘incorrect’?
Elizabeth Jochum: What drives artistic making today is much the same as in previous epochs: connection, criticality, and curiosity. Art making stems from the desire to understand and communicate the experience of felt life, uncovering and moving us towards a deeper understanding of the world and our experiences within it. What has changed are the tools through which artists investigate these experiences. Digital culture and technology make it possible for artists and makers to explore at deeper — even scientific — levels the human faculties of perception while considering our material and immaterial connections with the world. Digital technologies that shape our experiences are both the objects of artistic inquiry and also the means through which artists inquire and make.
I share Laura’s observations of the prevalence of socially engaged performance practices that connect people and places in meaningful ways. This could be seen as a revival of the performative turn that marked the 1960s (e.g. Fluxus), although it occurs in a different register in the presence of digital culture and technology. The prevalence of computational procedures and tools have shifted how artists pose questions and chart new aesthetic territories. Technology is now conceived as a collaborative partner or co-creator, not just a sophisticated tool for making.
Another trend I see is a revival in cybernetic theory and practices that are explored through wearable technology, tracking devices, and networked technologies. In the era of ubiquitous computing, the Quantified Self and surveillance capitalism, artists are driven to explore the possibilities and consequences of immersion and interfacing: pervasive digital technologies affect the way we conceive of the self and our relationships to the world and to one another (Federova 2020; Dixon 2019).
Saara Ekström: The call and pursuit of making art is driven by curiosity, empathy, openness, and courage to see and reveal the unseen. Art’s purpose is to interact, to question and create communication through individually and collectively encountered experiences. Art may be born through contemplative inner dialogues, and as a reaction to environmental and political issues that touch us all, without losing the innermost quality of what art is, or without compromising its freedom — that is, without becoming a commodity and a superficial commentator on vitally important matters.
I wish art would still venture into worlds that remain hidden, strive to give form to the inexplainable. I still find mystical qualities in making and experiencing art. When encountering art, I hope to be lifted outside of my own sphere, to feel, to connect, to learn, to be challenged, to fully lose myself and my ego. Personally, I find it difficult to merge with highly digitally-driven artworks, which don’t seem to function well within my DNA. That being said, I’ve experienced several digital works that have left an impression on me. Michelle-Marie Letelier’s VR work The Bone (2019), which I encountered at the Screen City Biennial 2019, was for example a truly poetic and ritualistic work achieved without compromising any aspect of its environmental message.
A few years ago, I decided to work with vintage cameras and analog film. Various reasons brought me to this choice: in the time of manipulated digital images, film feels like a more concrete, real and uncorrupted material to work with. I love the slow, uncertain processes and the way they force you to let go of control. However, I still depend on digital tools: the analog and organic films I work with are digitized and edited digitally. It would have been impossible for me to create some of my works by splicing and gluing film like in the early days of cinema, such as the expanded cinema performance I realized in the streets of Stavanger (SCB 2019) using pico projectors.
Morten Søndergaard: First, we must consider the many different and often contradictory events, processes, and formations that contextualize art practices today. And then, we must consider future formations, perhaps as an extension of the present, perhaps as a projection of something only partially detectable, if at all. Finally, we must also bring attention to the excription of past inscriptions, reading and writing historic art practices elsewhere and in other contexts. Overall, we need to carefully revisit and reinterpret that which we think we know so well or perhaps have never fully encountered until we (re)discover it due to some change or transformation in our discursive formations and attention.
Artists always pursue making. That is the nature of their practice-based situation and why they are named artists in the first place: they are good at making and setting the making in ways others cannot. That said, I think the ability to ‘make’ has transcended the borders of artistic ‘realms’ many times in the past decades (if not centuries) — ‘to make’ is not an exclusive act, and in the digital age the non-artistic making has accelerated into being the rule rather than the exception. So, rather than looking at new artistic making, we are, in the first instance of analysis, looking at new roles, and more importantly at the negotiations of new formations that those roles bring into being.
As I have pointed out in my earlier writings, among the emergent roles in ubiquitous complexity culture, where human and digital production intersect, the ‘implied producer’ seems to be a structural typecast for making in the context of digital dynamics. So, what does that mean then for the way the role of the artist is interpreted (and typecasted in the art world)? Is it possible to draw a clear line of difference between non-artistic and artistic making in an age of digital production?
Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen: I became inspired by Morten Søndergaard’s response to this topic and his question: “Is it possible to draw a clear line of difference between non-artistic and artistic making in an age of digital production?” It is difficult, indeed, to draw the line between artistic and non-artistic making in the field of cultural production: many international digital artists I know consider themselves activists or researchers, even though institutions consider them artists.
Some digital artists are craftsmen in the traditional sense, but in new ways: they are really makers. In the chapter “Critical Thoroughness – The Dynamics between the Artist as User and Producer of Digital Elements” in Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art (2019) I describe how digital artists, rather than accepting and using the available digital elements and tools, focus instead on different ways to produce their digital elements from scratch. Artists today are driven by different forces, among these climate change and the impact of digital culture which relate to materiality — infrastructures, material bodies, biodiversity, soil, etc. I also see among young artists a turn toward spirituality and cognition. Issues of sleep, philosophy and writing, not necessarily immaterial issues, but new materials and curious ways of exploring the complex notion of consciousness.
Tanya Ravn Ag: What, if anything, is ‘new’ about art’s making in times of digital culture and technology? How does this affect the ways in which we can understand art’s ecologies?
Laura Beloff: There has been a decades-long tendency to divide art/culture & technology into distinct camps. Today, artists use digital technology either as a tool for the production of art, technological networks as a platform for shared creation, and/or technology as the base-medium into which artworks and experiments are inherently embedded.
Current developments in science and technology are spreading across our everyday lives in many different forms, from logistics and image recognition to care-taking industries. The recent advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have opened up a variety of possibilities and new avenues to be explored — also within the arts and by artists. Robotics in combination with Artificial Intelligence are forming completely new kinds of creatures capable of learning. At the same time, biotechnology is continuously developing new methods, possibilities and inventions, many of which rely on computational logic.
In the Digital Dynamics-book I write about the merger of the technical and the biological and its impact on the visual arts (Beloff 2019). The important questions for today’s artists concern: what do these developments mean for us, for the planet, and for the biological and cultural evolution? What kinds of futures do we want to imagine and build within an era in which the globalization of technology has become a common fact? These are complex and challenging tasks in which artists need to take an active role in parallel and together with other experts.
Saara Ekström: New digital platforms are born, information is spread at a quicker pace to reach massive amounts of people in an instant, at least in countries where the technology is available to practically everyone. The hierarchy of museums and art institutions will be challenged more concretely, as alternative voices increasingly make use of these fast routes for expressing themselves, reacting to collective issues and spreading art. Naturally, museums are also seeing new possibilities to be explored in this process. This fact became very graspable when the COVID-19 lockdown closed borders and public spaces, including museums and galleries. On such a short notice, many went online with exhibitions, video archives and talks.
But how do you grasp all of this information and the large amount of data from the couch at home? Is the artwork able to touch you when it is experienced alone through a laptop?
The technique I’ve chosen to work with is slow and unpredictable. Since the world around us is constantly speeding up, there is an urge to slow it down, take time to observe, see the changes around you, and maybe even affect their course from your own small perspective.
Elizabeth Jochum: There is a dimension of contemporary art making that is not talked about enough: the vital relationship between industry and art. In the book chapter on virtual reality in Digital Dynamics, we try to explore some of these connections by elaborating on the ways that VR aesthetics emerged from a matrix of activities that traverse the borders of art, research, entertainment and industry (Jochum and Lind 2019). Much like the Sony Portapak video sets that radically transformed video art in the 1960s, artists were among the first movers of consumer VR technology for mixed reality and augmented reality artworks. Commercially available tools make it possible for artists to work with off-the-shelf parts, while open source software and intuitive visual programming languages (VPLs) enable artists with little knowledge of computer science to create software programs.
Industrial collaboration and sponsorship continue to be powerful catalysts for art making, placing emerging and established artists in close contact with researchers and developers. In 2016, Google initiated a special program on Artists + Machine Intelligence to support contemporary art making that utilizes machine learning. One fellowship was awarded to Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, whose work appears here (Chattopadhyay 2019). This program builds on the long history of industry + arts collaborations like E.A.T. and Bell Labs, or the Art & Technology program at LACMA, which matched artists (Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Serra, Warhol) with technology companies. LACMA launched a new initiative in 2013, and Arts at CERN hosts several artists-in-residency programs that promote dialogue and practice between artists and particle physicists.
The breadth of digital tools available to the contemporary artist not only transforms the kind of artworks that can be made, but also transforms the very nature of making. The line between artist and “creative technologist” becomes increasingly difficult to decipher. In this new landscape of machine learning, digital tools make art, compose music, and generate poetry. We might begin to ask, what is the role of the artist in the age of the intentional machine?
Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen: I often tell my students that in our current era ‘formalism strikes back’ — by that I mean that the interest and interrogation by artists in the materiality of media, their abilities and ways of influence-sensing could on some levels be compared to minimalism in art, but also that during the transmedial experiments in the historical avant-gardes, the borders among different media (sound, literature, images) became a topic of interest. When it comes to art’s ecologies, I have been deeply inspired by the French philosopher Yves Citton and his notion of the ‘ecology of attention’. One of his arguments relates to the social and collective character of attention: what we even direct our attention towards is a matter of social and cultural forces, and it is not up to the individual. The American aesthetic theorist Sianne Ngai analyses ‘the interesting’ as an aesthetic category. Finding something interesting is the most naked and minimal form of (aesthetic) judgment. Rather, it is an aesthetic category that shifts or delays the aesthetic judgment, because being interested in something is an anticipatory feeling in which the experience is being stored for later use (Ngai 2015). ‘The interesting’ is what you turn your attention towards, what you decide to spend your time on in the first place. Art is a part of this ecology, where it is a matter of what is getting attention in the first place and what we even find to be interesting.
I have recently been writing about the aesthetics and affect of deepfake videos. Facebook was reluctant to ban them until the artists Daniel Howe and Bill Posters in partnership with the advertising company Canny posted a fake video of Mark Zuckerberg on Instagram. This was quite extreme, but it shows how art can work with the materiality of digital infrastructures (policies, law making, etc.). It is also an example of art being a part of an attention economy no matter what. It is an interesting tendency that Elizabeth Jochum also mentions, practiced by young artists to contribute to social media. Yves Citton claims that, as soon as cultural products (e.g. art) start counting views, visitors or bought items, they have already become part of the capitalist attention economy.
Morten Søndergaard: I would like to propose that the lines between non-artistic and artistic making have always been blurred. The lines that have appeared ‘clear’ are those that have been culturally accepted as valid, or rather as ‘valued.’ Interestingly enough, this places art making in close proximity to normativity and even cultural dogmatism. Still, the notion of art as a ‘free space’ for expressions of that which it would not be possible to express otherwise is almost commonplace in our shared cultural understanding. So, in terms of making as an eventful and processual activity, let’s say that art making, at the very least, is navigating (what appears to be) opposites: normativity (or, rather, structures of cultural entanglement) and the ability to express alternatives (relatively) freely. Of course, there is an (almost Socratic) dilemma here, but rather than turning this into a philosophical debate I would propose to turn the premise of opposites (which is anyway a simplified proposition) into questions of ‘what is making’ under these circumstances? I think those questions are ubiquitous when Marcel Duchamp talks of ‘le mot idiot’ and ‘anti-art’ or when Sophie Calle makes a series of works called L’absence. As artist-makers, they play with the cultural expectations of a highly professionalized and dogmatized ‘art world’ and the very premise of making something which addresses this in a different and critical way.
In this creative opposition of interests (and expectations), technologies have always played a part. I do not see technologies (in the plural, and as effects of a nonlinear excription of mechanized or automated machines and processes) as a beginning or an end to this ‘setting’ of the artist-role. Keeping in mind the philosophical debates surrounding technology (most often in the singular), the dominating ideas in the 20th century are navigating notions of instrumentalization (Jaspers 1998) and determinism (Heidegger 1954). Those ideas are still key to the way we think technology and art relations today, of course. However, the current ways of addressing this by ‘makers’ show, I think, how ‘implied producers’ (as an emergent typology in ubiquitous complexity culture) are engaged in creating new ways of thinking, circumnavigating the transcendence of technology as a privileged human activity. Rather, it seems that art-makers are navigating a field of nonhuman and human activity alike, combined, related, transcoded, perhaps sometimes intended, but most of the time processing excripted effects, in the vicinity of that which Bruno Latour terms trajectories (Latour 1993).
Tanya Ravn Ag: What might the pursuit of art’s ‘new’ making promise, demonstrate, and feed forward?
Elizabeth Jochum: Art making in and through digital culture expands the kinds of questions that artists and theorists can ask, which in turn transforms the very foundation of knowledge not only in the field of art but across disciplines. This is the promise of art’s new making. This is especially true for art + science collaborations, where there is an increased awareness and recognition of the unique role that art has to make explicit the meaningful connections between things, people and practices.
Picking up on Morten’s observation that art-makers today navigate a field of nonhuman and human activity alike, the pandemic has made it clear how our unhealthy relationship with animals and the environments contributed to the present crisis. Recently, I became aware of a longstanding collaboration between Glasgow Art Institute and Glasgow Medical Institute around COVID-19. Artistic visualization and medicine have a long tradition, and digital culture and technology expand this relationship by allowing these visualizations to reach wider audiences in new ways. An invisible virus brought the world to the brink. Artists render the invisible visible in ways that are both relatable and meaningful, creating a sophisticated and accurate visual language that captures complexity and resonance. This, I think, is essential to rediscovering our relationship to the world and overturning the idea of the human as the center of all things.
Saara Ekström: Even if I’m sort of going back in time and opting to play with my analog toys, I’m sure there will be many possibilities to develop and expand the digital art forms. I hope they will pull us closer to each other through profound, diverse, and intense experiences and give us the opportunity to widen our horizons and grasp the world through the eyes, lives, and experiences of other individuals and beings. Moreover, presenting art through various means via the net will hopefully help us to diminish the carbon footprints that are generated through producing art and exhibitions.
Laura Beloff: During the last weeks we have been experiencing the COVID-19 situation with remote working in isolation of our homes. With humor one could say that this has been a similar situation to the traditional image of the genius artist working alone in the ivory tower. These weeks of isolation have shown clearly that most of us (artists) don’t make art ‘alone’ but rather that it requires interference from the surrounding world and its dynamics. We have fully realized that we (humans) are social animals and that communicating via networks cannot replace the need for face-to-face meetings. However, we have also seen that in many instances it is possible to use technological networks for occasional meetings, talks, and presentations; the need for constant travel has diminished.
This globally shared experience will impact our future and also art making in one way or another. Localities will gain importance but at the same time global connections will have a presence within the local. Yuk Hui defines cosmotechnics to describe the relation between technics and cosmos: “cosmotechnics is primarily defined as unification between the cosmic order and the moral order through technical activities” (Hui 2020). Hui points out that technology is always motivated but also constrained by a cosmic form of life. It is clear that we need to rethink how we relate to the planet we inhabit but also to rethink from what principles we develop our technology. Artists can be seen as antennas of the world; they bring forth perspectives and experiments on issues that may need critical scrutiny or offer new visions to be considered.
Morten Søndergaard: The stage is set for unhinging artmaking from its humanistic roots, the privileged position from where it has been ‘valued’ for centuries. The crisis of the humanities – and its values – is fed back into a systematic disentanglement of most of everything that could be classified as classic, European, colonial, western, enlightened, male, objective, ‘white’, hermeneutic even. The stage is empty, as Sophie Calle pointed out, parabolically setting her series in a collection of art that was stolen – photographing the empty places where that ‘art’ used to be (hanging, standing). What are we left with here? The witnesses and their memories. It seems to me that the future challenge – artistic, political, and academic – is how to navigate those memories. Who or what will decide whom and what we navigate and access? How do we think critically in such a setting? And who are ‘we’ in that question?
Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen: Jenny Holzer’s historical truism of the 1980s “Protect me from what I want” often comes to my mind these days. The phrase can be read today as an ambivalence regarding agency in relation to free choice and potential manipulation at pre-cognitive levels, impulses, desires and fake news. The idea of globalized, democratic interactions as a result of the Internet is a utopia, and art institutions, curators, and education systems are very important today. Education systems might be one of the places left where we still encourage critical thinking (where we are protected from what we want) along with the teaching in the materialities of digital systems. I also see a future where artists keep collaborating with other institutions rather than pursuing their own autonomous art discourse, be it education or health: the aesthetic experiences might reach other groups and have other consequences by being in already established institutions. This leads to questions regarding the freedom and the economy of artists. Let’s keep this conversation going.
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Tanya Ravn Ag, Ph.D., is a curator and scholar focused on perceptual experience with art and aesthetics in perspective of contemporary technogenesis. She is the editor of Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art (Intellect, 2019), a publication based on artist interviews that maps and explores how contemporary art is changing in perspective of digital culture and technology. Her curatorial engagements with especially urban, media-based art include the Screen City Biennial 2017 in Stavanger, the SP Urban Digital Festival in São Paulo in 2013 and 2014, and Nordic Outbreak presented in New York City and across the Nordic region by the Streaming Museum in 2013-2014. She is currently a postdoc researcher at the Institute of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen. www.tanyaravnag.net