As digital technologies make data available for mathematical operations, new material becomes available for artistic experimentation and new kinds of content emerge through art. Rather than critically interpreting and representing an objective and independent reality, art explores new ways of dealing with the consequences, interventions, creative possibilities, and responsibilities involved in the representation of the world. For example, we see this in art that reconfigures and rematerializes images, surfaces, and systems of everyday life experiences, in practices concerned with invisible phenomena and new materialities, as well as in art dealing with the productive effects of different representational modes and how their efficacy is conditioned.
Such practices in artistic digital creation, which we could name performative, call into question the basic premises of representationalism as a paradigm in art, particularly in Western art, which more or less mirrors a scientific-objectivist foundation of the modern world. They challenge a common debate and distinction between representations and what they represent – as replicating, filtering, constraining or manipulating an immediate perception or knowledge of the world. They do so by not only problematizing representations but also working to create new kinds of representations. Beyond showing the world to us and making it felt, contemporary art participates in constructing what becomes ‘real.’ Rather than representing the surrounding world, the art constructs new worlds. It participates in changing our perception of the environments and systems from where data is taken and influences our sense and understanding of what things are.
Perhaps this speaks to a shift in attention – away from reality’s representations through symbols and objects in art and towards the realities of art; realities that condition and are fabricated through art’s making, meaning, and doing while representing the world in new ways.
This text, composed of responses to the above, examines how contemporary art’s modes of making result in ‘new’ kinds of representations – and how this challenges a representationalist discourse in art. It discusses what is new about art’s representations today, what these representations show, what they reveal about recent orientations in art, and what they may eventually produce.
Participants of the conversation include (in order of responses) Margrét Elísabet Ólafsdóttir, Saemundur Thor Helgason, Bernhard Garnicnig and Jonatan Habib Engqvist. The text is initiated and introduced by Tanya Ravn Ag and edited by Vanina Saracino.
Margrét Elísabet Ólafsdóttir is an assistant professor at the University of Akureyri (Iceland), as well as an independent curator and art critic. Saemundur Thor Helgason is an artist and co-founder of Cosmos Carl – Platform Parasite; in 2017 he founded Félag Borgara (‘Fellowship of Citizens’), with the aim of lobbying for Basic Income in Iceland. Bernhard Garnicnig is an artist and researcher interested in the relation between artists and institutions as a site where new practices emerge. Jonatan Habib Engqvist is an independent curator and writer.
Tanya Ravn Ag: What is significant about the ways that the digital affords art the possibility to represent the world in new ways?
Margrét Elísabet Ólafsdóttir: This is a tricky question. The digital touches so many aspects of human lives today that I think it is almost impossible for artists to avoid it completely. Even when digital tools are not used directly in the making of an artwork, the digital is present as a source of information and image-making. The significance of what is made is not embedded in the digital but in the ways in which it is understood.
The Icelandic artists that were invited to take part in the online exhibition Digital Dynamics: Art’s New Representations and the related panel discussion on these issues had very different practices, but they were all affected by the digital in some way or another. Auður Lóa Guðnadóttir is making small sculptures that seem to have nothing to do with the digital, but the source of her imagery comes from the Internet. The subject is also closely linked to questions concerning the hierarchies of information and the more delicate aspects of democracy that deal with the flow – and popularity – of ‘irrelevant’ information. While Auður Lóa’s work is more about the circulation of ‘cute’ images, Auður Ýr Guðmundsdóttir tackles the pornographic and the grotesque, employing digital tools and using social media as a means of distribution. Her stance is very different from that of the first generation of net artists, although she agrees with them on the possibilities of the Internet to short-cut the art world by making her work solely online and for an online audience. Saemundur Thor Helgason, who has run the online gallery Cosmos Carl – Platform Parasite for some time, is not concerned with the separation of the digital and the non-digital and instead looks at them as interwoven realities – as do many artists of his generation. None of these artists deal with the digital as something that ‘stands alone’ or as separate from other questions related to issues of broader social concerns.
Saemundur Thor Helgason: With the emergence of the Internet and of social media in particular, cultural productions come together in cross-disciplinary streams of content, alongside birthday wishes, cat videos, memes, political debate and adverts. This new condition has taken art outside of its previously acclaimed ‘autonomous space’ and plunged it into a realm of multitude and non-coherence. This has granted art new means of representation within an online public sphere.
Bernhard Garnicnig: I am excited that digital tools and practices allow artists to leave the field of re-presentation and move towards pre-figuration. We have come to a point where the power of artists to shape the representations of imaginaries is now ready to move into a new condition where these practices prefigure possible realities from these imaginaries.
They are manifested ‘as if’ they are real, in order to influence the status quo (Cooper 2020). This way, artists' practices can be truly politically emancipatory practices, as they abolish what is considered a natural order (Fisher, 2009). 1 This is what Jamie Allen and I write about in our text “The Art of Instituting” (Ag 2019): the relation between artists' practices and political and cultural institutions becomes the site for digital practices beyond representation, but it pre-figuratively influences systems of political and social representation. Artists employ digital tools for these performative prefigurations. Because of the ambiguous nature of digital tools as part of the disciplinary toolset of states and corporations, they found ways to use exactly those same tools to prefigure new realities into the institutional apparatus. In these practices, they develop administrative and creative digital toolchains, ultimately juxtaposing the hitherto opposition of the creative and the administrative into their own artistic toolset.
- “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, 2009.
Jonatan Habib Engqvist: I am not sure the digital affords art to represent the world in new ways. Possibly it has raised awareness and the need for incorporating physical bodies, craft, and other non-ocular forms of tactility into the presentation of artworks. To a certain extent, it has become easier to create tools that utilize seduction and sensory impressions, that for lack of a better word can be called ‘immersive.’ However, those same characteristics also risk creating a rather flat and detatched experience.
I think the most interesting examples I’ve seen in the last couple of years are from artists who are critical to the media they use and let it become a means of questioning the manner in which new technology affords the representation of the world. For instance, the need for physical ‘hosting structures’ (performative, spatial, etc.) of digital artwork or artworks presented digitally has become quite evident during these last months. If we turn the question around and ask how the digital representation of the world has changed art and the way we talk about it, one might say that irony doesn’t seem to work anymore. This is a massive societal shift, which is clearly reflected in art and its dissemination in recent years, but I honestly think it has more to do with social media, ego-loops, etc. Hopefully art can continue to exist as a little pocket of freedom in this brave new world too, beyond representation, as Bernhard says – a place where emotions exist in parallel, and something can be something else as well.
Tanya Ravn Ag: How do art’s ‘new’ representations challenge ideas about what art is, how it is shown and experienced, and what it means?
Margrét Elísabet Ólafsdóttir: The question of the ‘new’ has been part of how modern and contemporary art is understood. However, it seems to me that new technological tools have always been problematic in this context, as a work made with new tools is often more difficult to accept than the renewal of older media. The ‘new’ is always challenging, as it forces you to ask difficult questions, critically and with an open mind. However, I am not sure if I agree that art changes so much; it is rather its re-presentation that changes. I also think it is part of the art of our time to be capable of renewal. And the most radical renewal occurs when we stand in front of a work and ask: how can this be a work of art?
Jonatan Habib Engqvist: I choose to understand this question as a technical one, i.e. how we show and experience works that use certain technological tools. And as such, I think that it almost becomes an institutional or constitutional question; a question about how we talk about art, rather than one about the essence of character of a specific form of expression, for instance. Art is always changing, and both institutions and writers should be able to adapt to the conditions of artistic production. The spaces where art is shown play an important role in their capacity to adapt and transform according to what artists are doing, while also providing stability and continuity.
As a curator and a writer, I am embedded with both the artists and the institutions, and also have a role to play in the mediation of these transformations. Thus, the institutions and non-artists play quite a central part here in what has been termed the ‘ecology’ of contemporary art.
Bernhard Garnicnig: The prefigurations that Jamie Allen and I talk about in “The Art of Instituting” attempt to change the context in which art takes place. A very recent example is the Museum of Capitalism, located in the US. Over the last several years, they have been working on a roaming exhibition that prefigures a museum about capitalism-as-history, seen from a speculative future. Imagining a world in which capitalism is history, and then asking what kind of artworks and artifacts are made today to render this history sensible, creates a real new context for artists working today in the present. This way, the artist’s propositions that reflect on phenomena of today achieve a new set of meanings when viewed from an imagined future. Here, the imaginary manifests as real through the context in which the work is seen. It also introduces a non-linear representation of time and perspective on the way that change and action are aligned through history. Capitalism is history. We are just not quite there yet.
Saemundur Thor Helgason: As white cubes are becoming redundant for artistic endeavours, art is being freed from the conventions that come with such spaces. There is a current move from making ‘art’ to making ‘culture,’ where the artwork becomes a post amongst posts within people’s newsfeeds.
Covid-19 has given us a taste of what it’s like to produce culture without having access to exhibition spaces. To an extent, it even seems limiting to use the word ‘art’ as it has a reductive aspect to it, associating the productions to a past which no longer holds ground. This calls for new democratic ways of financing and fostering cultural activities and productions. As most cultural work falls outside of the compulsory economic relation between supply and demand and work effort and salary, the Universal Basic Income becomes the most promising way to support and provide for all these marginalized types of labor.
Tanya Ravn Ag: What might art’s ‘new’ representations produce or affect?
Margrét Elísabet Ólafsdóttir: New representations make you as a spectator question yourself and your presumptions. Therefore, I find it difficult to try to predict what will be produced and what it will affect. However, while I was preparing the event we organized based on the publication of Digital Dynamics in Iceland, I realized that a shift had taken place within the Icelandic art scene. There has been such a long tradition of questions concerning art and nature that I may not have completely comprehended to what extent young artists are looking at this relationship in new ways – or even turning their back on it. It is as if the rapid changes brought by an unprecedented scale of mass tourism over the last decade have shifted the perspective away from the concerns typical to the preceding decade, which were characterized by an awakening of environmental issues and an urgency to preserve nature. The target then was the construction of a huge power plant in the highlands, and artists played an important role in the campaign against it. The battle was eventually lost, and it was followed by the explosion of the tourist industry despite the power plant.
Many artists profit directly and indirectly from tourism, so it is harder to criticize, but it has surely changed the relationship Icelanders have with their own country and its nature. The summer of 2020 was almost entirely devoid of tourists, and it is interesting to observe how locals are rediscovering the country. The current situation will thus without a doubt shift the artists’ focus once again, although we do not yet know how. Today, artistic questions are mainly related to global issues, and I find it interesting to see how many artists are dealing with them in their work. These questions concern urgent social, economic, environmental, and political matters, as well as how they affect individuals and the living in a broader sense. They may affect the contribution to questions that need to be asked and can be asked through artistic productions.
Jonatan Habib Engqvist: I’m actually quite reluctant to what I understand as a modernist conception of the new new. Art does what it does, and as technology becomes an integrated part of our daily lives it has become natural for artists to utilize it in their work. As always, I think that art can show us how complicated things are and how objects we take for granted are in fact quite complex. There is definitely a return to interdisciplinary investigations, but this tendency comes out of necessity.
Bernhard Garnicnig: Prefigurative practices influence the institutions they address. Powered by digital toolsets, they allow artists to address the institutions that police artistic practices. Indeed, here prefigurative practices can produce new modes in the representation of art practices. A recent example is the project AAAA (2019), hosted by f.eks. in Aalborg, Denmark, and co-initiated by Lukas Heistinger and myself, together with a number of local artists and activists. For this project, we staged a performance in which Aalborg would become the first city in the world to adopt an Anti-Artwashing policy as part of their urban renewal plan and subsequent cultural policy transformation. We invited local artists and politicians on a schooner that had been temporarily renamed ‘MS Policy Transformation,’ aboard which we crossed the Limfjord (a fjord in Northern Denmark, ed.), starting from an area of future city redevelopment and ending our journey at the port for cruise ships. During this crossing, we discussed the Anti-Artwashing Policy Proposal and signed a scroll to be handed to a political representative afterwards. The production of images and conversation through this pre-figurative act had several results across the realms of the imaginary, the imaginal, and the factual. The performance produced images that led to a re-imagination of the role that artists have in cultural policy processes. Another result has been the establishment of an artist union that is now representing and defending the artists’ interests within Aalborg’s transformation. This is where we return to the question of representation, although of a different kind. Digital and cultural toolsets were employed to prefigure a reality in which artists organize their own political representation.
Saemundur Thor Helgason: With new technological services that support small scale production and rapid prototyping, artistic production has moved closer to existing industries. There is an increased frequency of collaboration between multiple disciplines where the heteronomous nature of production becomes apparent. This calls for a new humble way of accrediting, which honors the numerous efforts of all the (human and non-human) agents that constitute a production. This new attitude marks a break in history when artists are no longer considered geniuses but are acknowledged in relation to the multitude of ecologies they are a part of – as makers, or rather assemblers or remixers.
Following this line of thought, in the past few years I have primarily worked through Félag Borgara (‘Fellowship of Citizens’), an interest group that I founded in Iceland in October 2017 with the aim of lobbying for Universal Basic Income in Iceland. The group produces culture in collaboration with writers, designers, journalists, economists, scientists, filmmakers, musicians, architects, academics, artists and others with the aim of influencing a collective imagination and eventually policy making. Félag Borgara is an active agent in society with a purpose that surpasses individual interests in favor of those of a demarcated whole.
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
ALLEN, Jamie and GARNICNIG, Bernhard, “The Art of Instituting” in Tanya Toft Ag (Ed.), Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art. Intellect Books, 2019, pp. 145–159. http://digitaldynamics.art/
COOPER, Davina, “Towards an Adventurous Institutional Politics: the Prefigurative ‘as if’ and the Reposing of What’s Real”, in The Sociological Review, April 2020. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026120915148
FICTILIS, Rose Linke and BELL, Eugenia (Eds.), Museum of Capitalism, Los Angeles, Inventory Press, 2020.
FISHER, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, Winchester, 2009.
f.eks. (Aalborg, Denmark) is a roaming exhibition platform for contemporary art that seeks to generate critical and speculative dialogues between audiences, artists, and broader publics. https://f-x.dk/
Museum of Capitalism (NYC, New York, US) https://www.museumofcapitalism.org/
Saemundur Thor Helgason
Cosmos Carl – Platform Parasite is an online platform that hosts nothing but links provided by artists, writers, thinkers and curators. http://cosmoscarl.com/