Art exhibitions that celebrate revolutions are hardly few and far between. After all, a revolution is a very sexy thing, and a surefire way to sell tickets. But those planning to visit the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibition will perhaps question the legitimacy of events that celebrate art revolutions of any kind – let alone the highly contested idea of a “digital” revolution.
Without doubt, a massive technological shift has hit the arts, and this has prompted novel approaches since the advent of analogue computers in the 1950s. But such transformations to the media in which art is produced do not necessarily equate to a revolution in art itself. Something more than a change in technology is needed to spark a revolution. Although art has clearly been influenced by computing, the direction of art itself has never been digital.
Before we accept the rhetoric of revolution, the relation between the digital and the art world needs to be examined. Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller’s article on the topic, published in 2004, is a good starting point. In it, they demonstrate how the art world’s ambivalence towards the digital continues to make its actual influence difficult to discern.
Dystopian or mundane?
They put forward two opposing ideas about what exactly constitutes digital art. Morrison’s dystopian vision contends that digital art removes the sense of objective distance that he sees as integral to our experience of art. This is certainly somewhat revolutionary. We look at an artwork, we move around it, we study it from different angles and distances.
But within the virtual world, this is all utterly removed. And perhaps there is a dangerous process at work here, in which the virtual eats up the real.
Morrison contends that interactive art similarly consumes the distance between the artwork and the viewer. And so interactive and digital art alike produce a virtual vacuum resembling Baudrillard’s horror of a collapsing culture. Fans of the Matrix, at least, will grasp this reference.
In contrast, and more interestingly, Fuller sees the digital as inherently unrevolutionary, more a kind of virtual refrain which occasionally passes through mainstream culture. Digital art, in this sense, need not be digital at all. Consider Jeff Koons’s work with a series of baseballs, which he describes as a form of artificial intelligence, or Ricardo Basbaum’s work with audience participation. These artists show just how far the terminology and methodologies of digital culture have permeated mainstream art.
It’s difficult to fathom exactly what interpretation of digital art the Barbican’s exhibition projects. Entering into Conway’s Game of Life (cellular automata nicely projected onto the floor as well as the screen), through geeky obsessions with old gadgets and games, and beyond into the wow factor of CGI spaceships, Kinect hacks and Lady Gaga’s latest range of wearable technology, one just seems to get lost in a history of apolitical fairground attractions.
Gimmicks are not art
What the Barbican exhibition offers is neither Morrison’s revolutionary death of objective distance nor Fuller’s quiet insistence of the digital refrain. Instead, it shows how this particular exhibit is unable to express itself in any way other than through the gimmickry of superficial immersion.
The wearable technology on display on the way out of the exhibit could have interestingly reflected on Conway’s cellular automata; instead, it ended up resembling little more than a series of factory presets one might find on a B&Q Christmas tree.
So don’t be fooled: this is no revolution. The ideas contained draw deserved attention to the potential role a dissident art might play in confronting communication and power in a post-Snowden era – but that particular piece of digital history itself was sadly missing.
Art’s chaotic trajectory needs to open up to the ever-expanding software infrastructure of control. Digital art should not blandly celebrate technology for technology’s sake – gimmicks are not art. Instead, it must critique the operations of power within the software systems we take for granted.