What’s wrong with digital art? – Part 1 with Jonathan Shaughnessy

On the side street of new media art there is always much talk of the relationship to the larger neighborhood of contemporary art. These days technological tools are increasingly permeative across the whole spectrum of cultural production and presentation, but somehow their is still a pervasive feeling that our street is still a bit of a ghetto. Always intent on opening up larger conversations, we decided to ask a few contemporary art curators for contributions on the topic. As much a request for criticism as a diagnosis, we turned to three of the city’s curators that cut across the spectrum of public institutions. Jonathan Shaughnessy Associate Curator, Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada begins with the post below; followed by the always larger-than-life Jason St-Laurent of Galerie SAW Gallery and finally Ola Wlusek of The Ottawa Art Gallery. Posts from our other invitees will follow in the weeks to come. Enjoy!


As much as I talk to artists and do studio visits, go to galleries, speak with art dealers, walk through art fairs, biennials, dOCUMENTAs, etc, when the subject of media arts comes up as somehow distinct from the broader field of contemporary art I have the nagging suspicion that I am somehow, wittingly or not, ignorant to digital interfacing, computer technologies, online communities and all that purportedly sets new media apart from ‘mainstream’ or ‘conventional’ contemporary art practices. It’s as though for all that I try and make myself aware of in the vast terrain of contemporary visual art there’s a subsection I am clueless over, that are working independently of and without the recognition of the cultural sphere that I involved with closely on a daily basis. But then I wonder if this isn’t all a bit dramatic and needlessly self-deprecating? As a contemporary art curator I am often faced with artworks that critically as well as aesthetically explore the possibilities of digital media. Miri Segal’s virtual realities in Second Life come to mind; or Aaron Koblin’s forays into data accumulation and manipulation; Ryan Trecartin’s choppy videos charting their rhizomatic courses leave me totally enamoured and I am captivated whenever I come upon computer-based search engine projects and other real-time works by Thomson and Craighead. When  I look to those who are specialists in the field of media arts such as curator Sarah Cooke, who is also editor and co-founder of http://www.crumbweb.org/, I am confounded again for her shows have featured artists like Catherine Richards, Thomson and Craighead, Joe Winter, Alec Finlay, and Max Dean who are arguably well-affiliated with “media arts” proper (though Dean has moved somewhat away from the field more recently), as well as many others whose involvement in the field is more tendentious: Michael Snow, Germaine Koh, Scott Rogers, Michel de Broin.

So what to make of this line apparently drawn in the sand between media arts and the broader realm of contemporary art? I won’t deny that there are those artists who are synonymous with new media, and whether they like it or not seem to always have to be identified with the former before their contemporary art credentials can be bequeathed: David Rokeby comes to mind, or Luc Courschesne. Jim Campbell too, as much as his works are held in collections and presented in contemporary galleries. A dichotomy between media arts and other artistic media is also upheld, in this country at least, by public granting systems that distinguish between all media (including “new”), or private incentives such as Montreal’s Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, though it has now halted much of its funding (including to DOCAM, unfortunately, a ground-breaking program that oversees the care and reservation of technologically-laden artworks http://www.docam.ca). In terms of private galleries there aren’t many that come to mind in Canada that deal first and foremost with the sale of media arts in the way that a gallery like bitforms, NY (http://www.bitforms.com/index.php) does, however the same does not hold for artist-run centres that in many cases specialize in new media and digital or online activities such as Interaccess in Toronto (http://www.interaccess.org), Avatar in Quebec City (http://www.avatarquebec.org/avatar/index.php), Ottawa’s Artengine, and DAÏMÕN in Gatineau, QC, (http://www.daimon.qc.ca), to name a few.

One of these centres for the focus, support and specialization of media arts, Artengine, has set out to contemplate what to make of media art’s particular accreditation within and/or against the broader field of contemporary art. In having been asked to lead off this discussion, the relevant issue that comes immediately to mind is a about autonomy and/or integration. Should new media be afforded a special or separate artistic status in comparison with more traditional media? Is this what artists want? If so then is the challenge for a contemporary curator to recognize distinction before integrating media arts into the fold of contemporary art and exhibitions? Doesn’t the nature of new media art itself often aim to challenge the very nature of traditional (gallery) art viewing contexts and behaviour? Isn’t it possible to accept that all contemporary art, from new media, to photography to painting are more or less different branches of one big diversely coloured tree? On the face of it I have always looked upon media arts this way, as one avenue artists have open to them for exploration. Of course particular knowledge and aptitudes are required (as they are for any artistic medium) but if the goal is to create an art object then is there really that much difference when it comes to reconciling media arts with everything else? Or do I have this all wrong? Like language laws enacted to protect the cultural fabric of a minority community within the broader mainstream, is this how those who speak in media art’s name feel with respect to the governing structures of the contemporary art world; i.e. that to make all sides compete as though the playing field is equal is to place the distinctiveness of what makes media art media art at risk?

If we look to recent debates elsewhere on the issue this would seem to be the case. For example, a casual bracketing (and dismissal) of the “specialized field” of media arts is the spark that sets off artist and curator Honor Harger in his response to Claire Bishop’s recent Artforum contribution in a special issue devoted to new media. Assessing whether “there a sense of fear underlying visual art’s disavowal of new media,” Bishop’s essay ironically begins by dispensing with consideration of the “entire sphere of ‘new media’ art” that she regards as “a specialized field of its own.” This brief but insurmountable caveat by the British art critic and scholar made an otherwise enjoyable and interesting article on the debate more or less irrelevant with respect to the very terms upon which it is premised. Her matter-of-course commentary that one can discuss media art versus contemporary art without really discussing media art is certainly the kind of thing that keeps the polemical lobbying and wrangling between both fields alive and well. Is the insinuation by Bishop that the “entire sphere” of new media art is not really art? Or is it a different kind of art? One that brings art into science or design in a different way that art is brought into the world of contemporary art? I am not trying to harp on Bishop’s reluctance to address the subject of new media art. It is a large field, and like any it has languages, vocabularies and sensibilities all its own and also does place (or seek to place) itself at times in a special arena (hence the reason we’re talking about all this!) By her conclusion it is apparent too that Bishop’s article is about the reasons behind a nostalgic impulse over technology (of film, especially) witnessed in much contemporary art today, and in this she makes a compelling case. Nonetheless, it seems like a missed opportunity to get at the heart of an important debate…what is this “fear” over new media on the part of the contemporary art world? Does it exist? Harger certainly thinks so, quoting what may be the reason for “both [Bishop’s] fear and disavowal of new media art: “at its worst,” he quotes Bishop, “[ the digital revolution] signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself.” On this basis, the stakes of this debate do seem pretty high…

That said we should be wary of fear-mongering. Fear is always at the basis of sanctions, no? My hunch is that if we are to truly investigate the issues here we may find that the dichotomy between new media art and contemporary art is not so rigid as it is often categorized. For example, there are those artists – Cory Arcangel, Cao Fei – that both camps seem to be able to enlist for their cause; artists equally available to the online Youtube content-providing duties of a new media creative, as much as they have also become fairly well-recognized contemporary artists with no strings (or wireless hubs) attached. There is another dimension to all this as well. As much as there may be an argument that the “specialized field” of new media has received a lukewarm reception by the contemporary art establishment – its galleries, markets, audiences etc – is it not also the case that a strong number of artists these days view galleries and museums as merely one node on a broader circuit of possible communication platforms for their art – especially if the work itself has already been created and exists within the digital realm? There are also increasingly platforms online, institutional and otherwise that are aiming to facilitate a creative mindset that relishes the ubiquity of mediated forms of representation and communication (the nomadic activities of Creative Time, NY, or the New Museum’s “Museum as Hub” project pop up in my head as examples of cultural centres embracing technology and more ephemeral artistic strategies). I’ve met with artists working with digital media and making really neat stuff that I wish they would materialize into a gallery installation but that they instead upload directly to the web. When I ask why I get the answer that this way they have the opportunity to reach more people, especially if the artist is not so well known. But is there not a way to combine an ethos like this with more conventional gallery exhibition and curatorial models? The latter would inevitably start to shift accordingly. Countless artists have now dispensed with the idea that they must solely work in one or another artistic medium, can this not equally apply to going between different technologically spheres for both the production and reception of artworks? Flipping from the gallery to Cyberspace and back again? One of the seminal figures in early North American video art experimentation Tom Sherman is doing just that these days as he continues to create videos for material distribution but is also using Vimeo, Youtube and other online sources to upload and disseminate content.

As I continue this line of inquiry I wonder, again, if I am missing something of the point of what specialists of new media are claiming is not being understood, or is being overlooked about the autonomy of their field? Maybe I am not being sensitive enough to the technology and those artists whose work aims to explore the patterns and possibilities of digitization itself as an artwork (though this is what Arcangel does in many cases, as has Jeremy Shaw with fascinating results). Admittedly my experience and projects as a contemporary curator have not exposed me to the diversity of media art and new media practices that a figure like Sarah Cooke, or for that matter Sarah Hromack, the Whitney Museum’s active, twitter-friendly, Head of Digital Media (http://forwardretreat.tumblr.com) track on a consistent basis. However I suspect that in spite of our respective curatorial sensibilities, that when it comes to critical assessment over what is significant our criteria may start to overlap on issues of innovation, originality, criticality and transgressive intent. How does a particular work or project present a facet or facets of worldly things in new and novel ways that might make us look and think differently or anew? I ask such questions when assessing why an artwork matters to me or not. If it’s art that I’m to spend time with, including new media art, I want it to take me somewhere that I don’t normally go, and engage my eyes and brain enough to want to stay there.

Sure there may be more of a need at times to familiarize myself with relevant reference points if a critique of or play on technology is what the work is all about (as one would need to do to de-code the art historical references in a Jeff Wall photograph in order to gain a fuller appreciation). That said there is a generalist flavour to Contemporary Art which suggests that those tasked with understanding its broad and diverse enclaves are to be knowledgeable of all that falls under its purview. This is a gargantuan task and I am tempted to wonder if it is not this which pushes everything post-analog (and post-video) into a category all its own? If so that’s a bit of a cop-out. At the same time to argue that new media has artistic merit on the basis of an entirely new set of criteria that should be assessed separately from other art forms is to my mind also misguided. If an artist is using new media, or any media, in a way that is worthy of note and adds to a specific curatorial context then its conciliation within the broader context of contemporary art should afford no contest. Whether working in oil, or 1s and 0s, the aim of all art it seems to me is still to offer commentary and/or consolation over what it means to be human (a category I do not essentialize BTW). If this is not the case then debates over new media and aesthetics will be the least of my worries.

Jonathan Shaughnessy



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3 Responses to “What’s wrong with digital art? – Part 1 with Jonathan Shaughnessy”

  1. Fascinating start to this series.

    I particularly resonate with the notion that the gallery model is but one node of a broader content circuit.

    Looking forward to more!

  2. Tony Martins says:

    Jonathan poses many theoretical questions on how the art world tries to wrangle with media arts, but for me the question is rather simple. As a discipline, new media is tricky to fit into the art world’s economic system … in other word’s it’s a tough sell. No matter how brilliantly conceived, not many art buyers want to own, say, a two-minute video. “Consuming” new media works is mostly an experience, not an object you take home. All the theoretical talk would go out the window if this were otherwise.

    P.S., I own a small, digital lightbox by The Latest Artists, but is this “new media” art?

  3. Daniela Oey says:

    I remember a group show opening where one of the artists’ kids was glued to the motion on one of two side-by-side tv screens on the gallery floor (male forearms being shaved, other was static and ‘female’). I think that spells out some of the difference. Both have monetary avenues. New media may take up a set time block and a different part of your awareness? I am still more of a fan of traditional art for this reason.

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