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On Claire Bishop’s “Digital Divide”

posted Jan 30, 2013, 10:09 PM by Ellen Pearlman

On Claire Bishop’s “Digital Divide”

Claire Bishop’s article “Digital Divide” in the September issue of Artforum is causing quite a frisson in the creative world, with its elephant-in-the-room examination of the onslaught of digitization of many traditional arts practices. Unfortunately,  many of Bishop’s arguments are based in the 1990’s era of the Internet, and commercially available software packages that augment and enhance traditional arts practices such as photography (Photoshop) sculpture (Cad/Cam), and drawing (Illustrator).

Bishop’s most succinct observation states;

While many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital? How many thematize this, or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence?

What Bishop does not grasp is almost all experimental digital technology is based, in one form or another, upon coding and mathematics that defines what can, and cannot be done, and what will, or will not be implemented. The artists who are rewarded the most in implementing digital practices are the ones who can code, or at least have access to the best coders. This distinction frames the dialectic before it even begins.

A sample of typical code

She discusses the cut up and mash up, repurposing, and dérive, which are extremely important in producing works like Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”, but are in the throes of being supplanted by the subversive culture of hacking, electronics and software, the wide array of sensing technologies that range from the brain, to breath, infra red motion sensing, sound, optics and beyond, as well as the growth of unlimited high speed bandwidth (fiber optics), and the undeniable influence of gaming. Another aspect of this hierarchy is a clear gender breakdown that sets this world back to pre-Guerilla Girls levels of female engagement. 

As Bishop states, mainstream digital art, whatever that is, may disavow digital art but is still beholden to it, especially in terms of reproduction of images, and publicity over the internet. Contemporary code jockeys, steeped in the now, seem to have variable knowledge of art history. Computer scientists, the cowboys and colonizers of digitization, with rare exception, have none. Steeped in the rubric of mass visual culture, usually worn as a sword of valor by those of a certain age range, they reference what they grew up with  and jettison, are unaware of, or don’t give a damm about  the rest. This is anathema to a literate, cultured art historian like Bishop who has spent years working through critical analysis and theory, but not years since prepubscense tinkering and hacking. 

 Bishop tries to reconcile the virtual self saying;

It is worth recalling that Nicolas Bourriaud’s earliest texts on relational aesthetics set artists’ desire for face-to-face relations against the disembodiment of the Internet; the physical and the social were pitched against the virtual and the representational.

 When sound, touch, thought, perception, movement and consciousness can be digitized into a massive democratic soup of 0’s and 1’s (aka bytes) then where does an aesthetic lie between all the various art forms?

Bits and Bytes

The physical and the social has actually now returned to the digital artist’s purview with technologies that directly access vital human functions like heart beats, thinking, and breathing, often in full public view, with body and bio-art leading the charge.  She implies the need for this type of work, but does not make the leap that is already occurring by quoting passages from famed new media practitioner and theorist Lev Manovich;

Can communication between users become the subject of an aesthetic? The centrality of this question to social practice is obvious: Does work premised on a dialogic, prosumer model, seeking real-world impact, need to assume representation or an object form in order to be recognized as art?

 These are questions which are being answered already in  numerous arts practices explored by digital artists. Bishop does not seem to be as immersed in these experiences as she is in traditional modes of the museum and gallery.


One type of brain sensor as art

Her conclusion is a bit alarmist, and out of touch with all the developments I have been highlighting in Planet 3D; 

Is there a sense of fear underlying visual art’s disavowal of new media? 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.