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exploring the digital renaissance

The Barbican's Digital Revolution retrospective is a celebration of the digital renaissance and the creativity unleashed by the technology boom, but there’s more going on beneath the surface, with the internet a breeding ground for a generation of artists redefining what it means to make art online.

As you enter the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibition you are presented with the relics of technology’s past as if they were the precious archaeological artefacts of a long forgotten civilisation; illuminated in glass cabinets in a dark room sit Amigas, Spectrums, Sinclairs, the first Apple computers, arcade machines and early PCs; exuding an eerie beauty in their plastic sleekness, they contain first websites, computer games, digital drum machines and synthesizers; if the potential of the digital to change the world exists anywhere, it’s here.

It offers a heady pang of nostalgia, but it’s also a reminder of how quickly the visions of a high-tech future turn retro - that what the future promises and how it delivers it are radically different. Digital Revolution is described as celebrating “creatives who are pushing boundaries across the arts using digital media,” but for all this, the strangest thing about Digital Revolution is just how un-revolutionary it actually feels - how it doesn’t follow through on the potential offered by those machines. What it does instead is present the technological renaissance not as a Web 2.0 leveller of communication, of Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter, or a wave of cheap hardware and pirated software unleashing creativity - but instead as a booming interactive spectacle.

As you enter the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibition you are presented with the relics of technology’s past as if they were the precious archaeological artefacts of a long forgotten civilisation; illuminated in glass cabinets in a dark room sit Amigas, Spectrums, Sinclairs, the first Apple computers, arcade machines and early PCs.

 

For example, the centrepiece of the exhibition is a new piece of work called Pyramidi, by Will.I.Am and Yuri Suzuki. An immersive, room-sized audio visual installation which sucks you in via a mirrored trick-of-perspective image of Will.I.Am’s floating computerised head, dressed as a pharaoh and lip synching to music being produced through three digital instruments housed in gold pyramids. It’s amazing, on one hand, and you can only wonder at how it was constructed and works, but it’s also emotionally flat. Will.I.Am’s digital eyes are meant to follow you around the room, so he’s described it, with his usual understatement, as “the Mona Lisa times a trillion.” Which is kind of missing the point of the Mona Lisa, by about a trillion.

In some ways it feels as if the exhibition is presenting the art of our digital renaissance as a retro-futuristic novelty; comfortingly outre and visually attesting without being ideologically challenging. And this seems wide of the mark of what makes the current moment in art so exciting, which despite being powered by new technological developments, is far more interesting in its real world applications; from Wikileaks to the Arab Spring, to 38 Degrees and online campaigning, to Skrillex, Skype and Amazon’s Kindle; this is what it actually feels like, and is how it’s changed our everyday lives.

“Talking about digital or internet aware art refers more to an attitude than a specific format. It is a way of looking at the world while considering digital and physical as an extension of each other.”

 

Attilia Fattori Franchini, who started the trendsetting online gallery Bubblebyte.org, and is now part of new project Opening Times, agrees. “The internet has become an everyday tool for anyone working with creative practices” she says, “talking about digital or internet aware art refers more to an attitude than a specific format. It is a way of looking at the world while considering digital and physical as an extension of each other.”

In contrast to the Barbican show, Paddles ON!, the auction and exhibition of contemporary Digital Art at Phillips in association with Tumblr, was exciting in it’s lo-fi embracing of the possibility of technology in culture and communication, and the way the artists were pushing the stylistic boundaries of digital media. “Because of technology,” according to Megan Newcombe, Director of Digital Strategy at Phillips, “the possibilities for digital art practices are almost endless.” Paddles ON!, she continues, was a way to bridge “the commercial and online art worlds and join in the larger conversation about how the contemporary art world is engaging with technology, and the continued integration of digital art into the larger commercial market.”

The auction was the first of it’s kind in Europe, and follows on from a similar event in New York last autumn, and along with the Barbican’s Digital Revolution seems like part of a movement toward Digital Art becoming, well, just Art, part of the mainstream, the market and big museum shows. This is probably not surprising if you consider the amount of our daily lives we now spend using the internet, computers and smart phones, but if in it’s everyday use it can easily be reduced to something banal (paying your rent) then digital art should actually be about democratising creation and distribution; it’s commonly said that everyone has a novel in them, but the internet is the tool that allows you to get it out there.

This spirit of possibility, ease of delivery and connectivity enabled by technology is what birthed micro-scenes and sub-cultures as diverse as Sea Punk, Tumblr Feminism and Post-Dubstep. What they share in common, is what Attilia refers to as their “attitude”, rather than a formal or technical similarity. And it’s this that should be the defining characteristic of the digital art renaissance too, and has led to the staggering breadth and diversity of the work of these young artists on display at Paddles ON!.

“We were insistent on remaining true to the artists’ intentions for how their work should be displayed, distributed, monetized, and collected,” explains Paddles On curator Lindsay Howard, about the inspiration for the exhibition and auction. “We rewrote Phillips’s standard contract multiple times to reflect things like Petra Cortright’s video catalogue, which she uses to price her YouTube videos based on number of views, and Rafaël Rozendaal’s Art Website Sales Contract, which stipulates that the collector must keep the website online and renew the domain name annually.”

Collectively we take over 17 million selfies a week, and there is an argument to be made that this image bank makes up the largest body of Art Brut portraiture and found imagery ever conceived of.

 

Then there is also, for example, Amalia Ulman auctioning off Profile Picture 03/01/14 (Gijon), a selfie of the artist with a pair of Hello Kitty pants on her head (the winning bidder gets their name accredited to the month on her Facebook account that the image is taken from), it’s a glib, humourous take on the humdrum accoutrements of the everyday, online life we all experience, yet stylistically reminiscent of Flemish portraiture, and references the idealised woman-as-muse that runs throughout the whole of the history of art. Collectively we take over 17 million selfies a week, and there is an argument to be made that this image bank makes up the largest body of Art Brut portraiture and found imagery ever conceived of.

Or Yuri Pattison, who has produced 3D printed reproductions of pieces of the Chelyabinsk meteorite, rebuilt from the images taken off of eBay accounts of people selling the fragments, again taking an interest in how we experience life online, how immediately in the wake of the meteorite hitting, people were already selling purported pieces, and the cult-like aura they gained. Maja Cule has a looping video of a women hanging off The Trump Building on Wall Street, a direct comment on the precariousness of modern Capitalism, and James Bridle’s Continuous Monument: Manhattan, which uses Google Earth to fulfill the utopian dreams of architects, and who sees the possibilities of the internet and technology in creating new, almost automated aesthetics, that overlap between intent and glitch. What is most interesting to Attilia though is how “More and more contemporary artists are investigating relationships between physical and digital systems from an economical, political and social point of view.” And it’s something that’s really highlighted by Paddles ON!.

These are artists who are engaged with technology as a tool that radically revolutionises the ability of people to make art, and how the technology we use in our everyday life (Google, eBay, Facebook, YouTube) in turn shapes it. And the work shown easily underscores the links between the contemporary avant-garde and the first generation of conceptual arts - where Duchamp was interested in how mass production affected objects, for example, in his series’ of ready mades; it’s the same impetus that drives the interest in the found objects of online life.

The promise of the internet and technology seems to be able to free this group of artists, that the idea of whether is a selfie is art, or social media presence, or the found objects of the internet, are being asked again, highlights art’s ability to still arouse humour and suspicion, but is also indicative of art trying to reach new spaces of expression and modes of address.    

And Paddles ON!, with its objects derived from digital processes, perhaps signals its future in not just the art market and critical scene, but society too, more generally and relevantly than the Barbican’s interest in the gadgets that power it. And maybe the digital renaissance isn’t really just about the digital, but about the critique and interest in culture that has arisen from the presence of the Web 2.0 in our lives.