the digital honeymoon is over: how technology is changing the art world
Digital natives have become so commonplace as to become clichés, the breakdown between IRL and online worlds so blurred as to become irrelevant, and creative practices so infused with computer processes that it no longer feels revolutionary for artists to work via websites, social media feeds and computer screen.
A new book, Postdigital Artisans, compiled by the writer Jonathan Openshaw, aims to track a new development in this world, splitting apart these distinctions, between the post-internet online image economy, and the apparently paradoxical craftiness of the word artisans, to track how artists are seamlessly marrying the future with the tradition of the art object.
We caught up with Jonathan to discuss post-internet, Plato, and processes, and get his picks for the five of the most important digital artisans working today.
What inspired you to start off making the book?
It was probably a frustration with the level of hype around some technological innovations, such as 3D printing. There was a point last year where it felt as if every other story I read was about it. But it was clear that even the most digitally involved were also focused on the tactile too. Technology provides attention grabbing headlines but I became interested in the more subtle and pervasive ways that it might be informing our visual culture. As screens have now become our primary tool for investigating and filtering the visual world, what is the feedback loop into our own expectations of the material world? And how are these expectations expressed when we build the world around us? Not with software suites, but with our own hands, and out of metal, clay and wood?
Digital technology opens up incredible creative opportunities, but I would argue that without the physical, tactile and embodied, it can fall flat. This book was all about the collision of traditional craft-based processes with a radically new visual mindset.
Has it been a long process to put together?
Once I knew what I wanted to look at, the process was actually quite a quick one. I had featured or worked with some of the creatives featured in the book already, so this gave me some leads. Also the more I began speaking to people about it, the more it felt like this had been in the back of many minds, and everyone seemed to have a perspective. I think there's a pervasive sense at the moment that the digital honeymoon is over, and people are casting around to understand what the real implications are of this massively expanded and networked world.
Commissioning the essays for the book was probably the most time-consuming part, as I wanted to involve a range of perspectives - from curators to philosophers to anthropologists - who could cast a different light on how the human mindset is transformed by digital activities. Getting people like Hans Ulrich Obrist, Glenn Adamson and Professor Daniel Miller to contribute was one of the challenges of the book.
You use the term postdigital, rather than postinternet, where would you draw the distinction there?
The problem with these terms is that they are still up for grabs, and different people will take them to mean different things. I would firstly really emphasise that 'post' is not the same thing as 'after', and that I'm using postdigital to describe the point where people no longer separate off the digital as a distinct sphere. It's a constant undercurrent to our existence, but no activity is purely digital either. Everything we do is a hybrid of the physical and virtual, and the overlay is sometimes so close that it's impossible to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. It's also not very interesting to try and distinguish digital activities anymore, as if the 'virtual' is any less real than the 'real'. The needs and desires of people always has to be the central focus, and most of us don't think in terms of this digital dichotomy.
For me, postinternet doesn't fully cover what I'm looking at here - it's probably the ultimate manifestation of it, but the roots of this feedback loop between humans and their technological tools goes back to the earliest days of media, as Marshall Mcluhan perhaps most famously described.
In the book you mention the story of Plato's Cave, how does this relate to you trying to place these digitally informed practices within the "real" world?
I would emphasise this isn't about the 'real' world though. Online activities are no less real than others. It's more a recognition that all activities now are hybrid forms of physical and digital, virtual and 'real'. Talking about Plato's cave was just in passing, but I liked the allegory's message that the structure and architecture of systems is often so labyrinthine that you cannot hope understand their true nature while you're plugged into the surface output. For this book, that surface is the screen, but of course this is only the tip of the iceberg, and if you were able to step back from the screen, or through the screen - like Plato's prisoner in the cave - then you can start to understand the true power of the interface.
One critique of internet art practices is that they've recently shed their more radical forms, and re-found a place within the more traditional art market and galleries, to what extent can this criticism be levelled at the artist you feature?
Well I still think the contemporary art world has a long way to go before it incorporates internet and digital creativity. You see a few small steps such as Phillips' Paddles On, but really these are the exception rather than the rule. Many of the collectors, curators, dealers and critics are invested in keeping the status quo, because it's obviously such a wonderfully profitable business at the top! And in many ways, digital dissolves this, because it's hard to collect and curate, it relies of software that can go obsolete, it somehow feels more ephemeral.
I find it really interesting how artists are navigating this landscape, but it's not really part of this book, this isn't about the political challenge of the digital, it's just about a return to the tactile and physical, because that seems to be part of what we fundamentally crave as human beings.
Artisan is quite a loaded term, why did you choose this?
The clash between 'digital' and 'artisan' was a deliberate one, because I think there's an assumption that digital is somehow a degradation of skill. To some extent this is probably justified, as technology gives us shortcuts to everything. But I wanted to bring back quite an out-dated idea such as the 'artisan', and place it in this context. It was a way to focus in on what craftsmanship, hard-learned skills and a commitment to materials look like once this postdigital mindset has taken hold.
Do you think, following on from this generation, this kind of digital / physical cross over will become less novel, more commonplace, and we will reach a point where it will become totally second nature for artisans to work in this way?
Totally. Already you can see a total disinterest in the digital-dichotomy here, and I'm reminded of that great William Gibson quote where he says: "I think that our grandchildren will probably regard the distinction we make between what we call the real world and what they think of as simply the world as the quaintest and most incomprehensible thing about us."
This generation of creatives are already moving with such fluidity, from programming to sculpture to architecture. I think it raises some important questions about the role of the expert, but it's also so exciting to see a kind of return to polymath creativity that would have been completely normal in Europe say 400 years ago. Leonardo do Vinci spent most of his career engineering walls and bridges, which seems pretty unsexy when compared to his artistic achievements. But that's great.
Art and design have always played a formative role in taking thinking out of the laboratory, factory or workshop, and putting it into language that people can connect with on an emotional level.
It's very easy for science and engineering become irrelevant without art and design. But as the creative industries play this translating role, and become a conduit for new ideas, they are inevitably transformed in turn. This hybrid collaboration across disciplines - from art to tech - is one of the most exciting areas to be involved in today, and it's definitely something we'll be seeing more of.
Jolan van der Wiel
Using natural forces such as gravity and magnetism in his design process, van der Wiel creates objects that hover between the natural and man-made.
Krisar's sculptures examine the divided and chaotic nature of the human condition, creating lifelike forms that bear indelible marks.
Crafting sculpture out of resin and layers of found objects, Brener creates multifaceted forms with hidden depths.
Hess combines textile design, sculpture and performance in order to transform the human body into surreal shapes.
Matter Design takes an experimental approach to materials, which is embedded in academia and historical craft.
Arsham's polymath approach sees him working from sculpture to architecture, following a distinctive materials-based process.