An Evening of Instant Art
Last Wednesday night a predictably bearded group of artists, hipsters and technology enthusiasts gathered at one of the centres of the East End's "cultural revolution"; Shoreditch's The Book Club. The debate, we were promised, would revolve around issues concerning the increasing availability of high-quality reproductions of art via new media, the commercialisation of art (also via new media) and artworks inspired by, naturally, new media.
Artists have always shown some obsession with incorporating new technologies into their works. They seem naturally attracted to the aesthetic potential of media which may or may not have utilitarian applications elsewhere. For cave-painters who used camouflaging pigments to daub exquisite scenes on Neolithic walls, it was the original malleability of that medium which was put to an expressive use in the form of representative art. The digital pigments daubed onto David Hockney's iPad screen are, in one sense at least, no different.
The opening talk, by Future Human Club organiser Ben Beaumont-Thomas, covered new ventures in the art world which sought to revolutionise the trade of artworks in an online sphere. Ben mentioned applications such as the Sotheby's iOS app, which lets potential buyers bid from remote locations, and projects such as Art.sy, which, when it launches, will provide an art recommendation service telling users what artworks they may also appreciate based on those they already admire.
But Beaumont-Thomas was keen to emphasise his admiration for online art projects which made people "better interpreters of image, and better at understanding the artist's process." He was referring to online reactions to the slew of old, new, doctored and high definition images which, he suggested, had created a public deeply knowledgeable about artistic standards and eager to consume and create with the latest tools and applications provided by the web.
Perhaps most interesting of all was the special mention reserved for the work of American artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose artwork (the first on the outmoded medium of laserdisc) "Lorna" captured the obsessive curiosity of a generation transfixed by screen-based entertainment through an interactive visual profile of an agoraphobic TV afficionado. Hershman has also experimented with alter-egos, resurrecting one of them on Second Life. To me this summed up that essential preoccupation over a push and pull between digital and physical worlds, a dichotomy which artists such as Hershman seem correctly to suggest is nothing but an illusion. This made particular sense as I had recently been reading about Les Levine's 1960s experimentations with information feedback systems and video installations, which also attempt to unravel the proverbial magnetic tape within our embrace of machine-populated existences. The best method of analysis, Levine's artworks appear to suggest, lies not in driving a line between the digital and the supposedly "real", but in drawing our attention to the fact that such segregation is no longer possible, or even desirable.
After Ben Beaumont-Thomas's talk, Future Human Club treated us to an art auction game, styled on Channel 4's Deal or No Deal gameshow. This fell a bit flat, especially with the contestants, and one member of the audience tweeted, "Well that's 10 minutes of my life I'm never getting back." However, the debate which followed a boozy interval was much more stimulating.
Two panellists had dropped out, but one, Chris Thorpe (founder of Artfinder.com) had sent a stooge in his place. One panellist who lived up to his promise to attend was Julian Stallabrass, author of Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce. Stallabrass was easily the most erudite member of the panel, possibly even the most erudite in the room, and his informed ideas about what had "happened to art" in cyberspace were generally called upon for every question which was asked by a member of the audience. One question he asked was, "Where do the borders of the artwork lie?" That seemed to strike at the most interesting aspect of the whole discussion and energised plenty of audience opinion.
We were talking about what makes an artwork valuable - was it something that an individual decides subjectively, was it something that was set by the latest auction prices, or was it something to do with accessibility? And as Stallabrass's pseudo-rhetorical question implied, the very essence of an artwork viewed in a gallery (digital or physical) may extend beyond the canvas. It may flow into the hands of re-mixers or curator's notes, it may dribble into the software behind a pre-programmed video installation, and it may quite naturally exist in the hands of the millions of interpreters who upload, alter, re-value and discuss art online.
Here was the success of the debate, in bringing the discussion back to essential considerations about the nature and function of art in society, rather than expressing too much confusion over what the digital era had done to pull apart established methods of understanding artworks and their function. It was at once a conversation about very old and very new things.
The next Future Human Club debate is entitled "Micromanufacturing" and will also be held at The Book Club, Shoreditch, London on August 10.
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