The (artistic) form of the future
“Transforming technology” necessitates a redistribution of forces in the charged field of immediacy and media-based communication, real presence and absence. What role does art play in this? It can critically reflect technological developments, boost “analogue” countermovements and pronounce quality.
The figure’s steel-blue eyes move and glow, lit from within. They try to make eye contact with the viewer. Jordan Wolfson’s life-sized cartoonish, robotic marionette is a poppy mixture of Huckleberry Finn, Alfred E. Neuman and Howdy Doody. It resembles other characters by the American artist, which sometimes take the form of sculptures or appear in animated films. Most astonishing, however, is the fact that this puppet, fitted with cutting-edge animatronic technology and facial recognition software – Wolfson developed it with the help of friends from Silicon Valley – can look deep into the visitor’s eyes and express a wide range of emotions, from anger to pain. In other words, technologies of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution have permeated art as well. Present-day automation, digitization and technological upgrading pervade every aspect of everyday life and also have a sustained impact on aesthetic sensitivity. Modern life is dominated and navigated by smartphones, tablets and the like. The flood of information through digital data channels and global-scale communication in social networks has reached new heights: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat are used by teenagers and top-level politicians alike. Virtual and real worlds merge in an “augmented reality” of binary codes, radically changing life and work. We cannot help but think of 19th-century science fiction, which dreamed of an entelechial elaboration of human destiny through scientific inventions. These utopian fantasies of feasibility and omnipotence were accompanied by a widespread, precarious awareness of life marked by ominous fears and hazy expectations. Now the existential shudder is back, manifesting as a tug-of-war between glorification and demonization, adaptation and doubt. “We have never seen anything as powerful, omnipresent, and increasingly indispensable as the Internet,” says Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. “Think of the flyers circulating during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation – they were also used to invent and distort things. With every media revolution comes a period of anarchy and experimentation,” she says, referring to the “post-factual” tendencies common to periods of great change and destabilization.
A look at history shows that new technologies have also always left conspicuous traces on art. On the one hand, artists created social and media innovations, and certainly incorporated them in their work. But they also reflected political and social upheavals tied to industrial innovations, along with the changes they caused in the labor market, mobility and living spaces. Since the days of Modernism, film and photography have been considered “transforming technologies” that – according to Walter Benjamin – eradicated the artwork’s “aura” in the age of its technical reproducibility, triggering an artistic and reception-aesthetic paradigm shift. The loss of this claim to originality also set the stage for numerous conceptual trends in the art of the 20th century. As early as the 1950s, artistic pioneers such as Herbert W. Franke, George Nees and Frieder Nake experimented with electronic machines and computers employed by the military, in hospitals and in universities. “You can draw like Leonardo da Vinci, compose like Pergolesi and paint like Mondrian,” the “Spiegel” magazine noted in 1968, describing an exhibition of the image-spewing machines. These early developments culminated in visual manifestations of kinetic, numerical and cybernetic art, peaking with the legendary “Nouvelle Tendance” (1961–1973) exhibition series in Zagreb. As far as “post-internet art” is concerned (that is, the hard-to-grasp, highly controversial contemporary art trend of the moment) institutionally-hyped English artist Ed Atkins says: “If I had to write down what exactly this art was about, it would probably be one big mess.” Considered representative of this trend, Atkins’ high-definition videos with computer-generated avatars and elaborate texts between media philosophy and meta-poetry evoke the emergence and gradual obsolescence of technologies at the height of contemporary image-making. In Austria, artists like Andy Boot and Valentin Ruhry founded the Internet platform cointempo- rary.com in an attempt to undermine the existing art market system, or like Oliver Laric use 3-D printers to make copies of historical sculptures. Argentinian-born, Los Angeles-based artist Amalia Ulman used social media to create an alter ego on Instagram with a fictitious biography: she posted photos of herself as a sugar daddy-financed “hottie” who is eventually reformed by yoga. The allegedly true story was exposed, causing an art world sensation.
The insertion of the self in digitally-constructed worlds blurs the line between reality and fantasy even further, making the two even harder to distinguish. It goes far beyond the days of arguing the pros and cons of new technologies, or the old “man vs. machine” competition scenarios. Prosthetically fitted with high-tech tools and digital body extenders, we have long since mutated into cyborg-like beings, and the idea of authenticity and existential self-assurance must be re-discussed under these auspices. “Transforming Technology” calls for a redistribution of energies in the charged area of tension between immediacy and media mediation, real presence and absence. Art’s role goes beyond structural integration and media appropriation. It can seismographically measure and critically reflect the latest technological developments, force “analog” counter-movements such as a resurgence of craftsmanship and material-aesthetic trends, but also recognize and articulate quality in a sprawling field of arbitrariness.