The arts electric
Digital art and culture mustn’t get caught up in the tools of its making or it will never transport us somewhere new
AEON Magazine, Published on 31 January 2014
This July, the Barbican Centre in London will open its doors to Digital Revolution: An Immersive Exhibition of Art, Design, Film, Music and Video Games. Intended as a survey of the digital arts since the 1970s, the exhibition will include immersive and interactive installations, games culture and, in a collaboration with Google, DevArt (which explores the possibilities of coding as a creative art form). In a world lacking a neat avant-garde creating ‘next generation’ cultural output, the show ought to provoke questions about why it is taking so long for ‘digital’ to reach the heart of culture. Ideally, I’d like it to ask who the next generation of cultural practitioners are, who their audience is, and why they make their work. I’d like it to ask: when might digital ‘art’ just be art? And I’d like it to showcase Ryoji Ikeda, Jon Rafman, Yung Jake, John Gerrard, James Bridle, or Dries Verhoeven – all international artists producing work with digital at its core.
On our journey from a world of static information to the fluid world we’re building, we are still only a small way along. The Barbican show is just the first chapter. The truth of the matter is that, setting aside the slow pace of change, the challenge of filter bubbles, and the complexity of the medium, we’re still at a familiar place in an oh-so-conventional cultural cycle, which pits those who dismiss contemporary tools and technology as having no place in art, against apologists like me who decry their lack of recognition. And while we appreciate the artistic foresight of the past, we rarely appreciate the artistic foresight of the present, because it feels ugly and difficult. But it has always been so, from Kandinsky to Kafka, since the shock of the new is about patterns not yet recognised, patterns not yet subsumed into the zeitgeist.
The real artists of today will not find favour with us, or with our institutions, maybe not even in their own lifetime, because their work is not for us. It is for our great grandchildren. That said, I will still be happy when no one talks about ‘digital art’ or ‘digital culture’. For, when today’s intimidating technology seems as natural as a pen or a camera, we’ll know we’re on our way to finding our own Stravinskys and Duchamps, and that the cycle is repeating itself.