“Only art penetrates… the seeming realities of the world.” – Saul Bellow
It’s a Friday night in February and a group of about twenty-five people are standing in the empty entrance hall of Tate Britain. We’re a diverse bunch – different ages, sexes, backgrounds, careers and motivations – but what we share is curiosity and the willingness to sacrifice six weeks of Friday nights to explore the nature of art in the digital age.
As an introduction we’re asked to share three words that come to mind when thinking of the Internet. Accessibility came top, listed by at least four people. But other than a few mentions of: community, connections, democratization, the words were overwhelmingly those of anxiety and unease: ownership consuming, fragmentation, destructive, dividing, distraction, censorship, cultural trafficking, colonization, control, surveillance, complexity, filter bubble.
The responses of the group seem to match current public discussion about the role of technology and the acceleration with which it’s changing our lives, for better or more often, for the worse. At The Whitechapel Gallery, their current Electronic Superhighway exhibition takes audiences in reverse chronology from artists such as Cory Arcangel and Amalia Ulman who, as digital natives, are critical of the control and censorship involved in opting in to a centralized ‘cloud’ and social media, back to early technology artists who believed in the anarcho-libertarian possibilities of the Internet. Simultaneously, an exhibition at Somerset House entitled Big Bang Data introduces many difficult issues surrounding the collection of data; how every click leaves a digital trace and organisations can now use algorithms to predict our work characteristics, sexual preferences or habits before we even know them ourselves. Big Bang Data also shows Guardian interviews with Edward Snowden and William Binney, a chilling reminder of global governments’ power to use personal data without our consent. And this subject is also the theme of a gripping and challenging play Whistleblower: The Story of Edward Snowden showing at Waterloo East Theatre. Meanwhile over on Radio 6, Lauren Laverne’s recent People’s Playlist featured songs about Digital Culture and seemed to demonstrate a general public anxiety about humans becoming cyborgs.
So what’s changed since the optimism (and perhaps naiveté) of the first art/tech exhibition – Cybernetic Serendipity held at the ICA in 1968? We are now evermore reliant on the ease of use of advanced technology and, by opting in, we’re unwittingly accepting a mass human experiment with an uncertain outcome and no control group. The Internet has already changed the way we feel, hear and experience life. Even now, before virtual reality has truly arrived, the Internet has warped time and space – on Facebook former friends jostle ineradicably with current ones, on Twitter a person’s career can be ruined in a day of high drama by one foolish tweet. As discussed by artist Antoine Catala – studies suggest we are less empathic when communicating through a screen; empathy levels in US college students are 40% lower than they were 20 years ago, with an especially sharp drop in the last 10. Although the Internet and social media were supposed to enable freedom of speech, the irony is that constant surveillance by other people makes us more conservative and conformist.
What does all this mean for art? Our Tate course leaders, curator Helen Kaplinsky and digital artist Ruth Catlow present us with a range of artists who insist on collaboration, co-creation and exploration. In spite of a broadcast communication model encouraged by the Internet, artists still find ways to use technology materials to make space for genuine conversation. We’re also prompted to consider the boundaries between artist, hacker and technologist as increasingly blurred. All these creatives are using materials to build a subversive, alternative vision.
Helen Kaplinsky at Tate Britain
Personally, I’m challenged to think about ways artists and art lovers could share and talk about art in a platform free from commercial imperatives. A space where sharing images or videos of one’s life and art doesn’t involve loosing ownership. It’s an increasingly important issue for working artists and a challenge to us as we build SMARTIFY.
As an introduction to the course I’ll leave it there and write again when we’re further in. In the meantime have a listen to our course leaders Helen and Ruth speaking on The Guardian’s Tech Weekly Podcast.
by Anna Lowe
Ps. Some extra reading