Digital Mystics

One of my Art History professors once claimed that there’s a close correlation between the rise of television sets and the installation of windows on oven and washing machine doors. Product design that “frames” ordinary domestic processes apparently arose from a culture that was increasingly inclined towards “watching” things happen. Whether anyone actually looks forward to winding down in front of predictably haphazard soaps whose key players happen to be dirty socks is anybody’s guess, but in some respects the idea holds water; if technological innovation can determine, to an extent, how we perceive the world around us, then what are the implications of our current digitalised era? And what impact does it have on the production and consumption of visual art?

Enormous, it would appear. The rise of the personal computer (antiquated a term as that is) and the ever-accelerating sophistication of the internet has to have serious implications for how we process visual data. In this era, we have instant access to countless shifting windows that reveal distinctly different realities and perspectives, and a broad array of digital tools that allow for a high degree of experimentation and amalgamation of different art forms and traditions. Any overview of digital art is awash with references to the massive variety of ways in which digital technology can contribute to the construction, understanding, and display of visual art. Now there are those out there, truth be told, who shun design software completely, preferring to focus their efforts on physical supports and using actual toolboxes full of materials and equipment. And then there are those who work purely on a digital level, sometimes disseminating their work freely online on an ideological basis that is in strict opposition to the market forces of the art world and to the institutional and corporate sanctioning that underlies it. Still others – perhaps the vast majority – dwell anywhere between the two extremes.

I once stood nearest the first camp; I was wary of Photoshop, and wondered if art that was constructed within its framework and then produced as a file, liable to transmission and reproduction time and again and on any scale or support whatsoever, was truly expressive enough of the individual or of its place in time in the way we understand an original artwork to be. My thoughts on this became less fixed, however, when I began to understand that digital tools could be used as a way of understanding and refreshing more traditional art forms. I took a painting class last year which involved doing a photorealist self-portrait; this was initially frankly terrifying, but a preparatory exercise whereby, using Photoshop, we extracted and isolated different colours from the original photograph, proved very helpful – both in terms of understanding how to reconstruct the image in oil paint, and in terms of acknowledging the limitations and “unrealities” of a photograph (the flash had caused strange pink hues to appear in my hair, which definitely aren’t there usually).

Another project that was more blatantly digital was completed for a printmaking class. Printmaking involves high levels of organisation and neatness, neither of which I possess in spades, and I did occasionally wonder if the amount of time and energy it demanded – along with the fact that it is long defunct as a practical form of visual dissemination – made the course worth doing at all. Digital tools, however, completely overhauled that attitude. Using a combination of Photoshop and Illustrator, we manipulated photographs and words, and produced negatives of these new images, which were then applied to polymer plates and exposed to UV light – technologically all a bit over my head, but the end result was a metal plate which had that same digital image raised out of it, onto which you could apply ink and use within a tradition that has been known for well over six hundred years.

In fact, digital technology seems to be making way for new visual possibilities in painting – a medium occasionally often deemed stale by critical commentators. New York-based artist Julie Mehretu’s work is a case in point – the materials and supports she uses belong to a long-established painting tradition, but the abstract visuals she creates are eye-poppingly contemporary. Mehretu composes her images on a computer, and these – when completed – are then projected onto giant canvases, often completed by a team of assistants in a Berlin studio and executed in various combinations of pencil, ink, and acrylic paint. Her Stadia (2003) series is particularly arresting; there is something about the assemblage of layers that points to our digital culture, to our confusing abundance of visual information, and to our awareness of virtual spaces that are both non-existent and infinite. The visual vocabulary, moreover, points to digitally-produced art in the flat colour fields, streaming shapes, meticulously clean edges, mathematically calculated trajectories, and allusions to scientific drawing.

Science, in fact, is often brought to the viewer’s attention in some of the most prominent works of digital art in which it offers an examination of itself – drawing attention to its composition not as an artwork but as a work of technology. Andreas Mühler-Pohle draws on the complex evolution of visual dissemination in Digital Scores IV (After Nicéphore Niépce), 1998, in which he digitized the world’s oldest preserved photograph and converted the resulting seven million bytes into alphanumeric code – apparently depicting an accurate binary description of the original. The resulting image is presented across eight panels and appears chaotic and very abstract, but given our knowledge about how it came about, it addresses issues of pictorial transmission and the invisible engineering complexities of digitalisation.

Closer to home is the output of Irish artist and cinematographer Clare Langan, whose work, The Wilderness: Part I was exhibited in the RHA until last month. Langan’s work captures footage of desolate landscapes filmed through hand-painted filters, accompanied by haunting music that evokes a sense of peering into post-apocalyptic space – bleak, but stirring and beautiful. Viewing this work where it was displayed on a screen in the foyer also brought to mind the curatorial difficulties that digital art can present – the footage presented was obvious to everyone who passed by it, but the music could only be accessed by a set of headphones; devoid of music, the work appeared to address something completely different. Digitalised art may be very easy to disseminate across the globe in an online capacity, but when it comes to bringing it into physical public space, there is often a lack of appropriate rooms and equipment to allow for collective immersion.

A point of interest in the study of visual culture, particularly with regard to digitalised art, is the notion of the interface. This is regarded at the point at which two systems – such as the human body and the device or program – meet. The design of the interface determines, to a degree, the manner in which the device is used and understood – just think of the temporary “ah, weird” remarks each time Facebook overhauls itself. As a site of creativity, your typical laptop screen, for example, undeniably determines how three fundamental features of visual art – scale, line, and colourisation – are both produced and subsequently perceived. Scale, because the frame of the screen is in that sense limiting; line, because there is no subtle or expressive variation in its thickness; and colour, because, in the blue-white glow of the screen, it is not – unlike physical paint – subject to the subtle shifts that alteration of environmental lighting can create. On the other hand, digital art could be viewed as a more democratic means of producing visual art; its execution does not require a lot of space or money, and there is less financial waste in experimenting with virtual visual elements – colour doesn’t run out, and Photoshop brushes don’t require much maintenance. It is difficult to determine the long-term values that future generations will attach to artworks being produced over the course of this decade, but by all appearances, art that uses digital tools and processes certainly seems to be most reflective of our day-to-day visual experiences.

Published for Trinity News Two, January 2011

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