Digital Art: Michaelmas Diary

The focus of the Digital Art research group is to investigate the role that digital art can play in helping us to understand, critique, and shape the impact of digital technologies on contemporary society.

Aline Guillermet, a convenor of Digital Art, reports on the research group's Michaelmas programme of events. 

Our opening seminar provided a historical background to the questions that will occupy us this year, namely the way digital art engages with financialization, surveillance, and aesthetics. Julian Stallabrass’s talk, entitled Art and Money Online Revisited’, gave a critical reassessment of the exhibition that he curated in 2001 at Tate Britain. Stallabrass revisited three groups of works in the light of recent technological and artistic developments, in a current moment when ‘internet’ or ‘post-internet’ art has replaced 1990s ‘’. While these categories may be reductive, they nonetheless granted a historical perspective for our current research questions. Taking several examples from the show – Redundant Technology Initiative’s Free Agent; Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead’s CNN Interactive just got more interactive; and Joshua Portway and Lise Autogena’s Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium ­– Stallabrass explored the activist potential of such early works, as well as their contemporary legacies.

Thomson and Craighead’s project, which enabled users to choose from a list of cheesy soundtracks while browsing the CNN website, emphasised the lack of meaningful interaction with the news platform for users. This contrasts sharply, Stallabrass noted, with the way that, for better and worse, new media new enables us to pick our own news sources, to craft our own echo chambers. Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium, a night-sky-like installation composed of a domed ceiling on which real-time visualisation of stock-market activity is projected, collapsed high-tech programming, financialization, activism and aesthetics in the form of an immersive environment. Stallabrass argued that this visualisation of capital, however technologically innovative, encouraged a conservative aesthetic experience, defined by passive contemplation. Looking back, Stallabrass concluded that both Art and Money Online, and his subsequent book Internet Art (2003), may have been excessively utopian. One question which arose was whether such cynicism should be extended to current ‘post-internet’ art, particularly those projects concerned with activism in the context of global finance.

We picked up this question in the following two reading seminars. In Week 4, we focused on a rather technical essay by Laura Lotti, entitled ‘Contemporary Art, Capitalization and the Blockchain: On the Autonomy and Automation of Art’s Value’. Lotti asks whether contemporary art can emancipate itself from the ‘logic of algorithmic finance’, specifically by using blockchain technology (for instance the cryptocurrency of Bitcoin). This prompted two related questions from the group: firstly, if we have established that art is not autonomous from the financial sphere (e.g. the art market), then aren’t attempts to resist financialization likely to be mere fallacies? Secondly, if we are to do so, why turn to a financial system, however decentralised, as a mode of emancipation from global finance? Lotti takes two examples of projects which use blockchain technology, Monegraph, a tool that enables artists to control copyright without the intermediary of a gallery, and Plantoïd, a project in which the viewer directly pays the art object. The viewer is recompensed by a ‘dance’ performed by the plant: a financial transaction results in an ‘aesthetic experience’. Crucially, this process eventually leads to funding another artwork.

While Lotti writes that ‘Plantoid gives primacy to the phenomenal relation between the work and the audience’, and even goes as far as to speak of ‘aesthetic pleasure’, the robotic flowers clearly lack real aesthetic force. Our discussion led us to think of them as a prototype for better artworks which would manage their own existence.

Several projects already use blockchain technology in order to promote a model of self-ownership for non-human actors, and this can be seen as part of a broader development of structures known as Distributed Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), in which human agency is displaced by automation (for instance the self-owning, self-managing forest Terra0). Aside from this potential, we concluded that these works failed to be critical of the art market, since they merely transformed its logic of financial transaction outside the establishment. We ended the session by watching João Enxuto and Erica Love’s film The Institute for Southern Contemporary Art.

The Robin Hood Cooperative, which we discussed in Week 6, provided a potentially better example of a project which seeks (or pretends) to subvert the logic of global finance using the blockchain. The project defines itself as ‘an activist investment fund’: it uses an algorithm called ‘Parasite’ to mimic Wall Street’s latest transactions, and redistributes its profits to its members: people like ‘you and me’, the website informs us. Here, aesthetic matters gave way to a more pressing problem, namely: can the processes by which neo-liberalism produces value by seized, appropriated, and turned to better use? In other words, is there a better (good/ethical/equalitarian/democratic… the list could go on) use of capitalism as a system of value production? And what agency do artists have in this respect?

It emerged that, contrary to what The Robin Hood Cooperative website promises, it is rather difficult for laypersons to ‘join’ the cooperative. Moreover, the mock-interview we discussed – which stages two members of the Cooperative as interviewer and interviewee – suggests that the project may be more performative than effective. But perhaps a real critical potential might emerge through the act of pretending to parasite global finance for the greater good. It certainly got us thinking – and talking – for two hours.

We ended the term with Andrew Norman Wilson’s performative reading ‘The Artist Leaving the Googleplex’. Wilson gave a personal account of his experience working for Google in his early twenties, and of his being fired for filming the workforce hired to scan books for the Google books project (full text available here).

Visit the Digital Art research group's webpage.

Posted: Tuesday 16 January 2018