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<nettime> Artforum > Bishop > Digital Divide: Whatever happened to digital art?


WHATEVER HAPPENED TO DIGITAL ART? Cast your mind back to the
late 1990s, when we got our first e-mail accounts. Wasn't
there a pervasive sense that visual art was going to get
digital, too, harnessing the new technologies that were just
beginning to transform our lives? But somehow the venture
never really gained traction -- which is not to say that
digital media have failed to infiltrate contemporary art.
Most art today deploys new technology at one if not most
stages of its production, dissemination, and consumption.
Multichannel video installations, Photoshopped images,
digital prints, cut-and-pasted files (nowhere better
exemplified than in Christian Marclay's The Clock, 2010):
These are ubiquitous forms, their omnipresence facilitated
by the accessibility and affordability of digital cameras
and editing software. There are plenty of examples of art
that makes use of Second Life (Cao Fei), computer-game
graphics (Miltos Manetas), YouTube clips (Cory Arcangel),
iPhone apps (Amy Sillman), etc.[1]

So why do I have a sense that the appearance and content of
contemporary art have been curiously unresponsive to the
total upheaval in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the
digital revolution? While many artists use digital
technology, how many really confront the question of what it
means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital?
How many thematize this, or reflect deeply on how we
experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our
existence? I find it strange that I can count on one hand
the works of art that do seem to undertake this task: the
flirtations between Frances Stark and various Italian
cyberlovers in her video My Best Thing, 2011; Thomas
Hirschhorn's video of a finger idly scrolling through
gruesome images of blown-apart bodies on a touch screen,
occasionally pausing to enlarge, zoom in, move on (Touching
Reality, 2012); the frenetic, garbled scripts of Ryan
Trecartin's videos (such as K-Corea INC.K [Section A],
2009). Each suggests the endlessly disposable, rapidly
mutable ephemera of the virtual age and its impact on our
consumption of relationships, images, and communication;
each articulates something of the troubling oscillation
between intimacy and distance that characterizes our new
technological regime, and proposes an incommensurability
between our doggedly physiological lives and the screens to
which we are glued.

But these exceptions just point up the rule. There is, of
course, an entire sphere of "new media" art, but this is a
specialized field of its own: It rarely overlaps with the
mainstream art world (commercial galleries, the Turner
Prize, national pavilions at Venice). While this split is
itself undoubtedly symptomatic, the mainstream art world and
its response to the digital are the focus of this essay. And
when you look at contemporary art since 1989, the year Tim
Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, it is striking that
so little of it seems to address the way in which the forms
and languages of new media have altered our relationship to
perception, history, language, and social relations.

In fact, the most prevalent trends in contemporary art since
the '90s seem united in their apparent eschewal of the
digital and the virtual. Performance art, social practice,
assemblage-based sculpture, painting on canvas, the
"archival impulse," analog film, and the fascination with
modernist design and architecture: At first glance, none of
these formats appear to have anything to do with digital
media, and when they are discussed, it is typically in
relation to previous artistic practices across the twentieth
century.[2] But when we examine these dominant forms of
contemporary art more closely, their operational logic and
systems of spectatorship prove intimately connected to the
technological revolution we are undergoing. I am not
claiming that these artistic strategies are conscious
reactions to (or implicit denunciations of) an information
society; rather, I am suggesting that the digital is, on a
deep level, the shaping condition -- even the structuring
paradox -- that determines artistic decisions to work with
certain formats and media. Its subterranean presence is
comparable to the rise of television as the backdrop to art
of the 1960s. One word that might be used to describe this
dynamic -- a preoccupation that is present but denied,
perpetually active but apparently buried -- is disavowal: I
know, but all the same . . .

point for an examination of contemporary art's repressed
relationship to the digital. Manon de Boer, Matthew
Buckingham, Tacita Dean, Rodney Graham, Rosalind Nashashibi,
and Fiona Tan are just a few names from a long roll call of
artists attracted to the materiality of predigital film and
photography. Today, no exhibition is complete without some
form of bulky, obsolete technology -- the gently clunking
carousel of a slide projector or the whirring of an 8-mm or
16-mm film reel. The sudden attraction of "old media" for
contemporary artists in the late 1990s coincided with the
rise of "new media," particularly the introduction of the
DVD in 1997. Overnight, VHS became obsolete, rendering its
own aesthetic and projection equipment open to nostalgic
reuse, but the older technology of celluloid was and remains
the favorite. Today, film's soft warmth feels intimate
compared with the cold, hard digital image, with its excess
of visual information (each still contains far more detail
than the human eye could ever need).[3] Meanwhile, numerous
apps and software programs effortlessly impersonate the
analog without the chore of developing and processing;
movies imbued with the elegiac mood of Super 8 can now be
taken on your cell phone. So why continue to work with
"real" analog equipment? Artists like Dean, the preeminent
spokesperson for old media, stake their attachment to
celluloid as a fidelity to history, to craft, to the
physicality of the editing process; the passing of real film
is a loss to be mourned. The sumptuous texture of indexical
media is unquestionably seductive, but its desirability also
arises from the impression that it is scarce, rare,
precious. A digital film can be copied quickly and cheaply,
ad infinitum; not so a 16-mm film.[4] Rosalind E. Krauss has
invoked Walter Benjamin to elucidate the use of analog media
in the work of William Kentridge and James Coleman, drawing
on Benjamin's belief that the utopian potential of a medium
may be unleashed at the very moment of its obsolescence. But
today this assertion needs to be subject to scrutiny. The
recourse to Benjamin's argument, so closely tied to the
historical avant-gardes, sounds almost nostalgic when
applied to these younger artists, especially when analog
film seems fashionable, rather than cutting against the
grain. (It also seems striking that this discussion didn't
happen decades ago, when video began to supplant celluloid.)
The continued prevalence of analog film reels and projected
slides in the mainstream art world seems to say less about
revolutionary aesthetics than it does about commercial

Another contemporary mode steeped in the analog is social
practice. It is worth recalling that Nicolas Bourriaud's
earliest texts on relational aesthetics set artists' desire
for face-to-face relations against the disembodiment of the
Internet; the physical and the social were pitched against
the virtual and the representational. In the past decade,
socially engaged art has tended to favor intersubjective
exchange and homespun activities (cooking, gardening,
conversation), with the aim of reinforcing a social bond
fragmented by spectacle. Yet social relations today are not
mediated by monodirectional media imagery (the mainstay of
Guy Debord's theory) but through the interactive screen, and
the solutions offered by "useful art" and real-world
collaborations dovetail seamlessly with the protocols of Web
2.0, introduced in 2002: Both deploy a language of
platforms, collaborations, activated spectatorship, and
"prosumers" who coproduce content (rather than passively
consuming information devised for them).[5] As we have seen
so many times in the past decade, most recently at the
Seventh Berlin Biennale -- where the curator, artist Artur
Zmijewski, invited Occupy activists into the KW Institute
for Contemporary Art for the duration of the show -- the
results of such coproductions are difficult to contain
within the traditional format of the exhibition. In 2001,
Lev Manovich presciently observed that in foregrounding
two-way communication as a fundamental cultural activity (as
opposed to the one-way flow of a film or book), the Internet
asks us to reconsider the very paradigm of an aesthetic
object: Can communication between users become the subject
of an aesthetic?[6] The centrality of this question to
social practice is obvious: Does work premised on a
dialogic, prosumer model, seeking real-world impact, need to
assume representation or an object form in order to be
recognized as art?

Manovich's question also haunts more traditional sculptural
practices. The recent prevalence of assemblage and
"unmonumentality" in object making has been productively
described by Hal Foster as "precarious" sculpture (in the
work of Isa Genzken and others), even though the tendency is
manifested more frequently as retro-craftiness, as seen in
the fiddly collages and tapestries of the recent Whitney
Biennial. Both iterations suggest some of the pressures that
current regimes of technology and communication have placed
on the object, which becomes increasingly fragile and
provisional, as if to assert subjectivity (and tactility)
against the sealed, impregnable surface of the screen.
Moreover, if Genzken's work exemplifies an older model of
bricolage, in which found elements are treated as raw
materials whose histories are incidental, then the more
prevalent strategy since the 1990s has been to maintain the
cultural integrity of the reused artifact -- to invoke and
sustain its history, connotations, and moods. Books,
performances, films, and modernist design objects are
incorporated into new works of art and repurposed: Think of
Carol Bove's or Rashid Johnson's shelves of carefully
arranged knickknacks, or Paulina Olowska's copies of
paintings by Polish artist Zofia Stryjenska (1891-1976).
This trend is manifest in other disciplines, too: Poetry,
theater, and dance have all enacted their own forms of
repurposing in sync with visual art, from Elevator Repair
Service's eight-hour play Gatz (which uses F. Scott
Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby), to Rob Fitterman's poems
(repurposing anonymous tweets and Yelp reviews), to Richard
Move's reperformances of the modernist choreographer Martha

These forms of repurposing differ from appropriation art of
the 1980s, when artists seized imagery from art history
(Sherrie Levine) or advertising (Richard Prince) with a view
to questioning authorship and originality while drawing
attention, yet again, to the plight of the image in the age
of mechanical reproduction. In the digital era, a different
set of concerns prevails. The act of repurposing aligns with
procedures of reformatting and transcoding -- the perpetual
modulation of preexisting files. Faced with the infinite
resources of the Internet, selection has emerged as a key
operation: We build new files from existing components,
rather than creating from scratch. Artists whose work
revolves around choosing objects for display (Bove, Johnson)
or who reuse previous art (Olowska with Stryjenska, Simon
Starling with Henry Moore, Ryan Gander with Mondrian) are
foregrounding the importance of selection strategies, even
when the outcome is decisively analog. Questions of
originality and authorship are no longer the point; instead,
the emphasis is on a meaningful recontextualization of
existing artifacts.

Any consideration of this drive to gather, reconfigure,
juxtapose, and display leads quickly to Foster's influential
theory of the archival impulse. For Foster, the term denotes
art that undertakes "an idiosyncratic probing into
particular figures, objects, and events in modern art,
philosophy, and history."[7] Artists' archives are
fragmentary and material, writes Foster, and call out for
"human interpretation" rather than "machinic reprocessing";
here, he clearly draws a line between subjective and
technological.[8] Artists both have recourse to archives and
produce them, displaying a paranoid will to connect what
cannot be connected.[9] Foster's examples are Dean, Sam
Durant, and Hirschhorn, but we might equally consider Kader
Attia, Zoe Leonard, or Akram Zaatari. Often refuting
established taxonomies as a systematic organizing principle
for their work, these artists embrace subjective rationales
or arbitrary systems. Presented as carefully displayed
collections, their installations belie the extent to which
everyone with a personal computer today has become a de
facto archivist, storing and filing thousands of documents,
images, and music files. (I often feel as if I don't listen
to music so much as perform upkeep on my iTunes collection
-- downloading new acquisitions, categorizing them, and
deaccessioning unwanted tracks.) Comparing these vernacular
forms of aggregation with artists' physical arrangements of
ephemera and objects, we are once again returned to the
rarefied aura of the indexical and to questions of supply
and demand.

Artists select and aggregate not only in the production of
individual works but also in the exhibitions they curate. In
the 1990s, this practice was reflexively attuned to the
institutional context (Fred Wilson, Mark Dion), but in the
past decade it has taken a more automatist form,
subordinating legible or didactic connections between works
to the imperative of individual sensibility, as for example
in Mark Wallinger's "The Russian Linesman" (2009), Vik
Muniz's "Rebus" (2009), or Grayson Perry's phenomenally
popular "The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman" (2011). Tacita
Dean's "An Aside" is an exemplary instance. As she details
in the catalogue for this 2005 show at London's Camden Arts
Centre, works by Lothar Baumgarten, Paul Nash, and Gerhard
Richter (among others) were selected on the basis of chance,
anecdote, and coincidence. From a twentieth-century
perspective, this is the logic of the derive. From a
twenty-first-century perspective, it is the act of surfing:
the pursuit of impromptu, subjective connections via the
aleatory free assocation of navigating the Web. In the
1960s, this kind of drift was understood as an exodus from
the logic imposed by postwar city planning; today, the
derive is the logic of our dominant social field, the

ONE SIGNIFICANT SIDE EFFECT of the information age is that
research is easier than ever before. As the digital archive
increases exponentially -- at one point, Google was
archiving books at a rate of three thousand a day -- the
phenomenon of research-driven art proliferates in tandem.
Unlike previous generations of artist-researchers (such as
Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, and Martha Rosler), who tended to
examine the social, political, and economic conditions of
their present moments, contemporary research-based art
(e.g., that of Andrea Geyer, Asier Mendizabal, Henrik
Olesen) exhibits a conspicuous preoccupation with the past,
revisiting marginal histories or overlooked thinkers. Some
artists even make a point of using laborious, non-Google
methodologies: Consider Emily Jacir's Material for a Film,
2004-2007, an investigation into the life of poet Wael
Zuaiter, the first of many Palestinian artists and
intellectuals to be assassinated by Israeli agents in the
1970s. The work attempts to reconstruct as much information
as possible about Zuaiter's life, bringing together objects
owned by or important to him (books, postcards, films,
records), and Jacir's efforts to locate these objects are
narrated diaristically in wall texts. The presentation of
research-based art and archival installations is typically
at pains to confer aura and value on carefully selected
physical objects; moreover, these objects remain fixed and
static rather than being adaptable by users. Such works
reaffirm the paradoxical compromise wrought by contemporary
art when confronted with new media: The endless variability
and modulation of the digital image is belied by the
imposition of a "limited" edition and an aesthetics of the
precious one-off (sepia-tinted prints, display cabinets,
file boxes of ephemera, etc).

Acknowledged or not, the research possibilities afforded by
the Internet have made themselves felt in other aspects of
contemporary art, too. In the early 1970s, Susan Hiller
amassed a series of 305 postcards that she found in British
seaside towns, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972-76.
Each postcard is captioned ROUGH SEA and depicts the same
motif -- a rather bleak, turbulent ocean encroaching on
human structures. Three decades later, Zoe Leonard exhibited
more than four thousand postcards of Niagara Falls,
clustered by type, tracing this natural wonder's evolution
into a tourist destination between 1900 and 1950 (You see I
am here after all, 2008). The postcards, largely sourced via
eBay, attest to the possibilities of Internet searchability.
But our consumption of this work in turn reflects the
changing patterns of contemporary perception: It is
impossible to take in all four thousand postcards, so our
eyes just scan the surface, in the rapid-fire skimming with
which we browse news and reviews on our smartphones. Poet
and UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith refers to the literary
equivalent of this kind of work as "the new illegibility":
books like his own Day (2003), a retyping of one day's
edition of the New York Times, which invites random sampling
rather than straight-through reading. When online, he
writes, "we parse text -- a binary process of sorting
language -- more than we read it to comprehend all the
information passing before our eyes."[10] Today, many
exhibitions (by curators rather than artists) model this new
illegibility as a spectatorial condition. Documenta 11
(2002) was significant in many respects, not least of which
was its inauguration of a tendency to include more work than
the viewer could possibly see -- in this case, six hundred
hours of film and video. We don't ask how big a show is
anymore, but how long: A tiny gallery can contain days of
art. The result is that we filter and graze, skim and

My point is that mainstream contemporary art simultaneously
disavows and depends on the digital revolution, even --
especially -- when this art declines to speak overtly about
the conditions of living in and through new media. But why
is contemporary art so reluctant to describe our experience
of digitized life? After all, photography and film were
embraced rapidly and wholeheartedly in the 1920s, as was
video in the late 1960s and '70s. These formats, however,
were image-based, and their relevance and challenge to
visual art were self-evident. The digital, by contrast, is
code, inherently alien to human perception. It is, at base,
a linguistic model. Convert any .jpg file to .txt and you
will find its ingredients: a garbled recipe of numbers and
letters, meaningless to the average viewer. Is there a sense
of fear underlying visual art's disavowal of new media?
Faced with the infinite multiplicity of digital files, the
uniqueness of the art object needs to be reasserted in the
face of its infinite, uncontrollable dissemination via
Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. If you borrow an artist's
DVD from a gallery, it usually arrives in a white paper
slip, with VIEWING COPY ONLY marked clearly on the label;
when a collector buys the same DVD in a limited edition, he
or she receives a carefully crafted container, signed and
numbered by the artist.

Ironically, Goldsmith refers to contemporary art of the
1980s as one model for poetry when promoting his theory of
"uncreative writing," citing the history of
twentieth-century art as a chronicle of thieving and
stealing, from Duchamp to Warhol to Levine. In actuality,
visual art's assault on originality only ever goes so far:
It is always underpinned by a respect for intellectual
property and carefully assigned authorship (Warhol and
Levine are hardly anonymous, and their market status is
fiercely protected by their galleries).[11] Unlike the
poetry world, where the flow of capital is meager and where
works can circulate freely and virtually on the Web, visual
art's ongoing double attachment to intellectual property and
physicality threatens to jeopardize its own relevance in the
forthcoming decades. In a hundred years' time, will visual
art have suffered the same fate as theater in the age of

Goldsmith points out that the linguistic basis of the
digital era holds consequences for literature that are as
potentially shattering and vitalizing as the arrival of
mechanical reproduction was for visual art: "With the rise
of the Web, writing has met its photography."[12] It is
telling that two of the works I cited earlier, by Trecartin
and Stark, make language central to their aesthetic. It's
possible that literature, and particularly poetry of the
kind championed by Goldsmith in Uncreative Writing, might
now be taking up the avant-garde baton, finding ways to
convey experience in ways adequate to our new technological
circumstances. Yet the hybridized solutions that visual art
is currently pursuing -- analog in appearance, digital in
structure -- seem always biased toward the former, so
favored by the market. If the digital means anything for
visual art, it is the need to take stock of this orientation
and to question art's most treasured assumptions. At its
most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new
dematerialized, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of
collective culture; at its worst, it signals the impending
obsolescence of visual art itself.

Claire Bishop is associate professor in the Ph.D. program in
art history at CUNY Graduate Center, New York.


1. Even traditional forms of art, like painting, are
supported by a digital apparatus: PDFs sent to the press or
to collectors, JPEGS on gallery websites, etc.

2. I will leave aside painting for the moment. Its recent
exponents (in the US, at least) have consciously deployed
digital referents: Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker, for
example, produce hybrid analog-digital paintings. Rather
than downloading images from the Internet, Walker sources
his imagery in library books, which are then scanned, and
altered on his computer, before being transferred to canvas
for one-off paintings. Again, however, these works use
technology (and rather decoratively) rather than reflecting
on digital visuality per se. See "The Painting Factory: A
Roundtable Discussion," in The Painting Factory, exh. cat.,
Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (New York: Rizzoli,
2012), 11-12.

3. The analog fascination is not exclusive to contemporary
art; to cite just one example, Urban Outfitters' website now
offers more than sixty products relating to cameras, most of
which are based on 35-mm film or Lomography.

4. Of course, digital files are also subject to degradation
through resizing and compression; the products of these
processes are referred to as lossies.

5. Like performance art, social practice increasingly
depends for its production and documentation on e-mail and
digital photography.

6. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 2001), 163-64. In the words of activist and law
scholar Lawrence Lessig, we no longer live in a "Read Only"
but rather a "Read/Write" culture.

7. Hal Foster, "An Archival Impulse," October 110 (Autumn
2004): 3.

8. Ibid., 5.

9. Ibid., 21.

10. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2011), 158. His formulation plays
off and departs from current theories of scanning and
saccadic vision. The precedents for this work are both
literary and artistic: Gertrude Stein's The Making of
Americans (1925) and On Kawara's One Million Years, 1969.

11. When cut-and-paste operations are transferred to
literature, as Goldsmith and his many colleagues are doing,
the stakes are quite different, since the economy of
literature is much smaller and weaker and has no "original"
to speak of.

12. Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, 14.

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