White Paper: New perspectives: art and design in the digital age

Opinion

White Paper: New perspectives: art and design in the digital age

Digital technology is transitory and has a non-object status. It allows for instant and multiple distribution, and is multidisciplinary and collaborative by nature

Defining the issues

Technology is fundamental to the shape and form of human communication in an era. The invention of the printing press radically altered the production and distribution of images and the written word in Western civilisation. The ability to craft, organise and decode messages, or visual literacy, determines membership in, or exclusion from, a given community. Reading and writing skills developed quickly on the European continent as a consequence of printing technology. Visual literacy became an essential skill for participation in the creative developments in the art and science of that time. It is exactly at this intersection of visual and technological literacy where artists have, in the past, forged an alliance in service to their craft.

That fusion is just as critical today as we enter a new millennium equipped with communication technologies that are as radically different from the ones that preceded us, as the printing press was to its predecessors. If visual and technological literacy determines the efficacy of communication (whether that communication falls in the realm of high art or popular culture), it is clear that artists need to re-define those terms in a world whose method of information exchange is now digital rather than analog.

What are the critical issues, then, in opening a dialogue within art and art education for understanding the confluence between visual and technological literacy in this new era of digital communication?

First, this essay begins with a brief historical overview of art and the associative impact of available technology. How have the tools of communication available to artists defined their visual vocabulary? What is the influence of communication technology on visual literacy?

Second, how does the nature of the technology determine basic assumptions and definitions? How do new technologies interact with older aesthetics? What is the significance of the shift from analog to digital media?

Third, how do the traditional systems of support for art respond to the distinctly non-object status of creative digital production? Art museums, galleries and educational institutions teaching art must accommodate the shift away from the production of rare and valuable objects. What is the nature of this new relationship? The "modern" artist was one secluded in a studio, remote and isolated. Digital tools present the fine artist with a range of options for collaboration more common in the applied arts. What is the significance of these shifting professional boundaries?

History, visual literacy and technology

One of the most basic ways to describe what it is that artists do now, in the past, and in the future is to say that they create works of art or communication that are a fusion of visual or social literacy on the one hand, and technological literacy on the other hand. Technological literacy refers to a sophistication about and skill with certain materials and tools.

We can begin by examining examples of our earliest art: cave paintings dating from approximately 15-13,000 BC. The visual coding of this type of imagery is quite simple; it is iconic and makes a direct reference to the physical object. These images are primitive by today's standards, with very little in the way of dimensionality or perspective. Nevertheless, they exemplify a deliberately constructed interpretation or representation of reality. Because we look back at these images from the distance of some 15,000 years, we tend not to see them in this light. After all, in the age of the silicon chip, it is a little difficult to view marks on stone as technology. However, the connection is real and significant.

With Egyptian scrolls from the fourth millennium BC, we see hieratic script, or a simplified version of hieroglyphics designed for rapid writing. Ideas were encoded in many ways: iconically, an owl could represent literally an owl; indexically, an owl could also represent wisdom; and finally, an owl might also symbolically represent the consonant sound "m".

The desire to interpret and represent is one of the most fundamental constants in art. However, the way in which those ideas are encoded, and the materials and tools employed in the service of those ideas, have become increasingly complex. Development of the Sumerian alphabet and Egyptian hieroglyphics track the semiotic evolution of representation from simple icons to more complex indexical images, and eventually into abstract symbols. The development of a grid system to contain image and icon, and the design of hand tools, such as a stylus, furthered skills in rapid writing.

Efforts to give visual art a narrative quality can also be traced back to some of our oldest artifacts. Greek pottery from the 5th and 6th centuries BC commonly utilised multiple and sequential imagery to document important events. The well-known Trajans column (110AD) depicts a sequential narrative of that famous warrior's achievements: a 125ft high marble film strip, of sorts. Keep in mind, too, the technology necessary for the column's structural integrity.

Multi-panel altarpieces were popular during the Renaissance as a means for depicting complex stories. These images were highly encoded and demanded a fair degree of visual literacy to properly read the significance of such Christian symbols as Adam and Eve and the Sacrificial Lamb. It is also worth noting that oil paint is cutting-edge technology at this point in history, and artists had to master the technological demands of both oil paint and single-point perspective.

These examples serve to illustrate the historical relationship between art and technology. The tools available to artists at a given point in history have determined the shape and form of their creative production. At the intersection between art and science lies the concept of literacy. Effective communication demands that both creator and audience have a shared set of beliefs and skills. History suggests that this relationship between art, technology and literacy is dynamic and evolutionary; a change in one effects a change in the others.

The machine mediated image

Periodically, a new technology emerges that is so fundamentally different from what preceded it that it challenges the foundations of commonly held beliefs and assumptions. The invention of photography in the 19th century is a good example of just such an event. The availability of a machine-mediated form of representation posed essential questions about the nature of art.

The arrival of photography in 1839 signified, on the one hand, the culmination of Renaissance rational vision, and on the other hand, a significant rupture with any art that had been made up to that point, because for the first time the work of art no longer contained a trace of the artist. This raised questions about traditional notions of mastery, uniqueness and value that are still not fully resolved. Nevertheless, what photography lost in its lack of aura was, to some extent, forgiven due to its expediency, availability and claims to authenticity. Photography quickly replaced painting as the medium of popular culture. As a tool in the service of realism, it found a broad range of uses, from studio portraiture to photojournalism.

However, it wasn't long before photography, too, began to show signs of raising the stakes in the game of realistic representation. This can be seen in the work of Edward Muybridge and Thomas Eakins, both of whom sought to inject the element of time into their work; Muybridge through the use of multiple sequences and Eakins through the superimposing of sequential images. Their work anticipated the later technologies of film and video.

If one looks at contemporary fine art photography, it is obvious that the aesthetic has borrowed extensively from the mediums that came before. It has drawn heavily from sculpture and painting, tending towards the creation of objects that are precious, rare and valuable. Furthermore, the medium has adopted the modernist notions of the separation and purity of mediums, and the romantic vision of the artist as creative loner. These defining traits of fine arts practice have been, and for the most part continue to be, the guiding philosophy in most college and university programs.

However, we believe that this is about to change and that the future will see an artistic practice that is significantly different. We base this claim on two considerations. First, a radically different social/visual literacy that we see our younger students bringing to creative visual work, and second, what we believe are some of the fundamental traits of electronic image making technology.

William Mitchell in his book, The Reconfigured Eye, has said: "We make our tools and our tools make us." The images we make and the images that we see shape and inflect who we are, how we think, and the kind of reality we construct as individuals and as a culture. Today's students have grown up in a world that is profoundly electronic and increasingly digital. They function in a densely constructed media landscape in which telephones, televisions and now computers are a routine fact of life. Today's 20-year-olds were weaned on Sesame Street, then graduated to MTV. They take for granted things like smart bombs and live satellite feeds. This has served to give them a sense of time, place and space that is entirely distinct and different from previous generations. Stated simply, they live in a different reality.

The traditional definition of literacy simply does not apply to the current generation of student artists. They are often hard-pressed to read and comprehend more than a page or two of text at a time. Yet these same students exhibit remarkable proficiency at "reading" material that is multi-layered, complex, compressed and fragmented. Their attention spans are brief but intense, allowing them to process rapid bursts of information. They are experts in the art of skimming and sampling.

For better or worse, this is the shape and texture of social literacy in the electronic age. In addition, it should come as no surprise that it forms a complementary alliance with many of the inherent traits of the digital image, particularly its transitory nature and its inherent non-object status.

Younger students seem to easily enter and comfortably inhabit a conceptual space that has no physical equivalent. Moreover, they often lack the anxiety present in older artists to ultimately extract images from the virtual realm and give them a physical existence. They seem perfectly content to let the work reside in its original electronic form, provided this still allows access to an audience. This serves as evidence of a decidedly different type of technological literacy that will become increasingly common. And those of us who are trained and invested in an older technology would be well advised to pay heed to this, because we may have something to learn from our students about the dangers of applying older aesthetics to a new art form.

In particular, we are referring to the prevalent assumption in the visual arts, up until now, that the computer is merely a staging area; that at some point the image will escape the confines of the computer screen and take its rightful place in the world as an object. In fact, that assumption runs counter to some of the most basic attributes of electronic work, particularly its ease of distribution in a rapidly expanding global electronic community.

Museums and art schools

Of course, this line of thinking results in a paradigm shift that has consequences not only for visual artists involved in creating new artwork, but also for those institutions involved in the exhibition and archiving of this work. Art museums, galleries and educational institutions teaching art must accommodate the shift away from the production of rare and valuable objects.

Museums will be transformed by new exhibition and access opportunities made possible by electronic networks. It is currently possible to create an exhibition without physically shipping any artwork. Because of this we will see museums begin to re-tool their self-image and sense of purpose. Whereas museums have traditionally played the role of a collector of objects, the future will see a shift in its role to one of a supplier of images. Museums will have the potential to give artists and audiences the ability to send and receive images from around the world and to interact with other groups or individuals at remote sites.

Art schools will also be under increasing pressure to find innovative ways to accommodate electronic art. This will be especially problematic for schools that continue to be heavily invested in the Modernist philosophy of the precious art object and the purity of isolated mediums. Artistic practice of the future will see a decided change in the way that mediums relate to one another. This is already the case in the areas of photography, video and graphic design which are currently being vulcanised into the hybrid area called multimedia. This new visual language is characterised by the simultaneity of image, text, motion and sound.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, this new language will no longer be accommodated by adding one or two computer art classes into the old curriculum. Ultimately, what will be needed is a re-drawing of the art curriculum and the way in which various mediums interact and intersect. Art schools will need to provide a curriculum that is focused, intense and addresses the complexity of working in this new form. A starting point for this would be to implement introductory classes that explore the unique character of a medium that includes not only the second and third dimensions of line and form, but also the fourth dimension of time. Through other new courses, the medium's inherent hybrid and collaborative traits need to be explored, exploited and encouraged. Additionally, the artists of the future must be critically sophisticated and have an appreciation for the impact of electronic culture on their concepts of audience and community.

University art departments are particularly well situated for this task and should find ways to draw from other disciplines, such as media studies, sociology, psychology, history, philosophy and literature. Art faculty of the future must be open to the idea of collaborating with colleagues from other areas, not only in the creation and teaching of interdisciplinary courses, but also in the creation of their own work.

The collaborative paradigm

Working collaboratively can serve as a productive model with like-minded others. Computer technology is complex and rapidly changing. A working dynamic that promotes the sharing of knowledge has proven successful in an area where constant change is the norm. A project-oriented approach has encouraged both a clarification of goals and a framework for achieving them. However, the most compelling reason for working as a group can be found in the inherent qualities of digital media. Electronic technology is creating a fusion across the formerly discreet disciplines of still images, video, text and sound. Creative production no longer relies on expertise in one single area, but rather the successful integration of multiple skills. Digital multimedia is collaborative by nature. The artist as creative loner is an outmoded concept and will not be the operative paradigm for the electronic artists of the future. Rather than basing their production on the premise of unique, precious, and valuable objects, they likely will create their work as transitory experiences that are multi-layered, multi-sensory, and instantaneously distributable to multiple locations.

Modernism revisited: Oh no!

Visual art has always involved a mixture of concept and craft. The technology available at any given point in history has always exerted a profound influence on the artistic production of an era. Likewise, artists have always relied on a shared literacy, a common set of beliefs and skills to effectively speak to their community. As we witness the transition from an analog to a digital information environment, it is imperative that we view it from this historical perspective. We must remember that new technologies bring with them new vocabularies, new languages. Visual literacy in the electronic age will mean something different than it has in the era of the printed page. Digital technology will also engender new definitions of time, space and community.

Today's artists find themselves poised on the verge of a new century that promises to fundamentally challenge their ideas about product and process. Visual artists of the future will likely operate under a radically different set of beliefs and assumptions. Art museums, galleries and schools will also face increased pressure to re-invent their sense of identity and mission.

We believe that many of the questions about future artistic practice can be answered by examining the inherent character of the technology itself. In the case of digital technology, the defining characteristics are its transitory and non-object status. It allows for instant and multiple distribution, and is multidisciplinary and collaborative by nature.

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Compiled by Arlene Martin

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This was first published in October 1999

 

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