The best work is forged under the pressure of constraints. We love that idea, don’t we? It conjures images of toothpick galleons, Joan of Arc, that scene in the cave in Afganistan the first Iron Man film. Greatness feels tantalisingly within our grasp if we don’t need extensive resources to achieve it.
This trope persists into the digital realm. As modern-day Wildes spin gold out of character limits, and algorithms play hilarious havoc, it’s possible to believe this awkward and nascent medium is somehow helping art. And why not? After all, digital is the saviour of everything else.
The problem is, the constraints aren’t what we think they are. Art on digital platforms is not like the great punk explosions of the past. In general, work that ‘does well’ online promotes its platform. We all, as they say, work for Google (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and as these giants define success metrics, it stands to reason that the most ‘successful’ work made on, and out of, the internet, is whatever best feeds the digital culture status quo.
We should beware misdirection. We love a story of triumph in adversity, but digital evangelism is telling us the main limiting factor on our creative achievement is the entire material world! What happens to art when if we see madness in this? If we view digital culture itself as the constraint?
The digital world’s authority, money, and starry-eyed utopianism ought to make it just as ripe for creative probing as politics, but by defining itself as the ultimate ‘disruptor’, it steals art’s best weapon. Rather than thrashing out fresh paths, the arts walk politely in digital’s footsteps. Where’s digital’s Spitting Image? Why aren’t we allowed to laugh at Elon Musk?
Clearly, artists working on these platforms are up against it – and it’s the perfect crime, because we go so willingly to our captors. No one ‘just becomes’ a digital artist. A number of conscious choices are necessary to get us here; and if we critique the culture one day, then by some baffling sleight of hand, we’ll find ourselves acting as representatives of the medium the next.
But maybe digital is useful to artists after all, just not for the reasons we think. The artist’s power lies in her lack of a boss, and great technology work is possible when the forces of authority are declawed. There is potential within digital to create the kind of magic that reflects the ingenuity of the creators, but in order to find it, we must be prepared to question, and laugh at, claims like ‘limitless potential’. We must seek out and show up its weaknesses, and we must re-connect with the wonder of all the things it cannot do.
Just as the 19th Century turn from the subject to the paint empowered artists, great digital art must trouble its medium’s core values and expectations. If shareable is the name of the commercial digital game, the art response must be to make something unshareable – otherwise one might as well be a painter, painting adverts for oil paint. Or, if the medium values interaction, as Facebook does, then the artistic challenge could gain power from being consciously non-interactive.
Better still, one could escape the medium entirely. It’s not art’s job to get clicks, but I’ve seen online art strategies that set minimum audience goals, as though art should be subject to the SEO and stats of an Innocent Smoothie ad campaign, simply because it exists in an online space.
The approach I advocate is problematic for funders, I appreciate, but we ought at least to be talking about it. I appeal that we support work which:
• Does not benefit commercial digital platforms.
• Exposes and critiques the prevailing authority of digital culture by seeing digital as a constraint, not a liberator.
• Explores an approach to tech based in a kind of formalism.
Here are some examples of work which I feel acknowledge and play positively with digital’s limits.
• Kelli Anderson is a master of paper and many other things. Her ‘Powers of Ten’ flip books are a physical response to an internet phenomena that is, crucially, much more satisfying when rendered in the real world.
• Created back in 2010, but timeless (like all these examples) Caleb Larsen’s “A tool to deceive and slaughter” is a box that sells itself constantly on eBay, neatly poking fun at both online selling, and the art world. A relief, in the form of art.
• Subversion doesn’t have to be aggressive. Designer Sandy Noble quietly draws out the beauty of raw tech. Without the gloss of consumer culture, tech is as intricate and alive as a human nervous system. His circuit board portraits are a fine example.
Artist and digital art curator, Leila Johnston was writing for The Space's collection of essays 'Self publishing and the arts'