The words we bring to art intend, at best, to translate the perceptual realm into the linguistic, anchoring sensation through definition. But, as we all know, that often doesn’t occur. The well known essay, “International Art English” by Alix Rule and David Levine skewers that premise, as does Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975) nearly forty years earlier, and a decade before that Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” resisted language’s simulacrum of art. So on, down the line. And yet, words also serve to support, promote, highlight, associate, and adore the art they describe.
Words appear for new practices, movements, and styles to expand appreciation and awareness. They necessarily limit in order to focus attention on specific elements and criteria. Adopted, they take on a life of their own. For well over two thousand years, the word “beauty” has been used and confused. It points at something, though no one, not even Plato or Kant (or should I say, no thanks to Plato or Kant), can confirm how or where beauty appears. When even the word “art” confounds, what are we to do? We hoist our attempts into the next sentence.
When art encounters technology, the language gets brackish as disciplines and histories converge. Just as some people sneer at art’s lingo, misunderstanding its unfamiliarity as obscurantism instead of observing an effort at specificity (let’s presume), so do many art audiences shrink from the terminologies associated with digital art. Or, should I say media art, or new media, or computer art, or virtual art, or art and technology…?
With so many emerging technologies, language proliferates. It gets co-opted by headlines and marketing efforts. To resist the inflections now attached to those terms, new words appear, or old ones revived. Curators, critics and scholars study the roots and contexts of these words to make sense of how they might be refreshed or why they should be abandoned.
I thought of this Critics Page as a symposium on the language of art and technology, inviting curators and scholars from around the world to contribute their perspectives by selecting a word they would like to never hear again or one they think important for this moment. It is a smattering of keywords with many more possible as our interests and concerns evolve.
There are definitely some words many of us despise, and Margaret Wertheim’s text about “the metaverse” aptly articulates the problem with the way the word was co-opted by corporate interests. There are no “neutral” practices, explains the longtime director of Postmasters Gallery, Magda Sawon. The legal trio of Yayoi Shionoiri, Sarah Conley Odenkirk, and Megan Noh ask about the emphasis on human touch that has percolated around issues of AI; this seems particularly relevant as we look back at the history of conceptual art, which often denied the necessity of the artist’s own hand in the process of making the work.
Such concerns naturally lead us to debate the aesthetic values we bring to art, which art historian and curator at the Buffalo AKG Tina Rivers Ryan considers in musing on her affective response to works of art. Just as Pop art responded to the visual culture of comic books, advertising, mass media, and consumer product design, we are challenged now to consider the influence of gaming, computer graphics, screen culture, social media, and the widespread access to and use of digital tools. We may want a space free of that bombardment, but its influence and critique is being expressed in art across all forms of media.
When and where are we looking at digital art? On our mobile device while in transit or standing in relation to a geolocated work? Passing by a shop or gallery window? Seated on a bench? Guided with instructions or figuring it out on our own? In a gallery, museum, fair? Display is the concern of Nxt Museum Director Merel van Helsdingen, as the curation of digital art continues to get negotiated as new practices demand new infrastructure or positioning. And yet, all this talk of new and different leads curators and theorists Ruth Catlow and Penny Rafferty to enter into a dialogue on the problems with innovation as the celebrated concept in the discourse. Mashinka Firunts Hakopian offers the word “ancestral” to shift just this kind of thinking.
Thinking historically leads professor Sarah Cook to converse with her PhD student Bilyana Palankasova on the shifts in the word “incubator” over the last couple centuries. The words we use produce contexts for thinking just as datasets establish worlds of knowledge and reference. Writer and curator Clara Peh examines the popular term “worldbuilding” and reminds us to consider what tools and whose data enable the world being designed. When audiences introduce expectations for greater specificity, we all have the chance to demand more equitable designs. That is the major concern of the anonymous collective Kanon, articulated through their essay on “community.”
So many words might have been added that could not fit in this limited context, though they often appear as a subtext to these essays: binary, code, decentralized, equity, and ethics, through to software, transparency, user, virtual, and so forth. The choice to invite curators and scholars stemmed from my own curiosity about how these people, who often anguish about how to express their research and intent, find the current conversation. Theirs is not the only perspective, so the Art and Technology column this month asked artists in media ranging from AR to sculpture to share words they have used or experienced in relation to their practice; confusion about art making is there, as is support. In the spirit of broadening the conversation, I hope readers will join us for the New Social Environment on this Critics Page and share the word that troubles or excites their engagement in art and technology.
The words we use matter, and so I close with the importance of the poetry of language, which appears in the haikus provided by independent curator Doreen A. Ríos. The haiku is a Japanese form of poetry with a strict requirement of five syllables for the first line, followed by seven in the second and returning to five in the last line. That discipline, however, is meant as a provocation beyond the terse language. A Zen practitioner years ago described it to me as kin to the koan. Both provide the opportunity for audiences to find themselves present. Certainly we need to be present to the developments and influences arising, fading, and fluctuating in art, technology, and the world around us.