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A Word or Two on Art and Technology

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.


I used to be fond of saying that, in art, medium is neutral—it only matters what you do with it. One can make a brilliant painting or utter junk using the same paints, and a similar claim applies to digital art. Except it doesn’t. I proposed this neutrality twenty years ago from a desire to counter the dominance of painting as a form of creative expression, and to advocate instead for a non-hierarchical openness to artists’ chosen media. 


I don’t remember the first time a digital artwork made me cry, but of the many times it has happened, I remember a few quite clearly. One of the most memorable was in 2018, when I was viewing Christiane Paul’s important historical survey at the Whitney Museum, Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018.


In The Age of AI: And Our Human Future, Henry A. Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher opined that AI is shepherding a world where decisions are made by humans, by machines, or through an “unfamiliar but also unprecedented” collaboration between them. As co-authors ourselves, we know firsthand that it can be difficult to ensure that human collaborators feel their voices are fairly represented, or that labor is shared equally. But why is creative collaboration between humans and machines (qua Artificial Intelligence) so difficult?


We need to talk about the display of works in art and technology. The presentation unconditionally impacts viewer engagement, understanding, and valuation of the artwork, and yet often audiences and reviewers don’t address that feature. Similar to other forms of contemporary art, space and context is key. Display choices for sculpture, painting, photography, or even video, exist.


When asked to consider the futures of art and technology, I find myself increasingly prone to write, instead, about my grandmother. “Instead” may be misleading, as it suggests that an autoethnographic excursus about one’s grandmother isn’t germane to discussions of futurity.


In 2021 when Mark Zuckerberg launched his multibillion-dollar initiative to develop “the metaverse,” a term and concept gleaned from Neal Stephenson’s kinetic cyberpunk classic Snow Crash, the venture capitalist Matthew Ball explained the idea as “the successor state to the mobile internet.”


As virtual landscapes and experiences become increasingly corporatized, artists constructing intentional realities through digital worldbuilding offer urgent alternatives for our collective imagination. Worldbuilding refers to the process of creating a new or imaginary world, both its physical environment and the social structures which will govern narrative and gameplay.


The origins of this weird word trace back to the seventeenth century, when “incubation” meant “to sit on eggs to hatch them” and was later used to name a technology that artificially stimulated hatching. Incubators became a medical innovation when Stéphane Tarnier, having been inspired by seeing one in a zoo, invented the incubator for premature babies.


In recent years DAOs have been heralded as a powerful stimulus for reshaping how value systems for interdependence and cooperation manifest themselves in arts organizing. The book Radical Friends – Decentralised Autonomous Organisations and the Arts consolidates five years of research into a toolkit for fierce thinking, as well as for new forms of radical care and connectivity that move beyond the established systems of centralized control in the art industry and wider financial networks.


In approaching this distributed symposium I sought a term that would be as politically and socially complicated as the field we are trying to define. In doing so, and likely against my better judgement, I landed on “public.”


We work in art museums IRL. We work in crypto, commissioning artists to create art on the blockchain and inventing on-chain protocols that authenticate and protect their creations. Through these contexts, we have witnessed the misapplication and exploitation of the term "community" in both spheres and believe that innovative structures are essential for addressing this issue.




The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

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