In the Name of Art (Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller on imaginaria and digital art)

By Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller, 21 January 2004

Endless Love/hate? On the Occasion of Imaginaria, the UK's first digital arts prize, Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller list ten reasons why the art world still sends out mixed signals abou its - digital - other half

in the name of art!In the cultural arena, there's nothing quite like a prize to get people's backs up. From the Booker to the Turner, and now Cap Gemini's Imaginaria Digital Arts prize, prizes never fail to set a well rehearsed communal tirade in motion - against weighted selection procedures, against notions of better and best, against the normalisation of unnamed, unacknowledged and distinctly un-objective criteria for 'quality', and so on. Now that the prizes' function as (cheap) vehicles for marketing and corporate identity is becoming ever more clear, things are getting even noisier, and justly so. Oddly enough, though, in the case of Imaginaria the decibels are rising only partly due to the problems inherent in awarding prizes, or even to a critique of the motivates of the donor organisation, Cap Gemini. The other increasingly dominant note can be accounted for by a welcome return of the 'high' and 'low' arts argument, which seems to have undergone only very slight modification...

Is Digital Art really Art? Can digital artists slug it out with the big boys? As little more than genre artists or craftspersons, do they even deserve an arts prize? Ironically, Imaginaria could prove to be more useful as a catalyst for the exposure of a long-simmering antipathy between two worlds - that of 'digital art' and that of 'contemporary art' or 'art' - and their accompanying discourses than as a catalyst for elevating the status of the dubious category of digital art to a 'serious' cultural practice. We should thank Cap Gemini for this, if nothing else.

With a deep curtsey in the direction of all the platitudes, terminological contradictions, historical omissions, generalisations and false homogenisations that are part of such a venture, we asked Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller to hypothesise why it is exactly that the art world both hates and loves digital art.

The art world hates Digital Art. The ICA's show Imaginaria, which sets out to show the best of Digital Art 1997-1998, has helped clarify the reasons why Digital Art is shunned by the art world, and why it will never be accepted into the canon of high art. The following is a list of reasons why 'Digital Art' will not be accepted as fine art.

1. A new art form - give it up! Art is dead. There is nothing more futile than aspiring to the condition of art at a time when giving up art is the only legitimate art form.

Since Baudrillard claimed that art is dead, and continues to exist only as a simulation of its former self, the only way to make art has been to endlessly replay the death of art - to take 'the authentic' and show that it is a simulation. Digital Art seems to start from a misreading of Baudrillard: it attempts to make art out of simulacra and then claim authenticity for its own products.

Within Imaginaria, there is one work which seems to stand as a metaphor for the status of Digital Art within the art world. Anabiosis by Simon Tegala monitors the heart rate of the artist through a screen display. 'Anabiosis' is the medical term for 'revival after apparent death'. Could it be that Digital Art sees itself as a new lease of life within an art world obsessed with death, obsolescence and redundancy? Perhaps suicide could be suggested as a way for this artist to be accepted into the canon of contemporary art.

2. 'Digital Art' does not exist. In proclaiming itself as a new medium, Digital Art has failed to recognise that art is no longer medium specific. Artists now operate across disciplines - text, image, moving image, event, and use whatever tools are at their disposal.

Digital artists are mistaken in thinking that a medium can have inherent properties the realisation of which can be called art. As such it shares a common history with photography. Photography struggled throughout the century to become realised as an art form in its own right. It experienced a period of fine art credibility in the mid-eighties with Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman and Sherry Levine, all of whom were 'artists who used photography' but none of whom could call themselves 'photographers'. The recent retreat of photography into 'specialist' galleries is a testament to its failure to become an artform 'in itself'.

Digital technology exists. Art exists. Art which uses technology exists. Digital Art does not exist 'in its own right'.

3. Deconstruction. Ever since Jacques Derrida pronounced that the frame (and possibly even the wall) were part of the artwork, art has been emptied of content and been transformed into a self conscious deconstruction of the history and context of art.

Artists no longer make statements, instead they 'critique the medium of representation itself'. To actually communicate without deconstructing the mode of communication that one uses shows a failure to understand the importance of the deconstructive method in contemporary art.

So-called digital artists are just too damned excited by the infinite possibilities of the medium's potential for new representation to engage with any meaningful discourse on the subject of its own limits. Digital Art does not start from the premise that language has to be taken apart; instead it is at the relatively unsophisticated stage of 'inventing' its own language. Digital Art has got to reach the limits of its own potential, roll over and die, before the post-mortem can begin.

4. Anti-teleology. The future is not a better place, as Hegel, Marx and Darwin claimed. There is a strong anti-Hegelian thrust in post-modern art which manifests itself as a distrust of the idea of 'progress' and the belief that 'the new' has positive value in itself. The notion that the future is leading us somewhere, and that technology is the tool for the emancipation of society, has been abandoned due to the failure of the modernist technological utopia and its inversion in the Holocaust, to colonialism and to the failure of teleological projects such as communism, humanism and feminism. This is why digital artists are often accused of 'techno-fascism' by their critics. The inherent technological utopianism of Digital Art is irresponsible, naive and dangerous. Contemporary art, in contrast, is going nowhere - and proud of it. It is, after all, safer to mull over the shadows of the past than to be blinded by the brightness of a new future.

5. Foucault's critique of technology. The myth that technology is a 'tool'. Technology always serves the interests of power. Artists get used by technology. Not the other way around.

The horror of the artist/reviewer meeting Imaginaria is that it is technology and science that sets the agenda. Thus, artists fall prey to an agenda which is not theirs, to a set of concerns that they cannot control or limit, and to a set of outcomes (since many works are set up as 'experiments') which are predetermined and not as 'open ended' as the artists would like to think.

6. Heidegger's opposition between art and technology. The debate on art and technology is always prefaced by some reference to Heidegger. For Heidegger, technology keeps humanity from recognising 'being': we deny ourselves when we see the world 'technologically' - that is, as a tool for our own use. Against the evils of technology Heidegger set the virtues of art, through which 'being' expresses itself to us. Heidegger's views on art were dominant in the 50s and have had a lasting impact.

Although very few contemporary artists would support Heidegger's philosophy and its endorsement of the notion of the autonomous individual, the ethically existing subject and the expression of inner truth, the art world continues to distrust technology.

The postmodern rejection of Heidegger should have seen an abandonment of the old opposition between art and technology and paved the way for a reconciliation of the old opposites. However, the result has not been a new belief in the compatibility of art and technology, but the belief instead that both art and technology are equally lacking in an ultimate justification. In this way Heidegger's split is reconciled - through mutual failure.

Imaginaria, a first in the UK for the digital arts, recently started its life in London's Institute of Contemporary Art where the prize was awarded to Alexa Wright for her series "After Image" and the work of runners up Simon Tegala, Simon Robertshaw, Sera Furneaux, Jane Prophet and Cornford and Cross was exhibited alongside hers. Imaginaria TM was conceived by Cap Gemini's Life Sciences Group which financed and organised the project and exhibition together with its partners on the project, the Arts Council of England, FACT and the ICA. Work submitted for the prize had to relate to the theme of the life sciences and have been completed in the past year.

7. Post Duchampian hatred of technique. Since the revival of Duchamp and the death of painting, art which requires any form of technical skill has been devalued to the lowly status of mere craft. The ready-made has taken the place of the well designed or expressive object. Anything can be a ready-made - a feature film by someone else or an ashtray teaming with cigarette butts. The intention behind the ready-made is not just to reject technical skills but to insult the notion of committed endeavour, purposeful action or virtuosity.

Thus a work like Technosphere V2 by Jane Prophet, in which a graphically designed world is undoubtedly the product of immense technical mastery and several years of committed hard graft, can, to a follower of Duchamp, seem like a complete waste of time.

8. The cult of failure. Once the future has been abandoned and belief in the expressive function of art has been rejected, once artists have come to hate the market which supports them, there is one last petty act of rebellion which can keep the artist going: making art which is deliberately banal.

Thus we have seen over the last ten years, the growth of the cult of contemporary artist as heroic failure. Technical inadequacy has been elevated to a virtue. This is not technical naiveté, but deliberate and self-conscious faux naiveté.

The justification for this is clear and has a history dating back through performance art to Dada. Against the mantle of artist as genius, the heroically failing artist says quite simply: "No I will not stand up as a spokesman for humanity - I will instead be deliberately pathetic and banal."

The complexity of these spiralling circles of self-loathing nihilism seems lost on digital artists, who somehow want to aspire to technical virtuosity, style and belief in their own work.

9. Gimmickry. Nothing offends the sensibilities of those who have been raised on a diet of conceptualism and minimalism more than gimmicks and theatricality. There is a good reason for this. Gimmickry always hides something, usually a lack of content, or an inability on the behalf of the artist to deal with the meaning of their work. Digital Art seems to present the artist with an infinite variety of technical gimmicks. As such it should be viewed with suspicion.

Take, for example, Simon Robertshaw's The Order of Things. Eliminate the reference to Foucault, the spooky theatrical lighting, and the trip switch, which activates the video signal when you get close to the viewing surface, and look what you are left with: archive footage of a patient receiving ECT. In its original context the footage was viewed for medical reasons. In a gallery, we are being asked to deal with it in terms of visual pleasure, the thrill of the peep show. Such treatment of this type of material is in poor taste and is an example of an artist becoming seduced by technical gimmicks and being inevitably unaware of the other meanings they are putting out.

10. Distance. Interactive art destroys the objective distance that, since Kant, has been the basic premise for the contemplation of aesthetic experience. In more contemporary terms, Jean Baudrillard has again and again discussed the diminishing of objective distance through digital technology and described the horror that this presents to the Western philosophical tradition - the terrible immediacy, the obscene reciprocity of the virtual experience, the closing down of the gap between observer and object. This, he claims in Kantian style, is the death of aesthetics.

Without objective distance, there is no contemplation; without contemplation, there is no metaphysics. Virtuality and interactivity are the death not just of art but also of culture itself. Interactivity is a vacuum, a self-perpetuating, self-referring, closed circle that coils in on itself. We do not need 'digital interactivity' to see this - it is well enough displayed in 'live TV'. The messages of 'interactive art' and live TV are the same: each is itself. In Imaginaria, Sera Ferneaux's work Kissing is an example of the vacuousness of instantaneous interactive experience.

Ironically, such a work claims to be social - and sociable - but only further opens up the vacuum that exists in social experience. This is the perverse state that Baudrillard predicted: when we are no longer alienated by technology, but share our alienation as a form of pleasure. As Baudrillard pointed out, the 'horror vacui' of this death of the social is invariably presented to us in the guise of a smiling face. In this instance the face is not smiling but kissing, and it is your own face staring back at you. The artwork is no more than an image of the viewer. You are being invited to participate in the collapse of your own culture. Ewan MorrisonXutilityfilms AT btinternet.comX


1. We live in an era in which the dominant mode of politics is systems analysis. Power has been handed over to a series of badly animated white shirt technicians who deliver fault reports and problem fixes that can be answered only with an 'Okay'. All the control and trustworthiness of Norton Utilities is delegated a bunch of frightened useless pilots gibbering out of control at the keyboard of a system they no longer understand. In this context it is essential for artists and others to synthesise an unformattable world.

2. The art world loves digital art because there is a large submerged part of the latter - as of the former - that is invisible to the viewing public and only ever read by interpretative machines. Digital art is an autonomous field with its own opportunities, norms and institutions. It understands that the distinction between the fields is necessary in order to maintain the integrity and thoroughness of both fields. For all artists it is imperative that they maintain the field in which they work as an autonomous sphere. The strength of a specific field can be measured precisely by the degree to which participants recognise the contributions of their peers and therefore develop each other's richness in specific capital. The collapse of a discipline can be measured precisely by the degree to which heterogeneous elements are able to exert force within or upon it.

3. Jeff Koons recently described the patterns produced in the interrelations of basic, repeated units, motifs, forms, colours, in his sculptures constructed of variegated patterns of boxed basketballs as a basic form of artificial intelligence. Mainstream art has already begun to incorporate the terminology and methodologies of digital cultures as a way of talking about itself and finding sympathetic refrains within a wider culture.

4. The art world loves digital art because it reminds the art world of the limits of its knowledge and the wisdom to be found in the open, non-prejudicial contemplation of the unknown. Likewise, it is always useful to have a relatively large amount of the unknown to call upon in the event of a vague legitimation crisis. In the past it has been proven good insurance to have a few unknown things knocking about in the rear. Graffiti, macrame, female artists and other minor genres have all played their part in the past.

5. Large prestigious art museums with marble foyers love web-based art because it implicitly solves some of the problems of distribution for non-gallery-oriented work that were faced comparably by video art. Because the web guarantees at least some kind of circulation, this frees them from the embarrassment of undergoing the rituals which they are forced to undergo on behalf of artists thoughtless enough to produce painting, sculpture or installation.

Given the medium's self-sufficiency, widely promoted, attentively curated exhibitions with all their background manoeuvring, public attention, critical discussion, historicisation machinery, high artists fees, and other negative influences on the pure essence of artistic creation can all be avoided, leaving the work to be safely ignored.

6. For similar reasons, those who are interested in reading Marx without illusions believe that the "Fragment On Machines" in the Grundrisse has important implications for technology and art. Here, Marx suggests that what he terms 'general intelligence' - the general social knowledge or collective intelligence of a society in a given historical period, particularly that embodied in 'intelligent' machines - reaches a decisive point of contradiction when actual value is created more on the basis of the knowledge and procedures embedded into these machines than in simple human labour: thus freeing digital artists from having to exist. Or at least, freeing them from being any less cheap and infinitely reproducible than their work or equipment.

7. The art world loves digital art because someone other than the Royal Society of Portrait Painters has to take the conventions of pictorial representation into the future. Whilst virtual worlds might still be to the mid-nineties what Roger Dean album covers were to the mid-seventies, the onward march of technology will one day surely permit an upgrade-obedient artist to produce a final form of perfection: an utter conformity to perceptual mechanisms whose perspectival instructions permit viewing only by the most perfected of subjects. At this sublime moment being empties in entirety onto a computer and thus perhaps allows isolation on a hard drive to be stored or destroyed.

8. The artist waits in ambush for the unique moments when an unrecognisable world reveals itself to them. They pounce on these little grains of nothingness like beasts of prey. It is the moment of full awakening, of union and of absorption and it can never be forced. The artist never formulates a plan. Instead they balance and weigh opposing forces, flexions, marks, events, distribute them in a sort of heavenly lay-out, always with plenty of space between, always alternating between the heat of integration and the coolness of critical distance, always with the certitude that there is no end, only worlds within worlds ad infinitum, and that wherever one left off, one had created a world.

The sublimation of technique to the advantage of a separate category known as creation is consistent between all sections of art. Programmers, technicians and other people are glad to work hard to make the realisation of the vision of the artist possible. Providing such freedom for the artist is essential because in this way providence always takes victory over ego.

9. Because art that is not solely about content, but that is multiply reflexive, concerned with materials, that is about the lustres and qualities of light, about the tonality of certain gestures, about modes and theatres of enunciation refuses to make a strict separation between creation and technique. Concept and execution fold in and out of each other, blurring the categorical imperatives of rule by the head or by the dead. The most powerful art, digital art, art which is despite itself digital is, regardless of the context which codes it and from which it escapes, derived in this way precisely from hooking into an expanded compositional synthesis.

A multitude of currents of heterogeneity destabilise digital art's status as an autonomous field. Most prosaically this occurs in the production of art that takes the needs of sponsors so to heart that it is indissociable from them. Heterogeneity can also disrupt the autonomy of a field, and thus its internal self-evolving richness, when it comes in the form of interpretation: in lazy journalistic work whose primary concern is the humorous gratification of what it presumes are its audiences' prejudices; in works that are diagrammatically pre-formatted by pre-existing critical criteria; or - most importantly - in works whose relationship with certain flows of words amplifies both.

10. Both fields, art and digital art, attempt to control what art and artists, should do and what they should be called. This is simply as a necessity for their maintenance and development. At the same time, even their own historical emergence is or was dependent on the eventual impossibility of such control. Those moments at which that impossibility is made concrete are what produce artists worthy of the name, as well as those to whom the word means nothing. Paradoxically, this very impossibility is what art and digital art claim as grounding their ability to speak, to be paid attention. It is only when they lividly and completely fail to betray that claim that art becomes worthy of anything but indifference.

Matthew FullerXmatt AT

Proud to be Flesh