Lumen Digital Arts Seminar

Laura Hudson attended the Lumen Digital Art Seminar at Hackney House, September, 29 2016. Here is her personal response to a thought provoking day of artist talks, exhibitions and panel discussions.

Viewing a digital world; the body is present while the mind is elsewhere

Viewing a digital world; the body is present while the mind is elsewhere

We have a legacy of digital arts that were often so focused on the technology that they failed to live up to the expectations of audiences.  One of the themes that permeated the Lumen Digital Art Seminar this year was, as Ed Bateman put it, that “technology should not be put ahead of what you want to say”, technology for its own sake is a dead end - it has to be about the content. What became clear in many of the artist talks, and in the works selected for the shortlist, was that the work was grounded in ideas and the digital technologies employed were simply a means to articulate them.

Technology is only worth using if, and when, it can be played to its strengths. As ubiquitous as it is, there is still scope for artists to create glitches in the system, to capture data whether on the small or large scale in order to illuminate, to reinvent or to represent realities in a way that make us rethink, rediscover and question what we think we know and what we perceive reality to be.

A series of talks by shortlisted artists and panelists gave insight into diverse practices and wide ranging uses of digital tools. Rachel Ara collected data surrounding the controversial death of artist Ana Mendieta. This data was fed into a computer programme to map the light at the exact location and moment her body was removed from the ground, recreating a scene that was never documented and pointing to the subsequent burial of information in a case of domestic violence/murder versus reputation. In Fifty Sisters Jon McCormack uses algorithms to simulate evolution and creation, splicing together the plants that formed our fossil fuels with the logos of the worlds’ largest oil companies to create pictorial hybrids.
The boredomresearch team of Vicky Isley and Paul Smith put technology to work in changing our time frames and perspectives; from the wonderful Snailmail where participants are invited to use a form of email powered by live snails to the award winning Afterglow where invisible malaria infection is illuminated, mapped through foraging animals to reveal the relationship between disease and its environment.
Sylvia Grace Borda presented Farm Tableaux, a pioneering series begun in 2004, in which she draws on a legacy of staged tableaux to push the boundaries of contemporary art photography. Working in collaboration with farmers and Google Street View, Sylvia gives us access to the raw, humanistic practices of farming and food production in Finland through our computer screens and mobile devices.

Virtual Reality in Contemporary Art
A panel of practitioners including Matteo Zamagni, Tom Szirtes, Ian Nicholls, Nick Lambert and chaired by Michael Takeo Magruder sought to explore the potential of a new wave of VR/AR and what the medium has to offer contemporary art. In the short time frame the panel managed to throw up more questions than it could answer, such as; how do you avoid an artwork becoming just another distraction? For my part I want to question the very idea of designing digital environments that will induce specific outcomes in the viewer. For me, it brings up all those same issues yet to be resolved by previous technologies (industries): context (agenda), power (ownership), control (trust) and authorship (representation). I can't help but ask the question given that the driving force behind developments in VR are the military and porn industries and because today we are again listening to an all male panel.

Where artists seek to create an ‘immersive’ experience, as Matteo Zamagni describes, in which “the audience is not passive but becomes part of the artwork’, I could argue that VR may provide less possibility for participation than other art forms. If you think about the amount of conjuring and active visualisation that goes on in your own mind when reading a book or listening to music, and compare it to the suspended reality in which your perspective and perceptive space is taken over by wearing a headset through which the visuals and audio are conjured for you. It struck me that in reading a book I have the space to participate in the narrative by creating my own pictures for what is described or conjuring the sound of a voice in my head. In the world of VR we are processing incoming material from unknown sources and as Zamagni pointed out our “sensors are only built to measure what is around us not to measure truth”.  Therefore these conjured realities may require a measure of caution and concern about the nature of the virtual environments we choose to place ourselves in.

Gustave Moreau -  a perfect metaphor for putting the experience ahead of the technolog

Gustave Moreau -  a perfect metaphor for putting the experience ahead of the technolog

Collecting and Curating in the Digital Age
A panel including Victoria al-Din, Ed Bateman, Carla Gannis, Poppy Simpson and chaired by Rachel Falconer, grappled with some of the issues thrown up by the preservation of immaterial and file based works. The fast pace of changing platforms, ownership and hardware make this issue more pressing for art that relies on external technologies or platforms for existence or storage. Practitioners like Carla Gannis suggest we should lighten up and embrace the ephemeral and the transience of the copy. Better still think creatively about how works can exist across platforms and in more than one context or form. Collectors and museums need to document the information required to run an artwork, a user manual or specification so that works can be repaired or recreated if necessary. Some works may simply be, of their time, and if taken out of context would cease to have any meaning.  

The issue of preserving artworks is not new. The Happenings in the 60’s and performance works in the 70’s and 80’s often went unrecorded and exist today only in the memories of those that were present and the odd piece of documentation in periodicals and personal archives. Artists and collectors may have to accept that some works are responding to a very particular window in time in our technological evolution. From a historical perspective Ed Bateman drew from the long history of the magic lantern and made surprising parallels with the early use of uncanny images and today’s iconography in the digital world “Devils and fairy worlds have become robots and alien planets”.  Perhaps we could learn something from the film industry, which hit Its “digital dilemma” some years ago. While studios prefer digital for exhibition, distribution and shooting, archivists prefer film stock, a far cheaper and more reliable option to store the moving image able to last several centuries without deteriorating.  

What we can be sure of is that the built-in obsolescence of much of our manufactured hardware and operating systems will impact on the durability of the digital art that is being produced today.  Other issues may be less predictable. Images on the cave walls of Lascaux lasted 35,0000 years but began to deteriorate as soon as humans changed the ambient atmosphere by their presence. Now closed to the public, the only way to see these ancient paintings is through documentary films, photographs and replica caves, throwing up a whole new dilemma about authenticity.

Digital Art in the Public Sphere
A panel including Sylvia Grace Borda, Sean Clark, Phil Dawson and chaired by Rachel Falconer examined how the nature of public art is changing. Digital technologies open up new possibilities to develop large scale projects in public spaces allowing artists and commissioners to think less about screens and more about manifestations in space. Versatile, entertaining, playful, technology gives us scope to develop modern day participatory spectacles where audiences can become part of the artwork.

Art always has an unknown future. There are plenty of examples of artworks, sculptures or memorials in the public realm that to subsequent generations came to be viewed as irrelevant or politically unacceptable - murals are covered over, and sculptures or statues removed. New material inventions were later discovered to be toxic or became brittle and disintegrated - it is all part of the changing fabric of the world we live in.

For artworks that interact, require power sources or external inputs, it is impossible to know if they will be able to function in the same way or for how long into the future. Artists, and those who commission and invest in public works of art, need to plan for this. Commissioned works that are intended as long term public works will need to factor in maintenance and support contracts with responsibilities defined and embedded in the plans or accept the cyclical nature of change. These are exciting times and the digital mediums do open up real possibilities for large numbers of people to collaborate on a single project or artwork capable of reflecting a moment in time drawn from a broader social and environmental context.

In summary, the seminar was a much needed and enjoyable event bringing together artists, theorists, educators, curators and technologists. Speaking to the main prize winner, Fabio Giampietro, it was interesting to see how his work as a painter had been expanded and made so much more powerful in the Virtual Reality piece Hyperplanes of Simultaneity. It made clear how powerful VR can be. Transference of fear from mother to artist became something that could be transferred to us. Is fear in our DNA or can it be transferred culturally; can we be made sensitive to or desensitised to such a thing as vertigo by proximity, shared experience or by putting on a head-set?

It is the shared experience that made this event such a delight: free, lively and in a great venue at Hackney House. It gave a context to the prize and to the selection of works that will now go on tour as well as stimulate debate and situate current ideas and histories around what is happening in the digital arts internationally. It was above all inspiring to see so many different disciplines and voices finding a digital path.  

If contemporary art has a cutting edge then surely it is the one where we are able to use the right tools, as we discover them, to enhance or unpick our experience of the world we live in. As artists our job is to draw attention to the unfamiliar, the invisible and the hidden and to communicate in the best way we can.

Article commissioned by the Lumen Prize for the Digital Art Seminar, Hackney House, September, 29 2016  Laura Hudson is a London based artist with a background in film and media curation.

Lumen Prize The Global award and tour for contemporary art that engages with digital technology.  

Image sources thanks to Ed Bateman whose research suggests this image was by Gustave Moreau - a redrawn version of the engraving appeared in the French publication: Magasin Pittoresque, 1849 crediting him.  It appears that variations of the image appeared widely in the 1800s.