Art and Technology
A Language Cairn: Artists on Their Practice
Because this month I had the honor of acting as Guest Editor for the Critics Page, where I invited global curators and scholars to contribute a word they’d like to see or never see again in the discourse around art and technology, I thought I would develop this month’s column around the words that artists use and encounter about their practice—across media. So I asked them what silly, uncomfortable, or productive term they encountered. It could be something said to them or something they say to themselves. Leaving aside the linguistic debates around performative utterances, words act around art as a network of ideas, a system if you will, or a kind of scatterplot of imaginative relations.
I’ve mused since on why I requested one word when clearly any artist will have had said to them and themselves used so many words about their practice. That unconscious choice reflects a problematic encapsulating attitude, a kind of hierarchizing that suggests the most used, or first to mind, somehow signifies more. For this reason, I appreciated the photographer Sean Fader’s disregard of that limitation and offering of two words: confusion and magic. He finds audiences often experience confusion when he explains what the work is, how it works or is made. It’s the glazed eye that many artists recieve when they start to describe their technique. Sculptors describing a particular ceramics process will encounter the same distracted look from audiences (unless those audiences are curators, critics, other practitioners, or anyone who has a vested interest in understanding the process—and even then, it requires dutiful attention).
The challenge doesn’t have to do with technology, though typically associated with anything involving computers. Instead of focusing on technology, per se, I want to point us to that preceding word: technique, as in from the Ancient Greek tekne, a skilled making. Tekne is a form of knowing that comes from embodied practice. It is important because the making cannot happen except through that tekne, and when “people experience” the work, it seems as if “you are a magical sorcerer who conjured something from nothing (which is exactly what great artists do!),” explains Fader. Indeed, across myths and cultural beliefs the artist swings from incomprehensible to extraordinary. At both ends of the spectrum, the artist becomes an archetype of someone that others must struggle to understand. We look at these works in an effort to see something other than the mundane.
When I visited the painter Kylie Manning this spring, she was developing the paintings that would become the large scale backdrops for her collaboration with the choreographer and director Christopher Wheeldon for his latest work for the New York City Ballet. I moved around her small Bushwick studio noticing new touches in the broad brushstrokes that allowed a sense of movement, as if of winds and lives. She used the word pareidolia frequently, as does the light sculptor Leo Villareal. Pareidolia is that thing we all do with clouds, imagining meaningful patterns where there is only randomness. When the effect is carried off, the viewer gets suspended between hither and yon, freed of logical thinking for a moment. In the pressured demands of these times, for all of us rushing between paying rent and taxes, voting and debating, pareidolia permits a rest before continuing the good fight. It’s a chance to not get it all. No need to maximize or optimize.
Tamiko Thiel was an early practitioner of virtual reality, producing vast worlds to be experienced at your own time, pace, and volition. When a painting curator visited one day, she was startled that these spaces have so many “images” that a viewer might never see. Thiel had to explain to me that by “images,” the curator meant views around the space because if you didn’t look in a particular direction, you wouldn’t see that “image.” The story stuck with Thiel, unable to encapsulate it in one word, as an example of an unfortunate attitude towards art that expects to see it all, to know it completely, to consume it entirely. It does a disrespect to still works, as if the great ones don’t always have more to offer in no small part because who you are and what you can see or think or feel changes. That such an extractive gaze predominates in the arts does an equal disservice to what artists bring in their use of technology. They disrupt the targets constructed into user design in order to find porous possibility; they aren’t simply didactic exercises. They likewise produce strange yet familiar worlds with humor, pathos, beauty, and the uncertainty of being.
This might be marvelous for us but it can be a strange space to inhabit. It’s why I have always appreciated the correlations among the words media, medium, and mediating. The author André Aciman told me that you write to know what you think because the thought emerges from the writing. Whatever thought you thought going in will be transformed by the words themselves. The same way an artist’s sketch suggests but rarely encapsulates the important deviations that come from the process of making. After all, therein lies the tekne. Moving through that process can be exciting as well as frustrating and disorienting. It’s what the ethnographer Arnold van Gennep coined as ‘liminality’ for those people undergoing a rite of passage where they are “at once no longer classified and not yet classified, neither one thing nor another; or maybe both; or neither here nor there; or maybe neither […] a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise.”
The painter and video artist Chris Dorland works with paint and software, representation and abstraction, inhabiting what he calls a no man’s land: “I’ve spent most of my career, if not much of my life, feeling like a stranger in a strange land. And the world only seems to be getting weirder and more indeterminate by the day. That’s where I find meaning.” The painter Hell Gette, whose work often starts with plein air watercolor painting before playing with digital tools to translate a final product in oils, reiterated this: “back and forth between digital and analog, classic and zeitgeist techniques…I like the ambivalence.”
In our hybrid world of tangible relations and digital connections, traversing this space in art perhaps guides us through the “realm of primitive hypothesis, where there is a certain freedom to juggle the factors of existence,” as the anthropologist Victor Turner wrote in “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage.” It’s perhaps helpful to hold onto that. Gette offered a fused emoticon as the best descriptor of her practice.
In a similar vein, the artist Peter Wu+ who also runs Epoch Gallery, didn’t think words were the way. He kept coming back to this gif, excerpted from the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime video, which appears during the lyrics “same as it ever was.” Wu+ offered it as a cautionary tale. The trappings of known enclosures comfort. They provide recognition and honors. That kind of success succeeds at stalling efforts to escape the confounded social systems that aren’t what we want.
Word and character count limitations of so many information contexts, from twitter to grant and job applications, seem to be everywhere, determining how we say what we say and so imposing on the difficult conversations of our day. I was heartened when the artist Mitchell Chan specifically identified quantification as a “source of great anxiety” and wrote that:
50% of the way to completion, the numbers game begins. How many? What price point? What percentage split? In digital art, the preferred release mechanism over the past couple years has become ‘the collection.’ Not ‘the artwork.’ The collection is a numbers game.
When the collection is the focus, the market determines creative product—truly putting the cart before the horse. It compels artists to modify their ideas in favor of the algorithm. Noah Kennedy wrote in The Industrialization of Intelligence: Mind and Machine in the Modern Age (1989) that “to record and codify the logic by which the rational, profit maximizing decisions are made—manifests the process that distinguishes capitalism: the rationalization and mechanization of productive processes in the pursuit of profit.” There is no doubt that the arts are deep in this game, in no small part because so many governments and patrons shrink support unless provided with confirmed value return, relinquishing the discoveries that come from the uncertain process of real research and real creativity. What’s good for market reports is not necessarily good for the social fabric. Economic rationalizing, where all that a person is and does can and should be bought and sold, excludes the potential for any other type of relationship other than value exchange.
A tip of the hat to Chan for indicating his submission to my prompt was 96 words, thereby coyly indicating how I had reproduced this quantifying, reductivist engineering world view in requesting a limit of 100 words for their explanations. It’s the kind of wry humor evident in his art and immeasurably great. It turns the tables and allows the effort to continue. Humor upsets the superiority of Tragedy. Great comedians know how to talk about things that break our hearts, in a way that allows us to keep confronting them, and to not stop staring at what we would rather avoid. In the arts of the West, there is a predominant attitude that humor is less-than, partly stemming from the way Aristotle talked about theater. But Tragedy is about people with power who lose that power. Comedy, even though we don't have Aristotle's text, has always been about the mundane and those who don't usually have power stumbling through the impediments of powerful forces. I think that, in and of itself, makes Comedy incredibly political. Comedy is the art of the people as Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball well knew. The seriousness prevalent in the arts reinforces a set of ideologies that I think many of us don't actually agree with.
An artist whose prankster ploys with technology I have always appreciated, Siebren Versteg, wrote me with a tease:
I've always sort of resented the term digital artist. Though lately I find myself waking about two minutes before my alarm clock, regardless of time or location.
It’s a different read on the combination of the two words. Digital structures inform our days and so his wordplay reminds us not to become the machinic structure—it’s a tool after all. For the economist Thorstein Veblen, business is a means of self-aggrandizing whereas the industry of technology is a recurring encounter with human limitations. The Professor of Economics at Northeastern, Alan W. Dyer wrote 25 years ago about the absurdities that arise when business runs industry: “industry and technology are drawn away from their function of serviceability, lose their psychological role of impressing the limits of human purpose, and become implicated in the self-aggrandizing agenda of business enterprise.” Of course we are informed by our tools, that is intellectually and materially formed by them but that is not all, and we lose something important when we think our tools are all that we are.
Versteg’s point was not far from Mary Mattingly’s comment that her work has been described as absurd, with others believing she should be offended by that: “But, I also see it through that lens. The illogic in art is essential to my method, it allows me to provoke wonder and question what I see as established beliefs or values, or present a situation that defies logical explanation. When people ask, why? It can expand one’s perspective or perception.” I have a lot to say about the value of the absurd, which is so much more than the ridiculous, precisely for the way it puts logic in question and introduces the possibility and need for understanding through assorted structures of knowing.
I think that is partly why Haroon Mirza finds electromagnetism so provocative: “The wave function collapses when we observe it. Myriad art forms are a poetic observation of nature and yet for me, the most poetic thing about nature, until physicists perhaps unravel the mystery, is that waves turn into particles when we look at them.” How disruptive to have things be not as they seem. Libby Heaney spoke similarly about the notion of entanglement so crucial to her work with quantum computers. That wild quality came up with Nancy Baker Cahill, whose work she’s been told is Baroque perhaps for its “unbridled quality, imposing scale” but also perhaps because of its subversive roots. The weird and wonderful often comes from uncomfortable places whatever the practice.
The weird and wonderful presents challenges. That is why it’s worth including here the offering of Minne Atairu, whose AI generated images at the start of this column push at all that AI still can't do. Her word was Ethics, explaining “Given the recent call for an AI Moratorium, I hope that my colleagues in the Art and Tech space start paying closer attention to ethical issues related to Generative AI.” Ethics are about principles for behavior. What was acceptable for so long, no longer is and that requires reconsidering the rules that have governed so much. When we can see new things, we garner new insights too.
All the words artists shared with me seemed to be about the liminal space of their work no matter what their practice and medium. The concerns of artists are the same—to share something about the world beyond what can be summed by language and logos.
Monologuing about all this to Tim Kent, painter and patient husband to my thought, he replied that what most runs through his head in the studio is “KISS” as in the acronym for “keep it simple stupid,” which made me laugh given the incredible intricacies of his work with the geometries of perspective. And yet, simplicity is a counterbalance to the baroque, to the entanglement we experience. Across the varied medium of practice, these artists' words spoke to the mediation of their work—the being here and there that they aim to assemble through an object or experience, the complexity they hold for a moment so that we can see it. Artists and curators risk a great deal when they gather the strands of our experience so that we can examine it. It's inevitable that they will sometimes err. But to err is human, an opportunity for us all to learn, and perhaps a not insignificant part of the gift economy that the arts still offer.
These words are placeholders. They will change, or change meaning. They are a cairn for this moment. With that in mind, I'll close with these words from “Quotation and Originality” by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone; yet he is no more to be credited with the grand result than the acaleph which adds a cell to the coral reef which is the basis of the continent.