We need to change the way we think about digital art

From video games to self-portraits in a new exhibition, How to win in photographyold ways of engaging with technology and art must give way to new forms of reflection and resistance

At first it was familiar. Familiar, like 2014. The list of artists for How to win in photography, an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery purporting to explore the connection between visual culture and play, is like the one I’ve seen before. In the first room are Cory Arcangel Super Mario Landscape 1 (2005, a Nintendo hacked to display only clouds and a road from the video game) and sculptures by Aram Bartholl, landscapes by Justin Berry from Call of Duty (2018) and Tabor Robak’s renderings of objects using software for designing video games (Rocks, 2011). The works of these artists have been exhibited side by side in the past. I’ve written about several of the featured artists, taught their works in post-internet art and new media courses, spoken with them at conferences.

In the early 2010s, I was a bit of a latecomer in this community: I’m not techy, after all, just nerdy. With a growing awareness among users, half a decade after the first wave of social media platforms, that the corporate structure of the Internet affects all users, there was an opportunity to present art that engages with technology in a way that was not specialized. Artists like Constant Dullaart – whose mediums included websites, routers and manipulated found images – produced work that was not only structural, but also critical, as if it could provide another perspective from which to understand the evolution of the digital landscape. No different from High retention, slow delivery (2014; featured here) – where Dullart’s narration speaks through a video showing various profiles of the 2.5 million fake Instagram followers he bought alongside his art world peers – they were direct, very specific in their visual and humorous language (“Slippers are ok on the balcony,” Dullaart’s 2014 “balconyism” manifesto explained).

Justin Berry, Mount Puncu2018 © the artist
Tabor Robak, detailed view of Rocks2011 © Tabor Robak

What happened next is more difficult to grasp. Much of what I needed to write then is evident today. So much has changed: the discourse around technology and privacy has been popularized; cryptocurrency and NFTs are now so big that I don’t need to explain how blockchain works anymore (so admit I don’t fully understand it). “Technology” seems useless as a separate or specific lens through which to view art. Over time, what looked like a specific scene or interest became the mainstream culture.

How to win in photography is not meant to be an exhibit on digital art and culture – in fact, the gallery guide only mentions the word “internet” once (as part of “internet cafe”, another relic ) – but it looks like it. The emphasis on play in the exhibition is not very well formulated. Instead, what viewers are left with is a loosely defined, old-fashioned relationship between technology, visuals, and gaming. There’s not a single mention of the Twitch streaming platform and how gamers l use to interact; there is a Nintendo (in Arcangel’s work) but not a PlayStation (although Harun Farocki’s Parallel series (2012-2014) deconstructing live gameplay is included). For an exhibition about games and images, a few landscapes based on video games seem like an old-fashioned approach that does not reflect the impact of video games on contemporary understanding of narrative play and spaces for artistic creation. This is a significant blind spot.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1975 © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of VERBUND COLLECTION, Vienna Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Some of the historic photographs in the exhibit, like Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits and Ed Ruscha’s photo book Twenty-six service stations (1963), stand out as examples of how discourse about images can be informed by photography. There is a direct influence: Lorna Ruth Galloway cites Ruscha’s photobook in her charcoal drawings of gas stations in Grand Theft Auto. The quote, finding the same visual subject in a virtual world, connects new media to art history in a way reminiscent of radicalism Twenty-six service stations was in 1963, a landscape of deliberate banality and repetition. Sherman’s self-portraits, in which she interprets various stereotypical roles attributed to women in society, are exhibited in a room dedicated to playing with identity. They inspire a better understanding of the works of young artists: Petra Szemán’s video series Monomyth: Gaiden (2018-2020) explore their own image via video game avatars, imagining them in different locations and scenarios as non-existent (or perhaps new) game protagonists. See it in the afterglow of Sherman’s feminist exploration of female identity, and the works will offer multiple versions of what images of women can be.

Petra Szeman, video excerpt from Initiation, 2019; from the Serie Monomyth: Gaiden, 2018–2020, digital video, sound, 12:58 min. Courtesy of the artist © Petra Szemán

After looking at art that asks critical questions about digital culture and technology for over a decade, I want to know more about how these works are framed. It’s not shocking for a museum visitor to see Instagram posts at the gallery, whether in the work of artists like Dullaart or Amalia Ulman (who is surprisingly absent here), but it’s a bit odd to see thumbnail lightboxes of tweets from 2017 (by the Russian Defense Ministry, sharing photographs that ‘prove’ that the US government was aiding ISIS; the photographs were actually from a weapon simulation video game fire and are reproduced here by the Fotomuseum Winterthur for the exhibition). We are becoming increasingly savvy about fake news, and Twitter is full of fact-checking threads. We may miss new tools, which is most evident in the work of Dries Depoorter and Max Pinckers, who, to build their Camera Trophy v0.9 (2017), fed a dataset of the photographs awarded World Press Photo of the Year to a machine learning algorithm. The result is that Malala Yousafzai’s portrait from 2011 is labeled “fashion, woman, model, pretty, glamorous” – the algorithm’s behavior may be telling, but it may hardly come as a surprise to most.

How to win in photography? The real winner of a quantifiable contest on this show is a picture of an egg. The @world_record_egg account started in 2019, its only goal being to break the record for the most liked image on Instagram – at the time, 18 million likes for a photo of Kylie Jenner. The egg has been liked 56 million times. It’s a joke – so playful – but maybe the laughs are a distraction from something very real. The gallery guide states that the egg’s success “can be read as a symbol of how the value of a network image is determined by its circulation.” In the early 2010s, the record egg would have seemed like an incomprehensible, or just insider joke, but now it’s an example of something that’s more often felt than claimed – that users are disenfranchised by line, and they embrace these small rebellions against a dominant culture that are created and enforced (subtly or not) by Big Tech, institutions, and governments. It’s a quietly special moment, in its own way, and if you see any digital space as a critical space, it’s clear that an egg photo can also be the occasion for what this exhibition does not. does not do enough: engaging with how our societies, increasingly dependent on and defined by digital tools, reflect – and resist – this domination, through art and other small acts of rebellion .

How to win in photography at the Photographers’ Gallery, until September 25

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