Bhavani Esapathi: ‘What makes a practice digital?’

Robert Clark in the most recent edition of Corridor 8 makes two rather interesting statements. It’s titled ‘Dirty Pictures in a Golden Frame?’ and before I even start with what is interesting about this piece, I need to point out that Clark’s article is the first one you’ll find in this edition and the title of the work is indeed a question as opposed to an affirmation. To me, this signifies a positive hesitance.

Now for the two interesting statements, Clark is attempting to trace possible “Sheffield characteristics as they seem to emerge, amongst others of course, in the work of three or four predominantly Sheffield-based artists” and makes an argument “that the city has inevitably left its indelible mark on the look and feel of their considerable achievements, its smudgy fingerprint”. Once we reach towards the end of the article, something rather remarkable occurs, Clark concludes by saying “yes, dirty pictures are created here. It’s some place nowhere special, yet I am willing to bet highly momentous if half-hidden goings-on go on here. It might just as well be Sheffield as anywhere”.

The reason I chose this article is precisely for these two contradictory statements, which at the very end seem to hold together the entire meaning of the article. Clark admits that the city, or the space inevitably does leave its smudgy fingerprint, however after much deliberation equally believes that it just as well be Sheffield as anywhere else. This implicit contradiction brings forth one of the fundamental problems that artists today need to address; contextualizing their works into spaces. One of the questions we need to ask is, why the sudden need of this separation between space and work? And this is where my intervention, sort of intervenes if you will.

I am primarily going to be looking at how the notion of digital technologies has infiltrated our lives just over a few years, dramatically altering many of our perceptions. In order to do this, I am going to be principally drawing from two main concepts; Digital Natives by Mark Prensky (2001) and Wikipedia Art (2009).

Prensky, in many ways is seen to have pioneered the understanding of a Digital Native.

In effect, Prensky is putting forth an argument for a generation that not only utilizes these technologies differently but also thinks and reacts to them, as an organism that is softly evolving. A digital native is one who has developed a natural predisposition towards technologies, the idea of something natural attached to technology is what intrigues me about Prensky.

Wikipedia Art at its birth is viewed as an art intervention even before it qualifies to be a form of art, simply because the idea of art inherent within Wikipedia is an intervention at heart. “Wikipedia Art is a conceptual artwork composed on Wikipedia, and is thus art that any one can edit” and it defines art intervention as “an interaction with a previously existing artwork, audience or venue/space”.

I’m sure by now we can see why these two concepts become important to analyze artistic practice. “The ubiquitous presence of internet technologies, in our age of digital revolution, has demanded the attention of various disciplines of study and movements for change around the globe. As more of our environment gets connected to the circuits of the World Wide Web, we witness a significant transformation in the way we understand the politics, mechanics and aesthetics of the world we live in” says Nishant Shah, the director of Centre for Internet and Society.

Amidst this growing generation of digital natives, and the changing notions of our everyday life the idea of space is liberally conflicted. Because much of our understanding of digital natives requires the mediation of technologies, it is often debated to be opposed to ‘real life’, physical or geographical space and the like. The activity of digital natives is also widely ambiguous, in terms of a realized effect. However, with much of our interaction now served through the digital media it becomes necessary to not simply suspect what this media is doing to us but also question what is the ‘digital’ really?

Artists have longed move from practicing within their region or country and have even moved continents in several cases, and the idea of space has been getting far more complex than before. In recent times, with the digital intervention space is complicated in two folds; space in its physicality and space as space itself. Digital spaces pride on the fact that it doesn’t succumb or limit itself to one space. Under these circumstances, for artists to defend their work in a confined space is crucially suspected.

Of course, one might ask ‘Why do I need to defend my work? I have no intention of submitting my work to digital reality’. The answer to that would simply have to be that it doesn’t necessarily matter if one wishes to participate within the dynamics of digital functioning, but one is invariably thrown into the politics of a digital life with or without ones consent, also giving into the politics of digital aesthetics.

More than 85% of the worlds population are now digital natives and the first and foremost source of information for digital natives is through the internet. Which means that even before someone cares enough to go to a gallery, they would first dig for information about the gallery, artist, collections etc on the internet before actually deciding whether or not they want to plan a visit. This new phenomenon, provides an exciting new intersection to the binary dialogue between spaces and works with artists, artists now also have to deal with this space that is essentially problematic at its best.

Esther Weltevrede, a digital theorist has boldly stated that “the digital is not the virtual”, she goes onto imply how digital intersects between the virtual and the real and is a realm of its own and therefore demands to be understood as such. My primary question is: has not art already done that? Art has forever been playing with spaces, creating its own clusters of space within spaces, problematizing what space is. In which case, my question of ‘what makes a practice digital?’ will have to be reformulated, posed in a more appropriate manner. It can no longer be what makes a practice digital but how is this practice digital? And it would have to be tailored for each individual practice than creating a generic ideation or application.

Examples such as Wikipedia Art are showing us, almost like a skeleton of artistic practice, to invite participation within the works through the audiences without giving away much of the artist’s inclinations. The digital isn’t a completely novel approach to art, but it brings out the history and meaning behind what is art and what it means to hold an artistic practice?

Its representation on a practical level is the result that lead to Wikipedia Art, Artist, theorist and professor Curt Cloninger “argues that Wikipedia Art not only intervenes in Wikipedia and the discourses of art, but also into online models of knowledge and debate more generally”. Therefore, it performs the function of art in a societal level by questioning more than what is just considered as art within a digital society, that is an extension of our ‘other’ society anyway.

I go back to Robert Clark’s piece, and completely side with him on presenting to us with such a contradiction, that a space is both essential and not. Clark writes the practice of art, the practice of being digital, the digitality of art that isn’t merely digital however, which has always never ceased being one.

Bhavani Esapathi delivered a version of this paper at the occursus/plastiCities/Art Sheffield Symposium (University of Sheffield) on June 29 2012.

Bhavani Esapathi has an undergraduate degree in Journalism, Psychology and English Literature from India. After which, she completed a masters degree in Cultural Studies in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. Her primary research interests involve the ever-new conception of Digital Spaces. Having worked for a project at the Centre for Internet and Society in India, she now does freelance work for The Henry Moore Institute and other respected gallery spaces around Yorkshire. She is intrigued by the realm of digital spaces and probes the ‘meaning’ of being digital in our everyday life.

One thought on “Bhavani Esapathi: ‘What makes a practice digital?’

  1. Leon Tan Leon Tan, PhD, is a media-art historian, cultural theorist and psychoanalyst based in Gothenburg, Sweden. He has written on art, media, globalization and copyright in journals such as CTheory and Ephemera, and curated media-art projects and art symposia in international sites such as KHOJ International Artists’ Association (New Delhi, 2011), ISEA (Singapore, 2008) and Digital Arts Week (Zurich, 2007). He is currently researching media-art practices in India, and networked museums as an expanded field of cultural memory making.

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