Atoms to bits – digital arts between remediation and revolution

February 27 2013

This text was written for, and first appeared on Artup!, Media Art in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, a project by the Goethe Institute.

As our world becomes increasingly digital, the term digital art, when not properly understood, becomes a meaningless label that can be applied to ever-larger sections of the arts practice. So what does it mean for art to be digital?

The broadly accepted definition of digital art is that it includes any work of art that uses digital technology in at least one of three different ways. The first is when the ‘product’ itself is digital, as is for example the case with software art or net art. The second is when digital technologies are used as part of the process; when the artwork in question has been produced by or with the aid of digital technology. Examples would be the use of computer-aided design software or digitally-controlled 3D printers. Lastly, any work of art that treats the topic of digital technology and its impact on art and on society as a whole, is often included in a wider definition of digital art.

The problem with this definition is that, in today’s society, this would include all but the most traditional works of art as digital art. If the term is to continue to have any meaning, we should re-examine its definition in the light of technological and social developments. In order to do this, we’ll first take a step back and look at how new media, the predecessor of larger category of art that digital art belongs to (depending on the precise definition one uses), relates to analogue media.

Remediation

In their 1999 book Remediation – Understanding New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin wrote:

We … argue that these new media are doing exactly what their predecessors have done: presenting themselves as refashioned and improved versions of other media. Digital visual media can best be understood through the ways in which they honor, rival and revise linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print. No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces. What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media. (Remediation, pp 14-15)

In other words; new media first and foremost attempts to replace older media in a transparent fashion, trying not to emphasise the difference in media, but to present a similar experience. One example would be the replacement of traditional film with high-definition video in cinema halls. At the same time, by doing so, new media cannot help but change or modify the experience of the old media, thereby forcing the old media to redefine itself. Such remediation often occurs at multiple levels at once. Bolter and Grusin’s reading of Jeffrey Shaw’s The Legible City (1989) for example, is that of a remediation of both television and the book: “it makes television interactive, while making reading into a three-dimensional experience.” (Remediation, p 144)

Bolter and Grusin’s remediation points to an inheritance of ideas, concepts, attitudes and topics in new media and thus in digital art. Digital art, like all other forms of new media art, has indeed inherited many of its central concerns, ranging from the use of ideas or information as a medium, political and social critique, or an opposition to commodification of art, and an often anti-commercial aesthetics, to the conceptual art and fluxus movements of the 1960, which in turn built on the work of Marcel Duchamp, starting with his 1917 piece Fountain, and the Dada movement. In addition, digital art, as a time-based art-form, is also solidly rooted in the practices of experimental film and, by extension, of video-art. As we will see, this is for a very specific reason.

Inside and outside

Digital art articulates those familiar ideas and concerns in ways that are specific for digital media. Robert Moog, one of the inventors of the synthesizer, described this process in an interview for the film Modulation, as follows:

“At the beginning, I think everybody outside of the electronic music field thought that synthesizers were supposed to imitate traditional instruments. The people who were inside electronic music wanted to use the synthesizer to make completely new sounds. […] Nonetheless, people just made this assumption that synthesis was about imitation, I think to a certain extent they’re still making that assumption, although most musicians today gravitate towards the sounds that synthesizers are particularly good at.”

The value of bits

In the pre-digital, industrial age, companies and artists alike produced atoms that were intended to be shipped and sold. The limitations that atoms imposed, such as the difficulty involved in modeling and moving them, formed a large part of what defined the value, often not just financial but also artistic, of these products.

As we move into a digital world, value is no longer derived from atoms, but from what is stored in the bits. In a 1995 article entitled “Bits and Atoms” for Wired Magazine, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, comments on the difficulty of that transition when he talks about his visit to an integrated-circuits manufacturer. During the sign-in process, he was asked about the value of the laptop he carried with him. Negroponty’s reply that it was worth “roughly US$1 to $2 million” was met with great disbelief. To the receptionist, the laptop was worth no more than the replacement value of its atoms, not the value of the information stored in its bits.

It is through this movement of value into bits that the question of what it means to be digital becomes inescapable to any digital art work. Whether we look at JODI’s out of control technology, or Robert Lazzarini’s 3D prints of computer-distorted everyday objects and even human skulls, digital art fundamentally questions our basic assumptions about this technology and the unspoken agreements that define our relationship with it. It is in this critique that the central concerns of digital art we mentioned earlier find a logical form.

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