I’m quickly approaching the end of my first year of my graduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. As the closing of this semester draws near, I can’t help but reflect on my evolving situation within the department, my decision to come here, the response of my peers to the “fringe” work I’ve been making, and the overall sentiment of graduate studies at a large state university.
I’m going to try and keep this personal, keep it close, keep it within a certain self-check. If I allow myself get into the problematics of university politics, bureaucracy, hidden agendas, and overall funding problems, then I would not actually get to the heart of why I am jotting these thoughts down – and truthfully, just pointing to these obvious problems is enough of a “rant” to suffice their worth/attention.
Instead, I want to talk about the nagging problem I’m encountering being the only “dedicated digital art” graduate students within the department (there is another, but he is doing more painting/drawing at the moment). One problem is that I never would self-describe my work as being “digital art.” This is not to say that my work cannot be considered as such, but because of the limitations that this definition creates it forces myself and – perhaps more importantly – my peers to approach my work with the burden of this label. In essence it constricts the conversation of my work to a medium that I don’t feel incredibly bound to. I don’t think that this disparity between the department you are in and your given medium is particularly rare in academic environments, but because technology and arts have so rarely been combined within an art specific department (i.e., not in labs like your MIT’s ITP’s and RPI’s), this disconnect is particularly contentious.
This categorization predetermines the kind of production, presentation, and distribution of my work, both conscious and unconsciously. I don’t know how many times I have had the field the “who is your audience” question. I find this query to be such a quick default used in order to avoid the actual content or concept of a work (and now that I write it down, I hope to never use it). Some of this lack of patience or unwillingness to invest in digital work is evidence of peers discomfort with working outside of their comfort zone – a result that appears to come from the relative absence of physicality or object-making that occurs in my practice. I’ve got into the habit of replying to this frequent inquiry with, “[My audience/s is/are] people that use the Internet.”*
Digital/net-based artists of the 90s and early 2000s took the criticism above as a starting point for the creation of their work. When work on the net/computer/screen was seen as an adverse territory for artists and curators to critically examine, some artists responded by making the frontier appear as dangerous and hostile as possible (JODI and Screenfull.net are immediate examples that come to mind). Where previous makers made their aesthetic and content harsh – a critical location where glitch artists continue to inhabit – I’ve instead tried to filter this aggression through a simplification of toolsets as well as a willingness to engage in more popular forms of net-use.
The paranoia of those early moments online has been usurped by the false transparencies of social networking and the frivolity of lolcats. Although big fans of both, the current macros of double rainbows and philosoraptors are probably doing little to help the cause of taking the net seriously as an artistic medium, at least for those that strictly abide to traditional commercial art systems.
Something I’ve found within the hesitations I’ve experience lies in the fundamental utility that the web facilitates in everyday communication. In this case my peers might see a fault, whereas I interpret a strength; what better mechanism/space to employ in an artistic repertoire than one that is used so widely. I think the more straight forward question that peers want to ask is, “So what? What makes this Art?” Although I’m not convinced that is equally a worthwhile question (because it leads to the same kind of immediate dismissiveness and lack of critical examination of content), I do think that it is at least more charged.
I remember two separate occasions when this question was put forward by audience members in lectures/presentations by JODI and Cory Arcangel (both event occurring at the very well curated Conversations at the Edge series organized by Amy Beste). In the first instance the question was more directly about how JODI’s Wolfenstein mods were identical to the mods of other artists and members of the game-mod community, and how this closeness in proximity to non-art was a problem. They simply replied that they didn’t see it that way. They emphasized the fact that they were talking as much to the art community as they were talking to the modding community. Because their mods were relatively unplayable, the modding community didn’t respond as enthusiastically as the art community (an example of utility removal as a signifier for artistic worth). In the second example, Cory conceded that he would never outsmart or create a more profound work than the average 13 year old. He continued to say that his intention was never to privilege himself over an already existing community that would ultimately be able to respond more quickly and more adeptly than he ever could. As an artists, he was only ever able to play catch-up.
I have an anecdote that I often tell when I’m experiencing the problem of surmounting the reservation of my peers: When I first came to school, within the first month or so I invited a sculpture professor to come have a studio visit with me (it should be noted that this professor has been very supportive and is now on my committee). We briefly met before our formal visitation just to iron out time and details when she said very candidly, “OK, so you’ll have to take it relatively slow with me, since I’m still very much a newbie when it comes to this digital stuff.” I quickly smiled, slightly foreseeing the potential of such a statement and answered, “Sure thing, I’ll just talk about it like it’s Art.” At first a flash of confusion came across her face, but then a small grin crept in as if to say #ISWYDT.
To get back to the initial premise of these notes, I write and talk – a lot (but not nearly as much as I’d like, right?). And even though the reason for my gregariousness comes from a place of sincerity and general intrigue into the work of my immediate (and distant) peers, I continually come into conflict with appearing either as a threat or a show-off. To talk in a critique (and this is both from the perspective of a student and a teacher) is a way for one to acknowledge the potential for a shared dialog. Talking also notifies a fellow artists that they are accomplishing one of the fundamental qualities of artistic production: communication. Being able to immediately go through that hurdle with others while you both are attempting to hone craft, technique, content, and delivery can lead to a powerful sense of community and shared experience.
With these in mind, I’ve recently taken to humor, wit, and self-criticism as a way of combating or subverting the material/immaterial boundaries that occur within my own visual practice (boundaries that I still think are more self-imposed than dictated by any given form). Humor, as has been said numerous times, is a great equalizer. Likewise, wit can ground critical discourse because it is an interruption, a quick and instantaneous interjection, a destabilizer, a disarming tactic to be used to remove an otherwise restrictive – and unfortunately arbitrary – guard. Unlike simple funniness, however, wit requires a deep knowledge of your scenario. General humor isn’t always apropos and since wit requires timing it is a more effective critical tool. If one is to employ wit at all one must take stock of their moment or their situation in order to properly shake off that layer of conservatism that usually comes between mediums and their cross-disciplinary conversation.
*AS I FINISH THIS EDIT, Caitlin Denny of jstchillin sez: I was somewhat blind, and probably still am, to who our audience is. I imagine it is mainly people involved in an online art community of sorts, but I frequently get hints and clues to other worlds of people who see the site. I like this ambiguity, that’s what the internet is to me. I don’t want to know facts or numbers, I want to keep the internet wild and mysterious…