The digital, in life as in art, has become an increasingly fluid factor, present in some quantity in virtually all our experiences and dominant in our most complex activities. Just as digital media are ever more present in some form or another in virtually every aspect of our lived experiences, from our phones to our cars to our sidewalks and our homes, so these new technologies create innumerable and interactive possibilities for aesthetic experimentation and expression. Digital art, the exciting, unpredictable set of works and practices that is continually expanding not only into the future and back to its origins, but also exploring alternate and virtual realities, can take almost any form. But what unites the photographs, prints, sculptures, installations, performances, videos, programs and video games that make up this heterogeneous category is an irrepressible desire to redefine the boundaries and parameters of art. In its tendency to incorporate elements of all other media, digital art enables them to operate in completely new ways.
And certainly, quite often, digital art does not announce its technological means outright. Famous photographers like Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky and Jeff Wall increasingly deploy digital means to heighten the emotional and aesthetic impact of their works. Julie Mehretu’s massive mixed media canvases are entirely dependent on digital imaging, planning and production technologies. Emerging young artists often play on this sometimes-imperceptible encounter between digital and analog materials: Tauba Auerbach, for instance, has made many expertly detailed and minutely crafted paintings and prints based on computer-generated images and patterns, while Cory Arcangel often creates bold, brilliant prints from digital compositions that evoke abstract minimalist paintings. Ken Feingold’s multimedia installations with sculpture and digital video, meanwhile, are often precisely concerned with this eerie encounter between the organic being and its digital double. Such artists use digital media to undermine any facile distinctions between the digital and the real, the hand-made and the technologically enabled, natural vision and mediated perception. Digital media, perhaps more so than any other type, have the capacity to fuse and redefine all other media indiscriminately.
The most adventurous digital artists, those who are continually pushing the discipline towards and beyond its boundaries, tend to make the mediated nature of their work plainly clear. In so doing, they challenge us to rethink our habitual modes of watching and using the technology perpetually at our fingertips. Brody Condon, for instance, recreates Renaissance and Old Master paintings of religious scenes with video game and social media platforms, crafting surreal, luminescent and animated tableaux. His digital revisions challenge the art historical status of the classical works by positing an equally stunning and stylized version, a tribute to the aesthetics of today and our period’s foremost systems of belief. This mix of humor and new media-aided self-inquiry reappears in the work of illustrator, painter and found image animator Mike Estabrook, particularly a series of mixed media works based on his Google image searches for subjects like “god” and “disaster.” By making such extremely impersonal yet highly personalized digital experiences into fully individuated works, he’s able to hone in on one of the potentially most revolutionary aspects of digital art: its capacity for interaction and customization. Digitally augmented installations and projections by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer are virtually meaningless until a viewer steps into them, thereby becoming active participants and performers in the work rather than passive observers. The cutting, clever and extremely idiosyncratic video game art of Mark Essen challenges our expectations of art in a different manner, collapsing high and low cultural categories of viewership by asking us to simultaneously become engrossed in an interactive game while remaining acutely aware of its careful artistry.
And this is precisely the source of digital art’s greatest strengths: it never leaves the viewer or user indifferent. By challenging us to participate and engage with the work, digital art takes on infinitely varied experiential properties. Whether exploring the elusive changes made to a digitally altered photograph or employing an intuitive interface to use and help shape a work, digital art offers new possibilities for the aesthetics and experience of contemporary art.
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This article was written for ARTmine by Benjamin Sutton.