“I should like to wake up in a hundred years’ time and to have just a peep out of one eye at what is happening in science.” – protagonist Nicolai Stepanovich in Anton Chekhov’s A Dreary Story
I‘d like to just start with a little piece of housekeeping. I was delighted to learn this weekend that Moon Under Water is a finalist in the Best Arts / Culture category at the Blog Awards Ireland. Thank you to all readers and to the judges of the awards – I will notify through here and through the blog’s social media pages of the final results after the awards ceremony on October 13th. Please click here for a link to all finalists in all categories, and give all the other blogs a look over – there is some terrific stuff in there.
I recently read an article in Art Forum magazine online entitled Digital Divide by Claire Bishop. The in-depth piece deals with the shortcomings of the age of the digital within the world of contemporary art. With sound philosophical and art historical reasoning throughout, the conclusion that Bishop arrives at is rather interesting as it suggests a dichotomy of futures for the world of visual art. Echoing the 1980s doomsday art critics, the piece argues that either the digital age will herald a new dawn in the way art is viewed and produced, or it could mean the end of art altogether.
Something puzzling about the digital age that I often muse over is what trace will be left behind for future historians to mull over. Today our historical record is mostly taken from the artefacts, art, tools and architecture of past generations. It is the little grains of past civilisations that give us some form of understanding of their culture or group identities, as well as their level of technological advancement.
One of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries that has been uncovered was the Antikythera mechanism. This seemingly innocuous piece of ancient Greek engineering, named after the sunken ship that it was discovered upon in 1901, was discovered to have been an advanced clockwork-style mechanism designed to work as an astronomical clock. Built in the 1st Century BC, the design and style of the machine were far more advanced than other artisan works of the time, and similar devices were not built again until around 1500 years later, in the middle ages.
In essence the Antikythera mechanism represents one of the earliest analogue computers built in the world. The fascinating piece of machinery still remains as a puzzling artefact to this day, both due to the incredulity of its complex mechanics (see CT scan above) and due to the mystery of whether there were more, similar pieces made around this period, over 2000 years ago. It is only in the last forty years that researchers have begun to realise what the mechanism was designed to do, and how accurate it was in performing its task.
The mystery surrounding the Antikythera machine raises questions about our own contemporary digital culture, and what record we might leave behind. Presuming that digital advancement will keep moving in a similar direction, at a similar pace, then the SD cards and circuit boards of modern times should probably be easily interpreted by future cultures. But what happens if, as the ancient Greek philosophers believed, history moves through a cyclical routine and we enter some form of dark age in the future, where much of what was invented in the 20th and 21st centuries is lost to history?
It is here that our contemporary historical record becomes extremely important. As previously stated, it is through studies of past artefacts and architecture that we learn about the cultures that came before us. So without the reference of the “digital age”, it may take a long time for future civilisations to comprehend the function of objects that we consider simple, everyday items like mobile phones. Even if a future culture did discern the function of the built-in antennae etc., it is unlikely that they would discover easily the role of applications, and the vast diversity of function that a smart-phone has.
Post-Fordlandia, a video art piece by artists Megs Morley and Tom Flanagan (preview below) takes the viewer on a video trip through Fordlandia, a town built by Henry Ford in the Amazon jungle in 1927. The town was built to be a utopian paradise in the rainforest. It was planned so that Ford could ship his own supply of rubber from the material-rich area. The project was an eventual failure, and was sold off by Ford’s son in 1945. Today it is an abandoned site. The bizarre feeling of this out-of-place town is recorded in Morley and Flanagan’s video.
Architectural anomalies like this could cause even more consternation for future archaeologists than any digital device might. As we still discover ancient cities in South America even today, it would be interesting to see what historians would make of Fordlandia, an American-style town built in the middle of the rainforest in Brazil. It would probably be almost as puzzling as future archaeologists uncovering the ruins of Disneyland, with its pseudo-castles, giant plastic sculptures of mouse and dog demi-gods and unintelligible mine-shaft style tracks that move in circles and have long roped-off areas extending up to them.
So what of the future of digital art? The blindingly obvious central element of digital art is how transient it could potentially be. We are all far too aware of the short life-span of digital devices, so if the cultural artefacts of the twentieth century take a major shift toward the digital what trace might we leave behind? And what trace might not be left behind at all?
So maybe Claire Bishop’s apocalyptic view of the art world might not be too far wrong, at least in terms of the record that will be left behind from this era. Maybe there really is a dichotomy over whether or not technology will “end” art, but it might be more about an end in history, or the beginning of a brand new epoch.
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