Living in a Digital (Material) World

Within the ever developing digital world, one might predict that we are becoming more untethered from material constraints. This was the premonition that the architect Nicholas Negroponte made in 1995. Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop per Child Association, was certainly correct in his assessment that we have become a collective culture under the influence of digital technology. It can be argued that throughout the world we are experiencing a Digital Colonization, a new empire that is ruled by mass media’s effect on the minds of the populace. In other words, digital technology has shaped the way we think, consume, produce, and act on a daily basis.

This is not to suggest that technology is an evil force that needs to be eradicated. It is obvious that advances in technology and industry have had overwhelmingly positive effects on society. Art for example has always been at the forefront of technological advances to the way we communicate and express ourselves repletely. Some examples of art-based technological breakthroughs throughout history include the invention of a process that permanently adheres paint to walls (frescoes), the creation of depth on a two dimensional surface (one point and two point perspective), and immersive interactive experiences such as 3D animation, video art, and virtual reality. Artists who embraced technology early on became innovators of their field. For example, the Impressionists’ acceptance of the newly invented portable paint tubes allowed them to paint en plein air (outdoors). Nam June Paik couldn’t have become the “Founder of Video Art” without the innovative explorations, discoveries, and insights being made in the telecommunications field at the time. In fact, Paik is often credited for his innovated concepts in the field of telecommunications and for using the phrase “electronic superhighway” in his 1974 proposal “Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society – The 21st Century is now only 26 years away,” Paik stated that:

“The building of new electronic super highways will become an even huger enterprise. Assuming we connect New York with Los Angeles by means of an electronic telecommunication network that operates in strong transmission ranges, as well as with continental satellites, wave guides, bundled coaxial cable, and later also via laser beam fiber optics: the expenditure would be about the same as for a Moon landing, except that the benefits in term of by-products would be greater.”

Contemporary artists have continued to utilize advancements in technology and digital material as inspiration and subject matter. By doing so, they develop contemplative and intimate responses that are based on the human experience in relation to the ever-changing world around them. Some artists use digital technology to comment on pop-culture such as Cory Arcangel, who appropriates aesthetic and other sensory elements from digital technology such as old cartridge video games or Photoshop’s preset color gradients. He re-contextualizes existing digital media in order to construct new experiences and narratives for the viewers of his work. Below is an example of Arcangel’s twist on the traditional Super Mario Bros. (1985) game for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). In Super Mario Movie (2005), Arcangel distorted the familiar video game environments to both confound Mario, the protagonist in the game world, as well as us, the viewers in the real world. This surreal and existential exercise leaves us with far more questions than answers. However, we have the capability to construct our own interpretations. By now, images from early NES games like Super Mario Bros. have become archetypal imagery for several generations. Just like the artists of the past were painting religious iconography, a contemporary phenomenon of their time, a generation of artists today are depicting characters from their favorite video games and animated cartoons.

In her paintings, drawings, and films, Debora Hirsch juxtaposes contemporary and historical archetypes from the internet and pop culture to comment on how society fragments reality.

Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 6.58.55 PM
Screenshot from http://www.donotclickthru.com

Hirsch’s ongoing series donotclickthru is an interactive website featuring a series of traditional drawings that combine popular and imagined imagery with philosophical statements or media headlines that have been created by mass marketers as click-bait. The drawings are presented one-by-one and the viewer must click on the current image to move on to the next one, an existential activity that traps us in a surreal environment full of Internet ephemera. The series explores how clicking through random images presented often in the form of a meme or a thumbnail advertising sensationalized media articles is both exquisite and meaningless. Are we gathering significant information that will inform us of our place in the world or are we wasting our precious time scrolling through the endless content of the World Wide Web?

Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 6.47.15 PM

In the painting above, Hirsch blurs the line between fine art and online advertising by depicting Andy Warhol shopping for cans of Campbell’s Soup above a headline that reads “25 Reasons Your Life May Change At The Supermarket.” This painting provides a witty innuendo, which speaks largely about our culture as consumers. Warhol, known for portraying common place objects as works of art, is most famous for his series of Campbell’s Soup cans, which he painted verbatim based on the large variety of canned soup flavors the company manufactures. Therefore, you could argue that the supermarket elevated his career to epic heights (he also appropriated Brillo boxes, another supermarket item, as sculptures). Today’s generation of consumers were brought up on Pop-Art imagery used by advertisers to sell their brands. It is often hard to tell what is art and what is an advertisement because fine art imagery has seamlessly permeated our visual culture and has been manipulated by corporations and media outlets to generate revenue. Hirsch’s work asks us to question what we know about the world around us. What is fact, fiction, art, or advertisement? How can we tell? Being conscious and critical of the ways Digital Colonization is altering our general perception within society at large is important in order for us to be liberated and rational citizens.

STEAM based curricula in today’s schools are developing tomorrow’s digital entrepreneurs. Regardless of whether students go on to become techies or teachers, embracing technology is paramount to their ongoing success. However, it is important that while they’re learning the benefits of digital media, they are presented with a critical dialogue regarding responsible and ethical practices for using digital platforms. Educators should have students scrutinize different media reports and stories in order to develop their abilities to fact check information and discern between “Sponsored Content” and real investigative reporting. They should also be engaged in discussions regarding fair use of media and the differences between appropriation and plagiarism. Having students analyze works by contemporary artists like Arcangel and Hirsch will express to the students that artists can take on an important societal role by re-presenting archetypal imagery and text in order to make powerful statement about our collective culture.

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