Living in a Digital (Material) World

Within the ever developing digital world, one might predict that we’re becoming more and 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 masses. 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 (Frescos), 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.

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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?

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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 suggest 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 curriculums 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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Living in a Digital (Material) World

Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment

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Stephanie Lerner, SineSaloum, 2018, fishrope, plastic litter & epitonium shells. Courtesy of the artist.

The confluence of science, technology, and art offers an array of pragmatic and creative opportunities for future generations to make general improvements within the world we all share. One of the major issues that will affect generations in the not too distant future is the transformation of our waterways from being sources of life to being bodies of conflict. Our oceans, seas, rivers, etc. have been experiencing vast amounts of human-induced trauma for decades on end. Eventually, time will run out for these vibrant eco-systems, which sustain all life on this planet. For example, many waterways are overfilled with pollution from consumer goods such as plastic. If the current rate of plastic pollution, which ends up in the water is not ceased, there will actually be MORE plastic than fish in our oceans by the year 2050. This is obviously a devastating premonition for life as we know it on Earth. The reason we know the extent of this ominous information is due to advances in technology, which allows scientists to safely and effectively study the oceans and waterways.

Art is like science and engineering in that it is informed by inquiry based research, theory testing, and transformation of ideas or materials into something new. Artists, like scientists and engineers seek to develop profound responses to big questions. Artists have aligned their creative output with many major scientific issues since before the dawn of civilization. Our knowledge of human history and the natural environment were initially discovered through visual records evident from cave paintings depicting the inquisitiveness and experiential learning within pre-historic communities. Over time artists have helped us increasingly relate to our surroundings and develop innovative new ideas and products. For example, we see artistic innovation that informed scientific research inside the notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, through John James Audubon‘s colorful and accurate depictions of American birds, and in the development of urban agricultural environments like Mary Mattingly’s SwaleAlternatively, the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was just as innovative as a draughtsman visualizing the brain on paper as he was in studying the physical elements of the brain in his laboratory. In the case of all the above examples, visual art played an essential role in the synthesis of scientific discovery and innovation.

Today’s students will inherit a world that is in need of innovations that will ensure its salvation. Art centered education can impress upon students the need for environmental empathy by showing examples of how artists such as Sto Len, Steven HirschWilliam Miller, the Newtown Creek Armada, and Stephanie Lerner symbolize the effects of pollution as material or subject matter in their work. All at once, these works are aesthetically pleasing, romantic, tragic, and dire. They remind us that in life, death is always present and our struggle to create a beautiful world is interconnected to our mortality. However, there is also a great sense of hope to be gained by understanding that visual art has the power to incite change and impress upon people’s positive relationships with the world around them. These artists implore us to become better custodians of our natural resources so that we can sustain nature’s marvelous qualities for many generations to come.

Steven Hirsch and William Miller’s abstract photography, transcends the often negative description of the murky, dark, and slow moving water of the Gowanus Canal. Hirsch’s camera captures a brilliant spectrum of colors that reflect off the water’s surface, which immediately brings to mind the Impressionist works of Monet as well as Post-WWII color field painters. Hirsch’s photographs create an epic visual narrative, which is indicative of Greek mythology. Here, we see that beauty transcends the devastation that has overtaken the canal, and it is calling loudly to us for help. Similarly, the canal’s aesthetic properties becomes the inspiration for William Miller’s series of photographs. Miller photographs the Gowanus Canal in a manner where abstract forms are juxtaposed with recognizable imagery. Reflections of the clouds and sky are visible in some of the photographs, which transforms the viewer to an otherworldly state. It is hard to imagine the toxins below the surface, however, Miller subtly captures glimpses of refuse and sludgy textures to pull us back to reality.

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Works on paper by Sto Len on view at Volta NY, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Sto Len’s unique printmaking process, transports his practice from the studio environment into the heavily polluted waters of the Newtown Creek. He improvises on the traditional style of Suminagashi (floating ink) printmaking to develop an experiential collaboration and discourse with nature by dipping prepared paper into the creek’s heavily polluted waters, and using its detritus as material.

Through watching video installations and looking at documentation by the Brooklyn based art collective Newtown Creek Armada, students can analyze how artists realized a problem (extreme pollution in the Newtown Creek), developed their research, and sought to address this problem to the public.

Stephanie Lerner is an excellent artist that students can look to for inspiration on working with recycled materials in order to repurpose problematic pollution into an awe-inspiring solution that is both poignant in its message and visually stunning. Lerner combs the beaches and waterways for discarded plastic products and makes intricate works of art such as tapestries and mandalas, which she creates by weaving together plastic refuse and fishing line, a harmful pollutant that takes 600 years to decompose underwater. By cleaning the shorelines, Lerner is ensuring that the plastic washed onto the beach doesn’t return to the ocean, while also acquiring materials for her poignant yet beautiful works of art.

Valuable materials in the art room can be sourced by having the school community (teachers, parents, students) contribute plastic, paper/cardboard, and other refuse, which can be used for weaving, sculpture, collage, and printmaking projects. Traditional materials should ideally be substituted for earth friendly, recycled, and repurposed materials whenever possible.

Artistic learning has many benefits for inter-disciplinary innovation. When artists use their artistic knowledge and skills –put those elements of art and principles of design to practical use and transcend relying on traditional art materials (which can add to surplus waste and pollution as well– to seek to address big issues that affect our civilization, the results are transformative throughout our collective culture. Art influences society by raising our awareness, affecting our emotions, translating experiences across time and place, and giving us a sense of self within the world. When artists explore ideas and problems within other disciplines like science and technology, they can truly make essential contributions to the present and future stewardship of our environment.

Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art Pt.1 – Art and Ecology

Brandon Ballengée’s Love Motel for Insects is a great example of how contemporary art has the ability to enhance a K-12 curriculum that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) learning. Love Motel for Insects is an ongoing public art installation raising awareness about local ecosystems by connecting humans and nocturnal anthropods.

The nocturnal insects are attracted by UV lights, creating a performative scene when the sun goes down. These ‘social sculptures’ bring humans and insects together in an intimate setting and offers a unique opportunity to witness tiny and often elusive organisms in action. Ballengée accompanies these installations with talks and workshops for individuals and groups of all ages. Love Motel for Insects illustrates how we can use art in a non-intrusive manner to create something that gives us insight into the natural world.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art Pt.1 – Art and Ecology