Exhibition Commentary: notes on the medium

The Calling project frames its residencies in terms of human rights, the politics of representation and the consequences for any identified group of being excluded from society’s public spaces. The web is a public space, though a very weird one; an actual, though not physical, location, that conjures its own imaginary and contested communities (to quote a familiar concept) to make a sort of doubling of virtuality. Of course, the legitimacy of any group’s right to public space, including majority groups, is and always should be arguable. Calling makes a contribution to this argument.

The question “What is digital art?” is informed by a great many competing, if not downright contradictory, agendas. The artists who applied to Calling had to have a developed practice, not necessarily in digital media. The selection panel tended to prefer proposals that were open and questioning, and by chance, the preferred proposals were all by women. A painter, a writer and a filmmaker, all three have produced cross-media work using digital technology as a tool rather than as an end in its own right, as the paintbrush rather than the paint, integrating it's use into their own mature practices. The challenge has been to make it expressive enough, in comparison with their other familiar tools, to be worth the trouble of learning.

People come into the practice of making art with digital technology from Maths, from music, from programming, from Fine Art, from multi-media or cross-media practice, and from community media practice. All of these disciplines trail rather different sets of ideals behind them, and these different approaches may contain assumptions about art, innovation and value that frankly contradict each other. So once the work is out in the public arena, what measures of quality come into play?

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Every expressive artform propagates a culture around itself, a constellation of ideas and expectations that evolves constantly, generatively; and that creates an ongoing dynamic of interpretation around the work. Digital technology simulates and integrates earlier technologies so well, it can be difficult to understand that it operates on an audience rather differently than those earlier technologies do; the differences may be on some levels very simple, and simplicity is one of the hardest things to grasp and analyse. For instance - and I use this example because our artists mostly chose to work with moving image - digital moving image work approximates closely to film yet is not viewed, shared nor experienced in the same way that film is. It is understood and read differently.

Film is a medium with it’s own particular history and culture and rules of interpretation. The grammar of consecutive imagery that produces meaning and a sense of time in film has well-established conventions that are immediately understood by an audience. Digital moving image, like film, may be viewed in the cinema. However, the primary mode of viewing is on a monitor screen. Influenced by this context, the viewer brings a certain predisposition to associativeness, a kind of underlying awareness of hypertextuality (that is, an awareness of the possibility of taking a discursive, self-directed meander through the text, and of diverging into different texts entirely), to the interpretations they may make.

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Another difference between viewing digital moving image and film is that the experience of viewing a monitor is so very much more intimate and personal than the highly ritualised spectacular communal event of going to the cinema. Engagement with the monitor screen, being a singular activity, usually takes place in a bubble of privacy. This also affects the way the viewer absorbs whatever it is to be communicated. The paradox is that the user experience of computer technology, so very highly individualised and personalised, evokes the idea of an extensive, dispersed network of viewers, or public, that is much more widespread than that evoked by cinema, and this public's engagement nevertheless is an essentially private and informal activity.

The multi-media capacity of the computer, and I’m thinking particularly of the integration of text with imagery on an equal footing, can also disturb the expectation of a purely visual logic when viewing digital moving image, that one would normally bring to the cinema. Thus expectations with regard to appropriate visual quality have already been disrupted.

The result of all of this is that digital moving image can either assume the visual conventions of cinema, or it can throw them out of the window, without necessarily disconcerting its audience. The critic, evaluating this work at a distance removed from the purely reactive, may find their assumptions have not yet caught up with the real effects produced by the work. This is not to propose a whole set of alternative standards by which to judge the Calling work, but to trace some of the influences that may affect how it will be judged; and to place all this speculation and further questioning within the context of other debate about this medium. In the meantime, the questions below continue to be a rich source for dialogue:
"What is digital art?"
"Is there an essential difference between this and other media?"
"Has anything been gained by using this medium? Has anything been lost?"

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