I’ll just look it up online.
A phrase I hear on a daily basis, as a fellow student shrugs off the suggestion to go to the stacks in the library and check out a good book. The fact is, we don’t have time to go to the library, especially when it is much easier to look it up later when we sit down to partake in our evening Internet browse. We just have too many things to do. Everyone knows it: our society has become a fast-paced race that is difficult, almost impossible, to keep up with. So we try to save time by using one of the most common resources of the 21st century: the Internet. However, the way the human brain receives and processes the information read on a screen differs greatly from the way it processes information received in paper form (Jabr).
As an artist, the shift from the physical to digital world makes this new rise in technology all the more fascinating: must we give up the long era of making objects and start making art that is intangible and completely virtual? How do we reconcile these two separate universes? How has the overflow of information from both sources changed the way the 21st century viewer engages with art? Through manipulation of information objects, I seek to question and explore the way the modern day viewer encounters information in both physical space and virtual space, especially through book form. In Medias Res (Latin for “in the midst of things”) explores the difference between digitally and physically formatted information, while also investigating art’s purpose in our post-internet world. Perhaps art’s job is not to make original objects, but to question how we communicate.
A study by psychologist Kate Garland shows that students who read information on a computer screen rather than on a physical page scored just as well as the students who read the information in a book. However, there was a difference in the way each student recalled the information. It seemed that the students who read the information in book form had actually learned and knew the information. However, the students who read the information on the computer relied on memorizing the information instead of actually learning it (Garland). This is a clear example of how we process stimuli differently when using a virtual forum.
This has a lot to do with the platform on which the information exists. When holding a book, the participant can make a clear mental map of the text. The physical form of the book allows for easy navigation and provides the viewer with a very clear idea of how far they have come through the text. On the other hand, a screen does not lend itself to such easy navigation. Scrolling through a page on a website does not provide the viewer with the same information that every reader has at their fingertips when reading a book (Jabr).Users inevitably run into mental roadblocks when trying to engage in the virtual world. Not only is it more difficult to remember or learn information, but the amount of information constantly flowing onto and out of the screen can be so overwhelming and difficult to manage, that we, as a society, have been “forced to create our own filter bubbles to do the distilling for us, parsing the amount of information in our lives to acceptable levels” (Uglow). These filters make learning, remembering, and even engaging in meaningful reading or activity on the computer, tablet, or mobile device more difficult for users.
Although the virtual arena may not be appropriate for some interactions, such as reading long texts, it does have its obvious benefits that the physical world lacks. For example, using a tablet or laptop saves space. You can read the same pile of books on a tablet by taking up 10 GB of virtual space, as opposed to 10 feet of physical space. Aside from the obvious argument of saved space, the virtual world provides every human with the ability to endlessly share information. You can share one document with millions of people; whereas in the physical world, one physical document can only be shared with one person at a time. Lastly,due to the accessibility of information and the capacity to share this information across multiple forums, we do not live in an age where tedious memorization is essential. This creates an information and knowledge structure that does not depend on labor-intensive tactics and therefore energies can be repurposed and “higher” thinking can be achieved with more complex modeling.
The reality of mass sharing is that virtual information is no longer such a precious commodity. In a post-internet world, a photograph or copy of an art object is far more dispersed and viewed than the actual art itself (Vierkant). It can be argued that information shared within the virtual arena holds less value than information shared or seen in its physical form. This may be true, only because the latter is less common. What happens, however, when an artist claims authorship of virtual information and assigns it meaning? Does it increase in value? According to Artie Vierkant, “in the post-internet climate, it is assumed that the work of art lies equally in the version of the object one would encounter at a gallery or museum, the images and other representations disseminated through the Internet and print publications, bootleg images of the object or its representations, and variations of any of these as edited and re-contextualized by any other author” (Vierkant 5). Essentially, the value of art stays consistent, regardless of where or how it is viewed. This is important to consider when thinking about the contemporary artist, living and making in the post-internet world.
The ever-changing landscape of virtual space alters everything an artist does, especially considering this virtual space grants instant public access to almost anything. As an artist, the thought that almost everything is archived in a completely open forum can be intimidating and perhaps even threatening, particularly when making original or surprising art objects. John Kelsey, an art critic, argues that “it may be that art’s job is no longer to produce more surprising images, but to make itself a means of locating today’s corpse within the redundancy (or ecstasy) of communication” (63). Kelsey’s idea that an artist’s job is not to make original objects, but to question the means in which we communicate with each other, fuels the work I have begun to create.
Because the virtual world is a vast, open-ended forum for communication, one must also think about appropriation. Perhaps originality comes from remaking that which already exists. Almost anything archived in the digital world is available to be shared, but also to be used by a new author and re-contextualized. Artie Vierkant suggests that art in the post-internet world is “inherently informed by ubiquitous authorship, the development of attention as currency, the collapse of the physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital material” (Vierkant 3). Appropriation, or using information, material, or objects that already exist, can aid an artist when they are questioning the way things are. Creating something new and assigning meaning to it can only take an artist so far when they want the viewer to connect to it within a specific cultural context. In my work, I hope to re-contextualize information objects, like a computer, printer, calculator, or book (appropriated objects), using each object’s predetermined cultural meaning to question how we receive, understand, and disperse information.
Artist Anouk Kruithof introduces her viewers to these ideas through various photographic installations. With the same ideas in mind, she creates work that is not only inviting, but also highly contemporary in topic. One of her most inspiring works, Untitled: I’ve Taken too Many Photos/I’ve Never Taken a Photo, is an installation of past iPhone photos from her personal phone. She asked someone who had never taken a photograph before to choose around 75 of the best photographs out of hundreds. What resulted from this project was an incredibly interesting script, available to read on her website, of the person sorting through the photographs. In the script, the volunteer who had never taken a photograph before explains why he chooses some and not others. His reasoning is interesting and often funny, especially considering that he was critiquing her work without any knowledge of art or photography.
She printed and installed the photographs on the ceiling, making the viewers look through a handheld mirror to actually see the images (Kruithof). In this piece, Kruithof takes something that holds little artistic value, a photograph taken with an iPhone, and changes the context of these photographs completely by allowing a volunteer to take authorship of the project, even though he is not an artist himself. She also asks the viewer to look at them through a mirror, making the viewer decide how they are specifically going to frame the photographs. Although she removes the photographs from their usual gallery context, she references the act of looking down at one’s cell phone by making the audience use a mirror to see the photographs.
Kruithof’s installation references the age of digital communication and raises questions about the way we use images to communicate. Her simplistic idea and clean execution satisfy the aesthetic that I hope to achieve in my work. Although it is true that her installation was well crafted, I am hesitant to use the word “craft,” as it tends to have a negative connotation when referencing contemporary art. I have continuously struggled with the marriage of craft and concept; however, I believe that conceptual contemporary art is vastly different than traditional, craft-based art. In the post-internet art world, it seems it is more difficult for craft to be relevant, as an artist’s job is no longer about making new objects or surprising images. Art critic John Kelsey argues that “if work today can be defined as the movement of information from here to there, the contemporary artist no longer pretends to invent a new language, but instead confronts us with the potential we all share to disrupt both the directionality and the tempo of ready made codes” (Kelsey 71). In my work, I want to question the way that we communicate through digital and physical mediums by disrupting their original form and asking the viewer to consider the object’s inherent meaning from a completely new perspective.
This has not always been my goal, as my work has continuously changed and grown. Although all of my work has tried to surprise the viewer by presenting them with a different version of something they are familiar with, it has not always clearly raised the questions I am currently trying to ask. I began the year making artist’s books out of plexi-glass, an uncommon material. The purpose of using such an uncommon, clean, and transparent material was to allow the viewer to have a vastly different experience when flipping through the pages than they would with any other book made out of opaque paper pages. Although I do believe this series of books was successful, I felt as if there was more territory to explore. Consequently, I moved on to using an actual textbook to explore the book form. Using textbook pages to create works that changed the context of the book itself allowed me to consider the way a viewer interacts with information on a very physical level. These pieces highlighted the materiality of physical information, suggesting that interacting with physical information was in some way better than consuming information on a screen. Although this argument can and has been made, I do not wish to try to answer this question with my work. Instead, I wish to raise questions about the way that humans communicate with each other through various forms of interaction, both physical and virtual.
Because of this shift in concept, my work has also recently taken a turn. I wish to bridge the gap between the physical and virtual world while also referencing the book form, an important information object, which requires using physical material, like paper. By putting a printer on a shelf fairly close to the ceiling, I hope to create a loose book as the pages print, slowly falling to the ground when they are finished. The loose pages of the book will interact with the viewer by invading their physical space. They will either have to move as the pages fall or walk around the pile that will continuously grow on the ground. Although the execution of this piece is fairly simple, I hope that the concept will provide a thought-provoking escape for the viewer.
This piece, entitled In Medias Res, is very different from anything else I have created this year. However, the idea behind it has brought me to a pivotal point in my artistic career and has allowed me to reconcile a few ideas that I have continuously struggled with throughout my time at DAAP. First, I realized that although it is important to argue a certain point and have a strong message, it is not necessary for art to present one thing as better than any other thing. I think it is important for art to raise questions within the viewer, even if they are open-ended, and allow the viewer to examine those questions for him or herself. I no longer believe art’s purpose is to persuade; rather, its purpose is to agitate the viewer’s predisposed beliefs.
Leaving my beliefs open-ended has allowed me to shift my attitude about craft and concept this year. Last year, I discovered the world of traditional craft art. I attended Penland School of Craft and spent my summer making objects like books and jewelry. My world revolved around the craft aspect of art and I spent little to no time thinking about the concepts that went into my craft. It was what it was—producing books and jewelry—and at the time I was okay with that. It was not until I had a studio visit with world-renowned photographer Laura Letinsky that my thoughts shifted. During the visit, she asked me the question “To what end?” Why was I spending hours upon hours making these craft objects if they did not have anything to say, if they did not hold any significant meaning? It was then that I realized I had to stop focusing on craft and start focusing on the reason I was making art. It has taken me almost the entire year to reconcile these two ways of thinking. Luckily, Laura Letinsky raised questions for me that no one had during my brief stint with traditional craft-based art. This experience forced me to consider if, why, and how craft-based art fits within the contemporary art context. We live in a post-internet world, and “nothing is a fixed state: i.e. everything is anything else, whether because any object is capable of becoming another type of object or because an object already exists in flux between multiple instantiations” (Vierkant 4).
This journey has been treacherous, difficult, and exhilarating. However, I believe that I have come to a point in my work where reconciliation is taking place. I have finally reached a compromise between the conceptual world and the craft-based world and between physical reality and virtual reality. Most importantly, I have realized that there is no need for either one to be right or wrong. They can exist simultaneously, in my own head and in my work. Using both sides can raise important questions and create a debate within those who view my work. I have to consider Tom Uglow, a technologist who works at Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, Australia, when he says that “today’s society has complexities that artists will reflect back to us through the way we’ll remember experiencing them: multi-linear, time-agnostic, fragmented and discordant” (Uglow). In Medias Res presents the viewer with a device that is in the midst of a process. The undiscoverable origin of the information and the inaccessible, messy result of the process may remind the viewer of the complexities of the world we live in: a place in between physical and virtual space.