Digital Art is a blind jester

Royal Opera House - Audience - “Man in the mirror” from rAndom International on Vimeo.

The reviews of Decode: Digital Design Sensations at the V&A in London got me thinking again about popular conceptions of digital art. There’s a lot of coverage here. As I write, I’m listening to an audio review - BBC World Service correspondent Mark Coles expressing incredulity at the work in a pretty predictable way. The whole ‘is it art’ question. Yawn. It’s a good question to ask but you get the feeling that Coles would ask the same kneejerk question of anything that wasn’t Vermeer. Still, I’m asking similar questions myself.

My problem is I just don’t feel moved by many of these artworks. I think they’re mostly cool, clever, well-executed: descriptions better suited to graphics or interiors perhaps. Even the ones I really like, like the Digital Dandelion by Sennep or rAndom International’s well-known mirror piece, Audience, struggle to convey conceptual or visual tension, resting instead on novelty. Both pieces look nice though.

Lack of emotional richness is an ever present challenge to digital art, and I think artists are aware of this challenge. Golan Levin, whose work consists of an interactive eyeball following you around the gallery (see it here), says that digital art needs to move past a simple tendency towards the 'demonstration of a technological principle’ - it should attempt to explore the wider social aspect of that technology. Levin proposes that his eyeball piece 'reverses spectatorship’ and 'turns the gaze back on the viewer’. Speculating that the piece has such depth is overegging the pudding I think. I’d honestly rather look at a painting about an eye that follows you everywhere (Odilon Redon maybe) or read a book about it. The difference with Levin’s interactive piece is that the eye follows you, the real you, here and now. Given that the sensation of being looked at is not new to me, or anyone for that matter, what’s unique about this piece is that the eye is automated. Which is clever. Well done.

The same trick is used throughout the interactive pieces in the exhibition. Pictures that change when you are point or wave or scream or gargle. To me, interacting with this sort of art is alienating - the technology feels primitive. It’s like being in court with a blind jester who peforms when he senses your presence. Or something. I feel like I’m getting a substitute for interaction. Which would be fine if the work was about substitutes for interaction, but digital art is often heralded as some new exciting mode of interaction. It doesn’t often promote it’s own shortcomings. Or maybe I’m just not thinking hard enough about it.

rAndom International’s piece, Audience, does have a nugget of self-reflexivity I think. It plays with mirrors, which makes me think of Lacan’s mirror stage theory. Which in turn makes me conscious of the digital art predicament I’ve been talking about: the sense of distance between self and object. Or, to put the whole thing another way, the piece conjures up in my mind the image of a child mesmerised by it’s own reflection, slowly distinguishing (or combining) their body, their sensations and their mind. And this reinvents the piece for me: whilst many might sell Audience on the basis of quirkiness, if you think about these mirrors as a demonstration of a very primitive yet integral self-realisation exersize, the whole piece seems charming, intelligent and a little sad maybe. Any artwork using mirrors plays with the idea of inversion and identity, but Audience anthropomorphises the mirrors into little faces. Instead of the face tracking it’s own reflection, the reflection is tracking the face. Nice.

Still, when most interactive art pieces are based around the ability to track the viewer’s movement, and easy route to self-reflexivity is the use of mirrors or eyeballs.

Anyway, those are just some thoughts….