This is my response to Claire Bishop‘s essay “Digital Divide“, published in Artforum in September 2012 (also posted in the comments section of the article):
Reading this article was a pleasure, and a pain. Some of the points made here are really good, and I also felt a lot of empathy for many of the examples raised, such as the use of obsolete or dead media, or the “archival impulse”, which have been the polar stars of my curatorial and critical work so far.
The problem is that Bishop fails in formulating the main question, that is: contemporary art should respond to the digital age – why it doesn’t? In my opinion, this question should be reformulated this way: “why the mainstream art world, the small niche I belong to and I’m talking to hereby, doesn’t respond to the digital age?”
To put it simple: there is the new media art world, which is a niche- true; there is the mainstream art world, which is a niche as well (a couple of magazines, and a few dozens of galleries, collectors, institutions, curators and artists); and there is the real art world, which is comprised of all the people who recognize themselves as artists, of some who don’t (but do something that can be understood as art as well) and of all the people working around them. In the real art world, there are not five, but legions of artists responding to the digital age. Some of them are really bad, some are really good, but just a few became successful in the mainstream art world: the ones Bishop named, and some of the ones named in this discussion. These artists are neither new media artists nor mainstream contemporary artists: they are artists that sometimes use digital media, sometimes don’t; sometimes do unique objects for galleries, sometimes spread their work on the internet; they work with second level galleries, and with curators that aren’t art stars yet; they don’t sell out at art fairs, but they have a market and collectors; they are rarely featured in mainstream art events such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta, but they have an increasing presence in a big network of institutions, despite the fact that Claire Bishop doesn’t know them. This is the background where mainstream artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn and Thomas Ruff go fishing to find ideas like the ones displayed in Touching Reality, or in the Zycles series. The true innovation takes place there, and not in the mainstream.
And – I think – it couldn’t be otherwise. To ask with mainstream contemporary art is not reacting to the digital age would be like to ask why William-Adolphe Bouguereau and the French Academia weren’t reacting to the industrial revolution and to photography. At the time, to see true innovation you should make a visit to a photographer’s studio in Paris; now, dear Claire, I’d warmly recommend you a trip to Rhizome.org.
Bishop puts it in terms of fear:
“Is there a sense of fear underlying visual art’s disavowal of new media? Faced with the infinite multiplicity of digital files, the uniqueness of the art object needs to be reasserted in the face of its infinite, uncontrollable dissemination via Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.”
Of course, the establishment fears and rejects what may force it to change; that’s why a century of apparently “innovative” art didn’t change the way art is circulated, discussed and collected at all, but rather enforced it. Innovation was accepted as an ideology, but rejected as a means of true chance. But again: if the establishment (that is, the mainstream art world) is pretty coward, contemporary art isn’t. You just have to look for the brave ones.
Artistic Director, Link Center for the Arts of the Information Age