Accumulation, repetition, synthesis. The new aesthetics of displacement
‘New media’ is a term coined at the end of the twentieth century to define practices linked to Internet, to the digital and more generally to the interaction between technology, sound and image. It is a multivalent and all-inclusive definition, in ongoing evolution and transformation. While some scholars state that the new media have revolutionised our approach to information and communication on all levels (economic, political, social), others think that they are nothing more than the extension of traditional means.
The term seems to elude its own definition, partly due to the equivocal quality of the very idea of ‘new’. Figuring among the numerous analyses carried out over recent decades in the attempt to understand what might effectively be made to come under this category is the proposal of United States researchers Bailey Socha and Barbara Eber-Schmid. They identified the characterising element of the new media in the concept of ‘nesting’, which is to say in the way of organizing and presenting information which places content at the centre, paying only secondary attention to context. This characteristic implies a non-linear type of reading and interpretation, since the many sources oriented around the same ‘literary corpus’ are often displaced in various locations, physical and otherwise1. The object of interest, whose accessibility was once tied to a specific context and to univocal and unidirectional formats – newspapers, books and magazines on the one hand; radio, television and cinema on the other – is, in the era of the new media, dissociated in its components and distributed over a multitude of new technological supports that are widely displaced and variously configurable.
The condition of physical, spatial and temporal decentralization of information, contents and experiences therefore seems to be the uniting element among the numerous manifestations of the new media in the very systems that generated them, not only in relation to their reception and utilization but also – and above all – to their development and their use in creative and artistic terms. As Italian philosopher Mario Costa stated in his fundamental treatise on the aesthetic of the media: “the history of literature and art, from the second half of the nineteenth century to the present day, is substantially the history of the media, of the manifestation of their specific powers of yield and signification,”2 and in fact a great number of scholars have investigated – within the framework of contemporary artistic practices – the role of the new media as tools of translation and activation of political, social and cultural situations linked to the concept of ‘displacement’3.
In the frame of Generazione Critica, dedicated to discussion of and in-depth inquiry into contemporary photography, I have focused my attention on the aesthetic declensions of the concept of displacement, in the context of contemporary artistic production of photographic images. Aware of the importance borne by the study of aesthetics in art history and criticism, I wish to point out that hereinafter I intend, with this term, to limit myself to the “new ‘artistic’ products and new forms of sensibility” that have developed consequent to the spread of “completely new technologies of the image, of sound, spatiality and contact”4. What is under observation concerns the ways in which artists belonging to the so called ‘digital native’ generation reprocess the inflow of technological innovations in a visual context. More precisely, I felt it appropriate to observe how they process the phenomenon of ‘nesting’ in their operative practices, setting out from the premise that “the digital native grows up in a multiscreen society and considers technologies as a natural element, feeling quite at home in manipulating and interacting with them”5. Going into the specifics of my essay, the artists I present are all ‘digital natives’ who in their practices have adopted the distinctive trait of the new media, which is to say the displaced and a-linear structure of content that is then reprocessed in the artist’s favour: in other words, they make use of programmability, modularity and the free configuration of data, sources, tools and techniques to meet their expressive needs. They take the digital and multimedia as a base camp and then mould them within a restitution of reality which is coherent with their own requirements. Although they are pursuing varied goals and are very different from one another in terms of motivations, end-purposes and artistic typology, these artists are united by the hybridization of several techniques and aspects of knowledge. Operating in this way, they become promoters of new aesthetic formulations that broaden photographic possibilities beyond narration or representation of the existing and redraw the boundaries between disciplines. Each one of the artists presented here is associated with a key-action that delineates the features of innovation and the aesthetic implications of the project under examination, in the light of the given premise. These actions are accumulation, repetition and synthesis.
The collection and accumulation of elements – homogenous and otherwise – on formal and/or conceptual bases is one of the major practices found in twentieth century and contemporary art. Generally linked to a spatial and materic dimension, this phenomenon has also taken root in the digital world. The example I propose here is the accumulation carried out on the web by Sardinian artists Enrico Piras (b. 1987) and Enrico Pitzianti (b. 1988) with the project Cairns.
Enrico Piras e Enrico Pitzianti, screenshot dal blog Cairns, 2012 – ongoing
In Sardinian culture, a cairn is a heaps of stones built up on the edges of mountain pathways and used as a reference points by excursionists and shepherds. Enrico Piras and Enrico Pitzianti met in 2012 on the occasion of an exhibition that in fact never came into being, but since then, to keep in touch after returning to their respective hometowns, they decided to undertake a remote dialogue based exclusively on images. Choosing the concept of cairn as a metaphor, the artists opened a blog6 where over time they accumulated photographs – their own and from the web – videos and documents, stacking up the visual inputs encountered along their respective ways, just like the stones along a path. This is a discontinuous accumulation, without a predefined objective and with no expiry dates: for the two artists, Cairns has no intrinsic and autonomous value but rather assumes the role of shared archive. The activity on the blog goes actually side by side with the art practices pursued autonomously by the two artists who, in their own individual research, differ in both field and interests: Enrico Piras works mainly with installation and Enrico Pitzianti with digital art.
In the history of the new media, the dynamics of digital accumulation of heterogeneous visual elements and the aesthetic implications connected thereto have an important precedent in the project The New Aesthetic, a Tumblr with an emblematic name started in 2011 by London-based designer James Bridle as a place for the collection of images of varied nature and provenance: satellite photos, two- and three-dimensional renderings, patterns, animated GIFs, stills and so forth, united by a “new aesthetic approach to the future”7. The blog made great waves in many disciplines, opening up a global discussion on the incursion of the digital into the everyday, and on how much our collective imagination and the vision of digital apparatuses are increasingly interpenetrating and interdependent8.
Cairns to all effects comes under the trend identified by The New Aesthetic towards increasingly decentralized and non project-oriented forms of visual production: in Cairns, the visual inputs are not only exchanged and accumulated but are continually associated and renegotiated on the basis of the aesthetic affinity between the two artists.
The interesting consequence of this approach is the activation of a mutable and subjective creative spiral, where the same image may return several times, and always with different meanings: it is down to the visitor to retrace, in this shared virtual ‘sketchbook’, the evolution of a new artistic language founded on the codes typical of everyday digital life.
Andrés Donadio (b. 1986) is a Colombian artist who pays special attention to landscape photography. By tradition we are talking about a genre marked by a documentarist stamp, as in the case of the great American artists of the twentieth century; or of photography of a strong formal impact and detail, as in the contemporary productions of Edward Burtynsky and Andreas Gursky. In his research, Andrés Donadio has chosen to expand the description and perception of geographic space through digitally reprocessed composite images.
Andrés Donadio, Paysages Augmentés, 2013
The features of reconfiguration and a-linearity proper to the approach to the new media are evident in the project Paysages Augmentées: the subject here (the landscape) is the fixed point around which the artist remodels the medium from within by means of exercising an active gesture (repetition). The project was begun in 2013 and grew out of the revisitation of a series of digital photos taken years earlier during a journey in South America: for the artist these images were still valid on the compositional level, but at the current moment were technically unusable inasmuch as the files, captured with an old compact camera, had a resolution no longer sufficient for acceptable quality viewing and/or printing. To overcome the limitation imposed by technology, Andrés Donadio came up with the device of enlarging the space by repetition of motifs already present in the photo itself, using the original file as point of departure. More than a reconstruction, then, it was an updating to the standard in force, implemented through the application of digital recomposition and filling algorithms which allowed the author to take the image to a size four times greater than that of the native file.
On this subject it is worthwhile mentioning the concept of ‘obsolescence of the traditional image’ by Russian professor and researcher Lev Manovich. According to his thought, the fundamental difference between traditional and new media is that the latter, being modular and programmable, give rise to products that are never definitively concluded but may exist in a potentially infinite number of versions. So “the image is to be understood not [any longer] as a representation of a pre-existent and independent reality, but as a mode of intervention in production of the ‘real’ […]. The new media change the concept of what an image is, because they transform the spectator into an active user”9.
In Paysages Augmentées, Andrés Donadio is able to fill up the temporal distance (and thus eliminate the technical gap) between the original landscape and the expanded one without ever leaving the boundaries of the image, offering us a virtual yet nonetheless credible vision of reality: it is actually not by chance that the project title refers to ‘augmented reality’, meaning interaction with the physical world enriched with the inputs generated by electronically controlled sensors and devices. A short circuit is created on the visual plane in accordance with which the landscapes, in their digital verisimilitude, come to recall the suspended atmosphere of Chinese watercolours or German Romantic painting; but only up to the moment when the points of juncture among the repeated elements become evident to the observing eye. The final result is a new form of hybrid representation which imposes contemporary technical dictates on traditional aesthetic canons, in a verification of the efficacy of both.
The last of the actions examined in this essay is synthesis, exemplified through the research of Manon Wertenbroek (b.1991), an artist of Dutch origin who grew up in Switzerland. Manon Wertenbroek works between photography and sculpture, investigating the possibilities generated by the encounter of two apparently antithetical disciplines: photography is characterized today by the immaterial datum, generated by the digital and amplified by the web, whereas sculpture continues unequivocally to present itself in plastic form.
Manon Wertenbroek, Tandem, 2014
In the series Tandem (2014), the artist uses photography in combination with sculpture, painting and set design to explore the difficult theme of her brother’s personality disorder. Displacement, which we identified as the interpretive key to the whole treatise, here becomes multifaceted: it is the typical condition of multimediality in the accepted sense of content that presupposes the integrated and simultaneous use of several means of communication; but it is also a fragmentation of private, intimate and emotive nature: first and foremost of the person himself, conditioned by relational difficulties due to his affliction, but also of the artist, obliged to give materiality to a complex and unstable interior energy.
The body plays a pivotal role in the resolution of this twofold problem, in both formal and conceptual terms. On the visual level, the entire series turns on the figure of her brother, whose body is painted in brilliant colours by the artist and then portrayed within elaborate sets that he himself has actively contributed to creating.
On the symbolic level, the body acts as a ‘processor’ of the image in its entirety, its presence establishing the order in which the elements of material flow arrange themselves to enter the domain of perceptive experience10. Photography intervenes to close a multifaceted process and is lived as a necessary and conclusive act, in which the artist may at last deal with the subject through the finished product. From this viewpoint, it is not reckless to compare the synthesis carried out by Manon Wertenbroek in Tandem with the assembly employed by the cubists in their collages: both share a cycle of decomposition and recomposition of reality that can enclose in the picture/frame an expanded world made up of heterogeneous angle shots, origins and materials.
Just as the early twentieth century scientific discoveries and philosophical reflections on concepts of space-time influenced the thought of the avant-gardes, so we are now witnessing a growing synergy between the technical and artistic fields, with inevitable consequences on the aesthetic and linguistic plane. In a conversation with Lucas Blalock, artist Kate Steciw declared: “Cubism: I think this is an apt connection to make to a lot of the conceptual and formal investigations occurring in and around contemporary photography, not only because we find ourselves at a similarly challenging aesthetic junction but also because new technologies again have created new spatial and perceptual potentials that must be considered from the vantage point of the current artistic paradigm”11.
In other words, and to conclude, we find ourselves in a particularly dense historical moment, characterized by a growing sensitivity to the presence of an increasingly widespread (or ‘nested’) technological datum in all areas of life. The congenital naturalness with which the age group of the artists examined uses the new media is by now a given fact. This implies a high level of technical knowledge of the means at one’s disposal, and the consequent development of a critical awareness of the means themselves. This condition, applied to the field of the production of images or their use in an artistic sense, passes through exploration of the potentialities and limits of the new media and translates into a tendency to bring their aesthetic, linguistic and formal implications to the forefront, in an ongoing search for the most satisfying solution.
2 Costa Mario, L’estetica dei media: avanguardie e tecnologia, Castelvecchi, Rome 1999
3 One of these is French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, whose thought dwells particularly on the relationship between art and globalization. ‘Altermodern’ is the term he suggested for understanding our present, “fruit of global and decentralized negotiations, of multiple discussions among members of different cultures”. In this framework, the new media for Nicolas Bourriaud take on a fundamental role: they are the tools for translation, transfer and exchange of ideas and representations and they are indispensable in giving life to a new and shared intelligibility. (Bourriaud Nicolas, The Radicant, Sternberg Press, Berlin 2009).
4 De Leo Daniela, Estetica dei nuovi media. La fenomenologia della percezione estetica nel nuovo panorama multimediale, Aracne, Ariccia 2008
5 Ferri Paolo, Nativi digitali, Bruno Mondatori, Milan 2011
7 “Since May 2011 I have been collecting material which points towards new ways of seeing the world, an echo of the society, technology, politics and people that co-produce them. The New Aesthetic is not a movement, it is not a thing which can be done. It is a series of artefacts of the heterogeneous network, which recognises differences, the gaps in our distant but overlapping realities”. (Section “About”, The New Aesthetic blog, new-aesthetic.tumblr.com/about)
8 The conceptual foundations of ‘The New Aesthetic’ were officially presented at ‘South By South West’ (SXSW) on 12th March 2012, a festival dedicated to the arts and to emerging technologies, during a panel organized by James Bridle himself. Subsequently the American writer Bruce Sterling wrote an essay for Wired Magazine, which made a fundamental contribution to spreading the phenomenon among critics and the public at large. (Sterling Bruce, “An Essay on the New Aesthetic”, Wired blog, 2nd April 2012, www.wired.com/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/)
9 Manovich Lev, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge 2001
10 According to the analysis of the processes of relationship between matter and thought elaborated by French philosopher Henri Bergson in 1896, the ‘image’ is situated halfway between ‘thing’ and ‘representation’ and has an existence independent of that of the subject who perceives it. In this framework, perception assumes the form of consciousness incorporating both the subjective and the objective, and the body functions as a sort of filter that selects, among the universe of images circulating around it, exactly those which are relevant to it. (Bergson Henri – Pessina Adriano (edited by), Materia e memoria. Saggio sulla relazione tra il corpo e lo spirito, Editori Laterza (8° ed.), Bari 2015).
11 Blalock Lucas, “A Conversation with Kate Steciw”, Lavalette, 5th March 2012, www.lavalette.com/a-conversation-with-kate-steciw/
Published in Searching for a New Way. Critical engagement in Contemporary Art since 2000, Metronom Books, 2017
The original text (in Italian) was published on Generazione critica. Arte, fotografia e tecnica, edited by Marcella Manni and Luca Panaro, Danilo Montanari Editore, 2016.
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