Claire Bishop begins her essay “Digital Divide” (see prior post) with the springboard thesis that many recent artists shirked or fallen behind in embracing and utilizing current digital technology. Instead, she argues, there’s been a recent trend in the opposite direction – “an eschewal of the digital and the virtual” as manifest in a predilection for obsolete analogue technologies like 8- or 16-mm film, slide projectors, pre-digital photography processes, and the like. Her query on the topic is as much theoretical as prescriptive, and to some degree she answers her own rhetorical questions before even asks them. Perhaps no more so than when at one point she concludes, “The continued prevalence of analog film reels and projected slides in the mainstream art world seems to say less about revolutionary aesthetics than it does about commercial viability.”
Which acknowledges one pragmatic aspect when it comes to digital art (or a lack thereof). For the sake of display and presentation, one can always uncrate a painting or sculpture, or – by following a detailed set of instructions and schemata – reassemble an installation. Anything involving technology will inevitably pose the problem of obsolescence, if not the possibility of having to reverse-engineer a solution in order to get it to function properly. Perhaps preferable for everyone involved not to bring the item out of storage after several years only to encounter an error message: “PLATFORM NOT SUPPORTED.”
One could argue that the theme of obsolescence has been with us since the advent of pop art (if not earlier), if not an integral component of pop’s reflections of consumer culture. Bishop skirts around acknowledging as much when she cites the practice of artistic “repurposing” at play in the work of contemporary artists, particularly Rashid Johnson. Yet Johnson’s practice of gathering and displaying could be viewed as a variation on the same as done by Haim Steinbach, if not harkening back to pop and assemblage “combines” of Robert Rauschenberg and his neo-dadaist peers; at least to the degree that they all involve a similar repurposing and reclamation of mass-produced goods or cast-off detritus.
The theme of obsolescence is central to Pop because it’s also a core component (a feature, not a bug) to the economics of consumer culture. In that respect, one can detect an undercurrent of morbidity beneath the sheen of Pop’s alleged celebratory engagement of the common culture; that flash of recognition that comes from a work being so immediately tied to a given cultural moment. But one day's ephemera is the next day's rubbish or marginalia, and the pace of supplantation – one gadget or app or upgraded operating system replacing another – builds in momentum and rapidity as one approaches the current digital age.
Analog or digital, perhaps neither here nor there in this instance; one being – in a sense, theoretically – a metaphor or stand-in for the other. All of them bound for a garage sale or trash heap sooner or later.*
The artist Robert Smithson intuited much of this early on in his career, having initially been attracted to working in a Pop style in the early 1960s, but quickly abandoning it to take his work in other directions. For Smithson, obsolescence was but one of many things that fell under the larger domain of entropy, the latter being the central guiding concept to his "earthworks." Case in point, in his 1966 essay "Entropy and the New Monuments," Smithson quotes Vladimir Nabokov’s observation that, "The future is but the obsolete in reverse."**
Another scenario; continuing on the themes of obsolescence, entropy, decay and shelf-life...
Doing a little more casting about, I find a couple of other critics citing incidents of “recurated” exhibitions – revivals or resurrections of notable exhibits from bygone eras – and each expressing wariness about it being a sign of some nascent trend. Which begs the question: Which exhibitions might merit such a thing.
First that leaps to my mind: The "Eccentric Abstraction" gallery exhibition, as curated by critic Lucy Lippard back in 1966, which featured the work of Alice Adams, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Keith Sonnier, et al. The exhibition’s notable for a number of things, among them the role it played in introducing the broader public to the work of Eva Hesse; who has largely unknown at the time, and would eventually be canonized, years after her untimely death.
I raise this somewhat perversely, given the fate encountered by a number of Hesse’s works. Her piece for Lippard's exhibition, "Metronomic Irregularity II," posed its share of installational issues; having at one point before the opening fallen from the wall on account of being improperly mounted. As it was, a fair amount of assembly was required for the piece, and it was reported to have lain around in an "undone" state for a long while after the show.
Other of Hesse's works have been lost due to the materials the artist chose to work with – namely, the pieces crafted from latex rubber. It was a newly available material at the time, and Hesse (along with some of her peers) used it for some of its physical properties, finding it ideal for crafting surreally & uncannily corporeal abstract objects. Thing is, as a material it doesn’t age well – eventually decomposing, warping, decaying, withering. Which makes them candidates for the category of works of art that no longer exist in their original form, although there have been efforts to recreate some of them in recent years.
* Curiously, once thing that Bishop overlooks (or intentionally avoids in her citing repeated uses of obsolete tech like 8-mm film and slide projection is these devices' prior very-common role in pedagogical settings (as opposed to their entertainment or interpersonal "communicative" functions). This consideration, I suspect, plays no small part in why such gear has been adopted by particular artists in recent years.
** The quote, incidentally, is taken from Nabokov’s “Lance,” which was written in 1952 and counts the final short story that the author ever published. The story takes the form of a science-fiction tale concerning interplanetary travel, which Nabokov frequently taking the opportunity – via the story’s narrator – to vent his own loathing of the science fiction genre.