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Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Gray Area Festival Asks If We're in a New Renaissance

Posted By on Thu, May 28, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge BENJAMIN WACHS
  • Benjamin Wachs
What if we held a Renaissance and nobody knew about it?

The exhibits and discussions at the Gray Area Foundation’s Gray Area Festival this past weekend raised the question of whether we’d even know a new Renaissance if it strapped a biometric sensor to our heads.

It’s hard to know exactly what we’re looking at: As panelists pointed out, the very term “digital art” now encompasses so many different things — from the glorious Bot & Dolly demo of surface mapping images to moving objects, to Evan Roth’s sprawling Internet Cache Self Portrait, to GMUNK’s visual remix of the Adobe logo – that the term is essentially useless.

Yet clearly something’s going on. There is a “School for Poetic Computation” in New York, and “Creative Coding” is a movement here in the Bay Area. New artistic tools are offered up as open-source code every month. Communities of users from around the world build up and die out in a few short years, as the digital environments those codes were designed for are upgraded and changed, rendering the tools obsolete – only for new tools to be released.

It can’t be clearly delineated or contained, but something big is happening in the art world.

If calling it a “Renaissance” seems pretentious, maybe that’s because the modern world has a strange double-vision about traditional art: It reflexively venerates it while being largely ignorant of it. People demand funding for “the arts” who never bother to visit a museum. We insist that children get arts educations while then deriding people who go on to be art history majors. And we romanticize the creation of what are now ancient masterpieces to an absurd degree.

The original Renaissance was explosion in experimental tools and techniques, along with new cultural developments that allowed them to be shared – exactly like the digital art scene today (whatever that is). It was also full of hucksters and charlatans trying to capitalize on the new. Once again, a near perfect match between then and now.

click to enlarge BENJAMIN WACHS
  • Benjamin Wachs
Once all the historical comparisons are made, the panels convened, and the movies shown, a strong case can be made – and the Gray Area Festival made it – that we are, in fact, in a new artistic Renaissance, this time using not paints and marble but code and biometrics. The future will be paying attention to what’s happening right now, even if we’re not.

But this historical perspective was nowhere in evidence at the Gray Area Festival, and that’s not an accident. They never would have compared themselves to the Renaissance because, with a few notable exceptions, the brightest minds among the creative coders are as ignorant about the history of art as the average American.

click to enlarge BENJAMIN WACHS
  • Benjamin Wachs
This is a cultivated ignorance. Presenter Zachary Lieberman, co-founder of the School for Poetic Computation, showed a slide encouraging his students to stop reading Kerouac and pick up number theory. Beyond that there was absolutely no mention of what most of the world recognized as “poetry” in a description of what these computing poets do. It’s not that “conventional” poetry was condemned – it’s that it wasn’t even regarded as relevant enough to condemn.

Whereas the artists of the Renaissance saw themselves as part of a continuum with the artists of the ancient world – even sitting in their shadows – the digital media artists of today (at least as expressed at the Gray Area Festival) see themselves as wholly novel, unconnected to any art that came before. The history of their movement, as described by presenter Casey Reas in a talk called “A History of the Future, Art and Technology” began in 1965.

So while a Renaissance is happening, the participants in it are more like the DaDa, who were equally dismissive of everything that had come before. Not only did they not use ancient themes as their subject, they actively rejected the premise that the past was a suitable subject for art. The present moment was everything, and the idea not to create something beautiful so much as to shock or titillate. Their purpose of their art was to create a break.

The participants in this Renaissance don’t just want to create new tools, they want to destroy (they’d call it “hack”) the old ones.

But whereas the DaDa believed that they were at the end of the world, the digital artists of the new Renaissance tend to believe that they stand at the beginning of a new world. The overall spirit of the movement is one of an exuberant and brilliant child happily playing with all the exciting new toys, with no thought to the antiques he’s using for ballast and structure – or idea how much he might want them intact when he’s matured.

Indeed, one thought repeatedly expressed by panelists was the wish that the online forums where digital artists gather could move away from discussions focused almost entirely on tools and towards conversations about aesthetics and concepts and meaning – not just “can the tool do this” but “is this worth doing?” “What are we trying to accomplish?”

It will be fascinating to see what happens when this young Renaissance realizes that this conversation has been one of the things they’re rebelling against.

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Benjamin Wachs

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