Faced With Digital Ubiquity, Artists Still Cherish Crafting Materials

Faced With Digital Ubiquity, Artists Still Cherish Crafting Materials


"Postdigital Artisans" by Jonathan Openshaw (all photos courtesy of Frame Publishers)

“Postdigital Artisans” by Jonathan Openshaw (all photos courtesy of Frame Publishers)

As digital technology becomes increasingly prevalent in our daily lives and the number of those who never knew an internet-less world only grows, so has the fear of becoming less human — of living in a screen-saturated, Black Mirror-esque dystopia where every new tool effaces a need for manual action. What does this mean for art production and our experience of visual culture today? Postdigital Artisans: Craftsmanship with a New Aesthetic in Fashion, Art, Design, and Architecture, recently published by Frame Publishers, explores the works of 60 international artists working with or in response to the digital moment. Through descriptions and images of their works as well as statements by them, the book emphasizes that appreciation for the handmade has not waned with the emergence of 3D printers and other innovative devices; rather, although influenced by the digital revolution, many artists still cherish and rely on crafting material objects.

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Author Jonathan Openshaw unpacks the meaning and context of “postdigital” in his introduction, writing that we live in “a world that has been reformulated by the digital moment, and where a digital mindset is inextricably entangled with our existence, whether or not the digital technology [emphasis his] is actually present.” Even though people across the world experience the digital in vastly varying degrees, Openshaw argues that “We’re all postdigital now” and must recognize the permanence of new technologies. In art, the physical and the virtual have completely melded in both the artist’s approach and in the viewer’s experience — networks such as Instagram call for further engagement through digital documentation, for example.

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Featuring such a large number of artists in one publication inevitably results in bite-sized rather than comprehensive profiles of each, and the result is a visually rich overview of the “postdigital” art scene and an easy, enjoyable page-turner (fitting, perhaps, for an age of shortening attention spans). The handful of paragraphs devoted to each artist dips only slightly into biography but largely focuses on the craftsmanship behind their creations, describing the role of the digital in their general approach as well as detailing the process of select individual works. A list of often-used materials is also included on every artist’s main page; and to further emphasize the still-tactile nature of today’s art, the book divides artists into six themes focused on the physical form of their work: forces, bodies, surfaces, particles, structures, and matter.

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Many of those featured belong to what Openshaw terms the “connector generation,” having grown up in a world still reliant on the analogue but now engaging with the digital. The artists are largely Western, with mostly Japanese or Korean artists representing the East — although this may be less an editorial decision than a reflection of the geographic distribution and prevalence of the digital. Comprising both established and emerging artists, the grouping leads to fresh readings of familiar works as well as introductions to lesser-known projects, all in relation to each other. Anders Krisár’s precise, hand-sculpted human forms that appear manufactured and David DiMichele’s photographs of realistic dioramas allude to how today’s virtual visuals may mislead one’s sense of sight. Responding to our world of big data, Nathalie Miebach creates musical scores based on data sets while Marilene Oliver works with information from MRIs and CT scans to make her humanoid sculptures. Barry X Ball’s hi-tech renderings of classical sculpture marry tradition and technology, as do Faig Ahmed’s hand-woven carpets that incorporate image distortions and warps that occur in Photoshop.

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The specificity of the artist profiles are balanced with texts that reflect on greater trends and consequences of the postdigital, such as our relationship to the screen and the fetishization of online/offline lifestyles. Each section closes with an essay written by contributors such as social media theorist and The New Inquiry contributing editor Nathan Jurgenson, London-based curator Sarah Williams, and Museum of Arts and Design Director Glenn Adamson. Openshaw also briefly interviews the indefatigable curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who addresses how curation needs to become more “extreme” in a postdigital age and attempt to engage viewers beyond the visual.

Art making has naturally evolved alongside technology, but Postdigital Artisans offers an inspiring compendium of projects that still celebrate manual craft in the 21st century. Even as we attach ourselves to new technologies, human creativity is not completely overrun by them. Our digits still manipulate the digital. As Daniel Miller, a professor of material culture at University College London, contends in his essay “Technology and Human Attainment”: “We have not become more or less human. We are simply now that form of humanity that co-exists with this collusion of digital and analogue forms.”

Postdigital Artisans (Frame Publishers, 2015) is available at Frame, Amazon, and other online booksellers.
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