Sunday, 21 June 2009

A postdigital peacetime era

"Modern art exists because of our technology. Whether built from existing inventions, or from brand new technologies such as computers, many modern works of art rely upon technology as a medium. Technology's role in artistic media ranges from disciplines such as architecture to areas where technology is the complete basis for the medium, in fields such as photography and holography. Generally, whenever a new technological medium is introduced, many members of the art community embrace the technology as the best and brightest form possible. Others automatically reject the use of technology, assuming that it will be detrimental to their particular art form. While to a limited extent these statements are both true, most new technologies simply create other viable mediums. Photography did not replace painting, just as holograms and stereoscopic computer images have not replaced sculpture. While not all artwork may contain direct elements of recent technology, almost all has benefited from increases in technology"

(Benthall, 1972).

One of the reasons that I am harping on about postdigitalism is that it embodies something that I have felt for a long time, but could never quite articulate.

When I started my design education in 1986, our college had just taken delivery of a roomful of tiny, cute Apple Macs. At that time, the graphic design industry was still entrenched in a whole range of traditional printing technologies, and over the course of my subsequent studies and early career, I lived through a digital revolution. This often felt like a war between anti and pro digital camps. I was often enlisted to fight for the pro digital cause, but as I learned more about design, I felt increasingly uneasy with this role. Whilst it seemed bleeding obvious to me that it was a waste of time learning copy-fitting when we would never use this dying aspect of typesetting in our future professional lives, I objected equally strongly to the rejection by the digital camp of all that had gone before. I began to fight for both sides, and when I got my first job setting up and looking after a Mac suite on a Graphic Design course, I fought not just for the new technology, but for the old. The authority that my techno-geek status gave me, allowed me to argue for the importance of screen-printing and metal-type. Around this time, many design colleges were chucking their old fashioned kit in the skip, but I knew that this was a grave mistake. Most often, I would talk about how photography did not replace painting, as many had claimed at the time, but that it did change painting. I would argue that the digital should not replace the traditional, but we could free the old processes from the 'proper' ways of using them now that they no longer served the same purpose. As well as extending the canvas by providing new ways of doing and being, the postdigital also extends the canvas by lifting the restrictions on previous practice. In the context of graphic design, digital typesetting means that I don't have to follow the 'rules' of metal typesetting any more, and freed from the fun-killing tedium of 'casting-off' and such like, I can exploit the rich potential of the old. So, postdigitalism both extends and changes the canvas of creative potential.

On the graphic design course that I now lead, at least, the war is over. We no longer fight about the digital in relation to graphic design technology. We live in a postdigital peacetime era. However, the war between the digital fetishists and the digital refuseniks is still raging on the battleground of education. I oppose the war. Please don't shoot me.

Benthall, Jonathan. Science and Technology in Art Today. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

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