On Claire Bishops’s “Digital Divide” piece in Art Forum (2012)

I wrote this at the end of 2012 over on a (secret) blog I had during my MRes that I used to work through a few things (privately), but I’ve just been researching Thomas Hirschhorn’s Touching Reality (2012) work and was reminded both of Bishop’s original piece in which she discusses Hirschhorn’s work and of my response. I thought I’d re-post my response, as many of the debates in this area still stand.



Thomas Hirschhorn (still from) “Touching Reality” (2012)

:originally posted October 8, 2012:

I’m a bit late to the party with this response to Claire Bishop’s article titled “Digital Divide: on Contemporary Art and New Media published in ArtForum (Sept 2012) but I have now read the piece, and many of the responses to it…

It is a “timely”[1] piece of writing, and opens up debate about some important questions within the field of contemporary art about where and how new media art fits in. The title suggests that they do fit together, even if they are not yet entirely enmeshed, (Contemporary Art AND New Media) but in the body of the article Bishop is suggesting rather that it doesn’t fit together at all, and there is a distinct division between ‘contemporary art’ and new-media art’. She does argue however, that contemporary art (which is non-new-media) can’t help but be shaped by digital technology,”our dominant social field”, even though is not only rarely acknowledges this, but often disavows[2] the technology. Bishop seems to use ‘contemporary art’ and ‘mainstream’ interchangeably, which perhaps defines the problematic stance she appears to be writing from. The ensuing discussion that this has provoked, (on both the CRUMB discussion list and theArtForum one) seems to be mostly directed to the divide not just being acknowledged by Bishop, but actively enforced in her refusal to discuss the “entire sphere of “new media” art” because it is its own “specialized field”.

Bishop’s use of bold rhetoricals such as “…why is contemporary art so reluctant to describe our experience of digitized life?” and “while many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see and filter affect through the digital” begs disbelief in me as I can think of several artists, whom I would deem ‘contemporary’, in response to those questions. (Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Thomas Ruff, Thomson and Craighead, Jill Magid, Daniel Crooks, as well as those that ARE mentioned by Bishop such as Christian Marclay, Thomas Hirschhorn, Cao Fei, Cory Arcangel yet dismissed as exceptions to the rule(!))

Is part of the(my?)  problem that I have worked with/alongside digital media that I am a specialist in this field? I wouldn’t have said so; specialist in photography perhaps, with an avid interest in the places where it intersects with the digital. Why isn’t someone else who is a specialist critic on contemporary art not able to consider this too? In relation to this argument, I find it is best summed up in this response by Honor Harger and as it is actually not my primary concern here (as I try to focus on my MRes project), I will move onto what is.

So, I think of myself as an artist, who uses photography and digital technology to create artworks. Not a photographer, nor a new-media artist. I’m also a researcher, a writer and perhaps a curator. At least, this is today’s definition and as I try to think through some of these things about myself and my own work, Bishop’s piece reflects some of these concerns. Of theartist as curator phenomenon over the last twenty years, she expounds that the rise of a new postioning: “From a twentieth-century perspective, it is the act of surfing: the pursuit of impromptu, subjective connections via the aleatory free association of navigating the web.” Why aleatory? Yes, she cites some significant examples, but again, dismisses, the many professional artist/curators who are using the digital technology and connectivity of the World Wide Web in a organised, rigorous and critical fashion. This compounds the initial argument above, that Bishop does not seem to be able to include a digital perspective other than that of accidental consumer where “everyone with a personal computer today has become a de facto archivist, storing and filing thousands of documents, images and music files.” Sure we have, but can’t we also be something more?

Well, yes! As, conversely, Bishop then states “As the digital archive increases exponentially (…) the phenomenon of research driven art proliferates in tandem.” Sigh. There are good points in here, but they are let down by the confused u-turns in statement and naive referencing to contemporary media art, which apparently doesn’t exist.


I have also collated some interesting statements from the response discussion on CRUMB below:

“Media art is media art because the media is a major consideration in its ontology.
The main stream art world operates on a different paradigm, where media are so well established that they become more or less invisible (eg: painting, sculpture, print, etc). Even some recently (but now less than) new media have taken on this mantle of invisibility (eg: video, photography, etc).”

Simon Biggs – from the JISCmail discussion on Claire Bishop’s Digital Divide piece in ArtForum (2nd Sept)

“The so-called “mainstream” art world used to be expansive but increasingly defines itself by exclusion.”
Jon Ippolito – from the JISCmail discussion on Claire Bishop’s Digital Divide piece in ArtForum (2nd Sept)

“In the late 1970′s the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it then was) employed the artist Malcolm Hughes as a consultant to advise whether photography had matured significantly and could be considered a ‘collectable’ art form (ie. worthy of investment).
In the early 1990′s the magazine “Modern Painters” ran an editorial asking whether photography had matured enough to be acceptable as an art form (ie. worthy of the endowment of aesthetic attributes).
The exceptionally long time it takes for a new technologically-based art form to be accepted by the ultra-conservative art establishment has been discussed by many authors including Peter Weibel (photography and video) and myself (computer-based).”
 Paul Brown -from the JISCmail discussion on Claire Bishop’s Digital Divide piece in ArtForum (3rd Sept)


[1] http://honorharger.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/why-contemporary-art-fails-to-come-to-grips-with-digital-a-response-to-claire-bishop/
[2]Claire Bishop (2012) http://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201207&id=31944 p.1


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