The Aesthetics of the Digital Archive: Navigating through the Sublime.


This week’s reading focused on art practices that are inspired by the archive — aesthetic strategies that place the epistemological aspect of gathering and ordering documents at the foreground of the artworks. In my presentation, I will concentrate on the digital archive. I will survey different approaches artists take to represent the characteristics of the digital record: its vastness, fluidity, obscurity, and materiality.

I will start with an anecdote from my childhood. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I found out about the Internet by a TV show that advertised its new website. We didn’t have an Internet connection at my home yet, but I was very curious about it. The obvious thing to do at the moment was to start to fill a notebook with all the websites I heard of, so when I did get an Internet connection, I could check them out. By the time my house was connected to the net, this list had long become obsolete. I was frustrated and fascinated by that. Of course, I could have the same failure if I was ever to try to write down all the books or music disks I can think of, but the Internet encompasses additional characteristics: it grows exponentially, and for the common eye, is intangible, invisible, and uncatalogued.

Many artists focus on that note: the parallel, or translation, between the physical and the digital archive; between the human-scale collection, and the incommensurable scale; between the classic encyclopedia set and Wikipedia. The artist Michael Mandiberg approaches this subject with the work “Printing Wikipedia”. In 2015 Mandiberg wrote software that transforms Wikipedia’s entire English-language database into 7,473 volumes of 700 pages (as it existed on April 7, 2015), making the volumes available to print on demand. Mandiberg’s intention to visualize the large accumulation of knowledge is for me beautiful in its failure. Not only did he place in the installation only a few printed volumes, but by the exhibition opening time, the work was already outdated. To actually transform Wikipedia into tangible words on paper would demand many “crazy” printers that in real time spill prints of pages as they are edited, filling the room with unordered sheets, as in Christopher Baker work’s “Murmur Study”, where he prints live tweets, or Jason Huff’s work “Endless Opportunities,” which I will show shortly.

In the same year Ai Weiwei created “An Archive”, a collection of 6,830 rice paper sheets of printed tweets, a physical chronicle of his social media activity from 2003 to 2013. With this gesture Weiwei also materializes the fleeting and forgettable condition of the digital archive, in this case, the personal one we create on social media.

Also focused on the fleeting aspect of social media archive, Liat Segal created in 2014 the sculpture “Confessions Machines”, an ultra-violet printer that displays on a UV sensitive surface, confessions made as posts on the Facebook platform. Segal points out with this work the immaterial condition of digital files, and the short exposure life our words have in a digital ecosystem where they are constantly buried by newer ones.

Similarly, Cristopher Baker investigates the personal voice in the large digital archive, in this case on the YouTube platform, in “Hello World! or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise”. In this piece, Baker not only exposes the multiplicity of voices but also questions how the archive platform format shapes or influences the content itself.

Focusing on the short-lived aspect of the digital archive, on the lack of a discernable unique, but from the catalogue point of view, Jason Huff explores in “Endless Opportunities” how image results change in relation to a single keyword in search engines. Huff developed an algorithm that searches for changes in image results algorithms and prints the results onto paper.

With a similar focus in change, Dganit Elyakim, Batt-Girl, and Eran Hadas created “Wikiland”, an interactive installation that approaches with humor the narrative dilemma in the Commons. As Siegfried Zielinski points out, the archive accounts for the externalization of historical consciousness. The archive represents a voice, a political position. In “Wikiland”, viewers physically fight in order to change the most disputed Wikipedia articles about Israeli geography, and consequentially, the political position of the archive.

Although fractured, created by different authors, and dependent on different bodies, digital archives construct narratives. Many artists have focused on the characteristics of these voices. In 2017 Zach Blass created “Im here to learn so”, a four-channel video installation based on Tay, an artificial intelligent chatbot created by Microsoft in 2016. Tay was supposed to learn from social media posts, but within hours of her release, the chatbot became extremely racist and was terminated after a single day of existence. Blass reanimates Tay in his artwork, exposing the concealed voice the social media archive creates.

With a different argument on the same subject, Jon Rafman explores the narrative poetics in the Google Street View archive. Navigating through the endless archive, apparently created by an objective and detached eye, Rafman captures decisive moments, odd moments, relevant for the human eye only. These relics are uncategorized items in the massive archive, and therefore attest to the labor Rafman placed in finding them.

Similarly, Clemente Valla investigates errors in the Google Street View archive. As Hal Foster describes, artists working with archives often try to make the lost or displaced information present. In this case, Valla makes visible the mistakes in the seemingly perfect world of representation.

The archive narrative is also explored in Natalie Boockhin work “Mass Ornament”. Boockhin selects several YouTube videos of home performers being inspired by celebrities and weaves them into a single choreography. On the same note, Penelope Umbrico inquiries into the commonplaces of our digital expressions with thematic collections of photographs taken from Flickr.

Thinking of our unconscious digital expressions and the archive they create, Evan Roth’s work “Internet Cache Self Portrait” makes visible the invisible archive we feed with our daily online interactions. Roth printed the massive collection of images saved by his browser. Again, printing is used as a strategy to compare the digital with the physical archive.

Finally, the artists Arvida Byström, Molly Soda, and Chris Kraus also bring forward the invisible but, in this case, the censured. Inquiring into how censorship policing shape the digital archive narratives, the artists published a book of images censored by Instagram. This book presents a parallel narrative. Physically published, instead of online, the artists made sure further censorship is more difficult to implement.

I subtitled this presentation “Navigating through the sublime”. The “Sublime” concept refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation. It is long explored in aesthetics as the pleasure of the overwhelming. The “Sublime”, however, represents, as Sianne Ngai argues in Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, a higher power structure over the viewer. Many artists use multiplicity, vastness, and an impossibility to completely perceive, as strategies to convey the digital archive dimensions, to create an aesthetic experience, but also to question the power relationship between humans and the digital archive.

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