I keep an ever-expanding list of artists I am interested in. Mostly, I become aware of them from a distance; through a review in The New York Times, an accidental encounter with their work in a museum or gallery, happenstance or by chance.
I have been following the work of Hito Steyerl for some time now. Steyerl makes films, performance and theory that seamlessly blends into a hybrid, political practice often focused on mass media and its means of circulation. Such mass-reproduced images regularly invade our consciousness through our screens. They are as easily dismissed, but the German artist Steyerl finds intrinsic value in such random encounters:
“They spread pleasure or death threats, conspiracy theories or bootlegs, resistance, or stultification,” she wrote in her 2009 essay In Defense of the Poor Image. “Poor images show the rare, the obvious and the unbelievable.” They can show us secrets if only we’re willing to look.
Steryl asks us to consider how such “poor images,” technologically reproduced and circulated across screens of all kinds, engage us, threaten us, or stop us in our tracks completely.
The work that seems to snare my attention these days is based in experience that I cannot otherwise imagine; it comes to me through mediated images on screen, as documentation or text, sometimes as moving image, and they may be two or three dimensional or time-based. It is often work by artists much younger than myself, from distinctly different cultures and geographic territory. This is a situation of contemporary digital culture; one feels a part of something that they otherwise have no access to. As I think about it, I am not sure it is so different than my recollection of sitting in bookstores flipping through print copies of High Performance or Artforum before the online age. Either way, I still feel the same sense of discovery and connection as I stop and dwell in this work, experiencing some pull toward both its ideas and execution.
There is a kind of mystery in not knowing, in attempting to piece together a sense of meaning or purpose to the work of artists who I can only know peripherally through mediation and with limited information. Such mystery seems to elevate the work in my consciousness, bringing it to the forefront of my own thinking about art in the contemporary era. I wonder if this work is connected to other similar work, mining territory that is out of my frame of reference and, further, how do I access this work in a way that is respectful and meaningful? I wonder about permission or consent. As viewers of work in public digital spaces, what are the protocols for perusing the creative projects of artists through the ephemera of online posting and third party commentary? Perhaps there is no difference than with traditional print media, yet it resonates with a different immediacy and seems sometimes intrusive to make my way through the work of an artist with whom I have not engaged personally, or, perhaps more importantly, that is decidedly not speaking to me. I wonder about the work of artists circulating in a digital forum who assume, or hope, that they are speaking to an audience of their peers or to an audience that has prior knowledge of the concerns that their work raises.
Digital space is a public commons and, though it does not always seem so, as we are made somewhat anonymous by virtue of the various sorts of technological mediation taking place, we still bump into each other in very real way online.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department