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Eight Books that Examine the Bumpy Road to Digital Culture

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While technology has been steadily permeating the art world since the 1970s with Korean-American artist Nam June Paik leading the way – even coining the term “electronic super highway” to refer to telecommunications – the progress has, in many ways, surpassed expectations. As artists incorporate new technologies into their art making and thinking, the consequences of relying on artifice to reinforce and support reality has blurred the boundaries of consciousness, authenticity, and even trickled into means of interactions. Here are eight books that take a broad look at both the benefits and ill-prepared-for consequences of the shift into an age of digital culture. 


Top image Olaf Eliasson
Rainbow bridge WT, 2017
Photo: Jens Ziehe, 2016

The Girl Who Fell to Earth

This autobiography by the Qatari-American artist tackles her firsthand experience and ensuing research into Gulf Futurism – combining the Gulf region’s consumerist culture with the 20th-century Futurist movement that glorified technology and hyper-speed urban growth. Personal anecdotes illustrate the tension between her dual perspective upbringing, the push-and-pull between Utopian ideals of modernity and traditional values in the Middle East, and the surreal architecture and lifestyle that it has resulted in. Engaging, fantastical and dream-like, Al Maria’s written journey through her past is relevant, fresh and controversial – portraying a world so focused on the future it hardly seems grounded in reality. 

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Julia Stoschek Collection High Performance

German Julia Stoschek is behind the Julia Stoschek Collection, an international private collection of time-based media art that since 2007 has had its own space. Her yearly exhibitions pull from a vast array of edgy artists who work with video, installation and sculpture to focus on specific themes – including Flaming Creatures (a take on the Camp ethos outlined by Susan Sontag), The New Human: You and I In Global Wonderland or Fragile, which looks to corporeality in the 1960s and 70s. An excellent starting point to discover artists both on the fringes and who have fearlessly annihilated traditional art making boundaries, this exhibition catalogue also offers an overview of the academic analyses of the content, historical references and connections between past and present artworks that incorporate and play off of technology. 

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Unspoken Spaces

As the first comprehensive art book to cover the Danish artist’s practice as he maneuvers through immersive architectural and technological installations in public spaces, it highlights how since 1990 his practice has incorporated technology to vastly alter the physical environment. Easily one of the most important artists of the time, the publication explores Eliasson’s interest in the use of visionary shapes to represent abstract ideas, often incorporating light, weather, spheres and tunnels. Eight writers from fields such as geology, art history and philosophy, including Alex Coles, Lorraine Daston and Timothy Morton, contribute to the glossy, image-laden tome. Featuring some of Eliasson’s “reality machines” which have never been reproduced in print before, it explains the science, aesthetics and context behind iconic works such as Your Rainbow Panorama at the Aarhus, Denmark, or Weather Project at the Tate, London.

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Uncommon Grounds

This weighty anthology features all the key names on the contemporary Middle Eastern and North African culture scene – from Wafaa Bilal and Nat Muller to Omar Kholeif and Maxa Zoller – and is a good starting point to understand the role and implementation of new media art in the region. By presenting an analysis that outlines and engages social, historical and political motives and movements, it tackles the impact of new media, the colonisation of imagery by outsider eyes, its accountability, and how it developed under visual culture appropriation. As an in-house publication of Ibraaz, an online platform and critical forum on visual culture in the region, it continues to develop the discourse on how the realities of the MENA region are both forming and the result of grassroots new media usage that are negotiating contemporary ideas of community-based activism, artistic agency and political engagement.

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The Internet Galaxy

The Spanish sociologist has penned many titles addressing information society, globalisation and communication. Pointing out the holes and pitfalls while simultaneously indicating the taken-for-granted reality, including his Space of Flows theory, a cultural abstraction of space and time that redefines cultural and social practice in a digital age – that being – it allows for simultaneity without contiguity. This book breaks it down further, and while an earlier publication, it still resonates strongly by considering the risks, benefits and unknown consequences of engaging with a new media we may actually know very little about. In an accessible tone, Castells discusses society’s rapid diffusion and acceptance of new media without full consideration of its implications and without predictions or fixes. Rather, it provides a read that simply backs up and helps comprehend the weight of a new digital age.

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Ryan Trecartin

For his first book, American artist Ryan Trecartin produced a work that captures the nightmare-ish, frenetic, over-saturated information influx that defines contemporary life in First World locales. Known predominantly for his video works that incorporate social media, iPhones, popular culture, and the rapid evolution of language as it goes from spoken word to text to vlog – Trecartin displays with glorious cacophony the complexity of when life becomes art and art becomes life. Fresh and uber-contemporary, Trecartin blends the now into a giant, confusing, digital collage that is as viscerally grotesque as it is undeniably real, confronting viewers and readers alike with a drawn out digital unconscious. While his works and logic may appear to be without narrative, what grounds Trecartin’s practice is the underlying fact (and desire) that each of his characters (usually played by himself or one of his collaborators) are shamelessly self-aware. Trecartin uses new media to play to the invisible, voyeuristic audience, reflecting a facet of society that uses the camera in order to fulfil the desire to transform their actual 3D life into a 2D public – and permanent – virtual afterlife. 

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Re-collection

This book considers the fragility of content on the digital platform – one which is prone to data-loss, crashes and inexplicable malfunctions. “How will our increasingly digital civilization persist beyond our lifetimes?” the tome asks, highlighting how audio and videotapes demagnetize; CDs delaminate; and art links to websites on the Internet no longer exist. The authoring museum professionals point to the vulnerability of new media art and how that may inevitably lead to a larger crisis for social memory as the cultural content it “preserves” is actually in a state of danger. Investigating three main threats, or allies, it later argues - technology, institutions, and law – Rinehart and Ippolito consider the instability of technological evolution, the reliance of museums on updated, longer-lasting preservation methods, and the legal issues surrounding copyright and licensing.

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Media Art and the Urban Environment

Adopting a more positive take on the assimilation of technology into life now and in the future, Frances Marchese observes how artistic innovation can interact with urban ecology. As a mutually beneficial collaboration, the book puts artists in the role of torchbearer of technological change who can manifest new ways of seeing and connecting within a city atmosphere. Theoretically setting the scene, a range of artists, architects, urban planners and critical theorists outline how technology as a tool for artwork can take it far beyond its already Sci-Fi uses to include how data from smart cities can be used to create artworks to adjust residents’ understanding of urban space, how space can be transformed through digital reimagining, or reinforce a sense of community through strategic street art, communal art projects and public digital media installations.

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Katrina is a contemporary arts editor/writer and TCK based in the Middle East with a special fondness for abject art, gourmet cheese and asking too many questions.

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