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sharing, hacking, helping: Towards an understanding of digital aesthetics through a survey of digital art practices in ireland

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This article draws from a recent study of digital art practices in Ireland which used in-depth interviews, ethnographic research and case studies to seek a qualita- tive understanding of digital art practices, contextualized temporally to a time of economic, social and cultural crisis. The article seeks to understand how artists use digital media technologies to create new works, and how these technologies may be understood in the context of digital art practices and their aesthetics. It engages with recent debates around new media to formulate a theoretical framework of how we may understand the role of digital technologies in artistic production. Drawing on the work of new media theorists such as Lister et al., Lovejoy, and Manovich, this article suggests the consideration of three distinct characteristics of digital art, evident in selected case studies of artists and art practices in Ireland. It also argues that these characteristics can be understood in the context of new media theories of art and digital aesthetics.
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  147 JMP 14 (2) pp. 147–160 Intellect Limited 2013 Journal of Media Practice Volume 14 Number 2 © 2013 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jmpr.14.2.147_1 Trish Morgan Dublin City University s, k, : T  t  t tt t  v  t t t  i absTracT This article draws from a recent study of digital art practices in Ireland which used in-depth interviews, ethnographic research and case studies to seek a qualita-tive understanding of digital art practices, contextualized temporally to a time of economic, social and cultural crisis. The article seeks to understand how artists use digital media technologies to create new works, and how these technologies may be understood in the context of digital art practices and their aesthetics. It engages with recent debates around new media to formulate a theoretical framework of how we may understand the role of digital technologies in artistic production. Drawing on the work of new media theorists such as Lister et al., Lovejoy, and Manovich, this article suggests the consideration of three distinct characteristics of digital art, evident in selected case studies of artists and art practices in Ireland. It also argues that these characteristics can be understood in the context of new media theories of art and digital aesthetics. Keywords digitalmediaartpracticeaestheticsIreland  Trish Morgan 148 inTroducTion This article investigates the influence of digital media technologies on art practices. Making particular reference to Ireland, it seeks to understand how digital media technologies can be used by artists, and how such prac-tices may be understood in terms of digital aesthetics. The overall backdrop to this account is one of crisis in Ireland, and how current political and media discourses in Ireland have been making explicit calls to the arts and cultural services to act as a ‘rescue’ when political and economic meas-ures, including massive bank bailouts, have failed to shore up confidence in the Irish financial and economic model. Coupled with the ‘arts-as-rescuer’ discourse exist discourses around the so-called ‘smart’ or ‘knowledge’ economy, where policy documents foreground vague notions of ‘innova-tion’, ‘digital’ and ‘creativity’ as potential saviours to Ireland’s economic  woes. Whilst broader discourses of art and crisis are outside the scope of this article, it is on this backdrop that this article seeks to understand how artists in Ireland use digital technologies in their art practice, and how such practices can be understood within broader discourses on ‘new media’ and digital aesthetics.For Aylish Wood, the contributions of digital media to the gallery space are significant in how they add a temporal experience to an art installation, thus challenging the traditionally understood modes of visual representation (Wood 2007: 134). According to Wood, the addition of new media forms such as sound or moving image means that the purely spatial components of tradi-tional gallery installations are transformed into spatio-temporal sites of inter-action. Margot Lovejoy argues for a further analysis of these digital media, suggesting there exists ‘a need to explore the impact of electronic media on representation and on our culture as a whole, and, in the process, to extend the theories of Benjamin’ (Lovejoy 2004: 4). For Lovejoy, this need to explore is precipitated by the development of ICTs that ‘represent a challenge to conventional notions of visual representation’ (2004: 152). Thus, theories of art now require a consideration to these digital media that have become so commonplace and everyday that for one cultural critic, ‘the art of tomorrow is the art of the media’ (Stocker 2006).In the following sections I examine some characteristics through which we can understand the ‘new’ digital means available to artists, largely drawing on the work of Lister et al., Lovejoy and Manovich. First, however, I outline sample case studies of the works encountered during the survey of digital art in Ireland. a noTe on TerMinology The terminology describing this art – digital art, electronic art, media art, new media art, net art, etc. – is interchangeable, and for the sake of expe-diency I will largely refer to these practices as ‘digital’, whilst also noting my own difficulty with the lack of subtlety that can ensue. However, particularly at a time of crisis, these ‘ambiguous labels’, as Stocker describes them, can be thought of as symptomatic of the so-called information soci-ety, and reveal ‘the ways artists deal with the constituent elements of the Information Society and its technological as well as social dimensions’ (Stocker 2006). Therefore, I suggest that while it is partly unhelpful to use the term ‘digital art’ as a universal, it reflects the broader backdrop on  which this study was conducted.  Sharing, hacking, helping 149  1. From http://www.walkspace.org/namaland/. Case studies Conor McGarrigle: NAMALand Conor McGarrigle’s  NAMALand  is an augmented reality project that exists as a smartphone application, making use of location awareness capabilities of such devices. The piece is named with reference to the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA), which was set up by the Irish government to nationalize and manage financially ‘toxic’ properties that ensued from the financial crisis. McGarrigle’s critique of this agency lies in its lack of transpar-ency, as NAMA does not publish an official list of properties in its owner-ship. Thus, the aim of  NAMALand  is to make visible and transparent this information which is not available to the public who have funded the agency, except through third parties. The piece acts as a direct critique of the dearth of official information regarding the portfolio of toxic properties that NAMA holds on the nation’s behalf. It works thus: when a user is in close proxim-ity to a NAMA property whilst running the app on their phone,  NAMALand  displays the environs much like a camera display. It also however provides a graphic overlay that signals when the user is viewing a property that is under the ownership of NAMA. The humorousness of the piece is revealed in its description, with the rather tongue-in-cheek commentary that At  NAMAland  we like to look on the bright side. OK the downside of NAMA is that it’s costing you C-- 40 billion, the upside is that you now own some of the best (and worst) properties in Dublin. So grab your phone, put on your tophat and enjoy your new role as a property tycoon  with our augmented reality tour of  NAMAland . 1 The graphic that signals the proximity of a NAMA property is, with contin-ued light humour and thinly veiled reference to capitalist hubris, that of the  Monopoly  Man. Figure 1 shows the  NAMALand app running on the applica-tion author's smartphone. The interface alerts to points of interest on a radar (upper right) and also to individual properties as ‘Monopoly Man’ icons, along  Figure 1: NAMALand application interface.  Trish Morgan 150  2. A short video documenting the piece is available at http://blip.tv/harmey/m3-hawaii-5010-5071579 and photo documentation is available at http://www.clionaharmey.info/pix/pix2.htm. 3. See http://www.recyclism.com/harddrivin.php for an extended abstract and description of the piece.  with textual information in the main lower panel. This example was from the Docklands area of Dublin where many NAMA properties exist. Both the radar on the upper right and the information on the bottom panel attest to the number of such properties in close proximity to the author at the time. Cliona Harmey: Hawaii 5010 Moving on from  NAMALand,  which fused data sets with augmented reality technology, the sculptural work of Cliona Harmey provides an example of how digital artists can combine digital data with what Harmey terms ‘object hack-ing’, to form hybrid objects. This artist was classically trained in sculpture, and  while her sculptural work uses ‘traditional’ sculptural materials along with mass-produced materials, it also employs open-source software and hardware. For this artist, this hybrid of materials and technologies functions as a critique of the materials available to consumers. This practice can therefore be thought of as a critique of technology extended to also incorporate large-scale consumer products. As she describes of her practice, ‘what I’ve been doing a lot of recently  was just buying things from IKEA and reconfiguring them’. Therefore, for Harmey, she considered that this form of practice constituted ‘another option’ for digital practitioners, which was to ‘reconfigure other systems’.One example of this work is  Hawaii 5010  , a sculptural piece consisting of a black wooden tripod, on top of which rests a small plinth with a viewing aperture. 2  Harmey connects this aperture to a live remote information feed from a shipping buoy, named 5010  , in Hawaii. Using an  Arduino  microcon-troller, the aperture reflects the horizon and the pattern of the waves in a pulsing output, the pulses echoing the wave data collected from the buoy in Hawaii. The microcontroller forms the audience’s link to this remote, ephem-eral data as it transmits each ebb and flow of waves in Hawaii to viewers in Ireland. The aperture allows the viewer a visual connection to the flow of  water. Thus, in this piece, the viewer is connected to the remote data and the remote environment at once through a convergence of remote data and physical, mass-produced sculptural materials, in a fusion of practice between sculptural and digital elements. Benjamin Gaulon: Hard Drivin’ and Corrupt Benjamin Gaulon has made a significant contribution to the digital art sector in Ireland, through his artistic practice and also his running of an association dedicated to foregrounding the sector through workshops, events and talks.  An example of one of his collaborative works is  Hard Drivin’. This installation consists of a 3-D polygonal physical terrain, designed by artist Ivan Twohig, and two remote-controlled toy cars for which the terrain is designed. The cars are remotely controlled using the social media site Twitter. This functionality  was researched and programmed by Brian Solon.   Users thus (1) control the cars by tweeting to the cars to ‘follow’ someone on Twitter and (2) cause the cars to move by tweeting with the hashtag #harddrivin. The longer the tweet in the second instance, the further the cars move.The title of the piece is taken from an early video game which was the first to feature 3-D polygons in its development. This influence is carried into the physical structure of the environment in which the cars in this installation are based (see Figure 2). For the artists, this work investigates issues of media archaeology and ‘hardware hacking’, where electronic objects are repurposed for unintended uses. 3
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