The title “The Work of Sculpture in the Age of Digital Production” obviously plays on the famous turn of phrase established in the title of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which was written in the 1930s. Starting from a Marxist analysis of means of production and circulation, Walter Benjamin’s assumption is that a new kind of revolutionary art using the latest technologies may be able to brush aside “outmoded concepts such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery,” which Walter Benjamin identifies under the conditions of his time in the ‘30s as “fascist”—these qualities of creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery. But the relationship of the artwork to mechanical production is a dialectical one, as it undermines the aura of the unique art object, while at the same time emancipating “the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Walter Benjamin also talks about “cult value” connected to these rituals, versus “exhibition value,” which, with the means of mass reproduction, literally brings the exhibition to everyone, describing mechanical reproduction as the factor that inevitably favors that latter quality of the exhibition value.
But in the wake of the digital revolution, if we were to actualize that approach, we would have to agree that some dramatic changes have taken place. Digital reproduction almost seamlessly does turn into a production, in the sense that almost anyone using freely available software can n September, as part of the ongoing series Nasher Prize Dialogues, the Nasher gathered a panel of artists and curators to address the ways in which digital technology and imagining have changed the ways artists make sculpture as well as how we perceive sculpture. The talk, called “The Work of Sculpture in the Age of Digital Production,” was hosted in Berlin at the Akadermie der Künste, in partnership with that institution as well as Berlin Art Week. The talk was moderated by the co-editor of frieze, Jörg Heiser. Included here is Jörg Heiser’s introduction to the discussion, laying out the historical relationship between art and technology and what that relationship looks like now, in the digital age. Also excerpted here are highlights from the contributions of the four panelists: Nasher Chief Curator Jed Morse; Artistic Director of the 5th Munster Sculpture Project, Kasper König; and artists Bettina Pousttchi and Rachel de Joode. I 59 not only reproduce but produce images or other digitized utterances, and circulate them. We could even go as far as saying that this new technology, going hand in hand with a new economy, provokes a kind of compulsory production, and the endless data-stream of people performing their selves and their worldview, which is something we do right now as well.
Against that background, in which lives perform in the digital sphere, seems to result in a kind of merger between what Benjamin described as the cult value and the exhibition value. Just think of a famous person’s Instagram feed. It can be like an exhibition in progress, as well as a protoreligious ceremony at the same time. For me, that’s, for example, Klaus Biesenbach’s Instagram. That’s exactly the merging of cult value and exhibition value. The artwork, in turn, is prone to be affected by this development if artists are—as seems inevitable and necessary—keen to respond to these changes, not least because they themselves are possibly profoundly affected by them.
But we must not make the mistake—and here, a good old Benjamin-Marxist leaning toward considering means of production may be good at reminding us—we must not make the mistake of forgetting that digital production does not mean virtualization and abandoning of materiality toward disembodied data streams. Quite the contrary, in recent years, just think of climate change and ecological crises. We’ve been reminded strongly of the insistent materiality and economy of smartphones and computers built with oil, plastic, metal, and not least, rare earth metals, mined under still-colonial conditions in Africa— phones being assembled in huge sweatshops in China, brought to your doorstep by badly paid package deliverers. Now that’s the kind of sculpture we should keep in mind when we behold the smoothly sculpted surfaces of Mac laptops or Samsung phones. Not least, the current Berlin Biennial, curated by the New York collective DIS magazine, seems to be on the cusp between still emulating this kind of neo-pop art or, as it often called, post-Internet style, the illusion of disembodied social and economic interaction and the associated surfaces on the one hand, while already admitting the sheer materiality and pressing existence of human and natural exploitation.
So one obvious problem is the fetishization of new technologies, as if we could somehow ride as art the wave of their sheer power and bravado. The other problem is that there is the traditional sculpture with all its varied history and use of materialities and topics, and we might turn to it, yearning for the good old days. In fact, precisely because we seem to be engulfed by an increasingly dominant and estranging wave of digitization and automation, there is a longing for history, for material presence, for direct interactions with people and materials. You could call it nostalgic – that turn to marble and wood and bronze, the way hipster bakeries and coffee shops are nostalgic. You could also call it cynical vis-à-vis the art market in terms of the conservative values that are more easily explained than new materialities. But on the other hand, history, and turning to the seemingly outmoded, is not necessarily and automatically nostalgic or regressive. It might in fact be an acknowledgment of the neglected or of the not-yetunderstood. This is also why this panel, though addressing an age of digital production, pronounces and looks back at history as well, possibly enabling us, hopefully, to learn how earlier technologies, for example, affected sculpture, and what we can still learn from that history
The wonderful thing about having this historical collection at the core [of the Nasher] is we see artists have engaged technology from the beginning of time. And there are a number of works by constructivist artists—by Naum Gabo, by Antoine Pevsner—who very famously in the Constructivist manifesto talked about the connection between art and science and technology, about creating works of art as the bridge-builder designs bridges, as the mathematician defines mathematical formulas—and so we see that technology, just as the Constructivists had adopted and used technology to transform sculpture into this open, lightweight, almost evanescent object, that artists today are also using technology both conceptually and materially, in new and fascinating ways
A lot of artists, I think, are struggling with the kind of profusion of images that’s happened with the internet, and also, for those who are sculptors, thinking about what is the intersection between sculpture and image. And there are a number of artists who are dealing with it in different ways. You know, we’ve only had the internet for 20 years; it hasn’t been around that long. So we now have a generation of very young artists who grew up their entire lives with it, and they will see it differently than any of us who are sitting up here on this stage—because that’s all they’ve known. One of the things I find interesting about Rachel [de Joode’s] work is: It is an image, it is a simulacrum of this kind of physical experience with that material, but at the same time it’s presented to you with a physical object. So you’re constantly in that tension of questioning: What is this that I’m looking at? It’s a really visceral photograph of a material, of an object that clearly existed, that’s on something—so you’re thinking: Is this a photograph? Well, no. It actually has dimension to it, it’s mounted to some kind of significant backing material, and it’s here in my space. So is this a photograph? Is this an object? How does this work?
In the introduction, Jeremy [Strick] talked about the future of sculpture. I don’t think that this investigation, which is a long-term process going on in Munster, I don’t know if it’s important, but it’s interesting, because it happens only once every 10 years. And since it became inadvertently very popular, the city fathers and the province wanted to do it every five years. And I insisted that the 10-year rhythm was the only thing that really was significant about it. Not only because sculpture is a very slow medium, so to speak.
And then the question is: Is there still sculpture? That was a question that has been raised every 10 years [at the Munster Sculpture Project] under very different conditions. So the subject of our talk, which is the virtual reality and the globalization and the completely flowing fast communication, obviously is bound to be a question of different conditions, because now the artists between 25 and 32 basically grew up with a computer, so they have another kind of axis. It’s not better, it’s different.
One of the reasons why I started with sculpture is that after having been behind screens for so long, I thought it was so amazing to have something in your way. And the first sculptures I made, they were really in your way, they were using things that are in your way—street bollards—and I put them in the exhibition space—transformed—and in the beginning transformation it was very subtle, just a surface, and very often people didn’t see it. They were leaning on it and they were like, “Uh, yeah, Bettina, where is the sculpture?” because they’re so used to seeing these objects in the street. But this materiality of sculpture—I think what’s really fascinating and challenging and interesting, and I think it’s an interesting aspect for our conversation here—because this is what makes it special, and other, and I think why so many people turn to sculpture at the moment, because this physicality is sort of the other to your media experience. But I think instead of being sort of nostalgic or retro, and indulging yourself in ancient craft and materiality, I think the real challenge of interest is to combine new technology and production methods with traditional or ancient production ways, craft, etc. I started making ceramics recently, to 3D print my photographs. And for me this is where the challenge is. I mean, artists can respond to it differently, but I think the challenge is really to use traditions and techniques that have a long history and a long knowledge also, and combine it with the possibilities of digital production.
RACHEL DE JOODE
I work with photography. Through the use of photography, my work bounces between the physical and the virtual world, exploring the relationship between the three-dimensional object and its two-dimensional counterpart. My work is a constant play between surface, representation, and materiality. I particularly want to talk about [a] series of works that are surfaces of clay, resin, paint—gooey materials that you normally use for sculpture, and I also use for sculpture, but in different means. I basically had a sculptural conversation with them with my hands. And I photographed this conversation, flattened it, made it into a sculpture again, and placed it in the exhibition space. But these works are flat, they have two sides, but it’s a three-dimensional object. I worked a lot with the signography of how you place artworks in a gallery space, and what does that mean nowadays, because most of the people—or at least me, and I think a lot of the art audience— consume art through art blogs and the internet. So what does that mean for the real-life art object? I find that very interesting, how this sort of flat world, or this flat image, or this documentation of an artwork—it’s like you experience a work flat and then you kind of dive in that world in real life, and that’s what I wanted to achieve in this particular exhibition [Porosity at Galerie Christophe Gaillard, Paris].
It’s strange, because a lot of people see these [works] on the internet, so they see them flat, right? And then they don’t really know what it’s like in real life, and it has this sort of trompe l‘oeil effect to it, but the materials are ephemeral. I’m not a sculptor. I’m not like Michelangelo, and I can’t sculpt marble, but I can do it with my own means. So I’m also not like a painter, but I can photograph paint. So it’s more this sort of dumb, in a kind of “Anna Nicole Smith” approach to these materials. I want to approach [all these disciplines] as kind of being the same. Especially because we live in this, in here—[reaches over and touches laptop screen]—this flat surface. That’s what’s so interesting about sculpture, it’s sort of a bodily experience, because it’s big, and then you feel small, or it’s small and you need to bend over and you feel big—and you don’t see that in the photograph, of course. But, in the end, it’s kind of like if I ask my son, who’s two, to draw me a cat, or I draw a cat for him, he says it’s a cat, and I think that’s the truth. So it’s like—this is clay, it’s a photograph of clay—but why not? It works.