Since the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, global citizens have become increasingly voracious consumers of visual information. From a personal, social and even economic standpoint visual literacy and technological literacy are now as equally important as the written word. Those who control technology and the flow of visual signs and symbols in physical and digital space rule: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Kim Jong-un, etc. If a university we cannot teach students to engage thoughtfully and critically with visual culture at large—and indeed to become thoughtful producers and well as consumers—we fail them.
If the last millennium was defined largely by the printing press (text) and the industrial revolution, the new millennium is media and information. As visual communicators, artists and designers are well positioned to take on particular challenges we now face as a country and as a civilization.
Artists and art critics are frequently the first to acknowledge cultural trends. The recent emergence of the term post-internet points to our current technological situation by acknowledging that shifts in ways of thinking and perception brought on by the new onslaught of information and images of the Baudrillardian 90’s no longer seem shocking or even progressive. As educators, we must begin to resist the temptation to merely add the word “digital” to any particular discipline. Doing so, I believe, is a feigned effort to present particular disciplines as more relevant or contemporary. In the next decades, I predict that fields such as the so called Digital Humanities and New Media will be inevitable subsumed by a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of technology. To belabor the point, we will not have a New New Media, nor a Post-post-internet, nor a Post-Digital Technology & Culture.
The frequent appearance of new, digital and the “post-” suffix in art theory, criticism and academia is evidence that we simply lack the intellectual framework to to effectively keep pace with the rate of social and technological change. This unprecedented condition of technological flux should be met not with continued efforts to suffix-ize the present, but rather as a call to extreme epistemological reimagining of culture, art and academia. To fail to do so means continued guesswork and incessant, myopic restructuring. A structure that lasts into the new millennium is not a structure at all but a network; not a monolith but an organism.
The visual arts/visual communications program of the future is not sequestered, not apart, not specific, but as an inclusive hub in a network that functions as a means of understanding, creating, and yes representing knowledge. For 2000 years we’ve witnessed the severing of disciplines and sub-disciplines and institutions into bureaucracies that have begun to fail to provide much holistic understanding of culture, while privileging certain modes of inquiry and repressing others. An archeological look at history reveals breakthroughs in science and art not as a linear teleology but as a network of experimenters and creatives making mostly accidental discoveries. This view, promulgated by media archeologists (perhaps the first academic “discipline” whose members reject identifying best practices and parameters), while seemingly difficult to manifest, makes more sense in the context of the internet and shifting ideas about the concept of organization itself.
Current models of academia were forged in brick and mortar silos, segregating coalitions of thinkers and awarding them for continued segregation through the tenure process. Furthermore, individuals working within academia have their own labor divided into mathematical proportions (often 40/40/20). This mechanized mode of institutional operation is conservative and discourages innovation.
Sociologists read the industrial revolution in part as a systematic annihilation of time and space. In a post-Internet world, physical space should longer confine, nor serve as an organizational model. The mechanized gives way to the organic. We have now outlasted the enlightenment dream of the individual’s supremacy and achieved near instant communications across the globe. Yet many major cultural institutions function in a 17th century mode. One way forward is to celebrate connections rather than silos and reimagine departments, institutions and individual actors as forces of connection and inquiry rather than than as existing on static tracks in pursuit of pre-packaged results.
The fine arts is best positioned to begin this process of transformation. For art, by its very nature must interface with ideas beyond its provenance. Art with a capital A is viewed by most as a means of representation. Artists contributed (and continue to contribute) visualization not only as a tool for representation but as a path to knowledge. While this certainly remains a large part of what artists do, the modernists went further to record not only representations of so-called reality but wild imaginings of realities that had not yet come to be. The artist is the consummate visionary.
The contemporary artist is no longer satisfied with representing possibilities but pushes one step further still, assuming the role of the untethered social actor. This action, in addition to continuing ancient traditions of drawing, painting and sculpture, also includes social practice, internet art, interactive art, new media, intermedia, performance art, community activism, interactive digital media installation, citizen science, creative coding/programming, Bio-Art, physical computing, mobile media applications/hardware, locative media, 3d printing, computer vision, robotics and other emerging technologies.
Unlike professionals in other fields like dentistry or war, artists have great liberty to choose working modes from the past or the present. This places the artist in the unique position of embracing the analog and digital, the physical and virtual, the future and the prehistoric while continually forging connections between places, actions and objects. The contemporary artist is an inherent connector, having transcended a focus on the individual and the present to embrace a networked view of the multiverse as a fluid, living organism. The artist acknowledges that in the 21st century, the renaissance man is born-again; she must be.