From Abstract Impression to the Animated Gif

By Glenn JeffersSeptember 19, 2018

On March 10, 1876, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell changed the way people communicate. Who knew the screeches of a 56K modem would signal a similar sea change more than a century later?

But that’s what happened when America Online brought the internet to the public in 1993. As digital technology advanced, the internet spawned a welter of high-speed wireless communication, intuitive devices, and omnipresent social media. Today, connectivity is constant, hardware unobtrusive, and technology an integral part of our lives.

“It’s ‘always-on computing,’” says James J. Hodge, assistant professor in the Department of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. “We live on the assumption that we can always be connected, that an email, a tweet, or a post can reach us, or we can reach out to some other network or person, no matter where they are, at any time.”

As these digital tools change the way we live and communicate, they also influence the way we create, says Lane Relyea, chair of the Department of Art, Theory, Practice in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. As an example, he cites how the popular 19th-century beaux arts style of expression — which favored a subtractive grinding down of materials to create artwork — gave way in the early 20th century to the Bauhaus style, which focused on visual design, mass production, and more modern materials, such as steel. “It’s long been the case that artists have had to modernize to make art that is relevant to the society that they live in,” says Relyea.

Modern technology influences today’s art both directly and indirectly, affecting the materials artists use and the way they create. In terms of media, video streaming is ubiquitous, and YouTube, Vimeo, and other popular sites have the storage and compression capabilities to house millions of videos. This has generated a wealth of new content creators liberated from the traditional
film and television production pipeline and industry, says Peabody Media Center fellow Aymar Jean "AJ" Christian, communication studies (see page 22).

Christian’s work focuses on the intersection of television and new media, specifically web-based series for digital distribution and their disruption of the traditional broadcast network model. His recent book Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television delves further into his ideas on how the internet has shaped contemporary broadcasting.

“We now have more access to different expressions of culture and humanity, as digital production and distribution tools have expanded access to telling and sharing stories,” says Christian. “In TV, this means we have more TV, in a broader range of formats, with a wide range of budgets, and more diversity in the communities represented onscreen.”

The implications of this trend could mean that more queer creators and creators of color with established reputations in the traditional model could bridge the gap between online and network, says Christian. “I think we're in a brief period of optimism where it seems as though the doors are opening very, very slowly. People who have been in Hollywood like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes are high-value partners for these new networks that are looking for legitimacy and also looking for someone they can hand a hundred-million-dollar-plus check to and know they’re going to get content that's interesting.”

In the humanities, technology has opened a new realm for expression and creativity, one that artists are just starting to explore, says Hodge. Last year, Hodge and digital humanities postdoctoral fellow Danny Snelson launched the Ordinary Media Research Workshop, a one-year media-studies project investigating how digital technology saturates everyday life. The workshop examined how artists are working in what Hodge calls “new network genres” — such as animated gifs, supercuts (fast-paced compilation of video clips), and online vernacular (“text-speak”) — to consider the implication for our “always-on computing” culture.

“We’re just now developing a common vocabulary for how to think about forms and feelings that are still very new,” he says. “Our traditional ways of talking about art often deal with them being very dramatic. That is, beautiful and sublime. Well, you could say, ‘This artwork is lethargic.’ Some of it is more conceptually interesting rather than thrilling.”

Hodge continues, “You can have somebody doing a supercut of Mathew McConaughey every time he says ‘oh’ in his movies, which he says in just about every single movie he’s in, and get this experience of rapid repetition. And it’s funny what that can lead to. It can lead to boredom. It can lead to sort of exultant excitement. It can lead to a lot of different places in different ways.”

But Relyea also points out that laptops haven’t totally supplanted paintbrushes or other traditional means of artistic expression. In fact, as new technologies make their way into art production, the older methods have become more attractive, especially to younger artists. Relyea cites the work of ATP graduate student Chris Smith, whose 2018 thesis exhibition focused on paper. “You can’t get more old-fashioned than straight-up paper making,” says Relyea. At the same time, though, Smith incorporates approaches influenced by data analytics.

“He sees paper as an infinitely fungible material, much like data,” says Relyea of Smith. “He’ll constantly mulch paper products to make new paper products, because he sees it as something that can be rearranged and refiltered to generate new outcomes. It’s not so much the medium he’s using as the approach that’s being influenced by technological analogues.”

Technology also shapes the artist’s social role and visibility, says Relyea, author of Your Everyday Art World, whose research focuses on the intersection of art, history, and labor. Artists are no longer relegated to their studios. Rather, many take a DIY approach to art and exhibition.

“A lot of artists are multitasking and becoming more flexible in the things they do,” says Relyea. “They might spend time curating shows, setting up a DIY gallery, writing press releases, putting together blogs, setting up their own residency. Artists have become much more multiple or hyphenated in the kinds of identities and roles they perform.”

This labor shift has changed how art is presented — moving it away from permanent locations, such as museums, and toward more temporary sites like festivals, exhibitions, and biennials.

Relyea says that’s because today’s art, from conception to production, exudes an immediacy or temporality that’s more akin to the pervasiveness of today’s communication; our rapid response to communication, event, and dialogue influences the artwork. “There are so many things that come and go so quickly, that are innovative today and outdated tomorrow,” he says. “For that kind of modern subject, the art that is experienced has to have some of that quality to speak to the artists.”

Relyea explains that art in this modern “post-Fordist” era of labor — where modern economies eschew production lines and factories as the prevailing model for small-batch production, specializing job and products, and feminizing the workforce — has its benefits. For starters, this direction has forced museums to expand and build spaces for new kinds of programming, including lectures, festivals, workshops, and temporary installations.

But this new trend also reinforces the notion that art itself follows modernity, and technology is merely just another catalyst for art’s continuing evolution. Relyea gives another example: the relationship between photography and painting. As digital photography continues to improve and comes to the forefront of art, “painters are challenged to be as fast and as nimble as a camera can be out in the hustle and bustle of modern social life. These things are all chained together. As one thing is introduced, everything else seems to completely take on new aspects.”