At the Boston Review, Jenny Hendrix has written a superb review essay about Sven Birkerts’s essay collection Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Digital Age. In his book, Birkerts traces and laments the many ways that digital technology has undermined our capacity for sustained, immersive attention—the kind of attention required to fully appreciate poetry and other literature. Hendrix largely agrees with Birkerts’s claims, but she also suggests that a handful of contemporary artists (e.g., Taeyoon Choi, Addie Wagenknecht) are making work that uses digital material to point toward a kind of tech-enabled spiritual transcendence. The latter passage comes toward the end of the essay and it not to be missed. Here’s an excerpt:
Birkerts, whose references lie mainly outside of contemporary art, may not have encountered it yet, but such art is being made, whether or not it jibes with one’s taste. While much so-called digital or “net” art merely mimics systems of interpretation already in place, there are those artists, now, whose interest is not in the strategies and selling-points of the system but in finding an honest relation to it. Far from Silicon Valley, there are tinkerers whose work more closely resembles a kind of folk art, whose objective is not the next billion-dollar app but the creation of soul-satisfying uses for and meaningful investigation of the digital tools and interactions that constitute daily life: Taeyoon Choi’s handmade computers, for instance, and Brian House’s “tanglr,” a shared browsing extension for Google Chrome. In works such as Addie Wagenknecht’s “Data and Dragons” sculptures, James Bridle’s rorschmap.com, Adam Harvey’s anti-surveillance fashions, Nick Briz’s “glitches,” and Tega Brain’s “eccentric engineering,” technology becomes more than a means to an end. These artists build circuits and programs and other objects for the sake of beauty and contemplation, approaching ones and zeros in the spirit of language. They find there, no doubt, a sensation akin to Nabokov’s “aesthetic bliss.”
Literature, at least that which is widely disseminated and read, lags behind these efforts. But it is not hard to see where it, too, could achieve this: perhaps not in the plot-driven, immersive novels Birkerts prefers, but in works that use the digital characteristics of fragment, association, connection, and speed to create not just meaning but a transcendence of the medium itself.
Image via the Boston Review.