What Art can tell us about Digital Societies

The representation of our society in cultural forms has fascinated me for a long time. Theatre, opera, dance, film, photography all have shaped my upbringing. It was during years of studying digital and creative media that I learnt more about the versatility of media and its representation of life and society at large—from a practical as well as theoretical lens.

First signs of art go back to the Stone ages. As put by Prof. Xiang Xiong Lin in this article in the Humanities, Arts and Society magazine, “Artistic cells are born within human blood. […] Art is the carrier of human culture, and culture is the platform of human civilization.“ Art holds a mirror to the time when it was created. As highlighted by the MET, “art from the past holds clues to life in the past. By looking at a work of art’s symbolism, colors, and materials, we can learn about the culture that produced it.” Equally, art from this century truly tells a lot about the times we live in today. How does technology change the perception about our identity? How does data drive objectivity and erase individuality? How do robots interact with humans?

I want to highlight here a few contemporary artworks that fascinated me in the past and may tell us, step by step, a little bit more about the era we call ourselves a part of or, at least, provide some thought provoking perspectives—on human civilisation in the digital era:

Exploratory Selfie or Selfiecity.Net, 2014, L.MANOVICH

© Lev Manovich

The presentation of the self. A topic that probably never experienced such a dramatic change like right now and within the digital age. Our self-representation is even so important since Instagram, and selfie-camera that Manovich decided to do an artwork on the topic “selfie”. The project is an interactive web app of 3200 Instagram selfies from different countries in the world (Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York, and Sao Paulo). A software creates a certain visualisation of the photos. Via a computer that shows the web app the visitor can explore the dataset of selfies that is then projected onto the wall infront of the visitor. With other artists and specialists, Manovich wants to discuss the construction of self-representation in the digital age. He started analyzing the selfies with a special software, and visualizes the received data. The portraiture of a single person changes through history – from the art of painting, to the photography, to the selfie. The way the self is portrait changes with its society. The project of Manovich even argues if the selfie can be seen as a new sub-genre of photography.

“Selfie is not only a photographic image that we recognize as a self-portrait and which bears a formal resemblance to numerous canonical photographic self-portraits from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Instead, selfie is a product of a networked camera. […] While focusing on Instagram, one of several available platforms of online image-sharing, Selfiecity comments on the social media in general. The project views social media as a vehicle of voluntary interpersonal communication, and discusses the visual component of such communication.” (Tifentale and Manovich, 2015)

Face Cages, 2013-2015, Z.BLAS

© Zach Blas

Face Cages is an artwork that is critizising the biometric industry. Its measuring in an objective way is creating a cage. There is either 1 or 0. If you are too extraordinary for the system what are you then? Do you have to worry if your smile is not detected as a smile – by a software? The face cages are inflexible metal constructions for the face that look like a biometrical measurement of the facial factors. These biometric systems are a generalization of the human individuum that create stereotypes. The result is either discrimination, racism, sexism, transphobia or even homophobia. The discomfort the cages entail, dramatizes the discrepancy of the interaction of biometric norms and the individual person.

“Blas fabricated face masks that resemble iron muzzles based on the shape of biometric diagrams, evoking resonances with prison bars, the Scold’s Bridle, and torture devices used during slavery in the U.S. and in the Medieval period in Europe.”; “The different machinations of faciality […]—as a singular, unique, personal and identifiable security-check, as the imposition of a political norm, as collective empowerment, as a plural, multi-form, malleable and amendable canvas, as a means to play with identity, similarity and difference, and as a source of data extraction—indicate that supra-individual cultural narratives and concerns about policing and governance are braided around the algorithmic capture of the face.” (de Vries, 2020)


Drawings by Robot Paul, about 2013, P.TRESSET

© Patrick Tresset, Galleries West

After Tresset lost his passion for his hand drawn paintings he started building robots and he named them Paul. Paul is a robotic arm mounted on a table. Paul uses computer vision to recognize faces he then starts drawing on a paper in about 30 minutes. Through Paul, a robot becomes human. Art used to be made by human kind – what changes now, that even robots know how to draw a portrait? The boarders merge. But what stays is the fascination of only one human-like robotic arm that has the ability to identify a human face and to draw it.

“Paul is a naive drawer: it does not have highlevel knowledge of the structures constitutive of the human face (such as the mouth, nose, eyes) nor the capability of learning expertise based on experience as a human would. However, Paul is able to draw using the equivalent of an artist’s stylistic signature based on a number of processes mimicking drawing skills and technique, which together form a drawing cycle. […] Although the individual algorithms driving Paul are relatively simple and not particularly novel, the way in which they are combined is of interest as the drawings Paul produces are considered by professionals as being of artistic value, which is unusual for computer-generated figurative portraits” (Tresset and Leymarie, 2013)


Hysterical Machines, 2006, B.VORN

© Bill Vorn

Vorn creates a huge impressive installation with up to eleven dysfunctional machines hanging from the ceiling of the room. Each machine has eight arms made of aluminium reaching out from a spherical body. The machine works like a nervous system made of motor-, sensing-, and a controlling-system. This allows the machine to detect the visitors and react to them. The Hysterical Machines serve to exemplify the paradoxal nature of artificial intelligence. They provoke the visitor’s empathy as they are reacting to their appearance.

In addition to physically interacting with the audience, Hysterical Machines also initiate or establish an emotional relationship with the audience. Their hybrid status, combining the properties of living organisms (their behavior) and technical machinery (their appearance) causes viewers to re-act with a similarly structured ambiguity and ambivalence, in which affective emotions combine with cognitive interest and empathy mixes with primal anxiety and technophobia.” (Kluszczyński 2018)


What artworks do you find most remarkable for our digital lives?

To me, art still represents much about us, our past, our present, and makes us think about our future. To close, I choose the words of a popart legend:

“You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.”  – Andy Warhol

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