Cameron Bishop
Art as Digital Counterpractice

The call for new frameworks to understand the increasing complexities of the contemporary digital context is not new. Innovative approaches to the digital have given rise to design literacies, the maker movement and coding, which are now integrated into many educational and community programs. However, as the tensions of the digital era have become more ubiquitous and pronounced, researchers and practitioners from a variety of disciplines are exploring the challenges and opportunities that emerge from using digital technologies. Contemporary art has been at the forefront of this. This article explores the work of artists like Evan Roth, Hito Steyerl and Trevor Paglen, who are grappling with the complexities of the increasing digitisation of everyday life. These artists do not always use digital technologies as their primary medium, rather they activate a diverse range of media to interrogate our relationship to the digital. The artists we look at use analogue media, embodied, performative and sound works to explore the increasingly porous threshold between the digital and the biological. What these artists' works have in common is their focus on how the digital is shaping contemporary life. In this way, art becomes a relay through which to de-familiarise, problematise and reimagine our relationship to digital technologies. Indeed, the experimental, ambiguous and indeterminate qualities of contemporary art can be used to rebut the certainties of binary code and its relationship to capital. In reading these works through a diverse range of theorists − from Claire Bishop and Jack Burnham to Alexander Galloway and Lori Emerson − new perspectives and counter strategies are offered in what can be thought of as an emergent form of digital resistance. The paper concludes by exploring the roles of the artist, the viewer/ participant and the artwork, understood as a counterpractice.

In casting the artefact as counter-practice we are interested in its social (anti-social) and affective qualities as much as its operation as an ontological object (created by an artist casting the digital into material and immersive environments). The art object here presents itself as a cypher for the broken tool; and at the same time as a method for breaking tools – that is dislocating our conventional relations to digital technologies. So we advocate here for the creative act as a strategy to upset our embrace of technology, and reveal it at the same time. In doing this we acknowledge Heidegger’s powerful metaphor of the broken hammer while conjuring an alter-image: the body that moves at the behest of the tools it has created. From abstract concepts like democracy, to more solid foundations for our everyday practices such as sewage infrastructure, the digital inhabits these spheres only because it is allowed to – and by the good grace of humans. We still breathe, we still multiply, we still shout, laugh and cry, but in channeling this through the digital portal what have we become? And who resists this? We argue that maybe the artist, employing a strategy of counter-practice through deceleration, de-familiarisation and rematerialisation of the digital expereince, offers a form/figure of resistance that is inextricably bound to the digital, but critical of it.

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