While it might seem paradoxical to consider the ‘postdigital’ in an era that is saturated with digital technologies and references to them, the postdigital describes a particular approach to perceiving and interacting with digital technology.
As Geert Lovink explains the challenge is no longer the ‘internet’s omnipresence’, but ‘it’s very invisibility’.[i] The postdigital is therefore about making the digital visible again, revealing the seams, glitches and interfaces so these shifts and mutations can be critically considered. There are a number of different definitions and applications of the postdigital, but perhaps most significantly it is a way of moving perceptions of digital technologies beyond the discourse of newness and innovation and toward a more nuanced consideration of the cultural and social alterations they bring about.[ii] One aspect of the postdigital is to break down the binary between analogue and digital to show that they have always been entangled.[iii] Postdigital representations therefore explore the potentialities of the media, rather than being focused on specific outcomes or subjectivities. For this reason the postdigital is less focused on perfect transmissions or replications and more on the ‘acceptance and exploration of the flaws and artefacts inherent in digital technologies’.[iv] Postdigital representations have been explored in theory and practice in the fields of digital literature with Talan Memmott’s From Lexia to Perplexia [v] and William Gibson’s Agrippa,[vi] as well as in music.[vii] The artists discussed in this post not only expand on how we understand the digital and designate it as a space, but imagine it as a terrain to be dug into, as if one were an archaeologist, and the artwork, the spade.
Blurring the boundaries between online and offline identities, Amalia Ullman used her Instagram account to reveal the glitches in social media. Divided into a three-part performance, Ullman built a fictitous narrative that documented the artist moving to the city, breaking up with her boyfriend, taking drugs and undergoing plastic surgery. After self destructing so publicly, the third part of the performance documented Ullman’s recovery and redemption. At the conclusion of the piece, Ullman had attracted 88,906 followers. The narrative arc from self-destruction to redemption no doubt helped her to attract attention, as Ullman explains, ‘The sadder the girl, the happier the troll’. [viii] During the ‘performance’ Ullman’s behaviour was called into question by friends and colleagues in the artworld, as the lines between art and reality were probed through social media. Upon revealing that the posts were part of an elaborate hoax, her followers were dismayed, even outwardly angry. While Ullman’s work demonstrates the potentiality of the media to explore and experiment with different versions of self, it also reveals the limits of online representations of identity. Indeed, this work highlights the fact that they are more closely aligned to embodied identity than first thought, thereby revealing the porous threshold between the digital and the biological.
In her 2013 video work, How not to be seen: Not another fucking didactic .mov file Hito Steyerl summarises our current dilemma as subjects surveilled, fixed and encoded in digital space. She diagnoses the contemporary malaise of the digital subject in a step by step introduction to the art of illusion, as played out on various stages and with different technologies. The 1978 video and song, When will I See You Again, by ‘The Three Degrees’ plays in the background as the images superimpose themselves on top of one another, cutting from utopian, hyperreal gated communities to desert dancers in full-bodied green-screen lycra. The dancers cut moves on a dilpidated stage – old lens callibration targets in the Californian desert. They preen, kick and ultimately, blend into their surrounds, which is revealed as a digital and technological artifice. Perhaps they are the ghosts of the present tense, representing not only our fusion with the infrastructures of our digital habitat and its recombination with our offline environments, but the ways in which the contemporary subject is caught in the superstructure, with no view of what is happening underneath.
Alexander Galloway historicises the digital, pointing out that its definition is rooted in distinguishing between distinct entities, from the digits in our hands to the breaks between frames on celluloid film. The things we may have mistaken for being analogue have actually been digital. From the division of one into two to the distinction between the ‘unary and binary … integration and division’ in politics, social and linguistic structures.[ix] Something emerges from the digital, but only in difference, and it is this space that the work of art came from. It is this difference that speaks back to the monolithic system of the digital – a system that channels and accelerates the simulated differences of semiocapitalism.[x] Hito Steyerl ushers in the world of the postdigital, offering a view of the contemporary subject spawned by the superstructure, and naïve to its inner workings, it is presented as both a point of analysis and a dangerous position to be in.
Feature image – still from How not to be seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File. Hito Steyerl (2013)
[i] Geert Lovink, Social Media Abyss: Critical Internet Cultures and the Force of Negation (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016):10.
[ii] Sy Taffel, “Perspectives on the postdigital” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 22, no. 3 (2015): 324-338.
[vii] Kim Cascone “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.” Computer Music Journal 24, no. 4 (2000): 12-18.
[viii] Amalia Ullman in Cadence Kinsey, “The Instagram artist who fooled thousands”, BBC Culture, 7 March (2016).
[ix] Alexander Galloway, ‘Something About the Digital’. Catalogue Essay for Exhibition Chaos as Usual, Norway (2011): n.p., http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/something-about-the-digital
[x] Berardi (2009): 21-22.