Art as Digital Counterpractice

Digital technologies are pervasive and ubiquitous. Not only are mobile technologies on the rise, but so too are computing and social software which are embedded in objects, space and all manner of social interactions. Adam Greenfield uses the umbrella term “everyware” to describe the paradigmatic shift toward technologies that are pervasive, ubiquitous, sentient, tangible and wearable.[1] These technologies are invested with some decision-making capacity in order to facilitate the completion of everyday tasks. It is through the rhetoric of efficiency and empowerment that these technologies are constructed in the popular imagination. At the same time, the software that now underwrites social and cultural processes and the semiautomated technologies that code space are so effectively woven into everyday life that they are disappearing from view.[2] As such, we only become conscious of digital technologies when they are not working. While a seamless interface might improve functionality, it also makes the critical questions associated with the digital harder to address. How can the impact of digital technologies be assessed if they cannot be seen or sensed?

While design based approaches to digital technologies could be described as focused on technical mastery and more imminent forms of critique, contemporary artists take quite a different approach to their inquiry into the digital. Claire Bishop argues that many artists have been slow to take up the challenge of exploring the digitisation of everyday life.[3] Despite this, digital technologies underwrite many aspects of the artistic process—from the software that produces films and materials for production, to the promotion of an artists’ profile—the digital often enables or constrains outcomes. Bishop contends there are several reasons for this, not least the “fascination” that many artists have with analogue media.[4] But the digital also raises questions about how the aesthetic “object” operates within the paradigm of contemporary art. Most specifically, how can the conceptual challenges of digitisation—distributed and collaborative as it is—be explored in the traditional format of the exhibition? Jack Burnham’s notion of “unobjects” announces a paradigmatic shift from finite objects bounded by material limits to a more conceptual, systems approach toward art, focusing on “the relations between people and between people and the components of their environment.”[5] Following on from this, social, spatial, participatory and interventionist practices work in context, expanding and extending beyond the “white cube” of the gallery. Nevertheless, the role of the gallery in contemporary art is still a powerful one. Part of the appeal lies in the fact that the gallery is free of context, so that “time and space are thought to be excluded from the experience of the artworks.”[6] As Simon Sheikh explains this ensures that the gallery space remains an important ideological site for “commodity fetishism” and the creation of “eternal value(s).”[7]

When it comes to methods of production, digital tools and technologies have introduced new materialities, processes and values for contemporary artists to negotiate. In considering how art might explore the digital, several tensions and challenges emerge. First, digital technologies are becoming increasingly immaterial and invisible, and appear to be given purpose and functionality in a particular social, cultural or spatial context. By contrast contemporary art is based around the creation of an aesthetic object, most often appraised in the gallery, the museum or the spectacular biennale or festival. The most valued and spectacular works are stripped of context and without relation to their geographical or cultural contexts. Curators may well write the work into place but as Hito Steyerl argues the spectacular event exhibition is now nothing more than a bulwark for neoliberal capital.[8] Hence every city awakening itself to the logic of semiocapitalism wants a biennale, to map itself into the global cultural space.[9] We contest contemporary art’s operational surplus, however, acknowledge that there is no motivation for the creation of endless variabilities and reproductions. In this way, the digital’s capacity to recombine and reproduce images can be contrasted against the one-off limited edition approach propagated by the gallery, museum and biennale, a distinction which ensures the commodification of contemporary art. Finally, broad distinctions can be made between the machinic processing that takes place through digital technologies and the human interpretations that are the hallmark of the gallery experience. Through the framework of contemporary art the digital is de-converged, de-contextualised and de-celerated, forcing an interpretive engagement not offered when these technologies are encountered in everyday life.

This essay discusses the work of several artists who expore the social effects of digitisation. We are interested in the (anti-)social and affective qualities of the art object, 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 cipher for the broken tool; and at the same time as a method for breaking tools, dislocating our conventional relations to digital technologies. We advocate for the creative act as a strategy to upset our embrace of technology, and reveal it at the same time. In doing so 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.[10] Our article is structured around four key themes that emerged from the artworks explored: materialising the digital; privacy in the digital; relating to the digital; and postdigital representations of self and society. In analysing each of the artworks we look for mnemonics in theoretical approaches to understanding the digital. The essay concludes by contending that the artist, employing a strategy of counterpractice through deceleration, de-familiarisation and rematerialisation of the digital experience, offers a form/figure of resistance that is inextricably bound to the digital, but also critical of it.

Materialising the digital // Decelerating the Machine

Artists approach the materialisation of the digital in a variety of ways; from giving material form to the digital information and data encountered in everyday life, to opening up the “black box” of technology to reveal the inner workings and its infrastructure. Either way these artworks seek to materialise or reveal what Nigel Thrift calls the “technological unconscious,” or the technologies that not only mediate everyday life, but also construct it. To Thrift technological machines and processes “not only exceed our attention,” but remain “fundamentally unfathomable by us.”[11] As he goes on to explain, “the forms of media—visual, aural, tactile–through which we interface with our informational universe are no longer homologous with the actual materialities, the temporal fluxes, that they mediate.”[12]

American artist Evan Roth’s Internet Cache Self Portrait Series, for example, prints uncensored streams of images encountered through daily internet browsing. For a designated time period, Roth “cached” or collected and stored all images he came across when using the internet on his computer and then later printed these onto rolls of vinyl in an uncurated and uncategorised manner. The work is described as a “self-portrait” of the artist and is composed of faces of “friends” from social media, corporate logos, extracts from Google maps and banner advertisements:

Evan Roth 2013, Internet Cache Self Portrait Series, Self Portrait: 3/2013 – 6/2013, Vinyl print, 150 x 4424cm, Courtesy of Wesleyan University

Roth attempts to “reveal something human and intimate” about the interactions “lost” online, however, the sheer volume of images presented is what first strikes the viewer.[13] Indeed, the hanging and folding of the vinyl print draws attention to the amount of images the individual engages with when using the internet. When the immateriality of online engagements are manifest in this way, not only is the amount of information remarkable, but so too is the divergent and diverse nature of the information encountered. Photographs of friends and loved ones sit alongside advertisements and logos in what appears to be a never-ending print roll of images. The human component of search—the sifting, sorting and collecting of information—is also absent from this work, bringing a type of “equality” to the images and icons engaged with. By labeling the materialisation of search history a “self-portrait,” Roth alludes to the profiling of the internet user through their digital footprint. In this way, our internet search history is a type of contemporary self-portrait, however, it is a portrait that is drawn for an entirely different purpose to that which we are familiar with. Roth materialises aspects of data to reveal the subject as a mainly passive agent in the digital field.

While Roth unfolds and materialises the active cataloguing of our online experiences a different approach to understanding the digital has seen a number of artists open the “black box” of technology. As the term suggests, the “black box” is typically the parts of technology that are purposely hidden from the user by the designers or creators. The artists working with this idea try to remove the black box to reveal the inner workings of the machine. Trevor Paglen’s Autonomy Cube is designed to be seen and used by visitors. While the visual element of the work is based on exposing the hardware, several internet connected computers housed within the work create an open Wi-Fi hotspot.[14] Viewers can join this network and access the internet through Tor, a global network of thousands of volunteer-run servers, relays, and services designed to conceal a user’s identity and online activity.

Trevor Paglen 2016, The Autonomy Cube, courtesy of the artist

Paglen’s work operates on several levels. At first, it appears to work in the tradition of the “readymade,” an everyday object that has become “art” for display in a gallery. However, decontextualised and stripped of its outer casing the technology takes on a different meaning, invoking a simultaneous mix of ambivalence and intrigue for the audience. In this way, the audience themselves are “put to work” in order to make sense of the art object in question. While Paglen proffers free and anonymous access to the digital network, the work interrupts the smooth interface we have with technology. On one hand the wires and gadgetry of the work appear banal and hardly worth contemplation, but on the other they appear uncanny or strange, revealing something about the specificity and singularity of the technology. But as the functionality of the technology is somewhat removed or suspended from the audience’s experience, the technology is cast in a new light. Indeed, opening the black box also means opening up the potential for other possibilities and applications of the technology, as the purpose of the object is no longer certain, but instead open for interpretation. Through this decontextualisation joining the Tor network appears an equal possibility for the audience/users to consider, both in the gallery and beyond.

The goal of many digital designers and creators is to “eliminate mediation,” by making the interface as transparent as possible.[15] While this might make the “network a natural-feeling extension of the user’s own body” it also leads the user to overlook or forget the material impact of our digital engagements.[16] The average user of digital technologies is not often encouraged to consider the amount of time they have been online, the amount of information they have consumed or produced, or the vast digital systems and processes that underpin and enable their digital practices. Much of this is purposely hidden to design a seamless digital experience. However, this makes critical consideration of the digital beyond conception, as Lori Emerson notes: “the seamlessness of ubiquitous computing devices will make even choice itself recede into the background. In the imagined near future, things will simply happen and we will simply do.”[17] In this sense, it is not the art object that is the “readymade,” but in fact the individual user of technology.

If we can offer a meta-critique of Paglen’s Autonomy Cube, it not only reveals the infrastructure of our digital technologies, but in putting the audience to work switches the subject of the art from object to user. The notion of the human as “readymade” offers the participants/audience a critical view of their own use-value in relation to technology; a sense of how digital machines and systems are shaping their daily practices, and, therefore, what they might do to interrupt the patterns of digital practices that have been unconsciously adopted. As Winner reminds us “artifacts have politics,” including developmental histories and regulatory regimes that privilege some social groups over others.[18] Artists, too, have politics, as do the audience. The question is: how does our “readymade” interaction with digital objects, blunt or hobble our politics? The process of materialising the digital opens up a political or critical perspective thereby offering a choice as to how these technologies might be re-engaged with. In this way the teleology of these technological artifacts is questioned, and the artist, bringing the work into material form, begins to occupy the “schism between art and technics.”[19] Indeed, there is some crossover with the work of these artists and that of media archaeologists, like Jussi Parikka and Lori Emerson, who imagine alternative purposes and uses for obsolete technologies.

Privacy in the digital // Hiding in plain sight

The rise of surveillance technologies has compromised privacy in both digital and non-digital contexts. Citizens are not only monitored for security purposes, but a thriving data knowledge economy has developed in which data, often of a personal nature, have taken on “commercial, research and managerial value for many actors and agencies.”[20] Some of these data are generated voluntarily, but the vast majority is generated passively as a kind of digital “by-product” from online transactions. While efforts are made to de-identify this information as (meta)data, these data, and the insights and applications that emerge from them, clearly have ramafications for individuals. Van Dijck calls this dataveillance. Unlike surveillance, dataveillance does not occur for a specific purpose and instead “entails the continuous tracking of (meta)data for unstated preset purposes.”[21] These purposes might be in the name of national security, but they might also be for the purposes of targeting advertisements or predicting and managing behaviour.[22] While citizens are aware of these developments and have concerns about these,[23] there is a sense of powerlessness toward the actions of corporations and government agencies that collect and use personal data.[24]

Issues of surveillance and privacy have been a popular topic in contemporary art. Critiquing the realities of data tracking, facial recognition software and the perpetual collection and storage of images has founded the curatorial rationale for several exhibitions in recent years. The lack of restrictions that come with less traditional modes of representation can lead to powerful forms of critique, particularly when it comes to contentious and controversial issues. Such is the popularity of this topic in contemporary art that one sociologist has dubbed the practice “artveillance.”[26] Artveillance, is the result of the “reciprocal influences and exchanges between art and surveillance” and not only brings awareness to these issues, but also provides a collective imagery or response to the ongoing surveillance we are subject to in our everyday lives.[27] Contemporary art is therefore an important avenue by which citizens might develop a critical understanding of these issues.

One of the more well-known “surveillance art” series is that of Hasan M. Elahi, who after being stopped and interrogated by the FBI at a US airport in 2002, responded by turning his art practice into a form of self-surveillance, or sousveillance, where every aspect of his life—from what he was eating to the places he visited—was photographed and documented. The result was over 70,000 photos, which he later uploaded to his website. In post-production, Elahi categorises and organises the photographs to create large scale tapestries printed onto vinyl:

Hasan M. Elahi 2015, Thousand Little Brothers v3, pigment on vinyl, 2 meters x 7.3 meters, as installed at Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh

Upon closer inspection the individual photographs become clearer, providing an intricate visual diary of one man’s life rendered in digital prints. In the sequence below the artist has photographed all the food he has eaten at altitude:

Hasan M. Elahi 2007, Altitude v3, c-print, 100 cm x 75 cm

As Alahi explains, providing too much information leads to “obscurity, unintelligibility, and bewilderment” enabling him to hide in plain sight.[28] Over-disclosure also adds to the cost and trouble of searching, deterring authorities and systems of surveillance. As Thompson points out, this has been an effective technique for Alahi as he has not been detained since.[29] But also at play in these works is a resistance to the tools of surveillance that is aided by the “white cube” of the gallery or festival setting. In this context, the “artefacts” that result from surveillance culture are decoupled from the discourses of terrorism, safety and security and are therefore rendered benign and banal.

Surveillance culture is also explored by American artist Adam Harvey. Harvey’s “CV Dazzle” series (2010 – 2016) derives its name from the “Dazzle” or “Razzle Dazzle” ships of World War I, which were painted with geometric, intersecting shapes in contrasting colours. The aim was not to conceal the ship, but to make it difficult for enemies to estimate the speed, range and direction of the vessel. Harvey’s work is a resistance to facial
recognition technology, using hair and make up as camouflage. In a similar way to the “Dazzle” ships the aim is not to conceal, but “break apart the continuity of the face,” so as to confuse the symmetry and tonal contours of the face that the facial recognition algorithms rely on to identify individuals.[30] What makes Harvey’s approach distinctive is that the “CV Dazzle” series is not presented through the lens of the everyday, but as avant garde fashion, modelled by attractive individuals and captured through studio photography.

Adam Harvey 2010, Look No. 5 (a), (b) and (c), for New York Times Op-Art

Seen together these works are a comment on the changing nature of privacy, as personal data is shown to be networked and correlated across digital platforms and technologies. Maintaining privacy is not only a matter of personal strategy, but also a collective negotiation.[31] Each of these works takes surveillance culture as a starting point, yet quickly move the viewer beyond this, to imagine creative and critical strategies of resistance. In this way, the works are instructional and aesthetically arresting. Alahi uses the strategy of stenography, or hiding in plain sight, achieved through massive over-disclosure of personal information, while Harvey opts for camouflage and deception as a way of protecting personal privacy. Each of these strategies is a type of “obfuscation” or “the deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection.”[32] Brunton and Nissenbaum explain that obfuscation can be enacted individually or collectively, however, the aim is to “buy time” and “hide in the crowd of signals” as participation in contemporary society also means being subject to pervasive digital surveillance.[33]

These works traffic in exceptions and specific manifestations of the digital, rather than the generalised, sweeping gestures that are often invoked. Protected by the auspices of the festival or gallery context, a critical position on technology can be operationalised as the artist becomes an agitator or counterpractitioner in the digital space. The world of permanent surveillance requires the individual to adopt new strategies, as these art works become prototypes or exemplars for counterpractice. The works become an instructive take on the potential for a more agentic engagement in the digital space.

Relating to the digital// Recoding human gestures

Humans emerge and define themselves in relation to technology. The dynamics of this relationship, and the latent fears and concerns it evokes, have provided rich material for many creative projects over the years. For example, film directors have tended to see the relationship humans have with technology in dystopian terms, predicting an apocalyptic domination by machines.[34] At the other extreme, are computer scientists and web designers who tend to see technology as simply a neutral tool that humans can use to improve efficiency or solve a problem. Between these two extremes are more nuanced theoretical approaches, which tend to explore the tension between the structured routines and pathways implicit in the technology, and the agency and intentions the individual brings to their use.[35] The artists exploring this relationship often use their work to break the expected or implied ways in which humans engage with and interpret digital technologies.

Lisa Gye and Darren Tofts’ The Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices questions the semiotics of the digital and the automated way in which humans engage with and interpret technology. The work is an online repository of photographs and paintings that capture people displaying gestures that appear to anticipate a future with digital technologies. The catch is of course these images were taken well before mobile devices were invented:

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, Havana, 1965.
Unidentified jogger, Central Park, New York City, 1976. Images courtesy of Lisa Gye and Darren Tofts, 2011, Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices.

While these images capture an array of interesting, sometimes unseen moments throughout history, they also reveal an intimate connection between the hand, the ear, the eye and the mouth that predates mobile digital technologies. Although Gye and Tofts’ goal with this project was to critically remix an ”image’s semiotic DNA” this collection of images also encourages a reconsideration of the automated manner in which we relate to and interpret digital technologies.[36] When reading these images in the contemporary era, our interpretations are inevitably framed through the semiotics of the digital. These uncanny gestures are given function and meaning when coupled with an iPad or a mobile phone. Gye and Tofts suggest these images foreshadow the technologies that will eventually “resolve these postural gestures into a meaningful function.”[37] They close the semiotic loop, whereby the reading of the image becomes corrupted by our relationship to the digital device.

Engaging with these images encourages the viewer to reimagine and recalibrate their interpretations of the digital. Under the digital gaze, the gestures appear familiar, yet they become dislocated when the contextual cues of the image are taken into consideration. “Defamiliarisation,” as an aesthetic technique, can be traced back to the work of Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote that art is a technique of thinking with images. Shklovsky writes that humans are inclined to adopt an “algebraic” method of thought in which perception becomes “over-automatised” or reliant on recognition, as opposed to seeing things in their entirety.[38] Through defamiliarisation the process of perception is prolonged and becomes “an aesthetic end in itself,” so the viewer might perceive things as they are, rather than as they are known or thought to be.[39] The Secret Gestural Prehistory series reframes the images, prolonging the processes of interpretation and opening up opportunities for critical interrogation.

Gye and Tofts’ collection interrupts the assumptions and expectations implicit in our current understandings and interpretations of mobile technologies. This trajectory of return decelerates the momentum of technology and brings the viewer back to a time before the digital was ubiquitous, enabling a clearer perspective on the shifts that are taking place. While it might not be Gye and Tofts’ intention, these works break our assumptions and perceptions of digital technologies, thereby offering a critical reading on the relationship that humans have with technology. As Boetzkes explains, a critical position on digital technologies, is “one that is intertwined with technology, but that also reflects on how this inextricably alters the narrative of the artwork’s emergence: the process of moving toward the end is co-extensive with a working back to the beginning.”[40] In many respects it is the process of questioning and recalibrating interpretations and perceptions of mobile technologies that turn this collection into a work of art. The series highlights the idea that the gestures and postures associated with personal moments in some way pre-empted or shaped the functionality and design of mobile digital technologies, suggesting that the digital has always been iteratively related to embodiment and the analogue.

Like other artists, such as Eric Pickersgill, Cory Arcangel and Stephanie Rothenberg, The Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices uses the technique of defamiliarisation to encourage the viewer to think about the less obvious issue of how human experience is inflected with the digital. By deliberately breaking these machines and their teleologies the artists evoke a tension between the agency of the individual and the structuring capabilities of digital technologies, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the extent to which human behaviour is either shaped by or shaping of mobile digital devices.

Postdigital representations // Revealing the infrastuctures of identity

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.”[41] 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.[42] One aspect of the postdigital is to break down the binary between analogue and digital to demonstrate that they have always been entangled.[43] 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.”[44] Postdigital representations have been explored in theory and practice in the fields of digital literature with Talan Memmott’s From Lexia to Perplexia[45] and William Gibson’s Agrippa,[46] as well as in music.[47] The artists that we look at in this section 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.”[48] 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.

Amalia Ullman 2016, Image from Excellences & Perfections

In her 2013 video work, How to Not Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .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 dilapidated stage—old lens callibration targets in the Californian desert. They preen, kick and ultimately, blend into their surroundings, 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.

Hito Steyerl 2013, Still image from How to Not Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File.

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.[49] Something emerges from the digital, but only in difference, and it is this space that the work of art came from. It is the difference that speaks back to a system of the same; a system that presents itself as the digital era but merely channels and accelerates the simulated differences of semiocapitalism.[50] 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 as a dangerous position to be in.

Toward a digital counterpublic

In marshalling and materialising the glitches, technological infrastructures and conceits, the artists we have looked at present an array of counterpractices for the postdigital age. These artists invite us to contemplate the issues of digitisation that we have come to overlook or forget. In doing so they encourage the audience to occupy a position—even if momentarily—other than that of the end user, so that the objects and subjects of digitisation are seen afresh. From this position there is pause for thought. Amidst the endless gestures of swiping, updating, refreshing and searching, there is a space to critique the changes and shifts that accompany digitisation. And it is from here that the audience might emerge as a “counterpublic.” D’Cruz has argued that a counterpublic comes into being via stylistic, aesthetic modalities, that cohere in relation to a dominant “mainstream public.”[51] The artist, understood for this essay as a human entity (shaped by technology and ideology), is critically disposed and wary of our total immersion in the digital dream.

Hito Steyerl laments that “like civilization, art could be a great idea.”[52] Contemporary art, understood as a commodity, leverages value in an opaque system of museums, sponsors, curators, patrons, collectors, directors and algorithms. It is not that we disagree with Steyerl, but find in the artists we have presented elements of a critique that presents art as a mode of action able to operate in contra-distinction to the computational whole of digital technologies.[53] The processes these artists are engaged in trace a counter curve to our everyday digital practices. Their work is more than ironic, post-critical and self-serving. Indeed, there is a truth to be found outside the media machine,[54] in the artists’ imagination, irreverence and work.

In bringing together the threads of this essay, we can articulate how artists work with the art object to construct the audience as a digital counterpublic. In a gallery or festival context, digital technologies and our interactions with them, become decontextualised from how they are normally encountered in everyday life. Separated from the discourses that are typically used to justify their use (i.e. safety, security and efficiency), the technologies can be seen for what they are, rather than what they purport to do. The art object presented or to be participated in is the culmination of the artists’ counterpractice. It opens up alternative teleologies, possibilites and potentialities that both challenge the audience and provide an exemplar for a digital counterpractice. Through their engagement the audience might become something other than “readymade” for technology—they too can entertain what a counterpractice in the digital space might look like.



We would like to thank Neil Selwyn for encouraging us to use contemporary art as a way of exploring digital issues. We would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of the essay.




[1] Adam Greenfield, Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, (Berkeley: New Riders, 2006).

[2] Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, (New York & London: Bloomsbury, 2013); Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).

[3] Claire Bishop, “Digital divide: Claire Bishop on contemporary art and new media,” Artforum (September 2012): 434-442.

[4] Ibid, 436.

[5] Jack Burnham, “System esthetics,” Artforum (September 1968): 31.

[6] Simon Sheikh, S., “Positively white cube,” e-flux 3, no. 2, (February 2009), (accessed on March 22, 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012).

[9] Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Information to Autonomy, trans. Francesca Cadel and Guisseppina Mecchia, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009).

[10] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).

[11] Nigel Thrift, “Remembering the technological unconscious by foregrounding knowledges of position,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22, (2004): 179.

[12] Ibid, 180.

[13] See: for further description and photos of the work in situ.

[14] See:

[15] Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, (Cambridge, MA,: MIT Press, 2004): 68.

[16] Ibid

[17] Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 3.

[18] Langdon Winner, “Do artifacts have politics?” in ed. D. MacKenzie & J. Wajcman, The Social Shaping of Technology, (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999/2002).

[19] Burnham, 31.

[20] Mike Michael and Deborah Lupton, “Toward a manifesto for the ‘public understanding of big data,’” Public Understanding of Science 25, no. 1, (2016): 105.

[21] Jose van Dijck, “Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology,” Surveillance & Society 12, no. 3, (2014): 205.

[22] Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, (UK: Penguin Random House, 2016).

[23] Mary Madden and Lee Rainie, “Americans’ attitudes about privacy, security and surveillance,” (Pew Research Centre, USA, 2015) (accessed March 22, 2017).

[24] Mark Andrejevic, “The big data divide,” International Journal of Communication 8, (2014): 1673-1689; Helen Kennedy, Dag Elgesem and Cristina Miguel, “On fairness: User perspectives on social media data mining,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Advanced online edition (2015) doi: 10.1177/1354856515592507.

[26] Andrea Brighenti, “Artveillance: At the crossroads of art and surveillance,” Surveillance & Society 7, no. 2, (2010): 175-186.

[27] Ibid, 175.

[28] Peter Maass, “Art in a time of surveillance,” The Intercept, (13 November 2014), (accessed on 22 March 2017).

[29] Clive Thompson, “The visible man: An FBI target puts his whole life online,” Wired Magazine 15, no. 6 (2007)

[30] See

[31] Alice Marwick and danah boyd, “Networked privacy: How teenagers negotiate context in social media,” New Media & Society 16, no. 7 (2014): 1051-1067.

[32] Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2015),1.

[33] Ibid, 2.

[34] One only needs to think of films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the Terminator series (1984 – 2015), or Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina (2015).

[35] For example, the mutual shaping of technology cf. Robin A. Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Glasgow: Fontana, 1974) or Postman and MacLuhan’s various takes on technological determinism.

[36] Darren Tofts and Lisa Gye, “A gesture in search of a purpose: A prehistory of mobility” in eds. Lanfranco Aceti and Paul Thomas, Interference Strategies (San Fransisco: Leonardo Electronic Almanac 20, no. 3, 2014).

[37] Lisa Gye and Darren Tofts, 2011, see:

[38] Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as technique” in eds. Lee T. Lemon & Marion J. Reiss, Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1917/1965),17-23.

[39] Ibid, 12.

[40] Amanda Boetzkes, “Techniques of survival: The Harrisons and the Environmental Counterculture” in eds. Elissa Authier and Adam Lerner, West of Center: Art and Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012): 306-323.

[41] Geert Lovink, Social Media Abyss: Critical Internet Cultures and the Force of Negation, (Malden: Polity Press, 2016),10.

[42] Sy Taffel, “Perspectives on the postdigital,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 22, no. 3 (2015): 324-338.

[43] Florian Cramer, “What is Post-digital?” A Peer Reviewed Journal About: Post Digital Research (2014), (accessed March 22, 2017).

[44]  Ian Andrews, “Post-digital Aesthetics and the return to Modernism,” (2000), (accessed March 22, 2017).

[45] See

[46] See

[47] Kim Cascone “The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.” Computer Music Journal 24, no. 4 (2000): 12-18.

[48] Amalia Ullman in Cadence Kinsey, “The Instagram artist who fooled thousands,” BBC Culture, (7 March 2016).

[49] Alexander Galloway, “Something About the Digital,” Catalogue Essay for Exhibition Chaos as Usual, Norway (2011), (accessed March 22, 2017).

[50] Berardi, 21-22.

[51] Glenn D’Cruz, “The Beach Beneath the Street: Art and Counterpublics,” ed David P. Marshall et al, Contemporary Publics: Shifting Boundaries in New Media, Technology and Culture (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016): 20-22.

[52] Hito Steyerl, “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms,” e-flux, no. 76 (2016): n.p.

[53] Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Black Stack,” e-flux, no. 53 (2014): n.p,

[54] McKenzie Wark, The Spectacle of Disintegration, (New York: Verso, 2013): 220.


Luci Pangrazio is a research fellow at Deakin University’s REDI centre, Melbourne Australia. Her research interests include digital and data literacies, discourses of data, software studies and creative and critical methodologies. Email: Twitter: @lucipangrazio Website:

Cameron Bishop is a Melbourne based artist, writer, academic and curator. He is interested in critical occupancies, media archaeologies and resistance strategies. Email: Website: