The city of Lincoln is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta – that “Great Charter of the Liberties” signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. Eight-hundred years on, the city’s biennial digital culture festival,asks what liberty means to us now that we spill so seamlessly in and out of the internet.
Some artists answer with work that gets under our skin. For example,is an ultra-high definition film shot through the windscreen of a car as it traverses the picturesque American south west. The film is accompanied by an original score by Kevin Matthews, and it takes a while for the elegance and precision of its editing to make an impression. When it does, though, the whole experience turns distinctly uncanny.
Matthews’ score is supplemented by loops and effects deployed according to an algorithm that matches them to changes in the film’s chroma, luminance and movement. The result is something effortless and intuitive, a sense of being in some athletic “zone” where self and world are one. This is the fabled freedom of the road that car companies promised us but could never quite deliver.
Elsewhere, the town’s archaeology museum answers the question “What is liberty?” in bleak, clever fashion with an exhibition entitled Freedom Lies. The stand-out piece here isvideo installation Pretty Ugly, which explores the strictures and norms that regulate our behaviour.
In 2013 Orwin investigated ideas of self-image on social media, unnerved by the way some young teenage girls post candid YouTube videos of themselves and ask strangers whether they are pretty or not. Orwin’s own forays garnered a predictable harvest of malicious wit, misogyny and casual spite. One truly devastating response informed her, “ur beautiful in ur own way”.
Frequency festival is far from seamless. There is a huge gulf in quality here between the art that is mediated by technology and the art that purports to critique it.
Artists who have made something beautiful with cutting-edge kit in 2010 have struggled to keep their work running on hardware and software that falls into obsolescence the moment their backs are turned. Gallery art is meant to last, and careers and livelihoods depend on it lasting. Digital art, by contrast, evaporates so easily.
Take Enlightenment, a beautiful forest of LED lights that change in intensity and colour as one wanders through the installation. Chatting to Anthony Rowe of, who build and rebuild this piece in different venues, I quickly learned of the mind-bending effort required to keep this simple idea alive for more than a few months at a time.
has similar problems maintaining its piece, I Infinite, which uses mist and laser projectors to generate virtual spaces for a solo dancer to explore. I Infinite is five years old this year, a staple of the company’s repertoire, but still the freshest work presented on the festival’s first day. It is sharper now than it was at its birth, not least because new hardware produces cleaner, sharper visual effects. The effort required to keep the piece compatible with its own machinery, however, is constant and unending.
The other sort of artist – the one that makes art about digital culture – contends with a different sort of obsolescence, since rapid technological and economic change undercuts the most strident political statement, the direst prediction.
This is a serious problem for the art-tech-and-politics network, whose pop-up exhibition The People’s Magna Carta is an odd mix of the sublime (Driftwood’s ROAD is one of theirs) and the ridiculous. Take A Charge for Privacy, a mobile phone charging unit made by Branger Briz in 2011 which, in return for dribbling power into your phone, accesses your photos and displays them on the gallery walls.
After unlocking my phone and passing through not one but two very clear minatory menus I managed to upload my snaps to the thing. “You see how easily you lost that data to the Cloud?” exclaimed the curator. Well, actually, no. In four years, A Charge for Privacy has gone from being a clever provocation to being a rather ham-fisted demonstration of how a USB cable works.
Taming the monster
Culture can be recorded, archived and even performed through digital means. But that is a long way from saying that culture is or can be digital. A discussion at Lincoln University organised by Furtherfield and the internet think tankdealt with this problem head-on.
Monolithic organisations harvest huge amounts of data through the internet, processing it to achieve previously unimaginable efficiencies. A machine that distils all marketplaces into one and then rewards the biggest stall in the market, cannot but be an enemy of variety.
Corralled by journalist Wendy Grossman, the historian Richard Barbrook of Westminster University and cybernetics scholar Raul Espejo asked what it would take for the internet to become a medium where multiple voices could coexist, rather than have to fight it out in the hope of being the biggest maggot left in the tin. The word “redecentralisation” was used.
We have created a monster. To tame it, we may have to dismember it, or at very least, throw grit into its frictionless innards. What we cannot afford to do is to waste any more of our precious lives running to catch up with it.
Frequency runs in venues across Lincoln until 1 November. The exhibition Freedom Lies continues at The Collection in Lincoln until 24 January 2016
Image credits: diephotodesigner; Louise Orwin
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