Do you ever stop to imagine what your great grandchildren will consider to be the defining cultural output of the early 21st century? It is unlikely to be to what we might think. One hundred years ago, in 1913, Schoenberg caused a near riot in Vienna; Marcel Duchamp stuck a bicycle wheel on a plinth; cubism landed, like an alien life form, in New York; and in Paris, Nijinsky and Stravinsky premiered the ballet The Rite of Spring (which Le Figaro called ‘a laborious and puerile barbarity’). It seems a pretty sensational year, to us today, reflecting an extraordinary and tumultuous time.
Yet we are living in a similarly transformational era, fuelled by the rise and rise of digital technology. While it is almost inconceivable that computers do not play a role in your daily life, on stage, in galleries, in literature, the computers lurk at the edges: digital is a tool rather than a medium. I’d like to suggest what might happen when digital becomes the form as well. When an exhibition unfolds around you, wherever you are, or a performance uses the huge quantities of data we generate to choreograph dancers; when dramatists allow their plays to seep off the stage into online social platforms, or poets perform inside video games.
These will be the artists, the works and the commentators to watch. You might not ‘get’ them, but to your great grandchild they will be Duchamp.
We’ve some way to go yet. We use our phones, tablets and computers as a place to catch up with reviews and trailers, and as somewhere we buy tickets, or find parking. We understand that we can interact with creators, actors and stars. We can like them, friend them, follow them, speak to them, or just watch them. So far, though, the contents of mainstream ‘culture’ – the art, design, music and film that are the usual stock in trade of the Barbican Centre in London, the Lincoln Center in New York, or the Sydney Opera House – are remarkably unaffected by the digital revolution taking place in our daily lives.
This might be (ironically) one of Western culture’s slowest and more ponderous epoch shifts. Why are we still – still! – talking about ‘digital art’ (and boxing it up in inverted commas) at all? We don’t talk about photographic art, or amplified theatre. Walk into any major gallery, music hall, theatre or bookshop and you’ll find the conventions of popular culture being transmitted the same way they have been transmitted for the past 100 years. Even at the very cutting edge of theatre or art, you won’t find shows that take willing audience members, dissect their online profiles and create one-off bespoke monologues. Or that transpose data from their subjects – as a wild example, let’s say the sleep data of New York, Basingstoke and a village in Nairobi – into a series of living, eternally updating portraits of those cities. Physical artefacts and analogue culture remain dominant in cultural circles. Unless you count special ‘digital media’ courses – lost between art and architecture in the labyrinthine confusions of academic school structures – student degree shows of 2014 will, mostly, look backwards.
None of this detracts from the value of the artefact. The physical chemistry of actuality has significant primacy over the non-physical. Old is frequently better than new. Books, theatre, pens – a stage with a 600-year tradition – are better storytellers than social media. However, the more time I spend with digital technology, the more I understand it as something best consumed by humans in completely natural ways, through speech and gesture, reflected light, and organic, physical surfaces. In other words, all these smartphones and tablets are just a temporary phase on the way to more natural formats – things we already have and love, like talking instead of typing, or using paper, glasses, watches, tables. The way we ‘digitise’ our lives is unlikely to turn back – but our interfaces (how we interact with that digital information) might well ultimately mimic nature.