Wednesday, March 28, 2012

When Art Goes Virtual, Does It Also Go Extinct?

My basement in annointed with the plastic tubs filled with photos I took during the first years of my now 16-year old son's life. My piano bench is home to the notesbooks of lyrics and staffs of tunes to the songs I wrote when I was 16 to 21. My bookshelves include physical copies of not only the books and magazine articles I have written over 27 years, but also a plethora of meaningful tomes about healing, psychology, relationships, nature and all subjects dear to my heart.

Tapes and CD's adorn my bedroom, offering the opportunity at a moment's notice, to journey through time with songs. There is something comforting about being able to reach out and touch not only parts of my life history, but also the wealth of sensual nourishment that music, photos, books and other forms of artistic expression provide.

In our increasingly virtual world, anything physical can be relegated to judgment as "clutter." For me, these physical artistic relics are treasures, and my room, the treasure chest.

As our world becomes more virtual, these treasures, all products of creative expression, become increasingly optional, and in some cases, on the verge of extinction. Why "clutter" your home with "things" if you can get it on-line or on your iPod? I feel sad that what might be sacred to me might be considered archaic archives, but without recognized historical value. What I find even more disturbing is that if my iPod fails me, if my computer crashes, and if everything backed up gets lost in the cloud, there will be no physical traces of my sacred items.

When my son has children, and technology has evolved to a state we cannot even imagine today, how can I show them the photos that document their pre-birth family history, if I have not taken measures to preserve them through physical photo albums? Will the on-line photo albums of the year 2012 become as archaic as the record player but without the physical status to allow an archeological dig?

When art existed only in the physical world, we took more care to preserve it, archive it and treasure it. Now, people create images or click their smartphone camera and delete them as fast as they created them. They are just entertainment tidbits for the moment. We are so in the "now" that we forget there is a context of past and future too.

Even more fundamentally, the industries that served musicians, photographers, writers and other artists have gone the way of the dinosaur. I recorded a tape of original music in 1983 in a recording studio on reel to reel equipment. Today, people record music at home on their computer. Sadly, the value-added of the sound engineer (as well as the sound engineer's livelihood) gets lost in the shuffle.

While it might be exciting to skip the two-year production cycle it used to take from writing a book to having a physical copy in hand, I assure the e-book that was "written over the weekend" sans editor is not at the same quality level! We are so focused on instant gratification that we rarely take the time to create the quality product that will stand the test of time.

Perhaps it is because I am kinesthetic first and visual second that all the popular e-platforms don't grab me. Kindle, no thanks. I want to touch my book and mark it up with my pen! iPod, help! I like to see ALL the material on my CD in one glance, and have a simple enough selection that I can wrap my mind around it!

While some people say that our virtual technology for publishing photos, books, articles and art is revolutionizing the world the way the Guttenburg Press once revolutionized publishing, I worry that this evolutionary wave will leave more casualties in its wake. Like the difference between a nuclear cloud and a BB gun. Might we be losing more ground than we are gaining?

There is a spiritual aspect of physical art as well. Bringing a vision into physical form grounds it. It anchors it. It assures that it is real.
While a fire may burn away precious archives, somehow that feels like less of a risk than computer software evolving to burn away what was once "state of the art."

When I was in 8th grade, my class made a time capsule and buried it in the schoolyard with the possibility of digging it up decades later. Could the kids of today make a "virtual time capsule" and be assured it would even exist decades later?

I feel strongly that music, photographs, books, paintings and other art forms benefit from having a down-to-earth old-fashioned physical representation. Imagine what future archeologists will be missing if they try to unearth a world so enamored with virtual reality? Or will we evolve to cloud dwellers who exist on-line but not in human form? Ask Siri. She has an answer to everything!

1 comment:

  1. This is a comment that Will, a reader, has written in response to my article.

    Technology and Isolation

    I also believe in the physicality of objects such as art, books and music. I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. However, I am an extremely visual person. I believe in Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and I believe my greatest manifestation of intelligence is purely visual. My decades of working in photography have not changed the value I feel in the physicality of the printed image. It is just about the end of an artistic process which is most satisfying to me, and the actual process of creating, conceiving and producing an image is what gives me great joy. While I was late to join the move to digital photography, this change has only changed the methodology of the art. I still get the same satisfaction from the process.

    The only real change, in my point of view, is the digital picture frame, which can be loaded with many different images. However, it doesn't hold a candle to the physicality and comfort one gets from holding a real photograph, and it never will. I process all of my own work archival, which simply means that I create it for maximum longevity, which is measured in decades or even centuries. Nothing will ever have the ultimate power of the printed image, framed and hung on a wall. The most important part of my image-making hasn't changed. I still shoot full frame, which is how I was taught decades ago. I never crop my images. This requires a discipline and a desire to complete the substance of the image you see. The one change, which is a big one, is that I now see the photograph as the drawing on canvas, which becomes the painting, not the painting itself. The photo file that comes out of my camera is simply the beginning of my creative process.

    As I'm sure you have noticed, my iPod is ever-present in my daily life. It is not just for my great love of music. It is a very powerful coping mechanism as well. However, I don't collect CD's. They are all digital files on my computer and iPod. This is simply a matter of convenience and practicality. I have some 830+ CD's in my music library. It exists in 3 locations, so that I will never lose it if one device fails. I don't physically have the space to store all of this music otherwise, but your article brings up an important point.

    That being, the fact that our great new technology has created an enormous method of isolation. When I get on the bus, virtually everyone has headphones on, or is talking on their cellphone. I fear the lack of simple joy of conversation that these devices has rendered largely extinct. We go through our daily lives tethered to our phones and iPods, often oblivious to the people around us. This is, for me, the real tragedy of living in the digital age. I also enjoy the feel and physicality of actual books. I haven't stopped acquiring them.