Art, Corona, Tech, and Social Media

September 29, 2020

This week, my book New Dark Age is published in Greek by Metaixmio, in a translation by Manolis Andriotakis. I was asked to undertake a short interview, which will accompany the publication – in Greek. Here is the English version.

1. How do you see the role of the artist in Coronavirus times?

It’s been strange times for artists: as precarious workers, we’ve seen much of our work, always irregular, cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Exhibitions have been pushed back, and many of the support structures for making work, such as residencies and grants, have become inaccessible or constrained. So a lot of artists are struggling right now. And so are many of those who work in the wider art fields: there have been mass redundancies across the art world, with many in even more precarious positions, such as cleaning staff, invigilators, and art handlers, treated incredibly poorly. This is happening just at the time of increased political involvement in art institutions by artists: from Black Lives Matter and Me Too to campaigns against pharmaceutical, weapons, surveillance, and offshore profits being laundered through art institutions. So on the one hand, we have a situation where artists are being reduced in agency, and on the other, there are incredible opportunities for acts of solidarity with other art workers, as well as broader political movements, and these feel necessary and urgent to be involved in. Campaigns such as Decolonize This Place and the Whitney Boycott in the US, and the Tate Workers Strike and SouthbankSOS in the UK, are serious attempts by artists and colleagues to shift the political situation around labour, representation, and power in the art world and these matter hugely in the present moment.

As to the role of art itself, I’ve been particularly struck by the way many organisations have moved online, and are trying to continue to disseminate artworks and events under heavily constrained circumstances. This is to be applauded, although it feels like there’s a lack of imagination in the way it’s being done: not all art – very little art – can be reduced to online videos, and little boxes on webpages. Art needs community to grow and thrive, offline as well as on, and it needs rethinking in how its performed and enacted. For example, I’m particularly interested in forms such as instruction-based and DIY art, which originate in 60s and 70s movements like Fluxus and Mail Art which tried to create distanced communities of artists, while showing how everyone could be an artist by creating the art themselves. These seem ripe for rediscovery in a time when we can’t all be together, but the need for art – as balm, as healing, as thinking differently, as novel story-telling, and as political force – is as great as it ever was.

2. Is technology the cure or the illness of our times, or both?

I have to fall back on much-quoted words of Melvin Kranzberg, as I do often in the book: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” What matters is how we use it, and who uses it. If it’s used to obscure, centralise and exercise power and domination, as it is by states and corporations in the present moment, then it is undoubtedly part of the sickness. But when it is decolonised and democratised, when it is placed into the hands of wider publics – crucially, along with the education to make its critical use possible – then it can be part of the cure. The greatest lie we have been sold is that technology, by the pure fact of its existence, makes the world better. This can only be true if the world is made better with it, so that more people have access to the tools themselves, and the knowledge and know-how to use them. So any programme of technological expansion, as we’ve seen accelerate to mind-bending speed in the last fifty years, has to be accompanied by a comprehensive political and educational project, to ensure that the benefits of technology accrue to all of us.

3. What is your opinion about the dominant role of social media on the internet?

Social media is what the internet was made for, whether we intended it that way or not. I sometimes describe the internet as “an unconsciously generated tool for unconscious generation”, by which I mean that we didn’t really know what we were building when we created it, there was no central plan or guiding intent, and there’s still no consensus on what it’s actually ‘for’ – nor could there be. Yet it seems to have this extraordinary ability to enact and amplify our deepest, often latent desires – the things we most long for, even if we’re not consciously aware of that longing. As deeply social creatures, who yearn for connection with one another and the more-than-human world, social media is a killer app: it allows us to create this incredibly vibrant, global sensorium, in which those of us lucky to have access can message, share, emote, and – unfortunately but inevitably – argue, to exhaustion.

The problem is that the platforms we currently use to do so are profit-seeking, imperial, closed, and authoritarian: they are wholly owned by large corporations, from the ground up, who have enclosed these social spaces, and do not have our best interests at heart. In fact, they profit precisely by driving us to distraction, extremism, and fundamentalism, and by increasing disparities in wealth, understanding, and political power and agency.

In part, this is a problem of western and particularly US hegemony: the bare fact that some billions of the world’s population interact daily through a social framework designed by and for white, male, privileged college graduates in the US is a travesty, and a dangerous one. But beyond that it’s also a problem of capitalism and statism, which render us incapable of imagining global, technological infrastructures which are not privately owned, not rent-seeking, and not focussed on elevating their own power at our expense. So my answer to all three questions is essentially the same: the role of art, and technology, and media in the present moment is to rediscover its political agency, self- and collectively educate, and imagine and build better worlds in which more diverse and more equal communities can live with care, justice, and respect towards one another the natural world.

1 Comment

  1. […] which I actually read last week, but forgot to mention at the time: Art, Corona, Tech, and Social Media, an interview with the artist James Bridle. A sample […]

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