Friday, June 15, 2012

From the Tara Bursey files: Notes on our Cultural Condition, Sort Of

Earlier this spring, I was flattered when artist, blogger and OCAD University student Tara Bursey asked for my feedback on some career-related questions for a class of hers. The list of questions included some general ones from the class (everyone in the class was doing these sorts of interview requests) and some individual ones.

I thought I'd post my response to the class questions. In a way, they are the questions I was the least capable of answering, so they got me thinking more broadly than I usually might. I'm just posting them here for fun.

Thanks again to Tara for inviting me to participate in this project. Here are the class questions and my responses:

1. What characterizes our current cultural condition?

I’m not in any position to comment on what characterizes our current cultural condition, because I don’t study such things. I often feel that when I am commenting on something publicly, it is on my own response to a small set of works, or to a single exhibition, rather than commenting on a wider cultural condition.

I know that subjectively I experience our current cultural moment as overwhelming in terms of the amount of information being generated and distributed through various media.

One Canadian artist I spoke with in the past few months, Kate Armstrong (whose practice addresses media and the Internet) told me that something like 90% of the information in the world has been generated in the past 10 years.

I don’t know if that statistic is accurate, but it speaks to the kind of overwhelmed feeling I experience. As much as I love the democratization and wide distribution of media brought about by the Internet and related tools, I personally don’t feel capable of digesting the volume of information properly.

2. How does this condition manifest in art and design practices?

Again, I don’t presume to know what our current cultural condition is, so I can’t really say what kinds of art and design practices that it manifests in.

I can say that I find myself increasingly drawn to sculptural works, particularly ones in textile and ceramic.

And sometimes I attribute that attraction to the fact that I spend much of my work life staring at screens and interacting with computers and images—interacting with virtuality, basically. (That virtuality also includes, in a sense, that wider media I mentioned as being overwhelming to me.)

Of course, I’m a writer, and I studied photography, and I’m happy to acknowledge that words and images are kind of virtual things to begin with. But given the predominance of digital, many of the concrete and embodied aspects of these practices have been done away with. (No more pen to paper, no more hours spent loading and shaking film-development canisters.)

So, given that I now have this subjective attraction to 3-D, nondigital objects, preferably ones in very tactile materials like clay and cloth, and given I attribute this attraction in part to the fact that there is an excess of digital or virtual inputs in my work and leisure time, I do sometimes wonder if there is a romance in our wider culture at the moment with things that are very analog or tactile or embodied in nature.

I guess if I was thinking more broadly, I’d wonder if the return to craft practices by some artists, which has been identified by some critics and curators, also relates to a feeling of wanting to get away from the digital and virtual which so dominate our work and leisure lives nowadays.

I also sometimes wonder how digital/virtual overload in the wider culture might influence fashion and home d├ęcor. It’s been very interesting for me in recent years to see the resurgence of decayed or worn textiles in fashion. There are many other possible influences for this resurgence – a look back to punk and grunge, say, or a desire for elites to “hide” their wealth in a time of economic recession – but I do wonder whether there’s some reassurance to be found in the tactile and the decayed, or maybe even just a desire to be reassured that there is still a part of life which is tactile and vulnerable to age/wear/weather/the basic laws of physics.

But again, just to conclude, I’m well aware that this sense of being overloaded is my subjective experience. It doesn’t mean necessarily that others/the wider culture/cultures are experiencing that too. That would require study I haven’t undertaken. If you find out, please let me know! : )

(Image of an Anthropologie store, near-irresistible source of tactile, pre-decayed wares, via the Style Spy)

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