Thursday, October 4, 2007

Digital Encounters & the 'Loss of the Real'

I recently read an essay by Michelle Henning entitled Digital Encounters: Mythical Pasts & Electronic Presence. The essay addresses the introduction and usage of digital technology to contemporary society, consequently raising many questions about how we interact with 'new technology'. She frames the tenets of her essay in relation to the ideas and philosophies of the famed Marxist social/literary critic Walter Benjamin. Henning speaks at length about Benjamin's discussion on the effects of mechanical reproduction and the ensuing byproducts of an increasingly mechanized world. Benjamin thought that technology, in and of itself, did not produce shifts in consciousness and perception; but rather these shifts occurred as a coping mechanism to the increasing intensity of everyday existence. He argued that as life becomes filled with routine (mandating the repetition of unimaginative labor) that people were no longer able to acquire knowledge through experience.

Henning goes on to talk about these issues of industrial development and technological innovation in the framework of modern society, and in specific respect to digital imaging. Where once a photograph's authenticity had previously been based in its physical interaction with the world, this interaction no longer proved true, or applicable. Henning writes, "digital technology presents the possibility of photographically 'real' images of people who had 'never existed'." The seamless shift from analog to digital photography contributes to what Henning coins as the 'loss of the real', a form of simulated reality experienced through manipulated or composited photographs. She makes the important distinction that 'new technology' is in essence not new, but rather an interpretation and extension of previous technologies. In regards to digital photography, this idea is central to understanding how digital imaging has affected cultural perception. It has not done so as a new and unique function, but rather as a reworking of history.

The persecution of digital imaging when blaming it for the 'loss of the real' is ultimately counterproductive. The technology has reached a point where discerning the difference between analog and digital representation is near impossible. I like to think about this technological evolution as a logical, and potentially eye-opening one. If you considered digital photography as a new means for understanding aspects of the world that were previously unavailable to us; then the 'loss of the real' is instead supplanted with the acquisition of a new reality. I have used the photographs of Beate Gutschow, Barry Frydlender and Matt Connors to help illustrate the seamless, digital representations that I speak of. These artists all examine aspects of culture, history, landscape and technology in similar ways as more "traditional" practitioners. However, they have done so with the aid of technology in an attempt to shed new light on the constantly shifting perception surrounding our complex world.

-Ben Alper

From Top to Bottom:

Beate Gutschow, UNTITLED (LS_10)

Matt Connors, Untitled

Barry Frydlender, Blessing

All Images © The Artists