Pausing for a post-digital moment . . .

I made a subtle change in the sub-heading of this blog a while back that probably went unnoticed by the causal reader: I inserted “post-digital age” where is once read “digital age.” At the time, I didn’t consider it to be a radical enough change to warrant explanation. But, the more I’ve thought about it, I figured I should “come clean” and explain how and why this change came about.

Back in March, while poking around the Web, I came across a 2008 exhibition at the Polk Museum of Art titled “Digital Art in the Post-Digital Age: Works from Florida Faculty” that included works by a few of my studio colleagues here at UF. What caught my attention in the title and brief introduction to the show was the use of the term “post-digital” and a reference to a 1998 quote by Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab, stating that “the digital revolution is over.”

Negroponte’s declaration neatly summed up his proposition that digital technology had become so ubiquitous, so taken for granted, that talk about digital technology itself was passé. What should interest us is not digital technology per se, Negroponte argued, but rather the new opportunities and cultural changes it engenders. While I’ve heard this opinion expressed many times over in recent years, particularly in educational technology circles, this is the first time I’ve seen it attached to the “post-digital” label.

Investigating further, I found that Wikipedia refers to postdigital “as a term which has recently come into use in the discourse of digital artistic practice” and as “an attitude that is more concerned with being human, than with being digital.” That source led me to an interesting article written by composer Kim Cascone in 2002 titled The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music in which he states “Today’s digital technology enables artists to explore new territories for content by capturing and examining the area beyond the boundary of ‘normal’ functions and uses of software.” He goes on to discuss a new genre of digital music, led mostly by self-taught composers, that exploits the “failures” of digital technology such as glitches, bugs, application errors, system crashes, clipping, aliasing, distortion, and so on.

Cascone makes several historical references to early pioneers like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, the Futurists, and others that in the process of exploring “new territories” like “background” and “incidental sound” gave all composers permission to use any sound in composing music. He also speaks auspiciously of the venturesome work of young composers, or “glitch artists” as he calls them, who are producing post-digital music today by “messing around” with digital audio tools, using them in ways unintended by their designers.

Since reading Cascone’s article, I’ve come across several other uses of the “post-digital” brand. For instance, there is currently an exhibition titled BIT, BYTE, DOT, SPOT: postdigital art at the Tampa Art Museum that explores how changing technology is encouraging new art-making techniques. Also, the OFFF 2009 International Festival For The Post-Digital Creation Culture just wrapped in Oeiras, Portugal.

All of these findings have raised several questions for me. If there indeed is a paradigm shift taking place in how we think about technology, what are the implications for teaching art and design in schools? How might the post-digital aesthetic inform K-12 art teaching practice? What does all this mean for preparing future art teachers for the classroom?

It may seem unreasonable to expect that public school art teachers teaching digital art would start encouraging students to hack software or exploit “failures” in the digital tools they have at their disposal in the classroom. On the other hand, I’ve seen some very intriguing high school student work lately that resulted from experimentation (or “messing around”) with software and using technology in ways that it wasn’t originally intended. (example #1, example #2).

I believe that in a broad sense adopting a “post-digital” mindset means, as Negroponte suggested over a decade ago, moving beyond teaching about technology itself to focusing on what we can do with it—the new opportunities that it provides for creative expression, visual communication and learning. I believe it also means recognizing that digital technology itself will make little difference in the creative and intellectual life of a classroom unless it’s coupled with challenging curriculum goals and projects, effective pedagogy, authentic assessments, and a collaborative learning culture. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that it means providing art teachers with the necessary supports and ongoing professional development to accomplish all this in their classrooms.

That seems like a good place to stop for now. I’ll continue to ponder and write about the implications of “teaching art and design in a post-digital age.’ Meanwhile, I welcome your comments.