Wednesday, June 24, 2009

If a Digital Tree Falls, Would We Hear It?

According to an Arts Beat blog post by Roberta Smith at the New York Times, gallery exhibition cards are going extinct.

"Of all the things going the way of the Internet these days, one is the gallery exhibition announcement card. For decades this useful bit of art-world indicator has been an indispensable constant creatively deployed by artists, avidly cherished by the ephemera-obsessed and devotedly archived by museums. But lately the death knell has been sounding, each a linguistic (and attitudinal) variation on the same theme."
Trees will be saved, perhaps, but the visceral response to feeling thick paper stock in the hand and seeing a visual design that is just as easy to look at as it is to stick on the refrigerator is on its way out. This comes as no surprise, but there is some sadness in it.

On my way to the Museum of Modern Art two weeks ago, we passed by Radio City Music Hall. For the first time, I noticed that there were no posters on display--instead, promo "posters" were displayed on LCD TVs strategically integrated into the former housing for posters. This isn't it, but here's an example from Japan:

Posters are gone, never to return!

I thought of my childhood self who used to see so many posters and wished to acquire the ones for shows or movies I loved so I could hang them on my walls. Kids won't be doing much of that anymore. (Either that, or suddenly all children will have multiple LCD TVs in their bedrooms where they can change imagery at will.)

From a business perspective, I can see how it's much more cost-effective to make .jpgs, so it's no surprise we're going down this road. In terms of expediency and cost, it makes a lot of sense to go paperless.

That said, I totally feel and relate to that loss of tangible paper items. I'm hardly the first to say this, but I believe that the 20th Century will be the last great period where we will have collectible items and ephemera. Where we are now, in time, is that transitional moment--we're living on the tail end of the 20th century that still spills a bit into the 21st. We should all probably go crazy buying up more collectibles, posters and whatnot because they'll only go up in value. There aren't going to be as many items to replace them since this stuff is disappearing into a digital haze.

For those, like me, who love certain manifestations of paper, it would be easy to see the Internet as the destroyer of something much-loved. But the Internet is a kind of as an entity of its own--neither good nor bad, simply a tool we can use for good or ill purposes.

Historically, newer technology is always eclipsing the old. The written word replaced oral tradition, the printing press eliminated illuminated manuscripts, radio succumbed to TV, and so on. There's always a loss with a resulting gain that seems to tend toward an even greater ability to disseminate information to a greater number of people. That part has great potential, and is making things like the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan available for everyone to see globally-horrible footage, but publicizing a great tragedy that otherwise could have been hidden from global view by the Iranian government. Great crimes can be exposed in ways never before possible, as well as positive messages. And of course some would argue that there's also a bunch of porn and other things that are not so good.

In an objective sense, it's nearly impossible to know how to judge what is good and what is bad in terms of changing technology (and let's not forget that paper is a technology)--what seems negative to us may very well be considered normal, OK, or even good to those in another age, demographic, location, or time period. It is only those of us who are intimately familiar with posters and cards that may feel the loss. After all, who can feel the loss of something they've never experienced?

As for me, I'm a child of the 20th Century, so paper media and tangibility is meaningful and beautiful, and there is an unquestionable loss. Zeroes and ones offer nothing to connect to in a physical way. Seeing something only with our eyes on a display doesn't create the same depth of emotion as holding something in your hands, looking and feeling.

Perhaps an upside to the ephemerality of digital media is that art will become more valued--if there is less pop cultural detritus to litter our homes, maybe we'll be more willing to shell out money for one-of-a-kind works of art to beautify our existence.

But, I also know that there is still beauty to be had in other forms, some of which haven't been invented yet. And so I'll look to the past to remember what was meaningful on a personal level, and look to the future with some excitement about what technology comes next, hopeful that the benefits will outweigh the harm.

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