In this new digital age, the future is analogue

How can an 80-year-old institution persistently drive cultural innovation? It’s an interesting question, and one that Glenn Lowry, longtime director of the Museum of Modern Art, addressed in his recent lecture at the National Gallery of Australia. I don’t claim to have a solution, but I do want to draw attention to what I regard as an error, or oversight, in Lowry’s (and others’!) thinking – which I believe could clarify the problem, at least for the foreseeable future.

Lowry impressed the audience – myself included – with his enthusiastic embrace of technology for maintaining MoMA’s edginess.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen illustrating the ways in which MoMA is 'doing digital'

And he secured my full attention with this next slide, on principles for working in the context of an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen displaying a set of principles for the network age

The principles are borrowed from a presentation by Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab director. They are inspired by the fact that the modern industrial way of being in the world no longer works. Now that the means of production and distribution are accessible to almost anyone, the process – of business, culture and so on – is much more complex and difficult to control. How to adapt to these new circumstances is not yet clear but we do know that our survival depends on radical adaptation.

So we’re starting to revise our mental models of how the world works. Lowry talked about this shift with reference to two diagrams of the genealogy of modern art. First, he presented this 1936 diagram of cubism and abstract art, made by MoMA’s first director, Alfred Barr:

Glenn Lowry showing a slide on cubism and abstract art

He contrasted that with a diagram produced for MoMA’s 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction:

Glenn Lowry presenting a slide showing the network diagram MoMA  made for its 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction

In 1936, the mental model was was a linear and hierarchical genealogy; by 2012, it had become a dynamic, interconnected network. And the network model is useful because it accommodates complexity and cultivates lateral thinking.

It’s not that networks are new – the map is not the territory, right? The same artists were the subject of both diagrams; ecosystems and social systems have always operated through complex clouds of relationships; and – this is an obvious but critical point – there have always been peoples for whom the modern western scientific industrial model of the world is foreign and highly fraught (to say the least).

So what’s going on now is not an update of our mental models to fit a new world order. Rather, we’re having to let go of aspects of our customary (modern western) thinking in order to recognise the eternal fact of our network-connected reality. In this sense what’s happening now is a reversion to a pre-industrial epistemology, to a mental model that preceded and will supersede – at least in part – logical, binary oppositional thinking.

The troubling part – and this is the point to which I objected in Lowry’s talk – is that we conflate digital technologies with network thinking, and misidentify the outmoded model as analogical.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Computers are built on binary logic; they are the quintessentially logical outcome of reductive, logical, binary oppositional, linear, hierarchical, mechanistic, modernist thought. Yes, they have levelled up, lately, so that our interfaces to them can now show an interactive web of connections; they have become adept at mapping networks. But in this, they are serving our aspiration for technology to transcend digital, to return us to our natural analogical milieux.

The excitement of 3D printing and the thriving maker movement are testament to this yearning for a futuristic analogue, but it’s more than that. Another clue is in the fact that for Lowry and for the thousands of New Yorkers who flocked to it, a standout MoMA exhibition was Marina Abramović’s The artist is present, where every day for the duration of the exhibition, anyone could go and sit with her, in silence. Abramović’s work is about the space between herself and the visitor, the dynamic, continuous gradient, the common ground, the humanity – it is precisely, I would argue, about the analogue.

We don’t need to learn to think digitally; we need to find ways to harness digital technologies in the service of enriching our analogical (interconnected, poetic, holistic, three-dimensional) experience of the world. That’s one way to describe my mission in making this game of analogy. And it seems like an ample agenda for any modern art museum keen to stay edgy in the next century.

Prescript

Here’s how I tried to express these ideas right after the lecture, in two tweets.

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