Much of today’s technology-aided art production seems to be locked into the imperatives of progress, growth, and innovation and oblivious to their dire social and environmental consequences. North Americans appear especially transfixed by this expansionist mindset, rooted in what historian Frederick Jackson Turner termed the Frontier.(1) This bucolic myth of the Wild West is one of an emerging republic, breaking away from English colonial rule to spread westward across the new continent. It celebrates an American way of life, forged not in urban centres but in the great outdoors of cowboys and gold prospectors, who moved into vast expanses of land left practically free for the taking. Unlike a border, defined as a common boundary between two nations, Turner’s frontier drew a line beyond which lay only wilderness, on the other side of America’s advancing empire. This same conception of untouched space and place forces us to acknowledge the problematic dogmas that affect digital art today, just as they affected previous trends in the last century.
This utopian narrative clearly permeated the Space Age of the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States was racing to the moon against the USSR, sparking decades of fervour about space cowboys and jet-propelled bounty hunters in science-fiction novels and films. In the visual arts, pop icon Robert Rauschenberg also helped to shift the frontier compulsion from terrestrial conquest to dreams of extra-terrestrial occupation. Indeed, the promise of outer-world colonies inspired him to create a cornucopia of collaged prints and silkscreens on canvas, produced in collaboration with NASA’s image library officers. Rauschenberg’s Retroactive tableaux (1963–1964) captured the crusading political economy of America at the time, combining images of astronauts, politicians, soldiers, and civil rights protesters to embed space conquest deep within the nation’s unresolved issues of imperialism and civil unrest.
In concrete terms, the Space Age has shown very limited results, as new resources have yet to be found and carried down to Earth from alien planets. Interplanetary travel now seems restricted to the purview of nerdy robots searching for bacteria between grains of sand on Mars, on the one hand, and opulent oligarchs spending obscene sums of money for a few minutes of suborbital weightlessness on board crafts deployed by Virgin Galactic and other poorly titled commercial space agencies, on the other hand. Not quite what Captain Kirk had in mind when, in the original 1966 Star Trek TV series, on board his starship Enterprise, he uttered, “Space: the final frontier…”
The impression of infinite virginal terrain—and potentially endless resources—is already evident in early American art history, with the grandiose landscapes of the Hudson River School (analogous to Canada’s Group of Seven), and culminates in the twentieth century with a taste for monumental murals, sculptures, and large-scale Abstract Expressionist canvases. Images of ranchers, prospectors, and other frontier protagonists likewise populate the subcultures of country music, rodeo, and Western movies, which romanticized figures such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone fighting against the so-called “Indians”, Mexicans, and sometimes even Black people.2 Such cultural works from Hollywood’s pioneering years have now mutated into problematic artefacts that hinder North America’s processes of reconciliation with afflicted communities.
Akin to the logic of pilgrims appropriating Native American settlements, contemporary artists such as Richard Prince and Jeff Koons have applied a frontier logic by presuming that authored images are also free for the taking. With his string of Untitled (Cowboy) pictures (1989), Prince notoriously took snapshots of magazine pages then cropped, altered, and reprinted elements of Marlboro ads to highlight its cigarette-smoking, uber-masculine horseback riders. Koons ventured one step farther with his Luxury and Degradation series (1986), in which he placed unaltered marketing billboards in galleries and museums. One such billboard presents an African American couple enjoying a glass of cognac with the loaded caption “Hennessy, the civilized way to lay down the law,” which inadvertently questions the “civilized” status of the Black man and woman. With their transition into the white cubes of art settings, Prince’s and Koons’s appropriated ads were exposed to a heightened level of scrutiny, and thus problematized the manipulations embedded in such campaigns to trigger our cravings and desires, often via stereotypical and bigoted tropes.
Ever-more-prescient associations with the above concerns arise from cyberspace, the electronic frontier. From Silicon Valley on California’s west coast—the very corporeal boundary that ended the first frontier expansion—was torn open a portal to a virtual wilderness that promised exponential gains from the proliferation of information networks in the twenty-first century. Here again, the fortunes anticipated from this industry did not flow freely to all. As they were during the first iteration of the frontier, entire communities are cast aside as an inconvenient wilderness on the wrong side of the digital divide. High-tech corporations seldom innovate from a blank canvas; rather, they trespass on existing spaces, in the process harming the environment and exploiting precarious workers in electronic sweatshops around the world.
As in earlier eras, the frontier mindset in the digital age and in technology-based works of art reflects an economy of scale geared toward growing returns on investments.
From such socioeconomic conditions emerge new media art, net art, post-internet art, and other currents forming a new aesthetic that manifests its presence both on the world wide web and in tangible works inspired by the vibrant colours of computer screens and the vast expanses of data on Flickr, TikTok, and other sites featuring user-generated content. Jon Rafman, who highlights the existential angst of digital life by blurring the lines between irony, critique, and a pathological obsession over internet subcultures, stands as the poster child for such genres. Similar to how Prince used magazine ads, Rafman played with appropriation and plunder by sampling and reselling online images without the permission of their authors, until it was game over for him.
The 2013 video Still Life (BETAMALE) best exemplifies Rafman’s penchant for lewd videos and screenshots extracted from the online user group 4chan, which resulted in an atrocity exhibition of gruesome sexual practices. As art often imitates life and vice versa, Rafman recently fell into his own trap by not only documenting trolls in virtual realms but actually becoming one. Allegations of sexual coercion were levelled against him in summer 2020, as he was accused of abusing his power over art students and other women.3 The controversy resulted in the suspension of Rafman’s exhibitions at major institutions and the termination of a longstanding relationship with his Montreal art dealer. Although this was some retribution for Rafman’s wrongdoings, the enactment seems an anomaly in the infinitely subtle power relations in the current art world and the slew of related #metoo stories.4
As in earlier eras, the frontier mindset in the digital age and in technology-based works of art reflects an economy of scale geared toward growing returns on investments. The temptations of hostile takeovers and monopolization are abundant under such conditions, when artistic and social spheres (tangible or virtual) are viewed exclusively as lands of economic opportunity. But until we run out of new territories to conquer in cyberspace, as experienced on finite Earth and the gallingly distant outer space, technology-savvy artists must come to terms with the problematic ideologies of progress and innovation. Such dogmas have historically introduced a flippant disregard for others and now endanger artistic, social, and even economic diversity. As the opportunities in question here are seldom available on a level playing field, adjunct actors are taken advantage of as free and disposable peons or as fodder for the forward motion of commercial progress. For those of us on the wilderness side, this raises urgent concerns of civil justice.
(1) Frederick Jackson Turner only retroactively coined the concept
of the nineteenth-century frontier when his PhD dissertation was published
by Harvard in 1910.
(2) The condoning of Black persecution by the Ku Klux Klan was most infamously put on display in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 feature film, Birth of a Nation.
(3) Such allegations were listed in numerous articles, including those in Artnet News (July 27) and the New York Times (July 28).
(4) See Brendan Kelly’s July 17 analysis, in the Montreal Gazette, of many sexual abuse cases involving local entertainment figures.