Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Dude, that is so analog!"

In the digital age, this gentle rebuke refers to anything that is old-fashioned. It says less about the object or concept being described than it does about the person who is employing the old school thing. And while it is usually deployed in a harmless and joshing manner, it does point to a seeming divide between things, art, people, ideas, and processes we line up on the side of "analog" and those we put on the "digital" side. The Analogues are portrayed as threatened by the Digibots and the Digibots are claimed to scoff at the nostalgic Analogues.

But as with many divides, most of the anxieties about what a "Digital Age" means reside at the edges of the spectrum. Extreme Analogues portend the end of western civilization as we know it and decry the rush to embrace new technologies just because they are new. And extreme Digibots fiddle with their new toys in alternate realities, putting on and taking off identities as they construct new avatars and projects for themselves, ablaze with creativity, multi-tasking their way into Brave New Worlds of immediacy and excess.

And yet, most of us live and create far from these stereotyped edges of the grayscale. So-called digital natives, those born after 1980, are not as uniformly immersed in digital culture as popular media would have us believe, and even my lifelong photographer uncle--in his 70s--has a Facebook page and works with Photoshop as well as with chemicals and enlargers.

This is, of course, not the first time we have found ourselves wringing our hands over shifts in the means of production of culture. Surely the oral storytellers blanched when the first cave dweller scrawled ancient graphic novels onto walls. No doubt the first prints led to a gulp in the throat of many a Chinese artist. Johannes Gutenberg perhaps suffered a few withering glances from monastic calligraphers when he churned out Bibles with his printing press. No wonder early photographs depict grim, resigned faces, since the age of mechanical reproduction was destined to mean the end of art. Or was it?

The fact is that we still tell stories. We still paint. We still draw. We still use analog cameras. We still go to live theater. We still sing and draw bows across strings. What has changed, perhaps, is that the pace of change has accelerated to the extent that in my lifetime, I have seen tools develop and become extinct many times over. But the alteration is in the TOOLS, not the impulse to create and appreciate art, which is human and not mechanical. And just as I would choose a certain set of tools to build an adobe house and a different set to build a wooden house, my digital tools are not helpful in designing and articulating certain visions and my analog tools fail at others.

Just so, no digital experience can replicate the texture of a live performance, and analog does not serve to widen access the way digital technology can. A couple of years ago, I sat in on a final rehearsal for a dance production. It was alternately moving, playful, urgent, languid, powerful, and painful. It was in the rehearsal studio in historic Kerry Hall, intimate, and I was in the thick of it. I had to pull my legs back repeatedly, so as not to trip someone. Necklaces of sweat lashed me from more than one dancer. I smelled heat, shampoo, laundry detergent, determination. I heard the squeak of bare feet on the floor, the music, the counting, the grunts of effort, the propelling breaths. I witnessed focus and grace and I thought of the generations of feet that had leapt and been grounded on those floors. I turned to my colleague, who had choreographed one of the pieces, and whispered to him: "I can barely keep from weeping, this is so beautiful." This is the power of analog.

But just this week, I sat in the Main Gallery, where artists Paul Rucker and Hans Teuber led a group of us through terrain that spanned disciplines and bridged digital and analog production and performance. Paul had used digital technology to create graphic musical scores, which he then printed and crafted into puzzles. He placed the puzzle pieces into little containers and invited the audience to choose a puzzle and a tray, and assemble them. We placed the completed puzzles on a table in front of Paul on cello and Hans on saxophone, and they then improvised--essence of analog--on the impressions they gleaned from the snippets of image score in front of them. In the meantime, Paul and Hans and the audience were chatting back and forth and handing puzzles around, and I was snapping photos with my iPhone of the proceedings and e-mailing the images in real time to a friend of mine 15 states away.

I confess that I am an unapologetic user of digital social media; that I have bought a print from Jen Bekman's 20x200 digital arts project; that I tweet and do everything but buy flowers for my iPhone and my iMac and my tiny Lumix camera. But some of my most transcendent moments are standing in a circle with a handful of other singers working on a William Byrd Mass; I have been known to spend the better part of a paycheck on a drawing; and you will have to wrench my dog-eared copy of Rilke's Duino Elegies from my cold, dead hands.

This is what it means to live in watershed moments. Analog per se is not threatened by digital, nor will one replace the other. But digital technology does affect the way we study, create, disseminate, critique, document, and archive art in this new century. Our role as arts educators is to support our students as they navigate these ever-changing waters and to model a fascination with the questions: to challenge ourselves and them to explore the current, where it is more treacherous and yet more exhilarating than the safety of either shore. Where they swim will depend on factors beyond our knowing. But at least they will be used to the water.

Jenifer K. Ward

--published in InSight 09, the Cornish Magazine

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