Darren Tofts essay has proved to be a really interesting reading, and I’m grateful to him for writing it. Ideas that were still dispersed and fragmentary in my mind found an order there. However, the essay left me with a couple of concerns, both related to the term “virtual”. I must confess that I’m allergic to labels in art, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not just that.
Tofts brilliantly addresses a whole line of thinking in Western culture, that goes from Henri Bergson to Philip K. Dick through Cicero and Baudrillard, in order to address a complex, layered reality of which the actual reality, for lack of a better term, is just one of the many manifestations (and dreams, “the palace of memory”, parallel universes, simulacra, the Matrix, Truman’s world, media spectacle and virtual environments are just a few of the others).
I’m wondering about the opportunity of reducing this extraordinary complexity, that Tofts knows and describes very well, to the classical, binary opposition “real vs virtual”. Contemporary life is already beyond this binary opposition: we live parallel lives in parallel worlds, some “real”, some simulated; we move fast from the one to the other, simply switching on and off our mobile phones. We kill monsters in videogames and help a disabled person to cross the street. We are kind here and perverse there. We adapt to different environments, different living conditions, different languages. We eat cheeseburgers every day, and drink Barolo during the summer holidays. We store our memories in tiny, well designed gadgets that we add to our key-case. What is real? And what is virtual?
Furthermore, and this brings me to my second argument, though having a long and honored history, the term “virtual” has strong roots, in our… ehm… memory, in the Eighties and Nineties technology and media theory. When I read it, I recall data-gloves and virtual reality; and when I read “Virtual Art”, I recall Frank Popper and Jeffrey Shaw. I find no way out of it. So, my question is: does it make any sense to rescue this term from its (un)glorious past? Why not use another term? Or simply call it “art”? If Tofts is right when he says “contemporary art is always already virtual”, why do add this prefix at all?
The answer, of course, can be that the term is needed by those who recognize themselves as “virtual artists” in order to promote their work against the limitations of the art system, against the requirements of the art market and outside of the tight borders of the art worlds. My opinion is that they don’t need it. They are already on the right way. As the “Manifesto of Virtual Art” proves, they have an understanding of the structures of contemporary life that is way more advanced than the one of most “traditional” fine artists. They understood that it’s not a matter of medium, but of understanding and picturing the world we are living in; but they are framing themselves in a way that will probably bring only artists using “virtual technologies” such as synthetic environments and augmented reality to join the crew. The binary opposition “real vs virtual”, if kept as such, can be a curse for them, and for a better understanding of their work.
I’m aware that I’m writing this in the columns of the inaugural edition of an ambitious editorial project called The Australian Journal of Virtual Art (AJVA), to which I wish long life and success. So, what I’m writing should not be intended as a critique, but as an invitation for my host to clarify its assets, and to answer some questions that, I’m sure, are not harassing my own mind only.
Written by Domenico Quaranta. Via The Australian Journal of Virtual Art