Offline Matters: An Interview Series is co-presented with No Fun Mag, a membership newsletter by Jess Henderson, author of the book Offline Matters: The Less-Digital Guide to Creative Work.
In this interview, Jess speaks with researcher and curator Nadine Roestenburg, who talks about both the good and dangerous dynamics that emerge from a blurred online and offline world.
Your work and research regarding the impact of digital technologies and the internet on art, design, and society, is mega.
I remember reading a statement from you, where ‘Our world has become a hybrid reality where the analogue and digital are invisibly interwoven, and we move from online to offline with natural ease.’
In terms of art you’ve also explained how, ‘Terms such as ‘post–digital aesthetics’ and the project called ‘The New Aesthetic’ mark the start of an era dominated by artists with a digital state of mind. Through a creative use of both the digital and the analogue as a medium, playing with ways of representation and gaining visibility, artists have created a new practice in which distinguishing between the online and offline are no longer of interest.’
Could you unpack this a little and explain what the knock-on effects have been of the eradication of interest in distinguishing between the online and offline?
Is it still important to have a distinction here?
Nadine: I have to begin with an anecdote. I think it was 2015 when I met Florian Cramer for the first time, and he said ‘There is no distinction anymore between the online and offline. It’s irrelevant.’
It was one of those moments when you meet someone whose work you admire and you’re sharing ideas and you’re like, ‘Oh, I still have so much to learn.’
That was when I really began to think about the impossibility of this distinction between on and offline. Of course, we do need words to talk about things but in respect to this topic it has become so binary; it’s either one or the other. On, or off. When in reality, it is more like a continuum; the offline has aspects of the digital, and the analogue has aspects of the online. It’s always a mixture and both exist of components. It’s a network – not a black and white situation.
This dichotomy in thinking about online/offline, also called digital dualism, is so prevalent in our lives. It’s very easy to say that something is either simply this, or it’s that. Describing with nuance takes more time, and people find that very hard. Society is not a fan of dealing with the grey space. This is painfully visible in many polarizations today.
I became interested in the rise of these post–digital art movements (people don’t want to call them movements. Maybe let’s call them practices) where digital imagery, elements, patterns – like Adam Bartholl’s Map (2006-2019, pictured above) sculpture of a Google map-like pin in real space – started popping up in ‘real’ space. I was thinking ‘Hmmm, this is strange.’ In a way it’s a logical development.
As long as we are using digital tools, we get used to those ways of thinking, their imagery… You know, from 2011 onwards, I began noticing that I sometimes think in tweet-like updates. Very short ways of describing what I’m doing, and automatically thinking of how I could share this with my online network.
“This dichotomy in thinking about online/offline, also called digital dualism, is so prevalent in our lives. It’s very easy to say that something is either simply this, or it’s that.
Describing with nuance takes more time, and people find that very hard. Society is not a fan of dealing with the grey space. This is painfully visible in many polarizations today.”
— Nadine Roestenburg
On the Need for Understanding
Overall, we’ve become used to these mediums. In my work, I started to engage with digital art movements very early on – including the technologies used to make art, digital languages, and expressions – whether online or offline.
Now we’ve seen these styles so much, they are at the point of having become mainstream and not really interesting anymore. There are still avant-garde artists working with the digital though, don’t get me wrong.
One of the movements that has been of interest to me since around 2012 is ‘The New Aesthetic’, with the use of glitches etc.
Particularly James Bridle’s research project on the ‘Rainbow Plane,’ connected to his book New Dark Age, was pivotal for me as it taught me a lot about how the digital is being produced.
This relates to whether there is an importance in having a distinction between being online or offline, what is on or offline… I’m not sure it is the distinction that matters anymore.
What is needed is a more thorough understanding of what we call ‘the digital’ or ‘the online,’ and for that understanding to be held by a larger audience.
The Google Maps rainbow plane, an iconic image of the New Aesthetic for the way in which it accidentally captures the hyperspectral oddness of new representational technologies and image-compression algorithms on a product intended for human eyes. Source: VENUE
“The “Rainbow Plane” project started by simply spending a lot of time on Google Maps and noticing these strange apparitions which appear to be planes kind of cut up into rainbows, in various colours. I was collecting them for a while as an example of where technology had unintentionally produced something that was beautiful to the human eye.
No one went out and said, ‘Make me beautiful rainbow planes’. Somehow in the way that we constructed technology, these images were produced that were to me incredibly beautiful.
But after a while, I realised that actually through some of my other work and working directly with satellite imagery, I suddenly realised I understood how these images were produced, and I understood that it was done through the architecture of the sensors on satellites.
And what I was looking at was this kind of very specific artefact of the technology, and it was an example of one of these – an example of a glitch, right?
But it’s not a mistake, really. A mistake is the wrong way to characterise it. It’s the result of a moment in which you see through into the underlying framework of the way things work…
For me, the Rainbow Plane stands for the moment when we see how technology sees the world, and thus how technology both obscures and reproduces political intent.”
– James Bridle, on ‘exposing the invisible.’
(back to Nadine…)
When I was speaking with some art students about the New Aesthetic, post-internet art, and the post–digital, it surprised me that many of them had never heard of it. A lot of them are still interested in working with analogue mediums. One student said: ‘Well, the analogue is new for us.’
I believe that it is helpful to break with the idea of ‘the digital’ as being something virtual, invisible, untouchable, intangible, etc., because we only see the screen, you know?
We only see the outside of the computer – not the ‘black box’ inside and behind it. We don’t really ‘see’ our traces of data, nor the cloud, which are basically the server parks.
On Invisible Systems
What is happening in a lot of cities around the Netherlands now is the instalment of glass fibre connections. Everywhere you see these orange cables coming out of the ground, and they will only be visible for a moment.
You witness the guys doing the work, they break the ground, lay the fibres, and in a couple of weeks they’ll install them in your house–and then those cables (the ones that we rely on so massively) will never be seen again.
Image by Nadine Roestenburg
A lot of people – probably most people – just accept this.
Andrew Keen makes a comparison between the internet system and the sewage system in How to Fix the Future: Staying Human in the Digital Age (2018).
When it comes to sewage, we have a basic understanding of how that system works, and feel we can trust it and rely on it. I don’t think that the majority of us understand how the system of the internet works and what the politics that influence its infrastructure are.
This is where we ought to create better understandings, and at the same time create a safer, more trustworthy, system to be relied upon.
Artists can contribute to making the invisible visible, the intangible tangible, and the unthinkable thinkable. That’s what I like about artists who work with the digital.
Artists like Ingrid Burrington, James Bridle, Jeroen van Loon, and many, many others, have really helped me attain a better understanding of the network and its systems. I love sharing their work and talking about it with others.
Just as we take for granted the way that sewage works, soon we will take the internet system for granted too – if we don’t already. Before that happens, I believe it’s important to think about this, and the politics that surround and are part of it. Only then should we decide how we want this system to be.
And before that can happen we need a critical mass that is interested in the technology.
That’s why I see a significance in finding ways of explaining these technologies and finding interesting combinations, even if they are nostalgic or old-fashioned to the pioneers (like what the theorists Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin discuss in their book Remediation: Understanding New Media from 1998, which artists picked up on as the ‘New Aesthetic’ – using digital images in an offline space) because I think they do work to help people understand what is in motion.
The "new aesthetic" is just the latest name for remediation, all dressed up with nowhere to go. #newaesthetic— Richard Grusin (@rgrusin) April 18, 2012
We certainly live in a filtered bubble. Even people like you and I, who are critical and thinking about new media, need to put effort into getting out of our bubbles to reach more people and get these critical questionings across.
I see the online and the offline as elements of reality, both of which are elements of my reality, that do require balance. My friends tell me ‘Today I went offline. I walked through the streets and just listened to Spotify.’
I don’t really think that’s offline… we tend to forget that we still carry these devices everywhere and they do continue to draw on our attention and time. As Geert Lovink says, ‘We don’t see them anymore.’ Just like the orange cables.
“Artists can contribute to making the invisible visible, the intangible tangible, and the unthinkable thinkable. That’s what I like about artists who work with the digital.”
— Nadine Roestenburg
On the Good and the Dangerous
In a way it’s good if we don’t care about distinctions anymore, but it’s also dangerous. It’s good because it shows we’re in a next phase, but it is also treacherous to hold the misunderstanding that wandering streets listening to Spotify means you’re offline. There is a hidden politics there, behind these devices. Behind every song you listen to is an invisible yet very deliberate system.
A guy just cycled past my window on his phone (held in his hand, looking at it). Last weekend on a Saturday morning at 9am, I received my first fine for doing that. I was on Google maps looking where to go, and I got a fine for 100 euros.
That was shit, but ok, I broke the law. It made me wonder; I often look at my watch and it is a smart watch – but I wouldn’t have gotten a fine for that. And if I was reading a book while cycling, what would they do? This calls into question if the law is really about distraction… I’d say no, obviously not. It’s about the smartphone specifically and our irresistibility to it – which is by no means our fault.
This is what I mean by the hidden politics.
This is what we need to be thinking about.
Nadine Roestenburg is a researcher and curator who gets excited about contemporary struggles with the digital. She is fascinated by how we love and hate our digital devices, networks, being online and/or offline. Her research track Digital Cultures is located at Fontys University of Applied Sciences, and she works as a program manager for arts and technology festival STRP in Eindhoven.
Check out her latest project Disrupt & Reflect as part of IMPAKT Festival (it’s very fun).