How Digital Artists Explore New Frontiers of Absurdism
Dadaism, the 20th Century absurdist art movement, has been reinvigorated by 21st-century tools
The conventional line on Dadaism (the influential early-20th c. art movement) is that it was a cultural response to the horror and absurdity of the First World War, which had just decimated Europe. Amid the rubble and destruction, a growing sense of disillusionment and nihilism took hold as a generation of young people abandoned the mores of the society that had left them to die in the trenches. Alienated from the views and beliefs that informed pre-war art, the artists of the Dada movement invented new modes of expression that valued energy over beauty, randomness over order, and nonsense over logic. Although the core movement of Dadaism as such was fairly short-lived, it was nonetheless immensely influential. Early Dadaists pioneered the use of chance operation, collage, and the use of ready-mades, all of which would play major roles in the story of modern art.
It took the better part of a century for the art world to process and come to terms with these radical ideas. But just when it seemed we had exhausted everything Dada had to offer, there was a resurgence of the Dadaist sensibility — this time with pixels instead of palettes. I have been calling this movement Dada 3D.
This genre of art is characterized by liberal use of digital readymades — generic 3D assets left unmodified by the artist, giving them a rough, unfinished look, and intentionally situating the images in the Uncanny Valley.
The artists of Dada 3D do not hide their sources, generally, nor do they strive for realism or even plausible illusion. The digitality is the point. By leaving the assets raw or generic-looking, artists can comment on digital media itself, which is both the source of and the response to the immense spiritual dislocation of the information age.
One of the earliest and most prominent groups associated with this aesthetic movement is the collective Felt Zine.
This online group of like-minded artists and curators elevated the conventions of vaporwave to a new level and consistently moved this style of digital work forward, showcasing work that used 3D rendering technologies to explore new textures, new themes, and new ideas. An early and enthusiastic adopter of NFTs, Felt Zine also created its own currency for sharing .gif and video files.
The use and abuse of humanoid forms is a pervasive theme in this type of work. Body horror and gross-out humor belie the angsty, adolescent outlook that frequently accompanies subversive art movements, but the recurring emphasis on the digital-ness of it all gives these gestures more ominous overtones.
For instance in the work of artists like Brian Tessler and Jon Baken — the duo behind Instagram cult-favorite Cool 3D world — bodily abjection is more than just a way to get cheap laughs.
Their work frequently features grotesque bodies puppeted around by some unnatural, mechanical force. The bodies are infinitely malleable, but if they should ever be destroyed or fall into the formless underworld of “off the screen,” well, digital clones are easy to replace.
Speaking of “off the screen,”
that’s precisely where this aesthetic has been moving. Painters, sculptors, and other visual artists are increasingly embracing the forms, colors, and motifs of their digital counterparts. I saw several examples of this type of work on my recent trip to the Venice Biennale. Some examples I loved:
The digital Dadaists of today are not merely re-creating 20th-century Dada. This work bears traces of early video art and performance, net art, and pop aesthetic movements such as vaporwave, as well as 3D animation, advertising, social media, and video games. And while there are parallels between our current historical moment and the early 20th century (escalating tensions on the international stage, the proliferation of disorienting new technologies,a global pandemic) today’s Dadaists are living in a different world, and responding to a different set of conditions. While I think it’s a mistake to claim that videos in this genre (and they are mostly videos) are all about the same subject, or that they’re about any particular subject at all.
But for all their differences, artworks in the Dada 3D umbrella do all seem to invoke the same question: Is this people making computers do weird stuff, or is it the other way around?
This is part of a 4 part series on visual trends and aesthetics of AI Art, if you liked this one, check out the first article in the series Visual Trends in AI Art.