Art in the era of bits

Enrico Tomaselli
6 min readMar 30, 2019


Obviously there cannot be a profound connection between art and society, in which the communicative flow is bidirectional; more, they are interpenetrated one another, since the artist is part of society. Thus art can also be understood as a form through which society questions and responds itself, a modality of self-analysis, in which however a temporal staggering — and, at times, even cognitive — acts. In fact, art is always placed on a different level, compared to that in which one’s own social environment moves.
This relationship, between social body and art, is never just immaterial, philosophical, abstractly cultural; on the contrary, it is extremely material, it is cultural in the broadest and deepest sense of the term. It invests the overall nature of society, therefore also of its relationship with technology — and with the cultural changes it introduces.
Just as the wall paintings of the Lascaux caves were possible thanks to the development of the technique of extraction of colors from natural pigments (minerals, vegetables and animals), so the pictorial divisionism was the son of scientific knowledge in the optical field, on the decomposition and acquisition of colors on the retina.

On the one hand, the relationship between technique and art manifests itself on an immediate, material level, on the other on a mediated, cultural level. For example, an artistic movement such as Futurism, while not materially indebted to any specific technique in a new and / or particular way, is unquestionably produced by an entirely cultural phenomenology in turn induced by the evolution of technology. His passion for speed and movement is rooted in a context in which transport technologies are accelerated, transforming the cultural fabric of society.
Transformation which, in turn, is produced both by the characteristics of the new technological means (power, speed, capacity), and by the speed with which these changes are produced. And finally, in a more subtle, almost subliminal form, even from the fact that this technological acceleration manifests itself as intimately connected to the phenomenology of war.
The era of machines unfolds all its power — material but also symbolic — in the palingenesis of war. Or, to put it in the words of Virilio *, “history progresses at the speed of its weapons systems”.

If, therefore, the connection between art and society is (also) the connection — material and cultural — between art and technique, it is important to ask how this manifests itself today, in full digital revolution.
A revolution, a bit like what happened with industrial mechanics about a century ago, which has a further element of cultural transformation precisely in the acceleration with which it manifests itself. The dromology of which Virilio always wrote, and which he called “the science (or logic) of speed”, is a very topical question. Suffice it to say, to make a brief digression, as he said **, only a few years ago and once again on the link between speed and war: “Whoever controls the territory owns it. The possession of the territory does not primarily concern laws and contracts, but first of all regards the management of movement and circulation.”
Overlap this reflection with the fact that, in the contemporary world, the digital territory is more relevant than the analogue, material, enough to understand its absolute topicality.

But then, what are the links between the technological revolution introduced by digital and contemporary art? It is clear that there is much more — and far beyond… — the impact of digital technologies in the production / reproduction of works of art.
First of all, just to stay in this sphere, digital introduces a push in terms of really considerable potential. At the disposal of the artist are now tools that amplify the possibilities to an extent never seen before. Tools that have not only a power in themselves (for example in terms of the quality of the artifact, but also in terms of speed and simplicity of realization), but also in nuce, opening up completely new horizons — just think of the generative art (visual and sound), interactivity, augmented reality…
But above all, the impact of digital technology on art becomes explosive on two different levels, and completely non-existent before. Artificial intelligence on the one hand, the use of big data on the other.

Can an algorithm make art? Or better yet, can the production of an algorithm be considered art? Obviously the issue here is not the question of aesthetics, but an eminently cultural question, or if the outcome of an autonomous elaboration, not consciously produced by a human being, can be defined as such or not. Or at least, where is the limes, the boundary that distinguishes what is produced through the use of a series of digital precompiled procedures, and what is produced independently by these? Where does it cease, or where does it begin to be art, when at our senses are absolutely indistinguishable?
Basically, even software like Adobe Photoshop is just an elaborate set of algorithms. This complex of digital instructions has the ability to perform certain actions, starting from the inputs received from those who use the software, and then produce an output. As far as this software is able to do things that go beyond the technical capacity available to a human being, it is still the latter to decide the inputs, their combination, the source on which to apply them. But the output could be indistinguishable, if it were generated by a sequence of inputs generated autonomously by the software itself (or by an algorithm capable of transmitting it instructions). So does AI open the way for an age of AA (Artificial Art)?

On the other hand, the collection and availability of big data, that is to say gigantic amounts of information, provides a new raw material for artistic action. Beyond the pigments, beyond the marble or bronze, beyond the notes; beyond the same pixels, a material (and at the same time immaterial) boundless universe opens up, which can be — and is already — used to create art.
But, at least in this respect, the vastness of the material is even the least relevant aspect. Much more meaningful is the depth (how much the combination of the data returns, and that is much more than the simple summation of the information contained), the mutability the registration and combination of the data, generates a constant flow and never equal to itself), intimacy (if the data belong to human beings, they can say about each individual even more than he himself knows, and in any case return a image of the multitude impossible from any other point of view).
If this material is shaped to form works of art, these can take on totally new characteristics: they can have infinite duration, without ever being repetitive even in the smallest part; they can generate forms of meta-interaction, if the observer is aware that the work he has on front is also generated using information about himself, and that they are processed in real time; they can represent extraordinary testimony of singular moments, for example if they use the data produced during a catastrophe.
And all this, of course, not to consider the intersection between AI and big data for creative purposes…

If art is one of the forms through which human society looks at itself, in the art of the coming decades it is perhaps the answer to how the digital revolution is changing not only our habits, and / or our attitudes, but human culture in its deepest sense. If all we do-say-think can be summarized in a binary code, perhaps it is in the creative act that the bit can return to give us the sense of our (new) humanity.

*Paul Virilio, ‘Vitesse et politique’
** The Kosovo War Took Place In Orbital Space’, Interview With Paul Virilio (



Enrico Tomaselli

Graphic + web designer / Magmart Festival Art Director / Management culturale