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Machines will watch us die: a curatorial study of the contemporaneity of digital decay

Costantin, Patrizia (2018) Machines will watch us die: a curatorial study of the contemporaneity of digital decay. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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The research project documented in this thesis sought to explore the contemporaneity of digital decay. The main research question of this practice-based PhD – how can the curatorial explore the contemporaneity of digital decay? – is articulated in three main aims. The first aim – to curate the research exhibition machines will watch us die and integrate it with a symposium, an artist talk and screening and an exhibition tour – demonstrates that the curatorial is the most appropriate set of methods to answer the research question. The second aim – to develop a post-medium approach as a means to comprehensively explore digital decay’s contemporaneity – shows that this study distinguishes itself from curatorial strategies based on medium-based immaterial behaviours. The radicant was embedded into the curatorial to comprehensively address artworks that critically explore digital materiality beyond the myth of immateriality, which has shaped most discourses on curating digital art. This step was also fundamental in terms of rethinking curatorial strategies for digital art after the material turn. The third aim – to develop a temporal notion of digital materiality – enables the research project to address decay through the various materialities and temporalities of digital culture. In machines will watch us die, digital decay emerged through the multi-temporalities embedded in the artworks’ materialities. The idea of contemporaneity, also rooted within the set of methods, was crucial in defining materiality. This temporal notion of digital materiality was developed by incorporating insights from the field of media archaeology (medianatures, deep time, zombie media), new materialism (vibrant matter and intra-action) and exhibition practice (Les Immatériaux) into the research exhibition, which is here intended as the space where contemporaneity can be experienced. By rethinking and testing out curatorial strategies for art embedded with digital materialities under the framework of the material turn, digital decay was revealed through the material limitations of digital culture. The catalogue, the artist talk and screening, the symposium, and the exhibition tour are also part of the curatorial set and support the contribution to knowledge as well as contextualising it beyond the field of curating. As the catalogue and the events expand the research beyond the curatorial, the theoretical framework of the exhibition and the findings of this study have been opened up for discussion within a variety of fields, such as media archaeology, science fiction, art practice and new materialism. The documentation of the exhibition, the events, the rationale, the exhibition guide and the catalogue (a copy of which is also included in the appendix), can be found in the online portfolio at www.patrizia-costantin.com. The portfolio provides a useful resource and should be looked at before reading this thesis. As it includes both a visual documentation and a supporting writing material, the portfolio supports a thorough examination of this study and should also be consulted throughout the reading of the chapters.

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