The Digital Sublime

Spirituality in the technological age. 

**Note: if you haven't read Parts 1-3, start here


What is the Digital Sublime? 

"The Digital Sublime" is a new kind of sublime in relation to our current ever expanding technological advances. It is faith in the human race and our achievements, and faith that the things we create will give us much more than we could hope for. Enlightenment. Is it possible? Every day we get closer, evolving and advancing to a higher plane of understanding. Our technologies are rapidly growing. We are getting smarter, faster, and more driven. 


If there is a divine purpose to life, and especially our lives as humans, then perhaps we are on the brink of understanding. Thinking about how much we have learnt over just the past century is absolutely startling. It just keeps getting better! Physicists, engineers, artists, we are all producing new and exciting results that could not have previously been possible. Specifically with regards to computers and the internet, virtual reality and other technologies, the doors have been flung wide open and we haven’t even stepped through yet. 


I have enormous faith in us. We create, we are creators, and it is inevitable that our creations should guide and teach us, they are a reflection of their makers. With both successes and failures we learn and we grow. This is one of the most important parts of the creative process. But it’s the breakthroughs of today that will become commonplace tomorrow, and so on and so forth until we begin to lead fully enriched lives that we have tailored to our needs and wants as individuals. One of the most important and primordial needs that we possess is the urge to know our origins, and to find some sort of purpose to our lives. The universal human mysteries are mysteries for a reason. We are driven by them. We strive to fill the incompleteness of our knowledge about who we are and why we are here.


I am for an art that values spirituality, and I am not ashamed of it. 

The world right now needs a sort of spiritual medicine, we need to feel hope and purpose in an age where its too easy to feel alone.


Further Reading: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

a thought

Everyone seems so cynical about future generations staring at screens all day, never setting foot in a forest or breathing a crisp ocean sunset...

It is a real possibility that the grandiose of the Internet might one day rival the grandeur of the natural world, if it hasn't already. This is the digital sublime

Part 3: The Cloud


In the twentieth century, the word “cloud” referred simply to either (a) a visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere, or (b) to make something murky, or less clear. Now, we add another definition to this list, thanks to the emergence of a new type of cloud: (c) a network of servers that store data and run software (ie. the Internet). In this post, I’ll be reviewing the history of the cloud as a symbol and make a case for its new contemporary symbolism in relation to the digital sublime. Leggo.

Across nearly all world religions, the cloud is a signifier of the divine.  A cloud pillar led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert to the Promised Land; for the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Greeks, the cloud represented creation, fertility, divine power, and protection. In China and India, representations of the Divine were accompanied by clouds. In much of the mystical writings of the world, the cloud expresses the aphophatic nature of the divine, the unknowable, that which will forever elude our human understanding. This profound insight has been expressed through the cloud symbol across cultures.


The cloud has represented the mysteries and profundity of human consciousness in religion and spiritualism, but also throughout the history of art. Thomas Cole once wrote that the sky is “the soul of all scenery”. Early European painting portrayed the sky as a divine backdrop associated with the heavens. In these religious paintings, the clouds may seem to take on a decorative aura, but they really function as a setting for the manifestation of God. Fast forward to 19th century England, when John Constable became so obsessed with painting clouds that, for a period between 1821 and 1822, he dropped the landscape altogether and devoted himself exclusively to painting cloud studies. Then came René Magritte, who used clouds to create surrealist dream-like experiences. Magritte said that his paintings were “visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

Entering the end of the twentieth century, the cloud took on a darker symbolism, one of destruction, looming death, and terror. The mushroom clouds that formed after the atomic bombs detonated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are now icons of worldwide terror and conflict. The satellite images of hurricane Katrina‘s spiralling storm clouds epitomize the vast uncontrollability of natural forces, making our lives feel trivial in comparison to the grandiose of Mother Nature. It seemed as though any conceivable silver lining had been forgotten. 

However, this dread associated with the cloud is in line with our definitions of the sublime. You’ll remember from Post 1, that Burke defined the Sublime as “what has the power to compel and destroy us. It produces shock, awe, and destabilization”. The Sublime is both beautiful and dangerous, which is what makes it so enticing.

Clouds are, by nature, transient and ever-changing. They are beyond our control, and they elude solid representation and decidability by being constantly in flux. They are shifting gaseous metaphors for our fragile human lives.

Now, in the twenty first century, the cloud occupies a new, yet no less liminal and invisible space. With the emergence of the Internet came the digital cloud, and, in turn, an onslaught of cloud imagery in mass media. The appeal of the cloud image is applied to desktop screensavers, logos and icons, as well as product packaging. The cloud today symbolizes interconnectedness, rapidity, and accessibility. Our definition of this new cloud is as a collective storage system to which we all contribute and have access to. ☁︎ The cloud is essentially an ever-expanding global brain: it houses our memories (photographs), thoughts (tweets and status updates), social interactions (Facebook activity), academic accomplishments (e-journals, articles, and online courses), and collective ‘street smarts’ (Google searches).

A couple hundred years ago, the cloud was the epitome of the natural sublime.

Today, the digital cloud is the epitome of the technological sublime.


“Put enough data into the cloud, crank up the search engine, and you’ve got an all-knowing mind” – W. Tecumesch Fitch

So, at what point does the cloud cease to be seen as a network of minds, and begin to function as it’s own individual entity? Sure, a computer with access to the cloud can ‘fake’ intelligence by using a powerful search engine to scan the database, but can it really be said to have a mind of its own? The reaction to the idea of true artificial intelligence is one of both terror and excitement. What we are moving towards is the digital sublime... that same mysterious attraction to something that holds the power to both compel and destroy us. 

Part 2: Überization and Post internet



Many artists of my generation define themselves as ‘post internet’ artists, whose work is inevitably informed by the digitization of our current existence. The Internet has changed (and is changing) the structure of our planet immensely. The scientific fantasy that someday our human minds will be uploaded to a computer network is perhaps not so far off. But here’s a thought: The Internet Revolution is perhaps only a transitory state, preparing us for the real revolution to come. I will not attempt to prophesize what said revolution will be (Others claim the Singularity, when artificial intelligence will surpass us), I’ll leave this up to your (completely human) imagination.


In any case, there is no doubt that we are in a period of extreme change. For the visual arts, I see the impact of digitization as threefold:


1. The way we see is changing…

Visual information is essential to an artwork. How we process visual information is changing because of the rapidity and instant gratification of the net. Image, click, image, click, video, click. We are spending less and less time on single images and experiences, disallowing contemplation and appreciation of detail. It’s a kind of ADD of art consumption. When we view an image on a screen, we are also flattening its visual information, effectively diminishing characteristics such as scale, dimensionality, and materiality to pixels.


2. The way we experience space is changing…

We spend more time viewing art from our laptop screens than being bothered to walk to the gallery and experience it in person. We may, in fact, be becoming lazier because of the Internet. The space of the gallery has now moved online, with sites like Saatchi grabbing hold of a larger portion of the art market each year. Virtual space is becoming increasingly embedded into real space. Museums now feature works displayed as digital projections, on screens, or as virtual reality. (A recent example is John Rafman whose work I recently saw at the MAC)


3. The way we create art is changing…

This one is obvious. Software programs like Photoshop, Blender, ArtRage, etc. allow for endless new tools in image production. Artists are even developing and creating their own software programs to integrate into their works. Artistic endeavors are no longer limited to the physical plane. Art can be created to live its life in the virtual world, and never touch a gallery wall.



So where does all this change lead us? What will become of visual art in the digital age? I simply don’t know. But I do know that innovation opens the door to creativity, and change is essential for moving the platform of art forward. There’s a new term being thrown around online, thanks to the emergence of Über, the ultra successful car-sharing company…


überization – when a new technology completely turns an industry on its head and forces us to rethink the way things have always been done. 


And on that note, I will press pause and continue with this discussion in the next post. 

Part 1: The Sublime



Listen, I know that the word SUBLIME is not to be used lightly. In fact, most artists shy away from describing their work (or any work) as sublime, afraid of the grandiose and egocentric tags they might attach themselves to. This is because the sublime has a crazy long and loaded history in philosophy and art, and its definition has almost always been tangled up with definitions beauty. Our thinking about the Sublime has struggled and evolved over the centuries from person to person. Here are just a noteworthy few:


The Sublime is an adjective that describes great, elevated, or lofty thought or language, particularly in the context of rhetoric. (First century Greece. Longinus, On The Sublime.)


The Sublime is different from the beautiful. The Beautiful is what is well-formed and aesthetically pleasing, whereas the Sublime is what has the power to compel and destroy us. It produces shock, awe, and destabilization. (1757, Edmund Burke, A philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful.)


Whereas judgment allows one to determine whether something is beautiful or sublime, genius allows one to produce what is beautiful or sublime. The Sublime reveals a reality that is indeterminite, undecidable, and unrepresentable. (1790, Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment)


We are trapped in a continual "moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity". Artists often deny that art is concerned with beauty. If we now live in a time without a mythos of the sublime and when we refuse to exalt pure relations or live in the abstract, how then can we create sublime art? (1948, Barnett Newman, The Sublime is Now)


These are extremely short summaries of a notion that has taken up epic loads of human brainpower. For now, I will not go into detail about every philosophical and artistic declaration on the sublime. I am also not particularly concerned with disputing any of their validity. Instead, I am interested in a new kind of Sublime that I see arising today and which will develop into the future. Enter THE DIGITAL SUBLIME. 


ps. here are some interesting definitions that I have amassed in my Google search for answers to 'What is the Sublime?'