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July 30, 2013updated 08 Jan 2016 5:28pm

Digital art today: from (literally) killer pieces to virtual auction houses

By Spear's

Some thought technology would usher in a brave new immaterial world of digital art and slick cyber-galleries. But so far it’s barely brushed the surface, says Anthony Haden-Guest in the second part of his survey of the online art world 

IN 1994 A killer piece of early computer art was made by the Chicago artist Gregory Green.

Literally a killer piece — a computer killer, it consisted of a set of the notoriously lethal viruses Timid, Kilroy, Intruder and Stealth, together with printed sheets of relevant code. The frisson is compounded rather than removed when you discover that the viruses were still alive, though on obsolete floppy disks. 

Forwards to 2011 and 5 Million Dollars 1 Terabyte, a sculpture by Manuel Palou, a sleek black oblong about the size of a hardback novel, which turns out to be an external hard drive loaded with $5 million worth of illegally downloaded files.

Read the first part of Anthony Haden-Guest’s survey of the online art world

There’s nothing to make your hair stand on end among Palou’s particular piracies — collections of video games, science text books and so forth — but it does indicate that artists don’t just fiddle around with Photoshop in webworld.

In 2006 the Soho gallery Riflemaker put on a show of work by John Maeda. Now 47, Maeda first made himself at home on the internet in his teens while it was still the preserve of academia and the military. He became a consultant with such players as Apple, Samsung and Phillips in the Nineties and is best known for the invention of the screensaver, but his work with moving graphics helped create the online landscape of today.

Then he had suddenly had enough. He segued to art and design.

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‘Thirty years now!’ Maeda told me at the time of the Riflemaker show. ‘It’s been a long time. The computer since the Sixties has been a really fertile ground for experiment. In the Seventies and Eighties it was used to simulate existing artistic processes, like painting, or photographs and motion, and the computer became a tool. And meanwhile it was kind of a medium at the same time, with all the web-based dynamic graphics and Flash type of stuff.

‘But the question is: has it actually cleared new ground? Do we think differently because of the computer now?’

A Material World

Well, it’s seven years later — a geological epoch in tech-time — and so far as the art world goes the question still hovers. We live in a world of screens and smartphones and finding stuff to do with available materials is an artist’s job description, so it’s no surprise that they are doing so. 

When MOCA bought Ryan Trecartin’s B: Settings, the artist was described by Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times as ‘Edouard Manet with an iPad instead of an easel’. Jon Kessler’s The Web at the Swiss Institute, New York, was a submersion in Mondo Internet. Cory Arcangel works with video games and YouTube videos.

In 2006 he used the web as a medium in Punk Rock 101, juxtaposing Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter with Google ads targeting its content. The London-based chanteuse/performer Alex Zapak does remarkable things with Photo Booth and laptop photography. And so forth.

So artists are finding interesting things to do. But just how is the web shaping up as a place to show and sell art? The headline to a piece in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine in 2007 asked: ‘With more than 50 million hits a day, is Charles Saatchi’s online gallery about to transform the art world?’ ‘The dealers at the top of the tree couldn’t give a fig,’ Saatchi said within. ‘We’re not treading on Larry Gagosian’s toes in any way. That doesn’t mean that in five years he won’t be showing the best artists that we have.’

New kids on the block

Both print media and the music biz have been hard-hit by the internet, and hi-tech devices now have US network TV reeling. Will the earthbound art world also be ‘transformed’, meaning gutted? Let’s look at some of the newer players.

One observation would be that the earthbound art world is in a state of cultural melt, with the boundaries between what curators do, what dealers do, what collectors do, what auctioneers do, indeed what artists do becoming increasingly cloudy. But in cyberspace, which is perhaps cloudy enough already, some recent start-ups are sticking prudently to their own patch. 

Paddle 8, for instance, which was launched in May 2011 by Aditiya Julka and Alexander Gilkes, is a virtual auction house. They put on monthly auctions, themed and curated in the manner developed by Phillips de Pury (as it was), where Gilkes had been the youngest auctioneer.

Artsy, which launched last October, works directly with galleries, posting their inventory online. 

‘We have approximately 400 different gallery partners who we invite to list works on the site,’ says Artsy’s president, Sebastian Cwilich. ‘When that work is listed they can choose whether it is available for our users to purchase directly with a credit card, or whether they would prefer us to send the enquiries their way, or whether it’s just there to give a representation of an artist’s work.’

So many successful artists are managing their own affairs these days that I wondered whether Artsy would — like the auctioneers from time to time — consider working with them directly? Negative on that. ‘We prefer to deal with galleries. Its much more manageable. There are thousands of artists on the site as it is,’ Cwilich said.

Limited Editions

Dealing with artists, though, is precisely what Nessia Pope enjoys. A Brazilian-born New Yorker, Pope had made 120 editions of artist prints in Brazil so she was a natural hire when Artspace was launched at the beginning of 2010. Artspace was primarily set up to sell art online, as was Artsy, but it also publishes editorial material and commissions artists to make work — which is Pope’s bailiwick.

‘A lot of the art today is made with the help of a computer,’ Pope says. ‘Either it’s computer-generated or it is helped. And then you have an artist like Wade Guyton, who uses the printer as a canvas. And he’s very acceptable. So the computer is a very big tool today.’

Just how, though, does one monetise an image that can be reproduced infinitely with no variation whatsoever? ‘A photograph that you have printed from the computer, what kind of value does that have? None!’ Pope says. ‘So we edition the work. Let’s say you print a hundred. Once it’s sold out, there is no way that we will ever print another one.’

What if fellows in Shanghai — the ones who can hack the US government — decide to bootleg Artspace? Pope gives a tinkly laugh.

‘The work comes with a certificate of authenticity, or is signed by the artist,’ she says. ‘But they cannot bootleg Artspace; it’s very secure, all the negatives. You go into Google Images and you download an image; you can reproduce anything there. From our sites you cannot do that; the sites are protected against all that stuff. So an artist knows that the work is not going to go over the whole world.’

Hirst at home

s[edition] is going several bridges further. s[edition], launched earlier in the year by Harry Blain of Blain Southern and Robert Norton, the former CEO of Saatchi Online, was set up variously to create, sell and trade in artworks. All online. Artists who have produced so far include Tracey Emin, Yoko Ono and Damien Hirst, who has made both a Spot painting and another diamond skull, this one a baby’s, entitled, in a phrase with several meanings, For Heaven’s Sake. 

Robert Norton believes that s[edition] is firmly in the tradition of multiples. ‘Artists use the tools and technology of their time to make copies of their work more widely available in an authorised or collectible format,’ he says. ‘You can draw a line from engravings, etchings and woodcuts to digital photographs,’ he says. But the potential mass market grows ever huger. 

‘The reason artists are so interested in working with us, it’s two things,’ he says. ‘One, they get to a point where they exclude themselves from the majority because of their pricing. So they like the idea of seeking out new audiences, and every artist wants their work seen by as many people as possible. And they want it to be seen in the right context, and the right context is with an eye for the collector. 

‘To take the Damien Hirst skull, for example, yes, you can go online and you can see a flat, one-dimensional image that the gallery has put out, which is effectively for media purposes. But I would argue that that video which Damien shot in HD of his skull rotating towards you very slowly — the diamonds catching the light from different angles — is a much more rich experience of that artwork than just the still image. Because artists care enormously about how their work is seen — it gives them additional control.’

Shared ownership

Then there are those budding collectors. ‘While s[edition] is presenting you with art that ends on a screen rather than on a piece of paper, I don’t think that from an art history point of view it’s actually different from other multiples,’ says Norton.

‘What the collector is buying is an authorised relationship with the artist. We give you an edition number, and that edition is signed by the artist in the same way that you would have a paper certificate of authenticity — except I would argue that the s[edition] certificates of authenticity are more valuable because they link into a central records database, which makes them much easier to authenticate in terms of ownership. It also enables you automatically to transfer it so that people can resell these editions.

‘People have to get their head around the fact that they are buying something that doesn’t have any physical manifestation. But if a collector believes in the certificate value, then that’s all that matters. And as much as we have enabled artists to use the platform to distribute work, what we’ve done from a collector’s point of view is create an environment where somebody who doesn’t know anything about the artist can come to the site… they can see work exactly priced… and they can get it immediately… what you see is what you get. You’re seeing it on your screen, you don’t need to know anybody.

‘We are trying to democratise collecting, to enable somebody to come to the site. And what they have to realise is we’re only offering art in digital formats. But we’re trying to give them the same feelings that they would have if they owned something physical. They can talk about it, they can have it on their Facebook feed, they can let people know that they are now a collector of Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin, because there is an authorised relationship directly with the artist through the platform. And we try to give people things that they want to bring into their lives.’

And the question with which I began? It still hovers. We live surrounded by a multitude of screens and for the current generation of artists, as Robert Norton points out, they have become so commonplace as not to be technology at all, like paint tubes. I will wrap myself in a platitude: seeing is, or will be, believing.

Read the first part of Anthony Haden-Guest’s survey of the online art world

Read more from Anthony Haden-Guest


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