Digital Art Offers Room for Experimentation, New Expressions and Experiences
Social media impressions. Algorithmically-derived retail recommendations. Dating-site machine-learning matches. AI-powered customer service experiences. Popular culture and business have fully-embraced digitization innovations for personalization, recommendations and curation. The art world - always on the forefront of creative expression and a mirror reflecting contemporary norms - has not only kept pace but in many ways transcended the digital-age.
So what is digital art and what type of art do digital artists create? Digital art, often referred to as new media art, is a term and a practice that has been prevalent in the museums and contemporary art sectors since the 1960s. Digital art, to use the definition provided by the Austin Museum of Digital Art, is "art that uses digital technology in any of three ways: as the product, as the process, or as the subject." Ultimately, digital art is a form of art that could not otherwise exist without digital technology.
Digital technologies are changing how artists view the world. They serve as a means of further developing traditional techniques and foster the emergence of original forms. Technology is a tool similar to a paintbrush that allows visualizing artists' concept like never before. Artists are empowered to experiment with lighting, textures, colour and perspective more freely. They can create models that would not be possible using more traditional methods.
David Hockney, the most expensive living artist, has been making digital art for almost a decade now. He uses software available on an iPad or iPhone as a way to rethink representation and innovate within the traditional forms like still-life, portrait, and landscapes. By creating work with new technologies, Hockney makes the traditional themes contemporary again. His digital works exist either in the computer or on a piece of paper, "they were made for printing, and so, will be printed" he writes. Similarly, other digital artists connect the digital and physical realms by presenting their work in both dimensions.
An artist's embrace of digital tools enables a stunning range of expression. Digital art transcends traditional fixed, flat spaces by opening new dimensions, movement and exploration. Curators, galleries and dealers welcome these works and augment traditional collections and exhibits with such complementary pieces.
An example can be drawn from the work of Michael Takeo Magruder, a visual artist and researcher who works with new media such as real-time data, digital archives and immersive environments. His exhibition Imaginary Cities for the British Library in London mixed traditional materials with digital technologies to reimagine the city of the past, present and future. Magruder repurposed elements of the past for the digital age by digitizing historic urban city maps and transforming them into 2D and 3D artwork. The juxtaposition of online and offline realms in such cases is a way to highlight how traditional institutions can be not only repositories of old knowledge, but also storehouses of creative potential that can engender new avenues and unprecedented possibilities for generating culture.
As technological advances mean that digital innovations are now pervading many more areas of our lives, the arts industry is starting to take the work of artists working in the digital realm increasingly seriously. In 2019 Sotheby's Auction House sold its first-ever work created using artificial intelligence by Mario Klingemann, a pioneer in the field of AI art whose work frequently exhibits at leading institutions such as the MoMA, the Met and Centre Pompidou. The piece sold Memories of Passersby I is a machine installation that uses neural networks to generate an infinite stream of portraits. The same year another artist collective sold an AI artwork through Christie's for $432,500 — nearly 45 times its high estimate.
It is not only the auction houses that are increasingly involved in presenting the leading digital art. Last year the Rolls-Royce Art Programme acquired a work by Turkish-born, Los Angeles-based artist Refik Anadol, whose body of work addresses the challenges and possibilities that ubiquitous computing has imposed on humankind. Art of Perfection: Data Painting consists of an LED 'canvas' depicting a data painting of data captured from RR headquarters (Goodwood) Surface Finish Centre, referencing the colour of each motor car produced over the last ten years. The work is on permanent display at Rolls-Royce's global headquarters, and an edition of the piece will tour international showrooms for the remainder of 2020.
Institutions also have a long legacy of digital art exhibitions. The Whitney Museum in New York annually commissions net and new media artists for its online portal Artport. Other museums are following the shift towards digital art by introducing innovative departments, solely focusing on new media. National Gallery in London has recently launched Gallery X, providing residencies for artists to explore experimental technologies. New Museum in New York offers a museum-led cultural incubator dedicated to supporting innovation, and The Serpentine gallery introduced an evolving R&D Platform that supports the development of infrastructures for ongoing artistic exploration and interrogation of advanced and emerging technologies.
Similarly, established commercial galleries are introducing commercial arms for digital art. For example, last year Pace Gallery launched PaceX, led by the former vice-chairman of Sotheby's advisory arm Christy MacLear. PaceX is a new initiative to support projects by the gallery's newly signed digital artists. Among the cohort is the Tokyo-based digital art collective teamLab that attracts millions of visitors annually across several of their collective-owned immersive museums in Asia.
Following COVID-19 exhibitions shifted to the digital realm in a multiplicity of formats, borrowing best practices from digital artists. Virtual Reality now allows spaces such as Artland to take the white cube art fair booths online, while agile teams at New Art City equip curators to 'build' their booths through editing multiple elements of the VR space.
König Galerie took advantage of the possibilities the digital realm offers to launch The Artist is Online series. Its inaugural show 'Surprisingly This Rather Works', curated by Anika Meier and Johann König, featured an app by digital artist Manuel Rossner where visitors could control a character to explore the virtual space. The following exhibition of the series, 'Exercise in Hopeless Nostalgia - World Wide Webb', attracted over five thousand visitors on the opening night.
The outlined exhibitions, incubators and projects represent a mere fraction of the digital art initiatives taking place. As the playing field is changing, the art market adopts digital art at an exponential rate. The creative classes embrace of digital art - in its creation and expression - offers new opportunities for collectors, curators and enthusiasts. We encourage everyone keeping an eye on the latest ways artists are pushing the boundaries of new media!
Cover Image: Sophie Rogers, Plasticity Bundle - 01, 2020