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LUMEN PRIZE 2017: WORLD’S TOP DIGITAL ARTWORKS REVEALED

Charlotte Lee

On September 20th at The Frontline Club, London, $11,750 was presented in prize money to some of the world’s most pioneering digital artists at the 6th Annual Lumen Prize Awards. The winner of the coveted Gold Award is Plastic Reflectic by Thijs Biersteker. An interactive mirror installation that turns the spectator’s reflection into a silhouette made from hundreds of pieces of plastic, Plastic Reflectic shows that our behaviour directly influences the 'plastic soup' that contaminates our oceans.  

Other works that received special recognition included Zarah Hussain's ‘Numina’ which gives traditional Islamic patterns a digital overhaul and Isabelle Arvers machinima documentary ‘Heroic Makers vs Heroic Land’.

Find the full list of the 2017 Lumen Prize winners below:

2017 Lumen Prize Gold Award

Plastic Reflectic​ by Thijs Biersteker in collaboration with Plastic Soup Foundation, Front404 and Better Future Factory (The Netherlands)

Plastic Reflectic is an interactive mirrored installation that brings the ‘plastic soup’ in our oceans alive.  Provoking a new perspective on a pressing issue, the work addresses the heavy pollution of our waters and through interaction shows the audience that their own behaviour directly impacts our oceans.

 

2017 Lumen Prize Founders' Prize

Slide to Expose by Nicole Ruggiero, Molly Soda, and Refrakt (USA and Germany)

Slide To Expose is a collaborative augmented reality project by Nicole Ruggiero, Molly Soda, and Refrakt. The project explores digital intimacy, privacy, the concepts of life and death and asks how our devices aid, form, and reshape our perceptions of these experiences.

 

2017 Lumen Prize 3D/Sculpture Award

Reading Plan by Lien-cheng Wang (Taiwan)

Reading Plan is an interactive artwork composed of twenty three  ‘book flipping’ machines. When members of the audience enter,  the machines start to turn pages automatically and read the book at the same time.

 

2017 Lumen Prize Moving Image Award

Heroic Makers vs Heroic Land by Isabelle Arvers (France)

Heroic Makers vs Heroic Land is a machinima documentary set in the Calais Jungle, France. Using a game engine, Arvers has captured interviews with residents as the camp was dismantled by the French government.

 

2017 Lumen Prize Interactive Award

The Unfettered Language of Machines by Zheng Da (China)

The Unfettered Language of Machines is a five metre squared hypercube that captures your heartbeat.  The participant’s heartbeat is visualised by the installation through 240m of customised LEDs, creating a fantastic light display that reflects the visitors vital signs.

 

2017 Lumen Prize VR/AR Award

Nothing Happens by Michelle & Uri Kranot (Denmark)

A film and virtual reality project by animation directors Michelle and Uri Kranot, Nothing Happens invites you inside a singular calming universe filled with snow, black birds and poetry.

 

2017 Lumen Prize Still Image Award

Block Bills by Mathias Dorfelt (USA)

Block Bills is a series of 64 banknotes generated from the Bitcoin Blockchain. Each bill has been generated randomly and is based on the unique hash that identifies each ‘block’ on the Blockchain database. The value of each bill represents the approximate transfer volume of bitcoins of the corresponding block.

 

2017 Lumen Prize Web Based Award

The Desire to Stay in the Sun by Fabio Dartizio (UK)

Mapping out our solar system. The Desire to Stay in the Sun allows connections to be made between two different planets. As the planets orbit the sun, the maximum distance is maintained while their only connection is revealed through the spirographs.

 

2017 Lumen Prize People's Choice Award

Numina by Zarah Hussain (UK)

Numina gives traditional Islamic patterns a digital overhaul.  Bringing to life a usually static artform, Hussain maps animated geometric patterns onto a sculpture composed of tessellating pyramids arranged on a hexagonal grid.

 

2017 Lumen Prize Student Award

CAPILLARIES CAPILLARIES​ by Tadej Droljc (UK)

Capillaries Capillaries is an audiovisual work inspired by the creative and destructive forces of suppressed emotions. In the piece the suppressed emotion is represented by the algorithm that can never be heard or seen.

 

2017 Placemaking Special Commendation Award

Ad infinitum by David Glicksman and Moses Journey (USA)

Ad Infinitum is a kinetic sculpture that explores the relationship between discrete points. Using a row of steel ball bearings, with no visible support system, the work attempts to express pure, abstracted animation using as few elements as possible.

 

2017 BCS Artificial Intelligence Award

FRANK - ARTificial intelligence​ by Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm (Denmark)

FRANK is a super intelligent post-human being – a contemporary oracle that gives personal guidance regarding existential dilemmas. Using artificial intelligence the audience can have a direct dialogue with FRANK who answers with a humanised voice.

Introducing the 2017 Shortlist

Charlotte Lee

Lumen's jury panel is delighted to announce the 2017 Shortlist. This year the Prize received more than 800 submissions from 43 countries, and the Lumen team would like to thank everyone who took the time to enter - the standard was extremly high. The winner of the 2017 Lumen Prize Gold Award and this year’s category awards will be announced at The Lumen Awards ceremony on September 20th at the Frontline Club, London. Come along and be among the very first to see who will be taking home a share of this year’s record US$11,750 in prize money. You can RSVP to the event here. 

The 2017 Shortlist includes:

Interactive Award

Europa, Mon Amour by Lawrence Lek (United Kingdom)

Rhythm by Biwei Niu (United States)

The Sand Letter by Seeeklab (China)

The Unfettered Language of Machines by Zheng Da (China)

Abstract Playground AP1 by Will Hurt (United Kingdom)

Plastic Reflectic by Thijs Biersteker (Netherlands)

 

3D / Sculpture Award

The Nemesis Machine by Stanza (United Kingdom)

Numina by Zarah Hussain (United Kingdom)

Snail Trail by Philipp Artus (Germany)

Reading Plan by Lien-cheng Wang(Taiwan)

Ad Infinitum by David Glicksman & Moses Journey (United States)

 

Moving Image Award

Exodus by Acci Baba (Germany)

Heroic Makers vs Heroic Land by Isabelle Arver (France)

Divisional Articulations by Max Hattler (Hong Kong)

Midtown Flutter by Yuge Zhou (United States)

Maybe We’ll Have Another Chance by Francois-Xavier de Costerd (United States)

Whisper Diving by Michael Tan & FaltyDL  (Germany)

 

 

Still Image Award

After Fabergé by Jonathan Monaghan (United States)

Cherry Blossom and Mountains by Damien Borowik (United Kingdom)

CICADA by Michael Pantuso (United States)

Dionysus by Fabrizio Augusto Poltronieri (Brazil)

The Physical Location of Every Byte on My Hard-Drive by Jeff Thompson (United States)

Block Bills by Matthias Dorfelt (United States)

 

 

VR/AR Award

Wikileaks: A Love Story by Anna Ridler (United Kingdom)

Terratic Animism by Jakob Kudsk Steensen (United States)

Nothing Happens by Michelle & Uri Kranot (Denmark)

Slide To Expose by Nicole Ruggiero, Molly Soda & Refrakt (United States)

 

 

Web-based Award

Colonise the Cloud by Gretta Louw (Germany)

Solace by Evan Boehm & Nexus Studios (Canada)

The Desire to Stay in the Sun by Fabio Dartizio (United Kingdom)

AVENUE by Nicolas Sassoon (Canada)

Cells by Wayne Madsen (United States)

 

 

Artificial Intelligence Award

Pulse Breath Water by Kıvanç Tatar, Mirjana Prpa, Philippe Pasquier and Bernhard Riecke (Canada)

FRANK - ARTificial intelligence by Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm (Denmark)

true/false by Onformative (Germany)

 

 

The Placemaking Special Commendation

The Storm by ITHACA (United Kingdom)

Ad Infinitum by David Glicksman & Moses Journey (United States)

Within by Hirsch&Mann (United Kingdom)

Longlist Close-up: VR

Carla Rapoport

Virtual Reality burst into Lumen's view in 2015 with Michael Takeo Magruder's hauntingly beautiful New Jerusalem which won that year's Immersive Environment award. The category was changed to Mixed Reality in 2016, a term which didn't catch on, so this year, it's become the the VR/AR Award. A total of 8 stunning works using Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies made it to the 2017 Longlist, all of which break new ground. 

Pictured above is a clip from Hereafter Life by Gabe Barcia-Colombo, a Virtual Reality installation that allows the viewer to spend time with people who have passed away in a series of virtual spaces. As the artist explains, the viewer begins in a waiting room, "a stark white hallway filled with filing cabinets and a lone door. This is a modern mausoleum, a gateway to spaces in which we can remember the deceased virtually." Along the walls, he's put plaques with names and dates. Using gaze detection, the viewer can unlock a unique virtual afterlife behind the door. 

"Just as the ancient Egyptians were buried with their personal artifacts and commissioned books of the dead, these virtual environments contain the media that makes up our modern lives," explains Barcia-Colombo. Hereafter Life is a beautiful, moving work which extends VR technology into a very human space - one that couldn't come alive through any other media. It's another reason why digital art is such a game-changer for the contemporary art scene.

 

A Longlist Close-up: Stills

Carla Rapoport

In the very first Lumen Prize longlist, back in 2012, the majority of the works were still images, shown as prints or, in some cases, on iPads or smartphones. Today, the majority of the works are anything but still, but the still category continues to command attention. These works are no longer created via photomanipulation - as was popular in the early years of the prize - or via software drawing programmes. 

Lumen's 2017 longlist has 11 still images, accounting for about 12% of the total, and we remain very keen to keep this ratio from falling as artists continue to move toward more interactive, VR/AR, web-based and other technologies. And in protecting the important place that still works play in the Lumen Prize longlist, one only need to look at the new ways these stills are being produced to see why their place in Lumen remains so key. 

For example, take a look at Eric Corriel's Enter The Machine. As the artist explains: "Imagine you could shrink yourself down, swim around your hard drive, and meet your files face to face—what would they look like?" Enter The Machine aims to provide a new way of seeing digital files, one that does justice to their uniqueness, the diversity of the data they contain, and the complexity by which they are structured, the New York-based artist continues. 

Other still works this year show similar complexity, such as Digital Combine - Accumulation 01 by Pietro Catarinella of Italy. Unlike a straigh-forward photomanipulation, Pietro uses a process of continuous manipulation of images which are intersected, mixed and fused together through the use of software, digital technologies and manual intervention. These and the other 9 in the Longlist underscore the strong development of still image in the digital art category and one we continue to watch with rapt attention.

 

A Longlist Close-up

Carla Rapoport

How many artists does it take to create a cutting-edge piece of digital art that will qualify for a Lumen Prize Longlist? In most cases, particularly in web-based, still and moving image, the answer is one or two artists. For categories such as Interactive and 3D/Sculpture, it's usually a group of artists. But there's always an exception to this and this year, it's Universal Everything's Screens of the Future, an ongoing project developed by a whole host of artists and creative teams based in the UK.

If you take a look at their website, you can see that the collective's work ranges from stunning artistic creations for festivals and galleries to commissioned works for well-known brands including the Sydney Opera House, Microsoft, and Deutsche Bank. This kind of cross-over for artists and creative teams is increasingly common - and welcome - considering how expensive it is to create a work using the latest technology. And while works incorporating brand names aren't eligible for entry to the Lumen Prize, other works by the same artists certainly are. As we see it, the kind of  support and patronage that big companies offer artists working with technology is similar to the support and patronage of the Church in Michelangelo's day. Surely the Sistine Chapel would have a white ceiling if it wasn't for religious patrons of the arts.

The 'project' nature of Screens of the Future provides a sharp contrast with most of the other moving-image works in this year's longlist, such as NonCorrelated by Omar Pekin and Sven Winkler, based in Turkey. This one is a single video installation, also using mapping technologies, and like most of the works in the longlist, it's a one-off. Other moving-image longlist works are even simpler in their scope, just using video itself to create their message, such as Whisper Diving by Michael Tan in Germany and Reperes (Landmarks) by Karoline Georges in Canada.

As these examples show, this year's longlist offers an unprecedented range of artistic approaches to creating art with digital tools. Do take a look - there's still a few days left to vote for your favourite for the People's Choice Award which closes September 1.

 

A longer Longlist

Carla Rapoport

With three new awards this year, the 2017 Lumen Prize Longlist has grown longer - consisting of work by 93 artists from 22 countries worldwide, including India, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Brazil. As the judges are working on paring this list down to a Shortlist, now's the time to choose your own favourite artwork to win the People's Choice Award. To get started, just click here

As you scroll through the works, you'll notice that this year's longlist is more politically engaged than previous years. It includes many works which take up political and social issues such as continuing concerns about privacy online, Brexit, the degradation of the oceans and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe. As governments struggle to find political solutions for these concerns - or choose to ignore them - it's good to see digital artists taking these topics head on through artistic expression employing tools such as VR, AR, A.I. and other goodies in the digital toolbox.

Six years ago, when the prize was launched, Lumen decided not to direct artists on the nature of their submissions or ask for entries on a particular theme. It's interesting to see that as the prize has evolved, artists are increasingly choosing themes for themselves and these works are finding favour with the judges. No doubt we'll see more of this trend in the years to come. 

New Award, New Partner

Carla Rapoport

Lumen is pleased and delighted to welcome a new award and new partner for 2017 - the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, which is celebrating its 60th birthday this year and next. The new US$1,000 award is aimed at highlighting the exciting work being created by artists using artificial intelligence.

Commenting on the new Artificial Intelligence Award for Digital Art, Brian Runciman, Head of Content for BCS,  says: "Art plays a pivotal role in what it means to be human. The BCS members' magazine has covered the confluence of technology and art from 1968 to the present day. To paraphrase Brian Eno, all the things we don’t have to do can be considered art. We want to showcase how this most human activity has been furthered by modern technology."

Given that the main goal of the BCS is to make IT good for society, the fit with Lumen seems a natural. As Brian says, "We want to highlight the fact that technology has always been involved in the extraordinary creativity of artists – and computer technology has unleashed yet more opportunities to express feeling and reflect the human condition."

Take a peek at the 9 works chosen for the longlist for this new award (scroll down towards the bottom). Included is 2013 Lumen Prize artist Joseph Connor with Unaccountable AI, last year's winner of the Lumen Interactive Award, Seb Lee-Delisle with The Mindfulness Machine, as well as works by artists living in France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Canada and the US. 

To find out who wins the award - as well as all the others on offer - be sure to join us on September 20th at the Frontine Club for the 2017 Lumen Awards.

 

Lumen Prize in Shanghai

Taking Shanghai

Carla Rapoport

From May 26 to July 2, the Lumen Prize Global Tour invaded the post-industrial spaces of the brand-new Modern Art Museum in Shanghai's fashionable Pudong District. The show included 22 works by the 2016 Lumen Prize shortlisted and winning artists, included four lectures and attracted 5,100 visitors! More than 26 local media outlets covered the show and you can catch a glimpse of what it looked like here.

 

 

Called "Unlimited," the show featured works including Carla Gannis's Selfie Handbook, Lumen Prize Gold Award winner Fabio Giampetro's VR work, Hyperplanes of Simultaneity and Nathan Selikoff's Audiograph. If you'd like to see a full report on the show, in Chinese and English, please email us at info@lumenprize.com.

 

Huge thanks go to the Curator, Evelyn Wong, Lumen's Asia Exhibition Manager Gigi Huan and Lumen's Global Exhibition Manager Jack Addis. We look forward to returning to Shanghai next year!

 

Fifty Sisters (excerpt) - BP by Jon McCormack

Who's afraid of digital art? Part II

Charlotte Lee

COLLECTION CRISIS

[New Media Art] questions everything, the fundamental assumptions: What is a work? How do you collect it? What is preservation? What is ownership? All of these things that museums are based upon and structured upon are pretty much thrown open to question. [1] Jeremy Strick.

Despite the institutional favour that is now being granted to digital art practices, there still remains trepidation around this type of work. Jeremy Strick, the former director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, acknowledges that the questions raised by new media art – principally those around authorship, reproducibility and collectability – have led to a further reconfiguration of our notion of the work of art.[2] The questions laid out by Strick will be addressed in this chapter, laying the ground work for the next section which will take a focused look at what is being done today to integrate digital practices into the art economy at large.

BARRIERS TO COLLECTING

Christiane Paul has outlined four main challenges posed by technology-engaged practices. Firstly, there is often difficulty in understanding the aesthetics. While contemporary art is rarely easy to read, digital art poses a new set of problems. Its reliance on code, algorithms and real-time often appear alien, thus making it difficult to appreciate aesthetically.[3] Second, it is largely immaterial. Again, this is not unique to new media art, but unlike its ‘outsider brethren’ of performance and conceptual art, the art world has not yet come to terms with it.[4] Thirdly, the medium’s association with technology often leads to confusion; audiences typically do not know how to respond to these works – the works may be read as entertainment or audiences may retort that the work should belong in a science museum rather than a gallery.[5] Moreover, with the proliferation of high-spec and spectacular imagery in high-end computer games and films, new media works often do not live up to viewer expectations. Finally, and by far the most daunting concern, is the medium’s technological obsolescence.[6] Indeed, as Steve Dietz has observed:

[…] the half life of digital media can be days. In 2002, the average lifespan of a web page was just 74 days. In addition, the software that drives many new media applications might change every 6 months – and it is not always backwards compatible. [7]

The sheer speed at which technological developments have occurred has resulted in the loss of many parts of our cultural heritage.[8] This came to the fore in Dietz’s article posted on the website NeMe, where he discussed what he termed ‘the collection crisis’ of new media art and detailed the issues faced, particularly by web artists, of dead and rotten links.[9] Ironically, while calling for web preservation, the majority of the links included in the article had become obsolete and inaccessible. Likewise, the works embedded in html and java will become inaccessible unless a proactive stance is taken. Central to new media art’s failure to gain a collector base is therefore the inherent difficulty in keeping the work alive, and as a result collecting technology-engaged art becomes more like a duty of care. You have got to ensure that the work continues to operate; yet, the wide array of programmes and sheer rapidity of change makes this incredibly challenging.[10] As Rex Bruce, Director of the Los Angeles Centre for Digital Art (LACDA), has observed; new media artists and their collectors are juggling ‘the alphabet soup of filetypes […] [which are] forever renewed like a snake eating itself in the endless cycle of obsolescence and upgrades.’[11] Indeed, failing to maintain a work of new media art will result in the work appearing as an outmoded version of itself, eventually leading to its ‘death’.[12] The collector of time-based art Julia Stoschek notes the technophobia of individuals and institutions as the biggest challenge facing digital artists:

I think the main challenge [for new media art] is the technical aspect. For collectors there was and still is a significant trepidation about art that is, first of all, easily reproduced and, second, sustained by a technological medium. In addition, presenting [this] art is time-, cost- and space intensive. The greatest challenge however lies in its proper archiving, which constantly increase in complexity. Media and the platforms for the work have modernised rapidly and changed fundamentally in the last decades.[13]

‘LIKE A SHARK, NEW MEDIA MUST KEEP MOVING TO SURVIVE’ [14]

The rising awareness of technical obsolescence has led to numerous preservation initiatives, including, but not limited to: the Variable Media Network, Media Matters, UNSTABLE MEDIA and the DOCAM Research Alliance. [15] A number of conferences have also focused institutional attention on the conservation of digital practices – Tech Focus II and Media in Transition took place in 2015, and both addressed the preservation of new media works of art.[16] At the time of writing, Rhizome were collaborating with Lunder Conservation, offering workshops on web preservation led by the new media artist and digital conservator Dragan Espenschied.[17] Institutions have taken some hints from the computer industry to develop useful methods for the preservation and re-staging of digital practices. Currently there are three main options that have been put forward to ensure that digital art remains accessible to future generations:

  1. The first method is migration, this involves the transformation of the digital object from one form of representation to another – this could involve replacing an outmoded html with a more current version.[18]
  2. The second is emulation. Here, software is produced that simulates the now obsolete hardware. Rather than focusing on the digital file itself, this method aims to enable different file types to run on whatever the current operating system is.[19]
  3. The last method is reinterpretation, which can be understood as akin to the restaging of a performance piece.[20]

One key initiative that has been set up to ensure the conservation of new media art is the Guggenheim’s Variable Media Network. Developed to assist both creators and the collectors of new media art, the programme invites artists to imagine how the work might be transferred in the future once its current mode of operation has expired.[21] Emphasising that permanence can be achieved through change, the initiative’s aim is to gain an understanding of the artists’ intention, addressing what elements can be altered and what aspects are integral to the work.[22] However, what all three of these methods question is the authenticity of the work – if a digital work of art can be migrated, emulated or reinterpreted, then where does the artistic value reside?

QUESTIONS OF VALUE, AUTHENTICITY AND OWNERSHIP

In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible. What man has made, man has always been able to make again.[23] Walter Benjamin.

The art market thrives on exclusivity, and in accordance the work of art has traditionally been understood as a unique good – in economic terms it is considered a non-fungible asset, since no like-for-like replacement exists.[24] By contrast, the work being produced by new media artists is directly linked to ‘a freedom to collaborate – to use, modify, and redistribute ideas, artworks, experiences, media and tools’.[25] Growing up in tandem with the tech industry, digital artists have embraced the privileging of open-source systems that characterise the digital revolution. In turn this created ‘perhaps the greatest historical challenge to the art world’s voracious cultural and commercial impulses.’[26] There already exists difficulty in extracting value – be it symbolic, aesthetic or economic – from a work of art, but this is made all the more challenging when the work of art exists as the ones and zeros of binary code.[27] When determining the value of an artwork, as both a cultural and commercial good, there are several features that contribute to its identity: its authorship, provenance and its rarity.[28] Artists engaged with digital technology challenge all of these. Many artists contest not only the concept of the work of art as a unique object, but the very idea of the artist as genius – artists such as Rozendaal, JODI and Lozano-Hemmer all produce works collaboratively.[29] As Domenico Quaranta has observed, the ‘computer artist represents a double risk to the art market, because the work is often twice removed from a personal style, authorship or uniqueness.’[30]

It is the uniqueness of the object, what Walter Benjamin terms the ‘aura’, that has been put under pressure by technological reproduction.[31] While Benjamin foretold of the impact of mass image distribution in his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, it is unlikely that even he could have foreseen the extent to which images can now be created, consumed and distributed.[32] Acknowledging that the work of art is reproducible by its very nature, Benjamin concluded that the development of printing and, later, photography resulted in a crisis of aesthetic reproduction.[33] For Benjamin, the aura of the work of art was bound to the notion of distance – an auratic work of art required a perspective from arms-length. The mass reproduction of images, by contrast, placed the object in greater proximity to the viewer.[34] Today, images are more accessible than they have ever been and, as a result, our reception of them has changed dramatically. More importantly, as Erika Balsom has argued, the accessibility of images has initiated a ‘counter-movement of restriction’.[35] In her essay Original Copies: How Film and Video Became Art Objects Balsom discusses how the limited edition model, now omnipresent in the economy of art, developed during the twentieth century in response to the development of technological reproduction.[36] Noting that ‘as images attained a new reproducibility, the attributes of scarcity, authenticity and originality began to be prized as never before,’ Balsom traces the rise of the multiple in the 1990s from its birth in the 1930s.[37]

It was in the 1960s and 1970s with the establishment of Gerry Schum’s broadcast Fernsehgalerie (1968-70) and his videogalerie schum (1970-73) alongside the joint venture of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Film Inc., that the limited edition became the principal distribution method for technology-engaged works of art.[38] Despite these ventures being short-lived (Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Film Inc. closed their doors on July 1, 1985) the media of film and moving image had been introduced into the economy of art.[39] The collective ®TMark commented on video’s integration into the market in their film Untitled #29.95: A Video about Video (1999).[40] Here, Castelli is characterised as a villain, singled out as the individual who used the limited edition to commodify the moving image, a medium that had previously ‘defied the boundaries’ of the art establishment.[41] In the video, white text scrolls across a black screen listing the works of art that have been artificially restricted and their price: “Stan Douglas, Overture, $150,000, limited edition of 2. Diana Theater’s, China, $60,000. Cremaster by Matthew Barney, limited edition of 2, $25,000. Gillian Wearing’s 10-16, I heard went for $60,000. It’s just a videotape, for God’s sake” [Figure 3].[42]

However, while Castelli is branded a villain, sales were not the driving force behind his venture.[43] Whereas moving image has today found itself a collecting base, as evidenced by the recent sale of Bill Viola’s Eternal Return (2000)which sold in May 2016 at Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art day auction for US$346,000, a collector base did not exist for video in the 1970s.[44] Mirroring the treatment of new media artists today, in the 1970s and 1980s it was only artists, museums and institutions that collected moving image and film.[45] What ventures like Schum’s fernsehgalerie and Castelli’s film enterprise did was to provide art with a new audience. Breaking away from the confines of the white cube, these shifts beyond the gallery parallel the shift online that can be seen today. Whereas Schum used the TV to broadcast art into the living room, today gallerists and artists are utilising the Internet to create the ultimate parallel art world. Online art can be immediately accessed, consumed and bought; consequently the ‘threshold resistance’ associated with the gallery space is bypassed.[46] The Internet has provided artists with a whole new audience and new media artists have tapped into this.

Art is now accessible with the click of a mouse, yet this widespread availability poses greater challenges to determining the value of a work of art. The greatest challenge facing the acceptance of technology-engaged practices into the art market is as follows: although the artificial scarcity imposed on moving image has been adopted, the bits and bytes of new media art remain infinitely reproducible. While this provides the work with an audience reception that the traditional art dealer can only dream of (Rozendaal’s works get over thirty two million online visitors each year), as Quaranta rightly notes:

You can keep making limited editions, but you can’t lie to yourself: there is no difference between the five certified copies of that video and the sixth one, that somebody uploads to YouTube and that hundreds of people around the world download to their desktop. No difference except an abstract, ritual act of transferral of ownership.[47]

This abstract transferral of ownership becomes possible through the certificate of authenticity. Together with the limited edition, it was the certificate of authenticity that successfully transformed mass-produced imagery into a work of art.[48] Offering ‘the easiest solution to the problem of un-authored copies,’ the certificate of authenticity, for many artists working in the field of immateriality, is the most important thing that identifies the piece as their work. [49] In the case of a digital asset, such as a file or website, title and the right to use will be stored in the metadata that accompanies the work [Figure 4].[50] Take the work of Rozendaal for instance, when viewing his www.jellotime.com a right click will detail the artist, date of production and the associated programmer [Figure 5]. For a digital work of art, the certificate distinguishes the work from a viewing copy; that is, the owner of the work can be distinguished from the consumer and with ownership comes the duty of care [Figure 15].[51]

A DUTY OF CARE

The artwork is like a car, – you should drive it from time to time, change the oil and tune it, but the more you drive it the more it will cost to preserve.[52] Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.

 Here, Lozano-Hemmer, an artist who has been incredibly active in ensuring best conservation practices, perfectly captures the challenge posed by collecting technology-engaged art. These works are usually screen based, often with electronic or robotic components; they will therefore, like all technological equipment, malfunction from time to time. Thus, they need to be maintained. Lozano-Hemmer’s comparison between owning a car and a piece of technology-engaged art, is rearticulated by Steven Sacks, the Director of the bitforms Gallery, New York, who compares collecting new media art with owning a pet or a plant:

‘The difference between owning new media art and older forms is not unlike the difference between keeping pets and plants. “Things can go wrong,” says Sacks. “And depending on the complexity of the work, many things can go wrong. But the magic of the piece doesn’t exist without that.”’[53]

Drawing on the unpredictability of the medium, Sacks references the duty of care that can be considered characteristic of the new media collector. In an effort to encourage the development of a wider collector base for digital practices, Lozano-Hemmer produced a guide for media art conservation last September.[54] Noting that previous initiatives, such as the Variable Media Network, had always been from the perspective of the institution, Lozano-Hemmer provided an artist’s insight. Sharing this on the open-source platform GitHub, Lozano-Hemmer offered a step-by-step guide on how to control the death or ‘zombiefication’ of the work of art.[55]

Lozano-Hemmer opened the guide by addressing why new media art needs to be collected, stating: ‘you don’t want to disappear from history like so many great artists who are not collected by important Museums’.[56] Here, Lozano-Hemmer openly identifies the central role museums are playing in the economy of art. The institutional attention that technology-engaged art has received in the last decade has made huge progress in moving this medium within the walls of the main contemporary art world. Indeed, while their relationship likes to remain private, the museum and the art market are inextricably interwoven.[57] As institutions have figured out ways to conserve works that exist purely in the ones and zeros of binary code, private collectors who are willing to take a risk have begun to take notice of this exciting and challenging genre.

 

The importance of risk-taking for collectors of digital art can be observed in the acquisition of Douglas Davis’ The World’s First Collaborative Sentence (1994), now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art [Figure 6]. This work became the first web-based piece to be acquired by both private collectors and an institution.[58] Even Davis himself acknowledged the importance of his collectors Barbara and Eugene Schwartz:

It seemed too early for me to sell web art, but I hadn’t counted on Gene. The piece went up [online] in September 1995; he bought it in January 1996. There wasn’t a lot of stuff up at that point. If you look on page 4 of The Sentence, you can read that he is buying it, because he typed in his intention. The Sentence stayed on the Server of Lehman College, but his widow gave his collection of my work to the Whitney. It was a daring commitment for a traditional museum, surely fired by the director at the time, David Ross, who was in fact the first video curator, at the Everson in the 70’s, because they must maintain it like a painting, except that it can go on changing, growing, expanding for eternity.[59]

Fittingly, the work is now dedicated to ‘the courageous collectors of contemporary art who provided […] the funds to perfect this work […] long before the world even knew that “Digital Art” existed’ [Figure 7].[60] When they acquired The Sentence Barbara and Eugene Schwartz purchased the concept, a signed disk of the work, along with photo-documentation of the first few pages of the sentence – a sales strategy that closely resembles the commodification of conceptual art.[61] Originally commissioned by the Centre for Long Distance Art and Culture at Lehman College Art Gallery, The Sentence is an on-going work that allows visitors to contribute to a growing online text. Davis put only one restriction in place; you are not allowed to use a full stop. As a result the sentence still continues to this day, and by 2000 there had already been 200,000 contributions.[62] Describing the work as an ‘interactive marvel’, Davis captures the desire of many digital artists today; that is, a drive to communicate over ‘vast stretches of time, language, space, geography and gender’ – a feat that has become possible with the birth of Web 2.0 and the proliferation of social media platforms.[63]

 

The ephemeral nature of web-based practices is highlighted by the presence of two versions of The Sentence on the Whitney artport – the historic and the live version [Figure 8 and 6]. In 2013 it became necessary to restore The Sentence, this not only included updating servers and running legacy browsers on vintage computers, but it also required Paul and her team to conduct interviews with the original programmer, write new code and address the issue of documentation. [64] Using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, a service that archives versions of websites, the Whitney were able to restore the majority of the links posted by contributors in the work.[65] The historic version, which allows you to view the work through an old browser, displays the work as it appeared at the time of its creation until it stopped functioning in 2005 [Figure 9]. The live version has been updated to enable the work to run on current operating systems, restoring the work’s functionality but dispensing with the work’s original interface in the process.[66] This versioning conducted by the Whitney again raises the issue of authenticity. However, what needs to be understood is that technology-engaged art is constantly in flux. The work of art needs to be understood as a ‘”living” entity not as a fossil’ and it is this that provides new media art with its aura of mortality.[67]

 

 

This sense of mortality reinforces the idea that collectors of new media art are placed in a position of care. Perhaps more than any other medium, digital practices can be understood to have a life cycle, and as discussed by Olav Velthuis in Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market, dealers want to be in control of the artwork.[68] Dealers will place works of art with individuals or institutions that they believe will care and contribute to the life of the piece.[69] In the case of media and digital works of art, which require a more hands on approach, the dealer will be more concerned about ensuring the livelihood of the artwork.[70] If the work is not placed with an individual who acknowledges that they play an active part in the work’s future, the work will meet its demise. The challenge in finding new media collectors is pointed out by Sacks, who revealed in an interview with Artspace, that he would not sell to anyone who is wary of technology.[71] He also revealed that the artists he represents, which include Lozano-Hemmer, Sara Ludy, and Manfred Mohr, are required to provide ‘proper documentation on how [the] piece works, how it’s preserved, and how it’s maintained’ noting that ‘[he] won’t release the artwork until [he] get[s] that information from the artist and [he’s] satisfied with it.’[72] Therefore, like any piece of purchased software or hardware, technology-engaged works of art come with a user-manual. The presence of the user-manual identifies technology-engaged art as distinct from the traditional art object, yet similarities can be drawn between how new media art has been treated by the art market, and the techniques that have been put in place to commodify the dematerialised art forms of conceptual and performance art.

Lozano-Hemmer, for instance, recommends the creation of a presentation box.[73] It is here that the artist places all material associated with the work – the flash drive, the documentation, the user manual, the toolkit, and any spare equipment.[74] By packaging up the work for the collector, the artist ensures that there is a physical transaction that takes place. Lozano-Hemmer also emphasises the importance of the certificate of authenticity, which is described by the artist as ‘the tradable commodity’.[75] As a result, both the economic value and the ownership of the piece reside in the certificate. Lozano-Hemmer observes that ‘if you do not have this certificate the piece you have is completely worthless,’ noting that it is this ‘that you keep in the safety deposit box as it is completely irreproducible.’[76] Interestingly, Lozano-Hemmer is issuing certificates retroactively.[77] Indicating that despite having been a practising artist for over twenty years, only recently has he begun to satisfy this requirement of the art market.

The importance of the contract is also highlighted by Lozano-Hemmer, since with technology-engaged art the collector acquires a number of obligations. Say, for instance, you were the collector of Synaptic Caguamas, which was sold at Phillips, New York for US$118,750 in 2015 [Figure 10].[78] By purchasing this work you would become responsible for keeping the work alive. As the collector you, or your nominated technician, would have signed a document on installation that declared ‘the work has been installed to [your] liking, [and] that [you] received training on the operation, maintenance and preservation of the piece’.[79] You would also be provided with the ‘Mean Time Between Failure’ – here the artist provides, to the best of their knowledge, the likely amount of time it will take for the piece to break.[80] The artist is effectively providing the work with a life expectancy. This ‘spirit of giving the collector all schematics, software, and code, plus the training, spare parts and manuals’ results in the artist ‘delegating conservation’ to the individual or institution acquiring the work.[81]

This transferral of care, where the artist almost seems to unburden himself of the work, can also be noted in the practice of Rozendaal. Rozendaal’s web-based works have been widely collected and he has successfully developed a strategy for selling his websites as unique art objects. However, unlike Lozano-Hemmer, who maintains a physical transaction, Rozendaal ensures that his work remains on the network.[82] When acquiring a Rozendaal, what the collector is sold is the domain name. A domain name is one of the few things in the digital world that is unique and, as a result, this allows web-based works to become commodities, since they, by their nature, are one-of-a-kind.[83] Previously, part of the sale had involved a ‘physical’ element, as had been the case in the sale of Davis’ The Sentence. Rozendaal had printed off the contract and provided the collector with a backup disc containing the source files [Figure 11].

However, the whole process now takes place online – a digitally signed PDF certificate of authenticity is provided and the artist emails over the files.[84] Integral to the sale is the Art Website Sales Contract [Figure 12] and it is here that the obligations of the collector are laid out. These are:

  1. OWNER will annually renew the domain name, so that ARTWORK will remain continuously accessible.
  2. OWNER will keep the website online and completely accessible to the public [Appendix B].

Unlike a traditional art object, where there are few restrictions on what you can do with the piece, when you acquire a Rozendaal you are contractually obliged to ensure that the work remains on public view [Appendix B]. Why then would you want to purchase a work of art that is already publicly accessible.

 

Despite Rozendaal’s practice being publicly accessible, his work has been integrated into the main contemporary art market. Last year, represented by Upstream Gallery, Rozendaal took part in the Armory Show. Here, http://www.softslow.com [Figure 13] was presented on vertically orientated digital monitors, and priced at $7,500, while remaining accessible to anyone via the Internet. [85] When purchased, the owner’s name is incorporated into the domain name – which acts as both the location and the title of the work.[86] In www.likethisforever.com [Figure 14], which was acquired by the Allen & Overy Collection, their name replaces that of Rozendaal’s in the browser tab. So while this work, along with www.neogeocity.com, www.noifyes.com and www.everythingalwayseverywhere.com, are all privately collected, the work remains accessible to anyone who knows the location of the work. All that changes as a result of the transferal of ownership is the collector’s name replaces that of the artist on the browser tab. It is this, your acknowledged association with the work and your unlimited access to it, which is being purchased.[87]

 

A phenomenon that has been associated principally with the music and film industry, the proliferation of sites like YouTube and Spotify has encouraged a culture of free streaming. Unlimited and uninterrupted access is what people are willing to purchase. The platforms that have developed to support digital artists are battling with the same dichotomy of access versus ownership.[88] 

'Collection Crisis' from Charlotte Lee's Dealing the Digital: How Bits and Bytes became Art Objects (2016)

Who's afraid of digital art?

Charlotte Lee

Following on from The Digital Art Debate, which took place at The Tetley as part of Leeds International Festival, over the coming weeks the blog will explore the relationship between digital art and the contemporary art world. Excerpts from ‘Dealing the Digital: How Bits & Bytes became Art Objects’ by Lumen’s Assistant Director Charlotte Lee will trace how the perception of digital art has changed in recent years and what channels are now available for artists working with technology. 

Despite main contemporary art’s refusal to seriously reckon with new media art, new media art is, in a manner of speaking, an art world force to be reckoned with. [1] Edward Shanken.

THE MEDIA FORMERLY KNOWN AS NEW[3]

The term itself, let alone the medium, has caused confusion and in this discussion ‘media’, ‘digital’ and ‘technology-engaged’ art will be used interchangeably to refer to any work that is grounded in information technology. Namely, any work that is created on, viewed on, and distributed via the computer.[4] This can include, but is not limited to: digital art, net art, virtual reality, robotics and software art.[5] A central characteristic of this type of work is its behaviours – the work tends to be interactive, performative and generative.[6] It is this, and digital art’s embrace of the dematerialised art object, that places the medium in relation to conceptual and performance based practices.[7] However, while these have been successfully integrated into the main contemporary art world – the infrastructure of galleries, museums, auctions, fairs and journals – new media has continued to remain on the side-line.

The roots of media and digital practices can be traced back to the instruction-based art of Conceptualism and Dada, but the integration of technology into art practices did not really take hold until the 1960s.[8] This decade saw the establishment of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T), founded by the engineer Billy Klüver and the artist Robert Rauschenberg in 1966.[9] Encapsulating the era’s enthusiasm for art and technology, E.A.T ushered in a number of joint projects between engineers and artists, and around this a burgeoning critical reception towards media practices developed.[10] From Jean Tinguely’s self-destructing Homage to New York (1960) to Robert Rauschenberg’s Soundings (1968), prominent artists began to create works of art that drew on the information technology developing around them. Grounded in the new technological possibilities, these works engaged critical and institutional reception and were celebrated in the landmark exhibitions of Cybernetic Serendipity (1968), Jack Burnham’s Software (1970) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art and Technology (1971).[11] Unfortunately, it was also through these exhibitions that media artists became subsumed under the banner of conceptual art.[12] Furthermore, it was during this period that the unpredictability of the medium began to make itself apparent.[13] Indeed, the software failures that troubled Burnham’s exhibition were recently mirrored at the Whitechapel’s Electronic Superhighway held in January 2016, which was plagued by technological faults – leading many visitors and critics to conclude that the works of art themselves had failed [Figure 2].[14] As a result, the unpredictability of the medium and its over-reliance on technology was highlighted.

If the medium is not dismissed by the art world in its entirety – through its absence in exhibitions, fairs and art publications – then the work is regarded as being too spectacular. [15] That is, it focuses too much on technological innovation rather than artistic criticality. This criticism is not new, and Jack Burnham, despite being a champion of art and technology, recognised that much of the work placed under the banner of digital art had “more than a little of the uptown discotheque” about it.[16] Here, Burnham notes the reigning critique that has long contributed to digital art’s ghettoisation.

ART IN THE GHETTO

The tendency for artists to use the technology and tools that defines their society has long been written into the history of art. So why, despite the proliferation of digital technologies today, are media art practices still not integrated fully into the art world? For Marc Garrett, co-founder of Furtherfield, an online art community and gallery space, the divide that exists between digital art and the main contemporary art world is institutionally related, observing: ‘the art world is stuck in a rut, and it can only remain relevant to others, by expanding and letting in new ideas beyond its hermetically sealed silos.’ [17] This comment was made in response to Claire Bishop’s article ‘Digital Divide’, part of Artforum’s fiftieth edition issue Art’s New Media.[18] Opening her article with: ‘Whatever happened to digital art?,’ Bishop argued that the art world has not embraced digital practices because they fail to engage critically with technology. [19] Taking no account of artists that have successfully infiltrated the main contemporary art world – Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Cory Arcangel, Rafaël Rozandaal, JODI, TeamLab, and Trevor Paglen to name but a few – Bishop concluded that the most dominant trend in contemporary art is the abstention of the digital.[20] Placing herself in line with Nicolas Bourriaud, who argued in Relational Aesthetics that ‘the main effects of the computer revolution are visible today among artists who do not use computers’, Bishop disregards media art from the art historical canon.[21] The dismissal of new media practices put forward by Bourriaud and Bishop has led Paul, the Adjunct Curator of New Media Art at the Whitney, to identify them both as re-enforcers of the ‘digital divide’. [22] Responding to Bishop’s misreading of art history, Paul produced the New Media Framework, which outlined the key critical theories, artist texts and curatorial positions associated with media art history [Table 1]. [23] Considering the similarities that have already been noted, it is unsurprising that new media art operates within the same theoretical frameworks that both Bishop and Bourriaud have used to underpin relational and participatory artistic practices.

It is their behaviours – principally, their interactivity – that unites media and performance practices. Nonetheless, while the participatory practices of Jeremy Deller and Francis Alÿs have been acclaimed by the art world, media practices have yet to clear the same hurdle.[24] Central to this is the medium specificity that clouds the reception of technology-engaged art.[25] Of this Lee Manovich has asked:

If all artists now, regardless of their preferred media, also routinely use digital computers to create, modify and produce works, do we need to have a special field of new media art?[26]

The tendency to pigeon-hole artists by their medium has contributed significantly to the ghettoisation of artists that use technology. Today, all artists use technology in some way during their practice – whether that is as part of its creation or its promotion.[27] While the distinction between a digital artist and an artist should be disintegrated, Jon Ippolito, former curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim, argues for the contrary. Believing that media and digital art should be considered independently of the main contemporary art world, Ippolito views the art world proper as a threat to media art’s integrity.[28] For Ippolito, this tension primarily exists between the accessible and open-source nature of digital art and the art market, which Shanken has termed the ‘self-perpetuating elitist system that brokers prestige in exchange for capital’.[29]

GROWING PAINS

More than any other art form, digital art has gained for itself a level of self-sufficiency that is perhaps unprecedented in the art world.[30] With their own institutions, galleries, festivals and fairs, artists engaged with digital technologies have managed to exist independently.[31] Yet, in recent years digital art has edged ever nearer to the main contemporary art world and technological innovation has been at the forefront of this shift[32]. As screens, projectors and computers continue to become cheaper, and as institutional budgets shrink, museums have begun to turn their attention to media works.[33] Notably, since Bishop’s 2012 article there has been a garnering of institutional and critical interest around digitally engaged practices, and since Paddles ON! the worlds of new media and main contemporary art have increasingly collided. In the last two years new media art has received extensive attention from the art press, and galleries have established dedicated programmes to new media, most notably Pace’s Art + Technology centre in Silicon Valley.[34] Just like photography and moving image before, steps are finally being taken to integrate digital art into the main contemporary art market. However, the greater accessibility of digital art challenges the exclusivity revered by the art market, and if digital media is to be accepted, this needs to be combatted. The challenges that the medium poses to the art world and how these are being dealt with will be the focus of the next two chapters.

'War of the Worlds' from Dealing the Digital: How Bits & Bytes became Art Objects  (2016)

 

 

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