Who's afraid of digital art? Part II

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)