Who’s afraid of digital art?

By Charlotte Lee May 5, 2017

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 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.


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]


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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