Programming digital art: despite technological and ownership issues, galleries are connecting with this high-tech market

Programming digital art: despite technological and ownership issues, galleries are connecting with this high-tech market – Digital art

Julie Mehta

Computer use has permeated almost every facet of life in the 21st century, from paying bills online to downloading favorite songs to e-mailing pictures. So it’s hardly surprising that digital art, or art made with a computer, is one of the most active, dynamic art forms today–for artists and, increasingly, for galleries and collectors.

“Digital art reflects the way we live now in a technological culture,” said Rachel Greene, executive director of Rhizome.org, a Web site created in 1996 to give digital artists a forum for their work. “If you look at landscape paintings at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], in many ways they’re nostalgic works because they don’t reflect the world we live in. If you’re interested in commenting on contemporary life, you have to address communication on the Internet, the information culture, video games.”

Defining an Art Form

Early computers transformed scientists and engineers into artists as they experimented with the capabilities and boundaries of new hardware and software. With the development of programs like Paintbox and Photoshop, computers began to color the work of traditional artists as well. Digital art expanded from data visualization prints and digitally altered photographs to include DVDs and computer-driven sculptures and installations.

“In the ’60s and ’70s people were making fine art with computers and exhibiting it in galleries,” said Carl Goodman, curator of digital media for the American Museum of the Moving Image (AMMI) in New York. “It was a tool in the past. Today the computer is a delivery mechanism as well.” Indeed, the popularization of the Internet during the last decade has provided artists with dramatic new ways to both create works and reach audiences. Many CD-ROMs and Web sites offer interactive experiences that blur the boundaries between artist and viewer. And a plethora of online art galleries such as rhizome.org, digitalart.org and digitalartmuseum.com provide showplaces for digital artists of all disciplines.

Artists also seek exposure and collaborative opportunities through international art festivals, such as Ars Electronica in Austria, the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival in the Netherlands, North America’s SIGGRAPH and the New York Digital Salon. Two exhibits of technology-based works at major museums hi 2001 generated special buzz: “010101: Art in Technological Times” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and “BitStreams” at the Whitney Museum in New York. More recently, the AMMI opened ” DigitalMedia” a rotating exhibit of digital video and software-based art in November, 2002, and Pace University inaugurated its own digital art gallery in downtown Manhattan last April.

“Early digital work had a certain coldness,” said AMMI’s Goodman. “There is something alien about having artwork that’s computer-based, but over time people are getting more comfortable with it. Computers are becoming part of the fabric of our lives.”

So it’s not just institutions, but also private collectors who are opening their doors to digital art. “Pure painting and photography collectors are venturing into new media,” said Bryce Wolkowitz, whose eponymous gallery of photographic and moving image works opened in September. “For example, someone who likes Gerhart Richter’s paintings may like John F. Simon, Jr.’s color panels because it’s like seeing the colors activated. Or Jim Campbell’s “Motion and Rest” series may appeal to a photography collector who likes Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies.”

Just Like Traditional Art Media?

Self-contained objects that don’t require additional equipment or extensive maintenance–like those by Simon and Campbell–tend to be most appealing to collectors. “There’s a combination of software and hardware,” said Magdalena Sawon, co-owner of Postmasters Gallery in New York. “It’s just like any other sculpture, except you have to plug it in.”

But other forms, such as large-scale installations, Net art and software art, are more problematic “When you’re talking about software you load into a computer, it’s a tough sell,” said Goodman. “I can’t have a meaningful art experience on the computer I do my taxes on.”

Another complication with DVDs and CD-ROMs is the possibility of illegitimate duplication. “Limited editions create brakes on unauthorized copying” said Sawon,” but there are still bootlegs.” Some galleries use security encryption, though Goodman agreed that copying was impossible to prevent.

“But as with any form of art, if there’s a limited edition of six, there are only six official copies. You get the artist’s signature and a certificate and backups. You may be able to find another copy of the work, but you will never be able to sell it,” said Goodman. “This issue certainly hasn’t stopped video art from attaining the value it has.”

Indeed, DVDs of video art by artists such as Matthew Barney, Bill Viola and Shirin Neshat can draw up to six figures. Like photography, video is an art form of which digital is simply the latest format.

This technological evolution illustrates another concern with the digital medium. “Let’s say a piece ran on an Apple IIc. That machine’s no longer made so if it broke down you’d have to find a new engine for it,” said Greene. “The maintenance and upkeep issues are amplified in new media art, and people don’t want to have to think about that.”

But Goodman pointed out that paintings and photographs also require restoration. “It’s not as simple as with other forms, but what I’ve found is that nervousness about the digital nature of a work goes away wheal it’s something people strongly desire.”

Finding a Niche

In spite of the challenges, galleries are willing to deal in digital art because of its creativity and relevance. Postmasters Gallery became a pioneer in the digital art market when it opened a show called “Can You Digit?” in 1996. “All we did with digital art until a few years ago was an economic disaster,” said Sawon. “Now we consistently place work with institutions and private collectors, but there is still no comparison between the level of the digital art market and the traditional media market.”

Still, a recent show by Eddo Stern included a ship model incorporating a hard drive and monitor with video game images that sold for $25,000. The gallery also sold half of a limited edition of 10 DVDs featuring Stern’s computer game-based video “Vietnam Romance” at $2,500 apiece. Postmasters has also found success selling works by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, including one that uses computer software to endlessly alter a projection of a short horror movie chase scene.

The nearby Sandra Gering Gallery also started carrying digital art in the early ’90s and now does a brisk business in Leo Villareal’s colorful flashing lightboxes and John E Simon Jr.’s LCD screens with their constantly changing moving color patterns. A recent set of eight Simon works sold for $28,000 each and a set of 25 small-scale Villareal works went for $3,000 each.

Unlike these galleries, Bitforms is entirely dedicated to digital art. Director Steve Sacks even tackles the tough software and Net art market at his New York gallery. “It would be risky if I just did one type of digital art,” Sacks admitted, “so I make sure I have diversity among my artists and media types.”

Sacks’ most lucrative offering is a limited edition of Daniel Rozin’s “Wooden Mirror,” a large scale reactive sculpture in which a hidden computer makes the piece’s wooden surfaces appear as if they are reflecting the movements of the viewer. Each piece sells for $70,000. Sacks sells both passive and interactive software art on CDs in editions ranging from 10 to 200 for $300 to $1,000. Or the software art can be “framed” in its own dedicated display unit. But the most edgy offering is shares in a collaborative network art project called “The Waiting Room” by Mark Napier. Nine of the 50 available shares have been sold at $1,000 each, allowing buyers to engage in an interactive art project with each other through the Internet.

Even galleries that principally deal in traditional media are being drawn to digital art. Laurence Asseraf, founder of A Taste of Art gallery in Tribeca, organizes film festivals to publicize her roster of video artists.

“Even though it’s difficult to sell right now,” she said, “this art is too important to ignore.” Her limited edition DVDs sell for as little as $100 and up to $7,500.

Feigen Contemporary in New York, another gallery that mostly sells traditional media, has found a following for Jeremy Blake’s painterly digital artwork. The looping DVDs are usually shown on plasma screens, giving them the feel of a moving painting. Feigen is currently showing Blake’s newest limited-edition DVD work, which goes for $20,000.

Despite the concentration of galleries in New York selling digital art, the greatest acceptance for the medium seems to come from the West Coast. “Because of our proximity to silicon Valley and the enormous technology base in the Bay Area, the idea of digital art is not so foreign to people here” said Todd Hosfelt, founder of the Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco. Hosfelt said he has a waiting list for pieces by Jim Campbell, who programs grids of LED lights to play video imagery. “I’m making lots of money from digital art” said Hosfelt, who sells Campbell’s pieces for $30,000 to $40,000.”And the great thing about having a solid market for this work is that I’m able to show more experimental stuff, too.”

Hel’ll likely have more to choose from as technologyl’s influence continues to deepen. “The reality is today’s kids are developing hand-eye coordination by playing video games” said Rhizome’s Greene, “so there are sure to be more digital artists in the future.”

Sawon has learned first-hand the value of patience in the digital art market. “I thought this would catch on very quickly after our [“Can You Digit”] show in ’96, but it’s still catching on,” she said. “But things are moving forward. There will be new generations for whom digital art will not be a second language, but a first language.”

SOURCES

* American Museum of the Moving Image, www.ammi.org

* Bitforms, (212) 366-6939

* Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, (212) 243-8830

* Feigen Contemporary, (212) 929-0500

* Hosfelt Gallery, (415) 495-5454

* Pace University,

http://csis.pace.edu/digitalgallery/main.html

* Postmasters Gallery, (212) 727-3323

* Rhizome.org, www.rhizome.om

* Sandra Gerring Gallery, (646) 336-7183

* A Taste of Art, (212) 964-5493

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