Renderings of Digital Art
by Christiane Paul
Whenever a new art form comes along, it is usually accompanied by a classifier, such as "video art" or "digital art." Today's qualifier of choice, "new media," renders the newness of yesterday's new art form obsolete and already implies its own datedness. The new media of the late 20th century were video art and its hybrid forms and derivatives. Multimedia and hypermedia were terms applied to digital art forms, while intermedia was used to describe interrelationships between different forms of media (such as video and digital technologies). In the early 21st century, the term "new media" is mostly used for digital arts in its various forms. It takes a while until the "new" (insert video or digital) art becomes Art (with a capital A), integrated into thematic surveys and exhibitions that include all kinds of media. This doesn't mean that the qualifier forever vanishes, but that the art form moves beyond the medium itself and the way in which it complements, augments and/or challenges traditional concepts of art. This requires an introduction to the public.
During the past couple of years, there have been several major exhibitions dedicated to today's digital art. It seems an apt time for a survey show that offers multiple perspectives and establishes a broader context for this art form. The title of the New York Digital Salon's Tenth Anniversary Exhibition alludes to vector graphics, mathematical algorithms that describe the shapes, shadings, colors, and location of objects (as opposed to bitmap graphics, where the image is represented by pixels arranged on a grid). The metaphor of the vector suggests an algorithmically driven fluidity of forms, appearances, and positions that seem to be an appropriate approach to digital art.
Positions-Histories of Digital Art
During the past ten years, we have seen a technological development of unprecedented speed for a medium that was conceptualized and envisioned decades ago. It was in 1945 when army scientist Vannevar Bush published his seminal article "As We May Think" in the Atlantic Monthly. The article described a device called the Memex, a desk with translucent screens that would allow users to browse documents in various media (from text to photography) and create their own trail to a body of documentation. The Memex was never built but can be seen as a conceptual ancestor of computers and the Internet. In 1961, Theodor Nelson coined the terms "hypertext" and "hypermedia" for a space of writing and reading where texts, images, and sounds could be electronically interconnected and linked by anybody contributing to this networked "docuverse." Today, the concepts of Bush and Nelson have found their physical and virtual manifestations in computer networks on various scales.
Digital art did not develop in an art-historical vacuum, and incorporates many influences from previous art movements (ranging from conceptual art to Fluxus and mail art) and experiments with art and technology. The year 1966 saw the foundation of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), which in the words of its founder, Billy Klüver, was formed out of a desire to "develop an effective collaboration between engineer and artist. The raison d'etre of E.A.T. is the possibility of a work which is not the preconception of either the engineer or the artist, but is the result of the exploration of the human interaction between them." The joint projects developed over a decade between Klüver and artists such as Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely, John Cage, and Jasper Johns were first seen in performances in New York (Tinguely in the garden at the Museum of Modern Art, and Rauschenberg at the Armory). These were later featured in an exhibition called "Some More Beginnings" (at the Brooklyn Museum and MoMA) and lastly at the Pepsi-Cola™ Pavilion at the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, Japan. E.A.T. was the first complex collaboration between artists, engineers, programmers, researchers, and scientists that would become a characteristic of digital art.
In 1968, the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in London presented works ranging from plotter graphics to light and sound environments and sensing "robots." These now seem only like the humble origins of digital art (and could be criticized for clunkiness and overly technical approaches). Yet at the same time they still show characteristics and narratives of the medium today. Now there are works focused on the aesthetics of machines and transformation, such as painting machines and pattern or poetry generators. Others are dynamic and process-oriented, exploring possibilities of interaction and the "open" system-a "post-object." In his articles "Systems Esthetics" and "Real Time Systems" (published in Artforum in 1968 and 1969, respectively), Jack Burnham already explored a systems approach to art: "A systems viewpoint is focused on the creation of stable, ongoing relationships between organic and non-organic systems" . In modified form, this approach still holds a noticeable position in today's critical discourse on digital art.
It is debatable when exactly the history of digital art began. Artists started experimenting with computers in the 1970s, engaging in what was then known as "computer art," and using now-archaic technology such as punch cards. With digital technology, color and texture could be created and manipulated instantly. Painters, sculptors, architects, printmakers, photographers, and video and performance artists began to experiment with computer imaging techniques that allowed for the manipulation of scale, color, and texture in ways that were not possible with physical mediums.
Using new technology such as video and satellites, artists in the 1970s also began to experiment with live performances and networks that anticipated the interactions currently taking place on the Internet and through the use of streaming media. In 1979, a collaboration between artists in New York (Liza Bear and Willoughby Sharp) and San Francisco (Sharon Grace and Carl Loeffler) resulted in Send/Receive, a fifteen-hour, two-way, interactive transmission between the two cities through the use of a CTS satellite. The world's first interactive satellite dance performance-a three-location, live-feed composite performance involving performers on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts of the United States-was organized by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, in conjunction with NASA and the Educational Television Center in Menlo Park, California. These performative events were initial explorations of the connectivity that is characteristic of networked digital art.
Shapes and Forms of Digital Art
The term "digital art" has become an umbrella for a broad range of artistic practices and does not describe one specific aesthetic. Artists have used digital technologies as a tool for creating an art object, such as a sculpture created through rapid prototyping, a print, or a digital photo and video. In some cases, these works display distinctive characteristics of the digital. In others, it is not easy to tell whether the work has been created by means of digital or analog technologies. Digital technology also has had a profound influence on music composition and audio, which have reached new levels of experimentation through the instant remixing, sampling, and reconfiguration that current technology enables.
The employment of digital technologies as a medium implies that the work is produced, stored, and presented in digital format and makes use of the inherent possibilities of the medium. However, this art can manifest itself as everything ranging from an interactive installation to an installation with network components to software or purely Internet-based art.
The digital medium exhibits distinguishing characteristics, which are often used in varying combinations. It is interactive, allowing forms of navigating, assembling, or contributing to artwork to go beyond the mental event of experiencing it. It often is dynamic, responding to a changing data flow and real-time data transmission. The art is not always collaborative in the original sense of the word, but often participatory, relying on multi-user input. Another distinguishing feature of the digital medium is that it can be customizable and adaptable to a single user's needs or intervention. While some of these concepts have been explored in performance art, happenings, and video art, the possibilities of remote and immediate intervention are unique to the networked digital medium.
The interactive, digital medium has challenged traditional notions of the artwork, audience, and artist. Developments in this object suggest a paradigm shift for art practice from the art object to the post-object conditions of possibility and a fluid interaction between different manifestations of information.
Shadings-Themes and Narratives in Digital Art
My selection of works for the New York Digital Salon Exhibition strives to give at least an impression of themes and forms addressed by interactive digital installations and Net art (the two categories I have focused on). Among these themes or "narratives" are telepresence, artificial life and intelligence, "biotelematics," and archiving; and alternative browsers, mapping and data visualization, and Net activism, as well as multi-user environments incorporating visuals and sounds. The selections consist of more recent works and are complemented by other curators' choices, which go back further in history and/or provide different angles on prominent themes in this medium.
Issues of the transformation of information in the context of evolution and artificial life form the basis of Christa Sommerer's and Laurent Mignonneau's project A-Volve. By transferring digital creatures (painted by visitors) into a natural environment, a crossroads of the real and virtual world is created. Aesthetics becomes the crucial factor in the survival of the fittest: The form designed by the visitor determines the virtual creature's movement and behavior in space. Allowing visitors to interact with the creatures in the pool, A-Volve reinstates the human manipulation of evolution in the digital realm.
Eduardo Kac's Genesis takes a very different approach to similar issues by creating a synthetic "artist's gene." Here, a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis is translated into Morse code, which is then converted into DNA base pairs that are later transformed into bacteria exhibited in a petri dish. The project examines the relationships between information and biotechnology, and belief systems and ethics. It also establishes a telematic connection between remote places by allowing visitors to turn on the UV light above the petri dish over the Internet, thus influencing the mutation of the organisms.
David Rokeby's Giver of Names addresses issues of "machine intelligence" in a poetic way that transcends the merely technological fascination with AI and becomes a reflection on semantics and the structure of language. The computer's attempts to arrive at conclusions about objects chosen by visitors lead to increasing levels of abstraction that open up new forms of context and meaning. The scanning and classification of objects also is at the core of George LeGrady's Pockets Full of Memories, an installation with an accompanying Web site. However, this project focuses on the visitors' own belongings and the mundane objects they carry in their pockets-signifiers of personal memories and values. The mapping of these objects points to the potentiality and absurdities of classifying objects endowed with personal meaning. A different angle on the creation of meaning is provided by Perry Hoberman's Timetable, an installation that explores the significance and connotations of different types of interfaces. The scene projected onto the table's center is controlled by dials whose function continuously mutates and leads to splits into multiple perspectives. These splits underline the expectations and associations evoked by different interfaces.
The category of Net art has become a broad medium, encompassing very different forms of approaches to the networked medium. Carnivore, a project by Alex Galloway and the artists' collaborative RSG (Radical Software Group), captures one of the central aspects of digital media: the relationship and tension between the back end of code and data and the front end, and the traceable form this code takes (be it in the form of visuals or more abstract communication processes). While the Carnivore Server, an application that performs packet-sniffing on a specific local area network, serves a raw data stream, the client applications created by numerous artists interpret various aspects of the data in visual ways. At the core of the Carnivore project are the unlimited possibilities of visualizing the server's data stream in a collaborative, open-source way.
The simplest ways of "visualizing" information on the Internet are Web browsers. Our experience of the Internet is largely determined by these browsers and their conventions. Several art projects have revised and extended the browser concept (among them I/O/D's Web Stalker and Mark Napier's RIOT). A notable contribution to this body of work is Maciej Wisniewski's netomat, a meta-browser that treats the Net as one large database of files, retrieving information independent from the original design of the data source and displaying it as free-floating in space. netomat exposes the subconscious of the Internet in an associative data stream that reveals interconnections between concepts and themes.
Apartment, by Martin Wattenberg and Marek Walczak, takes a very different approach to the concept of mapping by exploring relationships between language, memory, and space. Words translated are typed in by viewers into a two-dimensional blueprint of an apartment (by analyzing their underlying meaning) and the submitted apartments are organized into cities that can be searched according to themes. The project presents the written word as a spatial practice and creates new levels of associations and meaning.
The concepts of multi-user environments, gaming, and file-sharing are central to John Klima's Glasbead, a musical instrument and toy that allows players to manipulate and exchange sound sample files and create rhythmic musical sequences. The project, a contained but constantly changing world of its own, was inspired by Hermann Hesse's novel Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glassbead Game, published in English under the title Magister Ludi). It applies "the geometries of absolute music to the construction of synesthetic microworlds" .
Since the advent of the World Wide Web, there have been various Net activism or "hacktivism" projects that use the network and its possibilities of instant distribution and cloning of information as a staging platform for interventions, be they in support of specific groups or a method of questioning corporate and commercial interests. The projects by the artists behind 0100101110101101.org-which range from the cloning and remixing of other artists' and organizations' Web sites to the creation of a virus-are representative of this form of artistic practice and focus on the political, cultural, and commercial aspects of the network.
There are many other themes in Net art and digital art (such as narrative environments or networked, live performances) that aren't addressed in this selection. Nevertheless, it hopefully illustrates the hybrid nature of this medium, establishing a historical context and pointing to the future of this art practice.
1. Jack Burnham, "Systems Esthetics," Artforum Vol. 7, No. 1 (September 1968), p. 31; "Real Time Systems," Artforum Vol. 8, No. 1 (September 1969) p. 51.
2. Richard Gess, "Magister Macintosh," The Drama Review (Winter 1993) p. 38-45.