ISEA2022: the possible spaces of new media art

Pau Waelder

Drone show on the closing night of ISEA2022 Barcelona

The 27th International Symposium on Electronic Art took place in Barcelona from 9 to 16th June, bringing to the city a community of more than 750 experts in art, science and technology and hosting 140 presentations made by experts in the field, 45 institutional presentations, 40 talks given by artists, 23 screenings, 18 posters and demos, 16 round tables, 13 workshops, and 13 performances. The main organizer of the event was the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), in partnership with ISEA International, the Government of Catalonia and the main cultural and political institutions in the region.

Directed by Professors Pau Alsina and Irma Vilà from the UOC, the symposium included a densely curated art program with several exhibitions in the city that can be visited during the summer. While organizing the symposium, Alsina and Vilà established collaborations with the major cultural institutions in Barcelona, resulting in a particular presentation of new media art that has permeated the local contemporary art scene, establishing a dialogue with the curatorial approaches of the different venues. This interplay can be seen in the three major exhibitions spread over the city: What is Possible and What is Not at La Capella, Possibles at Recinte Modernista Sant Pau, and The irruption at Santa Mònica. While the most established art institutions in Barcelona, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) and the Center for Contemporary Culture (CCCB), hosted the talks, lectures, and a series of performances, the three spaces have had the task of collectively presenting an overview of artistic creation in the field of art, science, and technology (AST). The result is particularly interesting, as it has brought about a rather unprecedented variety of formats, themes, and approaches to creating and presenting art made with and about digital technologies and scientific research.

The exhibitions in Barcelona feature three different forms of presenting new media art: a setup similar to contemporary art biennials, a process-oriented, artist-in-residence environment, and a new media art festival exhibition.

In my role as Chair of Artworks of the symposium, I oversaw the whole selection process of the more than 600 artistic projects presented in an open call that exceeded all our expectations. The peer-review process involved more than 200 scholars, artists, curators, and art professionals to whom ISEA and the Barcelona team are deeply indebted. The selected artworks were presented to the curators of Santa Mònica and La Capella, with the third exhibition putting together a selection curated by Irma Vilà, a presentation curated by myself through Niio, and part of the BEEP Collection. The curators in the respective venues integrated the artworks they selected into the narrative they had developed for their spaces, which organically led to three different forms of presenting new media art: a setup similar to those of contemporary art biennials, a process-oriented, artist-in-residence environment, and finally the kind of exhibition one typically encounters at a new media art festival. While these approaches could have found a more dialogical setup in a shared space, the fact that they constitute three separate proposals makes it an enriching experience for a visitor who attends all three exhibitions knowing that all the artworks are related to the field of art, science and technology.

Antoine Schmitt. Generative Quantum Ballet 21 Video Recording, 2022. Artwork included in the selection by Niio at the exhibition Possibles.

Santa Mònica: new media art as contemporary art

The curators of Santa Mònica, Marta Gracia, Jara Rocha and Enric Puig Punyet, selected more than twenty artworks from the open call which they grouped under an overarching theme addressing the conditions of life on our planet after the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate change is a prevalent subject in this exhibition, as exemplified by It will happen here, in Barcelona, an algorithmic cinema installation by Roderick Coover, Nick Montfort, and Adam Vidiksis that elaborates a never-ending narrative about the impact of rising waters, which will entail migration and extinction. The piece is presented as a large-scale projection that takes half of the second floor of the former convent. Other artworks address our relationship with the planet from the wider perspective of the anthropocene, such as Quadra Minerale-Rare Earths by Rosell Meseguer, which connects mineral colonization with our dependence on digital technologies, and Tools for a Warming Planet by Sara Dean, Beth Ferguson, and Marina Monsonís, which consists of a crowdsourced collection of current and speculative tools for adapting to life in our changing world, contributed by designers, artists, activists, and scientists. These artworks are presented in the form of archives and displays that remind of the classical cabinet of curiosities.

Climate change, the Anthropocene and our social and spatial relationships during the pandemic are prevalent subjects in the exhibition at Santa Mònica

Our social and spatial relationships during the pandemic are also a recurring subject in the exhibition, with artworks such as Muted by Lauren Lee McCarthy, which collects several performative pieces she carried out during lockdown and afterwards, establishing different kinds of mediated communication with friends and strangers. McCarthy’s work takes the form of an installation with a double bed and several digital devices displaying the documentation of these performances. Also related to the pandemic, #See You at Home – The Domestic Space as Public Encounter by Bettina Katja Lange, Uwe Brunner, and Joan Soler-Adillon creates an immersive and interactive installation based on a series of 3D scans of people’s domestic spaces collected during lockdown, which has evolved into a reflection on the boundaries between the private and the public. While the exhibition, as can be expected, features numerous screen-based artworks and some VR environments, the overall experience is closer to what one might expect from a contemporary art biennial, with a predominance of objects, prints, and video installations.

Chemical Ecosystem by Yolanda Uriz

La Capella: work-in-progress

The artistic director La Capella, David Armengol, chose to combine the presentation of a selection of artworks from the ISEA open call with those of the artists participating in Barcelona Producció, a yearly program dedicated to promote local talent through grants for research and production. The result is a well-balanced combination of artistic projects, all of which are characterized by their processual nature, be it as reactive sculptures, algorithmic animations or data-driven visualisations. Here it is telling that in most cases the artworks selected by ISEA reviewers cannot be told apart from those of local artists experimenting with technology. For instance, Anna Pascó’s ZENZ(A)I, a neural network that creates sayings by collecting meteorological data from different locations, could well have been part of the open call, as would also Estampa’s computer visions of an urban landscape or Mario Santamaria’s geolocative installation. The five selected artworks from the ISEA call turn towards nature and artificial intelligence in their reflections of the world around us, from Anna Carreras’ generative drawing Arrels, Yolanda Uriz’s stimulatingly olfactory Chemical Ecosystem, and the intimately analog Water Drop Viewer by Roc Parés, to the AI-inspired construction of language in d’Eco a Siringa by Josep Manuel Berenguer and the speculative robotics developed by Mónica Rikić in Especies I, II y III. While the artworks in this exhibition are no less complete and fully functional than those in Santa Mònica, the setup and narrative of the show lead more clearly to considering them as works-in-progress, not unfinished but always evolving, and it that sense provide visitors with a different experience, in which the experimental, the potential, and in fact the possible take a more prominent role.

View of the exhibition Possibles at Espai Modernista Sant Pau

Sant Pau: the realms of the digital

The Art Nouveau historical building of Sant Pau hosts a temporary exhibition in a dark underground room that is actually an illustrative example of the kind of spaces where digital art has been shown in the context of new media art festivals over the last decades. Dominated by a large selection of artworks from the BEEP Collection, the largest collection of digital art in Spain, the exhibition mainly consists of screen-based works and installations, many of which are interactive, and creates an atmosphere densely populated by the lights and sounds emanating from the artworks. The BEEP Collection, started in 2006 by entrepreneur Andreu Rodríguez and directed by Vicente Matallana, features a wide spectrum of new media artworks by pioneers such as Peter Weibel or Analivia Cordeiro alongside established names in the field such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, and Daniel Canogar, as well as younger local artists, such as Santi Vilanova, Mónica Rikić, and Alex Posada. Built year after year with individual acquisitions, it presents a sample of the main developments in new media art over the last three to four decades, with examples of video art, interactive art, bio art, generative art, artificial intelligence art, light installations and so forth. The presence of the collection’s pieces greatly contributes to give the exhibition this aura of a new media art festival both in the aesthetic qualities and the variety of the artistic projects.

A selection of artworks from the ISEA open call curated by Irma Vilà explores the varied forms of perception of reality mediated by digital technologies. Liquid Views by Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss, a pioneering interactive work created in 1992 and updated for this exhibition, confronts viewers with their own image in a mesmerizing “mirror of Narcissus” that anticipated, 30 years ago, our current selfie culture and the appeal of tactile interfaces. Last Breaths by Linda Dement, Paul Brown, and Carmine Gentile develops a different form of register of the existence of a person. The last breaths of the artist George Schwarz, who died of a cardiac failure, were recorded. The audio values were turned into a 3D printed sculpture of living cardiac cells. Evoking loss and memory, the piece confronts the power of science with the inevitability of death and suggests a new way of perceiving an ephemeral, yet crucial moment in a person’s life. The living, interconnected system of a forest is consciously presented as an empty vessel in a series of 3D scans of a natural environment in Queensland (Australia) made by Keith Armstrong. Common Thread connects the deceivingly realistic rendering of the forest with the shallow perception of nature by Australia’s colonizers, as opposed to the profound understanding and rich mythologies of its original dwellers. This view can be compared to the ironic take on Artificial Intelligence created by Thierry Fournier in Sightseeing, a fiction about an all-too-intelligent AI whose task is to observe a beach through a CCTV camera, leading it to ultimately question what it perceives as well as its own purpose and existence. Finally, Paul Brown addresses a further stage in the perception of reality by elaborating in Quantum Chaos Set a visualization about the quantum world of uncertainty, through a photograph of felt fibres that undergoes continuous transformations generated by random sorting algorithm that repositions each pixel of the image. 

A selection of artworks from the ISEA open call curated by Irma Vilà explores the varied forms of perception of reality mediated by digital technologies

The exhibition is completed with a presentation of artworks curated by myself on Niio. Following the themes of the symposium, I addressed the subjects of humans and non-humans, natures and worlds, and futures and heritages through a selection of video works displayed on a single screen. In Generative Quantum Ballet 21, Antoine Schmitt takes his interest in choreography and performance arts and his signature minimalistic visual element, the white pixel, to the realm of quantum systems in a generative artwork of which a video excerpt was shown. Jeppe Lange creates a beautiful and poetic narrative around perception in Le monde en lui-même, a video work that uses hundreds of post-impressionist paintings in a mesmerizing collage. Diane Drubay challenges our complacent perception of the world in times of climate change in Ignis II, an animation showing the transformation of a placid summer sky into a menacing storm in the span of 14 seconds, which correspond to the 14 years left until we reach a point of no return in our warming planet. Oblivion finds a visual representation in Frederik de Wilde’s Oh Deer!, an AI experiment showing a short clip of a deer being continuously processed by a Generative Adversarial Network that the artist modifies to progressively remove information, until nothing is left but a grey square. Sabrina Ratté addresses both nature and memory in FLORALIA, a speculative fiction about a virtual archive room preserving extinct plant species. The selection concludes with Snow Yunxue Fu’s Karst, a virtual reality artwork that takes us to spaces that are beyond human reach, questioning whether the ability to experience them in a simulated environment may expand our notion of the reality around us.

3D printed sculptures by Varvara and Mar at Galería Alalimón

Digital art in the art galleries

Beyond these three main exhibitions, the presence of artists working with digital technologies in commercial galleries exemplifies the increasingly normalized presence of new media art in the contemporary art market. Anna Carreras presented her generative artworks in a solo show at Ana Mas Projects during the days of the symposium, while the artist duo Varvara and Mar brought their newly developed 3D sculptures and prints to Alalimón Gallery and Mario Santamaria presented his explorations of networks in a solo exhibition at Àngels Barcelona. All three solo shows combined screen-based artworks with prints and, in some cases, sculptures, which points to a telling flexibility of formats that seamlessly move between the physical and the virtual.

These last examples provide an explanation to the rich variety of approaches to new media art that can be seen in the three exhibitions currently on view in Barcelona. Not only due to the curator’s visions and decisions, the plurality of forms of artistic projects related to science and technology is caused by the artists’ own interest in moving away from a strictly “new media” aesthetic that has been so common in festivals and specialized events and exploring a culture that is already immersed in the digital and does not always require complex technological devices. Our daily life incorporates the experience of virtual environments, artificial intelligence, and interactivity, and is routinely affected by algorithms. This means that the possible spaces for new media art are expanding to the point where distinctions are no longer necessary: everything is, and has always been, art.

But why is it an NFT?

Pau Waelder

Anna Carreras, Trossets 391. Courtesy of aramunu

More than a year ago, NFTs burst into mainstream contemporary art through the spectacular sales that took place in Christie’s and Sotheby’s, leading to a market frenzy and the emergence of numerous marketplaces and record selling NFT drops. At the time, most of the art world had to quickly figure out what an NFT is, how the blockchain works, and ultimately try to understand why NFTs were reaching such astronomical sums. Nowadays, when the contemporary art market is finally integrating limited edition digital artworks minted in a blockchain as another type of art offered for sale in art galleries and art fairs, the pertinent question is no longer what is an NFT, but why is it an NFT, why did the artist choose to attach a non-fungible token to her artwork and what does that bring to the concept and the nature of the piece.

The answer to this question is not always “to make more money,” even though it is obvious that the NFT market has been driven by the promise of enormous profits laid out by the initial auction sales, and that the conversation around NFTs tends to revolve around sales figures rather than what the artworks are about. Following an invitation to give a keynote speech at the NFT BCN 2022 event in Barcelona, I decided to address some of the reasons why artists create NFTs, based on recent observations and an exploration of the developments in the art market and digital art over the last two decades.

What is new or different about NFTs?

To begin, it is worth considering what minting a digital artwork as a non-fungible token entails, how is it different from selling the artwork in a USB stick, as a print, or as a physical object including a customized screen and computer. This brings us to the perennial question: What is an NFT?

Explanations vary in complexity and detail, but to keep it simple let’s start by saying that an NFT is a blockchain-based proof of purchase. The token itself is a register on the distributed, tamper-proof ledger that is a blockchain (yes, “a” blockchain and not “the” blockchain, as there are many different blockchains out there). Most commonly, the token includes a link to a distributed file system, such as IPFS, where the artwork file is located. Therefore, the NFT does not contain the artwork, it is linked to the artwork and contains information about who owns it (exceptions apply, see below).

To summarize, in most cases a digital artwork minted as an NFT is stored online and is publicly accessible (and downloadable), but can only be officially owned by whoever owns the token associated with it.

This simple description usually prompts another perennial question: Why pay for an artwork that is available online? While this question is worth another article, let’s focus this time on the aspects of a digital artwork minted as an NFT that make it more than just an image or a video that anyone can download:

1. An NFT, as discussed, certifies the ownership of a digital artwork in a way that is publicly verifiable. This is quite significant as, up until recently, artists could only provide a signed piece of paper and maybe an engraved hard drive, DVD, or USB stick to give collectors a proof of ownership of the artwork.

2. The ownership of a non-fungible token can be easily transferred, which facilitates the exchange of artworks in a secondary market. Yes, in the accelerated, frenzied market around NFTs this has frequently translated into speculative practices and lightning-fast art flipping, but it is not always bad that an artwork changes hands, and in these operations the artist can benefit (see below).

3. Buying an NFT can unlock other content (higher resolution images or videos, access to other artworks, additional formats, and so forth) that bring considerable extras to the “image-that-anyone-can-download” and can lead to a particular relationship between collector and artwork.

4. In some cases, the NFT can contain the artwork, or part of it. On-chain NFTs include the code that generates the artwork inside the token, or else a specific part of the code that can run in an external program. An example can be found in the series Autoglyphs by Larva Labs, the first on-chain generative art to be minted on the Ethereum blockchain.

5. Finally, NFTs contain smart contracts, which execute specific actions automatically when certain conditions are met. The most common is to include artist royalties on every sale in the secondary market. When an NFT is sold to a new collector, the smart contract ensures that the monetary transaction is split between the previous collector and the artist, according to a predefined percentage, each amount being automatically transferred to their respective wallets. Smart contracts can do much more, but we’ll see that later.

These features of NFTs already point to possible answers to the question “why is it an NFT?,” but let’s explore further why artists are creating NFTs on the basis of four key motivations.

Exhibition “Instructions Follow” (2021) on Feral File

Reaching a larger audience

An artwork, by definition, needs an audience (at least, per George Dickie’s useful but controversial circular definition of art). Artists usually want to reach as large an audience as possible, as gaining popularity contributes to legitimize their position, but also because they want people, lots of people, and not just wealthy collectors, to enjoy their art. Artists wanting to make their art more affordable have usually resorted to multiples, that is artworks created in large editions that are sold at smaller prices. A well known example is the initiative created in 1959 by artists Daniel Spoerri and Karl Gerstner, MAT (Multiplication d’Art Transformable), which produced multiples by different artists in editions of 100 copies at $50 each. All multiples, regardless of the reputation and market value of the artist, were sold in the same amount of copies and at the same price.

This leveling of art market hierarchies and the conception of the artwork as a massively produced merchandise set the bases for what is usually referred to as the “democratization of art.”  The 1960s and 1970s saw the full development of the consumer society and it is not surprising that artists reacted to the Zeitgeist by conceiving ways of turning their artworks into mass consumer products, particularly Pop artists like Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol, in landmark shows such as The Store in 1961 or American Supermarket in 1964. Later on, it would be artists connected to graffiti and street art who would embrace this idea, as exemplified by Keith Haring’s influential Pop Shop (1986-2005), and lately by artists Shepard Fairey, KAWS, and Bansky, among others.

The NFT market is currently bringing together two types of artists who are particularly interested in reaching a larger audience: artists who work with digital technologies and artists whose work is located on the fringes of the art market or the art world. The former have found themselves creating digital art and usually receiving little attention outside of a circuit of specialized festivals, exhibitions and galleries. Now suddenly, there is widespread attention for digital art, but focused on NFTs, which also promise substantial gains. The latter have experienced a similar situation, although their work was either not digital (street artists, mainly) or not considered fine art (illustrators, SFX creators).

Therefore, the NFT market is currently fed by the creations of digital artists who either directly mint their work on a blockchain or adapt it to the format in which NFTs are sold. In doing so, they reach a potentially larger audience, not only because the artworks are available online, but also because they are sold in the context of a growing community and are frequently available at very affordable prices.

Take for instance, Feral File, an online exhibition space, marketplace, and community for digital art created in 2021 by artist Casey Reas and the team at Bitmark. The platform launched with a series of curated exhibitions of up to twelve artworks by different artists. In each exhibition, the price and edition size is the same for all the artworks, in a similar way to how Spoerri and Gerstner conceived MAT. The first exhibitions put the artworks for sale, on average, in editions of 75 at $75 each. The intention was clearly to make digital art accessible to a large audience and popularize it, although the enormous success of Feral File led to the editions frequently  being sold out merely seconds after the sale and then circulating in the secondary market, a situation that ironically had already happened in the 1960s with the editions of MAT.

Another telling example is Hic et Nunc, an NFT marketplace on the Tezos blockchain launched in 2021, which quickly attracted the attention of artists due to its open structure and the low cost of minting on Tezos, a cryptocurrency with a much lower value than Ethereum. Hic et Nunc (also known as HEN) nurtured a large community of digital artists who produced and bought NFTs from each other, usually at very low prices (ranging from $1 to $20). In September 2021 it was discontinued by its founder, but it has mutated into a number of mirror sites and other initiatives, such as Objkt, TEIA, or AlterHEN, which continue to offer eco-friendly NFTs at relatively affordable prices. 

Artworks in different formats sold online by software artist LIA. Graph by Pau Waelder.

A standard protocol for selling digital art

Artists working with digital technologies have long sought solutions to sell their artworks, particularly online, without any physical object attached to them. Since the early days of net art, when artists started exploring the possibilities of creating artworks specifically for the World Wide Web, it seemed that they could only put their work out there for everyone to see, for free. Pioneering artist Olia Lialina turned her website into a net art gallery in 1998 and simply offered the works for sale. She sold one to the artist duo Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn and sent them the files so they could host the artwork in their own server. Other artists have tried different approaches.

For instance, in 2002 artist Mark Napier created The Waiting Room, an online shared space for multiple users that was offered to collectors in the form of 50 shares, sold through the bitforms gallery. Later, artist Rafael Rozendaal famously came up with the idea of creating online artworks as websites with their own domain name, and developed an “Art Website Sales Contract to ensure that collectors would keep the artworks online and linked to their corresponding domain names.

These and many other initiatives were aimed at creating scarcity for an endlessly reproducible artwork and to provide collectors with a publicly verifiable proof of ownership. However, each solution was conceived for specific artwork and did not constitute a general model that could be applied to any digital artwork. Furthermore, since every solution was more or less unique, it had to be explained to collectors, who saw themselves as explorers of an unknown territory, acquiring a work of art in a format with newly invented rules.

Around the beginning of the 2010s, content platforms and art marketplaces for web and mobile began to emerge, and artists saw in them a possible solution for the dissemination of their works among a larger audience. In 2009, artist Jonah Brucker-Cohen published in Rhizome a series of articles in which he described the possibilities of selling digital art through Apple’s App Store, at a time when the revolutionizing influence of the iPhone (released in 2007) was starting to be felt:

“ Instead of giving away your work for free on the web, Apple’s iPhone and iTouch devices provide an ample platform for distribution (through the Apple App Store) and hardware support for novel ways to experience screen-based work.

[…] Since Apple has kept the economic barriers for entry into this world of mobile development relatively low, it’s easier than ever for artists to use these devices for their creations and have an instant audience of millions to enjoy them.”

Jonah Brucker-Cohen, “Art In Your Pocket: iPhone and iPod Touch App Art Rhizome, July 7th, 2009

Many artists who worked with code started turning their artworks into apps and offering them for low prices, in the range of other apps on the App Store, which at the time were sold at $1- $5. Among them the software art pioneer LIA stands out as one of the artists who has developed the widest variety of formats to distribute her art online. In 2009, she launched her celebrated generative artwork Arcs 21 as an iPhone app.

A few years later, she joined the platform Sedition, creating a series of digital editions from video excerpts of her generative works. At the same time, she opened an online store on her own website (à la Olia Lialina) and started selling plotter drawings and prints. By the end of the decade, she had also presented her work in the digital art frame FRAMED*, a device composed of a screen and an integrated computer that includes its own selection of artworks in limited editions.

In 2021, the NFT boom caught LIA well prepared to respond to this new protocol for selling digital art. Given her reputation, she was quickly invited to join curated NFT marketplaces, where her work has reached considerably high prices. But at the same time, she has experimented with lower priced artworks on Hic et Nunc, creating interactive and generative pieces in large editions. Her distributed presence in the NFT market exemplifies how some artists with an established professional trajectory in the digital art world have found in non-fungible tokens a way to sell their art to different audiences, testing different formats, edition sizes, and prices.

It can be said that NFTs bring a solution (not the solution, as it probably does not exist) to selling digital art online to a wide audience by establishing a common protocol that allows for variations but is widely known and accepted, and furthermore validated on the highest level of the art market hierarchy by the auctions that took place at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Screenshot from The Insane Collectors (2021) by Kim Asendorf on Hic et Nunc

Collecting a work-in-progress

For digital artists, an artwork would normally go to the art market when it was tried and true, if it was based on software, or in a format that collectors could trust, such as a print or a video (the latter still raising many doubts). Experimentation would happen at the studio, in an artist-in-residence program, or sometimes at an exhibition or a festival. Experiments could also be distributed online, for fans and fellow artists to experience at their own risk, for free. 

Nowadays, NFTs offer the possibility of minting and selling an experimental piece of software art and letting adventurous collectors purchase a copy to support their practice and be among the first to experience the artwork. During 2021, Hic et Nunc became the optimal environment for this type of experimentation, which was supported by a strongly motivated community and the fact that the artworks themselves were sold for very low prices.

One example is Kim Asendorf’s The Insane Collectors (2021), an artwork consisting of the visualization of the names or wallet addresses of those who bought one of its 110 editions.The piece is a program that took its data from an API of an external source, and therefore the artist warned that it could stop working the moment there were changes on this API, as it did happen in September 2021 when Hic et Nunc was discontinued. While the piece continues to be available on the marketplace Objkt, it has ceased to work and belongs, conceptually and procedurally, to its previous existence on HEN. For those of us who bought an edition, it meant spending a mere 5 TEZ (around $20), supporting the artist’s crazy idea and being part of something that, in my opinion, was interesting. 

Collecting in the NFT marketplace has often been seen as led by speculation and profit, but there is a lot of genuine interest in the artworks and a willingness to trust and support artists. In particular, the current form of selling generative artworks as NFTs speak of this involvement of collectors. On ArtBlocks and other marketplaces, generative artworks are sold in large editions by setting up a program that creates a different composition every time it is minted, until reaching, for instance, its 1,000th creation. The series is then completed, each artwork being unique but at the same time a variation of a single compositional style.

When collectors mint their edition, they do not know how the resulting artwork will look like, only that it will be in line with the aesthetics defined by the program. This is actually similar to how some collectibles are sold in opaque envelopes and boxes, and just in the same way many collectors head to the secondary market to exchange the composition they got for the one they like. 

Lauren Lee McCarthy, What Do You Want Me To Say? (2021)

Smart contracts: the ghost in the machine

Finally, a compelling reason to mint a digital artwork as an NFT is to explore the possibilities of smart contracts. As previously mentioned, smart contracts automatically enact instructions previously established by the artist when certain conditions are met. The applications of this technology are potentially endless, and it is up to the artists’ creativity to find interesting ways of embedding these instructions into their artworks.

Jonas Lund, an artist who has frequently played with auto referentiality and the systems of the art market, famously elaborated his own  analog “smart contracts” in a series of paintings titled Strings Attached (2015), in which the canvas displayed a text indicating a string of conditions linked to the purchase of the artwork. He has later brought this idea to non-fungible tokens in the series Smart Burn Contracts (2021), consisting of contracts that the owner of the NFT must comply to, and provide proof of compliance to the artist, who will otherwise burn the token and destroy the artwork. While here the artist takes on the role of verification that would be carried out by a program, it conceptually links to the possibilities provided by this technology.

Other artists are using smart contracts to determine the development of an artwork over time and establish particular relationships between the collector and the artwork.

Lauren Lee McCarthy created What Do You Want Me To Say?, an interactive artwork, for an online exhibition at Feral File that I curated in 2021. The artwork, which was offered in an edition of 75 and minted as an NFT, consisted of a program that enabled users to interact with the synthesized voice of the artist. The voice asked the user “What do you want me to say?,” collected the user’s reply via the computer’s microphone and then repeated the sentence using the artist’s voice. A reflection on the ways in which female–voiced digital assistants normalize the notion of addressing women in imperatives, the artwork was open to interaction with any user during the first month of the exhibition, and then was only available to collectors, until, a year after its first release, it will remain as an archive of past interactions.

Exploring the relationship between collector and artwork, artist Sara Friend has recently created Life Forms (2021), a series of NFT-based digital entities that require collectors to transfer their ownership to other collectors (or wallets) every 90 days in order to “keep them alive.” The artwork plays with the notion of ownership and the practice of art flipping in the NFT market, while inviting collectors to participate in a sort of ongoing ritual or competition in which it remains to be seen who will be able to keep their NFT for longer. Obviously, many collectors simply switch the NFT between two wallets, but still by doing so they participate in the process devised by the artist.

This brief exploration of the reasons why artists mint their digital artworks as NFTs provide an initial approach to the possibilities offered by this blockchain-based proof of purchase, which in the hands of creative individuals can become a powerful tool for the development, dissemination and collecting of digital art. 

Daniel Canogar: “I’m trying to find inner peace in this world of excess.”

Pau Waelder

The leading artist in the Spanish media art scene, Daniel Canogar‘s influential work spans almost four decades and a wide range of media from video art installations to generative software art. On the occasion of his solo artcast Liquid Data, I interviewed him in his studio in Madrid.

Light is an essential aspect of your work, not only as a way to make images visible (on screens or through projections) but also for its physical properties (diffusion, reflection) and its ephemeral nature. How would you describe the role of light in your creative process? 

I think it really all goes back to me, as a 14 year old teenager, discovering the magic of the photographic darkroom. I  was fortunate enough to have one in the house that I grew up, my father needed a dark room for his work. And I just kind of stumbled to this space. And before I knew it, I was totally addicted to the magic of the photographic process, in its photochemical analog version, of course, this was a long time ago.

This was a foundational artistic experience for me, that I’ve reproduced throughout my career, now through algorithms, huge projectors, in some cases, and LED screens. But I think I’m always trying to recreate that magical enchantment of a darkened space, and these glowing lights that create an  almost alchemical process. One thing, that I’m also realizing is the sense of artificial darkness: this is not the darkness of night, as I’m also not using solar light. I’m using artificially created darkness, and artificially created light. And that is also my connection to technology. So there is this common thread running through 35-40 years of work,  a relationship with light, which is very present throughout all my work.

Over the years you have depicted a society filled with objects, entangled in electronic networks, constantly throwing away obsolete products. How would you describe the use of accumulation and waste as a source material for your work?

I was feeling blocked, creating an artwork in a world that already has so much art, where there are so many artists producing so many art pieces. It just seemed futile to contribute another project to this ocean of projects. And it was at that time that it occurred to me to create artworks that address this sense of excess. We have too many things, and we have a hard time navigating, through the bombardment of information that we receive every day. So, the concept of excess took me to look at waste, residue, debris. I went to recycling centers, particularly interested, of course, in e-waste treatment plants. I got a lot of inspiration from just seeing the sheer amount of garbage that we generate with computers, cameras, and all kinds of electronics that we throw away too quickly. 

Daniel Canogar, Other Geologies (2005)

But then I was also thinking of data, the excess of data, and thinking in many cases as data as just pure garbage. I worked with obsolete technologies, in series such as Latencies and Small Data, and other projects like Sikka, these are works that are saying goodbye to the world of material media, that has dissipated online now, restored with cloud based technologies. Before that, we had all these physical media, DVDs, DVD players, and VHS players, all kinds of electronics that populated our life until not so long ago. And I tried to give them a new opportunity, a new life, but it’s also a send off. I wanted to give them a dignified ending. Data, in a way, created these electronic ruins and is now dominating our lives. So I am trying to create a deeper understanding of the rhythms and the pulse of these kinds of systems that we have created, that seem to have a life of their own. A lot of these words are very hypnotic. I practice Transcendental Meditation now for a number of years, and this has allowed me to find some kind of inner peace, so through my work I think I’m also trying to find inner peace within this world of excess.

Generative algorithms and real time data have become an integral part of your work, that was already concerned with flows, networks and mutability. What have these technologies brought to your creative process? Have they changed how you conceive your artworks, or opened new possibilities?

When data started to become part of my artwork, a crucial change was working with algorithms to create generative art pieces. This has been an absolutely fascinating change from working with video, that is basically something that you finish, then you cut, and then is perhaps played a loop. It’s basically a finished project. Conversely, with generative art I’m suddenly liberated from this finished product, and move into something that has a life of its own. And this has been absolutely fascinating.

Coding, which is now a central aspect of my practice is perhaps, in its results, closer to performance art. It is a form of living theater, where you set the stage by encoding certain rules, but then depending on the data that’s entering the artwork, it has one behavior or another. This type of work connects with the cycles of consumption of information, of 24/7 digital broadcasting, of never reaching the end of your Instagram feed of never really getting to the bottom of your daily social media consumption, the way in the past, you would literally finish the paper newspaper, and you would close it, and that was the end of it for the day. Now, you never get that sense of a finished, completed cycle. So these generative algorithmic works, also  tie in to these rhythms that are part of our daily existence. And I’m trying to understand these cycles that never end and how we become addicted to them. And how do we make sense of a world where there’s never really a sense of completion. 

Daniel Canogar at his studio, observing Maelstrom (2022)

You have worked with regular screens, flexible LED screens, and many types of projections. What do each of these formats bring to your work and how are they integrated into the whole concept and development of each piece?

I could establish two categories of displays that I use in my work. One of them is a traditional screen, which not traditional terms of its scale but it has the presence of a canvas. The other one is the sculptural screen. From the beginning, my work has always had a desire to have an exchange between the material sculpturalness of the image, and these more ephemeral phantasmagoric, immaterial aspects of the moving image. All my work is always referencing contemporary art. My work as a media artist is about trying to think of data, of sculpture, of the history of art, in a synchronous way where it all comes together. So when I think of sculptural screens, I’m also referencing sculpture, the history of sculpture.

Now that our experience of the world is mediated by technology and a sense of constant change, how do you think we will experience art in the future?

The digital, as an intangible media that only manifests itself presently on screens is something that I would hope allows for a more active spectator. A more physically active viewer that engages with these images in a more dynamic way than we are doing right now. So despite so many discussions about the metaverse and despite all these kinds of things that we could imagine, I wish that the sentient body remains as a focal point for these experiences.

Expanding formats: NFTs at Art Brussels

Pau Waelder

The 38th edition of the Art Brussels art fair, which took place between the 20th and 23rd April, featured for the first time a dedicated space to NFTs and a selection of works sold as non-fungible tokens by participating galleries. This was made possible through a partnership with Parallel, a production and advisory platform dedicated to contemporary art and Web3 technologies. Parallel worked with the galleries to showcase a selection of the NFTs hosted on the online space JPG, a platform that has developed a curatorial protocol for the presentation of this type of artworks. Additionally, Parallel built a booth that served as an information desk, a meeting point for guided visits, and also hosted an augmented reality artwork. To complement this educational task at the art fair, the team also organized a series of talks about NFTs in collaboration with iMAL, the leading New Media Art Center in Brussels. 

As a guest to both the talks and the visits to the galleries, I had the opportunity to observe the different forms of presentation of the artworks, some combining an online and physical presence, and to discuss with gallerists and visitors the options that NFTs and blockchain technologies present to collectors of contemporary art. 

Parallel NFT Touchpoint booth at Art Brussels

The galleries

It might be expected that NFTs are mainly sold by young galleries, or those already focused on digital art, but actually the galleries participating in the collaboration between Art Brussels and Parallel are quite different from each other. Veteran galleries with an outstanding record in the contemporary art market Michael Janssen (Berlin) and Nagel Draxler (Cologne, Berlin, Munich), have integrated sales of artworks minted as NFTs, alongside the younger contemporary art galleries The Hole (New York), Plus One (Antwerp), and Office Impart (Berlin), as well as others with a particular focus on local and national art scenes, such as Anca Poterasu (Bucharest), Sapar Contemporary (New York), and Green on Red (Dublin). An exceptional case among them is Galerie Charlot (Paris, Tel Aviv), which has been dedicated to digital art for more than a decade, and consequently presented the booth that most seamlessly integrated the languages of digital and contemporary art. 

There were interesting connections and similarities between the different artistic projects presented at the galleries, and for this reason I will focus on these connections rather than list the artworks displayed on each booth. 

Sabrina Ratté, Winter Garden (2016)

The lightness and solidity of 3D worlds

Artists Sabrina Ratté (Charlot) and Theo Triantafyllidis (Nagel Draxler) are known for their particular approach to building 3D worlds, the former creating architectural spaces that blend natural and artificial forms bordering abstraction, the latter fully appropriating video game environments and characters to create immersive scenes, some of which are dominated by the presence of a brawny female ork, the artist’s iconic avatar. Their works find a physical presence, in the case of Ratté, in prints that depict a selected view of her imagined worlds, and in Triantafyllidis’ work as an hologram that underscores the illusory aspect of the digital image. Artists Frederik Heyman (Plus One) and Louis-Paul Caron (Charlot), on the other hand, build their virtual worlds with a particular attention to the textures and physical qualities of each element, and while Caron emphasizes the artificiality of his compositions, Heyman skillfully reproduces every detail. Their works, by contrast, have no physical output: they live as images on a screen.

Antoine Schmitt, UkraineWar2022 (2022)

Generative art, back to the roots

In the current NFT market, generative art has become a favorite among artists and collectors due to the possibility of launching a series of works from a single program, each instance of the program being minted as a unique NFT. This allows artists, on the one hand, to create large series that are automatically generated from a single program, and collectors, on the other hand, to own a piece that is unique while also belonging to a series. However, generative art has also been about the artwork being a single program that constantly generates new compositions, ad infinitum. Since the pioneering work of algorithmic artists, this idea has been adopted by numerous artists in very different ways, sometimes as an autopoietic process and others fed by external data. The Net Art Generator (1997), a seminal web-based piece by Cornelia Sollfrank (Office Impart) offers a peculiar example, as it allows users to create a visual composition from a simple query on a search engine. Appropriating the outputs of anonymous users, the artist has minted a series of NFTs from collages of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints found online and recomposed by her net art generator program. In a similar vein, Thomas Israël (Charlot) creates an homage to the Dada movement through a collage based on a work by László Moholy-Nagy that is populated by visual elements resulting from automated queries for the term “dada” in an online search engine.

In contrast to Sollfrank’s and Israël’s additive practice, Antoine Schmitt (Charlot) and LIA (Office Impart) create generative artworks that are fully based on the elements of a visual language of their own. Schmitt presents a generative piece based on his War series (2015) that depicts the struggle of Ukrainian forces resisting the invasion of the Russian army. The subject of the artwork is made more inspiring by the fact that the pixels are actually elements following a set of instructions that lead them to perform the scripted action endlessly. LIA’s drawing machine develops a previously written program from which she has generated a series of 100 NFTs that illustrate the vast possibilities of visual composition with minimalistic elements and a set of instructions. 

Sarah Friend, Life Forms (2022)

Rules and smart contracts

NFTs are minted through smart contracts, which are sets of agreements or instructions that self-execute on certain actions or when certain conditions are met. For instance, a smart contract will automatically transfer a 10% commission of the sale of an NFT on the secondary market to the artist who created it. But smart contracts can be used for many other purposes, and artists are also exploring the possibilities they bring, alongside generative software, to establish interactions between the artworks and their collectors. Sarah Friend (Nagel Draxler) has created in Life Forms a series of digital entities linked to NFTs. The entities, as designed by the artist, require new caretakers every 90 days, and therefore a collector must transfer the NFT to a new owner before this period has passed in order to keep the entity alive. The artwork thus plays with the tendency to “flip” NFTs that is prevalent among speculators and translates it into a caring, rather than profiting, activity. Artists Kim Asendorf and Jonas Lund (Office Impart) also play with generative pieces that integrate the activity of their collectors. Asendorf has created a series of NFTs and an editor, allowing the owner of the editor to “sabotage” the compositions owned by other collectors. Lund updates a previous web-based artwork which displays the browser window sizes of all users who have accessed it and turns it into a generative abstract piece in which each collector can create their own style and color, and mint their piece until the limited series of 128 has been completed.

David O’Reilly, 4004 (2021)

Lingua arcana

An interesting aspect of NFTs and blockchain and cryptocurrency artworks is that they bring back the arcane qualities associated with digital technologies that had been dissipated by our frequent use of user-friendly devices and interfaces. Kevin Abosch (Nagel Draxler), one of the artists who addressed blockchain technology in his work some years before the NFT boom, presents a series of artworks that use cryptography to hide information in plain sight and extract from the combinations of letters and numbers a certain compositional quality. Eduardo Kac (Charlot) mints an animation based on a form of writing of his own, inspired by his influential bioart project GFP Bunny (2000). Here, the strings of indecipherable characters run wildly across the space, in a way that reminds of the constant activity on blockchains and seems fit for an NFT. Artist and filmmaker David O’Reilly (Green on Red) explores another aspect of the arcane in computer science by digging out one of the few remaining Intel 4004 CPUs, the first microcontroller to put a full computer in a single chip. This relic of the digital age is placed by the artist inside a block of solid resin, creating a sculpture that brings to mind the aesthetic of classic science fiction films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odissey (1968). The sculpture is sold alongside a video of the piece rotating, minted as an NFT and therefore permanently stored in the same digital environment that the chip contributed to create.

Margret Eicher, POSTMODERN DANCE OF DEATH (2017)

Weaving the digital

Computing and industrial weaving find a common ancestor in Joseph-Marie Jacquard’s programmable loom from the early 1800s, which inspired mathematician Charles Babbage’s design of the Analytical Engine, a conceptual model for the modern computer, of which fellow mathematician Ada Lovelace was the first programmer. Nowadays, artists who create tapestries usually work on a digital image that is weaved by computer assisted machines evolved from the original Jacquard loom. This direct yet often overlooked connection between computing and weaving gives the resulting artworks a distinct quality, particularly when the tapestry does not intend to imitate a traditional, hand-woven textile, but replicate the complexities of a digital image. Megan Dominescu (Anca Poterasu), Ry David Bradley (The Hole), and Margret Eicher (Michael Janssen) present their work as tapestries that faithfully reproduce their particular visual styles, from Dominescu’s apparently naïve drawings, to Bailey’s deconstructed portraits, and Eicher’s elaborate compositions combining references to art history, the decorative arts, and popular digital culture. Here, the “original” work, akin to the cartoon, is a digital file, and hence minting it as an NFT offers collectors the ownership of the image as it was created by the artist before the production of the tapestry. Some artists may even decide not to produce the tapestry, which in this case would leave the digital image as the only output. In this manner, the NFT points to the origin of the artwork and to the fact that it exists even prior to its materialization in a physical format.

Jonas Lund, What You Get Is What You See (2022)

One format to encompass them all

The accelerated growth of the NFT market and the possibilities that minting on a blockchain gives to artists and creatives have understandably led to a growing interest in translating artworks in other formats into images than can be assigned a non-fungible token. Artists Victor Verhelst and Beni Bischof (Plus One), Chun Hua Catherine Dong (Charlot), Stepan Ryabchenko and WAONE (Sapar Contemporary), whose work is respectively linked to graphic design, collage, performance, video installation, and mural painting, but who, as most artists nowadays, also work primarily with digital images, have integrated NFTs into their practice. The minted artworks become in this case an extension of a work that exists in other formats but finds a way to be distributed and collected online. 

A look at the NFT offerings in the context of the galleries participating in Art Brussels provides a telling picture of the progressive integration of NFTs in the regular operations of the contemporary art market. Certainly, they are still a curiosity for most visitors and they raise many doubts, but the way in which they have become part of the work of some artists, one year into the NFT boom, indicates that the creators and their galleries have understood the possibilities provided by non-fungible tokens. As standalone digital artworks or combined with physical objects, NFTs in the context of professional contemporary art galleries seem on track to overcome the hype and contribute to expanding the forms of collecting digital art.

Creativity and paralysis: the digital art scene in Argentina

Cristian Reynaga is a curator of new media art based in Buenos Aires (Argentina). With a background in electronic arts and cultural industries, he has developed numerous curatorial projects in Argentina and Colombia and has led governmental initiatives focused on science, technology, and society, as well as commercial projects for brands such as Nike, Pepsi and Unilever. In 2015 he founded +CODE Cultura Digital, an independent cultural organization promoting an international festival on digital culture.

As part of a collaboration between Niio and +CODE, Reynaga has curated the artcast Post-Production, within the series +SUR, focusing on artists from Latin America. In this exclusive three-question interview, he draws a general picture of the digital art scene in Argentina.

Still from Observation Machine 1(2021) by Julian Brangold

1. How would you describe the digital art scene in Argentina?

The digital art scene in Argentina is located in what I would define as cultural periphery: it develops independently, not only facing the economic crises that already identify us as a country, but also the precariousness of cultural institutions in general, and specifically the lack of development of the digital art ecosystem: there are no cultural spaces, galleries, or specialized collectors and there is an absence of managers and public or private officials who are interested in reliably promoting artistic projects linked to digital culture. 

However, talented artists have been dealing with this scene for decades, accustomed to creating without a budget, to experimenting with limited access to technologies and to the lack of spaces that encourage collaboration or the dynamization of the sector, which is necessary to stimulate the emergence of new artists and new projects. In addition to this great effort from the artistic sector, it is worth highlighting the sustained interest of research groups that have accompanied this diagnosis from different study centers.

The crypto art and marketplace boom has had a great impact on the artistic community: for many it has become the main source of income, for others it has meant the first experience of economic retribution for their artistic work in their entire lives, and for others, an acceleration in their artistic projection. Some of them have begun to be exhibited in international galleries and museums while in Argentina they’ve had no opportunities to enter the art scene. This has generated an asymmetry between trajectory and relevance that is very interesting to analyze: it reveals both the dynamics and paralysis of our particular art scene. It can be said that Argentina is, at the same time, scorched earth and also a very fertile soil with enormous talent that should be taken into account for the insertion of new modalities of creation or international collaboration.

Online distribution is creating new audiences with a specific interest in digital art and allows creators to project themselves as artists within a circuit that supports them.

2. Are there networks of collaboration between Latin American countries in the field of digital art?

There are collaborative networks, but they are informal and based on voluntarism, which is a word that has been a recurring theme in discussions over the last few decades as a vector that explains why regional communities of digital artists and alternative institutions or organizations have not disappeared. The desire to share experiences and sustain bonds of interest and professional affection continues to overcome the social context.

At the Latin American level, possible alliances fail to develop due to a lack of interest in sustaining them at the institutional level, both public and private. There are exceptions, such as the governments of Chile and Colombia, which, from their respective governmental organizations, have carried out internationalization actions in relation to digital culture, but which do not prosper due to the lack of collaboration from their peers in other countries, as is the case of Argentina. Our country does not respond in the same way to attempts at internationalization and collaboration. However, there are certain contributions from European countries (Spain, France and the United Kingdom) that manage to deploy certain initiatives but with little real impact, or at least little real impact on Argentinean soil. I believe that this is due to the lack of interlocutors capable of managing the Argentinean scenario.

Still from delta (2021) by Mateo Amaral

3. The pandemic has led us to connect more to our screens. Do you think that online distribution has benefited Latin American artists?

Without a doubt it has given artists something basic and fundamental: interest in their production. The paralysis of the local and national scene, strengthened by decades of precarious actions, has become even more visible when compared to the new online markets: a growing number of platforms have appeared that favor circulation and provide artists with the opportunity to become part of global communities. Online distribution is creating new audiences with a specific interest in digital art and allows creators to project themselves as artists within a circuit that supports them.