Disrupting flows: Museum of Glitch Aesthetics

Pau Waelder

Mark Amerika’s Museum of Glitch Aesthetics (MOGA), commissioned in 2012 by Abandon Normal Devices for the London Olympics, brings together a series of artworks created between 2005 and 2012 that explore the creative and aesthetic possibilities of glitch through various media. Amerika, with a group of collaborators that included Aaron Angello, Saoirse Crean, Mary Fé, Will Luers, Ruth McCullogh, Chad Mossholder, Julie Rooney, Rick Silva, Joel Swanson, and Steve Wade, among others, set up this fictional institution devoted to the work of The Artist 2.0, an equally fictional character whose oeuvre is profusely described and analyzed in a 73-page catalog that not only elaborates a complete profile of the artist, but also suggests critical reflections on digital culture, the IT industry, and the art world.

Ten years after its creation, MOGA comes to Niio in the form of a selection of six key artworks from the museum, and the following review of the work of The Artist 2.0, which participates in the fiction created by Mark Amerika and his collaborators.

Still from Lake Como Remix (2012)

Image compression

In 2005, The Artist 2.0 presented in an exhibition titled Pixelmash, in the Northwest of England, a series of animated GIFs, a (now lost) internet art work, and a digital video projection, all of which referred to the practice of appropriation and remix, so dear to early net art practitioners. The GIFs, part of the .gif(t) economy series (2005-2006), featured pixelated excerpts of early works of video art, photographs of pop stars, and paintings by Goya in dizzying loops that some would now identify as the work of a post-Internet artist or a cryptoart OG. These works already spoke of The Artist 2.0’s interest in the condition of the digital image in its online distribution: the image as a file that is constantly reused and re-contextualized, and more importantly, compressed. 

Image compression formats were initially developed for the first digital cameras, but became crucial to the development of online content in the 1990s and have been popular ever since. Even recently, in 2021, Beeple’s infamous artwork Everydays: the first 5,000 days, which was sold at auction for $69.3 million, has been criticized for using the lossy compression format JPEG instead of the lossless PNG. While file formats can be said to have become part of our digital culture, they were particularly important for artists putting their work online in the 1990s, as they had to deal with the limitations of a 56kbps dial-up modem and create highly compressed images and 256-color animated GIFs. Pixelated images and fast-paced loops of grainy photographs or video sequences became an integral part of the aesthetics of early Internet art. 

“I was one of the first artists of my generation who self-consciously bought a shitty mobile phone with first generation video recording technology embedded in it and just went, «Wow, that looks totally fucked up and I love it. This is better than painting.»”

The Artist 2.0

Before the dot-com bubble and the fascination for the new millennium brought a fleeting attention to Internet art that had major art institutions such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, or TATE Modern acquiring web-based artworks, net art was identified with a renegade attitude towards the art world. It proclaimed the possibility of bypassing the gatekeepers and hierarchies of the art world 1.0 by using the web as an uncharted territory in which everything was possible and the roles of the actors could be reimagined. However, its proponents knew of the utopian nature of this proposition, as they knew that the art world 2.0 would still be ruled by institutions, corporations, and institutional corporations, and dominated by ever more sophisticated technologies and systems of data transmission. The pixelated image, in this sense, was also a form of rebellion, as well as a nostalgic reminder of a time when the resources were limited and the web was free, as in free speech and free beer.

Mobile Beach, 2007

Better than painting

It is believed that The Artist 2.0 studied art in the Northwest of England, probably at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of the University of Lancaster. There he created his first mobile phone videos, taking images from his surroundings in industrial zones and the Morecambe bay, and posting photos in a primitive blog. Both the photos and videos presented glitches, consciously created by recording while performing violent movements or riding a vehicle, in order to overwhelm the device with too much data to process. The result, as can be seen in Mobile Beach (2007), presents interesting similarities with color field painting, which The Artist 2.0 surely noticed as they titled some of the photographs obtained with this technique “A Painting that Speaks for Itself.” The Artist 2.0 was also interested in linking these glitched images to street art, as can be seen in several photographs of walls, addressing a reiterated connection between digital art and street art as those rogue practices that do not have a place in mainstream contemporary art. “I was attracted to much lower tech versions of glitch before anyone was really paying attention to it,” states The Artist 2.0, asserting their pioneering role. “I was one of the first artists of my generation who self-consciously bought a shitty mobile phone with first generation video recording technology embedded in it and just went, «Wow, that looks totally fucked up and I love it. This is better than painting.»”

While The Artist 2.0 refers in this quote to the radical and controversial proposition of presenting a glitched image as equal or even superior to a color field painting, there is actually something more interesting taking place in the creation of glitch art. As philosopher Boris Groys once stated, a digital image does not exist by itself, but needs to be performed, to be seen, just as a musical score must be played to be heard. The image file contains information that the device interprets to display it as a visual output, and here Groys points out that “every performance is an interpretation and every interpretation is a betrayal, a misuse.” Therefore, the way we perceive digital images, as the equivalent of printed photographs, celluloid negatives, or paintings, is misleading. The digital image is always the result of an interpretation, and glitched images reveal this hidden truth. Ironically, in this manner the glitched photos taken by The Artist 2.0 do have a lot in common with color field painting, as both types of artworks deny the image its role as an illusory reality.  

Lake District Walks: Code Mosh, 2007-2008

Walk the walk

The Lake District Walk series represents a later phase in The Artist 2.0’s work that stems from their early experiments with a shitty mobile phone. Here the mere recording of a video while walking in the countryside becomes an act of artistic creation as the device is once again overwhelmed by the amount of data to be processed, given the combination of movement and the varied and complex shapes that a natural environment has to offer. Several other elements come into play: the egocentric nature of recording an uneventful moment in one’s life, so much in line with the self-centered attitude that was starting to become the norm in early web 2.0 society; the first-person perspective, made popular by FPS video games; and finally the antagonistic relationship between nature and technology that has lead a growing segment of the world’s population to abandon the countryside and live in cities, where there is abundant wifi and plugs to charge their mobile devices, only to return during weekends to record boring videos and share them on social media. 

“The flow of data, the water of information, is continuous, and I am a multilayered part of the mix. The flow does not ever really need me, but I totally need it. It roots me. It channels my creativity in ways I have no control over.”

The Artist 2.0

Videos like Lake District Walks: Code Mosh (2007-2008) illustrate this phase with a combination of the “color field painting” effect of previous works and a new and more interesting “dragging” effect which takes place when a camera movement forces the device to quickly refresh the image, resulting in a delay that has portions of it frozen and awkwardly dragged to a new position. This effect, crudely achieved in this manner, will inspire future generations of artists, such as Davide Quayola, who has achieved it in a controlled manner through sophisticated image recognition techniques. As will be discussed further, the Lake District walks are by no means a simple method to generate glitches through camera movements and a highly textured environment: the act of walking and the exploration of a non-urban space have a particular meaning that will be made apparent in The Artist 2.0’s later work.

It is worth mentioning in this phase a rara avis, a mysterious undated video whose authorship might be questioned, were it not for its undoubtable similarities with Mobile Beach and its clear influence in the following phases of The Artist 2.0’s oeuvre. Glitch Lake is a separate work that does not consist of recording a walk, but staying put while pointing the camera at a mass of water bathed in the afternoon sun. The gentle ripples caused by the waves and the scintillating reflection of the sun are enough to cause a wide variety of glitches in the otherwise static image. This is a smart move by The Artist 2.0, who finds out that it is not necessary to move the camera around. It is enough to choose a subject that is in constant motion, yet not changing its position: water becomes an ideal generator of glitched videos.

Glitch Lake

Dérives

Before we get to the title of this article, let’s take a detour, or better a dérive. The Artist 2.0 took a turn in his artistic research, caught by the unavoidable appeal that Google products have had on digital artists over the last two decades. Interested in the creative possibilities of Google Earth, he created several artworks, among which the popular Lake Como Remix (2012), a recording of a live VJ session in which The Artist 2.0 explored a road that runs along Lake Como in Italy, exploiting the glitches produced by their erratic navigation. In this virtual dérive, The Artist 2.0 enacts a “walk” in a virtual space composed of a 3D model mapped with photographs and drawn in real time by a software collecting data from the Internet. An obvious, and endless, source of glitches, it becomes an ideal tool for visual experimentation while suggesting a critique of the way our perception of the world is now mediated by the products of a large corporation. Unlike other artworks that address similar glitches, such as Clement Valla’s also widely popular Postcards from Google Earth (2010), the Lake Como video can be logically connected to the Situationists’ practice of dérive, which can be described as aimlessly walking through the city in order to understand its structure and “be drawn by the attractions of the terrain,” as Guy Debord would put it. The Artist 2.0 consciously goes in circles, explores the tunnels and abruptly turns the camera towards the lake to reveal the visual tricks created by the software and the fragile scaffolding on which the whole virtual environment depends. 

Lake Como Remix, 2012

The importance of this dérive, or the act of moving, particularly when comparing this work to those of Valla and others, will be even more relevant in later works by The Artist 2.0. At this point, it is important to mention that Google Earth brings in an even more effective way of using the glitch to question the validity of the image as an illusion of reality. The landscape of Lake Como never succeeds in fooling the viewer: unlike previous videos in which a real image is glitched, here there is no reality to start with. “[T]he image never really has time to become an image in this environment,” states The Artist 2.0, “It’s more like what I call image information or visual codework. It’s something that’s always in process and always being processed by the receiver.” The Artist 2.0 forces Google Earth to veer off its path and participate in a dérive that will never take it to its intended destination. Lost in a cul-de-sac, the software reveals the process behind a simulation that has become powerless.

Disrupting flows

Glitch Lake had shown how water created glitches, but there was more to extract from the idea of flows. The HD Streaming series plays with the requirements of a high definition video, so common in our daily consumption of news and entertainment, which has in turn created the need for higher bandwidth connectivity, wherever we are. The videos are again captured in natural environments and in some cases streamed over the Internet from the mobile phone, conceptually connecting the water streams with the flows of data that enable reproducing the video somewhere else. The Water of Information (Data Flow Capture #36) is an outstanding example of this series: the camera is fixed on a small stream, water flowing down between ferns and bushes. The scene reminds of the view from a public webcam or the fake flowing river photographs one might encounter in certain restaurants. As a video, it is only interesting because the glitches caused by the water disrupt the whole image: it trembles and stretches, and at times it becomes a cascade of pixels, an abstract composition of vertical green lines. As The Artist 2.0 themselves put it, the concept of flow is central to their work: “The flow of data, the water of information, is continuous, and I am a multilayered part of the mix. The flow does not ever really need me, but I totally need it. It roots me. It channels my creativity in ways I have no control over.”

The Water of Information

Adrift in this flow, The Artist 2.0 escapes our gaze and his brief but seminal contribution to the History of Art in one last dérive. Circling back to their origins, The Artist 2.0 remixes a previous artwork, one of the Lake District Walks, which now appears in a split screen next to a virtual recreation of the same video, rendered in a 3D game engine. Titled Getting Lost (The Long Dérive) (2012) this last artwork is an obvious reference to the work of artist Richard Long and the Situationists, in what can be considered typical of a phase of maturity in an artist’s work, when one looks back at the old masters not to kill them, but to acknowledge them. Notably, in this artwork the video is not glitched: technology has now achieved a stable and reasonably well-defined moving image. It is, however, the 3D rendered space that is still glitchy, the camera movements causing a “dragging” effect of certain background elements and simulated objects. It seems, then, that The Artist 2.0 is suggesting that just as digital video has achieved the means to remain an illusion, so will virtual environments, which are currently suffering from a limitation of resources similar to that of online imagery in the 1990s. 

Getting Lost (The Long Dérive), 2012

Getting Lost ends with the camera pointing towards a cloudy sky, as if searching for an answer or a way to continue wandering about. It may also hint at the metaverse, that ill-defined space or accumulation of spaces that seem to reside in the clouds, or nowhere. Notably, online virtual environments are also prone to glitches, as Gazira Babeli, the rogue Second Life performance artist, can attest. The Artist 2.0 has shown that our devices are shaping how we see the world, even before virtual and augmented reality turn real spaces into mere point clouds meant to be covered with perfectly rendered 3D illusions from which we cannot escape. But even then, there will be glitches, and the glitches will reveal the truth. 

Steven Sacks: 20+ years at the forefront of new media art

Pau Waelder

Photo: Joanna Holloway

Steve Sacks founded bitforms in New York in November 2001, at a time when digital art was getting attention among the contemporary art institutions in the USA as well as Europe. Major exhibitions held that same year, such as Bitstreams and Data Dynamics at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and 010101: Art in Technological Times at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art were particularly inspirational for him.

Photo: Joanna Holloway

The name of the gallery (always spelled in lowercase) merges the words “bit”, understood as a basic unit of information, and “forms”, referring to any art form, as a statement of its commitment to art and technology. At 529 West 20th Street, the gallery was initially located in the heart of Chelsea, the epicenter of New York’s art scene. In 2005, bitforms opened a second gallery in Seoul, but the market for new media art was still far from consolidated, and this space closed its doors in 2007. In 2014, after thirteen years on a first-floor space in Chelsea, bitforms relocated to a ground-floor property on the Lower East Side. 

Over two decades, bitforms has achieved an influential position in the contemporary art market as a gallery devoted to digital art, participating in major art fairs and representing some of the most recognized artists in this field, such as Manfred Mohr, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Casey Reas, Quayola, Auriea Harvey, Refik Anadol, Gary Hill, Claudia Hart, Beryl Korot, Marina Zurkow, Daniel Canogar, Daniel Rozin, Siebren Versteeg and many others. On the occasion of the third series of Niio Commissions, which was curated by Sacks, we sat down with the gallerist to discuss his views on the development of the contemporary art market and the role that digital art is now playing in it.

Installation view: Manfred Mohr: A Formal Language. bitforms gallery, New York, 2019. 

How would you compare the general awareness of digital art when you opened your gallery in 2001, and today?

In 2001 there were things happening in the art world and underground scenes, but media art was not accessible or exposed as it is today. There is no comparison. Today it is now mainstream, thanks to three letters, NFT.

Installation view: Claudia Hart, When A Rose is Not a Rose. bitforms gallery, New York, 2011

The initial statement of the gallery read: “bitforms will position digital art as an influential and innovative art form that is evolving and warrants recognition.” Would you say that you have achieved this goal?

The goal of the gallery from the beginning was to present artworks from all generations of artists that were experimenting with media. It took a few years, but we were able to build a diverse stable of artists, each having a voice and a vision tied to their generation. History was essential. We purposefully worked with artists of historical significance to enhance the credibility of the younger generation of artists and the genre itself.

“The introduction of software art through our program was one of the more significant moments at the gallery. Generative, interactive and immersive art opened up innovative ways of creating, experiencing and appreciating art.”

In your gallery, and in collaboration with your artists, you have developed methods for selling digital art, and particularly software art. What was your experience with these formats?

The introduction of software art through our program was one of the more significant moments at the gallery. Generative, interactive and immersive art opened up innovative ways of creating, experiencing and appreciating art. As with video and photography before, there was apprehension and doubt about the validity and credibility of using technological media to create works of art. Today, software or generative art is among the most popular art being purchased today. The use of software in the creation of art has expanded conceptually and revealed many new art forms using digital technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI), to name a few. None of these artistic practices would be possible without the mastery of code.

Installation view: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer Voice Array. bitforms gallery, New York, 2012.

Twenty years ago, you envisioned the possibility of collectors having a dedicated screen for digital art and experiencing a rotating collection of artworks. Do you see our present moment as the right time for this vision?

Very early on I felt people would have screens in their homes devoted to media art. The idea of having a single location with a curated selection of works was necessary in order for the medium to thrive. Of course NIIO has a similar vision which is why I chose to work with them from the start. There were no tools at the time that allowed for the collection and management of media art, and my collectors were demanding it. Today, with the massive popularity of NFTs, millions of people are now aware of media art and many are looking for elegant ways to present their works. Screens have also come down in price, gotten larger and have greatly improved their resolution. It’s a very good moment for media art to enter the “art” dialogue for the masses.

Installation view: Casey Reas +
Jan St. Werner. Alchemical
. bitforms gallery, New York, 2021

Over the last two decades, bitforms has become a beacon of digital art in the contemporary art market. In your experience, has the position of galleries devoted to digital art changed in the contemporary art market?

I would say over the past 10 years we have seen the integration of media artists into mainstream galleries, and in the past few years there have been others more devoted to media art. Also, museums began to witness the popularity of media art installations drawing large crowds across many generations. Again, when the NFT explosion occurred there was a much broader audience that became very curious about how they could purchase and live with non-traditional art forms.

Installation view: Refik Anadol. Quantum. bitforms gallery, New York, 2021

In 2021, you launched bit.art to showcase NFT drops by your artists in an online platform. Did you create this space as a reaction to the endless thumbnail grids offered by NFT marketplaces? What is your opinion about how NFTs are commonly displayed and curated?

When NFTs started to show up everywhere, the gallery needed to take a stance. We were unhappy with how people were defining quality media art and how little was known about its context and history. The majority of NFT platforms gave no context, they were just marketplaces, primarily focused on buying and flipping. No emotional attachments. No conceptual rigor. It was all about the money. Which is fine to a degree, but not when the entire basis of NFT/digital art was to define a new type of commodity to be traded, not appreciated or intellectually challenging. 

“Niio gives my artists more exposure and it’s much easier for collectors to view and manage their artworks”

bit.art tried to connect with how artists conceived the presentation of their work, both on a cultural and market level. The site never really succeeded financially, but we needed to make a stance and present our views of this nascent marketplace. Things are changing. More artists are creating serious work and thinking about presentation, and more collectors are excited about the art instead of just looking to flip artworks quickly and make a profit.

Installation view: Beryl Korot, Selected Video Works: 1977 to Present. bitforms gallery, New York, 2012

Niio has recently launched its third series of commissioned artworks with artists represented by bitforms. Can you tell us briefly what you find interesting about the platform?

I have very much enjoyed curating on the NIIO platform. It gives my artists more exposure and it’s much easier for collectors to view and manage their artworks. As I said earlier, there is no other platform in the market that gives artists and collectors this type of control and freedom.

NFT Futures: expert views on the digital art market

Pau Waelder

The boom of the NFT market has decisively impacted the contemporary art market since, in 2021, Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses launched successful sales of digital artworks minted as NFT and offered in cryptocurrencies. A year later, despite the ups and downs of cryptocurrencies, the market for art in digital format with NFT certification continues to consolidate and progressively enters the scope of the most recognized galleries on the international contemporary art scene. In this context, it is worth asking: what do NFTs bring to art collecting? What trends can be traced in the future of the contemporary art market?

Invited by Art Palma Contemporani, the contemporary art galleries association in Palma, I curated a panel talk on September 16th, in which several experts presented their analysis of the current situation of the art market and NFTs and outlined future perspectives.

Panel participants. Left to right: Pau Waelder, Valérie Hasson-Benillouche, Wolf Lieser, Anna Carreras, and Mario Klingemann. Photo: Grimalt de Blanc, 2022.

Valérie Hasson-Benillouche: “NFTs have brought a different kind of collector”

Valérie Hasson-Benillouche is the owner of Galerie Charlot. She opened the gallery in Paris in 2010 and then a second gallery in Tel Aviv in 2017. The gallery represents a wide range of artists working with digital art, such as Antoine Schmitt, Eduardo Kac, Lauren Moffatt, Laurent Mignonneau & Christa Sommerer, Louis-Paul Caron, Manfred Mohr, Nicolas Sassoon, Quayola, and Sabrina Ratté.

2022 is a key moment for your gallery entering the NFT market with the participation in the Unvirtual Art Fair in February and then the launch of your own NFT platform. What is the reception you are getting from your collectors regarding NFTs? Are NFTs helping you reach out to new collectors?

I opened the gallery about 10 years ago, so at this point my clients have already 10 years of experiences with digital art. NFT is one part of digital art, so they became very curious and came to me and said: “what is this new art?” I have to say that it took me a while to understand it, because it is not easy, and it was a new way of collecting. So it was important to me that the curiosity of clients could be a challenge to understand what is going on, and as artists always use new technology and create new artworks with all these different systems, we really had to get into it. My clients were curious but also worried: they had read the news about NFTs, and also some bad experiences, so their curiosity was balanced with some skepticism.

I decided to mix the groups of my collectors, because you always have different kinds of collectors: the ones who are buying because they really love art, the ones who buy art to challenge themselves and show their collection to other people, and some people who just want to please themselves, sometimes. All these people are wondering what is going on around this new NFT system, so I try to explain it to them and I take the time to organize talks with artists and curators, and different people who can explain to them what is a wallet, how to open it, something very simple. I think collectors really need to be guided through these basic steps.

It is a different approach of living with the collection: you can see it anywhere, you can share it with your friends easily. This brings a different way of buying art.

Valérie Hasson-Benillouche

NFTs have lighten up the field of digital art. I have been in this field for years, and I find it very interesting to see that who has started creating NFTs among the artists. Eduardo Kac, who is a very classical artist working with science, technology, and art, he got into NFT. Then many people got into NFTs without understanding everything, but they just loved it. The idea was to do something different, to jump into something different. So what we decided at the gallery was to get all these people informed about what are NFTs exactly.

NFTs have brought a different kind of collector. It’s a challenge, because it is a different currency, it’s immaterial, so it is a different philosophy of collecting, and it is also connected to the way that people are living. Certain people are moving a lot, traveling everywhere, but they like to have their collection with them. They like to share the collection, they like to show the collection. So it is a different approach of living with the collection: you can see it anywhere, you can share it with your friends easily. This brings a different way of buying art.

You have collaborated with luxury brands such as Hermés in several artistic projects. Do you see an interest from these brands in art NFTs?

I’ve been working with luxury brands for a couple of years, especially with Hermés, as well as Audemars Piguet, Shiseido, and many others. Luxury brands really love to work with art and artists, this has been so for a long time. Digital art is part of the way they work with artists. So the challenge is always for any kind of artworks to find in these luxury brands the right place between marketing and art. The balance is very difficult to find, and it is not easy for an artist to work with a luxury brand, so digital art was the place to be because these brands have to be on the edge of super top technology and new things happening, because clients always ask for new experiences. So digital art was something very normal to get into. Artists try to find their place, in an artistic way.

Luxury brands are very interested and they have already dived into NFT, but for the moment it is more in the marketing and publicity side than in the art side. I am sure it will change, but they have to find the right moment and the right artists.

Screenshot of Galerie Charlot’s new NFT marketplace, to be opened in October 2022.

What type of work will we find in the new Galerie Charlot NFT marketplace?

We are still working on the marketplace, it will open on the 29th of October with several auctions. But the main thing is to curate digital art in NFT, because when you go to these different NFT marketplaces, you can find so many different kinds of images, I don’t say art, but image and video. It is not easy for a collector to go to these huge marketplaces because there is so much content which is not art. Other marketplaces like Feral File are very professional. The marketplace of the gallery will be a curation of the artists I’m working with, with special artworks that can be bought through auction or through the marketplace in Tezos.

We are not having a specific target on a specific art, but just to present art. I think artists love that: to be in small team, a very specific area of digital art, and it’s a big challenge because you have to bring a community: NFT is also a community of people and it is very important to be part of that community. I’m just listening to what is happening around and following the artists, who are adopting new technologies really fast and expressing their creativity in different ways. We are living in an incredible era, and we must be up to date, all the time.

Wolf Lieser: “what I really like about NFTs is the attention to generative art”

One of the most veteran gallerists in this field, Wolf Lieser opened in 1998 his first gallery devoted to digital art, Colville Place Gallery in London. That same year he created with Mike King the Digital Art Museum (DAM), one of the first online spaces devoted to the history of digital art. In 2003, he opened the DAM Gallery in Berlin, followed by spaces in Cologne (2010) and Frankfurt (2013).

In 2005 he created the DAM Digital Art Award to celebrate the work of digital art pioneers, and since 2006 he runs a public art program in a large screen at Postdamerplatz in Berlin. Recently rebranded DAM Projects, his gallery continues to support digital art. DAM represents some of the most celebrated digital artists, from pioneers to young creators such as Arno Beck, Eelco Brand, Vuk Cosic, Driessens & Verstappen, Herbert W. Franke, Carla Gannis, Jean-Pierre Hèbert, Eduardo Kac, Mario Klingemann, Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar, Frieder Nake, Casey Reas, Anna Ridler, Sommerer & Mignonneau, Tamiko Thiel, Roman Verostko, and Addie Wagenknecht

Your decision to leave NFT sales directly to artists is quite unusual. What led you to it?

That was the result of many considerations. Of course, I got involved right away, because I’m working in this field since 30 years, so when this whole NFT thing happened, I was approached by different agencies which came up, and there was so much money around, and they wanted to sell and consult on NFTs, but I’m still a rather small gallery, so I have many activities going on. For me it was not a priority to get involved. It is important to understand that NFTs is a technology that certifies the ownership of digital art, but digital art I’m selling since 30 years. That has not changed: what we are selling here, which are NFTs, has been sold in a different way before. I sell software pieces since more than 25 years. So, I felt that it was not such an urge to get involved. I saw how Casey Reas made a fantastic career in this field, also Mario [Klingemann], and some of the artists have been extremely successful getting directly involved with NFTs because they are professionals in this field, they know enough about coding, they know enough about the technology, so they actually didn’t need me at all! There was no reason for me that I felt I needed to step in.

DAM Project’s Website announcing the gallery’s position on NFTs.

My position now, and that’s why I made a statement on the website, that I won’t be directly involved… of course I will make shows with artists who produce NFTs and we will sell the NFTs as well. But an aspect which I really like about this whole development, and it has affected my activity as well, is the attention to generative art. Generative art is an artwork which is software based and continuously changes on the screen, so it is an artwork that never repeats. That was a challenge to some people when they started to realize that. People are realizing now in a broader scale, especially younger people, what a fantastic field it is, how much it has to do with our culture of the 21st Century. This technology is affecting us every day, and there are very interesting and clever artists, like Mario and Casey, and others, who are picking that up and creating art with it, that makes us realize what kind of potential is in there.

“We need a world with much less material art, and much more generative”

Wolf Lieser

This whole NFT boom has brought about young collectors which have approached me because I represent the history of digital art since the 1960s, and I know all of the pioneers. The young collectors have realized there is a history of 60-70 years, and they have gotten into it. It is another approach, and as Valérie has said, and I love this approach, you have your collection with you, and you take it out and you put it on a screen. This kind of non-materiality is very important. We need a world with much less material art, and much more generative.

You have worked with the pioneers of digital art. Now that the NFT scene is looking for “OGs,” auction houses include artworks by these artists in their NFT sales, is this attention to the history of digital art misdirected, or do you see positive signs in it?

That is not so easy to answer, because in the last two years this field was so broad, and anybody who looked into digital art as form as NFT saw a lot of bad art. It was ridiculous. Specially, if you have experience, there were easy effects in JPEGs sold for enormous amounts, which if you were familiar with art you could say “how could you spend money on this?” But people did. And of course these people were not that much informed.

That is now getting to a normal level, and people are now starting to understand what other people have done before. If someone has created a concept, 30 years before and created it over a longer period, and suddenly a young artist comes around and does the same thing with a new technology, this is not very creative. You should know your history, you should know where it is all coming from. So it is helping to make history more broadly available, but it is like everything: you start to drink wine, you have to learn about wine. If you drink your first glass of wine you don’t understand the differences, and similarly in art you have to see a lot to understand what you are seeing. Then you develop your own taste and what you really love about it. Of course, the first painting I bought, I don’t want to look at it again.

In many of your exhibitions you have presented plotter drawings by pioneers and younger artists. Is it possible that now that we have so much digital, there is also a renewed value in having a physical artwork?

Just to clarify, pen plotters are drawing machines, they are not printers. The code is very different, they actually draw a line. At the beginning they were the only medium to present something on paper, but they faded out after 2000. They were not built anymore because inkjet printers were much cheaper. But in recent years, artists have become interested in plotter drawings again because of its tactile quality, the sensation of a real drawing on paper. And they have constructed their own pen plotters, so there is quite a scene that has developed around plotter drawings, which I address in the show that I have recently curated at DAM Projects, Remote Control. But these artists do NFTs as well, so it is one medium besides others. I think we will always have both.

DAM Digital Art Award recognizes the lifetime achievements of pioneering artists with a monetary prize and a retrospective exhibition in a museum.

In your long career, you have seen several moments in which digital seemed to be “coming of age.” Do you think this is the right time for digital art to finally be recognized as contemporary art?

It is happening, definitely. The early pioneers, such as Vera Molnar, an old lady of 98 years now, she is in the collections of MoMA, TATE, Pompidou, Victoria and Albert, many many institutions. So it is happening on this institutional level as well, although on a rather small scale. There are not very big collections yet. It’s a bit of a pity, because many of the good pieces are disappearing in private collections. But there is definitely much more attention to digital art than ever before.

Anna Carreras: “I create artworks that do not exist until someone buys them”

Anna Carreras is a creative coder and digital artist with two degrees in Engineering and Media Studies. She teaches coding in several design schools and has been awarded with the Cannes Golden Lion for Interactive Projects (2010) and Google DevArt (2014), among others. She has created interactive installations at Cosmocaixa, Expo Zaragoza, Forum Barcelona 2004, Sónar Innovation Challenge 2016, MIRA Visual Arts Festival, and the Mobile Art Week.

You have presented and sold your work in two very influential NFT platforms, Feral File and ArtBlocks. Can you explain the process of creation and sale in each of them?

I’m the one doing generative art, the kind of art where we use the algorithms to ask the computer to draw what we want to create. The images are generated the moment you are seeing them, so it’s not a video, it’s not an animation, it’s not something that goes in a loop. The computer is running the algorithm and drawing something for you in that precise moment. As we are introducing some randomness in that algorithm, you are seeing something with the aesthetic that we want to create, but it is something unique: I cannot reproduce that moment of my art piece, it’s gone and it will never come again. It is like a video that is running but it will never be repeated.

Anna Carreras, Arrels (2021). Generative artwork.

There are two types of generative art: as artists we can choose what to sell. Arrels is a moving image that is constantly changing, and will never repeat, I think in some 6 billion years, so we can say never. This was a series of 75 pieces which are the same, so you can run the piece at your home, but another collector will have the same piece, with the same aesthetics, but looking slightly different because it is running in another unique way. In Trossets, I chose for the collectors to have a snapshot, so the series is 1,000 different Trossets which are all unique, but they are static, they do not move, change or evolve. You have a snapshot, which you can print if you like.

Flyer announcing the drop of Trossets (2021)

Trossets is long form generative art: an algorithm that generates the artwork is uploaded to the blockchain and returns a different visual composition every time it is run. As an artist, I created the algorithm but I don’t know which compositions it will create. When you buy the artwork, you run the program and get something that is generated in that particular moment and that is unique. So we just upload the code, and instead of running infinitely, you get a snapshot of a moment of that generative art piece, but that snapshot will be unique. In this case I was inspired by the Mediterranean landscape, by the white façades of houses covered in crimson buganvillea, the seaside, the olive trees, and even paella. I wanted to bring aspects of my environment and culture to a series of abstract generative drawings. Inspiration is everywhere!

“Artists were not used to talking to collectors, and it is something that I am enjoying a lot, because it is part of building this community that has emerged around digital art and NFTs.”

Anna Carreras

You know the aesthetics that are behind the collection, so you have a flavor of what it will be about, but you collect the artwork blindly, because it is in the moment that you collect that the algorithm creates that unique piece for you. My mother was a little bit skeptic, she said: “how can people buy something without knowing what they are buying?” Maybe that’s the part that you have to deal with, with some collectors, but if you trust the artist and you like her work and the concept behind the collection, then it can be even more special, because actually by buying an artwork you are contributing to create the series: the artworks do not exist until someone buys them. Trossets consists of a total of 1,000 artworks that were generated as collectors bought them, in a span of forty-five minutes.

I have a connection with some collectors, because we are asked to share our work for some exhibitions, and I ask the collectors their permission to do so. I consider that the artworks are no longer mine, they belong to the collectors who bought them. We have a nice relationship, they have a lot of feedback, they have ideas, it’s worth sharing that with them. I think that artists were not used to talking to collectors, and it is something that I am enjoying a lot, because it is part of building this community that has emerged around digital art and NFTs.

Snapshot of an article published in the Spanish newspaper El País. The headline reads: “Digital artist Anna Carreras and the NFT bubble: «OMG, I never thought I would make millions with this.»”

Articles like this one from El País (photo above) focus on the narrative of big sales in the NFT boom. can you comment on this narrative?

For me, this experience was awful. Many journalists, not all of them, are looking to make headlines that attract attention, and in particular in Spain we like soap operas, we like drama, and also to be envious of others. This was part of how things evolved last year, there were constantly news about spectacular sales, and I was getting calls asking me about finance and investments, which I know nothing about, because I’m an artist! After this article came out, I felt overwhelmed by the attention and I disappeared for a while.

Mario Klingemann: “the economy created on the Tezos community can support a lot more artists than just twenty superstars”

Mario Klingemann is an artist and researcher who taught himself coding in the 1980s and soon started creating his first artworks. He is known for his work with Artificial Intelligence programs, and particularly for Memories of Passersby I (2018) an AI artwork that was famously sold in March 2019 at an auction in Sotheby’s, the second to be ever sold at auction.

In 2021 he became involved in the development of the NFT community around the platform Hic et Nunc on the Tezos blockchain and has been an leading figure in this field. He has been awarded an Honorary Mention at the Prix Ars Electronica 2020 and the British Library LabsLumen Prize Gold 2018, among others.

You describe yourself as an artist and skeptic. What was you first reaction to the NFT boom? How did you become involved in Hic et Nunc?

The first time I encountered NFTs I was very skeptical. It was when I got ripped off! Somebody had taken one of my works and made a very bad remix and minted that on SuperRare, and that was how I saw there was something developing. But that was in 2019, and I had a closer look and found it difficult. At that time I had made my mark by selling the second artwork made with AI to go to auction at Sotheby’s, I got exhibitions and I made myself a name in the contemporary art world. And then came this field were initially there were only outsider artists, rebels who did not care about the art world, and actually most of the work looked that way, like something you must get used to. I saw blinking pictures and horrible kitsch and thought: “nah, this is not for me.”

So I let it rest for a while, and in early 2020, coincidentally when the pandemic started, I went to look at it again. But this time instead of trying to avoid people ripping off my work, I decided to try it myself. So I started minting under the radar, on Rarible, because it felt risky, you didn’t want your name associated with blinking gifs. But I was curious, I started minting stuff and fortunately at that time there were people in that field collecting, who knew what I was doing, so my initial mints sold very quickly. This got me more curious, because that direct experience of putting something up there and having it bought a minute later, and seeing the transaction in your wallet, that feels very good as an artist. It is undeniable that it is nice to be appreciated and actually get paid for your work.

“I started minting under the radar, on Rarible, because it felt risky, you didn’t want your name associated with blinking gifs.”

Mario Klingemann

Another issue that I always had as a digital artist, prior to NFTs, was that for me the native format of digital art is in your computer, and you had to find ways to package your art or transform it into another medium, like prints or build a whole system around it that makes it almost like an installation. The idea of just selling a digital file always felt a bit strange. I have done it: I’ve sold videos on a USB stick or so, but it felt that it was not the native way of selling digital art. Now NFTs suddenly allow that, and they allow to sell works in small resolutions, experimental stuff which was pretty much meant for the screen. After my initial skepticism, I got really curious and started doing what one is supposed to do, to become your marketer, to build your brand in this space. This is a bit alien to me, and in a way I feel that I am still doing it wrong. If you want to really be successful in the NFT space you have to swamp your followers with announcements and specials, love your collectors… I’m not doing that. This whole thing never felt natural to me.

Marketplaces like Rarible or SuperRare were not build by people who had an art background, but by coders and entrepreneurs, and in one way that was good because it was innovative and moved quick, but the whole focus was so much on selling and ranking that the art was not important. It was all about volume of sales. This didn’t feel right to me. There were also many discussions, by the end of 2020, about the ecological impact of minting NFTs in the Ethereum blockchain.

So I started looking for alternatives: there was the alternative of Proof of Stake blockchains, but there was simply no market there. Then in early 2021, Tezos added NFTs to their smart contracts, and by accident I stumbled upon a tweet where someone told about Hic et Nunc, an experimental site where you could mint your NFTs on Tezos. At that time, it was not even a marketplace, just a site that you could try out. You could upload an image and mint it for almost no money, a few cents. The whole Tezos thing was like a blank canvas at the time, it had been around for nearly as long as Ethereum, but it wasn’t as popular. It felt like a new continent, where you could start something new, with different rules.

“I think that because we started from a blank canvas, the whole community could develop in a different way than in Ethereum.”

Mario Klingemann

I tweeted about the work I had minted on Hic et Nunc, and since I had some followers, people asked to buy it, and I told them: “well, if you send me some Tezos I will mint the NFT and send it to your wallet.” So in one hour the whole edition was sold, and the fact that it was environmentally sustainable, and that Hic et Nunc was not hyped like other marketplaces, was attractive to a lot of people in my inner circle, particularly artists who had not wanted to touch NFTs, so in a few days a lot of artists with a good reputation started minting there as well. Another advantage of the Tezos cryptocurrency is that is accessible to everyone price wise. Even someone who only made, say $50 a week, could mint on Tezos. So the community developed very quickly and the beauty was that it was also experimental, and it grew organically, collecting from each other, with a very different spirit from what you could see on Ethereum. Around September 2021, the founder of Hic et Nunc, Rafael Lima, pulled the plug and erased the site, but the magical thing about NFTs is that they do not exist on that site, they exist on the blockchain, so within one or two days people built mirrors of the site, and the community moved on.

I think that because we started from a blank canvas, the whole community could develop in a different way than in Ethereum. But it is not about one being good and the other one bad. Right now, artists start in Tezos, and then if they want to make it big, they go to Ethereum. And since yesterday, Ethereum is even environmentally sustainable, too. So, we’ll see how things develop.

Screenshot of Mario Klingemann’s profile on Objkt.com

You have had a continuous collaboration with Tezos over the last year. Do you feel that the community around Tezos is becoming less “renegade” and more “conventional”, or is there still space for experimentation and a bit of a rogue spirit?

There is space for both. Right now, there is a platform in which you can mint text, so there is still breathing ground for new ideas. And at the same time, the Tezos Foundation, which has a DAO structure, seems to be doing things for the right reasons. So far, I’ve had good experiences with them, and they do not seem to try to push things in a certain direction, they just provide possibilities to people. Anyone can apply to the Tezos Foundation with a project and get a grant if it is approved by a majority. They are also present at Art Basel, spreading this idea that on Tezos you can find real art. How they present the art, it seems closer to how it is displayed in the contemporary art world.

Also, it is not true that everything is cheap, so I think it can be a space for artists to build a reputation and also make money. FxHash has become the de facto platform for generative art and whilst the single pieces might be affordable, if you sum it up, there is a decent amount to be made. Also, I feel like focusing on mega sales is not the way to go, because if one artist takes, let’s say a million dollars, that money is gone out of the cycle, while on Tezos you have this circular economy where artists earn money from their NFTs but are also very active in collecting from other artists. This can support a lot more people than just twenty superstars.

What do you get when you buy an NFT?

Pau Waelder

Quick Dive is a series of articles that offer a brief overview of a certain topic in a clear and concise manner. This article can be read in 6 minutes.

Image generated with OpenAI’s DALL-E 2

When Beeple’s famous artwork EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS was sold as an NFT at Christie’s on 11 March 2021 for $69.3 million, the collector Vignesh Sundaresan (a.k.a. MetaKovan) received a 21,069 x 21,069 pixels image in JPEG format. Soon after, links to download Beeple’s image began appearing on Twitter. Anyone could get a copy of the artwork and see it on their computer, but no one, except Sundaresan, could say they own it.

So, what does it mean to own an NFT?

As this example shows, the non-fungible token (NFT) is not the artwork: Beeple’s artwork (the large JPEG file) was circulating online because it is stored in a file sharing network called IPFS, which is public and accessible to anyone. The NFT is a register on the Ethereum blockchain (in this case) that points to the artwork and to the wallet of its owner. The contents of the collector’s wallet are also publicly available, and therefore anyone can check the wallet and see the artwork there.

Owning an NFT means having a proof of ownership of a digital artwork that is secured by the structure of the blockchain (it cannot be forged) and is also publicly certifiable. In a way, it can be described as a certificate of ownership chiseled in stone in a public monument. It is actually more complicated than that, but let’s stay with the idea that you own the NFT (as long as it stays in your wallet) and that the NFT is a unique register that refers to an artwork that you bought. 

Larva Labs, Autoglyph (2019). Generative drawing minted as an on-chain NFT

And why isn’t the artwork inside the NFT?

It would probably be simpler if the NFT, instead of being a proof of purchase, would actually contain the artwork. In some cases, it does: these are called on-chain NFTs:

– Certain artworks are made of a few lines of code that produce a visual composition. These lines of code are added to the data that constitutes the non-fungible token, and therefore are also secured by the blockchain: the artwork (or rather the code that makes the artwork) is in this way stored permanently. 

– However, not all artworks can be on-chain: the blockchain was designed to record cryptocurrency transactions, with a limited amount of information. Each register on the blockchain costs money (gas fees) and to create an NFT with the information contained in a high resolution image or video is the equivalent of numerous transactions, which entail much higher costs.

For this reason, most NFTs are off-chain, which means that, as in the case of Beeple’s JPEG, the image is stored somewhere online, and the NFT points to it.

Auriea Harvey, The Mystery [v5-dv1] (2021). Digital sculpture and downloadable files.

What you get when you buy an NFT is not always the same

Since Beeple’s NFT made the headlines, the market for NFTs has moved fast and creators have come up with increasingly diverse and imaginative ways of selling their artworks as digital images or videos, software, prints and sculptures, and even performance pieces. 

To name a few, these are some of the things you can get when you buy an NFT:

(1) An image or a video stored on the IPFS network that you and anyone can download.

(2) The same as above, only the file on the IPFS network is in low resolution and you get access to a high resolution version that only you can download.

(3) A code-based artwork stored on the IPFS network that runs on its own data or takes data from somewhere else. Sometimes you cannot download the artwork, just run it on your browser, and it may stop working at some point.

(4) A virtual sculpture in the form of an image or video, alongside the file that you can download in order to 3D print a physical version of the sculpture.

(5) A code-based artwork that changes according to certain rules embedded in the NFT’s smart contract. These rules can include, for instance, that the artwork changes over time, or that it changes if another artwork is bought, or that it ceases to exist if the NFT is not transferred to another wallet after a certain amount of time.

(6) An artwork that was generated the moment you bought it by a program set to run a pre-defined number of times (e.g. 50-1,000 times). Your artwork is then unique but part of a limited series of similar artworks. The image you bought may be available in a similar way as (1) or (2).

(7) An artwork that grants access to other things, such as downloadable files, a Discord server, a club membership, or anything the creators have come up with. 

With so many different possibilities, it is advisable to find out what you will get with that NFT you are willing to buy. The information that is made available to collectors varies from marketplace to marketplace, and even from one artist and project to another in the same marketplace. 

Most simply assume that what you see is what you get: the image or video that caught your eye is what you will own, plain and simple. Even then, you should check whether the artwork is unique or part of a limited edition. When there is something more than what you see, read the description carefully and find out what else is there, maybe some downloadable content or conditions attached to the ownership of the artwork. 

The platform Feral File offers detailed information about the what the artwork is and what the collector will receive.

What to do once you bought the NFT

If you really like the artwork you bought, there are two main concerns you should take into account: how to view the artwork, and how to preserve it.

Preserving a copy of the artwork is more important than you may think. Resources such as IPFS may always be there, or they may not, and the file could get lost. Preservation is a concern to NFT creators, and this is why solutions such as on-chain NFTs are being developed. Until there is a better way to preserve artworks minted as NFTs, the best option is to go to the IPFS link and download the file, and also download any files made available by the marketplace or the creator. Where you store those files is up to you: you can put them in a USB stick inside a sock under your mattress, or use a cloud-based storage.

– If you love the artwork, you will want to see it. The marketplace grid is not a proper place for an artwork, nor is it the web browser (unless it was created for this space). The artwork needs a screen, certainly, but a dedicated screen. Currently marketplaces do not offer tools to view your NFTs outside of the browser, so it is up to each collector to find a way to properly display the artworks they own.

Niio offers a solution for both of these issues. You can sync your wallet to your account and automatically access the artworks you have bought, which you can copy to your personal space in a cloud-based storage system. Once the artworks are added to your account, you can easily display them on any screen using the Niio app.

The NFT market has experienced a fast-paced development in just a year and a half and still needs to consolidate practices, formats, and standards. In the meantime, collecting NFTs will continue to require finding out exactly what one is buying, and using smart tools to preserve and display the art.

What is digital art, then?

Ask Me Anything by Pau Waelder

Ask Me Anything is a series of articles in the form of conversations, aiming to clarify certain terms, techniques, and debates related to digital art. Our Senior Curator puts 20 years of expertise in digital art at your service to answer your questions, taking only 5 minutes of your time.

Illustration generated using OpenAI’s DALL-E 2

So, what is digital art?

Digital art is art created with digital technologies, namely computers. It is also art that addresses how digital technologies are changing us humans, our societies, and the environment.

But nowadays everyone uses computers. What is so new about digital art?

Actually, digital art is not new, it is at least 60 years old. It was in the early 1960s that mathematicians, engineers, and visual artists started creating drawings using computers. They wrote algorithms that described a visual composition and had the computer execute them using a plotter drawing machine. Back then, what they did was called “computer art.”

Two drawings from the series P-10, “random walk” (1969) by Manfred Mohr exemplify the use of a computer program to generate endless visual compositions. Source: emohr.com.

So the machine did everything? Where’s the art in that?

The artists wrote the program and set the main instructions that the computer would follow, leaving some space for randomness, and then selected from the outputs of the plotter the compositions that fitted their vision. In digital art, artists often leave part of the control over the appearance or the behavior of the artwork to a computer program, realtime data, and even the viewers’ actions. The machines and systems involved can play a more defining role than, say, a paintbrush or a chisel, but still it is the artist who creates the artwork.

The machines and systems involved in digital art can play a more defining role than a paintbrush or a chisel, but still it is the artist who creates the artwork.

Wait, did you just say “behavior of the artwork”? You mean that a digital artwork “behaves,” like a person or a puppy?

Behavior is a way of saying that the artwork is active. It is not like a painting, a sculpture, or a photograph, which are the end result of a process previously carried out by the artist. Some digital artworks are generative, which means they can create new outputs endlessly, or they are interactive, which is to say that they react to what is in front of them, for instance the presence of a viewer. Also, some are connected to an external source of data, such as the weather forecast in Wyoming or the latest news from CNN. These artworks are not static, they do something. They are constantly changing according to an algorithm, a storm approaching Cheyenne, or the movements of a person who just stepped into the room. Since they are doing something all the time, we can call the way they do it a behavior.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Surface Tension (1992) is an early example of interactive art

Ok, full stop. You started talking about “digital art,” then “computer art,” and now it’s “generative,” “interactive,” and “connected.” Why all these terms? Isn’t it all just art?

Certainly, but keep in mind that digital art has followed the development of digital technologies over the last decades, incorporating new forms of creativity as these technologies became available to artists. The pioneers of computer art in the 1960s were a handful of people who had access to mainframe computers in research centers. Others started creating digital images when they got their hands on the first personal computers. Later on, more joined in creating artworks using websites or video game engines. Nowadays, artists can use artificial intelligence programs, 3D scanners, robots, and all sorts of hardware and software in the making of their artworks. 

Each new technology brings with it new ways of creating art, sometimes changing the definition of what an artwork is and what we can do with it. In order to describe and understand these new art forms, and, well, behaviors, we need new terms. However, you can stick to digital art as an overall term and then remember that some artworks are based on a computer program that constantly generates new outputs, or they interact with the viewers, or they use data from anywhere in the world. Actually, some artworks do all three things at once.

Each new technology brings with it new ways of creating art, sometimes changing the definition of what an artwork is and what we can do with it.

I am familiar with contemporary art. How come I’m hearing about this just now?

Although digital art is one of the many branches of contemporary art, it has been ignored in the contemporary art world for decades, and has even found it hard to be considered art at all. When pioneering artists exhibited their algorithmic drawings in the 1960s, some felt threatened by the idea of a machine that could replace human creativity. Computer art was dismissed by many as little more than a curiosity, not a genuine artistic practice. Digital art soon found its place in electronic and media art festivals, as well as in a few museums and galleries, developing a parallel network that seldom crossed paths with the contemporary art world.

During the last decade, the presence of digital art in contemporary art museums, biennials, galleries, and art fairs has grown, while an increasing number of online platforms and marketplaces are providing ways to access art in a digital form. The pandemic and the NFT boom have brought even more awareness about digital art, although not always in a positive way. Additionally, younger generations of artists and collectors now see digital art as the form of creative expression that more closely represents the world we live in. As you said before, now everyone uses computers, so why not integrate digital technologies into our culture?

“I can’t imagine ARTFORUM ever doing a special issue on electronics or computers in art”, stated editor Philip Leider in 1967. The magazine has seldom published reviews about digital art in the last 55 years.

So everything will be digital from now on? Is this the death of painting?

Absolutely not. Digital art is not about replacing traditional forms of art making, but rather expanding them. Many digital artists are as interested in drawing, painting, and sculpture as they are in pixels, circuit boards, and coding. Some paint with robots and drones, others create sculptures out of 3D models rendered in a computer, and many create installations combining interactive, screen-based artworks with physical objects. Even artists selling NFTs are adding to their blockchain-certified digital artworks unique prints and 3D-printed sculptures. Therefore, artistic creation is now more rich than ever, thanks to the possibilities brought by digital technologies. 

Many digital artists are as interested in drawing, painting, and sculpture as they are in pixels, circuit boards, and coding

In the coming years, we will see even more new forms of artistic creativity developed with artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology, and innovative ways of distributing and displaying digital art, in virtual and augmented reality, and on any screen. 

I see. Well, thanks! Just one more thing: Wyoming? What is there?

That was just an example.

Testimonies: video art at the Berlin Biennale

Pau Waelder

The Berlin Biennale is celebrating its 12th edition with a program of exhibitions and events that take place in six venues around the city, until September 18th. The four main exhibitions are hosted by the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Hamburger Bahnhof, and the spaces of the Akademie der Künste at Hanseatenweg and Pariser Platz with a total of nearly 90 artworks by more than a hundred artists. Titled Still Present!, this year’s Biennale is curated by artist Kader Attia, with the support of an artistic team composed by Ana Teixeira Pinto, Đỗ Tường Linh, Marie Helene Pereira, Noam Segal, and Rasha Salti.

View of the exhibition at Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg)

The main theme addressed by the current edition of the Biennale is the effect of colonization, in land and history as well as in bodies, people’s lives, identities, and mindsets. This subject touches cultural institutions too, by pointing out the presence of looted artifacts and forms of presenting colonized cultures that only contribute to open the wounds of a history of colonial abuse. In a text written for the catalogue, Kader Attia denounces the hatred of others (whether foreigners, people from nomadic cultures, those experiencing marginalization and anyone not submitting to heteronormative patriarchy) and the invisibility of the wounds that inequality and exploitation have caused:

“Invisibility is discourse’s preferred weapon of control: always in denial of the crime, the enunciator claims victory while disavowing all responsibility.”

Kader Attia, Still Present! Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (Kunst-Werke Berlin, 2022), p.24

The concepts of wound and reparation are key to Attia’s work, and he finds in the processes of decolonization and the way in which Western societies have sought to build an image of a perfectly homogeneous modernity, in itself blind to the wounds it has created, an ideal framework in which to suggest forms of reparation through art. Art, he claims, can resist political and religious obscurantism precisely because it is unpredictable and constantly aims to reclaim people’s attention. He also states that artists seek to capture the present at a time when algorithmic governance collects data from our past actions in order to predict our future behavior. Trapped in this calculation of probabilities, the present no longer belongs to us, stresses Attia, and for this reason it must be recovered by means of the experience of art:

“Standing before a work of art, the spectator is plunged into another temporality, radically different from that of their environment, inaccessible to the insatiable appetite of algorithmic governance. […] art deconstructs so that it may repair and evolve, generating new forms of interpreting the present.”

Kader Attia, Still Present!, p.34,40
Center for Spatial Technologies & Forensic Architecture, Russian Strike on the Kyiv TV Tower (2022)

Being present

The artworks exhibited at the Berlin Biennale show that artists increasingly use video, 3D animation and data visualization in their portrayal of the present. Reality is captured through live footage, digital images, and all sorts of visual documentation. The exhibition spaces are filled with screens and projectors, sometimes extending their presence in the room with objects and imposing installations. The rooms at the Akademie der Künste, the Hamburger Bahnhof, and the KW Institute are dimly lit and labyrinthine, with displays creating areas of attention, that lend each artwork a space of its own, secluded in itself and rarely enabling a dialogue with nearby pieces. The documentary nature of most artworks also forces viewers to read the descriptions on the wall labels and concentrate on the story that each artist is telling. In this sense, as Kader Attia suggests, the artworks succeed in plunging viewers into a different temporality and making them fully present.

Artists increasingly use video, 3D animation and data visualization in their portrayal of the present

This temporality is both created and controlled by the artwork: as philosopher Boris Groys points out, video and time-based arts determine the time of contemplation. Through moving image and sound, notably the voice of a narrator, the artworks capture the viewer’s attention and force her to remain attentive while the story unfolds. This creates a particular pace for the visitor that demands more time and less distractions: these are not instagrammable exhibitions, in which to portray oneself in front of a tremendously huge object or a fiercely immersive installation, but rather spaces of discussion filled with the voices of the unheard. The enormous amount of footage to watch, the complexity of the narratives and the information one is required to process may seem overwhelming to a regular visitor. However, it is worth taking the time to patiently examine the artists’ exhibits, both in the sense of their public presentation and in the sense of producing evidence in a fictional court. 

View of the exhibition at Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg)

Visual records, both images and videos, have been considered irrefutable evidence of a fact until digital technologies and fake news finally put every image into question. Obviously, the depiction of historical events has always been subject to the interpretation of the victors, with visual artists being complicit in the creation of a narrative dictated by those in power. Today, artists addressing social, environmental and political issues are well aware of how images and messages are constantly manipulated, and therefore tend to avoid a position of authority, providing instead bare data, appropriated or filmed footage, witness recollections, and the stories told by those who ask to be heard. In this manner, the artist acquires an aura of neutrality, an actor who exposes facts with fair intentions in the form of a cultural product that, as the space that hosts it, is far removed from the complexities of real life. While this may seem to neutralize the political involvement of the artists and the educational (or indoctrinating) power of the artworks, it is actually the contrary. Art exhibitions enable a space where politics and society can be observed with detachment, as though one was reading a fictional story, and this allows one to confront other voices, other mindsets and realities that would otherwise be quickly ignored or dismissed. Being present thus also means being receptive, and willing to, at least, accept the existence of realities other than those we have created for ourselves.

Fragments of a reality

Fragmentation is a salient feature in many artworks, which rely on a variety of elements such as photos, maps, written documents and found objects. In 24°3′55″N 5°3′23″E (2012/2017/2022), Ammar Bouras addresses the consequences of the so-called Béryl incident, an explosion that occurred on May 1, 1962 while the French carried out underground nuclear tests near In Ekker in the Algerian desert. He creates a photographic montage and a video piece that explore both the geological layers of the area and the long-term consequences for the land through the testimonies of its inhabitants. The multiplicity of perspectives described both by the photographs and the video footage question the official history, which buried this event, and the possibility of an objective truth. 

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, OH SHINING STAR TESTIFY (2019/22)

Using CCTV footage of an Israeli military surveillance camera, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme tell in OH SHINING STAR TESTIFY (2019/22) the story of 14-year-old Yusef Al-Shawamreh, who on March 19, 2014 crossed the Israeli separation wall to pick akkoub (an edible plant important in Palestinian cuisine) and was shot dead by Israeli forces. This footage, which circulated online and was later removed, is projected onto a series of wooden panels that capture, distort and hide the projected image in their shadows, as other filmed and appropriated sequences enrich the context of the grainy scene and its crude depiction of the facts. Fragmentation in this case conveys the multiple layers of this event, framing it in a wider social and political context while avoiding the obscene spectacle of death that media outlets have made of drone footage since the Gulf War.  

Poison Soluble. Scènes de l’occupation américaine à Bagdad (2013) by Jean-Jacques Lebel, dives into this morbid spectacle by collecting and enlarging the snapshots taken by US military personnel while torturing and humiliating prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. With these magnified pictures, the artist builds a labyrinthine installation in which the visitor gets lost, surrounded by horrifyingly graphic depictions of violence and sadism, and the no less upsetting portraits of the proud torturers, smiling at the camera. The artist sought to force an involvement of the viewers, but the harshness of these massively distributed images also calls into question whether Lebel has not created yet another spectacle, this time for an art audience. Such criticism was raised by Iraqi curator Rijin Sahakian shortly after the opening of the Biennale and has finally led artists Layth Kareem, Raed Mutar, and Sajad Abbas to withdraw their work from the exhibition in protest. 

CCTV and drone footage have been used by the media in sensationalist reporting, to a point where their value as evidence is replaced by their effect on the audience

This controversy illustrates the power of the photographic image as both evidence and raw material subject to manipulation. This is particularly true for digital photography. The low resolution snapshots from Abu Ghraib, with their pixelated, badly compressed textures, can be immediately identified as a private record of an event, not meant to be seen outside a closed circle. CCTV and drone footage also belong to this category of images that have been continuously used by the media in sensationalist reporting, to a point where their value as evidence is replaced by their effect on the audience. 

Data speaks for itself

In contrast to the first-hand, visual testimony found in grainy digital footage from CCTV, drone, and smartphone cameras, data analysis and visualization provides a much more detached and abstract, but equally telling, presentation of evidence. Photographs and video clips remain important, but generally as a complement of graphs, simulations, and diagrams mapping the collected data in a meaningful way. 

David Chavalarias, Shifting Collectives (2022)

David ChavalariasShifting Collectives (2022) exemplifies this turn towards data visualization in a detailed observation of the French political landscape. A researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, Chavalarias explores the degradation of democratic values and the trivialization of xenophobia and ethnic nationalism through a timeline extending the long of a wall accompanied by a series of graphs, images, video and sound. The display of information aims to disentangle the complex interplay between political candidates, ideologists, social and workers groups, and the media, in order to provide quantifiable evidence of the rise of populism and right-wing extremism. Again there is here a collage of fragmented documentation, although it is presented under a unifying graph and the authoritative voice of science: the orderly display of facts, names, and numbers builds the narrative by itself.

Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies (2021)

The collective Forensic Architecture is well known for their detailed research of cases of state violence through the analysis of architectural spaces and materials, using simulation techniques and information collected from witnesses. In Cloud Studies (2021) they address a type of aggression that, unlike bullet holes and broken glass, leaves no visible trace but causes permanent damage: the toxic clouds created by tear gas, airborne chemicals and petrochemical emissions. Fused in a single video, the collected documentation including video footage, 3D animations, fluid dynamics simulations, and countless photographs analyzed using machine learning techniques, is presented in a linear narrative in the form of a lecture that nevertheless includes certain dramatization. As in Chavalarias’ work, the display of information speaks for itself although here it is more scripted and lends itself to aesthetic concerns that confer the video its own identity as an artwork. 

In both artworks the presence of video and computer generated images denote the central role that this kind of imagery has adopted in the depiction of events by news outlets, at a time when the dominating perspective of a satellite or drone view and the tidy simplicity of a computer simulation can provide a much clearer and seemingly indisputable perspective than any number of witnesses’ accounts.

Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi, THIS UNDREAMT OF SAIL IS WATERED BY THE WHITE WIND OF THE ABYSS, 2022

Eyewitnesses

The voices of those who were there, the victims, the passersby, also the perpetrators, the plotters and the followers, tell stories that contain their own truths and commonly share the authenticity of a firsthand account. Every person describes their experiences with a mixture of truth and fiction, as a result of their interpretation of reality mediated by their beliefs. Thus, in every witness account there is a margin of doubt, an uncertainty that artists can explore in the depiction of their stories.

Omer Fast’s A Place Which Is Ripe (2020) presents the testimonies of two former London police officers who explain the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras in Great Britain in connection with the murders of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 and fourteen-year-old Alice Gross in 2014, two notorious crimes that were solved thanks to CCTV footage. The footage showing Bulger taking the hand of one of his murderers was in turn widely distributed by the media and contributed to popularize the notion of the surveillance camera as a reliable witness. Fast films the officers from behind, to protect their identities, and combines their interviews with Google image searches based on their words, all displayed in three smartphones placed inside a drawer. The Google searches illustrate the officer’s accounts with a detachment that echoes the monotone sound of their voices and produces an eerie effect of repetition and normalization. The automated selection of the images also points to the development of surveillance cameras managed no longer by people, but by artificial intelligence programs. The terrible images that have transitioned from unquestionable evidence to morbid spectacle now become simple indexers of events for a computer to identify them.

In every witness account there is a margin of doubt, an uncertainty that artists can explore in the depiction of their stories.

View of the exhibition at KW Institute for Contemporary Art

A different form of indexing can be found in Elske Rosenfeld’s AN ARCHIVE OF GESTURES (2012–22), an exploration of the revolutions and revolts of 1989/90 surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany. Through the notion of “gestures,” she proposes a blueprint for understanding how these uprisings lead to collective action and how the events are recorded and told. Again, the witness is a camera. The gesture of “interrupting” is analyzed by editing a video recording of the first session of the Central Round Table of the GDR, in which members of the new political groups and citizens movements and of the established parties came together to discuss the role of the Round Table in aiding the democratic transformation of the country. Rosenfeld focuses on a moment in which the meeting was interrupted by the voices of protesters out in the street. Going back and forth through the footage, she divides the scene in two, repeats certain gestures of the participants, captures their reactions and hesitation upon being told what is happening outside. As with Fast’s film, editing is a key element in building the narrative. Both artists, as interpreters of the witnesses’ accounts, make the story their own.

Beyond fiction

Our perception of the present is clearly mediated by the eye of a camera, but not only a photographic or surveillance camera. The virtual camera of a simulated environment in a video game or a 3D animation also creates a reality of its own, that can be experienced as intensely as our physical surroundings. Video game worlds, with their endless possibilities, can also hold a hyperbolical mirror to our reality, making visible those aspects that are hidden or ignored.

Maithu Bùi, Mathuật – MMRBX (2022)

Maithu Bùi’s Mathuật – MMRBX (2022) is a video installation based on a virtual reality game that addresses the Vietnamese diaspora through mythology and magic rituals for communicating with the dead. The virtual space here allows for a suspension of disbelief and the assimilation of a set of cultural codes that belong to the artist’s personal memory and the country’s collective history. The video installation occupies the room in a way that invites to perceive the projected images as a real space and immerse oneself in the narrative that the artist has created.

Zach Blas, PROFUNDIOR (LACHRYPHAGIC TRANSMUTATION DEUS-MOTUS-DATA NETWORK) (2022)

Zach Blas goes one step further in this direction by creating a theatrical setup in PROFUNDIOR (LACHRYPHAGIC TRANSMUTATION DEUS-MOTUS-DATA NETWORK) (2022). An ambitious installation composed of eight screens and two projections, the piece presents a fictional AI god that feeds on the emotional tears of simulated humans. The tears are transformed into text, images, and sound, in what is seemingly an autopoietic system that seeks to compute human emotion. Continuing his exploration of the politics and imaginaries surrounding facial recognition and predictive policing based on artificial intelligence algorithms, Blas creates a dystopian world in which humans have been replaced by their avatars and emotions have become data. While this overtly fictional story seems to be far removed from the reality depicted by Bouras, Abbas and Abou-Rahme, or Lebel, it is nevertheless deeply rooted in our present. Blas’ subject matter requires a different form of expression, which is more effective as an extravagant fiction than it would be as a collection of documents and people’s accounts.

Media art has often been described as the “art of the future,” but as these works show, it is an art of the radical present.

This selective vision of the artworks on display at the Berlin Biennale aims to point out how artists address the present through moving images, appropriated footage that was leaked online, witnesses’ accounts recorded on smartphones, simulated environments and 3D-rendered fictions. These contents, and the way they are presented, allow in turn to create a different temporality, as stressed by Kader Attia, that leads the viewer to a state of presence. If, as the artist and curator suggests, we must be “still present,” this can only be achieved through art that does not claim to be atemporal, but that is time-based. Media art has often been described as the “art of the future,” but as these works show, it is an art of the radical present.