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.

Get to Know Shaun Gladwell: Moving image, painting, photography, sculpture, installation, performance, VR & AR artist

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

I grew up in a small suburb connected to Sydney called North Rocks in the west away from the coast.  It was mixed, lower middle class and solid middle class in other areas. I found it exciting at times and desperately boring at times as well. I now live in London and mostly spend my time in the Southeast of London.

Shaun Gladwell Studio

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to a state school in North Rocks and then after graduating I went to an art school in Sydney called Sydney College of the Arts. I stayed there for a few years, got an Honors degree and then jumped to an another art school.  

My Masters study was at the College of Fine Arts University of New South Wales.  I studied painting although by the time I left Sydney College of the Arts, I was already experimenting with video and other technology so for my Masters degree I was mostly moving between lots of mediums.

What does your workspace / desktop / studio look like?

I’ve got a physical studio space in Southeast London that’s connected to a gallery space called the Drawing Room.  It’s a medium sized space with a beautiful view of London. It’s very much a painting studio. It’s really messy, there are big unstretched canvas on the wall.  There’s oil, acrylic, aerosol, it’s a real mess. I do work in VR through other studio spaces.

When did you start working creatively with technology?

A lot before officially studying video performance and installation. I was creatively using technology in my painting process. I was interested in taking reproductions of paintings and scanning them, altering their dimensions and then re-painting those manipulated images through Photoshop.  

The Photoshop image of say a distorted Gainsborough or a Reynolds painting from British society portraiture going back to the 1700th or 1800th century would then become the proprietary sketch for a very detailed painting. So that’s probably when I started looking at this interface or this connection or somehow a conversation between technology and something more traditional.  

Self Portrait Spinning and Falling in Paris, 2016 Single channel High Definition video, 16:9 (installed 4:3), colour, silent

In 2009-10 you were the official Australian War Artist and the first to use video for your project. Can you describe your experience working on the ground with the Australian military in Afghanistan and talk about the process of creating Double field/viewfinder (Tarin Kowt)?

This commission with the war memorial  was very different for me. I was heading into a very difficult, unknown space and couldn’t control the elements around me like I do here in this studio or like I think I’m doing in this studio.

To work in an environment like that required a different kind of thinking. I wanted to explore ideas that I already had in my practice so that’s where Double field/viewfinder came from which was really me taking this technology into the theater of war but also knowing that technology was entirely integrated into that experience and supporting that experience and probably most of the technology I was using was actually developed through military objectives.  

Video recording technology and digital video was so familiar to a lot of the soldiers because they are technologists. I decided to hand cameras over to them and let them record video.  It ended up becoming quite intense because the soldiers took on the project as if their lives depend up on it. It almost was like a military drill so that was quite interesting for me and then letting the soldiers know that it was an experiment and getting their feedback after was equally important.

‘Double Field/Viewfinder’ by Shaun Gladwell (2009-10).Photo: Department of War Studies, King’s College London

In 2016 you co-founded an Indie VR Content Collective with producer Leo Faber called Badfaith. You’ve mentioned the name of the collective is a reference to the Sartrean philosophical concept. Do you believe VR can be an antidote to certain social forces that cause people to act in bad faith? How do these ideas factor into your practice?

Firstly, the name BadFaith is connected to the concept of Jean Paul Sartre as well as Simone de Beauvoir.  Each philosopher or thinker has versions or signs and symptoms of ‘bad faith’ within their thinking or within their ideas around the concept so it can be quite nuanced and complex to talk about ‘bad faith’ depending upon who I’m  footnoting or referencing but I think technology can also potentially generate bad faith as well just depending upon how the technology is used. Like any technology if it’s being used as a weapon or a tool for something else.

The same technology has very different outcomes and effects and I think that the fact that bad faith was always about simulating a kind of presentation of self or position even down to the occupation of the waiter as Jean Paul Sartre’s famous example goes, then that immediately becomes relevant to technology like VR which is a very powerful simulator that we all now have access to as consumers rather than it being locked up in university research labs or tech developers so we’re going to see all kinds of different forms of bad faith in a kind of hard boiled sort of I guess bare life to use Giorgio Agamben’s  term in relation to VR.

Virtual reality pioneers Shaun Gladwell and Leo Faber talk Badfaith Collective

What projects are you currently working on?

Good question.  I’ve got a few long term projects related to shows and a few little ones that are more like doodles.  I do some sketching in video. I go out and ride my bike and follow the line on the street and it’s kinda like a video drawing. I’m really excited about doing more of those in London, really simple raw works.  I still draw, still like to printmake and paint. But I love VR and AR.

I’m trying to run that full spectrum. I  don’t want to lose out on the idea of working with materials and using substance and stuff and getting dirty.  Like in VR sometimes I can feel like it’s just too much of a pure space which does not reference the gunk, junk and the abject reality of my body or the world.  

Have you done any work in AR? Do you find VR or AR to be a more compelling medium? Why?

I’m developing an idea for a show in AR now.

The distinction between AR and VR is quite enormous.  VR completely arrests your sense of sight and hearing and when you start to include kinetics and haptics then you aren’t given a frame outside of the frameless space you’ve been immersed within while AR still gives you the reference physically and optically and and conceptually to your immediate environment as it then starts to augment that space so you still have some reference to that space if it’s to be defined as AR.  So I think they are so different for me given those kinds of boring different textbook definitions. Some ideas could be better wrapped up in VR and others in AR.

In a field where hardware and software can quickly become obsolete, how do you approach documentary and archival processes for your work?

Usually I’m sorta just hopelessly producing work that will very quickly be its own ruin because that sort of archival and documentary process has changed.  I’m only just now bringing it all in to a central nervous system but then it would of course be better managed through you guys in terms of the digital phase which is great.

It’s amazing to start off in art school and go from prints to slides you put a in projector right through to this system that you guys are working on. I think it’s an incredible arc as to how I’ve used technology to archive my work or to document the way that it’s been shown from a slide projector to the cloud in the space of my professional life and student years.

Who are some contemporary or historical new media artists that you admire? What are some of your favorite works?

Caravaggio’s use of optics back in the day.   Interesting to think of these early examples of people who have used technology.  Galileo’s drawing of the moon after he developed the telescope are some of the most beautiful images I can think of from the sides of both art and science.

In terms of new media artists, I  like everyone, Raqs Media Collective to Pipilotti Rist.  I’m interested in why people are using technology and sometimes I’m also interested in the result but there is always some interest to me as to why people are picking up the camera and trying to make episodic TV series and calling it art or making a series of elaborate performances around their sculptures and calling that video.  Probably the one artist who I really love is Stelarc the Australian guy who auments his body with technology.



Get to Know Anne Spalter: Academic pioneer, artist, collector, curator and author

You have an MFA in painting from RISD: Rhode Island School of Design.  What came first for you, art or technology?

I studied traditional analog art in high school and at RISD as an undergraduate before transferring to Brown University to study mathematics. I was as surprised as anyone to find myself using the computer to make art after graduation. In fact, I have to admit that I was a total computer-phobe and pretty much thought art made with a computer had to probably be evil (which, unsurprisingly, seemed to be the general institutional sentiment when I later returned to RISDI for my MFA).

I really began to appreciate the visual power and convenience of the digital world when I was working in New York after college. I had a computer in my cubicle and was working a gazillion hours a week. The only way I could work on my art was inside that machine; it became my tiny studio. I began to explore what I could do with art software like Photoshop… and when my boss walked by… presto… like magic… I could easily click back on Excel.

After a while, I realized my future probably didn’t rest in banking [duh] and I applied to graduate school in Painting at RISD–of course, without mentioning that I’d been using a computer to make art, since that was still a pretty subversive insult to the painting tradition back then.

Once I was back at RISD, I wanted to continue exploring the digital realm. There weren’t any classes offered, though, so I actually ended up getting “volunteered” to teach one to my fellow graduate students. In the course of developing curriculum for what became the first digital fine art courses at RISD and Brown, I ended up writing the widely used textbook, The Computer in Visual Arts (Addison-Wesley). This was a multi-year undertaking and it brought together aesthetic, technical, and art-historical aspects of the field.

I was also fortunate during this time to work with Andy van Dam in his Computer Graphics Research Group in Brown’s Computer Science Department where I was a researcher and Artist in Residence. It was a bit like an old fashioned apprenticeship and I learned about the technical side of the field.

After 15 years immersed in academia, I thought, if I don’t give my art career a chance it’s probably never going to happen. I took a sabbatical in 2008 and ended up not returning.

Precession at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, curated by Elizabeth Keithline, New York, NY, 2016. Wall mural, video screens, canvas prints. Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

What do you think is most misunderstood about digital art and what would you like people to know?

Ahh, where to begin. Perhaps the most common myth, similar to the “anyone can point and click” accusations that plagued photography, is that somehow the computer is making the art for you and the digital artist is merely pressing a mouse button and sitting back with a toothpick while the machine does all the hard work.

In reality, it is exactly as difficult to make art with the computer as with a paint brush or any other medium because the hard part doesn’t lie with the technical device or medium but in the artmaking aspects–the choice of content and how to express it. A great artist can make art with a crayon–as Picasso did drawing a dove–and a lousy artist can fail to make art with the world’s most powerful supercomputer. If anything, I’d say it takes more hours working with a computer than most traditional media because it is a new technology and involves a lot of tedious problem solving on a daily basis.

As we move into a new world of machine learning and AI, this may change and the computer may truly be making art, but I have not seen convincing examples of that yet.

I’d say another misunderstanding, and one that photography and video art and some other art forms share but that has for some reason particularly plagued digital art, has been that “it’s not art because it isn’t done by hand.” For reasons that are not entirely clear (given the history of other genres for which this is true), this stumbling block keeps reappearing. Ironically, I have often felt more like I was drawing and painting when working with digital video than I did wielding a physical pencil or brush. One would think in this day and age that art could be accepted for it’s conceptual and aesthetic qualities and the mediation of the hand would not be brought into so many discussions–but it remains an issue.

I could go with these misunderstandings forever, but I’d say these are the most common.

Adrift on Titan (Miami Marbles series) at PULSE Contemporary Art Fair Miami Beach, FL, 2016. The first PULSE PROJECTS Special Commission, Miami Marbles is a mixed augmented reality (AR) installation combining AR components, via a custom app, with nine physical helium-filled spheres—ranging from seven to 16 feet in diameter— printed with digitally manipulated footage of Miami Beach; Courtesy of Anne Spalter
Adrift on Titan (Miami Marbles series) at PULSE Contemporary Art Fair Miami Beach, FL, 2016. The first PULSE PROJECTS Special Commission, Miami Marbles is a mixed augmented reality (AR) installation combining AR components, via a custom app, with nine physical helium-filled spheres—ranging from seven to 16 feet in diameter— printed with digitally manipulated footage of Miami Beach; Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

You use custom software to create your work. Have you always developed/used your own tools?  Tell us about that process.

At this point I have custom software, but there was a process behind the evolution that led me there. I mostly used off-the-shelf software (back to Photoshop 1.0 and even its rudimentary predecessors like Letraset Realist) but starting with my kaleidoscopic video works, the standard software didn’t offer all of the features I felt I needed.

I began working with a wonderful programmer, Nathan Seilikoff, on custom plugins for Adobe AfterEffects and Photoshop. These let me work with more parameters for the patterning and motion, and also control them better. I did take programming courses but, basically I’m a slob and spent an inordinate amount of time chasing down stray semicolons. Learning how to program does help me understand what is possible, however, and to communicate with people who are good programmers. That said, I am happy working with programmers like Nathan to develop my custom software.

New York Dreaming, The Fulton Center, New York, NY, 2016-2017; 9 corresponding videos on 52 screens throughout the Fulton Street Transportation Hub; Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

As an artist, what do you think are the biggest challenges in exhibiting digital art?

Some galleries simply will not exhibit digital art. Of course, many artists use the computer at some point during their creative process (from image research to composition work and beyond), so this is an increasingly meaningless statement.

For those that do exhibit new media, the biggest challenges are making everything run smoothly and supplying instructions for non-technical people to easily keep things running. Surprisingly, there are still not any widespread “entry level” mechanisms for basic digital art display (e.g. a simple and easy-to-use screen or projector that would seamlessly loop digital files), and thus a new media show usually involves a crazy set up of extension cords and media players; multiple remotes with line-of-sight issues; and other things that are baffling to gallerists unaccustomed to such technology. Things are even worse if an actual computer must be kept running the whole time a show is up. Many spaces turn their power off at night requiring everything to be reconfigured each morning.

Beyond technical display issues, it is also sometimes challenging to explain to viewers that a work could be shown in their home or institution differently from the way they are experiencing it in the gallery or museum. For example, it is sometimes hard to explain to  people that a video work would look fine on a different sized screen, or on a screen even though they are seeing it projected. Prospective clients also often balk at having to choose their own screens or other equipment, even with advice from the artist or gallery.

Wonder Why, 5K digital video, 2017; 7 minute loop; Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

As a collector and artist, what  do you think are the biggest challenge in collecting digital art?

We collect mostly early works that are plotter prints on paper. As such, we avoid most of the archival and storage issues of collecting new media as essentially they are india ink on paper and this is a well known entity. We do have some works that are video, i.e., files, and those are backed up multiple times–both on physical hard drives and in the cloud.

Some of the challenges are the same as any art collection I think–storage, organization, documentation, etc. We have begun to put the collection online for research purposes–to share it with a broader audience and you can see our efforts so far at spalterdigital.com. Many works are not up yet as they need to be photographed, and we are still entering data. Implementing any new cataloging system is always an incredibly daunting task, though.

As an artist creating digital video works that others collect, I have struggled to find an optimal way to present work for easy display and use and integration with clients’ existing collections. Several of my collectors have told me my work was the first new media piece they purchased; I think that is because I go to great lengths to try to make it easy to install and maintain the work. My ongoing search for solutions in this space led me to Niio. Their approach is the only hardware agnostic one I know of —letting clients use their existing screens without the need to  deal with extra remotes.

In addition, unlike virtually all the made-for-art displays available, Niio addresses file quality issues that have always bothered me, letting clients view the optimal version of the video. The Niio server also stores archival versions of the file, and addresses distribution and backup issues. It is difficult to communicate some of these features to collectors who are not technologically inclined, but they are supremely important.

Beacon, 1080p digital video, 3 minute loop, 2018; Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

As a collector and artist, how do you tackle the topic of  preservation?

[see above for the Collection]

As an artist I live in fear that I will lose files! This is the equivalent of a fire in the studio. I make local backups to a RAID array, multiple cloud backups, and off-site backups.

AR – Are you a fan as an artist? As a collector?  Any works in your personal collection?

I really love AR. I think AR has a great combination of convenience and aesthetic quality and ease of use. We own one of Claudia Hart’s AR works. I thought Will Pappenheimer’s Privateer (in Boston Harbor) was super. And, of course, I did an app for Pulse Contemporary Art Fair Miami Beach in 2016–Miami Marbles–which you can download from the app store.

What do you think will help establish the stature of digital art in the context of the global art world?

Fortunately this is already happening! Although we are all impatient, it really hasn’t been that long since the invention of digital computers and the advent of digital art to, now, shows at major museums featuring new media works.  I think we all live in internet time and expect things to happen almost instantaneously. Artists already know that the computer is a part of the art-making process and use it without hardly thinking about it.

For collectors and the critics and THE art world status quo to accept it will just take a few real leaders to give it THEIR seal of approval. Shows like the Thinking Machines, curated by Sean Anderson and Giampaolo Bianconi currently up at MoMA in NYC, help accomplish this. Not only is it a thoughtful interesting show but it brings together digital and analog works under the aegis of a larger theme and it doesn’t comment on the difference. The show treats all the artists equally — de facto as part of art history. This is the type of thing cements digital art into the canon.

About Anne Spalter:

Digital mixed-media artist Anne Spalter is an academic pioneer who founded the original digital fine arts programs at Brown University and The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the 1990s. In her studio practice, Spalter uses custom software to transform source footage—captured by the artist during multisensory experiences such as riding the Coney Island Cyclone; walking through an open-air flower market in Bangkok; and gazing down from a helicopter over downtown Dubai—into kaleidoscopic, algorithmically manipulated Modern Landscapes.

Spalter, who studied mathematics as a Brown undergraduate before receiving an MFA in painting from RISD, has a longstanding goal of integrating art and technology. With additional cross-disciplinary masteries including a 2011 Sensei designation in Kenpo Karate, Spalter’s influences in the studio are as diverse as Buddhist art, pure mathematics, Futurism, and Action Painting.

Spalter’s work is housed in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK); the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY); the Rhode Island School of Design Museum (Providence, RI); and others. In March 2016, Spalter received accolades from Forbes, Surface, Whitewall, and others for her large-scale installation Precession at SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Later that year, she was tapped by PULSE Contemporary Art Fair for its inaugural commissioned installation series, debuting at PULSE Miami Beach 2016. Also in late 2016, MTA Arts commissioned Spalter to create a 52-screen digital art installation, New York Dreaming, in one of its most crowded commuter hubs (on view through Summer 2017 in Fulton Center). Spalter currently sits on the board of the New York Foundation of the Arts (NYFA).

To learn more about Anne Spalter and to experience her artwork, please visit: http://annespalter.com

Anne will be exhibiting her work with curator Natalie White at this year’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2018 in NYC, March 7-12.  Get passes now!

Studio Visit: Refik Anadol

[vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_column_text]We were thrilled to be invited to the Los Angeles studio of cutting edge media & data artist Refik Anadol. Located in the Silver Lake area on the east side of LA,  the studio is accessed from a small side door.  Step inside and you’re immediately enveloped by a sleek white space with 20ft ceilings, desks dotted with enormous computer screens, a brand new projector and great Mid-century modern furniture.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Of course it’s hard to miss the perfect, small scale model of Frank Gehry’s Disney Music Hall, one LA’s (if not the world’s) most iconic buildings.  Refik used the model to create one of his very first projects in LA.

If you’ve been to San Francisco recently, you would not have been able to miss the skyline altering Salesforce Tower whose lobby is defined by a 3-story tall, 2,500-square-foot digital canvas featuring a custom data art creation by Anadol.

Together with his collaborator Peggy Weil, Anadol created a large scale data piece for LA’s first public art biennial, Current: LA Water.

To learn more about Refik’s unique artwork check out this feature story, KCET: Big (Beautiful) Data: The Media Architecture of Refik Anadol.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”580″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” qode_css_animation=””][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_empty_space height=”40px”][vc_gallery type=”image_grid” images=”579,578,577″ img_size=”full” onclick=”” column_number=”2″ grayscale=”no” space_between_images=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_empty_space height=”40px”][vc_column_text]About Refik Anadol

Refik is a media artist and director born in Istanbul, Turkey.  He currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California. He is a lecturer in UCLA’s Department of Design Media Arts.  He works in the fields of site-specific public art with parametric data sculpture approach and live audio/visual performance with immersive installation approach. Particularly his works explore the space among digital and physical entities by creating a hybrid relationship between architecture and media arts.  Learn more about Refik.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

A Conversation With Kelani Nichole of Brooklyn’s TRANSFER Gallery (Part 2)

We are big fans of Brooklyn based TRANSFER. Gallery founder/director Kelani Nichole, started the exhibition space nearly four years ago in order to support and and cultivate artists with computer-based practices. Get to know Kelani:


What are the biggest challenges you face dealing in a digital medium both as a gallerist and as a curator?

Technical details aside, I’d say the biggest challenge currently facing the market for media-based artworks is around preservation and documentation of the artists’ intent.  Much of the work I deal with is software-dependent, ephemeral, or online public artwork, so preserving the larger context and supporting platforms becomes the major consideration when appreciating these works.  Just as any traditional format of artwork, new forms of media require restoration and care, and have the added complexity of authentication.

What are the biggest challenges in collecting digital art?

Preservation and authentication are the two biggest challenges to growing a secondary market for these artworks.  Additionally, the body of criticism is still developing – the artworld is warming up to how to talk about these works, and successful institutional displays are somewhat few and far between.

I’m very keen to explore new methods of authentication. The current standard for authentication is a signed certificate, often accompanied by a digital still, editioned media storage device/object or other accompanying physical ephemera.  In the near future I believe digital transfer of ownership will become more prevalent, as new standards emerge. 

How do you think a platform like Niio will affect the medium of digital art?

I think Niio has solved some of the challenges related to displaying these works. I’m particularly interested in the workflows and collaboration points of the software between collectors, curators, galleries / institutions, agents and artists and believe a method of seamless exchange is an important step to making the work more accessible.  

You’ve said that this year all the shows you’re staging at TRANSFER feature only women artists.  Why is a series like that important to you?

I dedicated 2016 to showing new works from the studios of women, all of them experimental in their format and looking to test new ideas from the studio at TRANSFER.  Gender balance was a hot topic in the artworld last year, a group of women working with new forms of performance and media were featured in ‘Women on the Verge’ in artforum.  

This article crystallized a movement I had started to engage with during ‘gURLs’ a night of performance at TRANSFER  in 2013, and have been tracking ever since.  I found this article inspiring, and saw a timely opportunity to deepen my own understanding of the ways in which women are pushing into new forms of performance, installation and time-based media unlocking new opportunities for technology that are emotional and deeply human.

Carla Gannis launched my 2016 program, introducing a new body of 4K video works of self portraiture, a continuation of a year-long performative drawing project.  Claudia Hart’s large-scale media installation was extended through the summer at TRANSFER.  Next I’ll launch Angela Washko’s first video game artwork in September, followed by a new body of work from Morehshin Allahyari in the fall.

Read Part 1 of our interview With Kelani.

Claudia Hart


Carla Gannis