Digital Art at the Venice Biennale

Installation View, Scotch Tape and DAP DAO Collab NFT: Portrait of Max Ernst, Decentral Art Pavilion.

The 59th International Art Venice Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani, its satellite pavilions and shows mark a strong emphasis on the advancements of digital art as a rightful art world medium. This article explores the different digital art focused exhibitions displayed at the Venice Biennale Arsenale & Giardini, and satellite events.

The 2022 Venice Biennale titled The Milk of Dreams takes its name from a book by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington in which she describes a magical surreal world where life and living beings are reinvisioned through imagination. In her book, Carrington takes the reader on an imaginary journey that redefines humans and their bodies. In parallel to the Biennale, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection currently exhibits a show titled Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity, which displays sixty artworks that offer an overview of the entire development of the Surrealist movement, including works by Leonora Carrington.

The history of the Venice Biennale dates back to 1895 as an international cultural exhibition. It is only since the mid 1970’s that the Venice Biennale’s board and members appoints an artistic director, among a professionalized field of curators, who oversees the exhibition and initiates an overarching theme for the edition. Historically, visitors were more accustomed to seeing and experiencing more traditional art forms and mediums at the Venice Biennale such as painting, sculpture and drawing. Since several years it has become more common to experience digital-born artworks at the Venice Biennale, specifically video and sound installations. However this year marked a great leap for the new media arts, artists and practices as the 59th Venice Biennale can be seen as a celebration of the digital, setting the placement of the digital arts side by side with traditional respected mediums. This article explores the different new media works and exhibitions displayed at the Arsenale & Giardini, and will then take the reader on a journey through this year’s Biennale satellite exhibitions.

Installation View, Francis Alÿs The Nature of the Game, Belgian Pavilion.

The Belgian Pavilion exhibits Francis Alÿs’ The Nature of the Game. A video art installation curated by Hilde Teerlinck. The Nature of the Game presents a selection of films from the artist’s Children’s Games series which started in 1999 and is an ongoing project. Included in the selection are video works filmed between 2017-2022 ranging in location from Hong Kong, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Belgium, Mexico, and other countries. The installation of the different screens and films bring attention to the complex realities of children around the world, and the interaction of children with their surrounding environments.

Installation View, Orchidelirium. An Appetite for Abundance, Dutch Rietveld Pavilion.

The Estonian Pavilion exhibited inside the Dutch Rietveld Pavilion presents artworks by Kristina Norman and Bita Ravazi in collaboration with curator Corina L. Apostol in which the artists developed a multi-layered installation including two video works. The pavilion takes as its focal point the life and work of Emilie Rosalie Saal who made her mark internationally as a colonial botanical artist and traveler. Between 1899-1920 the artist and her husband writer and photographer, Andres Saal, lived in Java, Indonesia, then colonized by the Dutch. The exhibition brings attention to the abuse of power exercised by the colonizers and with that the erasing of the perspective and knowledge of the indigenous.

Installation View, Sonia Boyce Feeling Her Way, British Pavilion.

The British Pavilion presents a show composed of video works as installation by artist Sonia Boyce. The exhibition titled Feeling Her Way exposes the artist’s interest in the potential of collaborative play as a route to innovation. The main work at the exhibition is also the first which the viewer experiences upon walking into the British Pavilion that exhibits a work displayed on three large LED screens of Black British female vocalists embodying feelings of freedom, power, and vulnerability.

The Canadian Pavilion curated by Reid Shier is a two-part show by artist Stan Douglas. The exhibition displayed at the Canadian Pavilion is titled 2011 ≠ 1848 and displays four large-scale photographs. In this project, the artist combines and contrasts news footage from London’s 2011 Hackney riots with footage from the global Arab Spring uprisings of the early 2010’s, and images from the Occupy Wall Street protestors on New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. These are then compared and contrasted to historical events from 1848 in which middle and working classes in Europe rose up against a lack of democratic liberty and the hegemony of the elite. In this exhibition, the artist brings attention to how generational differences in the dissemination of information can influence the course of a revolt, and the global frustration with social systems. The second show ISDN displayed at the Magazzini del Sale No. 5 is a two-channel video installation that explores music as a cross-continental cultural resistance. It focuses on two musical genres: Grime music, originating in London, and Mahraganat music which originated in Cairo. In doing so, the artist represents and transmits feelings of international interconnectedness.

Installation View, DESASTRES, Australian Pavilion.

The Australian Pavilion exhibits DESASTRES, an experimental noise project which combines a video installation with a sound work performed live with an electric guitar by Marco Fusinato. The images displayed on a large LED wall are sourced via a stream of words that have been put into an open search across multiple online platforms and exhibit disparate and disconnected randomly generated images.

The Cameroon Pavilion compares four Cameroonian artists with international artists and pays special attention to technology exploring the emerging world of NFTs. The exhibition titled The Time of Chimeras displays an assemblage of paintings, sculpture, video works, and for the first time ever at the Venice Biennale art NFTs.

The Egypt Pavilion Eden-like Garden presents works by Mohamed Shoukry, Weaam El Masry, and Ahmed El Shaer. The exhibition displays an immersive experience of sculpture, installation and video works that rapture the human being and in doing so bring attention to the redefining of humanity.

As the Netherlands lent its pavilion to Estonia this year at the Giardini, the Dutch instead used the Chiesetta della Misericrodia to display Melanie Bonajo’s video installation work titled When the Body says Yes. The installation, commissioned by the Mondriaan Fund, is part of the artist’s ongoing research into the current status of intimacy in our increasingly alienating society.

Artist Monica Heller’s artworks for the Argentine Pavilion comprise of fifteen 3D animation works. Curated by Alejo Ponce de León, the exhibition explores the limits of the body, imagination, and cognitivity through the representation of anthropomorphic characters and objects taken from different stories and fables. Heller’s characters assume adult roles in complex relationships that connect the viewer to familiar representations.

Nan Goldin’s Sirens, 2019-2020 displayed at the Giardini appropriates film footage from thirty films to associate the beauty of the female body with the sensuality and ecstasy of a drug high. The work was conceived as an homage to Donyale Luna, the first Black supermodel who died from a heroin overdose in 1979. The video includes footage from Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” of Luna.

Installation View, Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, Punta della Dogana.

The Pinault Collection at the Punta della Dogana exhibits a solo show titled Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies. The exhibition takes as its starting point a corpus of recent video installations from the Contrapposto series, curated by Carlos Basualdo and Caroline Bourgeois, which is contextualized through a selection of older works by the artist. ‘The show focuses on three fundamental aspects of Nauman’s oeuvre which are essential components of this series: the artist studio as a space where creation takes place, the use of the body in performance and the exploration of sound’. Contrapposto is an Italian term used in the visual arts to describe a human figure standing with most of its weight on one foot so that its shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips downwards in the axial plane. This sculptural scheme which originates from the ancient Greeks later became a major feature of Renaissance art. Nauman’s works which exhibit the artist practicing the contrapposto pose on his own body instill in the viewer an unsettling feeling which further destabilizes notions of the body, identity, and language. Nauman has stated that he wants his art “to be vehement and aggressive because it forces people to pay attention”. For Nauman creating art in his studio “became more of an activity and less of a product”. The works in this exhibition display the pioneering video artists’ interest in portraying films of the human body in live performance and manipulating pre-existing footage. Bruce Nauman began to explore the potential of video art in the 1960’s as part of his ongoing investigation of the possibilities of what art may be. By displaying himself in contrapposto poses and scenes the artist in a sense enlivens the static ancient notions of sculpture, now portrayed in a t-shirt and jeans. In these works there is also a clear allusion to age and how time unsettles the body.

The last rooms in the exhibition display Nauman’s studies with 3D developments which enabled him to further advance his interest in researching the human body, the studio, and the exploration of the sense of vision and visuality. Nauman’s work Nature Morte, 2020 comprises three 4K video projections each linked wirelessly to an iPad which the viewer can manipulate to virtually move around his studio and to discover its contents of artworks, notes, sketches, furniture, and other tools and objects.

The Decentral Art Pavilion at Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, curated and organized by Florencia S.M. Bruck, Javier Krasuk, Diego Lijtmaer and Simone Furian. The exhibition titled Singularity brings together over 200 NFT artworks from a diverse group of international artists, including Beeple, Kevin McCoy, Trevor Jones, XCOPY, and Ran Slavin, all who are ‘shaping the creative economy and NFT space’. Singularity dives into decentralized art with the aim to ‘educate, engage and enthrall the aficionado, the collector, and the public at large; in such a fast-evolving creative dominion’. Moreover, the exhibition is aimed to foster a dialogue around NFTs and their impact on the art world.

Installation View, Ran Slavin Newtopia, Decentral Art Pavilion.

The Decentral Art Pavilion exhibits a show that goes in line with the Biennale exhibitions with its outlook on the Grand Canal hosted in an exquisite Baroque style palace. Running in parallel with the Venice Biennale for the first 8 weeks. Highlights from the exhibition include Beeple’s Everydays: the First 5000 Days, Ran Slavin Newtopia, David Rodriguez Gimeno DEVELOP / MOV N1, and Trevor Jones’ ETHGIRL. Visitors to the Decentral Art Pavilion can even experience an NFT rendering of Leonora Carrington’s famous portrait of Max Ernst reinvented as an NFT by Scotch Tape in collaboration with DAP DAO.

As an icing on the cake, the Dior boutique in Venice is currently showcasing one of the first NFT handbags in its storefront near the Piazza San Marco.

The Exploit of Art: AI and the Banality of Images

Grégory Chatonsky

Our guest author Grégory Chatonsky is an artist whose work has explored the possibilities of artistic expression with digital media since the mid-1990s. An ongoing subject in his practice is the exploration of Artificial Intelligence and particularly the concept of “artificial imagination,” which exposes the machine’s ability to produce content beyond human capabilities and push the limits of art. 

In this text, he presents a critique of the latest advances in artificial intelligence aimed at producing more realistic images, which may lead in turn to the banality of all images.

Gregory Chatonsky, from the Latents Diagrams series, 2022

Every week a new text-to-video generation and translation code becomes available on Colab [1]. We keep on experimenting, eager to produce new images and explore these new possibilities. We try to make them our own to avoid some of the visual naïveties that are spread daily on Twitter and Discord. But gradually the field of visual possibilities seems to be narrowing, with Dall-E 2 and affiliates [2]. By becoming more “credible”, the images also become more boring. The technological progression and the aesthetic motivation seem to go in opposite directions, as if each one had its own goals.

Undoubtedly, the codes developed by creative computer scientists, who most often have little knowledge of the history of art, meet requirements that are antagonistic to those of art. Computer practice consists in taking up challenges (exploits), in realizing objectives and in not questioning their presuppositions, so that one inherits more often than not an underlying ideological structure that tends to naturalize what is a social and cultural construction.

“The images in neural networks become more and more coherent, banal, until they strangely have a family air with those of Beeple.”

Thus, the generation of images in neural networks seems to have as a major objective the capacity to produce “natural” images from texts, i.e. images that seem to have been made by human operators with a technical mediation (painting, drawing, photography, etc.) and not generated by solitary machines. Inspired by Turing’s test, this finality conceals that this test took into account, in its two versions, its performative effects. Indeed, Alan Turing did not want the machine to be an intelligence like a human being (this faculty being moreover uncertain in the latter), but that the latter grants, affects, attributes to the machine an intelligence if he ignores that it is a machine. The recognition of the arbitrariness of the attribution is fundamental here, because it is what defines the conditions of possibilities which must be built and deconstructed.

Thus, the images in neural networks become more and more coherent, banal, until they strangely have a family air with those of Beeple. An average aesthetic fruit of the thoughtless juxtaposition of our culture, a latent space that can be statistical (technical) or cognitive (human). They seem to lose the strangeness of pixels and Surrealism, to repress their psychedelic or hallucinatory character of a Deep Dream [3], since it is a question of overcoming what appears as defects and oddities, so that one does not notice the difference between the alleged original and the alleged copy. One then sees only fire. In fact, there is nothing to see anymore, except a symptom of our time and its hypermnesia.

There is behind the computer exploit a generalized instrumentality, a deterministic construction of the world, which affects the aesthetics itself. It supposes here a linear conception of the representation, of the mimesis, of the Vorstellung: the images would not have effect on themselves. The images of Dall-E 2 seem less disturbing than those of Disco Diffusion or VQGAN Clip, so much they are mastered and normal. One becomes nostalgic for a technology that is only a few weeks old. The technological evolution is an instant ruin, at the very moment of its appearance it is a disaster. Gone are the germinations and the metamorphoses, the imperfections and the monstrosities. The silhouettes and the objects are cut out on a background, each thing is distinguished from the others, the image becomes clearer and more “credible”, but we know well that this credibility is not natural and that it does not go without saying, it is a cultural construction and historically, geographically located. 

“When neural networks will be able to generate an image that cannot be distinguished from a human creation, it will be because images created by humans have been transformed, in their biggest banality and instrumentality, as an aesthetic by default.”

But it is precisely in the contingency of this construction that the true work of art underlines, whereas the technological development of the generation of images rests on the belief of an essentiality of this one. Coders therefore often pursue a decontextualized and essentialized visual purpose. The original images are considered as data that must be translated. That the perception of these “original” images can be retroactively influenced by the automated productions remains unthought of. That the translation of a text into images belongs to a long Western theological tradition of making images express a sacred text is obscured. This is the reason why “prompts” are often more interesting than visual results. If we were to catalog all the “prompts” that flood Twitter [4], we would probably get a good representation of the visual imagination of our time: what words do people think of to make an image? They don’t see that the defects, the metamorphoses, the amorphous are so many aesthetic potentialities, that the strange familiarity between human and technical productions is also made of distances and differences consisting in an anthropo-technological gray zone: human and technical have always influenced each other, the imagination will have been the name of their meeting through a material support.

When neural networks will be able to generate an image that cannot be distinguished from a human creation, it will be because images created by humans have been transformed, in their biggest banality and instrumentality, as an aesthetic by default. While we believe to be producing new images, we will be in fact modifying the perception of all the past images to which we refer. Our technical present will influence our cultural past. Also, we will have forgotten that there is no human production that is not technical and no technical production that is not human. We will then be able to produce images as stereotyped as those of the influencers, of Beeple, of these instagrammable painters of which we do not know if it is the paintings or the faces which make their fleeting success. We will then be able to be submerged by the flow of images, to create images of images, to take up the thread of all our visual culture through the latent space of statistics. We will then find something to do and we will invent enough errors and shifts to continue experimenting.

Notes by the editor:

[1] Colaboratory is a tool that allows users to write and run code on Python using Google’s cloud services. It facilitates running complex tasks that would otherwise be difficult to process on a personal computer, and also share the code. 

[2] Dall-E is an AI system developed by Open AI that creates realistic images from a text description. Its first version was announced on January 5th, 2021. The second version was announced in April 2022, presenting spectacular results.

[3] Deep Dream is a computer vision program created by Google engineer Alexander Mordvintsev that was released in 2015 and became popular for its ability to create dream-like images based on algorithmic pareidolia.

[4] Some Text to Image AI projects invite Twitter users to send “prompts,” descriptions of the images they would like to see generated by the AI.

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]