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Digital Art

Started: 1965

Digital Art Timeline

Important Art and Artists of Digital Art

The below artworks are the most important in Digital Art - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Digital Art. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr.2 (1965)
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Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr.2 (1965)

Artist: Frieder Nake

Artwork description & Analysis: Frieder Nake was trained as a mathematician and an artist. With the advent of the computer in the 1960s, he added computer science to his roster of talent. By combining all these specialties, he became one of the earliest pioneers in the field of computer art.

For this piece, Nake created an algorithm that instructed the computer to plot a series of shapes in order to produce a work of art. He programmed in the fundamental facts that would allow the computer to start drawing, and then placed in the algorithm containing random elements, which would allow the computer to take over and manipulate the outcome. In doing this, Nake demonstrated how logic and technology could be used to produce a work of art whose appearance was based on chance.

The piece was inspired by a painting by Paul Klee called Highroads and Byroads (1929). The Victoria and Albert Museum argues that Nake "was interested in the relationship between the vertical and the horizontal elements of Klee's painting." That interest aligned perfectly with the then-rudimentary "hand" of the computer, which could, at the time, only move vertically and horizontally to create similar shapes to Klee.

This was one of the earliest attempts at digital art, foreshadowing the inevitable relationship of man and machine in the realm of creativity. Nake would go on to make hundreds of works utilizing the relationship between computer and man, but also became noted for his decades-long career as a professor of interactive graphics and digital media design. His book Ästhetik als Informationsverarbeitung (1974), was seminal in discussing the connections between aesthetics, computing, and information theory and is still known as an important piece of literature in the transdisciplinary realm of digital media.

Screenprint of computer-produced drawing - V&A Museum, London

Young Nude (1966)
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Young Nude (1966)

Artist: Kenneth C. Knowlon and Leon Harmon

Artwork description & Analysis: Kenneth C. Knowlton was a computer graphics specialist, artist, mosaicist, and portraitist who worked at the seminal research and scientific development company Bell Labs in the 1960s alongside EAT founder Billy Kluver. Knowlton was pivotal in developing a programming language for bitmap computer-produced movies. In 1966, while furthering this work with colleague Leon Harmon, in which they were experimenting with photomosaic - creating large prints from smaller symbols or images - the two created an image of a reclining nude. They did this by scanning a photograph, then converting it into a pixelated, half tone image. Although the work was revolutionary, Bell Labs wanted to keep it quiet due to its racy subject matter. When the New York Times got word of the image, they ran it in the paper, claiming it the first nude of new media art. It became a true 20th century icon of an age-old artistic muse, the female nude, brought forth from a long historical lineage and placed on a new pedestal in a decidedly cutting edge fashion.

Computer-generated print

Hello (1969)
Artwork Images

Hello (1969)

Artist: Allan Kaprow

Artwork description & Analysis: This early digital work by Allan Kaprow was described by the artist as a "tele-happening." Kaprow collaborated with a television station in Boston, using the company's various studios to create an interconnected network of televised individuals. Four locations were used to send and receive audio and sound, allowing for interaction between the people standing in front of each camera-monitor. Kaprow commanded which channels were opened and closed from the television station's control room.

The participants could both see and hear each other despite their geographic remoteness from one another, creating a digital network that was prescient to the internet in its formulation. However, although the aim of the exercise appeared to be communication, the effect was often one of miscommunication and confusion, due to Kaprow's interference from the control room. The interactions permitted by Hello suggested that digital communication was not always necessarily illuminating, but that it could sometimes be obfuscating as well.

The work is significant because Kaprow used television to interrogate the nature of the networks, which were becoming an integral part of society in the late 1960s. Digital art specialist Erika Balsom argues that: "Rather than confronting mass media as a vehicle for the unidirectional delivery of information as did many other artists of the time, Kaprow's Hello interrogated the desire to become part of the data stream and anticipated the internet of the 1990s by reimagining television as a chaotic, dialogical space in which the content becomes, in the artist's words, 'oneself in connection with someone else'."

Television performance

Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984)
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Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984)

Artist: Nam June Paik

Artwork description & Analysis: Like Kaprow's Hello, Nam June Paik's Good Morning, Mr. Orwell questioned the role of television in society. The work took the form of a live broadcast made on New Year's Day, 1984. For the 38-minute video, Paik coordinated a cast of actors, musicians, and artists and added his own graphics to produce a daring live compilation, which was viewed by 25 million people. The artists involved included Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Yves Montand, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Beuys, Philip Glass, and Oingo Boingo.

Paik's video piece was important because it used one of the largest stages in the world (television) to posit that digital technology could fundamentally change the way art was made, distributed, and viewed. Whereas Kaprow's Hello was a one-time performance on a relatively local scale, Paik's combination of pre-recorded and live audio-visual material could be broadcast internationally and included contributions from as far apart as New York and Paris.

The work is titled Good Morning, Mr Orwell because Paik wanted to contrast the 1984 of Orwell's famous dystopian novel with the reality of life at that time. While in the novel, television is a ubiquitous means for the totalitarian government to control the thoughts of its subjects, Paik hoped to argue that television could actually be used for artistic purposes. He said, "of course, [Orwell] was half right. Television is still a repressive medium. It controls you in many ways. You tend to adapt your schedule to it and also you get stereotyped images from it. But I want to show its potential for interaction, its possibilities as a medium for peace and global understanding."

Video - MoMA, New York

Programmed Machines (1992-97)
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Programmed Machines (1992-97)

Artist: Maurizio Bolognini

Artwork description & Analysis: In the early 1990s, Maurizio Bolognini began making site-specific installations with personal computers and monitors, programming them to send and receive a series of constantly evolving images. Very quickly, he began to cover the screen monitors with a layer of opaque silicon, so that the images being created and exchanged could no longer be seen by the viewer. However, the electronic sounds produced by the computers indicated the images were still being made. As digital art critic Domenico Quaranta explains, "the computers are usually shown on the floor, working; hiding the output, the artist makes us think about the process and the (not so) silent life of a computer, rather than the result."

This work was a key piece in the development of digital art because it encouraged viewers to think about the physicality of machines and to contrast that with the digital world they could create, and to question the line between digital and physical forms of reality. For Bolognini, the power of technology to create a sphere of reference allowed him, as an artist, more freedom for his imagination and conceptual creativity: "I talk about my installations of Programmed Machines as 'factories', where the work of the machines tends effectively to construct parallel universes which are non-material but real. It is as if the new technologies allowed the artist to overcome certain limits, almost to transcend, in some cases, the separation between reality and the imagination."

Computers, monitors, silicon, and wiring

Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1995)
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Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1995)

Artist: Nam June Paik

Artwork description & Analysis: Nam June Paik was a member of the Fluxus group and is often called the "father of video art". He often used contemporary technology to create installations examining the role of television, computers, or the internet in society. In this 1995 work, Paik revisited his idea of an "electronic superhighway," first posited in 1974. With it, he created the outline of the United States, in which television monitors showed footage indicating the culture and history of each state. In its original formulation, the monitors in New York State were linked to CCTV cameras, meaning that gallery visitors were presented with their own image among the other clips. As critic Anne d'Alleva argues, "this not only made [the viewers] part of the artwork, challenging their passive status as viewers, but also made them conscious of their role as part of culture, history and contemporary life."

In this installation, Paik demonstrated the constant evolution of both technology and digital art, something that was pivotal to the movement. It offered a hybrid vision of an America connected both by television and the new technological innovations. Although his early writings in the 1970s were primarily based on television, Paik was revolutionary in that he also eerily predicted the emergence of an internet-like network. This piece represents a physical foreshadowing of the all-consuming aspects, and potential, of what Paik was witnessing as a new model of connectivity. Sure enough, in 1995 the internet gained traction and began offering exactly this experience of global communication.

Importantly, this work was a sculptural installation, not something performed or seen only on-screen. Because of this, he was able to draw attention to the physical trappings of technology, which were essential to the piece's operation, even in the age of the internet.

49 channel closed circuit video installation, neon, steel and electronic component - Smithsonian American Art Museum

Super Mario Clouds (2002)
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Super Mario Clouds (2002)

Artist: Corey Arcangel

Artwork description & Analysis: For this video installation, artist Cory Arcangel hacked the blockbuster Nintendo video game Super Mario Brothers in order to tweak its programming code. Through this process, he removed all sound and visual elements save for the blue sky and its scrolling, puffy, white clouds. This method remarked upon the ideas of abstraction in that he removed all familiar elements of the game, yet left only a few defining visuals. The result was an oddly calming animation reflecting upon the video game generation's intimate relationship with the ever-present digital screen.

Although Arcangel was trained in classical music, his artistic career's instruments are those of video game consoles, computers, and software. Oftentimes, he will learn a new programming language specifically to develop a work. He is known as one of the most important digital artists of his generation because his work has consistently evolved alongside the rapid advances of technology. Although he has shown various pieces in the gallery setting, through multimedia installations, he is most known as a pioneer in internet art due to his use of it to both showcase his work online and as a marketing tool to reach his audience.

Handmade hacked Super Mario Brothers cartridge and Nintendo NES video game system

ABE AND MO SING THE BLOGS (2006)
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ABE AND MO SING THE BLOGS (2006)

Artist: Marisa Olson and Abe Linkoln

Artwork description & Analysis: ABE AND MO SING THE BLOGS is a collaborative work produced by Marisa Olson and artist Abe Linkoln. Olson was the first person to coin the phrase "post-internet art," which she used to refer to art she made inspired by surfing the internet. The term was quickly taken up by other artists who were producing art about the internet. This work is an important early example of using the internet as a medium to explore the nature of the online experience.

For the project, the two artists produced an album of songs of which lyrics are taken from a series of blogs they frequently read online. The songs were then presented as an online playlist, which linked to the original blogs that had served as their inspiration. The work compares the songs of Blues music with the modes of self-expression often evident in confessional blogs. It also points to the performative nature of blogging, where bloggers make a statement about their persona through the ongoing act of writing about their lives in a way that is both separate from and integral to their actual reality.

The piece is important in many ways. It shone a spotlight on the ways artists were beginning to utilize the internet as a treasure chest for viable content and inspirational fodder. It also highlighted the use of borrowed imagery and text from a globally connected community to traverse boundaries of geography, culture, and individual lives to craft commonalities of universal, human experience. It also initiated consideration toward the internet's role as a podium where anyone could have a presence, or put forth their voice. This is something that has become commonplace today as people continue to curate their social media pages or Instagram feeds, broadcasting visions of themselves to the public in ways that may or may not be genuine renditions of their offline lives.

Website and sound files

My Generation (2010)
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My Generation (2010)

Artist: Eva and Franco Mattes

Artwork description & Analysis: Eva and Franco Mattes are a brother and sister duo known for their 'hacktivist' style. Their work often explores the threshold between a person's digital and physical personae, questioning situations where sometimes-sinister consequences occur from the blurring of those lines.

My Generation occupies this dual space between the digital and physical. In the work, a broken computer lies on the floor while its upturned screen airs a video showing clips of children and young people responding violently to computer games. The children scream, break things, and deliberately harm themselves in response to their video game actions on screen. The artists found the clips on social media and video sharing sites such as YouTube. The work prompts the viewer (who, as a gallery-goer, is implicitly older than the children shown in the film) to question the effect of rapidly changing technology on a younger generation that has grown up with the digital as an inherent part of their lives.

The work, importantly, points toward a trend among digital artists for exploring and drawing attention to the more negative side of the digital age.

Computer, video - Private collection

Vicky Deep in Spring Valley (2012)
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Vicky Deep in Spring Valley (2012)

Artist: Petra Cortright

Artwork description & Analysis: Vicky Deep in Springs Valley, (2012) demonstrates Petra Cortright's notable mingling of various technologies and capabilities to create a work of art, positioning her in the progressive role of cutting-edge new media artist. For the video, Cortright lifted full-motion, dancing strippers from a piece of software called VirtuaGirl. She then layered them against images of fantastical, fairy tale digital worlds. This collision of online fantasy fodder results in a sort of animated, e-book delving into the world of illusion and possibility every man can commonly find online.

Cortright represents a perfect example of an artist who has taken advantage of not only the digital age but also the internet age to create her vast catalog of works. Raised in a world flush with onscreen activities, social media networks, intuitive graphic software, and an artist's compulsion to use her generation's technologies, she has been instrumental in making work that marries and expresses the full realm of digital art's potential. From digital painting, to starring in her own animated YouTube videos, to creating a trail of electronic projects on her internet site, she has maximized the genre to her advantage. Because viewers anywhere can access the work freely online, Cortright has taken the challenges of distribution out of the hands of a middleman and provided herself instant access to a worldwide audience.

Still shot from video

Autonomy Cube (2014)
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Autonomy Cube (2014)

Artist: Trevor Paglen and Jacob Applebaum

Artwork description & Analysis: This 2014 work was produced in collaboration between artist Trevor Paglen and technologist and activist Jacob Applebaum. It demonstrates an important facet of contemporary digital art, namely where technology is now so advanced that it is often impossible for artists to utilize it without help from tech specialists, meaning that artistic production is often intricately connected either to large tech companies or political activists, as in this case.

The work is a seemingly post-minimalist sculpture, taking inspiration from Hans Haacke's Condensation Cube (1963-65). The technology inside the cube is used to create a Wi-Fi hotspot, open to any users in the vicinity wherever it is installed. Unlike most Wi-Fi routers, Autonomy Cube uses the Tor network, which employs volunteer-run servers to create an encrypted internet network, which isn't accessible to governmental or commercial surveillance. The cube both utilizes and expands this network, helping users to remain anonymous online. As art critic Glen Helfand puts it, "In a physical form that echoes minimalist art, Paglen offers a sense of refuge, turning the gallery into a functionally politicised space - and one that is strangely hopeful in its form of spatially elegant resistance."

This piece is important for multiple reasons. It comes full circle from the origins of video art as a technically advanced but not yet fully adopted vehicle for expression to present day in which so many possibilities of digital machinery and its creative capabilities have been exhaustively explored that it begs a furthered role for its next incarnation. The piece suggests a new role for digital art, once in which artists and experts might work together to create work that furthers ideas about humanity, politics, and social issues not confined to the art world.

Plexiglas cube with two functional motherboards, W-lan server - SFMOMA



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Digital Art Image

Related Art and Artists

Reciting the Sound Poem "Karawane" (1916)
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Reciting the Sound Poem "Karawane" (1916)

Movement: Dada

Artist: Hugo Ball

Artwork description & Analysis: Ball designed this costume for his performance of the sound-poem, "Karawane," in which nonsensical syllables uttered in patterns created rhythm and emotion, but nothing resembling any known language. The resulting lack of sense was meant to reference the inability of European powers to solve their diplomatic problems through the use of rational discussion, thus leading to World War I - equating the political situation to the biblical episode of the Tower of Babel. Ball's strange costume is meant to further distance him from his audience and his everyday surroundings, making his speech even more foreign and exotic. Ball described his costume: "My legs were in a cylinder of shiny blue cardboard, which came up to my hips so that I looked like an obelisk. Over it I wore a huge coat cut out of cardboard, scarlet inside and gold outside. It was fastened at the neck in such a way that I could give the impression of wing-like movement by raising and lowering my elbows. I also wore a high, blue-and-white-striped witch doctor's hat."

Photograph - Kunsthaus Zürich (reproduction of original photograph)

Yard (1961)
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Yard (1961)

Artist: Allan Kaprow

Artwork description & Analysis: Kaprow created Yard for Hauser & Wirth's opening New York show, Environment - Situations - Spaces. In this seminal work he recreated a junkyard, in the then Martha Jackson Gallery's backyard, creating an immersive environment with which the audience interacted. This work contained a high element of play, but within the boundaries Kaprow had prefixed. The piece illustrates sculpture's expansion in scale and the increasingly blurred boundaries between a "life like" and an "art like" art. In Kaprow's determination, there was no distinction between the viewer and the artwork; the viewer became part of the piece.

Rubber auto tyres, backyard of a Manhattan town house - Photos and archives: Allan Kaprow Archives, the Getty Research Institute

Make a Salad (1962)
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Make a Salad (1962)

Movement: Fluxus

Artist: Alison Knowles

Artwork description & Analysis: In Make a Salad the participants are instructed to make a salad. The act of creation as the focus of the work, and the repetitive, nearly meditative actions of the participants, mark this piece as distinctly drawing from the more Zen-influenced aspects of Fluxus practice. The piece has a vital auditory component: the noise made by the chopping of vegetables and the rustling of lettuce leaves is to be considered as musical and beautiful as if one was listening to actual instruments performing a symphony, a notion coming directly from composer John Cage.

Vegetables, knives, bowls

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised by Kimberly Nichols

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised by Kimberly Nichols
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