Summary of Digital Art
Not since the advent of the camera has something come along to change the very fabric of art making's possibilities on such a grand scale as digital art. In its most distilled essence, digital art encapsulates an artistic work or practice that uses any form of digital technology as part of its creation or presentation process. As the digital age (also known as the information age) marked its march into the world between 1950 and 1970, it was only a matter of time before artists would grasp its progressive technologies for their own creative output. As with all new mediums, artists began to wield these brave new innovations of society, including television, the introduction of the personal computer, the accessibility of audio and visual software, and eventually the internet, into works of their own, with minds ever eager for the expansive opportunities to utilize contemporary means to evolve their voices anew. Although digital art is not recognized as a distinct movement in and of itself, as technology continues its jackrabbit fast bloom into contemporary society, we will no doubt continue to see it unfold into a myriad, ever-changing landscape, solidifying itself as a credible alternative to traditional means of art making for a post-millennial society.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- At its inception, digital art marked a relationship between artists and engineers/scientists, which explored the connections between art and technology. As artists began to explore these technologies, they were not merely using the new medium but were oftentimes also asking viewers to reflect upon the impact of the information age on society overall.
- Digital art greatly expanded the artist's toolbox from the traditional raw materials into the progressive new realm of electronic technologies. Instead of brush and acrylic, artists could now paint with light, sound, and pixels. Instead of paper, artists could collage with found digital imagery or computer-generated graphics. Instead of physical, two-dimensional canvas, artists could concoct three-dimensional graphic works for projection on screen or via multimedia projection.
- Digital art revolutionized the way art could be made, distributed, and viewed. Although some digital art leans heavily on the traditional gallery or museum venue for viewing, especially in the case of installations that require machinery and complex components, much of it can be easily transported and seen via the television, computer screen, social media, or internet. This has empowered artists to create their own careers without the necessity of representation, utilizing contemporary tools like crowdsourcing to fund their work, and the potential to go viral to spread their art into the mainstream consciousness.
Overview of Digital Art
Saying, "Technology has become the body's new membrane of existence," Nam June Paik pioneered digital art. His art conveyed, he said, "Our life is half natural and half technological," but "The future is now."
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Progression of Art
Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr.2
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
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.
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'."
Good Morning, Mr. Orwell
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 - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
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
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
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
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
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
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
This 2014 work was produced in collaboration between artist Trevor Paglen and technologist and activist Jacob Appelbaum. 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
Beginnings of Digital Art
Art and Technology
In 1967, a collective was formed, originated by engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer, and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. This group was coined EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) and its mission was to promote collaboration between art and the burgeoning world of technology. The result was a series of installations and performances incorporating innovative electronic systems, including electrical circuitry, video projection, wireless sound projection, and Doppler sonar. Although many of these works were not strictly "digital" due to the relative primitiveness of the technology involved, they laid the groundwork for a type of art, which embraced and explored, rather than rejected or ignored, technological progress.
The EAT experiments represented a groundbreaking marriage between artists and technology that had never been seen before. They ushered the canons of Conceptual art, Performance art, experimental noise music, and theater from the eras of Dada, Fluxus, and the "happenings" of the 1960s into the revolutionary digital age.
The first piece of digital art that became widely known was created in the 1960s in the scientific research company Bell Labs where EAT founder Billy Klüver was employed. It was here that computer graphics specialist Kenneth C. Knowlton, in his work Young Nude (1966), transformed a photograph of a young nude woman into an image made up of computer pixels, bringing the historical artist's muse (the naked female body) into the 21st-century art lexicon.
Following the example of EAT, other conceptual artists began to utilize the artistic possibilities of new technologies. For example, in 1969 Allan Kaprow created Hello, an artistic "happening" where a group of people interacted via television monitors. In the 1970s, a number of artists began to explore the consequences of the connectivity afforded by television, recording equipment, and nascent computers.
Video art pioneer Nam June Paik coined the term "electronic superhighway" in his 1974 text Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society: The 21st Century is now only 26 years away. He used it to talk about television and its ability to bring people from disparate geographical regions and social backgrounds together through shared experience.
This idea of universal communicability would later be compounded by the introduction of mobile phones and the internet. The 1970s spawned an evolution of technologies such as the Apple II computer, which allowed color graphics to be rendered for the first time on the screen of a personal computer. In 1979, the development of the modem allowed digital signals to be transmitted through telephone lines, paving the way for widespread data transfer, and ultimately, usage of the internet.
Computer animation began to be developed at a significant rate in the 1980s, and the resulting imagery (often based around bright colors and formulations of square pixels) would have a significant impact on the aesthetics of the era, as well as on artists' production of work using this kind of software. As graphics improved, Adobe spearheaded the inception of design software, making programs like Photoshop and Illustrator available to everyone. In addition graphic design tools such as the Quantel Paintbox were introduced. Artists were quick to explore these new frontiers.
By 1984, when Nam June Paik broadcast his satellite-transmitted installation Good Morning, Mr. Orwell on live television, it was clear that his 'electronic superhighway' had indeed become a viable tool to further digital art's mass accessibility.
The Beginnings of the Internet
With the widespread emergence of the internet in the 1990s, digital art became more accessible for both artists and viewers. Artists started to explore ways in which the internet could be used as a medium and a messenger, utilizing its interactive nature and its ability to combine words, images and, eventually, video and audio files. Key examples include Olia Lialina's My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), where viewers clicked through a series of hyperlinks to reveal an emotional and engaging narrative.
For some critics, the rise of the internet gave birth to a new artistic movement that can be considered separate from digital art: internet art or net.art, as it was called by some of its proponents. However, it can also be considered to be part of the digital art movement, which was growing wider in its scope as the invention and development of new technologies continued to blossom.
In many examples, such as the collective group Nasty Nets, the internet allowed individual artists from different countries and social classes to interact, collaborate, and exchange ideas in ways which were formerly impossible. Where artistic movements of the past were often born out of geographical proximity and social interaction, artists of the 1990s could start movements that crossed continents.
Exploring the Net
As the internet grew in significance and became firmly entrenched in almost every aspect of society, relationships, and commerce, artists began to use it to further their own creative aims. They began to use it as an artistic medium, as was seen in Justin Kemp's Pseudo Event, (2008), in which a visitor would scroll horizontally to view a collage of photos taken at ribbon cutting events. Some artists worked online to delve into the sense of detachment from reality produced by internet use and the proliferation of personas being spawned by the world of social media. Early works by artists such as Marisa Olson (who coined the term "post-internet," a later development from digital art) pointed to the performative nature of creating identity online. Work by Olson and other artists such as Gene McHugh and Petra Cortright used blogs and video-sharing websites such as YouTube as media for their art; platforms that are both inherently internet-based and have become increasingly integral to everyday life.
Digital Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The very broad definition of Digital art is one that includes art where the final product is digital, the creation of product involves technological means, or the subject of the art is digital. Within that very broad world, here are the main sub-categories:
Art on the Screen
Many digital artworks are produced in a format that can only be viewed on a screen, resulting in artworks, which cannot exist without the technology that supports it. In these cases, the mode of communication is important. For example, Nam June Paik's Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984) was a deliberate statement on the nature of television and televisual communication. On the other hand, a piece that uses YouTube or an internet browser is often commenting on our communal experience of the internet, and utilizes the interactive nature of the web. Petra Cortright is known for her early use of animated graphics that play on top of her live YouTube videos in which she stars, blending the real and the make believe. Another example is Ryan Trecartin, whose campy A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) takes his prototypical gallery video installation onto the web for anyone to see.
In some cases, digital art takes a physical form and can be presented in a sculptural way. This includes work such as Nam June Paik's collections of televisions in Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1994). In this example, the video clips being shown on the screens are categorized according to the physical structure of the work (with a television for almost every US state). The sheer scale of the physical object prompts the viewer to consider the ways in which technology is a powerful, but often unseen, presence in our everyday lives. Many digital sculptures contrast the physical aspect of technology with its less tangible digital capabilities. For example, Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum's Autonomy Cube (2014) functions both as a beautiful sculptural object and as an open-access Wi-Fi hotspot, while Maurizio Bolognini's Programmed Machines (1992-7) have their screens hidden, forcing the viewer to focus on both the physicality of the machines themselves and on their programs, which run unseen.
Interactive Digital Installations
Interactivity has always been a key element of digital art. As Bruce Wands, author of Art of the Digital Age (2006), points out: "The creative possibilities of interactivity and the development of immersive environments were both given a large boost by the arrival of computers in installation art, which allowed artists increased control over the interactive experience and access to cyberspace and virtual worlds." The result is a number of artworks where interactivity is the primary aim, and where the artist has created a fully immersive experience. For example, in 2012 the artist collective Random International produced Rain Room, an experiential installation where water fell from the ceiling of the room. Visitors were followed by 3D trackers, programmed to stop the fall of rain wherever a visitor was standing. They could experience a rainstorm without getting wet - an experience of manipulating natural phenomena that would have otherwise been impossible without the assistance of digital technology. The piece prompted viewers to consider the relationship between man, nature, and machine.
Computer Generated Imagery
When computers emerged, many artists started using their unique technology and underlying programming systems to inform artwork. For example, Frieder Nake's Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr.2 (1965) was one of the first artworks to be produced using a computer algorithm. The result looks like an ordinary drawing, but there was a significant technological step between the artist's input and the final image. Fifty years later, as computer graphic software hit the mainstream market, artists began to co-opt these programs, borrowing them from the advertising and graphic design industries, and using them to make their own work. Petra Cortright uses software to produce images, which can then be printed as "digital paintings" onto two-dimensional surfaces. Although they resemble paintings, she cleverly lends them titles that recall hastily named computer files, such as 15_independentBUICKS.$$$ (2015), blurring the line between the physical and digital realms as well as the line between online and offline creativity. Jeremy Blake's digital collages mixed photography and computer-generated graphics meant to look like brushstrokes, light, and other shapes and were shown via cutting-edge DVD installations or more traditional 2D C-prints. Instead of creating his own imagery, Cory Archangel famously hacked a Mario Brothers video game, co-opting its cloud graphics to create his own on screen visual.
Internet as Medium
With the tools of digital art available to the populous, and a personal computer in almost every home, artists who utilized the internet for their work forged a game-changing new environment within the art world. This fresh mass medium allowed their work to be seen outside the traditional gallery setting and provided a wider cultural reach with more opportunity for exposure in an extremely economical fashion.
Whereas some artists used the internet as a marketing tool for uploaded projects on personal websites, some artists utilized existing internet frameworks in themselves as a medium for their output. One example is Beijing-artist Cao Fei, who created an entire universe on the virtual reality platform Second Life as a work of art. Her RMB City, 2008, acted as an open, public space and platform for experiential creative studies where filmmakers, artists, designers and other creatives collaborated to build an ever-changing world that pushed the boundaries between virtual and physical existence.
With the advent of interactive technologies that allowed for social media exchange and the sharing of user-generated content, the contemporary web presents multiple forms of artistic experimentation. Examples of this include personal webpages operating as installations, Tumblr pages existing to aggregate curated imagery, and collaborative blogs based on underlying themes.
Later Developments - After Digital Art
As technology has become more entrenched in everyday existence, the novelty of the "digital" in art has worn off. Today, it is par for the course to see much conceptual, video, internet, social media, and multimedia art utilizing digital tools and media without specific alignment with the digital art movement. Works in this realm are often now considered under the wider umbrella term "new media art."
Technology continues to advance at warp speed, compelled by the imagination of contemporary man. For example, although many artists throughout time have made art inspired by the cosmos, some artists today are currently exploring space and other dimensions through the use of high tech, digital astronomical software. We will no doubt continue to witness an explosion in new media art as this journey continues to reveal potentials untapped.