"Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality. Technology has become the body's new membrane of existence."
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Nam June Paik Signature
"Our life is half natural and half technical. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life."
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Nam June Paik Signature
"I like the type of culture the internet allows to happen. And, of course, for some bizarre reason, that is cats!"
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Cory Arcangel
"Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences."
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Roy Ascott
"Renaissance artists were exploring the same thing. The renaissance was a meeting of science and art. Perspective would have seemed like computer CGI graphics now."
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Bill Viola Signature

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

Photo of <i>Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii</i> (1995) by Nam June Paik

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."

Key Artists

  • Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
  • Allan Kaprow was an American painter, collagist, assemblagist and performance artist. Kaprow was best known for trailblazing the artistic concept "happenings," which were experiential artistic events rather than single works of art.
  • Nam June Paik worked with a variety of media and is considered to be the first video artist. Paik is credited with coining the term "information superhighway" and was known for making robots out of television sets.

Do Not Miss

  • Video art is a medium that employs moving images of various types, but often contains no narrative, characters or discernible storyline. Not to be confused with, for example, the experimental film or cinema, Video art first developed in the 1960s further avant-garde movements such as Performance, Intallation, and Feminist art.
  • Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
  • Postmodernism is a broad period of artmaking that occured after the period known as modernism - a period that was driven by a radical and forward thinking approach, ideas of technological positivity, and grand narratives of Western domination and progress. Neo-Dada and later Pop artists are considered the first postmodern movements.
  • Feminist art emerged in the 1960s and '70s to explore questions of sex, power, the body, and the ways in which gender categories structure how we see and understand the world. Developing at the same time as many new media strategies, feminist art frequently involves text, installation, and performance elements.

Important Art and Artists of Digital Art

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

Artist: Frieder Nake

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.

Young Nude (1966)

Artist: Kenneth C. Knowlton and Leon Harmon

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.

Hello (1969)

Artist: Allan Kaprow

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'."

Useful Resources on Digital Art

video clips
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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Digital Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 03 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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