Financial-Times-Magazine-Spread

The Show Must Go Online

From Financial Times “How to spend it”

There’s a brave new iGeneration collecting digital art and the rise of online works of art shaking things up. Should conventional collectors be concerned? Watch this Cyberspace, says Emma Crichton-Miller.

On September 7 last year, an email dropped into my inbox, “Please find attached an iPad image created specially for you by David Hockney.”

This was a piece of forward publicity for the show David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture which opened at the Royal Academy in January and ran until April 9th, and which featured works of art created by Hockney on his iPad. It was had not to be excited. The only difficulty was that I did not have an iPad.

I forwarded the email to a friend and we were soon admiring a delightful speed sketch of lorries pounding up the motorway beneath a swirl of sky, with overhead motorway signs signaling “The North”. Partly what was appealing of this image was the spontaneity, conveying the excitement of one of the many daily epiphanies Hockney turns into art. But there was, too, a thrill about the medium itself which was intimate and immediate but also, paradoxically, intangible and ultimately elusive. There was no barrier at all between us and this artwork–there was nothing that we were barred from experiencing–and yet there was nothing, beyond the image, that we could hold, smell, pour coffee over, even in a tight corner, sell.

A printed out hard copy would not be the work of art – it would be just a print of it. The original sits forever pristine in cyberspace, so long as the software and hardware to access it remains current. Being thus pristine, it also has none of what the great German philosopher Walter Benjamin called in his famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), “aura”, or the authenticity that comes from “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”, which is the very foundation of the art market. Could you collect this kind of art, we wondered? How would you acquire it or display it? What would it mean to collect it and why would you do it? As Hockney has said in conversation with the critic Martin Gayford, “It’s not just the drawing on it; it’s the way you distribute it. That’s new –very very new. That will cause a lot of disturbance.”

Virtual art, or net art as it has sometimes been called, is not in fact so new. Since the dawn of the Internet, in the 1980s, there have been artists exploiting the laws of this parallel universe to create events, images, subversive transformations of bites of information or threads of complex communication. Part of the attraction has been the possibility of reaching a global audience; another has been the ambition to create art with tools at the very cutting edge of human technology. Some practitioners are political provocateurs, out to undermine the global institutions, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and so on–who make fortunes on our addiction to the Internet. A further significant motivation has been the determination to make art outside the conventional art establishment with its wealth-creating hierarchies of commercial galleries, auction houses, private collectors and public museums. If you have no unique or limited edition object to sell, you have absolute creative freedom–your reputation is measure in hits and critical response, not in the prices your works fetch at auction.

Recently, however, as Hockney has predicted, the potential of the medium has begun to cause disturbance beyond the confines of the committed avant-garde. In November, Harry Blain, who founded Haunch of Venison, and is a director of international commerical gallery Blain Southern, representing leading artists such as Bill Viola, Mat Collishaw, Rachel Howard and Tim Noble and Sue Webster, launched a new venture. In partnership with the former CEO of Saatchi Online, Robert Norton, Blain announced S[Edition], a digital platform or virtual club for a new kind of collector, who for a minimal outlay — from 5 GPB – 500 GBP–can buy limited-edition artworks by some of the best known names, for enjoyment solely on smart phones, iPads, computers and television screens. The intention is to open up collecting to a much wider audience, by lowering the threshold of cost. The artists involved are mostly extremely high-profile — Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Bill Viola, Wim Wenders, Michael Craig-Martin, Isaac Julien, Lawrence Wiener, and Jenny Holzer, among others–and the editions are very big: from 2,000 to 10,000. Once you join you download the image you have bought to a virtual private art vault, from where the software enables you to enjoy each work at peak visual quality whether the viewing format is on your iPhone or a huge plasma screen.

Rather than buying and displaying this virtual art only in the virtual realm–on Second Life for instance–you can bring this art fully into the physical world via Apple and Microsoft. As Norton explained to me, “Everything you can do with art in the physical world, you can do here: collect it, display it.” Instead of needing to lure people into your drawing room to see your etchings, you can invite them to see your entire collection on your iPhone.

What has made the venture possible is the enormous growth of mobile technologies and the advances in high definition screen resolution. I was determined to be skeptical –any of us can build a world class collection of jpegs or buy Apple’s Art Collector app–until I saw the quality of Mat Collishaw’s Buring Flowers. The work, a video piece of a flower apparently burning in vidid blues, purples and yellows, is mesmerizing.  I have seen iphones propped on frames in drawing rooms entertaining visitors with a slideshow of family photos. Far more of a talking point would be Michael Craig-Martin’s witty Surfacing or Tracey Emin’s charming This is my favorite little bird.

Despite its catchy name, its hardly a subversive enterprise, dependent as it is on its artists whose careers are well established in the real world and many of whom are represented by Harry Blain through his gallery. As Blain says, “The artists are excited about this–about how it supports in the physcial world, the language they create.” The project demonstrates one method by which this new domain for art can be mediated by the conventional art market. It represents the surfacing into the mainstream of creative and commercial possibilities and curatorial and conservation challenges which have been preoccupying museums, galleries and forward-thinking private collectors for many years. Just as video and mixed media have become a natural recourse for contemporary artists, so too has computer code and the domain of the web. Geoff Cox, associate curator of online projects at the Arnolfini in Bristol reports, “This has been an active, vocal, inventive part of the British art scene since the 1990s, though it tends to be overlooked in the contemporary art world.” He points to Eva and Franco Mattes, Christophe Bruno, Alexei Shulgin and Ubermorgen.com as artists who work with this media art tradition and also work with contemporary art markets.

Dr. Beryl Graham, a professor new media at the Faculty of Arts, Design, and Media University of Sunderland, and co-editor of Crumb, a British website dedicated to new media comments, “Perhaps surprisingly there is a market for this work. Some of these artists have found their work bought by museums and private collectors, although there are certainly net artists who take a very ironic view of this.” She praises Jon Thompson and Alison Craighead whose facinating piece The Distance Travelled Through our Solar System This Year and all the Barrels of Oil Remaining.

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design is another pioneer whose 2007 show MySpace at Riflemaker in London reconstructing 150 ipods to form several new digital artworks.

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