Taking shape out of 1970s’ computer-generated visual art, “digital art” developed as a reaction to the technology advancement and the spread of the World Wide Web in the mid-90s. It has since become an established practice, often than not included under the umbrella term of New Media art.
Defining an art that is constantly evolving is a complex process. However, trying to exemplify it by presenting the reader with various manifestations of digital art may be helpful. Christiane Paul’s Digital Art (World of Art) is a successful attempt at surveying the multiple forms this artistic practice can assume. Paul investigates the boundary-crossing activities that played a major role in the production of digital art.
Dating back to the birth of the first ENIAC (Electronical Numerical Operator and Computer) in 1951, the line between engineering innovators and artists was yet to be defined.
Who are we to assume that, in fact, scientific discoveries are not driven by artistic minds, eager to explore their practice just as much as so-called artists do? Not to mention the algorithms that form the basis for all the software we use today. Those may as well have been developed firstly for artistic purposes.
For example, take a second to look at the Terravision project started out by Art+Com Studios in 1994. It is a “networked virtual representation of the earth based on satellite images, aerial shots, altitude data, and architectural data. It allows users to navigate seamlessly from overviews of the earth to extremely detailed objects and buildings.”¹ (Art+Com)
“In simpler words, engineering is to art just like a pen is to a book. Had civil engineers and architects not been there, some of the greatest buildings in the world would not have been built. In a similar manner, if audio engineers had not mixed some of the greatest music albums of all time, those albums would not have sound so great.”² (Nermin Sa’d)
On this matter, digital art draws its inspiration from conceptual elements. Instructions, or algorithms, are seen as the foundation — and the limit themselves — to the creation of new artworks.
“A procedure of formal instructions would accomplish a result in a finite number of steps. […] Their fusion with audience participation and event as the smallest unit of a situation in many ways anticipated the interactive, event-based nature of some computer artworks.”³ (Christiane Paul)
John Cage was one of the earliest masters of revolutionising random access, often using the audience response as a “musical instrument”. Many of his sound and visual works were created partially though randomisation of elements in the composition — which were never twice the same.
The role of arts organisations associated with digital art was also fundamental to the expansion of the practice. Most of those, such as EAT (Experiments in Arts and Technology), besides organising colloquiums and gatherings for both engineers and artists, also developed an interest in promoting live performances. The focus of interactive projects in the 1970s and 80s ranged from making use of slow scan television and satellites to setting up real-time teleconferencing — collapsing the geographical boundaries of real space.
Making the audience participant in the work has been a constant motif in the forming of many digital artworks. While some artists were involved into creating more object-oriented works, others explored the interactive aspects of process-oriented art. The artist became a mediator between the public and the digital medium.
Because of its characteristics, however, digital art poses quite a few challenges in its presentation, storing, and preservation. This has contributed to creating a gap between media artists and gallery institutions. Most museums don’t have the tools to maintain time-based and interactive digital artworks. Additionally, especially when we talk about Internet Art, this is presented on a freely available medium which anyone can have access to. The status of the museum as the only space where to experience the artwork is therefore lost.
Neverthless, the interest for new, more participatory, forms of art from museums worldwide is increasing. Galleries like Tate, MoMA, and SAAM, to name a few, are currently displaying and storing digital artworks on their own websites.
“What makes digital art unstable are the rapid changes and developments in hardware and software.”⁴ Initiatives aimed at preserving digital art are currently under development. In the meantime we can only hope for institutions to fight these limitations and for artist to keep developing their practice as technology advances.
1: ART+COM Studios (1994). Terravision, 1994. [online] Available at https://artcom.de/project/terravision/
2: Nermin S. (2014). The Eternal Relationship between Art and Engineering. [online] Available at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141207232402-65458978-the-eternal-relationship-between-art-and-engineering/
3–4: Paul C. (2015). Digital Arts (World of Art). [paperback] Available at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/131831.Digital_Art
Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.