Since the invention of photography nothing has had a greater impact on artistic practices than the emergence of digital technology.
The contemporary art world has seen a recent explosion in the use of digital media over the last
decade. Due in part to technology improvements and dramatically declining costs, digital technology
has arrived as a component of everyday life and contemporary art on a global scale. The proliferation
of computers in the 1980s brought with it a burgeoning of digital art which includes computer
graphics, animation, digitised images, cybernetic sculptures, laser shows, kinetic and
telecommunications events and even sound art.
Low-cost digital video and editing equipment, as well as computer animation programs have enabled
an increasing number of artists to produce highly refined moving images. Rapid prototyping has
allowed sculptors to harness the computer's ability to model three-dimensional forms. The Internet
meanwhile, has opened up an entirely new arena for artistic endeavour -- the creation of interactive
works accessible to anyone with a computer and modem. One amazing aspect of Web-based digital art
is that space and time are not separated by geographical distance. Artists across the globe can be
linked simultaneously to give online performances, and viewers in any city of the world have access to
art originating from thousands of kilometres away.
Digital art has its roots not in the academies of art, but in military defense systems when the Cold War
energised rapid advances in the technology in the 1950s and 60s. The first computer, the ENIAC
(Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was introduced in 1946. Research centres, often
supported by governments, fostered intense experimental investigations in computer technology, some
of which involved music and art. The first digital artists were in fact scientists! The Ars Electronica
Festival in Linz, Austria, which was founded in 1979, recognises the important link between science
and digital art and encourages an open interaction between artists and scientists. Ars Electronica has
developed into the world's most renowned forum for art, technology and social questions. The theme
for this year's festival, which will take place 1-6 September, is 'Takeover -- Who is Doing the Art of
An important component of art in the digital age is interactivity. Artists interact with machines to
create further interaction with viewers who either summon up the art on their own machines or
manipulate it through pre-programmed routines, which can vary according to the commands or
movements of the viewer. Interactive art is a new form of experiencing art which extends beyond the
tactile. Viewers are essential active participants. No longer mere viewers, they are now users. The
exhibition Y E S YOKO ONO, at the Walker Art Center, (10 March - 17 June 2001) was
accompanied by an online event based on a score by Ono. Over one hundred days, responses were
captured via telephone and compiled into an online timeline of contributed sounds. These scores invite
the individual interpretation and participation of the viewer, as part of an intentionally open-ended
Virtual reality has made possible the creation of simulated environments of remarkable veracity and
programs like Photoshop have made digitally altered photographs the norm, rather than the exception.
The real is therefore made illusory.
Lawrence Rinder, the Whitney Museum of American Art's Curator of Contemporary Art, writes in
his essay Art in the Digital Age (BitStreams): "Digital technology has become the ultimate tool for
capturing the nuances of the unreal. Artists have taken advantage of their unprecedented control over
sensation and information to produce works that challenge our everyday perceptions of color, form,
sound, space and time Digital technologies are contributing to the sense that the boundaries between
the organic and inorganic, the known and unknown, the real and unreal, are being blurred beyond
Today's artists may be employing new technologies to reflect contemporary issues, but the purpose is
the same as it has always been: to engage and, at the same time, transcend the social context in which
they live. Quite simply, artists working with digital media are just utilising another medium for
expression while observing our contemporary context and the ramifications that the increasing
digitisation of day-to-day life has on our society.
Rinder of the Whitney notes: "Artists can now create seamless chimeras that resonate with
contemporary anxieties about the instability of perception and even life itself in this age of virtual
reality and genetic engineering. BitStreams (Whitney Museum of American Art, 22 March - 10 June
2001) explored the Digital Age not as something external to us, residing solely in technological objects
or in a kind of 'techno' style, but rather as a constellation of physical, emotional and cognitive
phenomena which have transformed aspects of human experience."
Eduardo Kac is an artist and writer who in the 1990s created Biotelematics (art in which a biological
process is intrinsically connected to digital networks). As an artist, Kac has always employed
innovative technology as a means of philosophical inquiry and social intervention. "I am interested in
technology, not because of its visual effects, but because of its social implications. Technological
innovations only interest me in as much as they create new relationships or destabilise previously
existing ones. In other words, when they stimulate enquiry, criticism, and imagination. I find that
working with technology I can intervene in larger social contexts directly. Reflective of the current
conflation of biology and information technologies, my work, Genesis, is a transgenic artwork
exploring the intricate relationship between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical
interaction, ethics, and the Internet."
Through their common use of digital software, photography, film, video, installation, sculpture, and
sound, have developed closer connections, inspiring fascinating crossovers among the media.
According to the Whitney's Rinder: "Previously distinct media such as photography, video, and film
are merging as artists from diverse disciplines turn to digital media to extend the boundaries of their
work. This is a watershed moment in the entire field of contemporary art, one which will bring new,
previously unimagined forms of artistic expression as well as new possibilities for more established
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) media arts curatorial associate, Kathleen Forde's
opinion is: "The most groundbreaking effect that digital technology has had on art practice is the
hybridisation that has occurred in art forms. There is now a common ground -- that of digitisation --
shared between and among art forms which blurs the line of what traditional media once was. Music,
sound, painting, sculpture, design, architecture, live arts, online work, time-based media, are conflating,
merging into one blurry landscape of a media that cannot be defined in simple terms."
With the Internet, museums are no longer contained within its wall, no longer limited to just a physical
presence. "There's no limitation of space," agrees Linda Straus, director of information services at the
Whitney. "Art could constantly shift and transmute. It could go on to infinite forms."
SFMOMA's exhibition, 010101: Art in Technological Times, (3 March - 8 July 2001) took place on
the Internet and in the galleries, inhabiting both virtual and real architectures. It used a range of video
practices, sculptures, design projects, computer-driven installations, drawings and paintings, and new
art works commissioned for both the gallery and the Internet. The Internet site offers dialogue, public
programmes, background information on the show, and access to the online artworks themselves.
Despite the excitement, digital artists are finding their work a tough sell. A meticulously boxed CD
containing digital art with a signed certificate is unlikely to be as satisfying as a painting which can be
seen without having to boot up. But many compare today's market for digital art to the market for
video in the early 70s, when renowned video artists like Bill Viola and Gary Hill could barely give
their work away, so there is hope.
There are many challenges to displaying and contextualising digital art. Benjamin Weil, the media arts
curator at SFMOMA explains: "Art that is no longer defined by its physical qualities, that requires
equipment to be experienced and that is mediated by technology, has very different needs in terms of
conservation, collection, and display."
Weil's coworker, Forde, concurs: "The bottom line is that we have to be open to completely
rethinking how we contextualise this work, how to ensure we don't try to straight-jacket the work into
pre-existing definitions of art. Sometimes it doesn't even make sense to show art within the context of
a physical space."
Many digital artworks are fundamentally about the viewer's experience and the metamorphosis of a
site via viewer interaction. Since the object is the experience, how can a museum collect that
experience, define it, preserve it? And even more importantly, does it even make sense to do this with
a media that is so variable, or unstable? These are questions which have to be addressed. Since the
rules have not yet been written for this genre, it is a challenge to work out the next step. As Weil
quips: "Everyone is in this together -- artists, institutions, collectors, educators, like a bunch of mad
scientists trying to figure out a formula that works."
With rapid advancements in technology, it is impossible to predict what the future holds for digital art.
Consider that the World Wide Web was only invented in 1989. If you think about it, the sky's the
Patricia TANUMIHARDJA is pursuing a Masters degree in arts administration at Boston University.
Back to Kac Web