Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: Slow Motion Technicolor

The latest advances in computer technology have so far had remarkably little impact on the visual art market, especially compared to their impacts on rest of the arts and the economy as a whole. The widespread growth in digital reproduction onto paper, canvas, and other substrates may be "one of the highest mark-up specialties in commercial digital printing," but the far more cutting-edge high-tech applications of new media artists have yet to gain much of a commercial or popular foot-hold.[1] The slow pace of commercial diffusion stands in sharp contrast to the warp speed of innovation that marks the work of new media artists. The new media pioneers are light-years ahead of the museum-going public, as great a gap as there has ever been between an artistic avant garde and popular appreciation.

The 2004-2005 "Scratch Code" exhibition at Bitforms Gallery [PLATE 73], which may be New York's only commercial gallery dedicated solely to digital art, traces a five-decade lineage of remarkable but relatively little-known computer-based art.[2] There are now art blogs and art mobs, innumerable internet-art experiments and websites (such as Ars Electronica at, E-flux at, Rhizome at, or Turbulence at, as well as the occasional museum reviews (such as "Bitstreams" at the Whitney Museum and "010101" at SFMoMA in 2001, or "Gallery 9" at the Walker Art Center since 1997), and dedicated alternative spaces (such as New York City's Franklin Furnace and Eyebeam, also on the web at and[3] Contemporary art lovers who have not kept up with the high-tech cognoscenti, however, may still be shaking off the long-lasting hangover of 1970s-based paintbrush software, and its countless déclassé creations of digital expressionism, as well as the more recent and painful memories of anything remotely resembling a[4] For the moment at least, traditional media and modes of commerce continue to dominate the visual art market.

From the most ephemeral web art to the most massively corporeal computer-generated sculpture, to the highest-end plasma-screen image distribution systems, the infinitely reproducible work of new media artists and art-related digital technologists test traditional art market structures for showing and selling fine art.[5] Dealers engage in a variety of contortions to restrain the inherently limitless replicability of digital art. Galleries are trying limited "electronic editions" of digitally-based art by hot acts such as "Assume Vivid Astro Focus" (Rio-born, New York-based artist Eli Sudbrack) [PLATE 74]. This commercial construct attempts to maintain exclusivity and high prices, even if the certificate of authenticity refers to a CD-ROM-based Adobe Illustrator file capable of reproducing hip wallpaper in unlimited quantities.[6] New media art has many paradigm-shifting potentials—including: simultaneous global access, interactivity, virtuality, artificial-intelligence, animation, morphing, gaming, hypertexting, linking, networking, browsing, etc.—but its most immediate threat to the status quo is infinite reproducibility.

To gauge the comparatively minor impact such new technologies have had to date on the visual arts market, consider the shockwaves that Napster has had on the music industry: billion-dollar losses put a multinational industry into a tailspin. The profound impact of digital technology on the production and distribution of motion pictures is also common knowledge, from Pixar to DVDs to avatars replacing actors. Publishing has been similarly transformed, from e-books to to Google's plan to scan tens of millions of books for online searching. The universe for full-text reproduction includes literary works that are older than the 70-year U.S. copyright protections, yet more information has been produced in the last 30 years than in all of the five-thousand previous years of human civilization. No wonder these profound technologically induced transformations of the information age are so widely compared with Gutenberg's invention six-hundred years ago. Who, in contrast, has heard of the far-reaching application of "rapid-prototyping" technology to visual art that enables computer-generated physical production of any three-dimensional sculpture, pioneered by new-media sculptors such as Michael Rees [PLATE 75]? [7] For that matter, who has heard of—or can even pronounce—"giclée"?

For the visual arts, these technological advances have yet to congeal in an obvious trend, and have led digerati to ask (though with plenty of historically grounded irony): "why have there been no great net artists?"[8] Applications are too premature to herald a new Renaissance, despite hints of something big brewing. Inherent characteristics of visual arts contribute to their slower internalization of these technological forces. At the most basic level, visual arts are more "high touch," as the Japanese say, than the other arts.[9] The instinct that prompts every museum to post "DO NOT TOUCH" runs deep [PLATE 76]. Humans have a visceral need to see and feel in-person the hand-made granularity of actual works of visual art. A printed book is in many ways more convenient and satisfying to read than an e-book. A live performance has many more layers of artistic reward than a recording or film. But the essential physicality of visual art cannot be as easily reduced to purely digital output as can words, music, and movement.

There are also numerous technical impediments slowing the potential wider impacts of a visual art and high-technology merger, as well as many historical and cultural biases against such blending. The mostly temporary technological glitches range from the difficulty of downloading large high-resolution files, to the finicky calibrations of high-quality output devices, to the complexity of specifying user-friendly search protocols for image characteristics. Cultural resistance is far more lasting. David Hockney's suggestion that old masters may have used (now primitive) technological means as part of their creative process has caused a such ruckus that cries of blasphemy and sacrilege would seem minor in comparison, with the most sophisticated scientific evidence being marshaled to disprove the very idea [PLATE 77].[10] New media artists, in contrast, have left the general public so far behind, that their latest innovations are too obscure and far removed from what is commonly thought of as "art" to generate such publicity or controversy.

These obstacles, however, do little to stop artists and assorted art owners, dealers, and licensees from trying to peddle art online. Ebay lists as many as 600,000 post-1950 paintings annually.[11], which lists nearly 100,000 works of contemporary art at any one time, claims to be "the largest and most visited collection of contemporary art on the internet."[12] This is essentially the online equivalent of a massive art vanity press. The site makes its income from artist membership fees and other advertisements. Despite the similarity of its name to the Absolut Vodka brand [PLATE 78], verbally associating the site with the latter's celebrity artist advertising, there appears to be no such official relationship. And despite claiming a jury "review" for their most expensive listing packing, only about 10% of the 10,000 artists represented pay for these services, and there is no indication why any prospective premium paying customer would ever be rejected.

This massive self-selected body of work provides statistical insight into what emerging artists want to exhibit and sell online. While 90% of art bids and sales on eBay are for less than $100, the more hopeful artists on list only 14% of their work at such entry-level prices. Original paintings and works on paper make up three-quarters of the listings, followed by new media art, with 6,000 works of computer art, computer animation, and video comprising 6% of the listed art, more than sculpture and all other categories. Giclée reproductions represent less than 3% of the work on the site. Of course, these data say nothing about actual sales.

Compare this with, one of the earliest, high-profile, and still-surviving fine art websites. It began by representing international art celebrities, but they all seem to have fled, and it now only sells works by far lesser-known emerging artists. Nextmonet has a "panel of art historians, curators, artists, and educators" that "accepts only a small percentage" of submissions based on a variety of artistic and commercial considerations.[13] This selection process yields only 635 different works by 79 artists currently online. Their company's pricing schedule is remarkably similar to the artist-determined prices on, with 14% less than $150 and about half less than $500, but their content differs significantly. More than a third of the listed works are giclée reproductions, which Nextmonet also distributes via a glossy snail-mail catalogue. There is no new media art whatsoever listed on the site. Short of actual sales data, these content differences between supply-driven and demand-driven suggest the wide gulf between artists' technological ambitions and public interest.

At the very height of the internet bubble, the internet ranked second-to-last as a venue for consumer art sales (including originals and reproductions), despite the proliferation of web image banks and visual art e-commerce sites.[14] As recently as 2005, even Bill Gates' massive photography archive, the Corbis Corporation, had yet to make a profit.[15]

This state of affairs could change at the flip of a market switch, or a particularly strategic infusion of capital. Getty Images, the stock-photo industry leader, with a half-billion-dollar internet-based B2B service, for example, has recently seen its revenues, profits, and stock prices rise in double-digits. Analysts speculate that Corbis will soon be a major IPO candidate.[16], the consumer web division that Getty killed in 2001, was bought by two North Carolina entrepreneurs, who have since turned a profit with the site.[17] Eyestorm, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001, having seduced David Ross from his $393,000-a-year San Francisco Museum of Modern Art directorship and blown $26 million in venture capital, became the veritable poster-child of myriad fine art disasters.[18] The enterprise has subsequently refinanced (far more modestly), merged with, and now proclaims itself to be largest website devoted to the sale of modern and contemporary British art, with five bricks-and-mortar gallery franchises in England and New York.[19] Even discount giant Costco is getting into the act, selling fine art prints priced from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars online.[20]

Continued growth of online art sales seems inevitable even if slow moving, but that trend does not necessarily translate into greater public appreciation—let alone paying customers—for the latest innovations in new media art.

1. Tony Pritchett. Flexipede. 1968.
Video/Film/Digital Art, 16mm film transferred to DVD, Duration: 2:00. Included in the Scratch Code exhibition, November 12 2004 - January 16, 2005. Courtesy of Bitforms Gallery, New York.

2. Assume Vivid Astro Focus. Garden IV wallpaper and y.o floor sticker. 2003.
Installation View. Courtesy of Oliver Kamm 5BE Gallery, New York.

3. Michael Rees. Putto 4 over 4. 2004.
Luminore iron on fiberglass over Styrofoam with a steel tube armature, 145 x 87 x 138 inches. Courtesy of Michael Rees and Bitforms Gallery, New York.

4. Do Not Touch. nd.
Courtesy of Magnum UK Ltd, Tiverton, England.

5. David Hockney. Chair, Jardin de Luxembourg, Paris. 1985.
Photocollage, 110.5 x 8Ocm. Courtesy of David Hockney.

[1] Webster 2000, p. 211.
[2] Sacks 2004-2005.
[3] Gilbert 2004; Greene 2004; Middlebrooks 2001; Paul 2003; Rinder 2001; Ross 2001; Rubenstein 2005.
[4] Hirshberg 2004.
[5] Ganis 2004; Graham 2004; Walker 2003.
[6] Spiegler, November 23, 2004.
[7] Ganis 2004; Tompkins 2004.
[8] Dietz 1999.
[9] Pratt 2001.
[10] Hockney 2001; Stork 2004; Cornwell 2005.
[11] Bauer 2003.
[12] World Wide Arts Resources 2005.
[13] 2005.
[14] Unity Marketing 2001.
[15] Graybow 2005.
[16] Graybow 2005.
[17] Walker 2004.
[18] Mirapaul 2002.
[19] Netimperative 2003; Enterprise North East 2004.
[20] Forstenzer 2004.

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