Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Art Lies

New Media and the Gallery

Paul Slocum

Galleries understandably dwell on the romance of the unique object. My house is filled with items that demonstrate my sympathy, but as I read about first-graders carrying laptops to school, I wonder how the object is going to weigh against virtual art experiences for the next generation of art viewers? As an early adopter and longtime professional user of computers, I think the shift has already happened for me. Many of my most rewarding art experiences come from the Internet and other virtual mediums, while the gallery grows curiously stale. Like contemporary art for many, virtual is an acquired taste.

For decades, probably longer, some in the art world have known that a number of the greatest artworks exist outside the carefully laid boundaries of fine art. So, the art world (me and my own gallery included) gave asylum to other art forms through things like bands playing in the gallery and movies screening on the walls, even though the acoustics in the gallery are bad and the seating is never appropriate for films. Advance one generation to new media art and we’re installing computers and monitors in the gallery when most of the people attending have the same equipment at home. Maybe the future of the physical new media gallery is simply a clubhouse so the artists can meet up while art is exchanged online?

The results of transplanting digital artists to the gallery space have been as expected. Some new media work translates well to the gallery, some doesn’t. Some artists have the aptitude to thrive in the commercial art environment, others fail and retreat to the Internet. A few successful high-profile exhibitions like Breaking and Entering: Art and the Video Game at Pace Wildenstein (now The Pace Gallery) and Rhizome ArtBase 101 at the New Museum (both in 2005) demonstrated that new media artists are capable artists in real life—not just hippie computer nerds. As a result, new media has edged its way into the archive of art history—museums acquired some pieces and Cory Arcangel made the cover of Artforum. But despite a bit of critical success, most new media artists I know have found it extremely difficult to make a living with their artwork in the commercial art system. Granted, it is difficult to make a living as an artist at all, but traditionally, with a certain level of critical success, exposure, museum shows, etc., you expect a meager living. Not that anyone is surprised, though: for $2,000, the gallery offers you a painting or a CD-ROM containing a file that they could send you in an email attachment. It’s understandably difficult for collectors to make this transition, and this is probably why my gallery only ever lost money.

But many of the differences between a JPEG and a painting are illusion if you experience the work wholly. At the level of theory and physics, both are just optical information suspended in a fragile medium, coded by elementary particles on a canvas or on a hard-drive platter. The detailed physical processes behind seeing a painting and seeing a JPEG described mathematically are both absurdly complex. Beyond the subtleties of how each is stylized by its technology or nostalgic spin, the most effective difference between JPEG and painting technology is the economy of duplication and transmission. Because the JPEG’s economy of endless duplicates does not fit well into the art-world’s market of rare objects, gallerists may compensate by converting the file into an editioned giclĂ©e print, a more tangible form of object with real-life copyright protection.

New media artist Leo Villareal risking the appearance of "selling out" in the Yale Alumni Magazine, September/October 2010; courtesy the author

So, why can’t we just sell the file online? Not as a conceptual art project, but as an attempt at a new model of putting food on the table through selling art. We’re expending a lot of energy translating this digital stuff to the gallery, while almost every other content industry sells files on the Internet: software, movies, music, books, games. Consider the concept of selling art online like software or music, or using free Internet art to sell advertising or merch. Whether or not the market is too small for this depends on your definition of the boundaries of art, because the masses clearly already buy some forms of very art-like digital content over the Internet through the iTunes Store and Netflix.

It seems like Internet commerce for Internet artists should be a natural extension. If we as Net artists know so much about the Internet—its aesthetics, its social systems, its hidden worlds—then shouldn’t we be able to at least manipulate it enough to grift a simple living with our practice? Yet many artists I know, myself included, have idealistic tendencies and have really latched onto these Internet philosophies of freedom (as in both speech and beer). Giving away the work online makes it difficult to sell online. I do love the idea of universal access to information, but I don’t think I can continue to place such a huge gulf between free and really cheap. Isn’t it all just a gradient where you find your place? Keep in mind that the commercial art world only does really expensive.

An image-conscious artist who has overcome the free mentality may then balk at the risk (or appearance) of selling out when mixing art and Internet commerce. A commercial place like the Internet is surrounded by commercial temptations, and without the established business etiquette of the art market, it’s difficult for “sell-out” accusers or accused to even consistently define selling out. All this could be dangerous for artists who plan to keep a foot in the traditional art world. Even if an artist avoids the sell-out trap, the art industry seems to handicap credibility on art delivered in mass-produced forms, making the effort less fruitful. It’s a shitty road!

Long term, the art world is just a massive pile of artifacts related to artworks produced throughout history, including writing, visual documentation, sales records, the artworks themselves, memories, every perceivable piece of substance related to art. The Google PageRank-like formula that the art world uses to determine the significance of artworks within this pile largely considers the textual records, but it clearly also places heavy emphasis on the sales records. New media art may eventually find its market, but since it currently has not, its prominence in the art archive may depend on those in the field writing avidly about the unique experiences they’re having with art, computers and the Internet. New media artists are pouring themselves online every day to see a fuller picture, and they must report back often lest others miss out on the astonishing beauty of the Internet.

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