Programming Digital Art: Despite Technological and Ownership Issues, Galleries Are Connecting with This High-Tech Market

Article excerpt

Computer use has permeated almost every facet of life in the 21st century, from paying bills online to downloading favorite songs to e-mailing pictures. So it's hardly surprising that digital art, or art made with a computer, is one of the most active, dynamic art forms today--for artists and, increasingly, for galleries and collectors.

"Digital art reflects the way we live now in a technological culture," said Rachel Greene, executive director of, a Web site created in 1996 to give digital artists a forum for their work. "If you look at landscape paintings at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], in many ways they're nostalgic works because they don't reflect the world we live in. If you're interested in commenting on contemporary life, you have to address communication on the Internet, the information culture, video games."

Defining an Art Form

Early computers transformed scientists and engineers into artists as they experimented with the capabilities and boundaries of new hardware and software. With the development of programs like Paintbox and Photoshop, computers began to color the work of traditional artists as well. Digital art expanded from data visualization prints and digitally altered photographs to include DVDs and computer-driven sculptures and installations.

"In the '60s and '70s people were making fine art with computers and exhibiting it in galleries," said Carl Goodman, curator of digital media for the American Museum of the Moving Image (AMMI) in New York. "It was a tool in the past. Today the computer is a delivery mechanism as well." Indeed, the popularization of the Internet during the last decade has provided artists with dramatic new ways to both create works and reach audiences. Many CD-ROMs and Web sites offer interactive experiences that blur the boundaries between artist and viewer. And a plethora of online art galleries such as, and provide showplaces for digital artists of all disciplines.

Artists also seek exposure and collaborative opportunities through international art festivals, such as Ars Electronica in Austria, the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival in the Netherlands, North America's SIGGRAPH and the New York Digital Salon. Two exhibits of technology-based works at major museums hi 2001 generated special buzz: "010101: Art in Technological Times" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and "BitStreams" at the Whitney Museum in New York. More recently, the AMMI opened " DigitalMedia" a rotating exhibit of digital video and software-based art in November, 2002, and Pace University inaugurated its own digital art gallery in downtown Manhattan last April.

"Early digital work had a certain coldness," said AMMI's Goodman. "There is something alien about having artwork that's computer-based, but over time people are getting more comfortable with it. Computers are becoming part of the fabric of our lives."

So it's not just institutions, but also private collectors who are opening their doors to digital art. "Pure painting and photography collectors are venturing into new media," said Bryce Wolkowitz, whose eponymous gallery of photographic and moving image works opened in September. "For example, someone who likes Gerhart Richter's paintings may like John F. Simon, Jr.'s color panels because it's like seeing the colors activated. Or Jim Campbell's "Motion and Rest" series may appeal to a photography collector who likes Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies."

Just Like Traditional Art Media?

Self-contained objects that don't require additional equipment or extensive maintenance--like those by Simon and Campbell--tend to be most appealing to collectors. "There's a combination of software and hardware," said Magdalena Sawon, co-owner of Postmasters Gallery in New York. "It's just like any other sculpture, except you have to plug it in."

But other forms, such as large-scale installations, Net art and software art, are more problematic "When you're talking about software you load into a computer, it's a tough sell," said Goodman. …