With roots in the 18th century, New York’s Phillips Auction House upped its 21st-century cred this month in hosting what is said to be the world’s first-ever auction of digital art in partnership with social media upstart Tumblr, one of the world’s most popular online destinations for art. To make sense of the milestone, SVA Close Up turned to two of the College’s resident digital art pioneers, visual artists Mark Tribe and Bruce Wands. Tribe is the founder of nonprofit Rhizome.org, which will receive proceeds from the auction, and chair of the MFA Fine Arts Department at SVA. Wands is chair of the MFA Computer Art Department, author of Art of the Digital Age (Thames and Hudson, 2007) and director of the New York Digital Salon, which will open an exhibition of four digital art pioneers at SVA later this month.
What does an auction like this mean to the digital art community, and artists in general?
MT: In the past, digital art has stood on the sidelines of the art market. Museums and galleries have been showing digital art for decades, but this auction marks a potential turning point for the acceptance of digital art in the marketplace.
BW: Yes, this represents a step into the mainstream.
Why do you think it took until now to happen?
MT: Digital media have become increasingly pervasive, to a point where their cultural significance is undeniable and unavoidable. At the same time, online art sellers like Artspace and Artsy are finally gaining traction, and even Amazon is now selling art online. Major collectors and their advisors routinely purchase work based only on jpegs. The acceptance of digital art is a consequence of these trends.
BW: Early digital art was often non-archival and mistakenly viewed as “computer generated.” Now it is looked at as contemporary art.
Is there a particular work or digital artist you would have added to this sale?
BW: I would have liked to see some pioneer artists in the auction like Manfred Mohr, Jean-Pierre Hébert, and Roman Verostko. They all have received the SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in Digital Art. I am the chair of the SIGGRAPH Awards Committee, and SIGGRAPH has had an annual digital art exhibition for forty years.
Do you foresee a time when digital art commands the prices of a Van Gogh, Picasso or Richter?
BW: Yes, but far in the future. Digital art is still establishing itself as an integral part of contemporary art.
MT: Definitely, it may take several decades.
Mark, the auction was curated by Lindsay Howard. Does she have a connection to Rhizome?
MT: She and many of the artists have been involved in Rhizome in various ways over the years.
What are some other recent milestones for digital art that people may have missed?
BW: In 2010, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London had two exhibitions of digital art. One called “Digital Pioneers” that featured artists who established the field, and “DECODE: Digital Design Sensations” that featured younger artists. The Millennium Museum in Beijing hosted the First Beijing International New Media Arts Exhibition in 2004.
Any milestones we should be looking for?
BW: I would like to see a retrospective exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum.
What do you make of the label “digital artist” nowadays? Is it the same as calling an artist whose primary medium is photography, a photographer?
BW: The word “digital” will disappear, much as it did with a digital watch, digital camera, etc. Artists are artists, but now they create in a world that is becoming increasingly digital. The new generation of emerging artists do not see making art with computers as unusual. To them, it is simply an additional powerful tool for art making.
MT: Although my work often involves digital media, I would not call myself a digital artist, and I don’t know many artists who would. Some of my work qualifies as digital art (as does Black Creek, the photograph I am including in this auction, which I shot in a video game), but much of it does not.
Mark, one of your photographs from the Rare Earth landscapes series is in this auction. Why did you want to be involved? And why that work?
MT: I wanted to be involved because I believe the market is ready to embrace digital art. Together, Philips, Tumblr, and Paddle8 are well-positioned to seize the moment. I suggested Black Creek because I love the work and want people to see it and own it. This work in particular, because it is both mesmerizingly beautiful and conceptually complex, rewards the kind of daily viewing that ownership affords. When you own a work and hang it on your wall, it becomes a part of your life.
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