Reconsidering the Terms We Use to Define Digital Art

Artsy Editorial
Nov 29, 2015 1:00PM

Tabor Robak, Newborn Baby (2015). Image courtesy of team (gallery, inc.).

The word “digital,” in reference to art, is one that still tends to make many cringe. Though no one really talks about “digital” movies or music at this point, with digital distribution methods dominating their dissemination, art remains an analogue-dominated field. Aside from video (which is only part of the story—more on that below), some other common terms used to describe digital art practices include moving image, multimedia, and new media art. But how do you account for other tech-driven or computer-generated practices that may include 3D-printed sculpture, URLs, or conceptually driven network and programming-based practices? As a broad term, however, “digital” is as useful as it gets—able to describe works that begin and end as computer files, or, alternatively, those that use digital technology as part of their process.

We increasingly encounter videos, animation, 3D-prints, and other digital formats in museums, galleries, and art fairs all over the world. In addition to an ever-growing number of videos and installations at major art-market events, such as Art Basel’s “Statements” section this past summer, we are now seeing more initiatives worldwide that are digitally themed or are heavy on digital works. These include the recent New Museum Triennial in New York, featuring Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s Oculus Rift installation, “CO-WORKERS – Network as Artist,” currently on view at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and even specialized video and moving-image art fairs such as LOOP and Moving Image. Galleries dedicated to digital art and its impact include XPO in Paris, and bitforms and Microscope in New York.

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 1st June 2014), 2015 and Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 5th September 2014), 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa.


This deep and far-reaching creative landscape—where even the most formal of painters may be mining Photoshop as a creative tool—has spawned some daring and specialized collectors who are pushing the envelope. But user-driven distribution and consumption has not affected the art world to the extent that it has the music and film industries, but things are changing—and fast. Instagram and Facebook have radically shifted the media landscape. Rhizome and the Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) archive, after decades on the cutting edge, continue to be indispensable resources. Browser-based platforms such as NewHive, Sedition, and DAATA Editions are bringing affordable art to the web. Recently, Apple opened up its Apple TV platform to several art apps of note—among them Artsy and DAD (whose co-founders are two of the authors of this article).

Images, moving images, and what about painting?

The earliest known surviving photograph was taken by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827, and is the product of one of the greatest technological inventions of the modern era—the camera. Leading to mechanical representation and reproduction, this machine vastly expanded the presence of images in our lives today. That led to moving images, which proved to be fertile ground for artists—from Luis Buñuel to Andy Warhol, Matthew Barney, and eventually to Ryan Trecartin’s first forays on YouTube.

Tabor Robak ,Toys To Life (2015). Image courtesy of team (gallery, inc.).

Although an analog video recording system, Sony’s battery-powered and portable Portapak from 1967 was a revolution. Artists such as Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham, and William Wegman made some of the earliest known video works, seizing on the democratic power (manifest in the ability to broadcast to the masses, as Paik did) and intimacy afforded by the medium to document moving bodies as performances.

Moving images also enabled other non-narrative but time-based artworks (think Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) or Sleep (1963)), some of which have the tableau-like quality of representational paintings. Today, Michael Manning, Tabor Robak, and the Quistrebert brothers, as well as a number of artists making animated GIFs, are but a few examples of artists “painting” with pixels. Others, like Wade Guyton and Petra Cortright, are on the flip side of that, using digital processes to make paintings on canvas or panels.

Hardware & software

What about computers? In 1968 the ICA in London staged “Cybernetic Serendipity,” one of the first major exhibitions articulating the notion of “computer art.” The show included such figures as Frieder Nake, Georg Nees, and John Whitney, considered engineers or mathematicians more than artists. The show kicked off a rapid proliferation of Net art throughout the ‘90s, which allowed digital tools, in the context of art, to progress. That eventually gave rise to more recent developments, such as Cory Arcangel famously altering a Nintendo game cartridge to make his seminal Super Mario Clouds (2002).

Jon Rafman, New Age Demanded (Crescentman Graphite), 2014 and New Age Demanded (Stratform Yves Klein Blue), 2014. Images courtesy of Mesler Feuer.

The advent of web browsers gave rise to a whole new school of art that presumes internet-based existence is a given—a movement we are now calling “post-internet,” a term coined by Marisa Olson in a 2006 panel organized by Rhizome. Data mining from network servers has given rise to numerous practices. Ian Cheng, Jeff Guess, and Gregory Chatonsky create live-action or moving image works that are generated in real time from cloud-based or local data. Artists such as Petra Cortright and Molly Soda found their voices on YouTube, and Amalia Ulman hoodwinked everyone with her Excellences & Perfections (2014) performance on Instagram. Nicolas Sassoon, Sara Ludy, and a group of artists associated with NewHive produce animated gifs, and you can even buy a domain name by Angelo Plessas, Claude Closky, or Rafaël Rozendaal. Last but not least, 3D scanning and printing have also found their place in the realm of sculpture, as seen in the radical installations and sculptures of Josh Kline and Jon Rafman. Video, although in many ways still at the digital sphere’s center, is no longer its sole protagonist.

Networking and more

Amalia Ulman,  Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014), (#itsjustdifferent), 2015.  Courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa.

As our lives have become increasingly web-based, inundated with a profusion of images and movies as data, art practices have also evolved at a mind-melting pace—and our very definition of what it means to be an artist has expanded. The New York collective DIS began as an online fashion magazine but now collaborates with a flock of other artists on projects across all media, manages an image bank, and is curating the 2016 edition of the Berlin Biennial. It’s Our Playground, the moniker of Paris-based duo Camille le Houezec and Joey Villemont, treats curation itself as their primary form of artistic expression. While their art sometimes consists of pieces by other artists placed—or recreated—in the real world, they have also used  green-screen technology as a means of documentation, the results of which become works in their own right. Using the digital as a tool in all its forms and applications, these artists are conflating experience, image, documentation, and its distribution to challenge notions of curatorial practice, individuality, collectivity, and the very notion of networking itself. The most exciting part? We’re just getting started.

—Carlos Cardenas, Vincent Justin, and Marie Maertens

Carlos Cardenas and Vincent Justin are co-founders of DAD, a forthcoming platform on Apple TV. Marie Maertens is an independent critic and curator based in Paris. They are co authors of “Collect Digital Video Art,” distributed by Les Presses du Réel.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019