Digital art makes its presence felt

Yolanda Zappaterra follows the progress of digital or electronic art from its early days in the hands of have-a-go merchants to the sophisticated work of today

When the Internet began to move beyond the world of academia in the early-Nineties, one of the first groups of users to realise its creative potential was artists. Most of them wisely chose to explore and exploit the medium’s potential in the commercial arena. This left the art field wide open for second-class technology fiends to produce an awful lot of really bad art.

But the ensuing five years have seen a sea change in digital art. And in a medium where the lines between fine art and digital design are so blurred, it’s always worth keeping an eye out for exceptional work. German digital design consultancy Fork Unstable Media makes full use of “art” on its own site, yet attracts, and keeps, large corporate clients. Partner David Linderman says: “The site creates new elements that we typically recycle into and from our commercial work. We are always trying to find ways to integrate our experimentation with real jobs.”

Here in the UK artists such as Keith Piper and Derry-based Willie Doherty have been joined by artists from as far afield as Mexico, China and Bulgaria in a growing number of real space/virtual space exhibitions and art festivals, which well-established contemporary art galleries and organisations have been promoting with the kind of enthusiasm any new medium would excite.

This month sees a number of such events, from the International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA 98) to The Future Looms, an Internet project forming part of the year-long Photo 98 Public Sightings (at www.channel.org.uk), and the ICA’s digital art exhibition touring China.

ISEA 98 (www.isea98.org), now in its ninth year, is undoubtedly the big daddy of electronic exhibitions in the UK, having grown from an international symposium into a two-month event incorporating online events, sound installations in Liverpool and Manchester’s railway stations and a club event at Liverpool superclub Cream.

The event encompasses Revolting, a five-week art happening in which an empty space becomes a temporary media lab, taken over by artists, activists and the public to form the basis for a website (www.yourserver.co.uk/revolting). Co-ordinator and part-time lecturer at Salford University Micz Flor says: “The lab grew partly out of my involvement at the Hybrid WorkSpace at the Documenta X in Kassel, Germany, last year. The intention was to look at media in a more information, activism and networked way than it usually is in relation to art and exhibition practice.”

The online transference of the Revolting real-word media lab was accomplished through the creation of an audio archive containing more than ten hours of over 30 presentations and events. These events were broadcast live then archived within the hour.

“It worked because Revolting understood the Web page as an interface between two public spheres, at one end the on-site environment at which people were presenting, discussing and imbibing work, at the other the Web community which demands to be as closely linked to the space as possible,” explains Flor.

Flor finds the word “artist” something of a misnomer for those working in or with networked media, preferring to talk about “media practitioners”. “The nature of the beast is to work collaboratively, and that challenges the understanding of conventional categories such as artist, designer and technician,” he explains. “My experience is that the most interesting conceptual ideas come from hands-on media practitioners.”

Flor perceives that electronic art is finally being taken seriously. But, while galleries trip over themselves to host digital film festivals, events, exhibitions and the like, and in a short time have replaced the ubiquitous rows of PCs with more imaginative expressions and display methods, Flor believes they – and most of the work they exhibit – face an endemic problem.

“The most boring approaches tend to come from museum and gallery-compatible art, which falls short of understanding that a network like the Internet demands to be taken seriously as a public sphere within which communication is at the fore.

“And that should not be a problem for trained artists of today’s generation. After all, conceptual art has a great deal to do with symbolised processes of representation and communication. The main difference is that this time we are avoiding building the commodity at the end of the artistic process, which makes it extremely hard to evaluate art in the context of the Internet,” he concludes.

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