This past week NYC hosted another string of art fairs: the first US installment of London’s Frieze, as well as several accompanying ancillary fairs, Pulse and NADA, which always seem to spring up around the behemoths, flocking like moths to the proverbial flame. It was barely two months ago that the city welcomed the annual Armory Show, which came with its own entourage of some half-dozen smaller fairs, and this, in a city that New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl calls “a permanent art fair, with hundreds of galleries conveniently clustered in a few neighborhoods.”
It’s no secret that recession or no recession, the art market is alive and well, thriving in fact, and bordering on bloated. Each week seems to bring yet another headline about a work of art going for record sums at the auction houses. And yet, despite the gluttonous feast, the digital arts remain almost uniformly absent from the dinner table. It seems no one even bothered to invite them to the party.
The digital arts (AKA New Media Art, tech art, net art, interactive art, or whatever other moniker you want to use—we’re talking about artistic works that are using digital technology as an essential part of the creative process) have long been the red-headed stepchild of the art world. Though the first computer art exhibitions were staged back in 1965, some 55 years later, the digital arts remain as much an outsider in the contemporary art world as ever, forever denied access to the secret clubhouse.
In part, it may be their own fault. Rooted in hacker culture and borne out of the conceptually-minded 60s, the digital arts carry the anti-Establishment gene, reveling in opposing and working outside the system. They shunned the galleries and championed art for all, making the internet their gallery. They snubbed the conservative traditional art fairs and created dozens of media art fairs that, to this day, seem to take place every other weekend across Europe. The work, being largely founded in code, is immaterial and difficult to sell and conserve, stumping art dealers and collectors. Since many of the pieces rely on computers and projectors, they’re often difficult to exhibit as well, especially for curators and exhibition designers who may not be used to working with so much tech. And since the technology they use is often experimental, or utilized in an experimental way, the pieces themselves can often be finicky, crashing and stalling, needing constant attention lest they overheat or freeze up.
The problems with digital art are many, and yet its outsider brethren—performance art, video art and street art—have somehow managed to transcend similar limitations. Performance art, in particular, is experiencing something of a heyday at the moment, even though it’s arguably even more immaterial and conceptual than digital art. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz speculated in his recent cover story on the new rules governing the art world that this is reflective of a fundamental shift—it’s now “in” to be “out.” In the current moment, it’s cool for your work to reject the market and be difficult to collect, and nobody wants to admit to being the Establishment anymore.
If that’s the case, then the digital arts should be the new “IT” trend. And yet, they remain on the shady outskirts, relegated to niche DIY spaces and relying on the generosity of fellow artists and friends, brands and (in Europe, at least) government-funded grants and commissions.
What will it take for a sustainable digital arts market to form? Is that even a possibility? Can the digital arts make money? And will they ever be incorporated into the contemporary arts dialogue at large? These are the questions we’ll be exploring this week with a series of guest articles, interviews, profiles, and essays that will examine the current status of the digital arts market and speculate on what needs to change for it to evolve.
We invite you to participate in the discussion in the comments section, on your own blog (send us the link!), and on Facebook and Twitter (#DIGART). Let’s get the conversation started!