Any attempt to define “digital art” as a key term in Media Studies must begin by defining its component terms: how do we define “art”? And, what does it mean to be “digital”? It only takes entering “art” into a dictionary search engine to find that its lengthy definitions rival the length of its history. Perhaps the most relevant and comprehensive definition of art is that given by Johanna Drucker in her essay “Art” in Critical Terms for Media Studies: “In the modern to contemporary period, the prevailing belief is that the distinctive identity of art derives from the unique ability of individual artists to give formal expression to imaginative thought.” Keeping this definition of art in mind, it is necessary to define the term “digital” in two capacities. First, what the term digital means in itself, and second, what conditions art must fulfill in order to be considered digital. After forming a relevant and thorough definition of what digital art is, it will be possible to explore the implications of the digital condition, the importance of digital art for Media Studies, and its broader significance for the study of art.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions of the adjective “digital,” beginning with “of or pertaining to a finger, or to fingers or digits.” This reminder of the original digit, the finger, is an important connection between the remediation that occurs between the manual manipulation of the keyboard and the digital manipulation of the code. However, the two most relevant definitions are “of, pertaining to, or using digits… spec. applied to a computer which operates on data in the form of digits or similar discrete elements,” and “designating a recording in which the original waveform is digitally coded and the information in it represented by the presence or absence of pulses of equal strength, making it less subject to degradation than a conventional analogue signal.” From these definitions one can gather that digital information consists of the coding of other data elements, most often operating through a computer.
The computer is only one vehicle, or medium, through which code can be manipulated and imaged. At its foundation, the digital condition is one of notations. As Nelson Goodman clarifies in Languages of Art, “the real virtues of digital instruments are those of notational systems: definiteness and repeatability of readings.” In more practical terms, to create an image using code, the code must be definite, or precise, and it must be repeatable, so that it will always produce the same image. These conditions require, at the level of encoding, that the desired image be exactly planned out at the digital level. In a system reliant on exact notation, there is no room for error, and there is little room for organic development.
Within this system, there is an inherent disconnect between the information transmitted to the viewer, and the material in which that information takes shape. The material is actually non-atomic; it is simply the arbitrary code of the computational machine. In “The Condition of Virtuality,” Katherine Hayles notes that “information conceived as pattern and divorced from a material medium is information free to travel across time and space.” This is true in the practical sense of the Internet, as well as in the theoretical sense. Information conceived as pattern creates a certain dialectic. The relation of information to materiality is parallel to the relation of pattern to randomness. As already alluded to above, the dependence on pattern to convey information cancels out the role of randomness in artistic creation. In the complex process of digital mediation, from the mind of the artist, to his fingers typing on the keyboard, to the digital code, to the process of computation, to the resultant sound or image, every element is patterned and executed precisely to produce the desired product. There is no accidental drip of paint.
However, these theoretical concerns primarily consist within the context of digital art created at the fundamental level of digital encoding. There are other ways in which art can be considered digital. Digital art, to use the definition provided by the Austin Museum of Digital Art, is “art that uses digital technology in any of three ways: as the product, as the process, or as the subject.” Ultimately, digital art is art that could not otherwise exist without digital technology.
These three uses of digital technology require some explication. Art that uses digital technology as its product is a work that, in its final stage, must be viewed on a digital platform, as in a computer or some other electronic coding apparatus. Under this category fall the subcategories of video art, video game art, virtual reality, and Internet art among others. Art that uses digital technology as its process is a work that is created through a digital medium, such as computer software. Subcategories include algorithmic art, computer painting, computer-generated animation, and even art generated within online communities such as Second Life. These forms are created at the digital level, as discussed above, but could be printed out and represented materially. Art that uses digital technology as its subject refers to any medium of art production, traditional, performance, or otherwise, that refers to digital technology in its subject matter. A book about social networking falls into this category, although the book itself is not digital. However, a digital video about social networking, viewed on a computer, would fall into all three categories.
Another way to define digital art is to draw out what is unique to its formations and determine how it can be fundamentally different from conventional art forms. Jon Ippolito’s article on “Ten Myths on Internet Art” address several important facets of understanding the distinctly unique qualities of the digital media. First and foremost, Ippolito claims that Internet art is not simply reproductions of other art forms, and that “successful online works can offer diverse paths to navigate, recombine images from different servers on the same Web page, or create unique forms of community consisting of people scattered across the globe.” The instant changeability of digital art and its potential for interactivity are rather unique features that lend themselves to breaking beyond the constraints of space and time that often inform other art forms.
A further unique feature of Internet art is that it is not necessarily a part of the gallery- or museum- viewing context. Not only is a global audience available, but “many people who would never set foot in a gallery stumble across works of Internet art by following a fortuitous link.” Further, the content of these art works themselves most often find inspiration from outside of the art world and look “outside of inbred references to art history and institutions for their meaning.” Access to digital images and information across the Internet provides an expansive source of ideas, influences, and other digital products that feed further creation.
Digital art, taking form based on encoded script, also has the technological advantage of interchangeable formats. Internet art is not strictly applied to web pages, but can easily be transmitted from e-mail to instant messages, from video files to Facebook wall posts, from video conferences to audio files, and the list goes on. Not only are these formats interchangeable, but they are combinable as well. A screen shot of a series of comments regarding a photo posted on someone’s Facebook wall could show up on a web page accompanied by an audio recording, thus combining all of these elements into a bricolage with a distinct meaning of its own.
There are two important issues that digital art faces despite its multi-faceted potential. First is the issue of technology and its ephemeral nature. The speed of technological innovation allows for positive new developments in media, but digital art constantly faces the threat of its medium becoming obsolete. As the technology that supports it changes, some works of digital art are completely lost. This non-atomic condition also makes it difficult to collect or sell digital works. Ippolito claims that these conditions can be provided for with the proper foresight and preparation. He claims that “the logic behind the Guggenheim’s approach, known as the ‘Variable Media Initiative,’ is to prepare for the obsolescence of ephemeral technology by encouraging artists to envision the possible acceptable forms their work might take in the future.” However, the difficulty in selling and controlling digital art remains. With the positive aspect of immediate access comes the negative inability to maintain rightful ownership and authorship over artistic productions. Drawing again on Hayles, once information is detached from its material embodiment, it is no longer a “conserved quantity.”
The second issue facing digital art is that the experience of viewing it is perceived as usually solitary. The visit to an art museum is not only a bodily commitment to viewing, but also a bodily experience. The works themselves find a context within the physical space of the gallery, but so does the viewer, and the space of the museum is often felt to be sacrosanct on some level. The viewing of digital art is often a solitary one, and the context of the computer is so familiar that it does not provide any intimation of sanctity in the act of viewing. The counter to this suggestion is twofold. While the change in context of viewing may present a problem when viewing conventional art forms online (art forms originally intended for the gallery space), digital art often takes advantage of the conditions of its audience and was never intended to be viewed in the gallery space. Secondly, digital art can connect viewers. The act of viewing may be physically solitary, but the unlimited potential for a global audience creates a reciprocal potential for global discussion and reflection as well. In addition to this, Ippolito comments that some works “capture the traces of many viewers’ interactions and integrate them into their respective interfaces. In some cases, viewers can see the effects of other participants reflected in the artwork in real-time.” This kind of generative and interactive art goes as far as to utilize its audience and unifies the viewers into a communal artistic force.
This mass accessibility to both view and create digital art is perhaps the most obvious, and most novel, characteristic peculiar to digital media. Mark Hansen comments on the accessibility provided by such social-networking platforms as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and others, to upload one’s own work and to instantly view others’ in his essay “New Media” in Critical Terms: “by taking full advantage of the many-to-many connectivity facilitated by the Internet, the explosion of use-generated digital “content” (blogs, discussion forums, photo-sharing, video animation, and so on) has refocused the function of computational media from storage to production, from the archiving of individual experience to the generation of collective presence and of connectivity itself… what is mediated by Web 2.0 is less the content that users upload than the sheer connectivity, the simple capacity to reach myriad like-minded users.”. What Hansen describes as “content” refers to many types of online content, but digital art also falls into this category. The sensation of connectivity is no doubt also contained within the “many-to-many” exchange of digital art. Hansen proposes that the content projected into the digital world is not the only object of digital social media. Rather, the overwhelming sensation of connectivity is as much the object of partaking in digital communication through art as the object of artistic expression.
Despite its many social characteristics, digital art also offers many insightful innovations and is valuable in itself as artistic content. Concerning this massive dissemination of amateur art, Lev Manovich asks the question, “can professional art survive the extreme democratization of media production and access?” To this he answers a definite yes, suggesting “never has modern art been so commercially successful. No longer a pursuit for the few, contemporary art has become another form of mass culture.” But while contemporary art may not be threatened economically, in terms of its insights and conceptualizations, professional artists may have a lot to reckon with. The nature of the digital-online media is also one of constant change and mutability, and the speed of exchange, absorption, reflection, and response to such artwork is something completely new. Manovich concludes, “the true challenge posed to art by social media may not be all the excellent cultural work produced by students and nonprofessionals, although I do think this is also important. The real challenge may lie in the dynamics of web 2.0 culture—its constant innovation, its energy, and its unpredictability.”
For all that speed, however, there are certainly drawbacks. In attempting to view the exhibit Valley at the Adobe Museum of Digital Media—a museum existing entirely in the digital world, complete with an architectural structure, exhibit spaces and interactive videos—the website itself was so complex and richly designed, that the Internet browser crashed before the exhibit could be accessed. Perhaps a foray into the digital will result in a renewed interest in the value of materiality.
“About Digital Art.” Austin Museum of Digital Art. .
Adobe Museum of Digital Media. Adobe Systems Incorporated, 2010. http://www.adobemuseum.com/index.php
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Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976.
Hansen, Mark B.N. “New Media.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies, edited by W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen, 172-185. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Condition of Virtuality.” In The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, edited by Peter Lunenfeld, 68-94. Boston: The MIT Press, 2000.
Ippolito, John. “Ten Myths of Internet Art.” Leonardo 35, no 5 (2002): 485-487, 489-498.
Mall, Adam. “analog, digital.” University of Chicago Theories of Media Keyword Glossary. Winter 2003. http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/analogdigital.htm.
Manovich, Lev. “The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production?” Critical Inquiry 35, no 2 (Winter 2009): 319-331.