Thursday of this week will mark an important moment in the history of digital art. Although the long and fruitful history of this medium will hardly be brought to a close, an important chapter in its narrative is about to unfold through the first ever digital art auction hosted by Phillips. The auction, entitled Paddles On!, Â is of particular significance because it is not only the first auction for Phillips, but also the first primary market auction to occur at any major international auction house to only feature digital art works.
When I had first heard the news that Phillips was teaming up with Tumblr to host an auction a couple of months ago, I was a bit skeptical. After hearing that Lindsay Howard (co-director of 319 Scholes and former Eyebeam Fellow) was coming on board to advise and curate the works for this sale, some of my reservations started to dissipate. But I didnâ€™t fully come around to appreciating this auction until I got a sneak peak of the exhibition and had a chance to sit down the three organizers of this project: Ms. Howard, Megan Newcome (Phillips Director of Digital Strategy), and Annie Werner (Arts Evangelist at Tumblr).
Addie Wagenknecht, Asymmetric Love Number 2, 2013
During my visit last Friday, I got a chance to see the final moments of installation, and was also given a guided tour of the broad yet considerate exhibition of the works on sale. The diversity of the work was not only presented in a near flawless manner, but it also showcased the breadth of pieces that all can directly and loosely be identified as digital art. I found myself â€œchecking boxesâ€ as Ms. Howard led me around the exhibition, noting familiar faces like RafaÃ«l Rozendaal, Kate Steciw, and Alexandra Gorczynski. But as my tour continued, I was confounded when my curatorial and critical presumptions quickly dissolved upon noticing that the collection of makers presented in this auction was not pandering to a specific audience or community. Of course I wasn’t expecting anything less of the organizers, but there was a part of me ready to criticize the exhibition for neglecting to include digital artists that otherwise wouldn’t associate with one another. Instead, I found this group of artists to appropriately reflect the many facets of digital art â€“ an assortment that all too often is presented in separate digital fiefdoms. Later, Ms. Howard commented that her intentions with this auction were to bring in as many voices within this sphere as possible:
When Iâ€™m curating in general â€“ not just in this particular auction â€“ Iâ€™m looking [at] who the nodes are in the network that are actually creating fresh work or creating fresh ideas. So I looked for artist for this auction who were nodes and are representative of larger movements in the field.
To that effect the artists represented doÂ constitute many different subsections within the digital art moniker â€“ interactive sculpture, generative code-based works, netart, webcam performance, experimental video, etc. But what surprised me the most was the way in which these different â€œnodesâ€ seamlessly come together in the space. This is not to say that the artworks appear â€œsameyâ€ by any measure, but instead it is to comment on how these works share a common thread of turning contemporary technological experience into a refined aesthetic statement.
Perhaps part of this comes from the fact that I havenâ€™t seen many of the artists in this auction shown in spaces equal to the Phillips standard – often I’ve only experiencedÂ this work either on my personal computer or in artist run galleries operating on a shoestring budget. In a strange way, the pristine presentation of these works alone makes them appear worthy of sale. It was at once startling and refreshing to see work that I had admired for so long presented in the same way as a work for sale by an old master.
Molly Soda, Inbox Full, 2013
This being said, my admiration for the participants in this exhibition made me reflect on the content of these works in a way that I would otherwise take for granted in other contexts. I subsequently contended with the organizers that the look of these works shouldnâ€™t be their only selling point, and I pressed them to talk to me more about why this collection of artists seemed fitting for this auction. Ms. Werner responded by talking about how Molly Soda was a particularly fitting example to rebuke my inquiry:
While Molly [Soda] is obviously very important to tumblr â€“ I think sheâ€™s one of the first tumblr famous it girls â€“ I think that she as an artist didnâ€™t really come into [her own] until someone was like â€œyouâ€™re an artist.â€ But I think for a longest time she was really a user that really informed the way that our platform grew and developed. [The auction] kind of elevates that entire culture that I think others felt was a little small or diluted. People didnâ€™t take it seriously but itâ€™s so huge and so vibrant. Mollyâ€™s piece really gives a voice to this generation.
Although this specific work â€“ a reading of letters and comments posted to her blog in a marathon 8 hour recorded performance â€“ is indicative of a very contemporary conversation occurring through social media, the question kept arising regarding why this moment in particular seemed ripe for having an auction for this kind of work. Part of my initial skepticism came from observing the many previous attempts to sell digital art either going awry or else backfiring. In the past, the idea of taking online media and putting it into private collection has seemed rather antithetical to the ethos of the very platform that made their work possible (or else made the distribution of their work that much more accessible). But more recently, the thought of selling digital art has become more popular as the market seems better equipped to present these artists to collectors. I asked the organizers to talk about why this moment seemed most fitting, to which Ms. Newcome responded:
When I had first started talking to Lindsay, she asked me what was the Phillips angle in the auction world, and it is what is now? This is what Phillips sells, and I think that was inspiring for Lindsay. Once that was established that thatâ€™s where we wanted to go â€“ the vibe of the whole event â€“ that became a point of no returnâ€¦ For this particular auction, Phillips couldnâ€™t have done this without Tumblr and Lindsay, and Lindsay couldnâ€™t have done this without us, and so on. We three together was what was so essential, and without one componentâ€¦ this auction would not be a reality.
All coincidence of overlapping interests and timing aside, what Paddles On! presents to audiences â€“ both familiar and new â€“ is that artwork made and distributed through digital networks must now become more vocalized and represented within a contemporary art market. Many recent signposts have been pointing to this moment â€“ the heated conversation around Rhizomeâ€™s booth at the Armory in 2011, the outrage of artists and academics railing against Claire Bishopâ€™s misinformed â€œDigital Divideâ€ essay in Artforum, the development of the Art Micro Patronage project by The Present Group, the selling of digital art by AFC at NADA this past year, just to name a few. But now it is happening, and already over half of the works have been bid on through Paddle8 â€“ a sign in and of itself that now seems to be the time.
Nicolas Sassoon, Waterfall 6, 2013
But then what? Letâ€™s say a majority of the work sells at or above its reserve, what does this signal for both contemporary art and digital artists hoping to bring their work to a larger audience? My initial doubts and concerns for this auction is that it might shape a future aesthetic, or else inadvertently dictate a kind of digital art that is only interested in going to market. I realize that this concern cannot be reserved just for this medium, and instead should be a broader reflection on the ways in which market politics and finance can and will always influence the strategies of emerging artists. However the artists in this exhibition were specifically selected not only because of their contribution to the field, but also due in part to understanding their longevity within an ongoing conversation of art making beyond digital media. Again, my fears are further appeased by Ms. Newcome in reference to a studio visit she recently had with contributing artist Mark Tribe:
We donâ€™t call digital cameras, digital cameras anymore; we donâ€™t call digital watches, digital watches anymore. One day, we wonâ€™t call digital art, digital art anymoreâ€¦
Although I initially felt that this auction might seem somewhat opportune,Â the three organizers of this exhibition suggested thatÂ the more important consideration must come from how this auction will – at its heart – help bring digital art to an audience wanting to participateÂ in a conversation that for too long has stood at the periphery. The resounding â€œfinally!â€ that has come from many artists, curators, gallerists, and academic is a testament to Paddles On! working towards an overall positive goal. Although I hesitate to defend the auction based upon my own knee-jerk reaction against commercialization of work made online, I do laud the participants and organizers for putting their absolute best foot forward. It is a rare instance that many people get to witness a community come into its own, and I felt that when I walked through the exhibition of the 20 lots for sale on Friday that I was indeed witnessing an important moment for all those involved in this endeavor.
To that end, I feel as though Ms. Howard put it best when articulating her excitement for this event to unfold:
Even if no piece has sold, or if we got no bidsâ€¦ having all these people rally up support, educating collectors, having the conversation, bringing in more people into the loop, makes this all a success.
In this spirit I wish all the artists the best of luck on Thursday when the live auction kicks off at 8pm at Phillips’ gallery on Park Avenue. I hope that the success of the event – as Ms. HowardÂ eloquentlyÂ suggests – will mark a new beginning for an ongoing relationship between the digital art community and the contemporary art market.
I’m only posting the press release because they say it better than I ever could. If I wasn’t going to be out of town my choice would definitely be the Rooting Symposium Trio Dinner Party on Sunday, October 13th featuring chefs Eric May and Mike Bancroft, Artist Edra Soto (what’s the difference between chef and artist anymore?!).
Rooting: Regional Networks, Global Concerns highlights food through emerging programs and projects by artists, cultural workers, radical chefs, rural and urban farmers, and small businesses. The program spotlights creative responses to the extreme environmental, social and economic changes facing local and global communities with a focus on the Chicago region and New Delhi, India. The event pulls together local, regional, and international presenters to share projects and best practices addressing soil health, water conservation, advocacy, food production and distribution, and building sustainable communities. Organized by the Rhizome Alliance.
Events will take place October 5th through October 13th and include the Rooting Exhibition closing reception, a film screening, bus and walking tours to local farms and art centers, a foraging workshop, dinners with Chicago area chefs and artists, and a symposium with keynote addresses, panel discussions, and a farmerâ€™s market. Tickets and information available at rootingchicago.org.
Finally! A painting show to be super excited about! Jonas Wood’s exhibition at Shane Campbell Gallery opens October 12th from 6-8pm. 673 North Milwaukee Avenue.
Gotta get to the Renaissance Society for the conversation between new Executive Director and Chief Curator Solveig Ã˜vstebÃ¸ and Associate Curator and Director of Education Hamza Walker. This talk is going to be like that movie Waking Life but without the rotoscoping and more interesting.
Saturday, October 26, at 3 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
And Ã˜vstebÃ¸ is cuter than Miley.
Last but certainly not least, Osvaldo Rombergâ€™s Translocations: Mies and Melnikov at the Farnsworth House in Plano Illinois will close on October 18th. This exhibition involves three things I love: a road trip out to Plano, a gorgeous house museum in the fall and, of course, a model of Melnikovâ€™s eccentric home in Moscow. But really, the project is great, the weather is perfect and I know youâ€™re looking for an excuse to get out of the city. Bonus points: The catalogue for the exhibition features writing by everyoneâ€™s favorite long-lost Chicago critic and educator with a specialization in Argentinean artists, Dan Quiles.
Battle of the Sexes Edition: Artist Jennifer Chan VS. Alan and Michael Fleming.
“Station to Station promised great artists and great art — a train tricked out with video screens dashing across the country — and instead we got some third rate Burning Man rip-off abbreviated rock show with smoke and mirrors, no art, no train, and everything but our DNA stripped at the door.”
Better luck next time, Levis? What do you, dear reader, think of this obvious ploy for marketing material. LMK!
Feminism in the Age of Digital Art, or something.
Just some light reading to distract you from the shutdown and Miley Cyrus.
Not sure how this fowards the womens agenda. Still from Sybil Prentice’s Website Nightcoregirl.net, via AFC.
Speaking of weird dude energy, peep this Artlurker post. Rob Goyanes details the fascinating life and art art of Michael Scott Addis. His step-brother is Mickey Rourke and that’s not even the craziest part.
Header image is a detail of work by mAtT Nichols in one of his current exhibitions, Confident Anticipation + at The Franklin in Garfield Park.
Letâ€™s talk about James Turrell.Â Yeah, its been a while, hasnâ€™tÂ it?Â Heâ€™s still out there, digging away at Roden Crater.Â Turrell also has a major retrospective up right now at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and I recently had the opportunity to see that show.Â It was the first time Iâ€™d really gotten to experience Turrellâ€™s work in person, which is (more than with any other artist) the only way to see it.Â It is really unlike any other art viewing Iâ€™ve ever experienced.
James Turrell:Â A Retrospective, at LACMA, is divided into two parts.Â Part 1 is a retrospective of projections and hollows, some dating as far back as the 1960s.Â Afrum (White) from 1966, is a projection of white light into the corner of a room, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional cube suspended in the space of the room.Â We walked into the mostly dark room and moved around a bit, and yeah, itâ€™s trippy, it looks like itâ€™s 3d.Â We were about to move on to the next room when the surprisingly helpful and friendly security guard volunteered the optimal way to view the piece.Â Following his advice, I started over.Â Closing one eye, heâ€™d told me, helps the illusion (by eliminating binocular vision, you get rid of some of the visual cues that tell you whatâ€™s closer and whatâ€™s farther away).Â I also found that removing my eyeglasses reduced the focus enough that things like wall texture disappear, which also helped.Â The basic principle at work here is that a projected beam of light hitting the corner of a room, at a diagonal, the beam spreads out more and more as it nears the corner, because its farther away.Â This mirrors the way objects appear smaller as they get farther away, creating the phenomenon we call two-point perspective.Â The neat thing is that the illusion not only remains, but in fact becomes more and more convincing, as one moves about the room.Â Slowly, keeping my one uncovered eye trained on the projection, I walked across the room, watching the apparent cube rotate in the darkened room.Â By the time I reached the wall, looking along its length at the projection, it appeared totally to be a hovering, glowing box, floating off the wall.
The rest of Part 1 continued generally in this vein, early pieces mostly consisting of either this kind of projection, or of backlit cutouts into the walls.Â Turrell also produced a series of holograms, on display here, and the exhibition might give some hope to those working to preserve SAICâ€™s holography program.Â But the real money shot is in Part 2.Â We actually viewed Part 2 first, having been advised by a friend whoâ€™d seen the show that as it got later in the day the lines would get longer.Â Entering Part 2, we walked past the â€œPerceptual Cell,â€ a sort of Bathysphere-like contraption deigned to immerse one viewer at a time in an environment of colored light.Â Unfortunately, the piece required separate tickets beyond the separate tickets required for the rest of Turrellâ€™s show, and they were both expensive (eighty bucks, I think) and sold out long before we had planned our trip to LA.Â (Even the remainder of Turrellâ€™s show required separate tickets which had sold out for the day by the time we arrived at 11:45, but weâ€™d bought ours in advance.)
For the rest of us, the heart of Part 2 was a 2011 piece called Purusa.Â After standing in line in a darkened hallway, shephered by security, we entered a sort of foyer.Â A long bench ran along one wall, with cubbies beneath for shoe storage.Â We were asked to take off our shoes and don little white booties while we waited.Â Opposite the bench was a ziggurat dias of carpeted steps, leading up to an aperture in the far wall, through which we watched the preceding group of viewers experiencing the piece beyond.Â The light in that space gradually changed, and gave those in it a sort of halo of a second color.Â I have no idea how this works, but for example when the light in the space was blue, those inside it seemed to have green halos around them.Â And then it was our turn and we were called into the space.
Purusa consists of a large room with the cross section of a rounded rectangle, so no corners are visible.Â Opposite the entry door is an open wall, opening into a space with a bare wall a few feet back.Â The room itself is let by bars of colored LEDs around the door, while the far wall is lit separately.Â The room is kept fairly dim, the far wall more brightly lit.Â The result has been described as being that of a physical screen, in the shape of a rounded rectangle, hanging in the space of the room.Â I could see this, but (perhaps in part as a result of having had it thus described) I saw it less as an object and more as a portal (as it is), but opening not into a shallow face blocked by a wall, but rather opening into a vast, featureless expanse.Â Okay, frankly, it made me think of the door to a shuttle bay in the Rebel base on Hoth.Â It had that bright, blank, vast, strangely-colored, polar sort of feel.Â At least at first.
Spending some time in the space, these physical associations began to diminish.Â I removed my eyeglasses, mostly to get the frames out of my peripheral vision, and faced a wall so that no other viewers were in my field of vision.Â And I stared blankly into space, into color, into light.Â It occurred to me that looking at Turrellâ€™s installation felt a lot like how I look at a Rothko painting.Â In Washington DC, I think it was the fall of 2005, I went to the National Gallery, and somewhere they had a room full of Rothkos.Â I was there by myself, no timeline to speak of, and thatâ€™s when I figured out how to look at a Rothko.Â I approach the Rothko from across the room, forming a quick visual impression but not really lingering until I am close enough that the margins of the painting become lost in my peripheral vision.Â Aah, there it is.Â Now you can look at it.Â Not that you can actually see it, not yet, but you can start to look.Â If you wear corrective lenses you might take them off; petty details like the scumbled paint and the weave of the canvas, which those nose-to-the-surface would-be viewers take to be so important, are in fact entirely incidental.Â Rothko paints with what, at least to me, looks like a disregard for the paint.Â He paints like he wishes it was light.Â And, after a few minutes of staring, thatâ€™s what it becomes, thatâ€™s what it is.Â It occurs to you, that you arenâ€™t seeing paint, that you can never see paint, that you can never see anything at all, except light.Â Photons, particles or waves, hitting you in the retina, through whatever intermediary barriers of nerves, aqueous and vitreous humors, lenses, cornea, and intervening air, but ultimately itâ€™s just light hitting your brain.Â Thatâ€™s how you look at a Rothko.Â Itâ€™s drugs, man.Â Itâ€™s drugs.
So you step inside the Turrell and everythingâ€™s weird, youâ€™re thinking about Hoth and looking down at your hands, that weird marbling, dark blood and pale fat showing through the translucent skin, and youâ€™re thinking about drugs, and light, and the color slowly, gradually changes.Â You suspect gradients, and question relationships.Â Look behind you, back through the door by which you came.Â Come on, art school kids, youâ€™ve done this before.Â You know the light out there was white, or white-ish, a warm white Iâ€™d call â€œInstitutional Incandescent.â€Â The whole time you sat out there, it never changed, so you know it isnâ€™t changing now.Â And you remember simultaneous contrast, the phenomenon by which colors shift towards the complement of adjacent colors, in the same way you have more game if you have an ugly wingman.Â And you remember your 2D design class, your color theory.Â The room is blue right now (and now blue was your color) and so of course when you look back, the outside room is going to be orange.Â But itâ€™s not.Â Itâ€™s green.Â Itâ€™s fucking green.Â Green is its color.
So Turrellâ€™s inside your fucking head, and heâ€™s got a ballpein hammer and a pair of tin snips, and heâ€™s just sort of banging away and cutting shit, seeing what happens.Â And you donâ€™t know whether he knows.Â Is he like some Dr. Mengele, Dr. Moreau, mad scientist type, experimenting on us, blindly?Â Or is he more like some demonic Clive Barker villain or H.P. Lovecraft bumbling hero, offering to show us heretofore unseen worlds, but perhaps at some terrible cost?Â Of course not.Â Thatâ€™s fucking silly.Â Heâ€™s just an old man, an artist, probably a bit of a hippie, or maybe weâ€™re just stereotyping based on the long, gray beard.Â Maybe heâ€™s a wizard.
There is, undeniably, something about Turrellâ€™s work that makes you feel like thereâ€™s an experiment going on, and youâ€™re not sure if youâ€™re a peer reviewer examining the results, or a subject providing data.Â In this thereâ€™s something a lot like Olafur Eliasson, who in his semi-recent (last few years, look it up) exhibition at the MCA Chicago provided a similar sort of experimental, experiential exhibition.Â One was a round walled enclosure of changing colored light, which one viewed in a way similar to the way you experience Purusa, albeit on a more modest scale.Â Another was a corridor filled with amber light, to which ones eyes become so adjusted that, upon leaving, the whole world is bright goddamned violet.
So anyway, Turrellâ€™s got this place, Roden Crater, out near my new digs in Flagstaff, Arizona.Â And you canâ€™t go there.Â Neither can I, for that matter.Â Itâ€™s pretty tightly guarded, and while you can find it on a map, generally, the exact location is a pretty closely guarded secret.Â I saw a lecture the Psychology department at Northern Arizona University (where I now teach) put on about Turrellâ€™s work, and it was such a tease, the presenter sort of apologized for getting us all hard and sending us home with blueballs.Â So far, the only people who can go out there, unless you â€œknow somebody,â€ are people who have supported the project through purchases of major works.Â As for the general public?Â Itâ€™s anyoneâ€™s guess.Â Wikipedia cites an article, from 2007, as saying Turrell intends to open the place for public viewingâ€¦in 2007.
THE LOVE AND ROCKETS COMPANION: 30 YEARS (AND COUNTING), edited by Marc Sobel and Kristy Valenti (Fantagraphics, 2013)
Mairead Case continued her lovely series,Â MaintenanceÂ this week, opening with a quote fromÂ Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ 1969Â Manifesto for Maintenance Art: “The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium” Case discusses books:
The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.
â€“ Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!
Here are five books I read this month, and pictures of three more. An asterisk means the book (or zine) came out less than 365 days ago.Â (The green polish is Selena Gomez Nicole by Opi. I don’t own the bottle but I did bonk my thumb running for the #18, and a nice lady at the library let me do a touch-up. The silver is Wet n Wild.)