Language of Art Written in Code

Technology entrepreneur and art collector Peter Hirshberg is at home in his SoHo loft, talking about his contemporary art collection.

Besides postmodern French cinema posters, photographs by Robert Longo and a sketch by Javacheff Christo, there’s something else that’s pretty au courant. He touches a screen hanging on a wall and it immediately jumps to life with colorful swirls and gliding geometric shapes. Stereo speakers emit low blowing and swirling sounds as the shapes move across the screen.

This is an interactive digital art piece by New York City artist Mark Napier titled Waiting Room, which up to 50 owners share from a central server via the Internet. As Mr. Hirshberg sketches his finger over the screen’s surface, adding a series of squares, another owner invisibly sketches in blue circles from across town, and the software melds the two additions into a sfumato compositional whole.

“This is such an exciting and dynamic new medium,” Mr. Hirshberg says, as he leans over the screen. “It is artistic and emotional, and people are blown away by it.”

Digital art is gaining momentum as a recognized art form. Equal parts hardware, software and old-fashioned artistic expression, it has captured the imagination of dealers and collectors at all levels. Big-name collectors are buying it; so, too, are little collectors like Mr. Hirshberg.

A growing number of public commissions are available, and a few galleries have sprung up that are exclusively devoted to the genre. A few large corporations are also including so-called “new media” art in their collections.

Technically, digital art is any form constructed by using a computer and computer software. It can be static, such as a digitally enhanced photograph; it can be reactive, whereby it uses software and tools like a video camera to respond to the presence of a viewer; or it can be interactive, like Mr. Napier’s piece, using software that responds to some form of input.

“Many of these artists are writing their own codes and using them as their paintbrushes and as their creations,” says Steve Sacks, owner of bitforms, a West 20th Street gallery devoted exclusively to digital art.

Though the current interest in digital art dates from 2000, when New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art held near-simultaneous exhibitions, it remains a tiny niche. Experts say it accounts for somewhere between 1% and 5% of all art-market sales.

Easier on the wallet
Typically, it sells for a fraction of more traditional art, ranging from $300 for an original CD of interactive software artwork to more than $100,000 for a complex installation.

In New York, an increasing number of galleries are showing digital art. In the vanguard is bitforms, which sells only new media art and has arranged some prominent commissions for its digital artists, who include Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Yael Kanarek, Golan Levin, Casey Reas and Daniel Rozin.

“There aren’t a lot of installations in private homes today, and there are only a handful of people around the country and the world who collect this,” says Mr. Sacks.

He says that his business model is slightly different from that of the typical gallery for emerging artists. With annual revenues near $1 million, he deals with more big-ticket items like installations at hotels and other quasi-public spaces.

But costs are higher, since most projects require computer hardware, software and other equipment, like screens and video cameras, which can amount to as much as a quarter of the cost of a new media piece. Paint and canvas costs are insignificant for a painting, of course.

Mr. Sacks recently arranged commission for four of his artists at the W Hotel in Seoul, Korea. In September, the hotel opened with permanent displays of works by Messrs. Levin, Napier, Reas and Rozin in such areas as the hotel bar, main lobby, elevator bays and about 30 of the large guest suites.

The hotel chain’s decision to incorporate digital art into its decor is part of an effort to introduce contemporary, living art into its spaces for guests, says Ross Klein, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of W Hotels worldwide.

The chain has also installed digital art in its two New York City locations on Lexington Avenue and in Times Square, as well as in its properties in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego. The Seoul project was the most expensive, costing several hundred thousand dollars.

In New York, digital art is also finding its way into public spaces. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council this year launched “Downtown Digital Futures,” a yearlong initiative devoted to helping downtown movers and shakers integrate new media art into the area’s redevelopment through public displays.

It arranged a commission with Deutsche Bank to use its atrium windows at 60 Wall St. for a large digital art installation by Canadian artist Carl Skelton. The piece, Gist: Next Generation Americana, uses software to generate random sentences in an infinite, nonrepeating sequence. The words, culled from the text of a national policy report on technology, are then flashed onto the windows of the atrium.

Similarly, the Greenwich Street Project, a 70,000-square-foot residential and commercial building at 497 Greenwich St., will permanently feature in its lobby an ambitious digital art piece by Lincoln Schatz.

The $50,000 project will use a series of video screens and cameras to capture live images of people entering the building. Those images will be overlaid with archived images of the building occupants and passersby, as well as images from a database that the artist has compiled, to form a living, sculptural montage that constantly changes.

“Depending on who moves in front of the piece, the other archived layers on the screen are manipulated,” says Mr. Schatz, who is based in Chicago. “So you are pulling up video images for days and hours in the past.”

By Jeremy Quittner

Crain’s New York Business | November 29, 2004

© 2004 by Crain Communications Inc.