A History of Digital Art in 30 Works, Part 2

We’re continuing our stroll down Random Access Memory Lane, with a look at digital art’s debut on the world art stage — 1985 through 2010.

Check out Part 1 of our history of digital art right here.

Andy Warhol, “Andy2”

1985

This can’t be a surprise, right? In 1985, Commodore International signed Andy Warhol to the kind of endorsement deal and publicity push typically reserved for sports stars or Instagram influencers. They also gave him an Amiga 1000 home computer, boasting 256 KB of RAM and up to 8.5 MB of memory.

The 13-pound machine was unveiled at a Lincoln Center gala in which Warhol created a portrait of Debbie Harry using Amiga’s ProPaint software. But Warhol’s interest in the medium outlasted that event — he went on to create more several more pieces with ProPaint, including images of the Campbell’s Soup can, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and this self-portrait.

Suddenly, the ability to create digital art wasn’t limited to the rarefied academics of Bell Labs; anyone willing to plonk down $1,200 for a home computer could create.

In 2014, the Andy Warhol Museum managed to extract the saved files from floppy disks. The pieces can be seen at the museum’s Amiga installation.

Kenneth Snelson, “Forest Devils’ Moonlight”

1989

Kenneth Snelson’s dynamic, physics-defying sculptures were inspired by his former professor at Black Mountain College, father of the geodesic dome Buckminster Fuller. Because of the delicate engineering act required to make many of his pieces work, Snelson’s work was derided by some as mere scientific modeling.

He disagreed. “Engineers make structures for specific uses, to support something, to hold something, to do something,” he said in a 2009 monograph. “My sculptures serve only to stand up by themselves, and to reveal a particular form such as a tower or a cantilever or a geometrical order probably never seen before...”

When Snelson discovered the digital imaging techniques used by computer-aided architectural engineering in the 1980s, he began to shift his output into the realm of the imaginary. Not only did the technology allow him to create fantastical, impossible sculptures, but also gave him the chance to reimagine older works, such as Pittsburgh’s Forest Devils, as seen above.

Maurizio Bolognini, “Programmed Machines”

1992–97

As computing became more and more accessible to the general public, much digital art strayed away from simply trying to mimic the forms of traditional art and grew highly conceptual. Maurizio Bolognini was among the first to lead the charge.

Programmed Machines is an attempt to do nothing less than embrace the infinite — the installation consists of computers programmed to generate a never-ending series of unique images.

But, Bolognini insists, there’s nothing virtual about his work. “These machines have little to do with virtuality,” he said of Programmed Machines. “The flow of images they have been generating without interruption for twenty years is non-material but real, and it has an existence independent of the observer.”

Penn & Teller, “Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors”

1995

Penn and Teller’s scrapped 1995 video game Smoke and Mirrors was never intended to be an art piece per se — they developed the Sega platformer with game studio Imagineering— but their vision for an interminable, nearly unplayable series of mini-games would prove hugely influential in the decades to come.

In the most notorious of Smoke and Mirrors’ mini-games, “Desert Bus”, players were required to drive a bus from Tuscon, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada at 45 miles-per-hour in real time. That meant a successful player would have to be in active control of the game for eight hours straight.

As Wikipedia explains it, “The bus contains no passengers, there is little scenery aside from an occasional rock or bus stop sign, and there is no traffic. The road between Tucson and Las Vegas is completely straight. The bus veers to the right slightly, and thus requires the player’s constant attention.”

The game was originally conceived as a satire of the 90s anti-video game lobby, but as legend quickly grew the game developed a cult following. In 2017, Gearbox Software released Desert Bus VR, and its influence can be clearly seen in the video game-based art that would emerge in the 2000s.

Olia Lialina, “My Boyfriend Came Back from the War”

1996

Remember Netscape? Remeber hypertext-based storytelling? Well My Boyfriend Came Back From the War was one of the first browser-art pieces to not only embrace the medium’s possibilities, but also transform them into something remarkable.

Lialina’s work, as the title suggests, tells the story of a woman reuniting with her boyfriend, who is returning from an unnamed, distant conflict.

The story is navigated through clicking on text and images in various frames on the page, but still manages to create a hypnotic, cinematic experience — even after 22 years of tech innovations.

As Mark Tibe and Reena Jana write in Taschen’s 2006 New Media Art, “One indicator of the historical significance of Olia Lialina’s 1996 Netart project… is the numerous times it has been appropriated and remixed by other New Media artists. On her Web site, Lialina maintains an extensive list of these appropriations that includes versions in Flash, Real Audio, VRML, the Castle Wolfenstein game engine (Mac and PC), PowerPoint and video. There is even a blog version and a version in gouache on paper.”

You can experience the piece right here.

Cory Arcangel, “Super Mario Clouds”

2002

Cory Arcangel has become the poster boy for tech nerd art stars of the 21st century, and Super Mario Clouds was his breakout work. The piece is a 76-minute silent film, produced when Arcangel modified the source code of a Nintendo Super Mario Brothers cartridge to display only blue sky and clouds scrolling across the screen.

Arcangel’s big break came at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, where Super Mario Clouds was shown to critical acclaim and internet virality. In 2011, he unveiled a solo show at the Whitney, “Pro Tools”, which would fill anyone with dread upon realizing he was only 32 years old at the time.

Super Mario Brothers isn’t the only Nintendo game Arcangel has repurposed — 2004’s F1 Racer Mod is a clear nod to Penn and Teller’s “Desert Bus”. Arcangel has also open-sourced many of his hacks, offering a remarkably detailed step-by-step, as well as the source code, on his official website.

Marisa Olson, “The One That Got Away”

2005

Think back to halcyon days of 2004 — The Passion of the Christ was heating up movie theaters, the Iraq war was entering its second year, and everyone was talking about season three of American Idol, which featured William Hung, Jennifer Hudson, and a multi-media conceptual art piece from 27-year-old Marisa Olson.

Olson was a Ph.D. candidate in film and digital media at the University of California, Berkeley at the time, and she documented the meticulous year-long planning, training, and image-making on a defunct blog (read it here).

Unfortunately Olson never heard the fabled words, “You’re going to Hollywood”, and despite the fact that producers followed her for several days of the audition process, none of the footage ever aired. Olson did, however, reenact her moment in the sun for an 8-minute video, The One That Got Away.

James Faure Walker, “Lose Eight”

2007

With a background in tradition abstract art, and degrees from both St Martins School of Art as well as the Royal Academy of Art, James Faure Walker has been a highly influential voice in bringing digital art to the “establishment”.

Walker himself did not begin using computers for artistic purposes until nearly two decades into his career, when he began creating wildly abstract images that are a hybrid of digital and traditional techniques.

The piece above is one of a series of eight variations on the figure eight, drawn on a tablet, with an underlying motif derived from oil paintings. “When some of these were exhibited,” Walker wrote, “I was pleased to find that viewers thought the physical motifs were digital, and the digital elements were physical. Not that it would matter.”

His excellent essay, Notes on Working with Computers from 1998 to 2002, is also well worth reading.

Cao Fei, “RMB City”

2008

The massively-multiplayer virtual world of Second Life became a kind of conceptual art project for millions of users, but few, if any, pushed the medium as far as Beijing’s Cao Fei.

The “city” was “constructed” (we’re just going to skip the scare quotes from here on out) in 2008, a process that was displayed at London’s Serpentine Gallery; RMB opened to the public of Second Life in 2009.

Officially located in China and named for the country’s renminbi currency, RMB was a clear reflection of China’s own hyper-growth, the city’s topography cluttered with hulking construction sites.

Until Cao shuttered the city in 2011, RMB City offered visitors the chance to do everything from witness mayoral inaugurations to interact with Cao Fei’s own avatar, a decidedly sexy female called China Tracey.

The city’s history was extensively documented in several video pieces by Cao Fei, and the site itself played host to many art openings and events. If you’d like to get lost in a very thorough history of RMB, check out the official site.

Eva and Franco Mattes, “My Generation”

2010

The flipside of Cao Fei’s utopian RMB City, Eva and Franco Mattes’ My Generation is a compilation of online videos showing gamers in full meltdown mode, all displayed on a CRT monitor hooked up to a smashed computer (the child isn’t included).

There’s no doubt the New York-based artists take a more dismal view of our new digital reality than most. Among their works: a 10-minute video of Chatroulette users reacting to a faked suicide, and the reenactment of Chris Burden’s notorious video art in Second Life.

“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t use today’s tools,” the duo told Vice. “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel for example is ancient virtual reality, 3D immersion in a simulation.”

You can check out the 13-minute video of My Generation here.

The final installment of A History of Digital Art will appear later this month.


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