Name It: Why Established Galleries Already Feature Digital Art But Don’t Say So

Michele Abeles, Baby Carriage on Bike or Riot Shield as Carriage, 2015. Digitally composited collage of the artist’s earlier photographs. Abeles conceived this billboard for the Whitney’s new building and southern entrance to the High Line, © courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

People look intrigued by digital art like it’s some alienated media that doesn’t have a market yet. Fact is, it’s not. Many artists using new media have entered a network of galleries, blue-chip included, the only issue being their artistic process remains explained by art professionals themselves.

Artie Vierkant, Image Object Monday 11 March 2013 1:12PM (installation view), 2013. UV print on composite aluminum panel, 135 x 145 cm, © courtesy of Galerie Perrotin.

Few specialized galleries set the scene of digital art to this day amongst which bitforms, Annka Kultys Gallery, Transfer Gallery, Roehrs and Boetsch, and Laffy Maffei Gallery to name a few. While these venues present themselves as forward-looking and supportive of artists exploring new media environments, the majority of established galleries close to international art fairs and global markets don’t provide strong evidence of digital artworks although a substantial number of their well-recognized artists work with computer-generated photographic collages, video art, and prints. Examples include Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Pipilotti Rist, Jenny Holzer, Michele Abeles, Borna Sammack, Mat Collishaw, Bill Viola, Tacita Dean, Artie Vierkant, John Gerrard, David Hockney, and so many more, all presented by the likes of David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Blain|Southern, Sprüth Magers, Perrotin, Sadie Coles, Thomas Dane, and Marian Goodman.

When it comes to digital art, galleries refer to media as tools saying this or that artist relies on photography or video, or work on the computer. But references to the skills required for production and even more importantly post-production are hardly mentioned. Is that because we consider today’s techniques as “simple,” and so, made irrelevant? With the complexity of software and programming as well as the extensive range of existing media, this seems rather unlikely.

Left: Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross c. 1435. Oil on oak panel, 220cm × 262 cm. © Museo del Prado, Madrid. Altarpieces like this one involved many steps like covering the panel with chalk, constructing the underdrawing, priming, and than painting with glazes. The Flemish painter worked with as many as five or six layers of translucent glaze to achieve its deepest hues, and sometimes also mixed his colors with lead white to increase opacity. Glazes allowed to obtain strong effects while using the minimum of pigments which were expensive material at the time. Mixing pigments with oil also required craftsmanship for if too coarse was hard to handle and if too fine would tarnish. Right: Otto Dix, Portrait of the Industrialist Dr Julius Hesse with a Paint Sample, 1926. Oil and tempera on plywood, 99,8 × 70,2 cm, © Kunstmuseum Stuttgart. Founder of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, Dix worked with both alla prima and glaze techniques, adapting essential techniques of the Renaissance to the 20th century. The former allowing to apply one thick layer of opaque oil paint (wet on wet) while the latter was used to obtained more luminous qualities.

Digital artworks’ technical quality, as well as a historical necessity, call for more attention to creative processes. From the glaze technique that painters like Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck used extensively during the Renaissance to the alla prima paintings and impasto which prevailed during the 19th century, with Impressionists notably, media and techniques have played an invaluable role in art history. Materials and methods that artist employ carries social bearing and help to retrace narratives from specific historical times. While understanding a piece of art consistently involves the analysis of its content, iconography, and socio-political message, the comprehension, and appraisal of craftsmanship and expertise behind a work remain crucial to the creation of meaning.

Left: Obvious, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, 2018. Created using GAN (Generative Adversarial Network). Sold for $432,500 on 25 October 2018 at Christie’s, New York. © courtesy of the artist. Right: Outputs from Robbie Barrat’s 2017 art-DCGAN project run by Tom White, © courtesy of artnome.

AI art makes a compelling example of the importance of understanding technical processes better. When Christie’s sold Obvious’ piece Portrait of Edmond de Belamy for $432,500 in October 2018, the community of AI artists was outraged because of the little skills this work involved in training Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN). Forums and social media platforms like Twitter suddenly burst with comments on the use of GANs and its associated skills, most of them with tech language a non-savvy would not necessarily understand.

How can we judge these technical achievements as art professionals? Specialists know how to promote aesthetics and associated forms of meaning, but with technology like AI, all seem out of control. Images that result from a simple process and manipulation compel to the external viewer yet stand as just a little practice exercise. Computational sketches cannot hold the same value as painstakingly developed works because of the lack of human dedication, but by not knowing or understanding these pieces’ technical reality, art historians cannot lack skills to assess different levels of refinement. How hard is that to admit.

Mat Collishaw, Albion, 2017. Mixed media, 430 x 540 x 460 cm, © Blain|Southern.

The fact we don’t understand techniques or rather technicity means we can’t marvel at it — or only partially. James Bridle’s point of accusing weak technological literacy in the arts is key to a new way of thinking. As he explains,

“willful anti-technicalism, which is a form of anti-intellectualism, mirrors the present cultural obsession with nostalgia, retro, and vintage (…) those who cannot understand technology are doomed to be consumed by it.”

Mostly Bridle explains that what we now perceive as a misunderstanding of the media should lead to further lack of aptitudes in interpreting artistic discourses:

“Technology is political. If you cannot perceive the politics, the politics will be done to you.”
Sabrina Ratté, Biomes, 2016. Single-channel videos with audio, © Transfer Download.

As such, having a working knowledge of technology stands for art professionals as the next essential, as is today speaking several languages to face a globalized industry. Does that mean we need to train art specialists or instead collaborate with science and technology experts? And should consulting advisors be external or included in-house? Answering these questions will affect the current structures of galleries. Integrating tech specialists or people with more practical skills for software and hardware will become a must for understanding the quality of the digital artworks, not to mention installation, maintenance and conservation purposes — a take media-based museums have already observed, furthering galleries’ need to pace up in adjusting to digital environments.