What is Digital Art? Definition and Scope of the New Media

Alexandra Gorczynski, Languor in the flowers, 2016, still image mixing digital painting and photo collages.

We talk a lot about it, and yet its scope and embrace are hard to pinpoint, “Digital Art” describes technological arts, with fluid boundaries offering many possible interpretations of the terminology. The term itself has evolved through time and whereas computer art, multimedia art, and cyber-art were standard in the 1960s-90s, the rise of the World Wide Web added a layer of connectivity resulting in a shift in language. As such, we now prefer the terms digital art and new media which can be used interchangeably with some nuances.

Art historians often categorize digital art as twofold: object-oriented artworks and process-oriented visuals. In the first scenario, digital technologies are a means to an end, and function as a tool for the creation of traditional objects like paintings, photographs, prints, and sculptures. In the second case, the technology is the end itself, and artists explore the possibilities entailed to the very essence of this new medium. This latter category — often associated with the term “new media” — refers to all computable art that is digitally created, stored and distributed. In other words, while some works rely on digital tools to magnify an already-existing medium, others use digital technology as an intrinsic and indissociable component in the making of the artifact. With these definitions in mind, the list below presents current practices linked to the digital medium.

Andrej Ujhazy, Ljjkbkjbkjbkjbkjbk, 2016. This digital painting was created with the use of MS paint and Photoshop, among other software.

Digital painting appeared in the 1990s and embrace traditional painting techniques like watercolors, oil painting, and impastos. While the artist develops a graphical design with the use of a computer, tablet or stiletto, the process itself is similar to painting with traditional materials and result in painterly aesthetics. Digital paintings also share features that are specific to computer art visuals like the repetition and distortion of elements and can result in abstract imagery. The last year has also seen the rise of 3D painting entailed to the use of virtual reality with Google’s app Tilt Brush and its artists in residence. Our first gallery Laffy Maffei specializes in this segment with the promotion of artists like Andrej Ujhazy, and Alexandra Gorczynski.

Andreas Gursky, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, 1997, chromogenic print face-mounted to acrylic, 185.42 cm x 248.29 cm. © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Gursky manipulates images digitally to create fictions that reflect on globalization and mass consumerism.]

Digital photography includes the use of images taken from reality through photographs, scans, satellite-imaging, and other possible records of what exists. This segment often mixes what is and what is not, blurring boundaries and distorting our understanding of truth. Traditional techniques of collage and the assemblage of elements, as well as the overlaying and blending of visuals through morphing technology, are part of this strand of digital imagery led by artists like Nancy Burson, Daniel Canogar, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gorsky.

Wim Delvoye, Twisted Dump Truck Clockwise, 2011, chemically-nickeled, laser-cut steel with glass-pearl finish. This sculpture highlights the potential of digital technologies for the distortion and merging of complex elements. The artist mixes traditional and contemporary industrial imagery, here combining the architectural details of a gothic church with the shape of a truck.

Sculpture results from a design on computer-aided software, which can later be either displayed as physical objects/models or shown as virtual images on screens. Computing allows for the manipulation and controlling of complex geometry, as well as their 3D visualization, significantly enhancing traditional design abilities to foster grander creative ideas. Robert Lazzarini’s use of anamorphisms demonstrates this new realm of possibilities, while artists like Tony Cragg, Wim Delvoye, Birch Cooper, Jon Rafman, and Anish Kapoor use IT technology for the development and assemblage of complex and intricate elements, as well as organic shapes.

Michel Bret, Edmond Couchot, Les Pissenlits, 1990–2017. This interactive installation uses virtual reality giving visitors the opportunity to blow on dandelions.

Digital installations closely relate to the sculptures for their 3D nature but offer a new typology in their relation to the viewer. Mostly, this type of artworks can be interactive — that is responding to visitors’ inputs (e.g., body movements, voices, touch). Alternatively, these art pieces can be immersive, presenting viewers with a new spatial environment or altering the nature of their surroundings. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are typical examples of the technologies promoting this kind of experience. Nonetheless, these installations require expensive material, logistical, computational, and architectural planning. Ultimately, this art form is now suited to museums, and institutional and public spaces, offering the vast areas and infrastructures for people to experience the medium entirely. Leading protagonists in the design of installations include Team Lab, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Michel Bret and Edmond Couchot.

Jacques Perconte, Ettrick: Scottish Borders, 2015. This video blends live-action and painterly animated images, embracing moving images’ full scope of possibilities.

Videos, animation, and the moving image constitute the most obvious scene for the questioning of reality. This technology allows the full recording of an event through both space and time, while simultaneously dealing with montage and the transformation of what honestly happens. Two strands define the moving image: live action on the one hand, and animation and 3D Worlds on the other. The moving image is often the privileged medium for the development of virtual reality and immersive environments, which explains its close link to installation art. Examples of digital artists working with video include Pipilotti Rist, Ryoji Ikeda, Yoshi Sodeoka, Toni Dove and Jacques Perconte.

Krist Wood, Inivichrys i, 2011. This narrative is built from the artist’s virtual “travels” through search engines’ image libraries, and exploring the visual qualities of the web and screen culture.

Internet and networked art are process-oriented objects looking at the functioning of computing structures and networks. The web is an intricate net of information similarly to any network, and artists working in that field mean to highlight or challenge the complexity and nature of these systems (e.g., Mark Napier, Olia Lialina). Beyond this pure stamina, internet art also includes all works that are meant to be distributed on the web, or that take inspiration and information from the net as a basis for their artistic development. Krist Wood stands as an excellent example of the latter practice, both because of his artistic practice and his involvement with the Computers Club and Internet Archeology.

Software art focuses more specifically on computational engineering as in the machine’s language, communication systems. These works can either be connected — interfering in live action with visitors — or auto-generated — meaning visuals result from set algorithms and codes. Whereas the artist encodes following an idea/concept, the resulting images and other stimuli entirely depend on the computer process. Artists such as Adrian Ward and Casey Reas are notable for their use of programming languages.

Mixed Media is essential to the digital medium. As opposed to traditional creation, computation implies elements of different nature can be associated and coordinated to produce a whole experience for the viewer. Artworks can thus combine, still and moving image, augmented reality, sound, photographs, and so on. One medium of the artwork can also be singled out meaning one digital creation can result in various physical outputs, depending on the joint wishes and purposes of commissioners, artists, and curators.