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The Art World Is Starting to 'Get' Digital Art

An online digital art platform was just launched, and it's far from an underground project.

Image: "Moon", by Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson

Is the established art world finally starting to get into digital art? A new online platform launched today in London to showcase digital works, and celebrated with a high-profile opening at the iconic Tate Museum. While art shows in cyberspace are by no means new, this one was set up by the BBC and the Arts Council—not your usual art-hacker suspects.

“The Space” features a rotating roster of specially commissioned digital artworks on show, and it’s kicked off with a selection of pieces by notably high-end artists. There’s a time-lapse iPad flower drawing by British artist David Hockney, a digital animation by Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, and a diary by performance artist Marina Abramovic that starts at midnight tonight to tie-in with her current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery.

The top-end curation strikes a contrast with the kind of free-for-all attitude we’ve come to expect with art on the web, and it's indicative of a new stage in digital art’s evolution. 

"1062" by David Hockney. Image: The Space

The site’s launch director Ruth Mackenzie told me they hoped that they might make digital art “as major and important an art form in the 21st century as cinema was in the 20th.”

The devices we use everyday, she said, haven’t yet changed art. While we consume some art forms with them, she said, “the art itself hasn’t changed as a result of this extraordinary invention of the internet and the way we use the internet, through tablets and phones and computers, so you’d think something as major and as innovative as cinema might emerge as a form of art that really embraces and uses the digital platforms.” 

There is in fact, of course, already a whole host of truly awesome and innovative digital art out there, from GIFs to glitch and everything else under the sweeping umbrella of “new media.” But a lot of it is still fairly underground, and hasn’t had the kind of mainstream recognition you get with a big offline gallery show.

There’s still a pervading tone that a lot of digital art, especially if it’s “only” online and not presented in some named bricks-and-mortar gallery, isn’t worth as much as more conventional forms, both figuratively and literally

When I spoke to artist collective 15Folds about their GIF exhibition a while ago, for instance, they said they were keen to bring their digital creations into meatspace because they felt they “deserved” that kind of real-world recognition. But when web spaces are opened by established arts bodies, that does something to bridge this mental gap. It’s online, but it’s still got that veneer of approval.

As such, the Space sits in a strange space, somewhere between the democracy of the web, where anyone can visit and admission is free, and the closed gallery, where attendance is as tightly curated as the works themselves.

“What’s great is that the BBC and the Arts Council have given us permission to experiment and be radical, and attach their values to still aim very high and look for ambitious, world-class talent,” said Mackenzie.

A performance shot from "Longitude" by Elastic Future, a play performed on Google Hangouts

The pieces are commissioned, and Mackenzie said they were keen to include creatives from all backgrounds, whether they’re more artsy or techy. Despite the current show-stealers, it isn’t limited to established figures, either: there’s an open call for people to pitch their own ideas. 

There’s also a hackathon kicking things off tonight at the Tate, where participants have the broad brief of making art out of data. Ai Weiwei has contributed some of his own data to the challenge: his voice recordings from his sound installation "Nian", which saw he and his team recite the names of students killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson’s interactive digital work “Moon”—where you can draw your own doodles on the surface of a digital moon—is also on show at the Tate for the launch.

On the site itself, the commissions make the most of the online medium. In addition to the above, there’s a play being broadcast through the medium of Google Hangouts, a theatre piece on Scottish independence anyone can contribute their own five-minute snippet to, and an animation by Universal Everything that also asks for online audience participation.

“If we commission some stuff that actually shapes the way that digital art develops, and we commission stuff that inspires and excites people, that engages you emotionally and intellectually … That’s what great art does; I’d be really thrilled,” said Mackenzie. 

For better or worse, it looks like digital art might just be getting discovered by the mainstream.