Public candid 3D scan photograph. Image: James George and Alexander Porter

Is It Art? Artists Are Turning Their Work into Startups

“If the Cubists could have made an app for doing Cubism, they would have."

Sep 1 2015, 11:00am

Public candid 3D scan photograph. Image: James George and Alexander Porter

James George looks like most other artists in Brooklyn. When I meet him at a cafe near his Bushwick studio, he's in rumpled head-to-toe black, bleary-eyed, locking up his bicycle. George works mainly with technology in his artistic practice, but lately, he's decided to go further even than other digital artists: he's going to turn himself into a startup.

George is considering venture capital investment to turn his virtual reality filmmaking system DepthKit into a scalable, consumer-facing business, and the decision has been weighing on him to the point that he expects "backlash" from other artists, he says.

"We haven't traditionally had artists that are working in domains that brush up so closely against things that can be seen as venture-scale businesses," George explains. "Inside of the tech-art community there's this joking naiveté about investment, then there's always the what-if."

Part of George's "Specular Portraits" series. Image: James George

What if, with a million-dollar seed round, you could change the world without even being in a gallery? What if you could be a success without a single collector?

Given the right investment, George could turn DepthKit, which he invented to produce a dream-like series of images and videos that look like snapshots from the future, into commercial software, or even an Instagram-like app that would allow the entire world to take selfies in virtual reality. George's aesthetic could become scalable, to borrow a Silicon Valley buzzword, which he sees as desirable.

"If the Cubists could have made an app for doing Cubism, they would have," the artist says.

This short uses DepthKit technology to render actors.

With the flood of investment entering technology companies, digital artists are facing the possibility that their creations might make better businesses than museum objects, and might reach more viewers (or users) in the process. The risk is that, as with a startup that flames out, money could corrupt what was once a positive, passionate goal. To survive investment, artists have to stick closer to their ideals than ever within an art world that remains highly skeptical of Silicon Valley.

Art and the business of technology have a long history of intertwining; in fact, their recent separation is something of an anomaly. The Romans developed concrete as an architectural tool and the Renaissance revival of natural perspective went hand in hand with political and scientific humanism. But over the past century, we've gotten used to the idea that artists are supposed to work apart from industry, that the artistic ideal is van Gogh out in the fields of France alone with his easel. We prefer heroism over collaboration.

More recently, however, artists have moved toward the vanguard of technological innovation once again, from Kyle McDonald hacking an entire Apple store to take selfies of customers to Phillip Stearns turning digital glitches into textiles used by Dior and the Dutch duo Metahaven branding WikiLeaks.

"If the Cubists could have made an app for doing Cubism, they would have."

The tech industry is taking notice. If developers are already a scarce commodity, then digital iconoclasts who are already thinking differently are even more desirable. "I get an email every half-year from Google," McDonald told me. The company checks in just to see if he might like to work there. He doesn't. McDonald was also contacted by an algorithmic investment company interested in his work on natural language processing, with a job offer on hand. He's not into that, either.

"I don't know if you understand what I'm trying to do here. I'm not trying to help people make better investment decisions," McDonald said. "I'm not motivated by profit. In the end, if you're a business, you have to be motivated by profit to some degree. When you're an artist, you're thrown into the woods to do whatever you want."

The danger of commercial expansion for artists is that they can't survive as artists after being embroiled in an industrial market. Signs of this crossover are everywhere: the New Museum has an incubator/accelerator called New Inc that hosts artists as well as startups, a collective of new media artists has incorporated as Dark Matter Manufacturing in Brooklyn, and even Jonah Peretti was a fellow at the arts incubator Eyebeam long before he started BuzzFeed (his company now offers $100,000 fellowships through a creative lab in its San Francisco office). Yet the long-term consequences of technology's investment in art and artists remains unclear.

In order to scale, teams of developers need to be hired more for efficiency than for artistic suitability. Equity has to be distributed, with all of the power struggles that it entails. Products are designed to sell rather than offer spiritual fulfillment. (The Startup podcast makes for a great documentation of what happens when creative ideals collide with money and a need to scale.) Like business, art has to hew to a singular vision to be successful, but it doesn't usually have to deal with a cap table.

"I think the pressures on a tech business means that it would be very difficult to maintain the project as a true artwork, particularly if the company has received outside funding," Hrag Vartanian, a curator and founder of the art website Hyperallergic, responded after I asked him if an artistic endeavor could become a functioning company. "VC funding will mean that the artistic intent will almost certainly be compromised for business reasons."

Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald createdan app called pplkpr for auto-managing your relationships.

Vartanian encountered this conflict personally when he curated an exhibition in 2010 called "#TheSocialGraph." For the exhibition, artist Benjamin Lotan created a company called Social Print Studio, which automatically produced printed grids of all of a Facebook account's friends, meant as a kind of satire—the new company's logo was adhered to the gallery wall in obnoxious vinyl. Five years later, Social Print Studio is a thriving business printing out Instagram-derived photo books and greeting cards.

"I don't think Social Print Studio is a work of art anymore," Vartanian said. "But its founder has started to think about artist residencies and other things that the company can do to support art professionals."

According to McDonald, residencies are one way that companies like Microsoft (where George did a rare residency) and Google can incorporate artists without co-opting their work, creating a mutually beneficial relationship. Art is good for the brand. "I think Microsoft and Facebook benefit from attracting staff who either identify as an artist or like to align with the arts when they institute creative programming into their business," said Lainya Magaña, founder of the arts creative agency A&O.

This relationship can be superficial or reflect badly on the work that's being made—imagine a painting stamped with the logo of the paint company that was used to create it—but it depends on how the artist chooses to use the resources at their disposal. "You feel like they're just trying to use you to look good," McDonald explained. But if the business offering funding, or even investment, helps further creativity that might have otherwise occurred naturally, then he doesn't see a problem.

"If a company wants to sponsor work I would've already done otherwise, that makes it a better project. There's no reason to avoid that. It's all art," he said.

With DepthKit, James George is looking at a much larger scale than a funded residency. Rather than moving his work through galleries and museums, he's hoping to inject the aesthetic he has pioneered straight into mainstream culture by allowing regular users to adopt his tools.

George and I discuss companies that are business-to-business (B2B), making products to be used only by a few, as opposed to business-to-consumer (B2C). Maybe digital art can take on the same strategy as B2C, distributed directly to its viewers through the mechanism of a company without truly losing its artistic identity. This might be called artist-to-consumer, A2C. "If the intention is to create an impact on the visual identity of the future, making something that is A2C is very important," George tells me.

There are precedents to this form of distribution in the cases of artists like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, whose aesthetics have filtered through mainstream culture with the help of massive studio infrastructures and hundreds of employees. Perhaps venture capital is simply a new way to achieve that same end in an era of consumer digital technology. "The work is of a different nature for us, so the money's going to come from a different space," George says.

Investment is no more of a guarantee of success than the perfect museum or gallery show, however. As many as 90 percent of startups fail. "Investment is like lighter fluid. It doesn't matter how much kerosene you put on the fire, it could fizzle out," George says before he bikes a few blocks back to his studio, which he might soon have to trade for a much larger office. "I don't see a back-up plan at this point."