For some reason, New York pop art phenomenon Keith Haring was petrified of the brave new horizon of technological art: “The artist of this time is creating under a constant realisation that he is being pursued by the computers. Our existence, our individuality, our creativity, our lives are threatened by this coming machine aesthetic.”
These musings, from Haring’s journals of 1977-1990, were perhaps ironic for an artist who, like Andy Warhol, never shied away from a TV interview and who populated his distinctive 1980s works with boundless matrices of interlocking shapes and figures – not dissimilar to the look of circuit boards, or dancing robots.
Now, just over 30 years later, “the computers” have not quite taken over every aspect of our lives or entirely rotted our brains, but there is indeed a burgeoning sphere of new media and digital art that exerts a substantive grip on contemporary creativity. And it has become established enough to have its own congratulatory art-world gong, the Samsung Art+ Prize, being announced for the first time on January 25 in London, by a panel of judges including Peter Weibel from the ZKM Centre for Art and Media and New York-based Korean artist Sooja Kim.
“Artists using technological innovation in order to create their works is nothing new,” says the managing director of Samsung UK, David Song, “but in today’s digital age it is all the more vital that they exploit this, as media becomes more deeply ingrained in our daily lives.”
It is not the first award for the wider digital arts scene (the Prix Ars Electronica and the Webby Awards are two long-standing examples), but the Art+ Prize does focus squarely on the digitalisation of the visual arts or, as Song claims, “it’s the first to recognise aspiring and established media artists and actively celebrate the creative concepts of tomorrow”.
Of course, none of the 10 shortlisted UK-based artists for Samsung’s £10,000 award are anything like as suspicious or skeptical of the rise of new media or screen-based art as Haring was. On the other hand, none of those I spoke to specifically describe themselves as “digital artists” either. Indeed, two of the older heads among the line-up of tech-savvy artists, Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead (born 1969 and 1971 respectively) – who claim that “adjectives put before the word ‘artist’ can seem deterministic” – readily recall a time when “video art was thought of the same, if memory serves”. Distrusted and marginalised, in other words – before it joined the mainstream.
Thomson and Craighead are talking to me via Twitter (address @jonandali) – an apt medium, given that one of their recent projects was London Wall, an interactive message board at the Museum of London, pasted over with hand-typeset phrases found on social media networks within a three-mile radius, or else texted directly to the institution: “We chose flyposting because it is a kind of ancestor of Twitter – both are transient, layered and denser in urban places.”
As these cross-platformers prove, any idea of a “pure” strand of digital or new media art is no longer applicable – it does not compute. In the late 1990s, before the dotcoms crashed, there was a fledgling form of web-based art production and virtual consumption, known as net.art, which briefly threatened the hegemony of museums and the art market, which were deemed outdated for focusing only on physical objects. Yet even these far reaches of the alter-net were eventually subsumed into institutions, and pioneering web works by online collectives such as Jodi.org were bought into collections: “Parts of the art market thrive on creating value out of the ephemeral,” say Thomson and Craighead, “and that’s been the case for decades.”
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The least proven and youngest of the shortlisted artists is a quartet from South London known as LuckyPDF (neatly, they all share a birthdate of 1986). “I don’t think we know any artists who work exclusively ‘digital’,” says one member, John Hill, “but artists that aren’t trying to deal with the implications of new media on society aren’t making relevant work.”
LuckyPDF’s short-lived performative projects are perhaps best understood as part of an ever-expanding network of collaboration and co-operation – a microcosm of the web itself, if you like – rather than representing an old-fashioned artists’ collective with shared aims or manifestos. Their breakthrough came at the Frieze Art Fair in 2011, where they installed a TV studio and live-cast episodes of retro-graphic-fuelled mayhem, by turns hilarious and pseudo-serious, where guest speakers from the art world mingled with phony online psychics and even quarrelsome professional wrestlers.
“We’ve never had a solo show. We’ve never sold any work,” says Hill of their liminal status within the art world – especially palpable in the hierarchical environment of an art fair. “We’re still trying to work out if we will ever do these things – they might just not make sense for the project.”
“It’s strange,” Hill adds, “to be nominated alongside people who are not our peers – including former tutors of ours.” But, he admits, “the money would be nice”.
Perhaps vying with Thomson and Craighead as candidates for an additional £5,000 in Samsung’s “lifetime achievement” category is another seasoned artistic pairing, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. They aren’t worried about being labelled as new or old media practitioners for the purposes of the Art+ Prize because, as they say: “When we began working together it was ‘performance art’ that was considered a dirty word. We’ve never used any new technology (or for that matter old technology) for the sheer sake of it – the idea drives the work and everything else, technology included, follows.”
Last year on Halloween, Forsyth and Pollard’s radio play about a mysterious beam of crimson light, seemingly emanating from Mars, was broadcast by BBC Radio Merseyside, just as the artists unleashed a real-life projection of red light into the night sky over Birkenhead. Their hoax, Romeo Echo Delta (R.E.D.), recalled Orson Welles’s famous radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds but also made use of social networking sites to generate the tension of a breaking news story: “A Tweet from @unknownjourno marked the start of the piece.”
Samsung have limited the prize to UK-resident artists – Song says this is partly because “the genre remains very much under-represented in UK collections” – but US-born artist Doug Fishbone is incongruously included on the shortlist. His recent film Elmina was a wholly Ghanaian production in which he, a white American, played a “black” lead character. “I was inspired,” says Fishbone, “by the way casting is done in opera – where a black Madame Butterfly poses no conceptual difficulties – but it was always my intention to create a film that would be received by a fine art as well as a domestic Ghanaian audience, while still challenging the conventions and expectations of both.”
Elmina – a full-length soapy drama set in the first West African port to be settled by Europeans – has been distributed through galleries, through African cinemas – and on the bootleg market. “Very soon after the legitimate launch, pirated disks made their way to Britain,” says Fishbone.
With such a broad spectrum to survey, then, none of the candidates for the Art+ Prize quite fits a single billing. Other nominees include Semiconductor (another duo), who might be described as moving image sci-artists; Hiraki Sawa, essentially an animator within a high art context; and established multimedia practitioners such as German-born, Glasgow-based Torsten Laschmann, and Neil Cummings, who doubles as a professor at Chelsea College of Art.
Multimedia artist Aura Satz, also on the shortlist, explains: “It’s an inspiration and a privilege to inhabit the intersection between the visual arts, music and technology, but I don’t consider myself a sound artist, for example. I have made works around sound and sound technologies, but also about magic and phantom limbs.” However, Satz is intrigued by the possibility that the accompanying exhibition will “draw a new and different audience to see works they wouldn’t see otherwise”.
As sponsors usually associated with sport – whether Chelsea FC or the London 2012 Olympics – Samsung might also see benefit in artists using their products to create new works, as many have promised to do for the Art+ Prize show, working with smartphones, 3D and flat screen televisions. “The future is clearly digital,” says Satz, but “ultimately it’s the works that survive, beyond the media they’re made with and the categories they’re made to fit into.” This is not about creating art historical movements, but about exploring tools that better represent our current condition.
The best way to conquer this amorphous sphere of new media production may well be simply to embrace and experience it – while you tweet and Facebook about it, naturally – in the same spirit that LuckyPDF approach it: “Like any medium, you have to work with it and break it,” says Hill. “See where the boundaries really are. Lose your install disks, burn your user-guides.”
Samsung Art+ Prize exhibition is at BFI Southbank, London, January 18-29. Prizes awarded on January 25.