Beginnings of Digital Art

Art and Technology

In 1967, a collective was formed, originated by engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer, and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. This group was coined EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) and its mission was to promote collaboration between art and the burgeoning world of technology. The result was a series of installations and performances incorporating innovative electronic systems, including electrical circuitry, video projection, wireless sound projection, and Doppler sonar. Although many of these works were not strictly "digital" due to the relative primitiveness of the technology involved, they laid the groundwork for a type of art, which embraced and explored, rather than rejected or ignored, technological progress.

The EAT experiments represented a groundbreaking marriage between artists and technology that had never been seen before. They ushered the canons of Conceptual art, Performance art, experimental noise music, and theater from the eras of Dada, Fluxus, and the "happenings" of the 1960s into the revolutionary digital age.

The first piece of digital art that became widely known was created in the 1960s in the scientific research company Bell Labs where EAT founder Billy Klüver was employed. It was here that computer graphics specialist Kenneth C. Knowlton, in his work Young Nude (1966), transformed a photograph of a young nude woman into an image made up of computer pixels, bringing the historical artist's muse (the naked female body) into the 21st-century art lexicon.

Electronic Superhighway

Following the example of EAT, other conceptual artists began to utilize the artistic possibilities of new technologies. For example, in 1969 Allan Kaprow created Hello, an artistic "happening" where a group of people interacted via television monitors. In the 1970s, a number of artists began to explore the consequences of the connectivity afforded by television, recording equipment, and nascent computers.

Video art pioneer Nam June Paik coined the term "electronic superhighway" in his 1974 text Media Planning for the Postindustrial Society: The 21st Century is now only 26 years away. He used it to talk about television and its ability to bring people from disparate geographical regions and social backgrounds together through shared experience.

This idea of universal communicability would later be compounded by the introduction of mobile phones and the internet. The 1970s spawned an evolution of technologies such as the Apple II computer, which allowed color graphics to be rendered for the first time on the screen of a personal computer. In 1979, the development of the modem allowed digital signals to be transmitted through telephone lines, paving the way for widespread data transfer, and ultimately, usage of the internet.

Computer animation began to be developed at a significant rate in the 1980s, and the resulting imagery (often based around bright colors and formulations of square pixels) would have a significant impact on the aesthetics of the era, as well as on artists' production of work using this kind of software. As graphics improved, Adobe spearheaded the inception of design software, making programs like Photoshop and Illustrator available to everyone. Artists were quick to explore these new frontiers.

By 1984, when Nam June Paik broadcast his satellite-transmitted installation Good Morning, Mr. Orwell on live television, it was clear that his 'electronic superhighway' had indeed become a viable tool to further digital art's mass accessibility.

The Beginnings of the Internet

With the widespread emergence of the internet in the 1990s, digital art became more accessible for both artists and viewers. Artists started to explore ways in which the internet could be used as a medium and a messenger, utilizing its interactive nature and its ability to combine words, images and, eventually, video and audio files. Key examples include Olia Lialina's My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), where viewers clicked through a series of hyperlinks to reveal an emotional and engaging narrative.

For some critics, the rise of the internet gave birth to a new artistic movement that can be considered separate from digital art: internet art or, as it was called by some of its proponents. However, it can also be considered to be part of the digital art movement, which was growing wider in its scope as the invention and development of new technologies continued to blossom.

In many examples, such as the collective group Nasty Nets, the internet allowed individual artists from different countries and social classes to interact, collaborate, and exchange ideas in ways which were formerly impossible. Where artistic movements of the past were often born out of geographical proximity and social interaction, artists of the 1990s could start movements that crossed continents.

Exploring the Net

As the internet grew in significance and became firmly entrenched in almost every aspect of society, relationships, and commerce, artists began to use it to further their own creative aims. They began to use it as an artistic medium, as was seen in Justin Kemp's Pseudo Event, (2008), in which a visitor would scroll horizontally to view a collage of photos taken at ribbon cutting events. Some artists worked online to delve into the sense of detachment from reality produced by internet use and the proliferation of personas being spawned by the world of social media. Early works by artists such as Marisa Olson (who coined the term "post-internet," a later development from digital art) pointed to the performative nature of creating identity online. Work by Olson and other artists such as Gene McHugh and Petra Cortright used blogs and video-sharing websites such as YouTube as media for their art; platforms that are both inherently internet-based and have become increasingly integral to everyday life.

Digital Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

The very broad definition of Digital art is one that includes art where the final product is digital, the creation of product involves technological means, or the subject of the art is digital. Within that very broad world, here are the main sub-categories:

Art on the Screen

Many digital artworks are produced in a format that can only be viewed on a screen, resulting in artworks, which cannot exist without the technology that supports it. In these cases, the mode of communication is important. For example, Nam June Paik's Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984) was a deliberate statement on the nature of television and televisual communication. On the other hand, a piece that uses YouTube or an internet browser is often commenting on our communal experience of the internet, and utilizes the interactive nature of the web. Petra Cortright is known for her early use of animated graphics that play on top of her live YouTube videos in which she stars, blending the real and the make believe. Another example is Ryan Trecartin, whose campy A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) takes his prototypical gallery video installation onto the web for anyone to see.

Digital Sculpture

In some cases, digital art takes a physical form and can be presented in a sculptural way. This includes work such as Nam June Paik's collections of televisions in Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1994). In this example, the video clips being shown on the screens are categorized according to the physical structure of the work (with a television for almost every US state). The sheer scale of the physical object prompts the viewer to consider the ways in which technology is a powerful, but often unseen, presence in our everyday lives. Many digital sculptures contrast the physical aspect of technology with its less tangible digital capabilities. For example, Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum's Autonomy Cube (2014) functions both as a beautiful sculptural object and as an open-access Wi-Fi hotspot, while Maurizio Bolognini's Programmed Machines (1992-7) have their screens hidden, forcing the viewer to focus on both the physicality of the machines themselves and on their programs, which run unseen.

Interactive Digital Installations

Interactivity has always been a key element of digital art. As Bruce Wands, author of Art of the Digital Age (2006), points out: "The creative possibilities of interactivity and the development of immersive environments were both given a large boost by the arrival of computers in installation art, which allowed artists increased control over the interactive experience and access to cyberspace and virtual worlds." The result is a number of artworks where interactivity is the primary aim, and where the artist has created a fully immersive experience. For example, in 2012 the artist collective Random International produced Rain Room, an experiential installation where water fell from the ceiling of the room. Visitors were followed by 3D trackers, programmed to stop the fall of rain wherever a visitor was standing. They could experience a rainstorm without getting wet - an experience of manipulating natural phenomena that would have otherwise been impossible without the assistance of digital technology. The piece prompted viewers to consider the relationship between man, nature, and machine.

Computer Generated Imagery

When computers emerged, many artists started using their unique technology and underlying programming systems to inform artwork. For example, Frieder Nake's Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr.2 (1965) was one of the first artworks to be produced using a computer algorithm. The result looks like an ordinary drawing, but there was a significant technological step between the artist's input and the final image. Fifty years later, as computer graphic software hit the mainstream market, artists began to co-opt these programs, borrowing them from the advertising and graphic design industries, and using them to make their own work. Petra Cortright uses software to produce images, which can then be printed as "digital paintings" onto two-dimensional surfaces. Although they resemble paintings, she cleverly lends them titles that recall hastily named computer files, such as 15_independentBUICKS.$$$ (2015), blurring the line between the physical and digital realms as well as the line between online and offline creativity. Jeremy Blake's digital collages mixed photography and computer-generated graphics meant to look like brushstrokes, light, and other shapes and were shown via cutting-edge DVD installations or more traditional 2D C-prints. Instead of creating his own imagery, Cory Archangel famously hacked a Mario Brothers video game, co-opting its cloud graphics to create his own on screen visual.

Internet as Medium

With the tools of digital art available to the populous, and a personal computer in almost every home, artists who utilized the internet for their work forged a game-changing new environment within the art world. This fresh mass medium allowed their work to be seen outside the traditional gallery setting and provided a wider cultural reach with more opportunity for exposure in an extremely economical fashion.

Whereas some artists used the internet as a marketing tool for uploaded projects on personal websites, some artists utilized existing internet frameworks in themselves as a medium for their output. One example is Beijing-artist Cao Fei, who created an entire universe on the virtual reality platform Second Life as a work of art. Her RMB City, 2008, acted as an open, public space and platform for experiential creative studies where filmmakers, artists, designers and other creatives collaborated to build an ever-changing world that pushed the boundaries between virtual and physical existence.

With the advent of interactive technologies that allowed for social media exchange and the sharing of user-generated content, the contemporary web presents multiple forms of artistic experimentation. Examples of this include personal webpages operating as installations, Tumblr pages existing to aggregate curated imagery, and collaborative blogs based on underlying themes.

Later Developments - After Digital Art

As technology has become more entrenched in everyday existence, the novelty of the "digital" in art has worn off. Today, it is par for the course to see much conceptual, video, internet, social media, and multimedia art utilizing digital tools and media without specific alignment with the digital art movement. Works in this realm are often now considered under the wider umbrella term "new media art."

Technology continues to advance at warp speed, compelled by the imagination of contemporary man. For example, although many artists throughout time have made art inspired by the cosmos, some artists today are currently exploring space and other dimensions through the use of high tech, digital astronomical software. We will no doubt continue to witness an explosion in new media art as this journey continues to reveal potentials untapped.

Key Artists

  • Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
  • Allan Kaprow was an American painter, collagist, assemblagist and performance artist. Kaprow was best known for trailblazing the artistic concept "happenings," which were experiential artistic events rather than single works of art.
  • Nam June Paik worked with a variety of media and is considered to be the first video artist. Paik is credited with coining the term "information superhighway" and was known for making robots out of television sets.

Do Not Miss

  • Video art is a medium that employs moving images of various types, but often contains no narrative, characters or discernible storyline. Not to be confused with, for example, the experimental film or cinema, Video art first developed in the 1960s further avant-garde movements such as Performance, Intallation, and Feminist art.
  • Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
  • Postmodernism is a broad period of artmaking that occured after the period known as modernism - a period that was driven by a radical and forward thinking approach, ideas of technological positivity, and grand narratives of Western domination and progress. Neo-Dada and later Pop artists are considered the first postmodern movements.
  • Feminist art emerged in the 1960s and '70s to explore questions of sex, power, the body, and the ways in which gender categories structure how we see and understand the world. Developing at the same time as many new media strategies, feminist art frequently involves text, installation, and performance elements.

Do more

Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Digital Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 03 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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