Exhibition Essays

2009 Reviews

June 2009


Tom Cardy

It's hard to escape that we live in the digital age, whether it's watching television, listening to music, or spending hours online. But the hardware and software that generate the digital realm is also offering new opportunities for art and artists.

When people imagine what digital art must be they usually think of computer animation - but in 2009 digital art has almost no boundaries. It also emcompasses painting, photography, video, music and even theatre and dance.

A 2008 Creative New Zealand survey found that 23 per cent of Kiwis aged 15 and over had created original works of art using a computer. Not surprisingly, of those aged 15 to 24, 43 per cent had created a digital art work within the past year. Of those aged 10 to 14, it increased to 83 per cent.

Like the internet and computer use, participation and interest in digital art continues to grow. This week it includes the sixth Aotearoa Digital Arts Symposium, to be held at Victoria University's School of Design.

The symposium will include keynote presentations by artist and musician Phil Dadson, who first came to prominence with sound performance group From Scratch, and, via the internet, London media theorist Matthew Fuller.

Fuller's presentation will have all the hallmarks of the digital age. It can be viewed normally on a live stream via the internet, or when it's retransmitted to online world Second Life in a virtual theatre where Second Life "residents" can respond by text chat.

Wellington galleries are also involved. Thistle Hall will screen films by several artists on Friday, while Enjoy Public Gallery is running an exhibition of digital art.

The first symposium was held in Hamilton in 2003. Wellington's Douglas Bagnall, one of the symposium's organisers, says new technology and software over the past six years, as well as awareness of digital art, has probably broadened the opportunities for people to become involved.

"The new thing is software art. A lot of things were possible before, but they were just so slow that they weren't really possible.

"It will be different for different artists because of how they work and the huge range of people who use computers for art. We don't really turn anyone away. It's kind of a self-selected group. If you think you're a digital artist and you want to be involved, you can."

Bagnall himself is a good example. He began as a film-maker, but then applied what he was learning in computer programming and web design. His projects have included a "film-making robot", whereby a computer shifted through numeric representations of film frames, selecting its favourites and compiling them into short clips. The footage was taken in 2004 from cameras placed on Wellington buses and exhibited at City Galley the same year.

Another was Cloud Shape Classifier - a website that allowed people to enjoy watching clouds. It was linked to a camera that snapped photographs of the sky during the day and then translated each photograph into 57 numbers that reflected the images' appearance. When users went to the website, they were given the option of training the classifier to identify clouds they preferred.

But Bagnall sees himself primarily as a computer programmer who works in digital art. Bagnall designed the program for Upstage, a project with other artsits. It involved web cams, graphical avatars and text chat for a "cyber-performance" where performers and viewers could be involved through their web browsers. Bagnall acknowledges that some people assume digital art is simply a quicker, easier way to produce traditional art, rather than creating new kinds of art. But this in inself can mean new art, he says.

"For some things, just being easier and quicker actually changes how it's done so much that it is actually a new thing - like video making. Compared to making a film, making a video you can just shoot so much and do so many effects. It makes it harder to be succinct, but it also makes a whole lot of other things possible."

While there continues to be debate on whether video games can be considered high art, Bagnall says they are another example of something entirely new.

"They are the great art form of our age really. In popular culture people play video games more than anything else apparently. I don't spend much time doing it because I have to make them."

As Bagnall points out, it's not that digital art is solely a 21st century phenomenon - there are examples harking back to the 1950s and 1960s.

But he believes that despite the rise of digital art, it still has a way to go: "I don't think there's been a really great digital artwork yet because people are still grappling with it."