Your Laptop Is Also a Masterpiece: Digital Art’s Big Money Moment
It used to be smart to buy modern art for your walls—but there is now an explosion for art created, sold, and experienced completely online.
With some curators and gallerists exasperated by the ongoing headaches of digital art, artists themselves are more than ever invested in the digital medium’s potential.
A market is emerging for artworks created, sold, and experienced completely online. Reimagining sites as public spaces, websites have become commodity to be bought and sold, because of their content, rather than the dollar worth of their URLs.
For the uninitiated, digital art has been a nebulous term since the personal computing revolution, referring to any form of artwork where computers are a part of the practice. The Austin Museum of Digital Art, founded in 1997, recognizes any art that is “product, process, or subject” to digital means under the umbrella, which makes the term vast.
Its emergence into the art market, however, is notably marked by the Philips Paddles On! auction in the fall of 2013. That New York auction and exhibition was the first major commercial sale of digital art, as the auction house united “artists who are using digital technologies to establish the next generation of contemporary art.” This included .GIFs and digital paintings and printouts and sculpture, ranging anywhere in price from $800 to $16,000.
But it is the increasing turn away from physicality completely that is frequently driving more artworks, “products” existing and being traded completely in the cloud. The most notable of these websites-as-stock scenarios is Rafael Rozendaal, an acclaimed Dutch-Brazillian internet artist; Rozendaal sold the website ifnoyes.com for $3,500 at Paddles On!
Besides the pedigreed setting for that auction, it seemed this might be a fluke in the artworld, a one-off fascination with new media rather than actual commodity. That is, until recently.
Hipster Runoff, the deconstructive website of all matters countercultural, sold at auction two weeks ago for $21k. Though the true artistic oculus of Hipster Runoff was always questionable, due to its fluctuating tone, in the end, it’s been seen largely as an online, years-long performance art piece. Now that it has ended, an archive of that performance (the thousands of blog posts) resides under the ownership of the highest bidder (an Australian businessman).
A few days ago, the internationally regarded British artist Stuart Semple closed on five websites he created and then sold through eBay. At a much lower cost than Hipster Runoff, pieces like monalisacurse.co.uk and andyfor15minutes.co.uk sold for between £67 and £500. As the artist says, “the idea that you can use the internet to sell the internet to the internet,” drives the creation and ownership of these (sometimes rudimentary) works.
“I think people are so obsessed with the idea of ownership and the value of something and they see a painting as an investment and something that can go up in value,” Semple says from his studio on the south coast of England. “I see the internet as a free place really where we can all join in. It’s like public space. It’s not really a commercial arena, necessarily. And I think that freaks people out.”
The freely, internationally accessible approach to artwork sits opposed to fine art’s current position as investment, to be acquired rather than experienced, the spiritual experience stripped completely in favor of commodity.
At this moment, massive, private storage facilities have been erected simply to store hundreds of millions of dollars worth of more traditional artworks.
“Largely hidden from public view, an ecosystem of service providers has blossomed as Wall Street-style investors and other new buyers have entered the market,” a recent New York Times Magazine piece said, of the patrons of a massive new artwork storage facility in Queens, New York. This enterprise was so depressing, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan went so far as to describe it as “Art in Money Prison.”
But the question persists—how does one “possess” these works? Rozendaal crafted a document in 2011 that describes the maintenance responsibilities of whomever purchases an art website.
Semple puts the maintenance of the URL onto the owner after a number of years. Because of the transient, ephemeral nature of the web, ownership of a website as artwork might confuse some.
But it’s not as if the actual value of these works can’t be measured. In the marketing language of the internet, Hipster Runoff was keen to point out in its auction that legacy traffic and linkbacks still generate a healthy profit from the dormant page, “w/ 168,648 uniques/mo making $1,300/mo w/ no work.”
Rozendaal’s websites are said to generate at least 40 million unique page views a year—the kind of traffic most media companies dream of. To contrast, the Tate Modern gallery in London draws about 4.5 million visitors a year. But it is the international accessibility of digital artworks that compels its artists in part.
“One of my collectors travels a lot, and every hotel room he gets to, he puts his iPad in and puts up one of my works that he has,” Rozendaal told Complex last year. “He just has this one art piece that exists everywhere in the world. It is kind of magical.”
Semple’s global ambitions also drive his practice: “If I do an art show in London, to be fair, a couple of hundred Londoners turn up. But this is so much broader than that. One sold to Canada, an Indian guy bought one, it’s just brilliant.”
Elsewhere in digital art, artists Ryder Ripps and Richard Prince have made an exercise of appropriating digital images, specifically Instagram photos, and taking them offline.
In the case of Ripps, his new series “Ho,” that opened at Postmasters Gallery in New York on January 24, showcases paintings of digitally altered snaps taken from the account of supermodel Adrianne Ho. Prince, less dedicated to a single a source, hung inkjet prints on canvas at Gagosian Gallery last September. Blouin ArtInfo ran a Super Bowl follow-up article last Monday, saying Kim Kardashian paid homage to Prince in a T-Mobile commercial.
In it, she walks through a vaporwave gallery of her own selfies and tweets, talking about the ownership of data. And in typical pop-art conundrum, the commercialization is so blatant it becomes impossible to divorce from the artwork, even when there is no advertising element to the artwork, or no implied aesthetic value to the advertisement. In the context of Nolan’s Money Prison, Kardashian and Prince’s printouts seem idealistically outdated.
“Advertising is getting so close to art anyway,” Semple says of the often confused reception of his public and now digital works. “These things are so well made and quite often you can see that they’re almost stealing artist’s ideas to make ad campaigns now. Advertisers are trying many different methods to disrupt us and get into or flow consciousness. But when an artist tries to do that we instantly think it’s got some kind of ulterior motive to sell something, not that it could just be that for the sake of being that.“
This goes to the heart of the success of the Hipster Runoff sale, having used the toothy marketing language of the internet to critique that aspect of the web, while still profiting from it—in this case, the sale emphasized the entirety of Hipster Runoff’s critique. For Semple, it is that permeable dubiousness of all things that makes these digital works, at the least, a conversation starter.
“It’s engaging people, it’s communicating. These things come to life when people use them. And people ask, who’s paying for it? Is it Coca-Cola? Is it an ad? They just couldn’t understand there was this free piece of public art. They raise more questions than they answer. That’s what art should be doing.”