Tonight at 8:30 p.m., the first digital art auction, titled "Paddles On," takes place at Philips in partnership with Tumblr and curated by Lindsay Howard. Lindsay is the curatorial director at 319 Scholes, who has had her eye on digital art and artists for a long time. We spoke with her about tonight's auction, the future of digital art, and how they organized this historic moment in art.
I was inspired by this question of what will stand the test of time, because technology is so often hand and hand with obsolescence.
What started this project and how did it initially take shape?
Megan Newcome at Phillips and Annie Werner at Tumblr met through the arts/tech community and decided that they wanted to collaborate and mix the best of Phillips and the best of Tumblr. So they came up with this idea of doing a digital art auction. They reached out to me, because I run the space in Brooklyn called 319 Scholes, which focuses on digital works, and we’ve shared over 300 artists who specialize in this kind of work. They had seen me speak at Eyebeam, so they reached out and asked if I would be interested in curating it.
I was thrilled to do it, because there is some gallery representation for these artists, but for the most part, they’re independent agents. I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to introduce their work to a broader range of collectors, bring more exposure, and hopefully make some sales to help further the market for this kind of work.
The auction is 20 lots, and 18 artists are represented. Six of those artists have formal gallery representation, so to market the works and figure out what they would cost, we spoke with the gallerists and artists who had been exhibiting in galleries or artist-run spaces. We figured out the rest of the prices based on those. There are also some existing auction records that we were able to look at and things up based on that information.
How did you choose the artists? Were they people you’d worked with before or had only heard about their work?
A few of them I had curated in exhibitions before, but I was really looking for artists who had a certain clarity and consistency to their practice. I was inspired by this question of what will stand the test of time, because technology is so often hand and hand with obsolescence. The idea of investing in something—you’re gonna spend time with it—who out of these artists are most committed and has a clear vision for their practice? I think the collection represents a snapshot of contemporary, digital art right now, but it’s also showcasing, in my opinion, the sure-fire bets of the artists who are going to be really important in the future. And the artists who are pioneers and really developing this kind of visual language for digital art.
We’ve rewritten Phillips’ contract multiple times, which has been really exciting because it needed to reflect the openness, transparency, and access—all these values that are really important to this generation.
That’s really interesting criteria. I hadn’t thought of it that way. By "snapshot," do you mean there’s also a kind of range within the broader category of digital art that all of these artists are highlighting?
I imagine that peoples’ fantasies at this auction are walking in and seeing a bunch of screens. That’s just not an accurate representation of where digital art is right now. I really wanted to drive that home. About half of the works are screen-based, but there’s also textile, sculptures, prints—multiple mediums and multiple outputs for works—that are either made with digital tools or using digital technology as a medium itself.
The artists who I selected, in addition to having their own really substantial practice, also represent different facets of digital art right now—people who are interested in post-Internet art or the relationship between digital tools and analog tools are represented, people who are making websites, and people who are creating animations. There’s an animated GIF in the auction. There are people doing print work.
There is a pretty big range of works, but it’s cohesive, in that, for the most part, they’re all from the same generation. The ages range from 23 to 49, but most of the artists are between 24 and 34. I’m 27 years old, so this is my generation of artists and a lot of other peoples’ generation of artists. These are people for whom digital art is so natural. Digital technology is just another tool, but it’s been really interesting as we’re integrating it with Phillips, their lawyers, their art handlers, their collectors, and their specialists, to see it from this other perspective of people who have extensive expertise in contemporary art. For them, digital art is whole new terrain. We’ve rewritten Phillips’ contract multiple times, which has been really exciting because it needed to reflect the openness, transparency, and access—all these values that are really important to this generation.
Obviously for some of the works that are a physical sculpture or printed canvas , you could technically own that. For the works that are actually virtual like the films and the GIF art, how would somebody purchase them at an auction?
We’ve been looking at this on a case by case basis with each artist and have remained true to their intentions, which I think is a really important point. Some people have asked me, "How did you package these works for an auction house?" We didn’t package them at all! We’re just remaining true to the artists’ intentions.
For instance, there's a website in the auction by Rafael Rozendaal. He's been making websites and also browser-based artworks for probably half a decade. His websites (they take up the full browser window) get sold as artworks. He has this contract, it’s called the "Art Website Sales Contract," which stipulates that the collector who purchases this piece must renew the domain annually, maintain the work, and keep it online, which is of primary importance. In exchange, the collector’s name goes in the title bar just above the URL, so it says ifnoyes.com in the collection of whatever the name is of the collector. It’s along the same lines of public art. It's like going into the theater, and there’s someone’s name on the back of your chair. It’s like thinking of the web as public space and selling it. Pretty much the only thing that can be unique online is the domain. To market that to a collector and sell that as the artwork is different. It just requires a certain kind of visionary collector or maybe a technically-in tune collector who can understand or is already thinking about the web as a public space.
For the animated GIFs and videos, the collector will receive a USB drive with those files on them or a Mac Mini with the files on them. We wanted to keep the costs down for the auction and keep everything below $20,000, so we’re not including any of the hardware. But some galleries will sell you the whole monitor, which is really great and convenient.
Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of working with digital art in an auction or curating digital art versus traditional artwork?
For auctions, in a gallery space or especially in an artist-run space, the focus is on the concepts of the work. You can really focus on the aesthetics of the work. When you’re in an auction house, it’s about money. It’s like there are no bones about it, it’s about money. That can be kind of uncomfortable for people who are making work, distributing it online, and who have these values that I mentioned before—openness and transparency. So there could potentially be a conflict between the kind of economic structure that exists in the art world and this work, which wants to be free.
From an art handling level or installation level, it’s different than most shows. Installing monitors or installing Mac Minis and getting files, it’s just a different way of thinking about an exhibition.
I guess with painting exhibitions, I imagine a curator doesn’t have to do too much online except for trying to promote their work. With the Internet in particular, not all the works are Internet-based, but for the ones who are or who operate in that space, the works tend to be very aesthetic and graphic because you have so little time to grab the audience’s or your viewers’ attention. In addition to that, the work also tends to be very conceptual. That’s why we see a lot of performance-based artwork online. With that, there’s a lot of conversation and discussion, which extends beyond the artwork, so I think that’s a pretty unique challenge for digital art, in that, it has such a broad and often anonymous community base online. In curating it, it can be a little unruly sometimes, but that’s the excitement about it,too.
What if we could bridge the tech and startup communities with digital art?
Where do you think the digital art world is moving as technology develops and as it becomes more mainstream?
Well actually, today is a pretty interesting day. I was just online and saw that Eyebeam Art+Technology Center is moving to Brooklyn. That’s in my head when you’re asking me this question right now. I’m thinking about the future of things. I think that this auction is opening up a door that has been closed for about 40 years, and that’s really exciting to me.
Not every artist is going to want to go to auction or will go to auction. Many will remain unaffected by it, but that this opportunity exists now and that this door has opened is a really positive and encouraging moment for the field.
One of our goals at the beginning was—what if we could bridge the tech and startup communities with digital art? These are people who really understand this work on a whole other level, and they’re people who are already think that renewing a domain name is peanuts. One of our goals was to connect that field with digital art and potentially create some kind of alignment there for collectorship, patronage, and support, because the digital work really needs that. Everyone should be supporting their own generation’s artists, because those are the artists who are making the most sense and helping people understand what's going on in their culture. I think that this auction is really aimed at young collectors, new collectors, and people who are learning about this work for the first time.