Paris, 27 February 2014, Art Media Agency (AMA).
Christened “Better Out Than In”, Banksy’s October 2013 residency in New York confirmed the artist’s popularity. Yet, whilst the period saw the artist take to the streets to produce works, it nevertheless gained the most visibility online – an interesting paradox, which made the scope of the event immediately international. Each day, Banksy would post his works and performances online, which would then immediately be relayed by media across the world. On Twitter, #banksy2013 became one of the most popular hashtags of October 2013. Better Internet than Out.
It’s a fact which has been known since Exit through the gift shop, the film dedicated to Banksy: the artist knows precisely how to manage his image, feed rumours, and promote myths. In October, his use of the internet as a promotional tool proved to be exemplary, prompting murmured debate which spread across the art world in a growing crescendo.
Banksy had managed to democratise his art, spreading news of his work to circles far outside the art world. His success inspired admiration and indignation in equal measure. Museums and institutions tried to follow in his footsteps, though Banksy was also left with a number of critics. The latter – who included a number of figures from the world of street art – accused him of following mercantile pursuits, with rumours declaring the artist to be a millionaire.
AMA considered the challenges which digital media pose, and the role of new technologies in the art world. What can they offer? Are they being used effectively? And is the art world taking full advantage of all of the technical and intellectual revolutions which digital technologies might promise?
The digital era: towards the democratisation of a more laid-back art?
Developments in digital technology were welcomed as near-Messianic by certain members of the art world. Heralded as a new era of an open, shared culture, digital technologies were expected to profoundly change the way in which the public interacted with the real world. Nevertheless, demograph Olivier Donnat, who has studied the digital revolution’s impact on cultural consumption, states:
“In light of the developments witnessed over the past decade, it is tempting to undertake a study of the digital revolution’s effect on cultural practice. Whilst it may have radically altered the accessibility of a large quantity of cultural content, and destablisied the economic equilibrium of cultural institutions and media bodies, it hasn’t overhauled the general structure of cultural practices, and has certainly not altered approaches of the end of the last century.” (Olivier Donnat, Les Pratiques Culturelles à l’Ère Numérique (2008)).
Digital technology, it seems, has changed the structure, but not the essence of our cultural consumption.
It is undoubtedly evident that cultural institutions are currently undertaking immense efforts to assure their transition to the digital era. Their results of these developments, however, are somewhat paradoxical, appearing at once immense yet minimal.
At the end of 2013, MoMA launched MoMA Audio+ , a replacement for outdated audio guides. Visitors to the museum are now able to borrow an iPod Touch, which offers users a GPS system and the opportunity to share content by email and social networks. The museum is currently working on transforming this project into an app which can be downloaded directly to smartphones.
In 2014, it seems likely that GPS systems such as this – which respond to visitors’ movements through the gallery space – will flourish. In this respect, MoMA is something of a pioneer: the institution’s director, Glenn D. Lowry, has acknowledged the importance of a clear, well-defined digital strategy, and recently appointed Fiona Romeo as Director of Digital Content and Strategy. This new post aims to establish coherency between MoMA’s numerous digital programmes, with Romeo set to manage the museum’s website, online media, app, online exhibitions, and live streams of museum-organised events.
A large number of other museums are following in MoMA’s footsteps, offering an increasingly expansive range of technological supports, depending on their capacity to do so. It is no longer rare to see “community managers” within museums, tasked with directing an institution’s communications strategy across social networks. And it’s a phenomenon which is global: in France, for example, almost 75% of museums have a virtual identity (understood as a website or presence on social networking site).
Yet the exact audience, impact, and real function of these policies remains a grey area. Many museums endeavour to have a visible online presence, yet without specific ambitions, the success of these projects remains variable. The question remains as to whether this approach contributes to the democratisation of art which it so frequently aims, or purports, to achieve. Are new legions of followers being created? And does “following” something on Twitter or “liking” via Facebook express a real notion of proximity to institutions, or the plethora of lesser-known museums struggling to broaden their existing audience?
Competition is furious, and the gap between institutions’ policies broad: large, national museums are able to use their status and funds to develop coherent, effective digital strategies, whilst more modest institutions operate less far-reaching digital campaigns. When New York’s MoMA reached 1.5 million “likes” on Facebook, Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne – whilst nevertheless renowned – had only 85,000 – more than 17 times fewer. This digital following, however, did not necessarily translate to visitor figures: in a year, MoMA had just four times the number of visitors of Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne (3.1 million, against 800,000).
Cross-disciplinary projects have arisen as interesting alternatives to the challenges of using digital media to promote specific institutions, with Google Art Project being amongst the most noteworthy of those established. Today, Google’s platform presents 57,000 works in HD, drawn from almost 230 museums – including Versailles, MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery and Florence’s Uffizi. Since its debut, the project has expanded at a remarkable pace: when Google Art Project first began in 2011, the site featured only 1,000 works.
Sites such as these, it seems, are offering artworks an increased visibility – something which museums have begun to understand. Whilst at first reticent, today many are opening their doors to Google, allowing the corporation to digitise pieces in their collections – rendering them accessible to people across the world.
On a broader level, Creative Commons, which recently celebrated its tenth year of operation, gives users the right to hold the copyright for the use of images, having recently created a new form of licence which operates at a global level. These licenses allow willing authors to concede either all or a portion of their work’s intellectual property in order to facilitate its distribution, re-use and modification.
In 10 years, 400 million works have been shared by their authors, demonstrating the licence’s popularity. Recently, Creative Commons have begun to work with the French government and its museum institutions, who are gradually becoming aware of the potential which this new licence might have towards the democratisation of art. Aurélie Filippetti, the French Minister for Culture and Communication, emphasised its importance during a speech delivered on 7 November 2013, stating: “The conditions for a successful education in culture and the arts, depend, of course, upon the mobilisation of all participants in this mission. My ministry, accompanied by public establishments, is taking part in a trial partnership with Creative Commons France in order that they might become aware, and informed, about the use of free licensing. This partnership is to be signed in December. Mastering these new tools is integral to reinforcing access to artistic content offered online.”
Cultural institutions are, it would appear, progressing in their exploration of the possibilities permitted by digital technologies. Over the past ten years, an enormous amount of effort – and progress – has been made, with a reflex having been born as a result: the desire to use new forms of technology to democratise art, and to improve the aesthetic experience.
Nevertheless, the isolated actions of museums and institutions have not yet resulted in the globally accessible artistic platforms, such as those promised by some cross-disciplinary platforms. Yet – following Banksy’s lead – might it be possible for artists themselves to generate this democratisation?
Digital media as a form of artistic expression
In his 1956 essay “Art & Technique”, Pierre Francastel states: “The domain of art is not the absolute, but the possible. Art and Technology are not two modes of expression and thought which are fixed and antagonistic, but two fields likely to merge and reinforce one another, generating originality in the hand and spirit of the individual.”
Bound to the resources of their epoch, artists frequently engage in new technology as a means of diversifying, or challenging their practice, occasionally doing so in such a conscious manner that the material itself – or the act of creating – becomes philosophical. The rapid expansion of digital technology, and the unending stream of questions provoked by the medium has not failed to attract artists.
In the 1990s, having initially been interested in video art, the American Douglas Davis set his sights on the internet. The artist was amongst the first to sense the medium’s potential as a participatory medium. Commissioned by the Lehmann College Art Gallery Davis began what came to be titled The World’s First Collaborative Sentence (1994). Beginning the phrase in urgent capitals – “I DID NOT FEEL SEPARATED I FELT VERY CLOSE EVEN THOUGH WE WERE THOUSANDS OF MILES APART” – Davis invited internet users to continue writing. In 6 years, 200,000 people took part in the project.
In addition to providing an interesting substitute for conventional production media, the internet also acts as a platform for artists’ voices. In 2005, Ai Weiwei produced a blog in support of the freedom of thought, speech and artistic production, using the internet as tool through which to promote both art and artistic production, defiantly speaking from a country which refuses to accept his practice.
In 2013, Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson established Moon, a project not far from the experiments of Douglas Davis. This participatory project encourages visitors to leave a trace of their presence on an immense digital moon, instructing users to “Turn nothing into something – make a drawing, make a mark”. Whilst Douglas Davis sought to create the largest sentence in the world, Weiwei and Eliasson have contrived to produce the largest drawing. Unlike Davis’s, their site features tools which allow users to share certain views and drawings by other users across social networks.
For other artists, the internet represents the entirety of their career. For Nicolas Frespech, perhaps most known for his work Je suis ton ami(e)…tu peux me dire tes secrets, an artwork which encourages internet users to share their secrets. Access to the work has been forbidden since 2001, an act of “censorship” which has sparked debate surrounding the presence of contemporary artworks in the virtual, public environment that is the internet.
Nicolas Frespech continued to explore the internet’s communicative and artistic potential, playing with its apparent paradoxes, and critiquing those who turned its use to profit – the latter reflecting a more global understanding of the potential offered to artists by the internet. Digital technology offers a breadth of possibilities – not only for artists to democratise access to their works, but to gain profit.
Monetisation – inevitable ?
In the 1990s, Nicolas Frespech and a number of other entrepreneurs – following in the example of Thierry Hermann, himself an artist – began to understand the interest in using the internet as a platform through which to monetise their works. The explosion of the internet created a previously unseen energy.
It was in response to this that Artprice was founded in 1987, being present on the stock market since 2000. Today, the site presents itself as the leading source of information for the art world, with a database of 27 million art work valuations and a reference guide extending to almost 500,000 artists. For the first generation of art market professionals to use the internet, this database remained their only source of information.
Artprice was nevertheless surpassed as a source by Artnet, which, in only two years, overtook Artprice – despite the fact that the founder of the latter, Hans Neuendorf, had established the company in 1989. This initial era of internet art business was a period characterised by experimentation: in 1999, Sotheby’s, working in partnership with Amazon, tentatively launched the first online auctions platform – a project which is still yet to realise significant success.
Further important developments came between 2005 and 2010, with the creation of Saatchi Online (2006) and Artnet Auctions (2010). The former acted as an online social network for the art world, allowing users to upload their work and entice potential collectors. In 2010, Artnet created the first online auction service, experimenting with the sale of modern and contemporary paintings, photographs, and sculptures. Major auction houses began to introduce more effective platforms: developments such as “Christie’s online bidding”, established in 2006, allowed users to participate in sales from across the world.
Since 2010, there has been an explosion in the online sale of art. Existing sites have been strengthened, and have improved their existing strategies (Sotheby’s, Christie’s Artnet etc. have launched their first, exclusively online auctions), with a number of other online platforms making their debut – amongst them Artsy, Artspace, Paddle8, and certain art galleries. Today, both a high and middle market are represented online – an attestation of the extent of the online market’s development. Later this year, the first online sale of a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat is to take place via Christie’s in March 2014, and in 2010 the VIP Art Fair, organised by James and Jane Colan became the first online-only art fair.
According to the study The online art trade 2013, directed by Hiscox and ArtTactic, the value of the art market rose to $56 million in 2012, with 1.6% of this value attributed to online sales – representing $870 million. The study estimated that, by 2017, the online market might have a value of $2.1 billion – an estimated growth of 19%. For those who elect to participate in them, online sales of artworks appear to have the potential to become particularly profitable: in 2012, 72% of those who bought works from galleries online represented new clients, whilst 64% of those collectors to spend over $75,000 on their collections annually bought works online.
Nevertheless, it seems important to engage in a more nuanced assessment of what initially appears to be a flourishing market: it is clear that, despite its potential success, a number of serious concerns remain. For 77% of collectors, the physical absence of a work at the time of purchase is problematic – with 59% expressing a sense of mistrust towards the seller of a piece. The internet remains a place where works of minimal value are exchanged: Christie’s sale of a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat is the exception, having been offered for sale, on a pre-selected date, by a trusted auction house.
80% of works sold online in 2012 had a value of less than £10,000. For the art market’s most sizeable vendors, the internet therefore appears to offer an interesting means of diversifying sales. For emerging market participants, it is a tool which allows access to a “middle market” – predominantly interested in sales of work between €10,000 and 100,000 – as well as a platform which facilitates innovation.
Such is the case for Lofty.com, a site which hosts online sales of art whose security is assured by a team of major network of industry experts, who authenticate all featured pieces before their sale. Lofty hopes to target this middle market, selling works which are valued between $500 and 500,000 – positioning itself between eBay, which does not authenticate works sold, and the largest auction houses, which are both more expensive and more renowned.
Other major bodies have entered the sector in a bid to profit from the increasing dynamism of a virtual art market without intermediaries. Amongst the most significant of them is Amazon, which launched “Fine Art at Amazon” – an online platform dedicated to art – in 2013. Today the site offers 40,000 works, placed online by 150 galleries.
But it is not only in these purely commercial endeavours that the internet has proved to be profitable. A number of artists and institutions use the internet, and particularly crowd funding sites, in order to realise projects. Paris’s Musée du Louvre successfully amassed €1 million via crowd-funding site “Tous Mécènes!”, using the money – donated by 6,700 people – to restore the Victoire de Samothrace.
The proposed Marina Abramović Institute, expected to open by 2016, followed a similar financial model, with an initial round of dubiously-viewed fundraising proving to be an enormous success in May last year. Abramovic opened up a fundraising page on website Kickstarter, with a goal to raise $600,000. Her objective was reached two days before the fundraising project’s deadline, with 4,765 raising a total of $661,452. This initial victory helped to fund the design phase of the project, which is being carried out by the architectural firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) , whose founder, Rem Koomhaas, won the Pritzker prize in 2000.
The effect of digital technology is becoming increasingly profound, with the art world having followed the internet’s various developments. The projects which debuted during the 1990s have been developed, and are gradually becoming more prominent.
The greatest change to art’s digital landscape however was most certainly the emergence of social networks during the last decade, which made it easy to produce and share content, and established a more direct dialogue between arts institutions and their users. This, along with the development of institutions’ websites, and the development of online art sales, has confirmed the validity of technology’s role in the art world.
The art world’s current use of technology is diverse, oscillating between a desire to increase accessibility and a desire to gain profit. For other artists, technology has become not a platform but a process, feeding into the technical and philosophical aspects of their production. Developments on the horizon promise to further shape the art world: it remains to be seen how Big Data, Cloud Computing and 3D printing will affect artists’ works and the activities of the institutions, auction houses, and galleries already participating in a digital revolution.