Can Art Collection Endure Digital Ontology?

A few weeks ago the DMAX Circle met at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. This group of digital arts and new media supporters was posed a question by Richard Reinhart, Digital Media Director and Adjunct Curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, “How can media artists make a living?” While seemingly a straightforward question it belies answers that I believe are deeper and more complex than the surface would suggest. To begin you have to tackle the the relationships of collectors, supporters, curators, and artists; and explore how those relationships have changed with the proliferation of digital technologies.

There are a host of reasons people would like to attribute to the difficulty of to sell media today; the general economic climate, internet piracy, the culture of instant gratification and soundbites, but rarely are the inherent properties of the medium considered. The main crux of the whole issue of sustaining an economy of media arts comes from the primary properties of digital data; 1) the abstraction of data from its physical medium and 2) the ability to make infinitely many copies of a work with no degradation and 3) the ability of digital data to be manifested in many different forms.

What this means in the context of art is that the art object as a gestalt no longer exists, when no longer intrinsically attached to its medium art can be expressed in any number of ways through any number of lenses. This makes the role of the collector or curator extremely difficult; digital art can’t be owned. While information doesn’t want to be free (it doesn’t want anything) it is true that it is extremely fluid. The results in a disturbing fact for those that have made a living of reselling objects re-valued in the context of tradition; the only thing that can now be owned is a physical manifestation of the art work, not the art itself.

This is the same situation that has caused all manner of grief and poor decision making in the music industry, and there are many lessons that digital arts purveyors can learn from looking at the music business objectively. Originally the industry thrived by controlling the means of production and distribution of records. The entire production chain was owned by the record company from studio to pressing, and during the days of analog records when the music was physically wedded to its vessel this method succeeded in creating great profits for the people that steered the entire cultural delivery mechanism. With widespread digital technologies lowering the bar for entry to all stages of music production and distribution, digital records no longer requiring consumers to have an analog object to hear their music, and the internet’s superhighway of information taking curatorial authority away from the labels, the music industry faced a situation where their method of doing business had to change. However, instead of realizing that the nature of their product directly resisted their old methods of doing business and reacting accordingly, the industry decided to perpetuate its old model as long as possible – even to the point of suing its customers who took advantage of the new freedoms of the medium in the face of an obsolete business.

This question was also confronted during a similar event at the Catherine Clark Gallery in San Francisco earlier this year. In this situation a collector purchased Ken Goldberg‘s internet based installation mementomori. This installation draws a short white line that traces seismographic data across the screen. Of course, being an digital internet work, mementomori is infinitely reproducible with no degradation, and thus loses some of its uniqueness and its place in the sphere of tradition. This contextualization in history and uniqueness is what makes a work collectible; it gains value not only from its origin, but also through its succession of ownership. When all copies are equal and when the work is not actually a physical thing, this tradition is lost. Mementomori solved this problem in an interesting way, by selling a certain data set for when the work was purchased. In this way the uniqueness is returned in part to the work.

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This is just one example of some of the clever ways in which uniqueness and collectibility can be retained for a work of media art, but all of these techniques are just end runs around a feature of the medium that is inherent and cannot go away: digital art cannot be collected and cannot be owned, only its physical container can. It exists in a world apart from the traditional concepts of value and ownership, apart from the world of amassed collections built up to inflate the ego, and apart from any inherent value. Digital art values openness, expects collaboration and fluidity and spreads itself farther than we will expect if its allowed. Any discussion with a focus of how to impress the previous models of the art collecting world upon media art misses the entire point and shouldn’t be entertained.

It turns out that this new world ends up being very beneficial to the artist. Instead of selling a single physical work to one institution or collector and then watching as it is passed around inflating in value while trickling down only ancillary benefit, manifestations of works are sold. The experience of viewing a work is sold to a buyer, and the amazing thing is that any number of experiences can be created for taking in a work at any number of price points. When a work is not attached to a specific physical object it can be attached to any object or delivery mechanism that allows the work’s message and focus to translate, and thus can gain much wider exposure and be leveraged to the artist’s benefit in many more ways than the previous models.

This is much the same model that has been taken on the music industry. The recording and music itself is a loss leader. It is an entry point to sell value added experiences of taking in a work of art. Sometimes this consists of documentation, sometimes live performances and sometimes expanded editions of the work itself. However the point is that it is clear that the work itself cannot be owned and sold in the same old ways, no matter how much this model is still trying to be pushed on the public.

But what of the roll for galleries and collectors? Well, curators still can fulfill their expert positions of placing many works within context, offering supplemental information and perspective on a work and presenting to an information saturated public a collection of works they find important. The outlook for collectors seems more in doubt however. They cannot hope to own specific works anymore but can own presentations of those works, and this roll can be very important. As technology becomes obsolete it is evident that many works become dead, and it is a major duty of public institutions and private collectors to make sure that these older works continue to be experienced into the future. But, the place for a collector building up her accumulation of wealth in media art collection is very hard to find.

I, for one, welcome a world were arts supporters become a grassroots community instead of a trickle down from amassed private capital. I encourage works to be open, spread widely, and experienced as many places as possible. I look forward to a world were the democratization of technology allows gallery educational programs to enable everyone to create and find digital art so that its not only a privileged few that are allowed to thrive in an opaque ecosystem that feeds back primarily with itself.

We have to work with the properties of the medium that we have chosen. The very qualities that make the digital domain a rich bed for expressing the current times also resist the previous ways of doing business. To ignore this fact is ignore the very nature of the work we are supporting.