There are strange, sometimes disturbing, new worlds out there. In Jordan Wolfson’s controversial virtual reality (VR) simulation, Real Violence, you’re standing on a New York City pavement watching the artist beat a man to death in front of you. Rachel Rossin takes the opposite tack in Man Mask and leads you on a guided meditation through the video game “Call of Duty: Black Ops” but scrubbed clean of any violence, transformed into a surreal digital paradise.
At Art Basel Hong Kong in March, one of the world’s most respected sculptural artists, Anish Kapoor, reduced viewers to microscopic scale and took them on a tour inside the human body. Other viewers stood by and watched as performance artist Marina Abramovic drowned in the waters of climate change-induced rising sea levels.
Then, of course, there’s the artwork that doesn’t exist at all, neither in this world nor a virtual one: Kevin Abosch, who famously sold a real-life photograph of a potato in 2016 for €1 million (HK$9.65 million), this Valentine’s Day sold the concept of a rose for US$1 million worth of cryptocurrency to a group of 10 collectors. The Forever Rose is an ERC20 token called ROSE on the Ethereum blockchain that is based on Abosch’s photograph of a rose. In other words, the artwork doesn’t physically exist, nor even have a virtual visual representation.
“Potato #345 and Forever Rose pose questions pertaining to identity, existence and value. They are both proxies. The former for the human experience and the latter for love,” Abosch says.
“The Forever Rose, however, is further abstracted from the photographic representation in that it doesn’t exist in a physical sense. It is the result of using blockchain technology to create a virtual proxy of the photographic work.”
So are these technologically advanced works a radical new form of creative output that challenges what we understand as art?
Yes, and no. Dadiani Fine Art in London’s exclusive Mayfair district is possibly the world’s first fine art gallery to accept multi-currency cryptocurrency. When founder Eleesa Dadiani first started accepting Bitcoin, the most well-known decentralised digital currency, she was overwhelmed by the attention – both welcome, and less so.
“We got so much press about us accepting Bitcoin,” she says, “and then many people started offering us ‘Bitcoin art’. For me, most of it is just a marketing stunt. This is not what we do. Here we sell real art, we sell history.”
This is not to say that there isn’t “real” art about decentralised digital systems or virtual reality.
“Art has always been a way to comment on life, and virtual reality and blockchain are an important progression in our lives now,” says Michael Xufu Huang, co-founder of non-profit art museum, M Woods in Beijing’s 798 art district. “In fact, I first learned about virtual reality from a VR work by Rachel Rossin and blockchain through a work by Simon Denny. An artwork should always be thought-provoking, not only visually interesting.”
In other words, art should be put to the same scrutiny, whether it uses advanced technology or primitive tools – pigment and paper.
“I’m not sure if, when exhibiting a urinal as an artwork, Marcel Duchamp considered ceramics to be more cutting-edge than painting, although he was, back then, probably creating the most advanced form of art,” says Maurice Benayoun, professor at City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media, who has been described as France’s most cutting-edge artist.
Benayoun recently curated CityU’s “On the Road: Young Media Artists in China” exhibition, which this year focused on art using different media, including high technology. The show included materials such as custom electronics, 3D-printed polymer, and an Arduino controller coded with sound synthesis software, Mozzi.
Today’s technologically cutting-edge art requires specialised technical know-how, making it clearly different from the traditional art of oil painting, for example. But the creative process, being made up of what Benayoun calls “intentions, observations, and intuitions” is similar to what artists have been doing at least since the 20th century, and perhaps as far back as the Renaissance, when artists were often the best scientists of the their time.
“Artificial intelligence, real time graphics, sound generation, multisensory apparatuses and robotics may be highly sophisticated, but making art is not just a complex form of DIY to be confused with funny electronic gadgets,” he says. “Art goes beyond technology when it conveys messages and poetry, questions and emotions, dialogue and action.”
Merely showing off the latest wonders a technology can achieve is a technical demo, not art. But art created by the latest technology may offer something quite new – both for the viewer and the artist – in terms of experience.
British artist Jessy Jetpacks was commissioned for a VR artwork in last year’s “Virtually Real” show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Before this, she had specialised in machinima – a portmanteau of “machine” and “cinema” in which animations, usually from video games, are used to create a cinematic production. In her machinima artworks, she “looked at the structure of production, that is, the tools, and who’s in control of the image, who controls the technology”.
Previously concerned with critiquing the politics and economics of power, she is now more interested in emotional landscapes: “VR is so immersive, a rich, immediate experience … I didn’t know it was like that till I tried it. It feels so real in terms of scale, not in texture as it’s clear it’s not real, but the experience of being in it was unparalleled.”
Understandings of what art is all about come in and out of favour. Art as something that’s experienced is not a new concept but it’s rolling back into fashion, according to the artist. “Not post-criticality, which is considered a bit of a joke, but post the intellectualising of art. And this fits well with VR,” she says.
Moving beyond the object and the still image to a place that is much more fluid and interactive is one of the most significant evolutions in current artistic practice.
“Because the public exists now for the artwork, and even partakes or triggers its forms, we are confronted with a very new form of art,” Benayoun says.
World-renowned stage designer Es Devlin recently created an interactive “collective poem” for Serpentine Gallery in London in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture. She used an algorithm developed by Google that has been trained on 25 million words of 19th century British poetry. A viewer sits in a photo booth, chooses a word, and the algorithm responds with a two-line, original poem written in light. The viewer can print out their portrait, the poem shone across their own image, a poetry “selfie”.
Devlin says that interacting with the artificial intelligence (AI) made her think differently about her own creative process.
“Machine learning has made me understand that what writing poetry is from a human perspective is anyway an organic algorithm, so why shouldn’t a manmade algorithm do the same thing?” she asks.
AI, VR, machinima … we’ve come a long way from having a painting that hangs in the living room. Nevertheless, interest in owning and investing in these new forms of art is growing.
“The Chinese public is very open to anything deserving to be discovered. In my first shows in China, I could see families coming to visit interactive art shows, with babies and grandpas. They stayed for hours,” Benayoun says. “And now, art collectors are seriously considering the potential and value of these new art forms, taking the best of the medium.”
Huang, one of the mainland’s biggest supporters of post-internet art and works engaging with new technologies, agrees. “There are many open-minded collectors in China,” he says. “From what I’ve observed, younger artists tend to be the ones adopting new technologies first. This might account for a perceived lack of ‘hi-tech’ artworks on the secondary market at this time. Maybe in the near future that will change. But it should be noted that the primary market surrounding this type of work is thriving.”
In Hong Kong, too, art spaces are embracing hi-tech art. Osage Gallery in Kwun Tong, for example, which was originally dedicated to Asian painting, is now open to new media art, considering it to be deeply representative of contemporary society. There’s also the Microwave International New Media Arts Festival, which was a huge success last year.
While you may need a screen or a VR headset to see them – or to ogle the code on the Ethereum blockchain and wish they actually existed – the uncanny, often unsettling, new worlds of hi-tech art are already our own reality.