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Code in a Box

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For private collectors, new media works raise issues that simply don’t exist for more traditional, static art objects. And yet these issues are hardly dissuading purchasers. Not only do many collectors include new media pieces in their collections, but the number of them who focus on this type of work is quickly expanding. “I’ve been in business for six years now,” says Steven Sacks , director of Chelsea’s bitforms gallery, which specializes in new media art, “and it’s growing fast. It’s quite different from how it was.”

Times and attitudes have certainly changed since the beginnings of what we would now recognize as new media. In the 1960s, early examples of art on film, and shortly thereafter on video, grew out of the somewhat anarchic realms of performance art and Fluxus, many of whose artists deliberately attempted to create forms that were uncollectible. Nowadays, even artists who grew up with that ethos seem largely to have forgotten about it (and of course many top performance artists, like Marina Abramovic, turn out to have been fanatical and skilled documenters, anyway), and the majority of younger artists see no problem in giving their art sufficient materiality to render it saleable. Which is just as well, because collectors tend to desire art in direct proportion to its objecthood. They want to be able to see, understand, and grasp what they are buying.

Some of the most commercially successful new media pieces that I have seen recently have also been beautiful objects, like Gerald Forster ’s video boxes. Forster’s background is as a commercial photographer, and he has been accumulating the scarcely moving video images that he presents in these pieces for something like ten years. However, when he first thought to screen the footage for his dealer Karen Jenkins-Johnson, he went ahead and created a prototype of the gorgeous acrylic box that houses the DVD player and which, when its back is screwed on, gives the piece both its manageability and appearance. This is new media art that you can sit on a bookshelf.

The popularity of Shirley Shor’s pieces—“She’s always a crowd pleaser,” says her dealer Moti Hasson —also has much to do with their physicality. At the core of her art are the computer codes that she writes and which animate constantly changing geometrical arrangements on video screens, but the cool, and frankly rather beautiful surroundings that give her pieces physical form make it obvious she is equally aware of the tradition of abstract painting that her work extends.

Increasing Viability
The sort of work that Forster and Shor make is dependent upon the swift pace of technological development that has occurred over the last decade, and which has led to the expansion of the amount and range of new media work being made. This development is an equally important factor in the growth of new media collecting. The computerization of hardware, the advances in software, rapid advances in screen technology, the continuous miniaturization of components, and decreasing costs for all of this mean that artworks that were unimaginable even five years ago can be made, exhibited, and collected today. “It’s a huge jump forward. The Mac mini, for example, is a genius machine for the current art generation,” says Sacks.

Another significant aspect of collecting new media, and one of the more unusual characteristics of the new media market, is the fact that it has undoubtedly been institutionally led. Potential collectors needed to be shown the physical possibilities for this sort of work, and they learned their lesson from museums and commissioning organizations like Franklin Furnace (which claims to be “making the world safe for avant-garde art”). These institutions have not only documented the history of this work—as in the Whitney Museum of American Art ’s key 2001–02 survey, “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964–1977”—but also, more practically, shown private collectors the viability of commissioning, collecting, and exhibiting new media pieces.

Pets, Not Plants
When a collector decides to purchase a new media work, he or she enters into an unusually close relationship with the art. At the simplest level this is because, despite all the technological developments, much new media art needs to be installed with great care and sensitivity to its physical surroundings and demands regular maintenance due to its technical complexity. This is not simply a case of buying a painting and hanging in on the wall. The difference between owning new media art and older forms is not unlike the difference between keeping pets and plants. “Things can go wrong,” says Sacks. “And depending on the complexity of the work, many things can go wrong. But the magic of the piece doesn’t exist without that.”

For Michael Katchen, senior archivist at Franklin Furnace, who has been involved in drawing up and promoting the Variable Media Questionnaire (see "Conserving Pixels, Bits, and Bytes" by Jacquelyn Lewis), which records artists’ criteria for preserving their new media works, feels that the safeguards for the future maintenance of new media works are not only appropriate in institutions, with their legal and conservation departments, but in private collections as well. Often it’s not just a question of switching the thing on and off.

And yet, at the same time an increasing number of artists are making art that is still worth looking at when it is switched off. Daniel Rozin, whose reactive sculptures “see” and “reflect” people and things that pass in front of them, and who has a show at bitforms next month, points out, “If you walk into a room and see this [work] on the wall when it’s switched off, you will still appreciate it.” No wonder, because these new media pieces are also beautiful objects, whether they consist of arrangements of wooden rods, lattices of tiny laminated prints, or suspended silk screens.

Private vs. Public
Another reason why new media work is now being collected more widely is that, for the private collector at any rate, the limits of the media are now comprehensible. (In fact, there seems little point in even calling them “new” anymore, which has led to the adoption of the term “variable media,” which encompasses all ephemeral mediums, including performance art.)

Remember art that was intended to exist purely on the Internet? Since at least 2003, many artists who apply for Franklin Furnace’s “Future of the Present” grants to make “live art on the Internet” have envisioned a physical outcome or locale for their work. In little more than a decade, the utopian musings about an art without physical boundaries, constraints, or even existence, so common in the 1990s, have largely disappeared. Or rather, even if that sort of work still exists, it has not found its way into many private collections.

And as far as some experts are concerned, this is just as well, because it has become obvious that some sorts of new media art are more suited to private collections than others. Private ownership, like copyright, Katchen argues, actually reduces the safety of work that exists purely as computer code. “Get it out in as many examples as possible,” he says, “rather than have just a single copy that might get lost. Because then the work is gone.”

Sacks agrees: “I feel that you don’t want to put too many constraints on that art form. It’s public art. When it’s out there, it’s out there. I don’t think you should constrain it to the rules of the art world.”

Still, while for many people “out there” is precisely where the most exciting new media art is being made, there is clearly room for both private and public work. “I don’t think it’s a question of one or the other,” says Sacks. “It depends on the scope of the project, and it depends on the artist’s agenda.”

“Obviously I’m biased, but to me, this is the most relevant art being made today.”

Robert Ayers