Throughout the course of history, artists have always been some of the first to adopt and support the development of new technology and tools, shining a light on how we can navigate our past, present, and futures through new lenses. From the invention of photography to the introduction of the personal computer and the proliferation of the World Wide Web, artistic practices have evolved alongside technology, often forecasting what our next steps can be. As our lives become increasingly mediated through and dependent on all things digital, the works of digital and new media artists have also become expandingly relevant and crucial, holding up a mirror—and a crystal ball—to how our rapidly evolving relationship with technology looks.
Recognising this, Art Dubai introduced the Digital section in its 2022 edition, committed to the championing and support of digital and new media art in the Middle East, and more broadly, the Global South and beyond. This year, the Digital section returns for its second iteration, expanding further into the virtual landscape and presenting artists working at the cutting edge of art and technology.
Before we dive into where digital art is today, let’s start by looking back at the last century from when artists first began to work with computers as early as the 1950s and 1960s. Pioneers such as Manfred Mohr and Vera Molnár developed their practices by working on computers through scientific labs, creating computer generated algorithmic variations that transposed geometric compositions and aesthetic theories onto code. In the same time, artists such as Nam June Paik also began to work with film, broadcast television, and media, foretelling the ways in which communication would be transformed with networked technology. These practices were broadly categorised as media art, which is often concerned with the use of the digital and analogue technology as much as it was concerned with its distribution and reception.
Through the years, as computer and software developed, more and more possibilities of creating with and through the machine arose, especially as personal computers entered the mass market in 1977. Andy Warhol, for example, created digital paintings of his signature motifs on a Commodore Amiga, one of the most popular home computers in the 1980s. As more and more artists started to integrate computers into their practice, the field of new media art began to emerge, looking at the mass influx of media from the mobile phone to the internet.
Fast forward to 2008 and 2009, when the first decentralised cryptocurrency on the blockchain, Bitcoin, was created. Cryptocurrency draws from the work of cryptographers and cypherpunks in the 80s and 90s, and are digital currencies designed to be traded through a computer network that is not reliant on any central authority to uphold.
As blockchain technology developed, artists and technologist began to build on top of the blockchain to consider how this infrastructure could be leveraged for digital art. Anil Dash and Kevin McCoy presented their prototype of Monegraph, a way of authenticating and monetising computer graphics through the use of blockchain, in 2014 at the Rhizome Seven on Seven Conference. In 2015, Sarah Meyohas released her Bitchcoin project, where she created her own blockchain where the value of its tokens were pegged to her future photographic prints, while Simon Denny opened Blockchain Future States in 2016 in New York and Berlin, reflecting his observations and speculations on the development of blockchain.
Although artists had been working on and around the blockchain, creating crypto art and asking poignant questions on the future of digital art and economies since the mid-2010s, Beeple’s Everydays: the First 5000 Days, which achieved a record-breaking USD $69 million at Christie’s in March 2021, was what sealed the deal for many of us. The sale introduced non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to the mainstream consciousness, but more importantly, brought forth a paradigm shift for how digital and new media art can be valued and collected.
With the rise of interest in digital art, art fairs such as Art Dubai play a crucial role in the discovery and popularisation of these new(er) formats of art to receive greater support and stewardship. In initiating a dedicated section, the fair recognises the unique considerations related to the buying and collecting of digital art, such as how to display an animated video artwork in one’s living room as compared to a painting and how to securely store and preserve a digital artwork overtime.
Simultaneously, Dubai has quickly risen to be a major crypto hub and is one of the first cities to extensively expand its virtual economy. Dubai’s Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority (VARA) announced in 2022 that it would be the first asset regulator globally to establish a presence in the metaverse, and earlier this month, Majid Al Futtaim also unveiled that it will be opening Dubai’s first virtual mall and rolling out retail and entertainment experiences in a digital landscape. Given this future forward environment, Dubai and the UAE provides a natural home to artistic practices and explorations that are similarly interested in building out imaginations of histories and futures through the use of new technology.
Looking towards Art Dubai 2023 Digital, one can take the section as a reflection of some of the key areas of exploration and investigation for artists working with technology. Phygital, for example, is a recent phenomenon that has arisen across many industries, seeking to present experiences or products that
combine the physical with the digital. Artists such as Yoichi Ochiai have been developing work surrounding these questions throughout his practice, bringing to the fair his Re-Digitalization of Waves, where he creates video installations based on motion graphics of his 3D printed sculptures. Circling between the digital and physical, this project questions the boundaries of creating and existing in each format and emulates a cycle of reincarnation. Loris Cecchini’s new works, Digital Sculptures, address similar questions, as he creates physical structures that are molecular and modular in nature. He does this by transposing them into 3D algorithmically generative sculptures that build on top of the original sculpture. As a digital project, the possibilities are infinite.
As much as the majority of us have accepted that our lives will become increasingly online, some artists also point out that it is worth taking a moment to take a good hard look at our behaviours and question how we would really like to shape our individual usage of technology. Lying in bed, doom-scrolling Instagram in the middle of the night is a trap that many of us have fallen into, once in a while or even on
the daily. Singaporean artist, Brandon Tay, zooms in on this obsessive and mindless urge to scroll through online media in his cheekily titled video, The Error of Calm Technology. Through the use of screen recorded sessions of the very act of doom scrolling and prompt-based machine learning, the artist mirrors this experience in his work, even placing the visual-scape within a 3D CGI glass case to enhance this notion of watching back on oneself. Beyond the act of doom scrolling, the work can also be seen as a broader commentary on our passive acceptance of how rapidly advancing technology has become an intimate part of our lives.
On top of reflections of the present, the Digital section is also an opportunity to relook at where we came from to understand where we might be headed. An example of this exercise is Ahmed El Shaer’s AI Heaven, a series of work created with the use of artificial intelligence to imagine what the afterlife could look like. In training AI model to visualise the metaphysical and transcendental, the artist utilises the machine as a portal into accessing imagination that goes beyond what is human and innate to us. Through this process, the artist also takes an intentional departure from what was understood to be Orientalist art from the 18th and 19th century, to reimagine and reinterpret what Islamic art could look like in the 21st century as it becomes integrated with machine learning. The generated visuals is also demonstrative of how artists like El Shaer are seeking to use technological innovation to bridge current digital aesthetics, which is often sterile and devoid of cultural specific motifs, with their own heritage and attempt at preserving visual histories in digital art.
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Moving further into the possibilities of technology from El Shaer’s attempt to unlock a new world, Soliman Lopez dives deep into a speculative future that sees our agriculture interlocked with new, virtual economies. Olea is an experimental project where the artist has produced a type of olive oil that has been infused with the code and information of a newly created cryptocurrency in the form of DNA molecules. In bringing together agriculture—one of human’s most ancient and fundamental industries—with cryptocurrencies, a recent technopolitical revolution, Lopez sets out to question how biotechnology will develop in the days to come and how our understanding of specials, economies, and societies could be transformed to the point of being unrecognisable. Presented as a mixed-media immersive installation, the artist invites visitors of the fair to step right into this almost dystopian world of Olea, which somehow feels more present and realistic being experienced in the physical reality.
While few of us can say we have a definitive idea of where technology, and more broadly, where our societies will be heading towards, these artworks give us a chance to reflect upon our current relationships with technology while providing a glimpse into the possibilities which may soon lie before us. Time and time again, artists have been regarded as some of the keenest observers and sharpest predictors of how the world unfolds, and this moment is likely no different.