Can Digital Art Make Money?

Can Digital Art Make Money?
A still from Rafael Rozendaal's "hybridmoment.com" (2009), collection of Aernoud Bourdrez
(Courtesy of hybridmoment.com)

It would be easy to make the mistake of defining new media art as an entirely different beast from "old media" formats like painting and sculpture. After all, digital file-based works are, in their basic state, infinitely replicable, able to be seen by any audience on earth at any time, and without any physical form. But what's so intriguing about the burgeoning field of new media art is that it challenges the status quo of traditional artistic media, while at the same time adopting some of the same norms to become viable in the contemporary art market. The demand and collector base for new media art is small as of yet, but artists still must find ways to both control the dissemination of their work and make it saleable. But the paradox of new media art remains — how is it possible to sell something that it is impossible to own?

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The strategies that are developing to monetize new media art are surprising mainly in their familiarity. Among them are creating an artificial scarcity for the files themselves, adopting a patronage system in which the collector is inextricably associated with the work, and turning the digital files into physical objects more immediately accessible to a traditional collector base.

A flash point in the commodification of new media art occurred earlier this year at one of New York's most recognizable venues for commercial art work — the Armory Fair. Lauren Cornell, director of new media-oriented online publication Rhizome, set up a booth selling digital work, as displayed on a 27-inch iMac screen. Hrag Vartanian, editor of art blog Hyperallergic, interviewed Cornell about the challenges of selling such non-traditional pieces of art (the full video of the interview can be seen here) [Full disclosure: I was until recently staff writer at Hyperallergic, and was present when Hrag first approached Cornell about the interview]. Pointing out Sara Ludy's "City Inverse" on the screen, Cornell notes that, "you can sell digital work in different ways but in Sara's case we're going to take it offline for the collector so they can just have it locally." This means that Ludy's GIF file would no longer be hosted live on the artist's Web site in an "official" capacity, and the collector would be able to possess the file on their own drive space, much like a painting going in to private hands. The work would be inaccessible — that is, if other artists, writers, and bloggers had not already re-published Ludy's file elsewhere, disrupting the possibility of true unique ownership. Ludy's work has already disseminated through the Internet, and is likely possessed locally (on home hard drives) by more than a few viewers.   

Cornell's statement touched off a heated comment thread and dialogue on Hyperallergic and off. The reason for the controversy is that being "online" is often seen as integral to new media work. The question becomes, if a digital file is not live on the Internet, is it still a work of Internet art? Artists Jeremiah Johnson (Nullsleep) and No Carrier embarked on a new project in response to Cornell's statement. The mission of the resulting Web site, 0-DAY, is to keep works of Internet art online at any costs. With a lo-fi hacker aesthetic and a punchy attitude, the people behind 0-DAY are the free-data pirates of the new media world.   

Respected GIF artist and omnipresent Internet commentator Tom Moody wrote, "No director of a new media website should be promoting work in those terms." Ludy responded, "It was my decision to take the GIFs offline, not [Cornell's]." Taking a work wholly offline, or turning it into a consumable object editioned in a limited quantity, imposes a false scarcity on the art that works much like the limited edition of a photographic print would — a decreased supply leads to an increased demand. Other artists, however, are pursuing strategies that allow the work to remain online while it is still collected and owned by an individual.

Rafael Rozendaal, whose animated works often take the form of unique Web sites with a single URL devoted to a single piece, has created a system of patronage in which the collector gains certain rights to the work and has their name added to the site, while the page remains publicly accessible. This arrangement is detailed in Rozendaal's Art Website Sales Contract. The contract stipulates that the buyer will receive the Web site files, offline exhibition files, and source code upon purchase, as well as stewardship of the site's domain name. Collectors have the ability to exhibit and sell the work (provided the next buyer also agrees to Rozendaal's contract), but need the artist's permission to show it in commercial spaces or have it reproduced in a commercial context. The buyer also has an obligation to maintain the Web site's hosting, keeping it online and publicly accessible. In this way, collectors own much more than any viewer who happens to download the Web site, but also have responsibilities to the future of the work itself. It is worth noting that Rhizome's Armory Fair booth also sold Rozendaal's work under these conditions.  

A recent exploration into selling digital files, GIF Market by Kim Asendorf and Ole Fach, uses strategies similar to Rozendaal's. Buyers of the series of 1024 small GIF animations have their names inscribed under their files in the publicly viewable arena of the work's Web site. The end result is not unlike a museum offering sponsored plaques to name their galleries, but in this case, buyers are sponsoring the art and the artist's ongoing practice, and receiving the plaque as reward. In a clever twist, as the series is bought up, the cost to buy a single work goes up as well, with an algorithm that approximates the impact of increasing scarcity on price. Collectors can take pride in their public ownership and watch as their piece appreciates.

Selling applications (on an iPhone or off) is another way to monetize new media art. Artists who work in the application format, Rafael Rozendaal included, have a pre-set infrastructure to price and distribute their work, plus a system in place to make reasonably sure that their work is not pirated. This may look like a clean solution, but there remain issues with going through Apple's app store. There is no way to limit the "edition" of an app; anyone can purchase it. The commercial system at work is also by no means independent — in the example of Apple's app store, an international corporation retains power over the store's content and distribution system, making independent work difficult if not impossible. 

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There is no final answer to the question of how to sell new media art, nor is there any definitive strategy. Artists, curators, and dealers are still struggling with how to provide a comprehensive system that allows for both commercialization and the work's persistence in its native online context.

 

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TL;DR: Lauren Cornell, abovementioned executive director of Rhizome, contributed an essay to Frieze magazine's 20th anniversary edition on how the institutionalized art world has failed to embrace or integrate the possibilities of the Internet in art-making. Internet is a "gauche" word in contemporary art because medium specificity is out of style, Cornell writes, and the Internet is perceived as simply a medium rather than something that represents a fundamental shift in our way of living. The principles of "scarcity, objecthood, and value" embraced by the art world are less relevant in the "horizontal" Internet, which is based on "free access, open sharing, and unchecked distribution." In the end, "the structural model of the art world remains relatively unchanged." So which side does Cornell finally come down on: embracing the free-access nature of the Internet, or creating artificial scarcity and taking digital works offline? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle — these are two extremes to negotiate, not ideologies to adhere to.  

DEAD DROP: On a recent Sunday in media artist James George's Bushwick studio, the artist, along with collaborator Alexander Porter, plotted to drop an iPhone seven stories down one of the building's industrial stairwells. The fall was a test of their antagonistic iPhone app, "Free Fall High Score," a game that rewards users for dropping their phone, safely, from the highest height possible. A sheet was stretched at the bottom of the 140-foot drop to catch the device, and had indeed caught several test runs without error. On the final fall, however, George's hand wavered, and the iPhone (the artist's personal 3GS) caught an edge, spun out of control, and hit the ground, splintering the screen and cleaving in half. After two days of mourning, George purchased a new 3GS from the Apple. Such is our sacrifice for art.  

Net Work is a weekly column exploring the state of contemporary new media art and its practitioners by ARTINFO Assistant Editor Kyle Chayka. Follow Kyle on Twitter at @chaykakor email him at kchayka@artinfo.com.   

[This article has been corrected since its original published version.]