Blurring Boundaries, Site Sells Digital Editions of Tracey Emin's Public Art

Tracey Emin's "I Promise To Love You" in Times Square
(Ka-Man Tse)

NEW YORK — Times Square has become a little more romantic this month thanks to British artist Tracey Emin. Every night at 11:57 pm, 40 video screens in the iconic New York square go dark. Slowly, a neon script begins to appear, as if written by Emin herself, spelling out phrases of love and devotion: “Love is what you want.” “I can’t believe how much I loved you.” “I promise to love you.” A red heart forms around the messages, framing them like Valentines. On February 13, the artist — a bona fide celebrity in the U.K. but lesser known outside art circles in the United States — will pose with viewers below her digital handiwork in Times Square.

The project is the latest installment of Midnight Moment, an ongoing collaboration between the Times Square Advertising Coalition and Times Square Arts. As part of the program, companies that rent screens in Times Square — including Reuters, NASDAQ, and Bank of America — agree to give over their precious advertising real estate for three minutes every evening before midnight. Artists such as Yoko Ono, Robert Wilson, and Seoungho Cho have previously created work for the program.

In Emin’s case, there’s a twist. For the first time, the digital artworks on view in Times Square are also available for purchase online. Limited editions of these high-resolution still images and computer animations can be had for as little as $22 on s[edition], a website devoted to digital art. (Collectors download the artworks — which are, in essence, a computer file — from the Internet along with a certificate of authenticity.) The prices go up in phases as the editions, which can number in the thousands, are sold. (Emin’s real neon signs typically sell in the $60,000 range.)

“We worked very closely with Tracey and her team to help bring about these digital versions of her famous neon sculptures,” Robert Norton, who co-founded s[edition] with gallerist Harry Blain in 2011, told ARTINFO. (Three of the six messages in the Times Square project were already available on s[edition] when Times Square Arts approached the company about the possibility of working with Emin; the other three are new.) “Our editors and programmers helped her achieve her vision — including the speed of the movement and the intensity of the light — in the same way she would use a studio technician,” Norton explained.

The Times Square collaboration is one of several new, real-world projects s[edition] is taking on in an effort to become better-known offline. For the last 14 months, s[edition] has produced and sold digital artworks by the likes of Tony Cragg, Damien Hirst, and film director Wim Wenders. In December, the company launched a pop-up gallery in London near Piccadilly Circus to show passerby how they looked on television screens.

Somewhat surprisingly, museums have purchased a handful of digital artworks from the website since its launch. The Tel Aviv Museum in Israel purchased a work by Elmgreen & Dragset — listed at $1,600, one of the most expensive pieces on offer — for an upcoming show. The Stavanger Art Museum in Norway has purchased more than 10 digital works from s[edition].

Whether the international exposure serves to attract more private collectors and distinguish s[edition]’s products from high-end screensavers remains to be seen. Norton maintains s[edition]’s target audience is individuals — tech-savvy collectors who enjoy being able to carry an artwork on their iPhone to show to friends and might want to transfer it to their television screen when they arrive home. These are people who love art, who are used to buying other things in digital formats such as books or movies, and who typically have multiple screens in their lives,” he said. “A new owner of a connected television is very responsive to this kind of offer. They have a screen in a very prominent social position within the home.” 

For founders who started out working with more traditional fine art, the project has a hint of “if you can't beat them, join them.” We may not be able to prevent screens from taking over our lives, but perhaps we can fill them with something more substantial than American Idol. Plus, Norton notes, if your television is already at the center of the living room, “the framing and hanging is already done, in a way.”