Potlatch, Auction, and the in-between: Digital Art and Digital Audiences

A D Coleman. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History, and Science. Editor: Michael R Peres. 4th edition. Elsevier, Inc., 2007.

Two models of digital art-making and dissemination dominate the current discourse on this subject: potlatch—the open-handed giveaway of one’s bounty, as practiced by the Kwakiutl Indians of the Pacific Northwest—and auction: sale of one’s work to the highest bidder. As an alternative, let us explore a fertile middle ground, which I’m calling here “the in-between.” Among the issues involved are the politics of access, the challenges of unstandardized technology, and the imminent shift in systems for the distribution, presentation, and financial support of digital art.

As we move into the 21st century, only a small fraction of the world’s population enjoys the privilege of computer use and Internet communication. Except in certain museum and public-display contexts, on the levels of both production and distribution the making of digital art and the engagement with it as an audience member presently involve access to a computer and, in many cases, to the World Wide Web. Even in first-world countries, this represents disparities—of economics, of education level, of class, and of race, among other inequities.

From a political and pedagogical standpoint, therefore, some of our attention and energy must concentrate on heightening awareness of who’s tacitly excluded from this discourse, so that we and they can join in steadily expanding the audience and dissolving those borders.

We also need to keep in mind that every technological advance in the digital field, however exciting it may prove for the artists who adopt it, leaves some segment of the existing audience behind. The already vast and ever-growing diversity of computer hardware, software playback media, project design and display programs, and Internet data-transmission and display systems effectively guarantees that some significant percentage of the computer-equipped and computer-literate and Web-ready audience for any work of digitally transmitted art will find itself unable to open, view, download, or otherwise access that work on perfectly good and reasonably up-to-date computers adequately connected—if necessary for that project—to the Internet. This problem will only grow worse over the next decade, I venture to predict. It certainly won’t be solved by the advent of so-called “Web services,” whereby software will be stored online and accessed via subscription by users; who knows what compatibility will exist between the artwork one creates and the software-subscription decisions of any prospective viewer thereof?

Add to this, by the way, the fact that as this or that generation of hardware and software obsolesces and disappears, digital artwork created with and for one or another variant thereof all too frequently obsolesces with it, unless and until it’s repurposed and reconfigured for the newer technology.

So … want an art-and-science project? Apply your insights and imaginations to the creation of Digiomnivore, a form of artificial intelligence ‘bot capable of ingesting any form of digital media and playing it back according to its programmed purpose. Maybe it should take organic form, as a genetically engineered digestive-regurgitative-excretive biosystem—something not necessarily as unlikely as you might think, given recent biotech advances that enable the bar-coding of molecules, the creation of nanobots,2 and the introduction of miniaturized electronic circuitry into microorganisms. Or maybe, since we ourselves seem poised to become the first generation of cyborgs, you can devise this as an implant, a media-input slot in some inconspicuous, otherwise unused area of the body.

Whatever form it takes, until its invention artists and audiences alike remain fated to struggle with the real but generally undiscussed problem of systems proliferation without standardization—incoherent distribution. This bewildering multiplication of encoding, storage, distribution, and retrieval systems confronts the bottleneck of comparatively unevolved display technology. At present, the audience encounter with purely digital art—art that takes no analog form—happens on the VDT or computer monitor, a device that’s changed very little over the past twenty years. Designed for single-user viewing, the VDT functions as the end-point of digital-art distribution, the physical site at which that art meets its audience. Its limitations determine the impact of that art, and need to be factored in by the artists working with these technologies. New forms of VDT—including a paint-on, emulsion-based liquid and a fabric-like version—seem obvious alternatives, but the invention and manufacture of more varied forms of digital-art display may well be artist-driven.

During a PBS interview on the Charlie Rose Show the great composer, arranger, and producer Quincy Jones spoke eloquently about his studies in Paris after World War II with the legendary music teacher Nadia Boulanger. As a jazz musician, working with the assumption of improvisation and the freedom it implies, he was struck forcibly by her insistence on the value—the creative value—of structure and boundaries as stimuli in the making of art. And Jones came to agree with her: whether the constraint was the 3-minute duration of the standard 10-inch 78 rpm record or the 12-bar structure of traditional blues form, these boundaries served the artist who used them well. The more restrictions you have, the freer you become,” Jones said, or words to that effect. In that regard we can recall what John Keats, one of its most devoted servants, said about the strictures of sonnet form: that he discovered therein “not chains but wings.

I can’t imagine any digital artist speaking that way about the VDT, perhaps because as a container for creativity it doesn’t offer anywhere near the challenge that sonnet form or 12-bar blues does. Up till today, looking at digital art largely means squinting at stuff on the equivalent of small- to medium-sized television sets. Imagine, for comparison’s sake, if photography for the last century and a half had found itself viable only in the form of the daguerreotype, and only in the standard 19th-century sizes for that medium’s plates. Surely that would eventually—if not quickly—have reduced photography’s audience. The same holds true, I’d contend, for digital art. We can anticipate a major surge in the audience and market for work in this form once it’s liberated from the pixellated prison of the now-standard computer monitor or screen.

Let us turn next to the issue of the bugginess of just about all the software that anyone uses in doing any digital art project. In late 2001 Bill Gates made headlines in the trade publications by pledging Microsoft to the production of less defective software. I can’t imagine any other industry in the world in which it would be newsworthy—on a cover-story level—for a leading manufacturer to declare that his company’s product should be “trustworthy” and “reliable.”4 In what other realm would Gates’s announced determination to vend goods that merely work dependably merit media attention, praise for speaking “the language of leadership,” and the adjective “ambitious”?

In any other industry, untrustworthy and unreliable goods get called what they are: lemons, junk, shoddy and inferior merchandise. Somehow, in computer software, we tolerate a level of defect and a frequency of failure that would have us up in arms if we encountered it in our telephone systems, our cars, our CDs and stereos—and especially in our typewriters and cameras and trombones and toe shoes and stage lights and amplifiers and all the other tools we employ to produce art.

For decades now, the software industry has forced consumers—including digital artists and photographers—into paying for the privilege of serving as its beta testers. They’ve even got their own software piracy police force out there right now, in hot pursuit of anyone with the temerity to refuse to pay for the error-ridden programs Gates and others belatedly acknowledge they’ve been foisting off on us for all these years. They have yet to apologize for this—or for the incomprehensibility of their documentation, the appalling quality of their tech support, or their ridiculous no-return-once-it’s-opened policies.

As for the “rigorous industry standards” one trade magazine refers to—just exactly what are those? No software I’ve ever installed comes up to even the minimum requirements of the “Software Bill of Rights” proposed at www.amrresearch.com. I’ll believe Gates’s promise—and the assumption that this signals some tectonic shift—when I see results. And I’m not holding my breath.

What this industry needs isn’t high-minded internal memos on code quality from Bill Gates. It’s some whopping settlements in some major class-action suits against them for false advertising and deceptive business practices, and victories for the plaintiffs in some substantial individual suits for damages. Hit ’em where it hurts: make it unprofitable for them all to put their bug-riddled, conflict-prone, endlessly patched, frequently crashing programs on the market.

Bringing back the pillory for the worst off enders wouldn’t hurt, either. Gates himself is a prime candidate for the stocks; given Microsoft’s market share, no company has put more bad code on the market. And for all of Gates’s vaunted business savvy, it’s not even good business—customer relations entirely aside—for them to have done so. In his book Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach, author Roger Pressman shows that for every dollar spent to resolve a problem during product design, $10 would be spent on the same problem during development, and that would multiply to $100 or more if the problem had to be solved after release. Meanwhile, statistically speaking, one out of every ten lines of programming code is incorrectly written at birth. And the most efficient systems in place for quality control right now reduce that to only one faulty code line in every hundred.

This represents an aspect of the situation of digital-art production that goes so widely unmentioned that it appears to be the form’s dirty little secret, though it’s in no way the fault of any digital artist. From its origins until today the field of digital art has confronted a problem without much if any precedent in the history of art-making. Digital artists work under a tremendous handicap—to wit, a continuous, exhausting, psychologically debilitating struggle with defective, ineptly designed tools in whose conception and development those artists had little or no voice. Just as you can’t understand the dynamics of the New York art world from 1970 through the present without factoring in the skyrocketing cost of real estate in that city during that period, so you can’t really grasp the context in which digital art gets made without an awareness of this inherent instability in the technical end of the production system.

The amount of time, energy, money, and frustration expended by digital artists on grappling with this severely impaired toolkit constitutes an important but neglected aspect of the sociology (and psychology) of digital-art making from its origins till the present day. I foresee no rapid resolution to this situation. And this refers only to those artists who’ve actually committed themselves to working digitally, and not to those many others who might well have pursued serious efforts in this medium and contributed substantially to it but became discouraged by these faulty products and turned their attention elsewhere.

Moving to another subject: Digital art-making offers artists everywhere—again, that is, those with access to the technologies—the opportunity to make artworks without making objects. This constitutes the true dematerialization of art. But how will such work—which will take the generic form of what we now call “files”—reach its audiences? It will come to them either encoded and embedded in some physical software medium (computer diskette, CD-ROM, DVD, or variant thereof) or housed at a server and made available over the Web. Neither method particularly suits—or, for that matter, requires—the distribution and sales systems for art that have dominated the past two centuries: museums, commercial galleries, non-profit spaces, private dealers, auction houses, book publishers and booksellers, magazines and their editors and writers. Digital art-making, in conjunction with technologies of delivery already in place and soon to come, enables a direct artist-to-audience communication, and an equally direct feedback loop.

These methods of digital distribution will force digital artists to rethink their fundamental assumptions about the financial support systems for their work. In a direct producer-to-consumer relationship, what model should one follow? And, when one has opted for the creation and distribution of intangible work in the form of “files,” however transmitted, what strategies of pricing and what payment structures work best? Purchase? Rental? Subscription and/or membership may come to the fore as new approaches to patronage and audience support and as new ways for artists to subsidize their work.

Let us consider a model. Imagine, if you will, a website for Digital Artist X (DAX), parts of which are free and open to all but other parts of which require a password, which changes regularly and is available on a subscription basis. For $25 per year for an individual subscription, or $250 per year for an institutional one (allowing access for all members of a school’s media-arts department, for example), visitors get the following:

  • Monthly posting of completed work, work in progress, and other examples of what DAX currently has on the front burner.
  • Access to an archive of past work by DAX, and of course all the relevant boilerplate—DAX’s CV and biography, critical commentary on DAX’s work, etc.
  • Notes, journal extracts, quotations from whatever DAX’s reading that she feels pertains to her work.
  • A chat room where DAX and invited guests—critics, curators, other artists, other teachers—discuss issues relevant to DAX’s work.
  • A bulletin board where subscribers can post their comments about all that and interact with each other.
  • Periodic, pre-scheduled live studio visits, via streaming audio and video, in which subscribers actually get to see DAX at work, clips from these to be archived at the site.
  • Periodic, pre-scheduled live chats with DAX, in which DAX engages in online dialogue with subscribers.
  • By-appointment-only online critiques by DAX of student work.

If DAX found a thousand individual subscribers worldwide, or a hundred institutional subscribers, DAX’s site would earn $25,000 per year. I know a number of digital artists—and even analog photographers—who could put such revenues to good use. Yet I know of no experiment with such a model by an artist, so it stands untested. This distribution model may not work, but assuredly there are others that will, and it’s up to artists to discover them.6

This brings us, inevitably, to the issue of intellectual property, which lies at the heart of any discussion of the distribution of art. I acknowledge the oh-so-Sixties trendiness of asserting that “the Net should be free,” and the more recent fashionability of proposing, as does the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s John Perry Barlow,7 that “information wants to be free,” and I certainly consider art a type of information. But the ‘Net is simply a vehicle for the dissemination of information, with no inherent objection to compensation for that act; and information, including art-as-information, no more “wants to be free” than does cat food. The translated locution really means that those who take this position would like to see the free distribution of art-as-information.

So would I. But, this side of paradise, that can take place only if art’s producers happen either to come from the wealthy classes (and are therefore able to give their work away) or else if they’re subsidized by private patrons, the corporate state, the academic sector, or the government—all of which, of course, filter (that is, censor, both tacitly and overtly) everything they underwrite. Artists in the States envy the level of government support available as a matter of course to—for example—artists from the Netherlands, Canada, and the Nordic countries. Curiously, however, and perhaps not coincidentally, as a rule they can’t name a single Nordic, Dutch, or Canadian visual artist they consider a major contributor to the current field of ideas. Conversely, Nordic, Dutch, and Canadian artists envy the corporate support of the arts we’ve achieved in the States, usually without recognizing how it’s defanged whatever authentically oppositional, anti-corporate impulses our artists once felt.

At the risk of sounding untrendy, I must say that as a maker of intellectual property of various kinds (including poetry, fiction, and visual art, as well as ratiocinative prose), I believe in the necessity of laws protecting intellectual property and copyright, and believe they will endure well into the digital age. It’s no accident that the basis of intellectual copyright law was written into the U. S. Constitution in the late 1700s, and not as an afterthought or amendment but right up front—Article I, Section 8, right in there with Congress’s empowerment to coin money and declare war. The survival of makers of intellectual property—including digital art—depends on protecting their ability to control and make a living from the production and distribution of their work. The digital environment offers them remarkable opportunities to do so, in a context that makes possible the elimination of middlemen and gatekeepers who, historically, have interfered in the artist-audience relationship at least as often as they’ve facilitated it.

But that same digital environment also offers various means of hijacking the labor of others, and has engendered a culture of entitlement whose members feel free to take what they want. So any pedagogy of digital art distribution needs to include an inquiry into the concept of intellectual property and the various alternative forms of financial support for artists, along with familiarization of both students and faculty with copyright law—both national and international—and subsidiary-rights licensing, and even encryption technology.

When museums ask artists to transfer copyright and all other rights to them along with the works themselves, as they’ve begun to do here in the States, then artists (and their teachers) need to join the battle initiated by such organizations as the National Writers Union in the U.S., in such lawsuits as the landmark Tasini vs. Times case. No single action will more directly affect your control over the distribution of your work than surrendering all rights to it.

Finally, it seems evident that as the technologies of data transmission and information display change, the very environment of digital-art distribution will shift with it. From the wireless Internet-in-your-pocket option to broadband Internet-everywhere innovations, we can expect to carry digital data with us, show images on our clothing, turn our walls and furnishings into monitors, walk through and interact with digitally generated and holographically credible 3-D spaces—perhaps even have digital receptors implanted in our bodies.

The advent of media arts/time-based arts programs in colleges, universities, and art schools signals an unprecedented merger between what we once considered hard science—computer theory, programming, and such skills—with both media studies and the fine and applied arts. This hybridizing hothouse promises to be among the most fecund sources of innovation in 21st-century communication. In that context, production and distribution find themselves inextricably intertwined; it’s almost impossible to consider one without the other.

In the title of this paper I juxtaposed potlatch and auction. Digital distribution of digital art facilitates each of these systems, as most artists’ websites bear witness to at one end and eBay’s art section demonstrates at the other. Nothing truly innovative there—just old wine in new bottles.

But the next several decades, I anticipate, will see a lot of experimentation in what I’ve called the in-between, with digital artists and their digital audiences collaborating in testing unprecedented, and potentially healthier, ways of getting artwork to its optimum user base while making it possible for artists to survive and even thrive on the fruits of their labors. That’s the challenge, and I for one can’t wait to engage it as both a maker of intellectual property and a member of the audience for art.