Exclusive: Bruce Wands Talks Pioneers of Digital Art

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“The most important effect that the digital process has had for me in respect of my art practice is that it has given me the freedom to play beyond set boundaries. The use of the word ‘play’ by no means suggests a non-serious or trivial inference: Play is fundamental to all art and in the digital process we have found an important and exciting form of this, giving new possibilities of such a fluid and dynamic nature that its importance cannot be overstates.” — Robin Doherty in Art of the Digital Age

Not to be confused with this form of digital apoplexia, digital art is traditional art (sculpture, installation, and performance, among others) redefined within a digital context, offering “more precision than the human hand” and less room for chaos. For those of us digital art neophytes curious to learn more, School of Visual Arts presents Technocultures: The History of Digital Art: A Conversation tonight at 6 p.m.

To get a taste of what’s in store, Flavorwire sat down with SVA’s Computer Art Department Chair, Bruce Wands, who will moderate tonight’s panel; find our interview after the jump.

Flavorwire: Prior to the Victoria and Albert Museum acquisition of digital art, what has been the typical reception of digital art in a fine arts setting (e.g. in museums)?

Bruce Wands: Funny enough, how tonight’s panel evolved is based around the Victorian and Albert Art Museum in London beginning to collect digital art in print form —the people that will run the SVA panel are all in the collection at the V&A. Early on, digital fine art did not receive a lot of acceptance in galleries and museums, because it was non-archival, it didn’t fit into the painting/drawing/sculpture hierarchy, and it was almost viewed as ‘outsider art.’ It’s becoming mainstream in a big way, and in a quick way.

FW: At what point did digital art begin to get taken seriously as an actual discipline within the arts? Were there any monumental works, exhibitions, or demonstrations that gave it more legitimacy?

BW: Digital Art really began to be taken seriously right around the year 2000 (even though there were early shows as far back as 1964). There was a show called “BitStreams” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and a show called “010101” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. [It] started to get a lot of public exposure based on the internet as well as through major museum exhibitions.

FW: How has digital art been impacted by the Internet — are the two mutually exclusive, or do they shape each other (or is there as much a correlation between digital art and the Internet as between the internet and other art forms that use the internet for promotional/awareness purposes)?

BW: The Internet really opened the world to artists in a variety of ways — they could bypass the traditional museum-gallery hierarchy and put their work online so that everyone could see it. A new form of art evolved from there called Net Art which is art made on the internet. Net Art has received a lot of public acclaim, but one of the problems with it is that it’s not commodified — difficult to sell, difficult to market — it’s not really appropriate in a gallery setting. People more or less experience Net Art in their homes. [However, digital art and the internet] are not mutually exclusive; they work in conjunction with each other.

FW: Do you see digital art as a natural progression in the way art is created?

BW: Digital art is a natural evolution in terms of how technology has evolved. From my point of view, it offers many more creative options than traditional media does. Painting has gone through a lot of stages, but with digital art, you can expand the way you see painting and the way you create it. For instance, some artists will make a painting and then photograph it, make a digital photograph and then modify the colors, modify the composition and then use that for the basis of, say, their next painting. So, it certainly can be used in an evolutionary way, as well as a final medium.

FW: Would you say that digital art and traditional art practices can co-exist?

BW: What I’m actually seeing with my students at SVA is a merging of traditional and digital techniques together in their work rather than using them separately. [Further] what I’m seeing now in Chelsea, is that the division between digital art and contemporary art is blurring. Digital art will eventually become absorbed into contemporary art. [Digital art] is not a new art form — it has been around for more than forty years, there are pioneers and artists who have laid the groundwork for the work that’s being done today. You do see digital art in Chelsea (in contemporary art galleries) where it’s not defined as digital art even though you could see it as digital art — that’s the merging of the two fields.

FW: Can digital art have the same aura that traditional art contains? One common criticism of the Internet is that it provides superficial stimulus without the dynamic substance of physical interaction…

BW: Digital art does have that same aura — if you look through my book you’ll see some really amazing work. Art of the Digital Age contains work from a hundred artists around the world, and a lot of them are pioneers in the field as well as emerging artists. I cover all aspects of digital art, from printmaking to digital sculpture, animation, video. Some of the early stuff was a little focused on technology, and machine-centric. Digital art is evolving passed that. Early digital art was exploring what the computers could do creatively, but digital artists were limited in terms of color, speed, and interactivity; Net Art didn’t evolve until the Internet came along, and the world wide web really only started in the mid-90s (so, using images, and interfaces on the Internet only really began in the 1990s). Digital art is still a very young art form, in one sense, but in another sense, it does go back forty years, so there’s a dichotomy there in terms of contemporary art.

Learn more at Bitforms Gallery, one of the leading digital art galleries in New York.

Image: Muntadas, This is Not an Advertisement, 1985