Virtual art is the product of long-standing traditions in art merged with revolutionary technological advances. With innovations emerging almost as fast as end-users can test and master new systems, technology has dramatically altered our daily lives and changed our thought processes. Like many technological advances, virtual and cyber realities have been embraced, and often created by, artists that experiment with the myriad of possibilities that technology can offer. While there have been many works of art inspired and created by means of digital advances, the medium has yet to be defined and its boundaries have not yet been identified. Since technology and virtual art are just beginning to be explored, the medium is in its infancy and thus cannot be judged based upon traditional mores of art. Before virtual art can achieve prominence and respect within the art world, many barriers of tradition must first be abolished.
Virtual and digital technologies are rampant in American culture and thoroughly utilized in entertainment mediums like television, movies, magazines, and video games. Our capitalist economy creates a fertile environment for these mediums to prosper by feeding off the public's hunger for entertainment. Because these industries are in such high demand and accrue billion dollar revenues, new technologies are often conceived in and funded by these trades: "For, in essence, all socially relevant new image media, from classical antiquity to the revolution of digital images, have advanced to serve the interests of maintaining power and control or maximizing profits" (Grau 339). That being the case, new technologies "hardly ever…advanced solely for artistic purposes" (Grau 339). Because "power" and "profits" are the central means of motivation in our culture; art, in the classical sense, is often an afterthought. In an age where entertainment and art intertwine, however, distinctions between the two based upon their creation are impossible. With advances in technology and, in turn, art, our ideas and traditions of comparison should also develop to justly analyze new media: "Although art history and the history of the media have always stood in an interdependent relationship and art has commented on, taken up, or even promoted each new media development, the view of art history as media history…is still underdeveloped" (Grau 4). In order to embrace virtual art as a valid outlet of artistic expression, its relationship to media and unique position in the history of art must first be acknowledged.
In its current state, virtual art is an emerging form of expression that encompasses many mediums. Some forms of "media art" include "video, computer graphics and animation, Net-art, interactive art in its most advanced form of virtual art with its subgenres of telepresence art, and genetic art" (Grau 3). One of the main issues, or merits, attributed to virtual art is its inherent intangible nature. Historically, art has been a tangible work that can be displayed and coveted as a unique, freestanding piece. Virtual forms of art are, apart from their existence in cyberspace, intangible and therefore, are undefined in the current boundaries of art:
Web art does exist in space but in a virtual space which transgresses the traditional notions of spatial relationship with the viewer. The dematerialization of the art object is inherent in web art as the viewer accepts the reality that this art form does not produce a 3-D object and thus spatial interface with the piece is impossible (Divila 3).
Because of this drastic change in medium, it is difficult for many surrounded in a world dominated by tangible, traditional standards in art to embrace virtual art and give credence to its creative elements. Another field emerging within "media art" is sound art. In this medium, artists "create environments from noise, both inventing new sounds and collecting various honks, hoots, and squawks from their surroundings. The result is an aural image: They work with the mind's ear rather than eye" (Stevens 70). Sound artists have been around for sometime, having a fixed place in movies and music. As a distinct art form, however, these artists are beginning to create a niche in the history of art alongside other virtual and technologically adept forms of art. Virtual and sound arts are emerging fields that are beginning to gain acceptance in an established art world.
Because digital arts are starting to gain momentum and respect, standard modes of art exhibition have begun to embrace these burgeoning forms. One recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City entitled 'BitStreams,' aimed to showcase artistic innovations in the world of digital technology. The show highlighted American works that experimented in sound, sight, and sense. While most critics felt "the show [was] provocative, exploratory, and entertaining – with enough technical bells and whistles to excite the child within," the display also "oddly enough, [did] not seem surprisingly new" (Stevens 69). Many of the works at 'BitStreams' seemed outdated. One reason for this is that popular culture is so inundated with modern technology by means of film, which has pushed technological boundaries. In comparison to spectacular movie effects, virtual art cannot compete and must provoke thought and contemplation on other levels. Another reason the show was not as spectacular as it could have been, was the Whitney's choice to limit the exhibitions to American artists. Technological innovations have internationalized expression and communication and to ignore pioneers in the field because of their nativity, is to miss many universal themes of digital art. Some of the most compelling pieces of the show retained what art critic Walter Benjamin calls the "ritual" or "cult value" of human elements within art (Benjamin 5). Lutz Bacher's Closed Circuit (1997-2000) and Lynn Marie Kirby's Photons in Paris: image encoding.3 (1997-2000) "are two of the strongest works in 'BitStreams' precisely because they acknowledge, through digital means, the very human experience of technology" (Pollack 63). Many pieces of virtual art fail to incorporate the "human experience" of life and technology and this element "is entirely lacking in most of the works on view, which blindly herald a 'brave new world' without reflecting on the political or personal ramifications of Huxley's novel" (Pollack 63). The most compelling art to the human mind intertwines pieces of humanity with new modes of expression. Currently, in the infancy of virtual art, we have yet to break out of conventional shells that inhibit growth of a new medium: "By setting up a new canon – predominantly abstract and decidedly male – 'BitStreams' begins to look very much like the old canon" (Pollack 63). Although 'BitStreams' is the first step into the future of digital technology and virtual art exhibition, the show seemed to have garnered more attention for the ineffectiveness of a modern museum as an exhibition hall and the poor "curatorial choices" available to display new mediums of art (Pollack 61). Though undefined, modes of virtual exhibition must keep pace with the quickly changing forms of art to fully experience these new expressions.
To many observers, virtual art has been a recent phenomena and seems to have developed quickly since the first virtual reality experiences emerged around 1990. In fact, the roots of virtual art are much more deeply embedded in our cultural past. Artists have aimed to create a mind and body experience for their viewers for hundreds of years, playing with mediums such as ceilings, walls, and multiple canvases to create a unique experience for their viewers:
In spite of rapidly changing media technology, the idea of 360° images was a continuing phenomenon in the history of twentieth-century art and media. It is a model that maps onto the utopian idea of transporting the observer into the image, nullifies the distance to the image space, intensifies the illusion, and increases the artwork's power over the audience (Grau 348).
Artists often achieved the illusion of viewers feeling as if they were in the picture by offering panoramas with which to transport the observer and foster a sense of what it felt like to be the artist. One painter who often used this technique was Claude Monet, who "spent decades searching for ways to fuse the observer and the image. The triptychs, Iris, Saule pleureur, Agapanthus, and Nuages, painted between 1915 and 1917…created…a complete panoramic view of Monet's water lily lake" (Grau 141). Monet is just one of a large pool of early twentieth-century artists that aimed to change the experience of the viewer. Another precursor to virtual art was postmodernism, which often meshed art and media to create an artists rendering of popular culture through art. Pop art, as it is often called, was mastered by painters like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (Holtzman 124-126). These traditions and foundations rooted in the art world, along with monumental technological innovations, allowed for the birth of virtual art. Like postmodernism, web and virtual art mediums raise issues of "copy vs. original, artist vs. viewer, spatial vs. temporal, and visual vs. verbal" (Divila 1). Within these common issues, web art produces unique concepts like "infinite reproducibility, interpretive interactivity, non-physicality, and coded language," all of which "contribute to the affirmation of these postmodern concerns" (Divila 1). Unlike its precursors, however, reproduction and interactivity are integral to the meaning and experience of virtual art. Virtual art is a product of our past, using artistic and technological innovations to create expressions of the future.
The issue of reproduction with advancing technology has long been a concern in the art world. When photography was emerging as a method of reproducing art and a valid art form in its own right, many art critics critiqued the dire effects of the innovation. In his 1935 essay entitled "Photography in the Age of Mechnical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin stressed his belief that "the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique experience" (Benjamin 3). Furthermore, Benjamin believed photography would extract the "aura" and sense of ritual from an artwork, thus removing the authority of the original (Benjamin 3). Conversely, since web art "is pure conceptual art,…there truly exists no original object, only ideas" (Divila 2). Consequently, the "aura" of a work "does not live in the virtual world and is therefore null" (Divila 2). Additionally, virtual art revels in reproduction, which acts to heighten the work's authority and secure the piece a position in the history of art: "Digital information is a commodity that gains in value the more it can be resold" (Holtzman 127). Because of its virtual nature, digital art is created and recreated by a computer language that is made up of bits, which are pieces of computing data that generate a total program or work. Since a virtual art piece is constructed of bits, every instance of the work is an original: "…a fundamental property of a bit is that it can be copied without loss of quality. A copy is as good as the original. In the digital domain, a copy is always perfect" (Holtzman 123). As a result, virtual art brings up compelling questions about perfect reproduction and the importance of an original: "Not only is web art by its natural language a copy or a repetition but the concept of the artwork created through a technological medium also addresses the lack of importance of the original" (Divila 2). In a culture in which an original and personal expression are all-important fixtures of art, virtual expression is turning the world of art upside down and creating compelling new ideas and thoughts about creativity and experience. Reproduction, once an issue of great concern in the art world, is now celebrated and acts as a prime fixture in works of virtual art.
Because of issues like viewer interaction and mass reproduction, the status of the virtual artist comes into question. While some feel that the role of the artist is nullified with the interactivity of viewers, others uphold the consistent importance of the artist. One of the arguments among those who see a type of death of the artist is that "interactivity challenges both the distinction between creator and observer as well as the status of an artwork and the function of exhibitions" (Grau 343). Furthermore, others feel that "the reader, the viewer, the audience had replaced the artist as creator because the meaning of the work was to be found in the interpretations of the text and each interpretation spawned new meaning" (Divila 2). While virtual environments raise compelling questions about creation, interaction, and interpretation, the importance of the artist is still vital in a virtual medium. For instance, "it is important to remember that in the end, digital technology is just a tool…It is never the technology used – or even the skill displayed…but only the sensibility of the artist" (Stevens 70). The ingenuity of the piece always stems from the artist, no matter how involved the viewer becomes. Also, "it is great artists, uncorrupted by the easy power of the computer and its invitations to sloppy, narcissistic indulgence, who will finally make the digital revolution matter in art, and not the technology itself" (Stevens 70). While the viewer plays a more involved role in the meaning and occurrences within many works of virtual art, the artist remains the primary creative force.
The field of virtual art is wide open for new figures to emerge and new experiences to be revealed. Before this field can fully mature, however, traditions in the world of art such as ideas about an original piece, reproduction, the roles of the artist and viewer, and modes of exhibition must drastically change to complement the new media and allow it to develop. Today, "digital art still exists in a state of limbo, rather like photography before Stieglitz" (Grau 3). New possibilities for the future make virtual art one of the most promising, exciting fields of the twenty-first century. The coming decades will bring "the creation of a convincing new physical – and metaphysical – space that can rival what the Cubists did at the outset of the last century, sometimes with the new techniques of their day, sometimes with the old brushes and paint" (Stevens 70). As reflected in Whitney's 'BitStreams,' our current modes of exhibition of art are binding and not ideal for radical digital art projects. Instead of "putting digital art into an institutional box, maybe the institution should reevaluate its own operating system" (Pollack 63). Virtual art promises to revolutionize our ideas of art and its impact on our lives. Before this field can emerge, we must open ourselves to new experiences, redefine our standards, and accept other cultures. Only then can we appreciate virtual artists and truly experience a state of virtual nirvana.
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