Network: A very digital dilemma

Despite the Tate's snobbish indifference, computer-based art is attracting serious investment, and growing audiences are forcing critics to stop that tittering

The art world got a jolt last summer when the US-based Guggenheim Foundation announced a $1m programme to acquire and display digital art. The foundation, known for its architecturally innovative Guggenheim Museums in New York, Berlin, Venice and Bilbao, is constructing a new museum - online. The Internet-based virtual museum, scheduled for a spring launch, will be a platform for discussing and displaying interactive, computer-based art.

The Guggenheim is the first major art institution to make a substantial investment in digital art, but it's by no means the first museum to take it seriously. Last year, two London shows - Mariko Mori at the Serpentine Gallery and Richard Hamilton at Alan Christea - displayed digital art, helping to raise the profile of computer-based work. The ICA, which already sponsors a variety of digital-related work including installations, club nights and CD-Roms - has appointed a director for new media, and there are plans to set aside a budget to commission and release online projects for the ICA's revamped website, due in May.

London's Colville Place Gallery, which opened in 1998, was the first commercial gallery in the UK devoted to artists who use computers in their work. And the Arts Council has been funding a variety of new media projects, including the Lux Gallery in London's Hoxton Square, which showcases artists who use computer technology to make and display their art, and Artec, a fine arts centre that sponsors Internet and CD-Rom works.

David Curtis, senior visual arts officer for the Arts Council, estimates that 5 to 10 per cent of the visual arts budget goes to digital projects.

Meanwhile, a number of galleries have begun to put digital work on the Web. New York's Dia Center for the Art has commissioned a series of online works for its website. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is currently hosting Shock of the View, a six-month series of curated, online exhibitions paired with an ongoing discussion about artists, audiences and museums.

However, many large institutions remain hostile to digital art. Despite repeated requests from The Independent, the Tate Gallery's press office was unable to locate a staff member to speak on the subject of digital art. Last year a spokesperson for the museum was quoted as saying: "When there are good artists using new media then we'll be interested."

There's commercial resistance to digital art, too: with a few exceptions, sales at the Colville Place Gallery remain small - under pounds 200 - and the gallery has yet to break even, say Keith Watson and Ian Middleton, founders and co-curators. This hostility to digital art is more than knee-jerk traditionalism. Underlying the Tate's hesitancy are some big questions about what digital art is and how it should be curated and collected.

The term digital art has been used to describe work ranging from interactive, web and CD-Rom-based projects, digital sculptures and video installations, to traditional paintings and photographs. Matthew Slotover, editor of Frieze Magazine, which is currently developing a comprehensive arts website, explains that there's heated debate about the term digital art. "What does it mean? Is it painters using computers to scan in drawings and paint from computers? Or is it art that exists only digitally and is displayed online or printed out?"

The Dia's online projects exist only in digital form. Works like Kristin Lucas's Between a Rock and a Hard Drive and Claude Closky's Do you want love or lust? use the Web's unique qualities - interactivity, ability to link, immediacy - to explore contemporary culture. The ICA is also focusing on Web-based projects. "Our main concern is online work," says Benjamin Weil, director of new media. "This whole new range of art experiments is very much a part of our culture. It hasn't gained as much respect as other forms yet, but we're getting there. The function of the museum is to have a broad understanding of what the art scene is."

Other work is less obviously digital. Untitled Painting Show, exhibited recently at the Lux, consisted of paintings by four artists who employ computer technology such as scanning while producing their work. An exhibit at Colville Place last year showed German painter Rolf Gnewuch's oil paintings of large nudes copied from heavily pixelated computer images. Watson and Middleton argue that technology is just another tool, and that digital- based work needn't employ state-of-the-art technology to qualify as digital: "More important is how the technology is used to treat particular issues and whether it does so convincingly."

Another area of debate is how digital art should be curated, stored and sold. Curators worry whether art should be displayed on the Web. Can it be downloaded by anyone? Will people pay to see art that's freely accessible on the Web? Will online art remain accessible despite frequent software upgrades? Collectors have similar concerns. Recalling philosopher Walter Benjamin's observation that mechanically reproducible art loses its individual worth, they worry that prints of digital work, being endlessly reproducible, have little market value. They also worry whether digital prints will deteriorate.

The ICA is also addressing these questions in its Lingo series of conferences on art and new media. In the first conference of the series last month, Archiving the Web, an international group of artists and curators met to discuss ways of conserving and collecting art projects produced online.

If collectors are taking a while to warm to the idea of digital art, the public needs no convincing. Many curators argue it's the most important force in contemporary art, while audiences flock to shows. (Mariko Mori was one of the most popular shows in the history of the Serpentine).

"They came because they were fascinated with what this artist was doing with new media," says the exhibition's curator, Lisa Corrin. It's natural, she adds, for artists like Mariko Mori to use digital technology to address contemporary issues like the way lives are shaped by mass (electronic) media. "They feel that to be artists of their time they must use digital media the way artists long ago used paintbrush and palette. They are painting in the palette of the moment."

ICA: http://www. newmediacentre.com

Dia: http://www.diacenter. org

Guggenheim Museums: http://www.guggenheim.org

Colville Place:

http://www.romanesque.co. uk/gallery.html

Walker

http://www.walkerart.org

Lux: http://www.lea.org.uk

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