Art+Tech. The chronicles of a historical alliance

The history of art is inseparable from the technological progress. Inventions in physics and mechanics were often first tried on theatre stages; before being put to good use: the Archimedes' screw originally helped to stage the Battle of Salamis in a Roman amphitheater, whereas the theatre machines operated back in the Medieval ages still function as integral elements of modern Broadway musicals.

Of no surprise is the fact, that the first adopters of technologies in visual art were painters: it is in their blood to be on top of things, applying scientific achievements to better communicate their ideas. The invention of a printing press gave a push to the art of printmaking — Albrecht Dürer never trusted anyone with even the most taxing of tasks — engraving and printing personally.

According to one of the accounts, impressionism came to be due to the invention of a photo camera: the artists became so scared of the potential 'competitor' that they tried to even copy the glitches of the first photos: blurred backgrounds and fuzzy details. Then Monet et al. jumped on a train — one more of the recent inventions — and rode to plein air for their studies. By the way, the train which appears so often in impressionists paintings is a consequence of recognizing the greatness of and a sign of respect towards progress: in this time the train was a top-notch invention.

In 1921, László Moholy-Nagy, a hungarian artist, first showed his telephone paintings to the public, which he didn't physically touch: he commanded how to position various elements in the canvass, directed the colors and sizes by phone to the production site. Back in 1920s, Sotheby’s used phone for the first time to collect orders, a decade earlier they did the same with telegraphy. Already in 1960s, Sotheby’s became the first auction house to run an auction over satellite connection, taking bids online.

Also in 1960s, Andy Warhol in the US experimented with portable film camera, preempting the development of two cultural phenomena right away — video art and musical videos. This same time in Berlin Nam June Paik, a Korean artist, experimented with electromagnets and kinescopes (he would later be called the founder of video art). Alexander Calder was not a stranger to technology either, proving with his mobiles sculptures that moving kinetic art remains relevant.

The emergence of the World Wide Web and massive adoption of social media turned museums and exhibition halls into main proponents of technology. From late 2000s museum mobile apps embarked on a journey to 'extend' the reach of cultural institutions, making them accessible to the users who left the museum premises and helping to pass the information to others. The motto 'Exploring is Sharing' became a main marketing tool to attract new audiences in the subsequent decade.

However, when Google Art Project, digitized collections of 17 world leading museums in 2010 it was originally severely filibustered by the global official museum community: the museums thought that making their collection widely acessible would lead to a drop in the number of visitors. However already in 2011, the statistics proved the critics wrong: in the trial group of Google 'selected' museums the visitors traffic grew by 8%. More detailed research demonstrated a direct link between the browsing of collections online and the wish to see them offline. In a year, Google Art Project had a que of over a thousand of international institutions lining up to participate in the project.

Museum marketologists helped to expedite the implementation of two other technologies, originally devised for the gaming industry: AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality). Thanks to AR in particular, the Museum of London produced a unique exhibition, juxtaposing historical pictures of London with the modern cityscape; they also managed to exhibit the stolen pictures from the MFA Boston's collection: via a mobile app users could see the works back on the walls of the museum.

VR became widely popular amongst private collectors, one can now set up exhibitions and presentations avoiding the need to relocate the items themselves: virtual twins of the paintings, as well as VR helmets and goggles now became a frequent guest at international art fairs (for instance, Sylvain Levy, a French collector of contemporary Chinese art brought it this way to Seul in 2017). VR is also capable of favourably presenting works of art if producing them in 'flesh and blood' is rather costly: in 2018 at Kyiv Art Fair a group of Ukranian sculptures presented their works in a virtual 3D gallery. Later on, when collectors comissioned the artists and paid for the orders, part of the 3D sculptures saw light.

From late 2000s, digital galleries started encroaching on the art market. The first platform to undergo the whole way from an idea to regular customers was Saatchi Online (2009, later renamed Saatchi Art). The platform allowed artists to open their accounts with the service and hope for the miracle in a shape of a collector to happen, who may by chance stumble upon the artist's account and choose it from thousands of others. But miracles did happen and quite often, which in turn lead to a rapid increase of these kind of projects. The Artsy platform (2010, hard launch in 2012) decided to play not with the artists but with the galleries who can now get their online representation for a subscription fee.

Specialized, purely online auction houses popped up like mushrooms after the rain — Paddle8 (2011) and Auctionata (2012). A proprietory e-auction was also launched by the oldest art analitics company Artnet (2013). Finally, Sotheby’s и Christie’s (2014) thought it feasible to introduce separate online bidding capabilities. By that moment in time the market started changing rapidly: the old generation of collectors faded into the past, the millenials loaded with money and gadgets exercised caution. Technology became a link to a new consumer out there, a person with a tablet, who is used to making his purchases online. According to Art Basel and UBS Report 2019, from 2013 to 2018 the total sales volume of art online grew from $3,1 mln. to $6 mln. and took as much as a 9% share from the global art sales market in 2018 (a +11 % increase on an annual basis).

Many of the readers are itching to see the word blockchain in the article. Here it is, but chronologically it was created back in 2008 as a system to record cryptocurrency payments. It were the artists who first saw it and recognized as a powerful tool! In 2016 even before the crypto-boom, tokenization and overwhelming ICOs, the book 'Artists Re:thinking the Blockchain' was published in the USA. The book narrates in a language bordering on academic, art historian and techy style, and presents vivid examples of artists adapting blockchain to their art to decentralize their work and help it transcend physical borders.

In 2017, the blockchain community in art divided into to camps: the socialists (who mostly used it to fix chains of transactions and provenance) and the capitalists (who liked the idea of tokenized shared ownership for art — digital analogues of shares). Former, such as Artory and Codex, try to convince collectors in the importance of storing, researching and expanding the provencance; latter, amongst whom are Maecenas and Look Lateral, try to overcome a legislative pushback, preventing the digital assets from making their way into the usal set of financial instruments. In October 2019, Inna Bazhenova, the editor-in-chief of The Art Newspaper announced her own blockchain project still in development.

The impact of digital tech on the art market was recognized on the highest level: recent Deloitte Art & Finance reports contained full sections about it, while in 2019 Deloitte incorporated a full research of the ArtTech startup market jointly done with Fuelarts. The report reads that in the last decade, young companies operating on the verge of art and technology raised funds for over $680 mln and have a survival rate which is 4 times higher than startups in other industries.

We started our story today with artists, let them also be the last thing in it. The number of creative individuals and groups making their research in the world of digital art today is measured in tens of thousands. These artists create with tablets and VR helmets, they sprinkle their visual art with blockchain strings of code, they depict digital signals, magnetic waves and radio frequencies. In other words, they push their voice and thoughts through a telephone line (technologies) like Moholy-Nagy did back in 1922. But the means of communications today are more modern and diverse and present a varied palette of opportunities for ArtTech activities.

Naturally, the next step of technological development requires academic recognition of digital art, so that it can be included in the cultural context (let alone to allow museums to buy digital works of art to be recognized by the official art historians). And it is being already done, Kate Vass Galery in Zurich, dealing with digital art, regularily publishes books of articles where hi-tech world and academic art criticism are closely intertwined.

Denis Belkevich,
Founder, Fuelarts
telegram: @dbelkevich

This article was first published in Russian on ARTinvestment.RU