From Atom to Bit: the era of Digital Art


We are no longer creatures endowed of only five senses: the technology has given us hundreds. We can observe the universe through the whole electromagnetic spectrum […] capture the molecular forces. We can contemplate the universe from the outside and having an overview […] To do so, however, we must convert the data transmitted by these new senses in a form interpretable by the five original senses. Myron W. Kruger

Art, whether it be digital or analog, is always characterized by the influence of its time. In the essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863) Baudelaire stated that in the concept of beauty had to be inevitably included two elements: the absolute, eternal feature, and historicity, variable element. The human condition, therefore, varies with the change of culture and politics, influencing the aesthetic representation. Art will therefore always reflect the specific cultural changes, and technologies, which are defined in their broadest sense, have always been an important part of this cultural transformation.[1]

In thirty years, the media practices introduced in the art works and their merge with the new equipment and technologies, have brought to light issues already taken on, but not entirely exhausted, by the historical avant-garde as, for example, the definition of art as a common creative work and its consequent democratizing willingness designed to support the aesthetic work in everyday life.[2] The new media, in fact, have re-launched in the field of art the expectation and the hope of an art that is not confined in a museum and of an original integration between creativity and everyday life.[3]

The use of digital tools in contemporary art has generated, however, a disorientation in determining a definition that could well highlight the new aesthetic situation, while the quick evolution of the digital revolution has brought in few decades to what can be called the Social Media Era and to a large expansion of what is considered contemporary art. A lot of confusion about the terminology, that is often used to mean the same thing that, however, has a different meaning, was made and it still made. For example, Digital Art can be defined as an art that uses digital tools, while Media Art refers to the use of all media: radio, television, video, photography but also computers, software [4] but not in a totally exclusive way, remaining anchored in some way, as much as possible, to the concept of the materiality of the work. Media Art covers a period ranging from Man Ray to artists such as Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman that integrate into their work the new digital technologies, to arrive at an almost total use of computers and web, while the beginnings of Digital Art can be traced back to the Sixties at the earliest, a period in which begun the first experiments with cybernetic art and computer graphics, which were presented at the historical exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity (1968) at ICA in London. It’s possible to say, however, that with the beginning of the twentieth century art and the perception of it was turned upside down by new technologies (car, telegraph, newspapers) that redefined its boundaries, so today’s digital technologies cause a slipping of the senses.[5]

The Australian artist Stelarc, has become a model for the digital native artists,  for the experiments that he made in this direction since the Seventies. Performative artist, as he himself says in his biography, he has always placed the body at the center of his artistic research, his own in particular, to experience a new evolutionary process and the possibilities of application of new information media. In many of his works/performance he offers, in fact, his body as interface connected to the Internet, asking the web public to send stimuli and to direct his movements. It creates, as well, a remote connection and creates something unexpected: material movements from an immaterial reality. Works such as Amplified Body and Third Hand made history with Virtual Arm, Ping Body and Parasite in which the physical integration with the web is established through a computer grafted on the artist’s body, expanding the boundaries until he reaches, with the most recent works, the artist’s dematerialization and his virtual appearance on the platform Second Life (2009).

We must, however, pay attention to a fundamental distinction. In the case of Stelarc we talk about an artist that, coming from Body Art, also inserted in his performances digital tools made available by the new era, as well as many others which, while integrating and interacting with digital media have not totally absorbed its essence. There are, then, other artists that start their professional path with the new technologies, making the evolution their own and breaking with traditional media.

In the introduction to the book, published by Taschen, New Media Art, American critics Mark Tribe and Reena Jana, state that “the term new media art is used to describe projects that use emerging technology and which concern the cultural, political and aesthetic possibilities of these instruments” [6] that is, an art that binds itself to algorithms and schematic and codified processes, created, distributed and used through the new digital media (computer, tablet, websites etc…). With the advent of New Media Art, or Digital Art in which are encompassed numerous categories (such as the Computer Art, Multimedia Art, Cyber Art, Net Art, Gif Art) occurs, during the years of its greatest development, the Nineties, a segregation that relegates it at the outskirts of the contemporary art world, or better, in an abstract context defined by many as New Media Art world. [7]

Although initially the message that passes is a desire for autonomy, we can find what really happened, in the words of the art historian Edward Shanken which states that contemporary art does not never accepted the new media art because it has always rejected the interpretive model based on the relationship between art, science and technology. [8] The art object, therefore, is transformed, becoming a generated media process, through a single medium, by new languages which, in turn, create new communicative complexity.


Cory Arcangel, Super Mario Clouds, installation view from the exhibition Synthetic, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2009, © Cory Arcangel 1990-2013


Nancy Burson, First and second beauty composites, 1982, Courtesy ClampArt, New York City


Paolo Cirio, Alessandro Ludovico, Face to Facebook, Mixed media installation at Artists as Catalysts, 2013 exhibition at Alhóndiga, Bilbao, Spain


Ryan Trecartin, K CorealNC K(section a), 2009, Video Installation, Photo by Matthew Septimus


Ryan Trecartin, The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S), 2009-2010, Video Installation, Photo by Matthew Septimus


Stelarc utilizes a third arm in Handswriting at Maki Gallery, Tokyo, in 1982, Photo by Keisuke-Oki, Courtesy Stelarc

An example is the use of the morphing technique, which allows the transformation of an image or object into another through a transition consisting of multiple images. A pioneer in this field is the American artist Nancy Burson that between the end of the Seventies and Eighties made the series Beauty Composites .

With the birth of the World Wide Web in the Nineties, a new form of art known as Net Art establishes itself, with a fate that is inextricably linked to the Internet, the web and the huge communicative spread that characterizes the www. Exploded in 1995 when, in the web, the site, created by the artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmas appeares, Net art is characterized by the rapid developments and the origin of multimedia languages that force the classical languages of the contemporary world, creating virtual and timeless worlds. While burning stages and heading immediately towards regressive evolution produced by the use of computers, software and script destined to become cyber-archeology, Net Art was the first Digital Art expression to capture the attention of the contemporary art world and institutions. After the New York galleries Postmasters in 1996 and Bitforms in 2001, the market and the museums were starting to turn their interest in this new art form. Among the first the Walker Art Center, the Guggenheim and the SFMoMA that leave, then, the pace at the Whitney Museum and the Tate Gallery. Between 2002 and 2010 the New Media Art becomes the star of many events in the contemporary scene, and some art fairs create sections specifically dedicated, giving, thus, the opportunity to the public to approach this new sector. Video-surveillance, post-human world and new communications are the topics that arouse more interest but, with the further globalization of the Internet, we are witnessing a growth of digital art created by well-known web platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, used in the first case by the Italian duo of artists Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio for Face to Facebook , and in the second case by US artists Ryan Trecartin and Cory Arcangel . The latter, in particular, has always focused all his works on the new media experiment, from the very beginning. Youtube is the protagonist of the work Drei Klavierstücke op.11 (2009) alternate version of the song realized by Arnold Schoenberg in 1909, compound with the collage of various clips in which cats playing piano while the world of video games is protagonist in the Super Mario Cloud (2002) in which the artist operates digitally erasing each character from the famous videogame of the Nintendo, only leaving the background with clouds. As he says, in these works intervenes to subvert and manipulate the digital devices and their products but, going forward in the experimentation, what most interests him, today, is the use of digital technology for what it was create, realizing works, result of a conduct of use realized in a non-expert “mock way” [9] as for the series Adult Contemporary (2008).

In addition to Facebook and Youtube many artists have found a possibility of evolution also through virtual reality, going to animate artificial worlds that increase or permanently cancel the physicality. The use of avatars has created new characters and existing artists only in the suspended space, made of pixels and binary codes, expanding the possibilities but, in a certain way, bringing, in its future evolutions, and perhaps in the most extreme, to the dehumanization of art [10] in which individualism, especially the artistic one, it will be replaced by the only virtual spitting image in the era, already started, of the post-human.

[1] Christiane Paul, Digital Art, London, Thames&Hudson Ltd, 2015, p.98
[2] Lorenzo Taiuti, Corpi sognanti, L’arte nell’epoca delle tecnologie digitali, Milano, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 2001, p.2
[3] Lorenzo Taiuti, ivi, p.221
[4] Domenico Quaranta, Beyond New Media Art, Brescia, LINK Editions, 2013, p. 23
[5] Lorenzo Taiuti, op. cit., p.3
[6] Mark Tribe, Reena Jana, New Media Art, Köln, Taschen, 2006, p.6
[7] Domenico Quaranta, Beyond New Media Art, Brescia, LINK Editions, 2013, p.35
[8] Edward Shanken, Historicizing art and technology: forging a method and firing a canon, in Grau 2007: 43-70 cit. da Domenico Quaranta, op. cit. , p. 97
[9]Team Gallery, pagina dell’artista,
[10] Mario Costa, La disumanizzazione tecnologica, Il destino dell’arte nell’epoca delle nuove tecnologie


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Alessia Cervelli

Laureata in Storia dell’Arte Contemporanea presso l’Università di Roma La Sapienza, intraprende fin da subito un percorso multidisciplinare che la porta a svolgere attività curatoriali indipendenti e di critica, affiancate a ricerca e catalogazione in ambito istituzionale. Da sempre legata al mondo della scrittura, porta avanti la propria passione sia in campo “giornalistico” sia letterario, rivolgendo, inoltre, una particolare attenzione alla pittura e alla fotografia. Attualmente vive e lavora a Roma.

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