Digital Art:

The Changing World of Art on the Internet


Thomas Houghton

This paper was prepared as part of a course run by Howard Besser entitled 'Impact of New Information Resources: Multimedia and Networks' at the School of Information and Systems, UC Berkeley.

The origin of this study can be found in a review which I wrote of a multimedia performance art piece by Laurie Anderson called 'Puppet Motel' [1]. The title appeared on CD-rom last year and having viewed it I was intrigued to discover what else was going on in the realm of digital art. In particular, I wanted to discover more about what people were doing on the Internet and started to search. As I suspected, there was a great deal going on. In common with other forms of personal expression, individuals were using the Net to express themselves unfettered by the constraints of traditional systems of distribution. What I wanted to find out was whether this was having a profound effect on the art world as a whole, in terms of the work being produced and the means of distribution. This does not pretend to be an academic study that trawls through all the latest thinking on the nature of art. I am but a humble engineer turned prospective businessman who happens to have an interest in art. It is my hope that the discussion will throw up questions in the reader's mind and allow him or her to explore, as I have, art on the Net. . Your comments are most welcome.


As a precursor I felt it would be useful to make available some links to sites which display some of the work artists are currently engaged in. The mix is eclectic and is certainly not intended to give an exhaustive insight into the medium. I have tried to categorize the sites according to the type of work they show and give a brief description of each.

The Place by Joseph Squier [2]. This site is widely cited in the articles written on the subject of art on the Net. It consists of a series of individual domains describing in words and images certain aspects of the author's life. There is an 'Urban Diary' which shows through scraps of paper the day-to-day life of an urban dweller. 'Life with father' tells of a man's experience with his father through a poem complemented by images. 'Soapbox' is a discourse on the nature of art and its relationship to technology. 'Outside' has links to two other interesting sites including 'Body, Space, Memory'.

Art Slab the website of the UC San Diego Visual Arts Department [3]. The site includes work by some of the current students of the visual arts department as well as holding archives of previous works. The art which appears was created both individually and in response to specific themes. There are some pieces which cleverly use interaction with the viewer - 'Three and F(4)our' is a good example which includes a witty piece centered around filling in a form - and others which show sequences of images to give the impression of movement - see 'Skate This'. The site is also a useful resource for accessing other interesting websites ('Otherworld').

@art Gallery - On-line art gallery of the University of Illinois [4]. Provides an interesting view on what is being done at the University of Illinois in terms of on-line art.

Bluedot - Showcase for online artists [5]. The site clearly seems to be making allusions to the Blue Note record label (gratuitous link) in the style of its logo. The mix of links seems to me as diverse as that label's albums. Indeed it is so diverse that it is difficult to describe the site simply. 'Get it Back' is a spoof advertising feature for VRS (the Virginity Retrieval System) which allows the user to get back his or her virginity. 'Naked Pavement' is a series of composite images superimposing nudes onto views of famous pavements around the world. 'Rabbit Rat' is more photomontage showing a composite creature (part rat, part cockroach) in different locations and telling a story around its travels. Get the picture?

The Thing - Online artists' community [6]. 'The Thing' actually has several locations around the world and the one linked to here is in New York. It is referred to as an online community because it not only showcases people's work but also has resources for artists. Thus there is a chat room, a news and message board as well as the ubiquitous links to other sites ('Departure Lounge'). In terms of the artwork shown, 'Super' is an interesting array of moving images from a film project developed by Fluff Films. 'Artstuff' contains various other works including 'Happier Days' which invites the viewer to write a story linked to the photographs which randomly appear.

AdaWeb - Interactive artwork site [7]. The site allows the viewer to take part in various interactive projects creating their own artwork. The site contains a wealth of information about work which is going on the realm of digital art with links to other sites.

Waxweb - A site from David Blair [8]. This site was probably the most exciting for me. There are two sections to it, one ('Opto-plasmic Void') allowing the viewer to explore a virtual space by using control buttons on the screen and the other ('Waxweb') combining words and images in a fascinating way. Clicking on an image sends the viewer rapidly to another series of images, clicking on a highlighted word can send the viewer to a linked word and a new set of images. The effect is fascinating and bewildering, with the array of information having a common thread which is difficult to identify.

Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco - Website of museum [9]. This is included as a demonstration of what is being done by a more traditional gallery on-line. Of particular note here is the current exhibit of art in the Beat Generation which lends itself to this kind of treatment.

What is Interactive Art? - Paper from a student investigating what interactive art is [10]. Includes some interesting links to other relevant papers.


Image from Waxweb site

A number of important themes ran through the works which I observed at these various sites and I wanted to expand on them a little.

Moving images

Many of the sites portray moving images which struck me as a good use of the medium. These images were created either by stringing together a number of still shots in quick succession or were genuine video images. Some of the former were particularly striking whilst the latter tended to be rather disappointing due to their small size and short duration. The fact that the tools are available to do animation leads me to appreciate more those who have tried to make use of them. It enables the site to draw clear of the traditional static sites which can sometimes seem poor imitations of traditional art galleries.

Use of combined text, image and sound

The excitement derived from many of the sites stems from the clever juxtaposition of text and image. The Waxweb site referred to above is particularly clever in this regard, jumping as it does from one series of images and text to another. This site also made clever use of animation. Other sites have used sound as well to produce new effects. One site which is not referred to above, showed a shimmering video image of a glass of water with a complementary soundtrack of running water. The use of sound clearly changes ones perspective on a piece and some artists are experimenting with the user choosing his or her own 'mood' soundtrack. Once again this seemed a good use of the medium, making use of the full range of tools available. The very close juxtaposition of text and image works well and perhaps better than in a gallery setting where these things are more separate.

Blending of images

Many of the sites displayed works which combined two images together to form a single composite. This appeared to be the combination either of two separate photographs or of a photograph and a computer generated image. This produces imaginative and surreal images which are often not pleasing to the eye but nonetheless interesting in the effect they produce.


As expected the sites allowed varying degrees of interactivity. This ranged from the site allowing the viewer to create his or her own piece of art to simply jumping around amongst the various parts of the site. I would class some of this interactivity simply navigation and others of it as generally creative.


I found that the sites were almost all very dark with detailed images difficult to see. Perhaps it would be better viewed in a different environment from the computing lab at Haas but I felt that this was a distinct problem and one which should be addressed.

Is Digital Art Taking Art Forward?

Skate This!

One fundamental issue that was of great interest to me was to find out whether or not digital art, and particularly that available on the Net, was creating new art forms. I have long felt that the majority of websites we see today in domains other than art are derivative. What I mean by this is that they take existing images and words as well as links to other websites, string them together with a certain amount of new text and put it up for all to see (rather like this paper in fact). Very often the juxtaposition of the information is new and it may be put together in a creative way but the images and words are essentially existing ones. Art is traditionally thought of as creating new and original work and if digital art on the web proved to be derivative, could it really be said to take the cause of art forward? My research has led me to have mixed feelings about what is being done. On the one hand many of the websites are just as I have described, loose collections of images. However, the images are often original pieces of work with the Net existing as a sort of virtual gallery in which to display them. On the other hand we also see artists making use of the dynamics which computer generated graphics can bring to art. Interestingly, certain artists on the web are taking photo images and them animating them ('Skate This', for example) which seems to me to be concurrently original and derivative. For me, the other key area in which artists are taking art forward on the Internet is in the domain of interactivity. As I stated in my review of Puppet Motel, a cleverly designed piece of interactive art can allow the viewer certain freedom to explore a piece in a new way each time it is visited and in a different way from all other visitors.

It is interesting at this point to think about originality in art and the origins of interactivity. Derivative work is not new by any means. It could be said that all artists work from the ideas of others, even those at the forefront of new genres. The work of Monet, for example, was new in its execution but nevertheless followed the prescriptions of earlier landscape and figurative artists down the centuries. The Pop artists of the 1950s and 1960s made a positive virtue of copying other images, arranging them in new ways to create new impressions. And what of the work of Duchamps, who created art pieces from either common household objects or by defacing existing works (mustachioed Mona Lisa). What could be more derivative than that? All this points to a long history of artists deriving their work from the past and it is possible to trace a clear lineage through history. Interactivity is not new either. One can point to performance art pieces from the early part of this century onwards which involved the audience in the work. For example, 'Getting Tipsy on Gin', a performance art piece by the British duo Gilbert and George, involved the artists standing together with their 'audience' in a bar getting drunk. Recently at the Contemporary Art Museum in San Diego, a live multimedia interactive show was mounted where the viewer involved himself directly in the work.

The answer then to the question, are the Net artists taking art forward is unclear. I feel that we should be suspicious of writing off work which appears derivative. Certainly much of what is being done builds heavily on what we have seen in the past. But we should try to imagine ourselves in the past, before the works of Rembrambt, Monet or Picasso and think what our reaction would be and whether we would view their works as original. The flip side to this is the argument that the new techniques are genuinely new and yet are passing fads. Again we should guard against finding our feet stuck too deeply in the artistic mud and try to look at the techniques objectively trying to understand the benefits that they bring. However, I feel we should also continue to maintain a healthy skepticism. We should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by the whizzes and bangs which the new digital art provide. We need to try to think beyond them and to what the piece is actually saying to us and the world at large. So not many conclusions there!

What About Quality?

Recapture Your Virginity!

As Negroponte, head of the Media Lab at MIT, says in his book 'Being Digital', "…you're going to get high noise to signal ratio…[on the Net]" [11]. In an environment where anyone can publish whatever they want it is clear that much of what is displayed will be crass, poor quality or just plain boring. Anyone who has extensively surfed the Net will bear testament to this. The argument about the 'quality' of work is one which covers all areas of the Net, from information sites to art sites, but is particularly difficult to reach conclusions in the latter case. Art on the Net is no different from any other art in the sense that the quality of it cannot really be judged. One can discuss the relative merits of one artist's technique versus another, for example, but this is clearly not the defining factor. Art generates different emotional reactions in different people. It is a highly subjective question whether a piece of art is good or bad. As people from the North of England would say, "I know what I like and I like what I know." And this is typically the reaction that one hears to artwork. With a medium such as journalism it is more straightforward to judge what is 'signal' and what is 'noise'. Measures such as factual accuracy, expressive and effective use of language etc. are easier to measure and comment upon. With art such measures do not exist. Yet despite the difficulties (impossibility?) of judging artwork objectively, we see that the gallery system tries to do just that; to rate different artists' work as being worthy or not. This is reinforced by consumers' need to be sure that what they are getting is good. Just as with journalism, where we read a certain newspaper because of the need to have confidence in its editorial integrity, so we go to an art gallery because we know that the artwork is deemed to be of high quality by the art establishment.

And yet the stakes are clearly different when talking about journalism as compared with talking about art. In the case of journalism, we might argue that it is to the detriment of society if many people are subject to misinformation (think of Nazi Germany for example) but where art is concerned it is perhaps of less importance. It is after all a subjective affair. Presumably we, as consumers of art, are capable of judging whether we consider a piece of art to be good or bad and even if we are not this will have a limited effect on our lives. If this is the case then why should we care if the noise to signal ratio is high? Consumers will simply pick the things which interest and delight them. The real losers in this may be the galleries and I go on to discuss them in the next section.

What About Galleries?

Image from @Art site

Galleries have traditionally been the arbiters of taste in the art world. It is they who decide if a particular artist's work is of marketable value and whether it will be displayed for the world to see. This word marketable which makes me hesitate and stand back, because surely there is a conflict between what is 'artistic' and what sells? Galleries are commercial enterprises and as a result there is often a dissonance between the needs of the artist and the needs of the gallery. Artists are obliged to work within the system if they are to have their work displayed and have often been forced to compromise their values in order to do so. We have all contributed to the formation of this structure: Artists by their wish to live from their art, consumers by their wish to be told what is 'good' and galleries themselves to make money, and who is to say what is the most laudable aim. Nevertheless the system exists and the Net may represent a way for all of us to beat the system.

Artists unhappy with the fact that their work has not been displayed in a commercial gallery often cite the tyranny of the system as the reason. In some cases it is clearly the case that their work is of value but is considered unmarketable by the galleries. In others the work is not displayed quite simply because it is of poor quality (not forgetting the previous provisos). Artists have therefore been pleased to jump upon the Internet as a way to circumvent the tyrannical system and make available their wonderful work to the previously deprived masses. This is true for both digital and analog artists and perhaps particularly for the latter group. Yet by circumventing the galleries in this way the artists might find themselves standing before a pyrrhic victory. I say this because the artist may indeed be able to display his or her work cheaply but may find it extremely difficult to get paid for having the work viewed. Nevertheless this should be of utmost concern for galleries which may indeed lose their current unique and lofty position which allows them to decide what we as art lovers see and which artists sink or swim. The counterpoint to this is, of course, this issue of risk. Galleries may rightly be accused by artists of high-handedness, but galleries do shoulder much of the risk associated with pushing a new artist. They will typically commission work from artists or at least pay them a fee up-front for displaying their work. In the world of the Net the artist bears all this risk. This may be a small price to pay if it means getting your work shown at all but clearly forms part of the equation.

However we should not overestimate the threat to galleries. Analog artwork in particular, needs to be viewed 'in the flesh', as it were, for it to really be appreciated. The quality of the brushstrokes, the texture of the paint, the vividness of the colors can never be replicated, even in a photographic image, let alone after this image has been pushed down a wire into someone's home. If the work is created from the start on a computer then a somewhat different scenario emerges. The issue of losing some aspect of the image diminishes when Internet distribution is used and galleries may indeed be cut out of the loop. It is my view though that most artists, even digital artist, will require other means than the Internet for distributing their work given the difficulties surrounding payment for work and the risks described above.

What of the Future?

Image from Urban Diary

By way of completing this paper I wanted to look toward the future and reply to some questions I have been asking myself about how the picture of the art world is likely to change. Computers and the Internet clearly combine to form a highly effective medium for artwork. The capabilities of computers in image creation and the possibilities for wider distribution afforded by the Internet are very seductive to young aspiring artist. The work being produced is innovative and exciting and the future looks bright. Nevertheless, there are some clouds. Just as in other domains, I believe the Net will not prove to be the democratizing force many had hoped it would be and we should not forget the analog artists who might suffer in the 'revolution'.

What will be the new art forms of the future? This is a tough one. I believe that we will see more emphasis on moving images and interactivity with the viewer. As bandwidth expands, as surely it must, we will see the possibilities for sending complex moving images increase. The speed of transmission and quality of the images will be enhanced and the possibility to send these in two directions will create exciting opportunities. I believe it is essential that artists continue the moves into these realms if the 'gallery' spaces are not to appear as a poor shadows of the traditional art galleries. I feel that there will be considerable emphasis on the viewer interacting within a virtual space much as players of virtual reality games are used to.

What will be the new methods of distribution? The use of CD-roms is currently a popular way of distributing artwork as it allows more possibilities than the bandwidth restricted Internet. I have recently been in correspondence with a firm called "Monster Media" which distributes original artwork, both analog and digital, in this form to be used as screen savers. Their view is that distribution will increasingly be achieved through the Internet since this is far simpler but that the bandwidth increases will be a prerequisite. CD-roms must be seen as something of a halfway house and shrink wrap software will presumably die a death sometime in the future. Internet distribution does raise more issues around intellectual property rights and leaves unclear the question of how artists will be paid.

Will there be galleries on the Net which exert the same tyrannical power that the current galleries do? This issue is related to the method of distribution described above. The problem that I see with the idea of artists distributing their work directly through the web is that the general public is in fact decidedly unhappy with making up its own mind about what is good or bad in art. Thus they typically like to have someone else tell them and this usually means a gallery. At present surfers of the Net may well drop into sites and view artwork without caring too much whether it is good or bad since they can do so free of charge. However, when they become obliged to pay to view certain work, as may be the case in the future, the situation may change. Will they really want simply to go and take a look if they must pay for the privilege? This is where on-line galleries will likely come in, as the new arbiters of taste. At which point we can imagine that the same restrictions will be imposed on artists by these new galleries as we see imposed by the current ones. True the possibility of artists distributing their work themselves may temper the excesses of the galleries and by clever marketing and advertising of their own sites they may be able to attract consumers without the galleries' help. But how many artists want to spend their time doing that and how many of them would be adept at doing so? In view of this, I don't see the artist's lot improving much.

Will the Net help artists to find their own voice? From what I have been able to observe, it seems that there are many artists who are already comfortable and adept at exploiting the new medium. Certainly the Net will allow artists to express themselves more freely (by which I mean put their work up for all to see). The downside may be that the number of artists displaying work may proliferate making it yet more difficult for artists to make a living.

Will they be able to live from their work? The answer to this must be a firm no, except in a few cases. It has always been the case that most artists have lived pecuniary lives and I suspect this will continue to be the case despite the increased access to markets which the Net affords.

What will be the key intellectual property issues and how will they be overcome? The team at Monster Media (link to my e-mail interview) has an interesting take on this with which I felt some sympathy. People taking images from the Net is seen by them as being good publicity for artists; in their words, "If you don't tell, you don't sell.". Their view is that there will be little temptation to copy and print images anyway, as this will generally look "crummy", and besides cheap posters have always been sold without artists receiving royalties. Intellectual property rights is above all an issue for unsuccessful artists and not well known ones, they argue. Such a view certainly over-simplifies the issue of intellectual property rights but is a fair point nonetheless. It is perhaps too late for us to start getting hung up on property rights in this area and the artists will have to weigh up the pros and cons of the Net as a distribution means. The benefits of increased access will have to be set against the increased possibility of work being copied. We have heard tell of various technological devices that will allow a purveyor of electronic information to protect it and receive payment if it is used. In the case of art, I believe that these tools may have limited use except for the new Net galleries which I believe will emerge. I say this because of the arguments I set forward previously. Most people will be unwilling to pay to view artwork until they are convinced of its quality.

Berkeley, December 5, 1996