Digital Art in New York
In the digital age, everything is fusion: art and media, technology and gaming, experiences and spaces, installations and urban architecture. Take a digitally artistic, historical and geographical stroll through New York City to see the sparks.
Let’s start from the beginning of the history of “technological arts”: the moving image. Established in Queens in 1988, The Museum of the Moving Image occupies one of the 13 original buildings of Astoria Studios, built by Paramount in 1920 to produce hundreds of silent and early sound films. In 1989, this pioneer museum was the first to present an exhibition dedicated to video games (Hot Circuits: a video arcade, read the museum director article about the exhibition); in 2004, it collaborated with Ars Electronica on the exhibition Interactions/Arts and Technology. The museum recently re-opened its doors after a renovation and expansion in January 2011. Today, we’re just as likely to find ongoing exhibitions of both vintage and special-effects props from Hollywood as we are to find virtual or augmented reality installations, electronic music concerts, mischievous collections of retouched images or animated graphics lifted off the Web…
Our historical digital itinerary continues on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Known for its eponymous Biennial, it was the first museum dedicated to living American artists in 1931 and the first New York museum to present a major solo exhibition of a video artist (Nam June Paik) in 1982. In 2011, this human-scaled, bauhaus-inspired block of granite presented a generous retrospective of the young digital artist par excellence, Cory Arcangel.
Not far south is one of the most famous, most visited and no doubt the trendiest museum in New York, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Located in bustling Midtown, MoMA welcomes tourists, professionals, amateurs and students all day, all year round. More than conscious of its cosmopolitan popularity, this art institution takes very seriously its mission to connect tradition and modernity, ancient forms and new media. Besides actively commissioning and hosting often spectacular digital installations, in 2011 the museum presented the exhibition Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, (the exhbition website) where we could find, for example, a minimalist game interface next to plastic animal figures that transform respectively into the Japanese kanji character representing them (Mojibakeru).
Given its simultaneously institutional and popular status, it was MoMA that the artists Mark Skwarek and Sander Veenhof chose to “invade” in October 2010 with their Augmented Reality intervention We AR in MoMA —a virtual exhibition of uninvited artworks visible only through AR-ready smartphones, floating in the galleries of the museum itself (see the exhibition video). The opening of this pseudo-hactivist art show took place during the annual Conflux festival, which explores psychogeography through projects as simple as QR-code safaris and as zany as dogs walking humans.
South of MoMA on 6th Avenue, Big Screen Plaza is a 10,000-square-foot outdoor plaza dominated by a 30×16-foot HD-format LED screen. Since 2010, the big screen has showcased a number of video and animated works, including by students of New York art schools, as well as independent short films and Hollywood classics, for an atmosphere that ranges from artsy to family to mainstream. In early 2012, the French artist Maurice Benayoun was in the spotlight to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Streaming Museum with his digital series Occupy Wall Screen and Emotion Forecast.
Continuing southwestward, we wander into Chelsea, the gallerista district where Manhattan earns its reputation of showcase among the boroughs. Here reside not only the big-name galleries from New York’s traditional art world, with their street-level storefronts and white walls transposed into an industrial setting, but also smaller spaces upstairs, often hidden in a labyrinth of corridors, where we’re likely to find a bit of everything and anything, including digital artworks, among other bizarre objects, conceptual projects and shock installations. There is also Bitforms gallery, which is dedicated to contemporary art and new media, representing over a dozen artists.
No doubt the new “downtown” Whitney, designed by Renzo Piano and scheduled to open in 2015, will radically change the face (and visiting demographics) of the neighborhood. In the meantime, we always appreciate the High Line, the city’s famously linear elevated park converted from an abandoned railway, which extends from 12th Street to 30th Street above West Chelsea. Throughout the year, the High Line hosts in-situ artworks, of which the most harmonious was Stephen Vitiello’s A Bell for Every Minute, a sound installation that emitted into an already animated urban soundscape the ring of a different New York bell on every minute of the hour.
Chelsea’s gallery district is also home to at least two important art centers. Electronic Arts Intermix, one of the first nonprofit organizations in the United States dedicated to video art when it was founded in 1971, pursues its mission to develop video and digital arts through resources, education, screenings, distribution and preservation. Since 1997, Eyebeam Art+Technology Center offers residencies and grants to artists and technologists working in digital media, in addition to exhibitions, workshops, performances and other public programs. In 2011, Eyebeam’s exhibition space on 21st Street hosted the annual Blip festival of chiptunes, or 8-bit music—all the pioneers of the genre were duly represented, as well as younger talents from the post-console generation, from Bit Shifter to 4mat (see his complete live show), from vintage electronics to acoustic instruments to purely digital, all in favor of a massive geek rave.
Down in SoHo, former bohemian art district now dominated by brand-name fashion boutiques, occupying a few rooms on the 6th floor of an old building on Broadway effectively located just south of Houston Street, is Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center. Founded by a group of artists in 1977, the nonprofit organization exhibits digital artworks in its compact space, while offering workshops, artist residencies and public performances in order to educate and promote the use of new technologies in art. Harvestworks also organizes the annual New York Electronic Art Festival, which showcases digital installations, electronic music concerts, multimedia performances, etc., in several venues around the city.
Just beyond NoHo in the East Village, The Stone takes the concept of minimalist DIY to its purist extreme. Founded and art directed by John Zorn, cult musician of the New York avant-garde, The Stone is above all a space, purposely diminutive and devoid of all accessories save a Yamaha piano, a few amplifiers, a few dozen folding chairs and a table on the cemented ground floor of an anonymous building on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street, like a secret enclave where the initiated gather to listen to purely avant-garde and experimental music. Actually, the venue is open to anyone, curious or converted, who comes to appreciate a dedicated set in exchange for the modest contribution of $10 at the door—of which 100% of proceeds go directly to that evening’s featured artist(s).
No stage, no cocktails, no beer, just live acoustic, electronic and electro-acoustic music to enjoy in the intimacy of the venue. The lineup includes many musicians with their cellos, trombones, accordions or percussions, often augmented by electronics, but also some of New York’s most experimental contemporary composers: Laurie Anderson, a pioneer in her genre; or the young Tristan Perich, always fascinating (if not hypnotizing) with his synthesized, “electro-organic” compositions inspired from math and computer code, such as his famous “1-Bit Symphony”.
Crossing the East River, we leave Manhattan to land in Brooklyn, or more precisely Dumbo, that little waterfront neighborhood “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”. The abandoned industrial zone once occupied by squatter artists has more recently been gentrified with Starbucks, West End, historic buildings converted into luxury condos… and a cluster of start-ups and small companies working with digital technologies in the fields of design, gaming, mobile applications, communication, editorial, etc. Indeed, they operate inside the same buildings where entire floors are occupied by galleries, art organizations and artist-in-residency studios. The result is a curious cohabitation, as these parallel worlds tend to collide most often during more mainstream events and activities held around the neighborhood.
It’s certainly the case of the Dumbo Arts Festival, which transforms the cobblestone streets into a spring carnival with outdoor performances by day and projections by night, while studios open their doors, and technology is recontextualized by art exhibitions that include digital works. The festival highlight of 2011 was the 20-artist video-mapping spectacle Immersive Surfaces projected onto the Manhattan Bridge, where fluid images seemed to tremble under each passing subway. True to the social-networking trend, viewers were encouraged to tweet photos of the installation; these images could then be seen through smartphones, floating around the bridge in augmented reality.
Another neighborhood hot spot known for its cocktail culture and “Floating Kabarette” over its interior artificial lake every Saturday night, Galapagos Art Space organizes presentations and panel discussions around the digital media industry. Occasionally it even hosts live performances of electro-acoustic music, such as those by Tristan Perich or the Hong Kong composer-programmer Samson Young, who often integrates 8-bit sounds into his compositions for orchestra.
Penetrating further inside the borough, beyond Brooklyn Heights into Boerum Hill, The Invisible Dog Art Center is an oasis of artistic creation contained in a former warehouse of stiff plastic leashes for “invisible” dogs. Just barely retouched, this raw space of three floors and a basement is inhabited by several permanent artworks directly inspired by the building, visual and performing artists in residence, eclectic exhibitions and live performances by emerging artists, provocative installations and mini festivals for all manner of experimental arts. Among the works augmented by digital technology wasPrana, conceived and realized in situ by Chris Klapper, a glowing installation that reacted to approaching visitors and ambient vibrations like a beating heart, or at rest like a breathing lung (see Prana in video).
Four blocks east, on the 4th floor of a low-rise building on 3rd Street, we enter NYC Resistor, a space shared by a collective of multidisciplinary hackers. One of the more practical inventions headquartered in this hackerspace is MakerBot, a commercialized series of open source 3D printers. Other residents include the Microcontroller Study Group, which works on projects using Arduino and other applications of embedded electronics, and a professional laser. NYC Resistor also offers initiation classes and workshops for various techniques, so any interested collaborator is welcome to join in the jam.
The stroll ends where personal exploration begins, through trends, communities, alternative and underground cultures. When it comes to independent games, the Babycastles collective, founded by Kunal Gupta and Syed Salahuddin in December 2009 to coincide with the Blip festival, relaunched the concept of the new-generation indie arcade, giving renewed exposure to an avant-garde culture of DIY games played socially in retrocyberpunk spaces.
After leaving venues which turned out to be not permanent, their hand-decorated arcade cabinets are currently spread out in several different venues: Death By Audio and Public Assembly in hipster’hood Williamsburg; Secret Project Robot in emerging art’hood Bushwick; and NYU Game Center, the showcase gallery of the very serious course in game design as a creative practice, located on the campus of New York University in downtown Manhattan. The future development of Babycastles is to be continued in fall 2012… At a time of the new arcade, Arduino, video mapping and augmented reality, to each her own digital arts itinerary through the urban jungle of the Big Apple.
Big Screen Plaza: http://bigscreenplaza.com
Blip Festival: http://blipfestival.org
Dumbo Arts Festival: http://dumboartsfestival.com
EAI (Electronic Arts Intermix): www.eai.org
Eyebeam (Art+Technology Center): www.eyebeam.org
Galapagos Art Space: http://galapagosartspace.com
Harvestworks (Digital Media Arts Center): www.harvestworks.org
MoMA (Museum of Modern Art): www.moma.org
Museum of the Moving Image: www.movingimage.us
NYC Resistor: www.nycresistor.com
NYU Game Center: http://gamecenter.nyu.edu
The High Line: www.thehighline.org
The Invisible Dog (Art Center): www.theinvisibledog.org
The Stone: www.thestonenyc.com
Whitney Museum of American Art: http://whitney.org
* Published Digitalarti Mag’s Blog in 02.08.2012.