Expert Eye

Bitforms Gallery's Steven Sacks on How to Collect New Media Art

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Bitforms Gallery's Steven Sacks on How to Collect New Media Art
bitforms gallery founder Steve Sacks

Since the invention of the first photo etching in 1822 by the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce, artists have been using devices from the forefront of technology to comment on the world of their day, putting them to aesthetic use in a way that can occasionally reveal new vistas of possiblity for both art and science. Today, with the omnipresence of digital tools and the manifold capabilities of the Internet, artists incorporate these new forms of media into their work to dazzling ends, often appearing to be ahead of their time—sometimes so much so that it's hard to view their work as art.  

Founded in 2001 by the dealer and entrepreneur Steven Sacksbitforms gallery in Chelsea is a powerful beacon in this innovative new landscape, showing work by artists who push into nebulous new territory, both technologically and artistically. To find out more about the character of new media art, and to find out how to incorporate it into one's collection, we spoke to Sacks about the niceties of the burgeoning genre. 

Lets begin with a basic question:  Just what is new media art, exactly?

It’s always difficult to define what new media art is, but to me it’s not just about being new—it’s a contemporary way of thinking and responding to the latest tools of creation and societal changes. Each generation reveals their own “new media art” based on current influences and the latest technologies.

Obviously new media is very different today than it was in the past, for example, Beryl Korot, an artist we work with, created Text and Commentary, a 1970’s five-channel video installation, and at the time that was incredibly rare, and the fact that it was done by a female made it even more unusual. My goal at the gallery is to present cross-generational artists who are embracing a progressive way of thinking, processing, and connecting to contemporary media culture. 

How far back does your definition of new media apply? So much technology has been used by artists in its early stages over time. For instance, mid-19th century photography could be considered new media. 

I think part of my definition of new media is that it is experimental and creatively uses new processes. Of course you can go back to cave drawings and technically that was new media at the time, but my interpretation is much more contemporary, in terms of how video, photography, and mixed media have evolved.  

So new media art requires an electronic component? 

Typically there are electronics involved on some level, but the art we show in the gallery is many times not electronic. We have a print set by R. Luke DuBoisHindsight Is Always 20/20, that was printed with an old-school letterpress, but was created using custom software on a computer. An edition of this work now owned by the Smithsonian shows the most frequently used words from every U.S. President’s State of the Union speeches up to George W. Bush, arranged in the form of an eye chart. But it’s not just about the fact that the artist used computers—it was a commentary on the use of cloud word filtering and how society and the media are breaking down popular culture.

Youve said in the past that you object to the term digital art. Could you explain?

Digital is not a term that should be defined as a genre—digital is everything, in a way. New media is more a way of thinking and connecting to the current culture's mode of communicating. And I think the phrase digital art is a bad representation, with a connotation that is not necessarily of a fine-art nature, whereas new media has a kind of intellectual definition—there’s an intellectual connection to the idea of advanced media. To put it another way, all of the work I show here has a digital component, but it’s not digital art in terms of how I define it. 

Can new media apply to something like painting? 

Well, the medium of painting is thousands of years old, but painting can evolve in form and process, and it continues to do so. But it’s not new media; painting’s an old media. So unless the artist is integrating media-based elements into the painting beyond a traditional paintbrush and a set of paints, it’s about the content and the style of the painter versus a new medium. 

What would you say about an artist like Wade Guyton who uses technology—like massive inkjet printers—to create his paintings?

Wade’s work is a great example of new media in process and content, but his presentation relates to modern art. Fabian Marcaccio is also a painter who taps into new media technologies, new processes, to create his work. So there is a real connection to progressive thinking in the idea of new media. How do you push the idea of traditional painting or sculpture with these new media formats that are out there? Björn Schülke’s sculptures are great examples. Alexander Calder created progressive, beautiful, whimsical sculptures that have been exhibited around the world. So how do you advance what he did? How do you take that feeling and that idea to the next generation, using tools that are available today? Björn has created large-scale mobiles and sculptures that have increasingly complex elements integrated into the piece, like solar-powered panels that activate movements. One of them is now installed in the airport in San Jose, and it responds to your presence. It’s like it’s landed from outer space. So, it’s about this evolution—how art is evolving. The computer has a lot to do with this movement. It has dramatically altered existing art practices and created completely new ones. 

What do you think about Internet art?

Internet art is the new public art forum. Right now it feels like its own unique category. The artwork is seen and distributed on the web. If you acquire a web-based artwork as a collector, you are responsible for maintaining it or it can disappear. This is typically a pretty simple task and involves paying a service provider to host your site. You can also choose whether to make it public or not—you can make it a public art piece that’s a website the whole world can see, or you can make it visible only to the people you want to see it with password protection. Sometimes the artist will define these parameters when you purchase a work. 

Do you represent any Internet artists?

I do represent Mark Napier, who was a pioneer in web-based artwork. We offered a piece very early on at the gallery called The Waiting Room that was shared over the web. We actually sold up to 50 shares for $1,000 a piece, and if you owned a share, and I owned a share, and a guy in London owned a share, we would have access to the same canvas in real-time and could work on it together. So that was a closed network, as versus an open network. When we offered this work there was a smaller market for that kind of piece, so a lot of the web-based artists also make editioned, printed pieces related to some of the screen work. There are very few pure, web-based pieces that we are presenting through the gallery, but I am now looking at some artists who are focusing in that area.  

From the beginning, Internet art was done in opposition to the market, following in the footsteps of conceptual or performance art from the 1970s that resisted being commodified. 

Well, it still is, in a way. I mean, there’s not a big market for people buying Internet art, but that’s slowly changing with artists like Rafael Rozendaal and others. The web is still an incredible way for artists to present time-based works, share their story, and present public performances. A very early piece that Mark Napier did was actually acquired by the Guggenheim. It was called net.flag, and it’s a site that allows an individual to create their own flag based on a series of symbols. Hundreds of thousands of flags have been created since it went live in 2001.  

Its funny that there hasnt been a major survey of Internet art in New York in a while. 

I think it’s because the medium is so difficult to sustain financially. There’s a ton of experimental web art out there, but it’s complicated. The art world is driven by the gallery system that helps artists through funding, through exposure, through getting them potential museum shows. When it comes to Web art, for the reasons I was just saying, it’s not so easy. So many of these artists go back to either making physical things or making closed systems that you can buy on a computer but may not be available on a website.

And now theres social media art, too. 

Of course. R. Luke DuBois actually did a piece that is kind of a combination of accessing social information on the web and creating printed material. It’s called A More Perfect Union, and to make it Luke joined 21 different dating sites and mined their information to create maps of the United States based on the most frequently used words in people’s profiles. It’s like a more personal take on the census. So he accessed the online social data and created a fine-art object that’s collectible. 

That seems like a savvy way of negotiating the market pressures. 

Yeah. There are purists obviously who want to stay Web-art only, but it can be complicated if you want to have a financially sustainable career. Many of the Web-based artists tap into their aesthetics and concepts and present the ideas as standalone screen works or printed media. I think if the web artwork has integrity and is a strong, creative expression, it’s fine for it to deviate from the Web site as a pure entity. 

How did you first get interested in new media art?

Well, going back, I had a dot-com company in the mid-'90s, so I was part of this generation that was responsible for the marketing and branding of this new breed of business. So I had a company called Digital Pulp where I was the creative director, and it was a whole new idea of what an ad agency could be. We not only had the classic creative—the writers and the illustrators, the photographers, the designers, the account people—but we had technology people and programmers. So we put all these people under one roof, and I learned a lot about how these classically-trained creatives would work with these technical people, and it was very interesting to me how they started communicating and what came out of it.

How did it work? Was there synergy?

There was synergy, but also it was complicated, especially in the beginning. What I saw was the potential for something that was very special to come out of it, not from a fine art perspective but just from a creative development perspective. What I didn’t like about the whole ad business, which is why I resigned after six years, was the state of creative control. Of course, you can only go so far if a company is commissioning you, and it’s not an artistic exercise—it’s an exercise in applying their commercial objectives in what they want to do, so there’s only so far that you can go, creatively, without being told no. 

What led you to then open an art gallery? 

When I resigned, I actually didn’t know what I was going to do. But it was funny—at the time a lot of new media art shows were appearing. There was the 010101 show at SFMoMA in 2001, there was BitStreams at the Whitney, which was also in 2001, and there was the rise of digital printmaking, which I wasn’t that interested in but that contributed to this vibe. So, with all of this happening, I thought, “Wait a second, this could be interesting. Now I know how to speak the language of these artists. I understand the processes they’re working with.” And then I did research on the way art history was connected to the new media of video, photography, et cetera, and I thought there was an opportunity to start a gallery that had a focus on new media. Also, my family was in the arts on the antique side, so that gave me a sense of art as a business growing up. I decided to open my gallery in November of 2001, which was obviously a very difficult time because the trade center towers literally went down a month before the opening.  

Why did you decide to focus exclusively on new media rather than hedging your bets with other forms of art? 

I was inspired by the above-mentioned art exhibitions combined with my previous experience and it made sense for me to focus.  Because it was all my funding, I needed to have a sustainable profitable business, and I thought focusing on an underexposed genre would eventually be a good thing, especially in New York City’s very competitive art market. It would be tough in the beginning for two reasons: one, it’s tough opening a gallery in New York City, period; two, it’s tough opening a gallery devoted to more complicated things to sell. But it wound up being a smart move because now I have one of the leading galleries in this genre, and I have been able to play a role in its evolution. Now, if I believe in an artist, they can follow their own creative path and their vision is not really controlled by me—or maybe just a little—which is exactly the kind of situation I had been interested in at my previous business.  

What are your collectors like?

You know, people ask me that all the time, and there is no one type of collector. Of course I get the very focused collector who loves new media, loves video, and loves more challenging work to place in their homes, and also private museums. But then I get the person who has very traditional work and wants to integrate maybe one or two pieces that are media-based into their collection. I don’t think I’d be in business today if I was just working with people focused on collecting new media, because there’s not a big enough audience.

I think what I’ve done, though, by showing artists who are in their 60s and 70s and who were practicing media artists 40 years ago, is to make clear that there’s a history. And of course there are famous artists—from Nam June Paik and Dan Flavin to Gary Hill and Bill Viola—who were exploring media arts, and who were picked up by important galleries and became famous. I’m just dealing with a wider definition and more experimental works, not just picking one or two artists who may have been important in the genre. I’m really trying to educate and continue to push the envelope. 

Do you deal with museums as well?

Yes, of course, and museums are great because they typically have a staff to maintain the works and are interested in preservation. They offer new insight into how to keep the work intact and working over a long period of time, which is obviously an issue that some collectors have concern with, especially for kinetic and screen-based works. 

What do you tell the collector who comes in and is curious about a work but is a little bit skeptical because of conservation issues, or because they dont know how it would fit with their existing collection?

Well, it depends on what they’re buying. If they’re buying works that are active or mechaincal then it’s typically a bigger conversation. I’m strict with my artists, in that they have to provide proper documentation on how this piece works, how it’s preserved, and how it’s maintained. I won’t release the artwork until I get that information from the artist and I’m satisfied with it. But I’m also strict with the collector, and I won’t sell to someone who is starts to get nervous about a piece, because it’s stressful for the artist and gallery, nor should the collector have to feel uncomfortable.

A recent commissioned Peg Mirror by Daniel Rozin is a nice example since it has 1400 motors with a computer and camera. Without these elements, the piece is static—and only reveals the sculptural aspect of the piece. There’s a responsibility to maintaining this kind of work. There’s a famous example from a blue chip artist: a few months after Damien Hirst sold his shark in formaldehyde to Stevie Cohen, the shark started rotting away because the formaldehyde wasn’t prepared properly. That was an extreme situation, because it was an $8 million piece, and the collector had to deal with the maintenance of that work; it’s part of the deal.

The point is, in certain cases there’s a mutual responsibility—and, comparatively, the collecting of video art is quite easy. It’s ubiquitous and simple to maintain, as long as the collector pays attention to changes in technology—going from a tape to DVD to Blu-ray to digital files—and to make sure that they are updating that over time according to the artists specifications. Of course, some collectors let the work die naturally, in which case it just becomes an object that has documentation over time. All of it is maintainable, though—it just has to be looked after. 

When it comes to new media art, who would you say has emerged as the major transformative artist—the Warhol of the medium, who will be remembered as encapsulating the era?

For me, in terms of defining what’s happening today, I have a perspective that’s shaped by the vision of my gallery. Someone like Ryan Trecartin, for instance, is more connected to the traditional art world right now than some of the artists I’m looking at, but I think that in 15, 20 years it will become clear that they have a blatant connection to what’s happening today. They might be writing algorithms to interpret information in a different way than has ever been done before.

Or someone like Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who represented Mexico in the Venice Biennale in 2007 and is quickly emerging as someone who’s immersed in the art world but making work about surveillance and other issues at the core of our reality today. A significant Lozano-Hemmer work called Pulse Room has up to 300 light bulbs hanging in a room, and when you walk in you think it’s just a beautiful light installation, but each of the lights has been effected by the heartbeats of those of have touched a sculpture in the room. So your heartbeat is revealed through frequency and intensity in one of 300 bulbs in the space. Now his work is in the collection of MoMA and the Tate, and he’s continuing to do things that I think are incredibly relevant. I look at Rafael as someone who really will make a statement over these next 10 plus years. I’m biased, of course, because he’s my artist, and I feel he’s really stretching what’s possible both technically and creatively.

That installation you describe is very different from your traditional artwork, putting the emphasis on the social and the participatory through technology.

What’s happening today is that everything is participatory, everything’s social, everything’s about you affecting something else. I believe that the artists working with these themes are making big statements that will have a long-lasting effect, even if currently it’s still a little out of step with the rest of the art world. I believe new media art reflects the most contemporary way of thinking—and, as you can see, in a lot of cases it does involve tapping into tools that allow the artist to interpret information very differently than they could have in the past.

Back in the '70s there was a highly productive period of crossover between engineers at the vanguard of technology and contemporary artists, with projects like Robert Rauschenbegs famous Experiments in Art and Technology that he founded with Billy Klüver of Bell Labs. Some of the technology they worked with prefigured advanced digital tools that are now a major part of our daily lives. Is this kind of innovation to be found in new media art today?

Absolutely. The Spanish artist Daniel Canogar is working with the next generation of screens that offer flexibility to create a true video sculpture. I think specifically for video, this could be a tremendous leap forward for the kind of materials available to artists—it will open up possibilities for both sculptors and video artists who are quite limited by the rigidity of a screen. To me, this is what the next generation of public sculpture and video art could be.

In my world, it’s an absolute necessity to merge the fields of science, art, and technology, and I look for artists that have this cross section of knowledge. I think E.A.T. and Bell Labs, however, were a little more focused on the technology side, whereas I think my artists have a closer relationship with the contemporary art world. 

When it comes to living with works of new media art, you once said that you believe certain screens in the home should be reserved exclusively for art.

Yes, my philosophy is that collectors should have a screen devoted to art in their home. It’s not about watching television—it’s about screen-based experiences that are art-related. And it comes down to cost and accessibility, right? You can buy a 46-inch screen today for $400, or you can buy a Mac Mini or a comparable PC that can run Quicktime movies, et cetera, for $500. A devoted system works great if you don’t have an enormous home but have several pieces of video art.

Of course, this is dependent on the artist being okay with that—they may insist on their art being screened on a specific, single-purpose unit. But more often than not when you buy unframed video, as long as you’re playing it to the right specifications, it’s fine. So you, as a collector, can amass a large amount of work in a single location and experience many, many pieces as you wish. You can really have an incredible range of work within that devoted system. And you can frame it in beautiful ways, with wood frames made for the screen so they have more than a presence. Then you can have a central server to hold and maintain the art. There are so many different ways to do it. 

What is lost if you have a television in the living room where you can watch artworks, but you can also watch the football game?

Once you devote a screen to something and it becomes a destination in your home where you know there’s art versus the NFL, it’s a psychological issue. You are embracing it as an artistic destination, and you’re not switching back and forth between the artwork and generic TV. That’s the wrong way to experience art, having that snap, snap, back-and-forth of modality. 

How many screens do you have in your house? 

I actually only have one screen devoted to art, but I have many video pieces on the screen that we rotate, as I said. But I have other active works as well, so I’m not a believer in having a room filled with active works, it can make the senses a bit crazy. I also have static works and physical sculptures that are kinetic. 

Is it hard to live with new media art?

It’s simple to live with. Again, if it’s pure video, it’s nothing new to manage. Once you start getting into computational screen-based work you need a computer to run it, so that’s slightly more complicated, but not difficult—it’s kind of standard in our lives today. I’m a huge believer in promoting the integration of new media work into collections, especially in homes that have traditional displays. You buy it because you love it, and the fact that it’s active shouldn’t matter. I think the devoted screen in your home is just one avenue that will become more and more common, especially with art collectors. 

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