Net Artists wanted to be democratic. They believed in the internet's promise of a fundamentally open information network, and thought art should have a place in this infrastructure. When Artspace spoke with Wolf Lieser, the director of the Digital Art Museum in Berlin, he outlined a rough progression of Net Art, where in the beginning artists were mostly interested in contextualizing existing projects within this then-emerging form of communication. However, it didn't take long, Lieser noted, for artists to really dig deep into the functionality of the web and make use of its unique potential. "By being aware of these levels," he said, artists "started to deal artistically with this medium and make it all their own."
A similar progression appears to be underway with artists' app-based projects as well. In the years immediately following the launch of Apple's app store in 2008, many artists simply ported existing digital projects over as apps, or continued to make new work along established lines. It took some collaboration with tech industry professionals—notably, technologists-turned-artists like Scott Snibbe—for app-based art to begin to come into its own. Even still, it's only been recently that artists have really begun to mold a phone's technological capabilities into artistic experiences, often by taking advantage of newer mobile technologies—like hyper-accurate geolocation, cloud computing, data mining and profiling, and virtual and augmented reality softwares. Now, idiosyncratic organizations like the School for Poetic Computation, founded by a group of artists "organized around exploring the creative and expressive nature of computational approaches to art and design," are popping up with some frequency, suggesting that interest in such technical art is only just beginning.
Here are ten works of art that represent the evolution of app art, most of which are still available for download. Some are best understood as side projects or experiments by artists whose interests and talents truly lay in other mediums, while others clearly approach apps as a medium well-suited for looking at how we engage with the digital world today. It can be hard to believe that the oldest of these is barely seven years old. Things are moving quickly, let's try to keep up.
Los Angeles-based artist Jody Zellen was an early pioneer of Net Art. Her projects have been supported by institutions like LACMA, which in 2011 commissioned Spine Sonnet, a project in which poems are automatically generated from the titles of books of art criticism, and which has been ported as an app. (Perhaps unintentionally, Spine Sonnet also draws attention the syntactical patterns of naming such books, suggesting critics might want to shake up their title game a bit.) Zellen's most recent app is News Wheel, a program that collages headlines drawn from nine different news sources to form found poems reminiscent of Surrealist exquisite corpse experiments or William Burroughs's cut-ups. As with much Net Art in general, there's a simplistic, low-fidelity aesthetic to Zellen's work that can seem dated next to the smooth, highly polished gloss of mainstream software, making it feel at once ancient and wonderfully transgressive.
John Baldessari, In Still Life
In 2010, John Baldessari became one of the most widely known artists to release an app-based artwork. (Remember, back then almost every celebrity wanted in on the mobile industry in some way.) In Still Life takes a simple premise, where users can drag and drop 38 objects rendered to look like elements of a 17th-century Dutch painting. The basic idea here is that the democratic forms of technology allow anyone to be a creator, which wasn't exactly a novel concept in 2010. "It's very hard for me to look at one of those typical Braque or Picasso still lives and not want to rearrange it," Baldessari writes in the app. "I just want to make it a little more upbeat, a little more dynamic and less static." Users were encouraged to share screenshots of their creations on a Flickr page, which as of this writing holds a meager 74 photos.
In 2011, Björk released her eighth album alongside a series of apps dealing with the themes of the record. Three years later, Biophilia became the first app to be included into the Museum of Modern Art's collection when it was purchased ahead of the musician's controversial retrospective. Biophilia was produced by Scott Snibbe and designed by Max Weisel, two other artists who appear on this round-up, whose works often deal with music and moving image, making them well-suited for Björk's project.
Max Weisel, Soundrop
Max Weisel is a wunderkind developer who was developing iOS apps before there was even an Apple App Store—even more impressive when you consider that the App Store launched when he was only 16 or 17. Soundrop was exhibited at the MoMA's 2011 exhibition of digital art, "Talk to Me," caught Björk's attention when she was looking for developers for Biophilia. MoMA described Soundrop as a "musical geometry game" in which "complex and labyrinthine soundscapes emerge, shaped by a unique blend of randomness and intention."
Scott Snibbe, METRIC: Synthetica
Scott Snibbe got his start outside of the arts, working as an early developer for Adobe After Effects, a post-production software published by the graphics company. Snibbe has since produced a number of apps, including Björk's Biophilia, through his studio. Snibbe also develops his own work—most of which revolves around music and its malleability—and has shown at the Whitney Museum, SFMOMA, and elsewhere. One notable project is METRIC: Synthetica, a 2013 app dealing with Surrealist landscapes and music composition. Snibbe writes that Synthetica was "inspired by the surrealistic work of Superstudio, a late 1960s Italian architecture collective... whose conceptual architecture promoted the harmony of people, nature, and technology." METRIC: Synthetica presents an interface that allows a user to control music by interacting with a visual landscape—a concept similar to Weisel's project two years earlier, and an interesting comparison for how the idea evolved.
Christoph Niemann, CHOMP
Christoph Niemann is best-known for his commissioned illustrations for organizations like The New Yorker, MoMA, and Google. CHOMP, which began as a personal project, splices a video of the user into a number of animations, predating similar filters popularized by the likes of Snapchat. Ostensibly designed for children, CHOMP captures the wit and whimsy of social media culture, in a way that makes it appealing for everyone.
Ekene Ijeoma, Look Up
As the technology powering our phones has become more advanced, app-based artworks have also evolved beyond the of interactive images that were also common to early digital art. Ekene Ijeoma's Look Up is a project designed to encourage users to break away from their phones and engage in the world around them—especially when they're walking into a busy intersection.
Karolina Ziulkoski and Andrea Wolf, Future Past News
Technology that was once ground-breaking and of interest mainly to early-adopters, over time, often becomes established and mainstream as platforms develop to democratize the technology. For example, there are several services competing to be the YouTube of virtual and augmented reality. As such, artists no longer also need to be developers (or have direct access to them) in order to create democratic forms of digital art.
Artists Karolina Ziulkoski and Andrea Wolf collaborated on Future Past News during their residencies at the New Museum's art and technology incubator, New Inc. Earlier this year, the duo exhibited the full installation of their project at SPRING/BREAK, and we included it in our survey of the best artworks of the fair. While there are certainly a number of compelling VR and AR projects available right now (Artspace's Dyan Kerr called Daniel Steegmann Mangrané's Memory/Place: My House the first VR masterpiece), Future Past News is notable in that it remains accessible to anyone with a smartphone and access to www.futurepast.news, meaning the entire experience can be replicated almost anywhere. The app relays information based on what it picks up from a video played on a separate screen. The screen displays found footage of pre-WWII newsreel, and the app shows modern parallels in a Nietzschean repetition of history.
Haroon Mirza, Dérive
Haroon Mirza is known for his kinetic sculptures, performances, and installations that test the interplay and friction between sound and light waves and electric current. In 2015, Mirza developed Dérive with support from the organization Apps by Artists. Although functional as a standalone app, Dérive is also an installation. The app allows users to affect the tempo of music by adjusting their own pace, a trick inspired by marching bands and powered by accelorometers in your phone.
The name Dérive references a concept defined by Guy Debord and the Situationist International—an avant-garde movement influenced by Marxism, Dada, and Surrealism. In Theory of the Dérive, Debord defines the concept as "a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances." It's not unlike a technological flâneur.
Blast Theory, Karen Is My Life Coach
While British artist collective Blast Theory toured Karen Is My Life Coach at various film festivals in 2015, the project's reputation began to precede them. Before they even reached New York for the Tribeca Film Festival, people were prepared for the controversy. Karen is designed to evoke the digital assistants baked in to many devices, like Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa. Fire up Karen and "she" begins by asking a number of questions—such as, "Do you agree or disagree that a white lie is often a good thing?"—ostensibly to build a profile of the user that Karen will use to cater her services. Again, this isn't dissimilar to how most digital assistants function.
However, Karen (played by British actress Claire Cage) is more demanding than other digital assistants, calling users multiple times a day, including late at night, oversharing her own "personal" information, and attempting to pry secrets out of you as well. Over several days, Karen becomes increasingly intrusive, following a narrative established by Blast Theory that's fluid enough to respond to a user's specific inputs.
There are, of course, misogynistic overtones to supposing the default personality of an assistant is a neurotic, overbearing woman—a trope that highly praised films like Her also play into—but the original sin here was commited by the tech companies that decided their services had to be gendered in order to be desirable. (It's possible that Blast Theory hoped to break down this stereotype in some way by pushing Karen to the extreme, but there isn't really enough self-awareness in Karen's narrative to support this fully.) At the end of Karen's narrative, the app offers to sell the psychological profile it constructed from your interactions, and can offer unparalleled insight into the magnitude of personal information that can be composited by digital services. Or you can save your money if you think you're better off not knowing.