Collecting In The Age Of Digital Reproduction
September 9, 2019 Casey Reas
Forward by Jason Bailey
I have a handful of people I consider personal heroes in the world of generative art. Casey Reas (along with Ben Fry) is at the top of that list for inventing the Processing programming language. Through Processing, Reas and Fry put the ability to create code-based art within reach for hundreds of thousands of artists who otherwise would never have learned how to code. It’s hard to overstate the significance of their contributions. Likewise, Reas has consistently elevated digital art — and specifically, generative art — in his personal artistic practice, having shown work in prestigious museums and galleries around the world.
Now, with his important essay Collecting in the Age of Digital Reproduction, Reas again helps to lead the way, this time in how we think about collecting digital art. After reading a draft, I immediately asked Reas if I could share it as a guest post on Artnome, as this is exactly the kind of thought leadership this space needs and the kind of thinking I created the Artnome site to promote. With that, I am honored to share with you this insightful essay by Casey Reas.
Collecting in the Age of Digital Reproduction
In the art market, almost everything sold is an object such as a drawing, a painting, a sculpture, an installation, or a photograph, but there are some exceptions. These deviations may include a contract, a set of instructions, a digital video file, or a software file. These are all examples of art as information rather than material. For example, a purely digital photograph is different from a printed photograph or negative. A digital photo stores an image as a sequence of colors defined as numbers that can be exhibited on a screen or projected. In contrast, a printed photograph is continuous tones of gray or color values that are embedded in the structure of a unique piece of paper.
While more and more digital media works are created by artists, the art market has been hesitant to collect works that are not tangible and tactile. In contrast, other kinds of collecting not related to the art market have shifted toward digital, information archives. The most iconic shift from material to digital collecting has happened with music. Traditional art collecting and traditional music collecting have little in common. Art artifacts are typically one-of-a-kind or in limited editions in quantities much smaller than pressings of a vinyl record or compact disc. However, contemporary music collecting and the future of collecting contemporary art might eventually be more similar than different — this is the speculation of this text.
The shift in collecting music was the transition where the information version of the media was in more demand than the material form — when the desire for the MP3 files of an album or track eclipsed desire for the vinyl or compact disc. The widespread catalyst for this change was a piece of software called Napster and how this software engaged people with peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing. This was enabled by the internet and through a cultural shift in ideas about sharing media.
When Napster was released in 1999, it started a new way of collecting, sharing, and trading. Before this, people could copy tapes and compact discs for friends, but the scale, speed, and ease of sharing through p2p systems made this new way fundamentally different from what came before. The distribution system of brick-and-mortar stores vs. direct download have little comparison. Behaviors and ideas about property shifted quickly. In 1999, a search for Aphex Twin made it easy to download the Richard D. James Album and Come to Daddy. No payment was needed and none was expected by people using the software. These files were being shared by many computers around the world and they were quickly transferred to any connected computer. This same pattern, followed again and again, could lead to downloading hundreds of hours of music without any payment. This felt normal at the time, but it wasn’t legal. The response from the gatekeepers and copyright holders was controversial and punitive — people were prosecuted.
As music distribution transitioned from records to tapes to compact discs, the primary model was the same. The collector would buy a thing: a vinyl disk with grooves, a magnetic tape wound around spools, a thin polycarbonate circle encased in plastic. Tapes and compact discs were different than records because of the ease of making copies. In the case of tapes, they were noisy and copies degraded, and with compact discs, they were perfect copies. However, from vinyl to compact disks, the model of buying an object that became property was continuous. A collector could visit the used record store on Canal Street and sell her copy of Remain in Light because she owned that object. That same collector could also buy a used copy of Dark Side of the Moon that someone had earlier sold to the store. The full story of collecting records, tapes, and compact discs has another layer to it. Because these objects became property when they were bought, the owner could loan them to other people for as long as she wanted. The Queen is Dead could be loaned to a friend for a few weeks and if she liked it, that tape could be traded for Three Imaginary Boys. This whole system was flexible and legal and it worked well.
Today, people still buy compact discs, tapes, and records, but new options are more dominant and maybe more importantly, they are more convenient. Streaming services provide wide, but still limited, libraries of music. When music is purchased, it’s often digital files, either one song at a time or a full album of tracks. However, if a song is bought as a digital file for ninety-nine cents, this is different from buying a used cassette single for the same price. The cassette is property and the digital file is licensed. The license states that the music isn’t owned by the person who buys it. That person doesn’t have the right to loan it to someone or to resell it. In fact, that person doesn’t even have the right to give it to someone. This is legal, but it doesn’t feel right. This is the era of the arcane end-user-license agreement (EULA) that defines what we can and can’t do with the media and software we spend money on, but do not own as property.
The focus on music clarifies the differences between ownership versus a license to use something. Also, music was the first powerful media industry to be deeply threatened by downloadable digital media, followed by film/video, and then publishing. The last twenty years have yielded interesting shifts and now things feel roughly stabilized for the moment.
New Collections, New Media?
So far, this discussion yields a few difficult-to-answer questions: Can accessibility be a part of collecting art or is it in opposition to what attracts people to collecting? Will people still be interested in art if it’s not exclusive or a marker of status? Will the existing audience for collecting art shift or does a new kind of collection require building a new audience? Can or should the audience for collecting art scale to millions of people?
The kinds of collecting that people broadly engage with like music, cards, and comics are only possible when the work is mass media, meaning the items that people are collecting are in unlimited or large distributions. This kind of collecting might only work with things that are property and not licensed, as outlined above. The people who collect these things need to have the rights to sell them, to trade them, and to give them to others.
Some visual artists who work with media such as video and software look to this type of collecting with envy, but with conflicted feelings. These artists want anyone who would like to collect the work to be able to have it, but they also realize the advantages of the gallery system that is in direct opposition to this goal. On one hand, artists don’t want barriers of cost to prevent people from collecting the work, but artists are often specific about how to control the presentation of the work. For example, some works need to be viewed in precise lighting conditions and at a specific scale. A work with these requirements isn’t mass media, but is created for a unique physical space that can only be created within a controlled environment, as in a gallery or museum. The traditional gallery system also supports its artists through administration — taking care of sales, paperwork, promotion, shipping logistics and press communication. These services can only exist with a regular flow of sales of unique or editioned works with a high price point.
In theory, an artist might decide to make one work for a gallery and another work for mass distribution. This decision could be different for each work created, but this decision isn’t possible with traditional visual art that has an “original.” This is the essential difference with creating works that are digital media. With digital media, each so-called copy is identical to the so-called original. The very idea of an original with digital work isn’t applicable. Each copy is simultaneously as original and not-original as all the others. Therefore, an artist who works with digital media could have the option to make work for the gallery or to make mass media works that can be collected in an accessible way, but in practice this choice doesn’t exist.
At the present moment, an artist who creates works in mass media has the option to either make work available through a gallery or to publish the work for free and open online access. It’s true, there have been many initiatives to provide a third option over the last two decades, but they have either failed in succession or have not had a broad impact. I think these disappointments are the result of the inability to develop a base of collectors and this is partially a platform issue where existing technologies don’t support what people want. If the platforms do evolve and a collector base is nurtured, is it even possible for an artist to work in both ways? Can an artist succeed at playing the gallery game and making work that is financially accessible for a wider audience? Can an artist avoid galleries entirely, make only digital mass-media work, and still support themselves?
The social and emotional shift required for people to start collecting digital art, as they do music, feels like the difficult part, while the technical aspect is now possible. ... (((etc etc )))