Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Future Of Art - How The Internet Is Reshaping Artists' Universe: An Analysis By Andy Oram (Part II)

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The future of art and the entire artists' universe is likely to be reshaped by the internet and the new media.

Whenever a commentator makes grandiose statements about history, the reader can legitimately anticipate that they will lead in to some audacious announcement about the future, couched no doubt in revolutionary terms. In the first part of this article about new media and the future of art I offered a high-level, fuzzy overview of two eras in cultural history because we are now in a third era.

Photo credit: Anatoly Tiplyashin

The third era is driven by the Internet and challenges all the foundations of the previous two eras. This does not mean art done in the old styles will disappear; we will still have everything from hand-sewing to grand opera. But these are accompanied by new media and perhaps can be enhanced by them.

To understand better how the arts are adapting to the Internet, one can look at changes in other sources of information and human expression. Essentially, they are breaking into bite-sized pieces and turning interactive.

Journalism is being transformed into ten million eternal conversations over blogs. Long-lasting forms of information are moving to wikis maintained cooperatively by thousands of people. Interactive storytelling and drama are available on the Internet.

Scientists are turning to the Internet for peer review instead of hand-picked experts. Even the core research and development efforts of corporations are being farmed out to anyone interested in trying to solve the problems.

All of these are radically different from the arts, but they reflect aspects of digitization and downloading that apply to the arts as well. Perhaps the best model for new art is multiplayer online games.

The traits of the Internet that foster these changes are the instantaneous appearance of information and the ability to link content of any size to other content anywhere in the world. These traits encourage Internet users to post quickly, as soon as their thoughts gel, and to update their work as comments come back.

Thus, the new art possesses seven characteristics to greater or lesser degrees:

  1. Digitized


    In order to go on the Internet in a manner others can retrieve, art must be put in a recognizable format. There are encodings for text in various languages, music, and video, and protocols for exchanging the data between programs and computer systems.

    A painted canvas consists of unique brushstrokes that cannot be repeated. Fakes are routinely discovered by comparing brushstrokes in disputed paintings to brushstrokes in the original artist's hand. But when the art is digitized, the brushstroke is converted into a common format that can be extracted and repeated endlessly. Collages become the canonical art form - but potentially in much more subtle fashion than torn or scissored pieces of material.

    Digitization also permits any kind of data to be rendered as visual or audio experiences, subject only to the limitations of output devices. Thus, while digitization imposes rules on artwork (the artwork has to conform to the digital parameters, such as color choice or audio frequency range), it permits great freedom in the manipulation of the material that has been digitized.

  2. Malleable


    Nothing is ever perfect - and the Internet makes it so tempting to improve what you have put up! Modern software lets the most technically naive writer or artist alter her work and show the results instantly.

    The combination of digitization and easy distribution over the Internet facilitates sampling, collage, mash-ups, and other reuse of material. Some musicians now offer the tracks to their recordings as separate files so that a particular riff can be incorporated by others in new recordings.

  3. Convivial


    Internet artwork will increasingly become a mash-up of contributions large and small from many people. A single author may try to maintain control, but will always feel the urge to incorporate suggestions he finds compelling from other people. And because of the previous trait, the malleability of Internet content, people will feel the urge to suggest changes.

    The most Internet-appropriate artworks turn into group efforts, perhaps shifting one parameter this year and another parameter the next, always exploring past the art's own edge.

  4. Open


    The more people get involved in an artwork, the more interesting it is. And in a medium that makes copying so easy, attempts to restrict distribution are probably not worth the effort - particularly if such efforts prevent the reuse of material that is one of the most interesting parts of the Internet experience.

    Thus, at least some of the most important artwork is accessible to anyone on the Internet, free of charge. This does not mean, however, that the old notion of the public domain will be retrieved. New art is likely to have licenses that assure certain rights to the original author as well as the viewers.

  5. Topical


    Art that is constantly changing reflects the needs of particular times and places. Local personalities and fast-breaking news events find their way into artistic expressions.

    There's a long history to topical art. A troubadour would talk about a particularly beautiful duchess, for instance, while a balladeer would talk about a particularly beautiful duchess who was brutally slaughtered by the duke.

    Topical art need not be ephemeral. We are still reading Dante's Comedia six hundred years after he died, including passages about people and events that you wouldn't know about unless you lived in Florence at the time he was writing.

    More recently (less than one hundred years ago) James Joyce similarly wrote about the people and events of Dublin. It may be no coincidence that both Dante and Joyce were in some sort of exile from the cities whose details they reproduced so lovingly, as if bringing themselves home through memories. But now we need historical glosses to understand parts of their classics.

  6. Applied


    Many of the new artists break down the barrier between art and other parts of life; aesthetic or affective experience becomes just one facet (and a facet increasingly expected to be present) in everything we do.

    Crafts have never recognized a boundary between art and practical living; nor have their modern mass-market equivalent, industrial design. In most cultures, music has usually served as an accompaniment to dance, ritual, or some other activity, and even the classical Western tradition turns up plenty of examples of background music, or what Erik Satie called "wallpaper music".

    As the new media take offwith large numbers of professionals and amateurs tossing their ideas into the pot, practical applications for the arts are inevitable. The entry of computerization into music has already established a habit of providing textured sound as part of an environment. And many installations - for instance, screens of data about the local ecology displayed in an aesthetic manner - are presented as modern art when they might be seen more as educational projects.

    Thus, a technology from the Preemptive Media Project called AIR is billed as an art project, but deals more with environmental education: it allows urban dwellers to view the exact composition of pollutants in the air as they move from one part of the city to another. It seems eminently reasonably that the new media - being malleable, topical, and applied - would be used to expose changes in user's immediate environment, which exemplifies those traits most intensely.

  7. Constrained


    The third wave of media may be open, unlike the second, but it might not be a complete free-for-all like the first. There will probably be constraints: legal and licensing constraints as well as artistic and aesthetic constraints.

    Even when modern artists are happy to let others extract samples from their work, or alter the entire piece, they usually want to get some credit. And they often require, as fair play, that works based on their open work be released to the public under the same open terms. The most popular clauses in Creative Commons works pertain to these constraints. It's also possible to constrain your a legally to non-commercial use.

    Malleable art is also constrained, almost inevitably, by its software design. People are allowed to change particular parameters, such as the speed at which events happen, but not the actual events. They may be allowed to twist dials to create new effects, but not touch the basic assumptions on which the work rests.

    Because I've cited games as a major model for the new arts, let me use the popular site Second Life as an example of parameters. Second Life is a luscious medium for artistic development, allowing people to try out new landscapes, new architectures, new clothing styles, and various forms of art and music. Second Life also permits a wide range of expression in the personalities people take on, through figures called avatars.

    But there are certain things expected of avatars, no matter how much you stretch their parameters. These expectations are necessary so that people can interact coherently. For instance, avatars can walk, fly, and teleport themselves; these capabilities lay the basis for navigating Second Life and engaging in social interaction within it. If a participant decided, however, that it would suit her character to swim, that possibility would not be open to her.

    It may seem odd to lump together legal constraints and technical constraints. But a technical constraint is a kind of a contract. As discussed in the earlier section on the digitized aspect of art, an artist produces a work in a format defined by a technical specification. The software that renders that work must unpack the format according to the same technical specification.

    Similarly, two computer systems exchanging the data use a protocol and format defined by a technical specification. If one side fails to adhere to the specification, the viewer either sees nothing or lacks part of the experience, such as proper resolution or some interactive feature. So the technical specification is like a contract, and the technical constraints should be familiar to people who deal with legal contracts.

    Furthermore, legal constraints tend to become technical constraints, as seen in the development of Digital Rights Management (DRM, also called Digital Restrictions Management by critics). The earlier section on "legal differences" described the symbiosis between DRM technologies and laws regarding twentieth-century media; the mere availability of DRM (let alone its already widespread use) augurs that it will make its appearance in new digital media as well.

End of Part II of 3

Read Part I: New Media Shaping The Future Of Art, Music And Literature: An Analysis By Andy Oram
Next part: The Characteristics Of New Media Art

Originally published on October 8, 2006 as "Characteristics of new media in the Internet age" by Andy Oram on The author integrated the original article with comments and suggestions provided by the readers, as this essay is available in a wiki at, where others can edit and contribute to its development.

About the author


Andy Oram is a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. He works as an editor for technical publisher and information provider O'Reilly Media, specializing currently in free software and open source technologies. His Web site is and his email address is andyo (at)

Photo credits: alxm, Michael Osterrieder, H Berends, Pavel Losevsky.

Andy Oram -
Reference: Praxagora [ Read more ]
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posted by on Friday, October 27 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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