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[Nettime-bold] Fwd: FLUXLIST: Selling and Collecting the Intangible, at $1,000 a Share ByMATTHEW MIRAPAUL


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DATE: Tue, 30 Apr 2002 14:21:54
From: allen bukoff <allen@fluxus.org>
To: FLUXLIST@scribble.com

for those of you interested in the economics of digital art and believe 
that selling digital art is a problem to be solved

April 29, 2002
New York Times

Selling and Collecting the Intangible, at $1,000 a Share

Mark Napier sold some of his art this month. For an artist whose digital 
works have been shown by the Whitney and the Guggenheim in New York, this 
should neither be significant nor surprising. But Mr. Napier's medium of 
the moment is the Internet, where the art that one sees is not a material 
object to collect. And with nary a guarantee that this kind of work will 
even survive the next power outage, sales of online art have been scarce 

Yet Mr. Napier has succeeded in selling three $1,000 shares in "The Waiting 
Room," an interactive, animated painting that has been hung, so to speak, 
in a private corner of the Net. Although he created the software that 
drives the work, its sights and sounds are generated by the online actions 
of its owners. As they click on the screen, pastel-hued spirals, ovals and 
squares appear and begin to swirl against a black background. Each shape is 
linked to a sound file that yields an accompanying hum or chirp.

Mr. Napier hopes to sell as many as 50 shares in "The Waiting Room," an 
approach that emphasizes the work's participatory nature. When multiple 
owners view it online at the same time, they can produce shapes that 
complement  or obliterate  those made by others. The work is the visual 
equivalent of an Internet chat room with "conversations" occurring in 
geometric shapes instead of words.

"The piece is meant to be seen not as 50 copies but as a single artwork 
that is literally a shared space online," Mr. Napier, a 40-year-old New 
Yorker, said. "So when somebody possesses this artwork, they are really 
sharing it."

Mr. Napier's strategy is the latest attempt to find a workable model for 
selling online art. As interest in online art has increased, artists have 
been stymied in their efforts to get paid for digital creations. Museums 
have commissioned and, in a few cases, acquired such virtual works. Mostly, 
though, online pieces have been a labor of love.

Even if he sells all 50 shares, Mr. Napier said, "clearly, I'm not in it 
for the money." Not entirely, anyway. His motivation was to develop a 
viable economic model that would help sustain the nascent genre. He said: 
"If you can't get a support system going, then the art will fade. It needs 
an audience, and it needs some sort of pull coming from the other side."

Because of the nature of the medium, Internet artworks obviously resist 
being turned into commodities that can be bought and sold. The traditional 
art world economy is built on the notion of the rare object. With an online 
work, there is no tangible object to own. Nor can a piece that can be 
accessed from any computer in the world and copied perfectly be considered 

There are other issues. A work may no longer be viewable once the 
relentless push of technology renders obsolete the hardware or software on 
which it was designed to run. And as many publishers have learned, people 
are reluctant to pay for online content that has been available at no 
charge. A work, "p-Soup," similar to "The Waiting Room," is freely 
accessible on Mr. Napier's Web site, Potatoland.org.

Without income from their virtual works, some of the online art pioneers 
have returned to more conventional high-tech media. For instance, the New 
York artist John F. Simon Jr. makes wall displays for which the images are 
controlled by computer. "It's economics," he said. "I would love to spend 
time doing pieces online if I could pay the rent with it, but I have to 
work where I can support myself."

Has Mr. Napier cracked the code on how to sell online art? With three 
buyers in three weeks, it would be premature to say. Besides, there will be 
no real proof until a resale market develops for online art.

Mr. Napier's solution appears to be a savvy compromise between marketing 
art and marketing software. In the software business as in the music 
industry, a lot of copies of the same thing are sold at a relatively low 
price. Because "The Waiting Room" depends on its owners' actions, access to 
it must be controlled or it will become a visual jumble.

By offering no more than 50 shares, Mr. Napier has been able to make "The 
Waiting Room" into a limited-edition Internet site, which functions more 
like a live performance than a static artwork. The shareholders are buying 
a ticket to an event that they can attend anytime they wish. Although they 
also receive a certificate of authenticity and a CD-ROM that contains the 
software, these are like "Lion King" T-shirts. The work's value resides not 
in its keepsakes but in the experience it provides for the viewer.

This is not the first stab at selling online art. Some ingenious artists 
have tried to market their online projects, from complete Web sites to 
handcrafted computer viruses, by putting them on a collectible CD-ROM. 
Others have offered signed printouts of screens from their work, just as 
performance artists sell photographs and other memorabilia from their acts. 
But by converting these transient works into material commodities something 
gets lost in the translation.

Mr. Napier, who was trained as a painter, argues that "The Waiting Room" is 
every bit as tangible to him as works made in more traditional ways. He 
said: "Once you forget that there's a computer mediating this, it is just 
as physically there in the space as a canvas. It's just a question of 
shifting an art culture that for centuries has been immersed in the 
collectible object."

The shift, if it happens, will not be accomplished quickly. Online art is 
still an unfamiliar form. Steve Sacks, the owner of Bitforms, a new-media 
art gallery in Chelsea, which is selling "The Waiting Room," said some 
visitors have trouble grasping that the work is constantly changing and 
should not be frozen. He said: "People keep asking, `Can I print this?' Or 
they say: `I love this composition. I just want to stop it.' I say that's 
not what it's about. That sometimes turns people off."

The ephemeral quality of the work as well as its dependence on technology 
raises questions about its longevity. No one worries about the life span of 
a symphony or a play because there is a musical score or a script. For 
online art there is computer code. Mr. Napier said that when the time comes 
that he or an associate cannot maintain "The Waiting Room," its 
shareholders will get copies of the code. If necessary, they could hire 
someone to update the piece for the technology of that future time.

The first shareholders in "The Waiting Room" are undaunted by these 
concerns. Mark Addison, who teaches art history at the University of 
Colorado in Boulder, said: "A lot of art is ephemeral. I'm willing to 
accept that it won't last forever. If it does, and people are willing to 
rewrite the code, I'll go with that. And if not, we enjoyed it while it was 


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