Pixels into pounds

The market is growing for computer generated art, says John Windsor

Sunday January 27, 2002
The Observer

No sooner has it arrived than it has a museum. Launched at the end of last
year, the Digital Art Museum - on the internet, naturally - aims to become
the first reference guide to computer-based art and artists.
It has been set up by the co-directors of the Colville Place Gallery in west
London, Britain's only gallery specialising in digital art.
The museum is a step towards legitimising digital art when much of it still
looks and sounds like the bastard offspring of computer nerds. On the net
there are subversive, game-like interactive experiments and weird websites
dreamed up by designers more fascinated by special effects than art.
But such electronic effusions are hardly bankable, which is why almost all
the West End gallery grandees disdain digital art - even the Tate has not
acquired any so far.
The Colville Place Gallery is in Fitzrovia, where its nearest neighbours are
the Curwen Gallery and the New Academy Gallery/Business Art Galleries, which
last month were showing screenprints and lithographs by six Royal
Academicians. Yet the contrast between digital art's inkjet-on-paper prints
and traditional media is less than you might expect. Here is respectable
two-dimensional art-on-the-wall - buyable, collectable, and ultimately, it
is hoped, bankable.
There are no funny installations, no incomprehensible videos with scratchy
soundtracks. A closer look reveals the richness and subtlety peculiar to
digital art on paper - the merging of imported photographic images, the
overlays, the unusual textures, the intricate computer-generated geometry,
above all the 3D effects created by art-dedicated software.
The clientele includes young art collectors but is mostly corporations,
particularly technology companies. Prices range from £150 to £4,000. Having
found a market for digital art, the Colville's co-directors, Keith Watson
and Wolfgang Leiser decided to confer on it a history.
Hence the museum, which is funded by the London Guildhall University and the
Arts and Humanities Research Board. There's respectability for you.
Watson, 41, says: 'Digital art has a 50-year history but there is no central
source for it.' The first phase of the museum's website will be to chart
digital art from 1956 to 1986, including its beginnings, when artists begged
scientists to write electronic programmes for them.
Then there was the ICA's groundbreaking Cybernetic Serendipity show in 1968,
full of electronic gizmos, and the first drawing programme, by Apple Mac, in
the mid-Eighties.
But the breakthrough that transformed digital art into a saleable commodity
overnight came only four years ago, with the invention of a long-life inkjet
ink called Equipoise. Inks are now available with a lifetime of 100 years.
Richard Hamilton, father of British pop art in the Sixties and a pioneer
computer artist, latched onto the new long-life ink with alacrity. His first
images made with it in 1998, including Bathroom - fig 2, showing his wife in
a bath towel against a background of Mondrian-like spaces, were soon sold to
American museums at £4,000 each in editions of 25. They were the key works
that only those in the know got their hands on. (The Americans have been
quick to recognise digital art - there were three exhibitions at major
American museums last year). Hamilton's prices for digital work at London's
Alan Cristea Gallery are still only £2,000-£4,000, compared with up to
£12,000 for conventional prints of his.
The objections to digital art in the British art press - are the prints
originals? are they unique? - sound like tired re-runs of the arguments over
photography and mechanical reproduction. Originals do exist as computer
files and editions can be limited in the same way as any other print; the
Colville's are numbered and signed, usually in small editions of 10-25.
One irony is that photographers have taken to digital printing, especially
for very big images, but not many care to admit it. How long will the
digital stigma last?
The digital masters
James Faure Walker is the Coleville gallery's bestseller. A n established
painter, he taught computer graphics at the RCA.
Prices: £150-£1,200.
Guillem Ramos-Poquí, the head of fine art at Kensington and Chelsea College,
took to digital art five years ago. He produces beautiful, dream-like
Prices: £350-£2,000.
Mike King uses the medium to conjure imaginary, science-based worlds, full
of surreal shapes.
Prices: from £400-£700 to £2,000 for wall-sized images.
Martin Gardiner produces shimmering, streamlined images.
Prices: £350-£700
Andrew Greaves is a geometrist with a strong feeling for texture.
Prices: £400-£900
Laurence Gartel is an American artist with great virtuosity in applying
special effects to photographs.
Prices: £400-£1,200.
· The Digital Art Museum Show is at the Colville Place Gallery, London W1
(020 7436 1330) until 8 February. The museum's website is at www.dam.org.