articleDigital Art: From the Fringe to the Foregroundby Karl Thomas SmithSep 13, 2022

As a concept and as a practice, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Digital Art is relatively new. And, in the grand scheme of Art History, you’d not be entirely wrong.

But you wouldn’t be totally right, either.

Despite how it may seem, Digital Art, as a broad strokes term for multiple forms of tech-led expression, hasn’t actually risen in meteoric parity with the NFT – a term known only to insiders just a few short years ago and still, to some degree, a mystery to many on the outside. Instead, while certainly brighter now than ever before, it’s much more accurate (and much fairer to its litany of trailblazing creatives) to say that the star of Digital Art has been rising now for decades.

And, in that sense, NFTs have simply given them a new form – a new, more egalitarian mode for artists to make a living from their work through dedicated platforms like Hymodernity which value their art.

To say that Digital Art is more mainstream than ever, though, is more or less undeniable. After all, to see daily articles pouring out from established media platforms, all of a sudden desperate to be seen to be covering the ins-and-outs of the Digital Art scene, is most likely well beyond anything that the artist Harold Cohen or his peers on the groundbreaking AARON project of the 1980s ever imagined.

Between AARON and the likes of Petra Cortright, Masha Batsii, or Ryder Ripps – artists who all featured in the inaugural Hymodernity exhibition, CANON!, at Frieze London’s No.9 Cork Street venue – there are names who have helped pave the way for this work to be taken seriously and judged on its own terms and its own merit; accepted as a vital part of the Contemporary Art spectrum.

From the code-based ASCII art, pioneered by artists like Vuk Cosic, to the more interactive, browser-based work of names like Yael Kanarek – which made use of the burgeoning possibilities afforded by the web’s newfound accessibility and increasingly more manageable and navigable UX designs – these creatives eschewed traditional pathways in favour of scoping out and testing the limits of artistic possibilities in the Digital Age.

It’s hard to imagine Ryder Ripps’ 2021 “CIA rebrand” project, for example, without the foundation laid by Kanarek’s World of Awe (1995-present) or without the work of the Seoul-based group Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.

“These were fringe names: outsider artists who may now have their own pages on the Tate but who, at the time, were very much working at the ever-expanding bleeding edge.”

All of these are names which, now, we can look back on and easily identify as world-leading artists who pursued creativity over convention – some thirty years later now so clearly on the right side of a history which is only now finding its footing in the present. But, back in the 90s, these were fringe names: outsider artists who may now have their own pages on the websites of institutions like the Tate but who, at the time, were very much working at the ever-expanding bleeding edge.

Interestingly, despite the surge in uptake and in popularity of the web on a global scale – and despite the wholesale way in which the Millennial generation made use of the Internet an essential part of their everyday lives and identities – while the processes behind Digital Art and the volume at which works were being created moved at a near-vertiginous pace in terms of their development and accessibility, the acceptance of Digital Art as a medium to be taken seriously languished far behind.

“These are the spaces in which communities grow and thrive; where conversations happen and where dialogue sparks creativity on the daily.”

It is an interesting quirk of Art History that, while mainstream audiences were bowled over by movies like Toy Story as early as 1995, digital artists and creative 3D render pioneers where consigned to niche spaces like DeviantArt (whose name says it all) when it comes to actually qualifying those talents as “art.” It is a similar quirk, too, that at the same time CGI was thriving on the big screen, its small-screen counterpart – the art of video games and the practice of gaming – also remained the pastime of relative outcasts.

As a fun aside, Toy Story made $30 million USD on its opening weekend, while Final Fantasy VII, the most anticipated game in the world just two years later, made $115 million in its first two days of sales. Take from that what you will. A funny thing about niches and fringes, though, is that these are the spaces in which communities grow and thrive; where conversations happen and where dialogue sparks creativity on the daily. Platforms like the micro-blogging website Tumblr, at the height of their popularity in the mid-late 2000s, gave space and an audience to young artists who otherwise might not have been able to find that footing. Artists like Molly Soda, for example – whose GIF-art and confessional videos, both now commonplace across the web at large – or like Cory Archangel, whose video game manipulations and other technology-based art practices undoubtedly impacted the popularisation, edging the Art World toward accepting a new kind of creativity.

“It’s much more accurate (and much fairer to its litany of trailblazing creatives) to say that the star of Digital Art has been rising now for decades.”

These are the kinds of communities that Hymodernity looks to now, in our early stages, as precursors and models for the future of Digital Art: spaces in which, while now considerably less underground in nature, facilitate the follow of creativity – wherein artists, curators, and galleries are able to come together on an equal footing of appreciation for a form that has now more than proven itself to stand the test of time.

Of course, some people never had any doubt about that. Or, more likely, they didn’t care. They just wanted to create something new. Something which, in that moment, might ignite something in someone, somewhere, in a newly-open world.

That’s a spirit worth capturing.