Ryoji Ikeda, data.tron [8K enhanced version] (installation view), 2008–09, 16 × 9 × 9 meters, Linz, Austria

The advent of networked computer systems and the speed at which these technologies have been released has scarcely allowed enough space to assess the impact these new systems are having on artistic production. While digital art seems to be the preserve of photographers, all visual art created post-internet, for example, ought to be considered “post-internet” art. So thorough and prevalent are these systems that in this way they have implicated every surface, every gesture, and every artwork, and have become an essential consideration for all artists practicing in the 21st century. Through examining works of two contemporary artists working natively with technology, Ryoji Ikeda and Daniel Crooks, I would like to define some distinctive features of digital art and how their practices problematise this association with photography.

It is simply unavoidable that artworks will be primarily consumed with a screen and this problem is well illustrated by photo-realist painting. Even before cameras, verisimilitude in paint was highly valued amongst both art critics and public alike. Artists are still working in this way today. Many are still admired by the public, but the style has fallen out of favour with institutional critique. The reason for this is not without a sense of irony: most of the information conveying such artistic labour is lost at the exact moment it achieves its ambition: when it becomes a “real” photo, and is shared online. It is for this reason that contemporary photo-realist painters rely more often on subjects and scenes of fantasy and fiction in an attempt to convey that their work is indeed a fabrication.

“If art can be said to reflect the conditions of the world in which it is made, art that engages with the vanguard technology of an era can perhaps be said to have a particular purchase on contemporaneous visions of the arc of the future.” (Chris Wiley) For the last century at least the vanguard has been the screen. So while it may have been photographers and cinematographers who were best positioned to create art that embraces technology, the screen is a shared output device and it is increasingly shared with the underrepresented digital art or “code art”. Artists working with photographic mediums have erroneously attempted to stake claim on all works that are screen based, but by comparing two artists that use digital production, I will show that code art has more in common with the history of traditional image making, such as painting, rather than yet another annex to photography and the moving image.

Code art is something very different, and as of 2017, Sydney Australia is now home to one of the largest and most significant works of the genre. Hiding along the south side wall of the newly completed International Convention Centre (ICC) in Darling Harbour hums Ryoji Ikeda’s monstrous 4 × 100 meter data.scape. data.scape is also Ikeda’s first and only major permanent commission. The work is stark, with visual language drawing heavily from that of early computers. Pure white text and grids on a perfect black of the high contrast only LEDs can provide. Piercing horizontals and data points in hexadecimal red, the screen and sound synchronised, autonomous and unblinking. Apparently scanning or searching unfamiliar constellations, occasionally to be wiped away with a secondary visual overlay with a bright colour field or a heat map for unknown territories. In the artist’s own words, “datamatics is an art project that explores the potential to perceive the invisible multi-substance of data that permeates our world.”. Yet the artwork’s greatest strength is inconspicuously hidden in its list of materials: “LED screen, computers, loudspeakers”.

Ryoji Ikeda, data.scape (installation view), 2017, 4 × 100 meters, ICC, Sydney

The second work is Phantom Ride, 2016, by Australian artist Daniel Crooks. A video work 20:30 minutes in duration, 2 channels,16:9 (1080p) at 24 frames per second with stereo sound. In its installed view, two projectors oppose each other, projecting onto a screen suspended in space, compressing the point of view into an impossible zenith. The video follows train and tram tracks at a constant speed. At irregular intervals, doorway sized frames grow closer and eventually encompass the entire view of the camera. The process then continues on the opposing screen with the same frame receding into the distance. Through this process we pass through many doorways and are teleported across great distances, with the floating frames in the distance appearing almost as pictures, yet with the inevitability of each eventually becoming “real” after the picture exceeds the frame of the window of the screen. The journey almost ends with an encounter with a black frame, but instead reverses. The end is a beginning.

Daniel Crooks, Phantom Ride, 2016, 20:30 mins, 2 channels, 1080p24, stereo

Both use computer technology in their production and in their presentation. Both even feature similar soundtracks, yet both work in very different ways. Crooks’ piece is not only video but a strange mix of formats. Firstly, it uses the outdated 1080p frame format. Even the consumer grade iPhone 6s, released a full year before the artwork, was capable of 4K video. Worse still, it is forever locked to 24 frames per second, another odd choice which takes us even further back: 24 frames per second began in the early 20th century for economising then expensive film stock. Like the rails it features, it is both fixed and linear. Conversely, the materials list for Ikeda’s piece actually reveals no resolution or frame rate video specifics of any kind, and this is for one important reason: the images you see on the screen are being generated in realtime. Put another way, Crooks provides a video file to a video playing app whereas Ikeda builds his own app. Video is at the mercy of the app issuing requests to the graphics subsystems; Ikeda can interface with those systems directly, working much “closer to the metal”. It is the digital equivalent of playing a recorded song vs a live performance and it produces something that puts the work beyond current capture technology. It can only be experienced.

In Ikeda’s piece, code itself forms a component of the total artwork. So while Crooks’ may use a computer, graphics card, and projector to display a video artwork, there are layers of complexity and capabilities built into that system that will never be used or needed by the artwork. Ikeda’s code, as simple as it may be, interfaces directly with the these often hidden capabilities. Because it is interfacing natively with the computer system, it is constantly presenting us not only with the artwork, but with the very boundaries of what the technology is physically capable of. Ikeda leaves open the potential to upgrade the hardware, the code would then simply fill the new capabilities. Video and cinema works cannot so easily be upgraded, they would need to be re-shot. There is another significant distinction, that of compression. Compression is introduced in video because in order to store all of the visual information without compromise is simply beyond the capabilities of current storage equipment. Generally speaking videos will always be using some form of compression, introducing artefacts and compromising the integrity of the image. Code on the other hand does not rely on any such compression as it draws to screen directly. All available pixels are addressed individually, and these unadulterated images can thus easily extend well beyond the visual potential and reach of most current cinematography equipment.

The aesthetic result of all of this may be currently imperceptible to a large portion of the consumers of these artworks. Once we are aware of such technology, however, it will permanently shift our collective perception, and this is the very definition of how technology acts upon our aesthetic judgement. This will continue to have far reaching consequences for both the aesthetics of all artwork that uses technology, and is one of the most overlooked today, curator beware.

Ikeda’s work is convenient in that he shows us what happens when you eliminate the artificial limitations placed on the technologies that we all use everyday, in doing so you also liberate these machines to enable a potential that remains largely open to artists. A video running at 24 frames per second will feel familiar to us because this is the primary format we have been consuming our entire lives. Unleashing the same systems to drive uncompressed realtime graphics at 120 frames per second or more is simply something current video is incapable of doing and results in a markedly different aesthetic relationship with the viewer. The images produced will feel straight away different, more lucid, and more natural than any video you have ever seen. You can see this emphasis elsewhere in bonafide code art such as the 4K, realtime graphics of teamLab. In their case enabling the artwork to respond in realtime to the viewers presence, opening up new definitions of viewer participation within an art context.

A screen is capable of far more than video and those capabilities remain largely unexplored territories for artists. From the first tube of paint enabling en plain air painting, to the screen, it is always new technology that enables visual art, but it is the artists first who bring vision and form to what that art eventually looks like. As more artists become familiar with these new materials and techniques we will also start to see a breakaway from the aesthetic categories and expectations inherited from photography and cinema. Code art is fundamentally different as it is a native of technology. When this happens we will begin to see the screens take on a radical and perhaps final transformation: our screens will become indiscernible, and maybe disappear completely.

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Lives and works in Sydney, Australia.