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What Is the Mona Lisa of Digital Art?

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
July 23, 2014

What Is the Mona Lisa of Digital Art?

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
July 23, 2014
Pyramidi
Pyramidi

Will.i.am’s Pyramidi installation at the Barbican. (Getty Images)

At the Digital Revolution exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre, the pop star and entrepreneur will.i.am couldn’t help himself when he saw the piece of art he had submitted: an Egyptianesque statue of himself, surrounded by three robotic musicians playing a song he had written.

“This is Mona Lisa times a trillion,” he declared, according to a Guardian reporter who was on the scene.

The Barbican show, a wide-ranging survey of technology and the arts, is the latest evidence that artists, galleries, museums, and even collectors have embraced the idea of Internet-age digital art. Indeed the exhibition has been characterized as revealing how technology has changed art, or even the definition of what art can be.

And that raises a question. If Web/digital art is now an established category, does it have a “Mona Lisa” of its own? Let’s say, in other words, you had to choose one iconic work to stand in as visual shorthand for art made via technology — rather than sculpted from marble or painted on canvas in oil. What would it be?

I asked a variety of curators, critics, and experts. Almost everyone questioned the premise of the inquiry … but nobody could resist offering some sort of answer anyway.

Apologies to Mr. i.am, but nobody picked the thing he was involved in.

Fittingly, however, given the endlessness of the Internet, there was no real consensus. Maybe, then, the whole idea of the iconic work has been, as techno-enthusiasts like to say, disrupted: In the future, we’ll all have our own personal “Mona Lisa.”

Viewer as protagonist

The Treachery of Sanctuary
The Treachery of Sanctuary

That Digital Revolution show at the Barbican takes a long view — it covers four decades, so many works predate the World Wide Web. This approach is a useful reminder that art shaped by technology is an idea with a history: Artists have worked with the latest video or other media tools for generations, often with the explicit intent of challenging what “art” can be. 

Nevertheless, even Digital Revolution curator Conrad Bodman answered my inquiry in part with this caveat: “Icons are established after centuries of discussion and debate,” he wrote via email. “This is such a young and fresh area, it is hard to say which works will stand the test of time.”

But he pointed to a distinctly 21st-century candidate. The Treachery of Sanctuary, by Chris Milk, is “a three-screen narrative work” that comes to life only by way of an individual interacting with it.

The “Mona Lisa” is about admiring the subject, Bodman observed. In contrast, “this work positions the viewer as the subject: You watch yourself transform through the narrative on a series of huge screens, with your shadow reflected in a huge water pool, which expands your image.”

“For me this work represents the narrative qualities and potential of digital art and demonstrates the possibilities of interaction — the viewer is quite literally the protagonist.”

Post-patron portraiture

58 Lungomare 9 Maggio, Bari, Puglia, Italy
58 Lungomare 9 Maggio, Bari, Puglia, Italy

(9-Eyes)

“The Mona Lisa was a commissioned portrait, so in that sense there’s no equivalent,” Paddy Johnson, founding editor of Art F City, among other things, pointed out. “Net artists simply aren’t getting paid to make portraits.”

Fair enough. But what if we’re talking about what the “Mona Lisa” representsbasically, being a widely recognized work of art?

“In my opinion the best-known digital artwork is Jon Rafman’s 9-Eyes project,” Johnson contends. I’ve mentioned this project in the past. Exploring the vast image catalog of Google’s Street View, Rafman identified, and captured, individual frames picked up by the nine-lens, spherical cameras on Google’s roving Street View vehicles that turned out to be beautiful or disturbing or compelling. These were amazing images created almost by accident; Rafman’s art is in recognizing their power.

Many of the shots Rafman has collected from Google Street View have been widely reproduced online and off, in both digital and physical variations. (As Johnson disclosed in her response, Rafman’s essay about this project first appeared on Art F City.)

After just a bit of prodding, Johnson made a pick for a single-image stand-in for 9-Eyes. It’s above, and it’s one I’ve certainly seen many times — usually identified by its Google Street View coordinates as of 2009: 58 Lungomare 9 Maggio, Bari, Puglia, Italy.

The interactive work

My Boyfriend Came Back from the War
My Boyfriend Came Back from the War
My Boyfriend Came Back from the War
My Boyfriend Came Back from the War

“I love the question,” Michael Connor, editor and curator of online arts entity Rhizome.org claimed — before immediately questioning the question: “Is the ‘Mona Lisa’ anyone’s favorite work of art, or is it just the best known?”

He wasn’t being flippant. The “Mona Lisa” isn’t well known because it’s an “easily replicable one-liner, but because it kind of sticks in your head; it’s enigmatic and subtle,” he noted.

Connor made a few suggestions, but for my purposes the single piece that best exemplifies his useful point about the meshing of the enigmatic and the iconic is “My Boyfriend Came Back from the War,” by Olia Lialina. Dating back to 1996, it’s an interactive online quasi-narrative, incorporating grainy black-and-white imagery and frames that split as you click. (You’ll have to visit this website to view it.)

The piece has been characterized as “one of the first engaging hyper text net art narrative[s].” If that sounds ho-hum by today’s standards, that is sort of the point: When the cutting-edge transforms into the routine and expected, we (sometimes) remember, and venerate, the breakthrough moments. This is arguably one of them.

A decidedly code-based yet aesthetically sharp piece, it’s been remixed by others many times. And it came up more than once in the course of my asking around. For a digital work that’s nearly two decades old, that strikes me as borderline “Mona Lisa” longevity, refracted through Internet time.

Our natural desire to hack

Super Mario Clouds
Super Mario Clouds

Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the vital art-critical site Hyperallergic.com, suggested Cory Arcangel’s “Super Mario Clouds,” from 2002. Arcangel is certainly among the most recognized digital-age artists — not only has he had a solo Whitney show and been profiled by The New Yorker, but I personally love his work!

This particular piece, which involved modifying a Super Mario Bros. cartridge to eliminate everything except the gentle background clouds, “encapsulates the once-utopian promise of digital art with our natural desire to hack closed systems and create moments of Zen in the perceived chaos of digital worlds,” Vartanian told me.

“While so much of digital art is specific to a moment in time — sometimes focusing on a meme or technological innovation — I think Arcangel’s work transcends that and plugs into larger notions of the sublime, artifice, and even appropriation (lest we forget he is taking the work of other designers and slapping his name on it).

“In this simple hack, I think Arcangel has created a work that also plays to our sense of digital nostalgia, which is both familiar and empty. Time has little meaning in this work, as we’re left to contemplate an endless loop. I’d like to think that the very myth of progress is being questioned in Arcangel’s artwork.”

Rhizome’s executive director, Heather Corcoran, also mentioned this piece, and her colleague Connor agreed it was a strong contender as an iconic digital work. So if the answer to my question were to be determined by a vote, this would win.

However: The answer to my question will not be determined by a vote. So let’s continue.

Recognizable, art or otherwise

I Can Has Cheezburger?
I Can Has Cheezburger?

“There is no ‘Mona Lisa’ of digital art,” curator Jason Eppink, who among other things put together the pleasing reaction-GIF show at the Museum of the Moving Image that I wrote about earlier, informed me.

“Because (I’d argue) the defining characteristic of the ‘Mona Lisa’ is that most of the Western world knows what it is and recognizes it as The Most Significant Artwork. There’s just no equivalent with digital art.”

And so: “I’m going to answer with something that isn’t recognized so much as Art but that is recognized by many more people: the image macro. (You know: photo with white Impact font.)”

Eppink (correctly) predicted that I would want a more specific — and less categorical — answer. “I think that’s what’s most interesting about culture production in the digital age,” he counterpunched in advance, is “authorlessness, malleability, multiplicity, performed by communities rather than by individuals.”

Fine. But I need to illustrate this piece. So I chose an image macro for him. See above — and I defy you to offer a more iconic alternative.

Eppink added: “To be clear, I hesitate to describe image macros as ‘art.’ I think our current understanding of that word is pretty limited, so I usually use the word ‘culture’ instead.”

OK, OK, Captain Caveat! I hereby take all responsibility not only for picking the image above, but also for calling it Art — with no apologies. If I ran MoMA, I would have acquired that image ages ago.

And that is just one of the reasons why I don’t run MoMA.

The digital-iconic riff

Webcam Venus
Webcam Venus

Like most everyone I contacted, curator Lindsay Howard told me that “the idea of ‘one iconic work’ is less relevant in the digital age.”

Her specific continuation of the argument: “In the future, unique objects will become less important as artists explore more expanded, conceptual practices. Artists will express a single idea through many different mediums, such as sculptures, websites, videos, and performances. The works will generate value through their interconnectedness and no longer require artists to consider uniqueness or scarcity.”

Still, she did offer me an answer of sorts — although I think it’s fair to say that she was making a point rather than truly advocating this work in the terms I’d offered.

“The literal answer to your question,” she told me, is ‘Webcam Venus’ by Addie Wagenknecht and Pablo Garcia, “wherein the artists asked online sexcam performers to replicate important works of art.”

Click at your own risk.

The technology is the art
I can’t figure out how to illustrate the answer I got from Joanne McNeil, a writer and researcher who has long focused on the intersection of the digital and the arts — and that’s just one reason I’m giving her the last word.

“Digital art is heavily theorized rather than curated, collected, and appreciated,” she told me. “It is still part of the tail of a power law graph of the art world, even when works go viral online.

“Consequently an exhibition like the Barbican’s Digital Revolution appears like a bastard hybrid of BuzzFeed listicle and New Media Studies syllabus. The richness of its interdisciplinary history has for the most part escaped its few critics and curators.”

Olia Lialina’s “My Boyfriend Came Back from the War” is “excellent,” she continued — but why has that been “canonized,” she wondered, when Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl is treated as a “hypertext” piece rather than full-on “net art”?

“In the ’70s maybe someone could have answered Nam June Paik’s ‘TV-Buddha’ is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of video art,” McNeil continued. But in the Web age, the whole payoff is that art is, or should be, “interconnected, interdisciplinary, embedded in and dependent upon the network itself.”

"So I’m not sure how to answer this question,” she concluded, “other than: Tim Berners-Lee, multimedia, ‘World Wide Web,’ 1991.”

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.