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Is digital art coming of age under Covid?

Israeli startup Niio is advancing a digital art platform comparable with Spotify. Is the digital medium for high art coming of age in these Covid times?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Is digital art coming of age during lockdown?

At a time when museums and art galleries have closed their doors to art lovers, has the time come for digital art? Art that has been digitised, but also Art that is born digitally, especially video art?

At a time, also, when anyone with a smartphone can publish images and video, what is the specific value of digital art – art that collectors will spend thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, of their currency of choice on, so long as its scarcity can be verified?

Niio is an Israeli startup company, with a software development centre in Ukraine, that offers artists and their buyers a platform on which to publish and consume art. It uses blockchain technology to create a permanent bond, says its CEO Rob Anders, between a creator and their artefact, and artificial intelligence (AI) to personalise digital art for consumers of it – just as Spotify does for music and Netflix does for film.

Anders founded Niio with Oren Moshe in 2014. It now hosts more than 13,000 artworks created by more than 4,000 artists on its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud-based platform. Artists can use the platform to sell directly to collectors or they can make their work available for loan, so that consumers can stream artworks in the way they would do films or music through Netflix or Spotify.

In the context of the Covid-19 global pandemic, Anders says, Niio has experienced a significant spike in interest from artists, with 500 signing up in just two months and a waiting list of 2,000. It is also making a collection of free artworks available as Zoom backgrounds to help give access to art to those sequestered at home.

Art anywhere

But handheld digital screens are not the bigger picture in terms of display. The platform enables the streaming of artworks onto any digital screen or canvas anywhere in the world.

Anders believes Covid-19 has sped up the growth of digital art, and that technology holds the key to the future of the art sector.

Digital work of Refik Anadol

He has a deep background in display technology, and one of Niio’s partners is Samsung. Co-founder Oren Moshe is an academic at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

“Oren is one of the leading pioneers in product and user experience, but also comes from the art academies over here,” says Anders.

Anders sees digital art as offering a space where people can stop and think, providing an oasis from digital noise. “Everywhere you go, it’s advertising and information being thrown at you, kids living in their screens,” he says.

“We give people a chance to stop for a moment and have an additional experience, which might give you a place to ask some questions or stimulate some thinking.”

Digital showcase

On the supply side of the platform, Anders says it sees more and more digital artists emerging, but “a total lack of a dedicated unified platform and repository” which could enable these works to be showcased and brought to the world.

“They [the artists] are a unique bunch, very particular about how they work. You need to build a technology platform which will deal with the secure distribution, with appropriate licensing of this content, which can eventually be displayed on any type of screen or projector, in place of a painting on the wall. So, it has to be really robust.”

Artists on the Niio platform

Artists using the Niio platform include:

Claudia Hart: Claudia has been working with Niio on and off for a long time. Claudia is also a university professor and is using a new technique she coined ‘Zoomology’ during lockdown, which involves teaching her university classes online via Zoom while also using Zoom as a medium for her students to create background artwork.

Jack Alexandroff: Jack responded to Niio’s open call in March and has found that Niio is helping to safeguard his revenue during the coronavirus outbreak. His work is mainly digital moving art. He’s developed an educational project that aims to blend the tutorial systems embedded within video games with the school classroom to push curriculums back towards John Dewey and Friedrich Fröbel’s ideals.

As for the art, the need to ensure scarcity is crucial. This is not a new problem. In his famous 1935 essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, the German-Jewish Marxist intellectual Walter Benjamin thought through the “problem” of reproducibility – with lithography and then photography – of fine art. Mechanical reproduction reduced the “aura” of a work of art, but did not abolish its “unique existence at the place where it happens to be”.

In the digital age, the technological reproducibility problem becomes worse, exponentially so. Moreover, in terms of the creation of art, anyone with a smartphone can create digital imagery and video and upload them to social media, as cultural artefacts – which can then be copied ad infinitum, albeit not always legally.

“The art world,” says Anders, “defines itself as ‘something I have that someone else doesn’t’. And because of that, the traditional model for video art has been limited editions. You’d go to a gallery, buy video art, get a contract, get a box with a USB. And you have your certificate declaring your ownership – say you are owner one of seven. And that’s the inherent value. We have been able to replicate that but enhance it using digital technology, whereby artists can upload their original artwork and create the limited edition on our platform.”

Creative evolution

With the Covid period, worldwide, Anders says: “There is a whole open dialogue about the future of arts and culture. About how people will discover and consume art, even physical art, using digital tools.”

And, indeed, galleries and museums have stepped up their digital efforts to develop and improve their virtual gallery tours. Georgia Haseldine, public engagement fellow for the Victoria and Albert Museum, gives a critical account of these tours in the June 2020 issue of the art magazine Apollo. Museums covered in her piece include the Rijksmuseum, the Courtauld Gallery, and the Museo Frida Kahlo. And she notes that in “April this year the Getty released an ‘Art Generator’ for players to upload chosen artworks from the museum’s collection to Animal Crossing, a Nintendo game created by Katsuya Eguchi”.

So there is, evidently, a confluence, or an inter-animation at play between traditional art and digital media. But to what extent is it realistic to think that a digital platform like Niio can emulate Spotify?

“We’ve got our eyes wide open and we understand where the market is relative to music. People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want digital art’.”

And so Niio has a staged approach, aiming at gigantic screens in hotels, airports and corporate offices to begin with, but with an eye to a user subscription model. It believes the AI in the platform will crunch data on genres, formats, locations of where the art is displayed, emotional response readable from consumption, and so on will enable the content to be matched to users.

Why, finally, is the company called Niio? “On the one side you have the prefix “neo” in different movements like neoliberalism, or neoclassicism. And then there is Neo from The Matrix, and I think his character sums up really well what we stand for. It’s under that bridge between being accepted and credible within the traditional art world but being kind of cool and revolutionary.

“We don’t want to be pure art, but we want to be acknowledged and loved by the art world. The logo is really our symbol, philosophically speaking. It could be horizontal or vertical, it could be abstract or make up a word. That’s what we do – we fit into different industries and connect people in an interesting way. I’m about to get the logo tattooed – that’s how meaningful it is,” he concludes.

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