“One day while working with the scanner, I think the dots connected instinctively. I wondered why I shouldn’t scan my own body. By scanning images of my scarred body with withering flowers, this series creates metaphors for the decline of one’s body and health,” proffers Shwe Wutt Hmon, the freelance photographer behind I Do Miss Hospital Visit (2020), the winning submission of the Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize back in 2021. Barred from her regular hospital check-ups due to the pandemic, the photographer juxtaposed digital scans of her own declining body against images associated with old age and mortality—a perfect enactment of how real-life, tangible data can be transformed into a poignant work of art.
As we propel towards an age where digital facets sit at the forefront of every aspect of our lives, it’s only understandable that the canvas on which the artist can cast his vision, evolves along with it as well. In fact, if we were to consider the past decade or two, it’s almost a curious question as to why it took this long for digital art to take this long to assume such a noticeable fixture in the industry, especially when the world of the moving image and video format has long been established as a potential stage for possible experimentation.
But recent years have seen other layers slowly come into action—from graphic art that play with concepts of computer distortion to data-driven pieces that utilise real-life data to drive home a point of social, environmental or cultural critique. For people like Hmon, excavations of their own personal data even wield the power to produce an unexpected quality of heightened emotion, sitting in contrary to the usually cold nature of scientific information and data. With the world of art rapidly expanding to accommodate digital derivatives, it is no longer merely a medium that can be perceived as merely an experimental second thought. Instead, a fresh new crop of artists who specialise in the digital medium have been spotted in the scene—exponentially driven by the rising Web3 space that gives way to a new currency of how we consume and deliver art.
Which begs the question: how have our visible spaces for art changed to accommodate these changes? From melding the physical sphere of a museum in order to reimagine how a digital exhibit should function to considering new approaches to the process of digital art curation, the relationships an artist has with both its medium and means of storytelling, has now entered an entirely new field of play. In the face of such a conundrum, we turn to experts of the field: visual artist and digital specialist Unnikrishna M Damodaran and Founder of NFT Asia Clara Peh. Both on the board of the Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize as advisors or mentors, we ask them to shed some light on the future of digital art and how the role of a curator has evolved in tandem.
We only seem to be at the nascent stages of drawing out the potential of digital art. What do you hope to see in the young talent who have been living in a digital world all this while?
Unnikrishna M Damodaran: Every moment we live in these times we are engaged with a digital interface that is essentially impacting our lives in all walks of life. This is an inevitable process and one has to be digitally disruptive to move forward. There is an abundance of young talent out there and I would expect them to grow along with the changing needs of contemporary humanity and apply their creative efforts and talent to becoming responsible digital citizens of the times, guiding pixels of the future in a functional manner.
Clara Peh: I look forward to seeing how the new generation of digital-native artists would be able to harness and utilise emerging technologies to imagine new and better futures, while querying how these technologies are being built and creating space for critical dialogue.
Some artworks in the digital space have started including the use of data charts or computer codes as its main medium, which are usually quite removed from the realm of creativity and art. How do you think the art world can make space for these new mediums?
UMD: As visual artists, we should be prepared to accept the changing times and new discoveries. Data is gold. Without data, we can’t improve further and move forward as a progressive community. Data-driven art depends on the usage of datasets to convey the idea based on a logical thought process, with the help of various permutations and combinations. I see a great future for this new medium where we can apply various utility-embedded art-making practices. As data usually represents a hard reality, the art created from data is sometimes closer to the objective truth, giving way to unexpected results that the artists themselves might have never thought of.
CP: When we look at art history, we will find that it has always been the case that when new technologies emerge, artists are some of the first people to adopt the new tools and adapt them into their practice. I think the art world understands that and should evolve and improve so it can continuously facilitate such grounds of experimentation too.
There is an intrinsic contradiction between the transient world of digital art and the way contemporary or historical art lends itself to capturing or preserving a moment in time. Any thoughts on this?
UMD: Documenting each moment of life is probably possible with digital art. Perhaps this adds to the transient, non-permanent quality of life that we feel on a daily basis. But in that sense, every transient moment can be seen as something concrete and permanent—like a moment to be memorialised. The argument of digital art as transient may be a question that arises from the oft-perceived physicality of historical art but in the coming years, digital art too will form its own permanence in this world.
From a curatorial perspective, how has art curation had to evolve in order to make space for these ‘new mediums’ such as data and machine learning?
CP: It has meant that curators and exhibition makers have had to develop their own understanding of how such technologies and models work, in order to have a fuller understanding of the artwork and be able to curate with a sensibility to the processes of digital work. But when it comes to curating the artworks in exhibitions, it comes down to what form the artwork is in and what is the best way to present it in the exhibition’s context—and these are considerations that might apply across all works of art, I believe.
What would you say are the key differences between curating for a physical exhibition and a digital exhibition?
UMD: In both occasions, the curator needs to create an experience that translates to the viewer with the predetermined peripheries. One has the physicality of the art, as a physical, material object, and the other needs a container where the art lives in. Digital art needs a container such as a computer, LCD screens, websites, 3D websites, etc. This is the prime difference: digital art exhibitions depend on technology and tools whilst physical exhibitions need regular non-digital materials. Ultimately, both have a material physicality but the materiality of digital art is the container used for the the art to reside within.
CP: A big part of curating has to do with responding to the space and environment within which the exhibition can unfold. Naturally, virtual spaces create very different experiences than that of physical sites and presents a very different set of challenges. For example, there are no limitations as to where or when a person could be viewing a digital exhibition, which makes it more possible for the experience to be shared with a larger audience, but this also makes it more difficult for the curator to imagine a conducive environment for the artworks to be presented in.
With the inception of NFTs and its decentralised form of art ownership that people now share and purchase in Web3 that resists the ‘exclusive’ world of art—how does that affect your approach to art curation?
UMD: With NFTs evolving, art curators and art biennials have begun providing space for NFTs, which is a good sign of progress for a more inclusive community, even in terms of art ownership. In a decentralised world, anyone can own a part of a masterpiece. The approaches to art curation is also changing. Many more of the curators I have come across are more inclusive in nature and their curatorial practices also reflect that progressive culture. In general, the idea of exclusivity is continuously being resisted in an ever-evolving world of art that hopes to welcome everyone—be it digital or physical.
The second edition of the Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize is open for entries from now till 27 November. Find out more here.