Variation is an art fair with a difference. It puts the spotlight on digital practices within contemporary art, while remaining firmly entwined with the market. Digital art can be a challenge to sell, due largely to an uncertainty amongst collectors about the preservation and longevity of screen-based work. Variation, founded by writer and producer Anne-Cécile Worms of online digital art platform ArtJaws, is out to change that misperception. Variation presents under-the-radar and established artists alike in the heart of Paris, a stone’s throw from the Seine.
To enter the multi-storey gallery space is to observe immediately the sheer diversity of the work on display. We have come a long way from the early computer experiments that first defined digital art, and the artists exhibiting at Variation have chosen to present everything from 3D printed sculptures to hand-printed tapestries, mirrored installations to immersive film sets. It is a playful and thoughtful show curated by Dominique Moulon, an art critic and independent curator whose interest lies in the overlap of art, science and technology.
Colourful posters are carefully rolled up and displayed in one corner by French artist Hélène Bellenger, their tropical scenes hinted at only in the glimpsed silhouettes and shapes that they reveal in profile. Bellenger questions the proliferation of the West’s contemporary visual culture and their exoticising of the Far East and beyond, using photography and installation to reflect how images of faraway lands are often stripped of their context and shared online. At Sedition’s own display within the fair, a series of 5 video works play by artists including Claudia Hart, AES+F, Mark Dorf and Katie Torn. An animated video by Jonathan Monaghanexamines a different side of the subconscious anxieties associated with technology and consumerism, as a hyperreal, futuristic building is brought to life. It is lavish to an extreme, over the top and dripping with sardonic, surrealistic touches: a white horse rotates in a bubble within an immense pink lobby. Set alongside Lawrence Lek’s Unreal Estate (The Royal Academy is Yours), his 2015 reimagining of the endpoint to London’s housing bubble, the pair take a darkly comic look at the financial and political implications of technological acceleration. Meanwhile, Stéphane Simon’s lifesize 3D printed sculpture is a latter-day David, with all the introspection of Michelangelo's original. Instead, Simon’s ‘David’ gazes into a phone as he takes a selfie – surely the defining gesture of this generation. Self-representation is key to the artist’s investigation, as he questions what constitutes identity in the digital age.
Both curator and producer of the fair, Moulon and Worms respectively, are acutely aware of the powerful impact and relevance that the digital world can have on our lives. Elections can be influenced by social media metrics, while it is estimated that the average person checks their phone 150 times per day. Technology is everywhere, and it brings with it its own challenges and rewards. Human engagement and interaction is transforming as a result, and the utopian vision of the neutral net is long gone. The darker side of the digital is tackled directly in the work of many of the artists on show at Variation, while others remain more hopeful for the future. It is a compelling display, deeply rooted in the history of art and technology, that successfully holds a mirror up to our contemporary condition.
Louise Benson: What led you to start Art Jaws?
Anne-Cécile Worms: I've worked in digital art for more than 15 years. I always supported the artists by writing about their work, and I followed the evolution of artistic practices with the digital. First with music, then visual arts, then net art, then everything that art and science encompasses: bio art, nano art, artist spaces. I find that artists always use technology in a very different way to science or industry, and they are often humorous. They also consider aspects like the privacy of our data – I think that artists are always a little bit in advance in their vision of our digital world.
My target now is the art market because I believe there are three ways to support artists. The first is to write (the role of the critic), the second is to co-produce, and the third way is to sell. The idea behind Art Jaws is to offer artists those three services. It's just the right time now. Collectors used to be so afraid of collecting art with technology, but the market is evolving and they now understand that it is no more difficult to conserve an oil painting than to conserve a digital artwork.
LB: Why do you feel that the art market’s perceptions of digital art have changed now?
ACW: Often it is people who have never collected art before who then begin to collect digital art, perhaps because it – unlike conceptual art – is more emotionally connected, more interactive, and more accessible. One good indicator of the market is Ars Electronica in Linz, where you can see beautiful digital artworks. For the first time this year they invited galleries to exhibit works by their artists, which shows that there are more and more galleries out there who are supporting the production of art and technology.
LB: Arguably, many of the works on show at Variation have a significant physical presence as well as a digital one. How would you define digital art?
ACW: It has evolved. Before, people thought that digital art was only on a screen. Now, artists are really materialising; it's not only virtual artwork, especially with all those new tools of digital fabrication like Fab Lab. These are places where artists can find technology, and they often need help with production.
LB: How did you select the artists for the Variation Fair?
ACW: I am a curator, and I have worked with Dominique Moulon for years. He is an expert in the field of art and technology. At ArtJaws we ask curators from all over the world to select artworks, as well as our own selection.
Worms began her career with an electronic music start-up in 1999 and has since made her name as an entrepreneur and editor specialising in digital art forms. She has published the Magazine of Digital Cultures since 2003, and in 2014 set up Art2M (Art to Machine), an organisation specialising in supporting the production and distribution of digital artworks. Art2M includes two platforms: Makery, which links medialabs and fablabs, and ArtJaws, an online marketplace dedicated to media art.
Louise Benson: Could you tell me a little about your background? When did you first become interested in the overlap of technology and art?
Dominique Moulon: The first piece of digital art that I saw was at the beginning of the 1990s, when I was a student at Paris 8, which was a university involved with the production of digital art. I later became a critic and then a curator, and I decided to focus my curation on media art. I have spent many years looking at art in the digital context by visiting festivals around the world, and I finally switched to look at art in the context of the contemporary art world. I will shortly be publishing a book titled Art Beyond Digital in French and English. I'm not interested in 'the digital' but rather I'm interested in the way that these artworks give a better understanding of the digital society that we live in. Contemporary art is digital, by which I mean that even a sculptor or a painter would start sculpting or painting by looking at Google. Of course, there are artworks where you can see their digital component clearly, but there are others where the digital element might not be legible. I don't care about the legibility of the digital, but I'm interested in what these artworks have in common as they document the society that we live in.
LB: Of course, and this is a very physical show as well as a digital one. What was your original direction for Variation? Digital art is a broad field; how did you first approach this topic for the fair?
DM: I'm interested in images. I love to be able to show digital works by artists like Jonathan Monaghan and Andreas Nicolas Fischer, but I'm also interested in the post-digital, or post-internet trend. In the 90s we wanted everything to become virtual, but I think that in this decade right now we live at the opposite end of the spectrum. We would like to re-materialise the world. It's about travelling between what we can and can't see; it's about invisibility. Digital technologies are the best for giving shape to the invisible. The Cloud exists in physical servers, the internet travels through wires at the bottom of the ocean, and artists are documenting it. They are between the visible and invisible, the virtual and the material.
LB: It's certainly true that our lives are thoroughly indebted to the digital, to the point that technology can in fact become a source of anxiety, and several of the works at Variation reflect the fact that this digital shift is not always positive. What was your view on this as you were putting the show together?
DM: There is always anxiety about any technology that is emerging. We are living through the third industrial revolution, and it is only natural that anxiety arises. The very first piece that you encounter as you enter Variation explores this, where you can see (depending on how you look at it) just the words 'HELLO WORLD'. These are the famous two words that any creative coder writes to test their work. However, in this work the letter 'O' is blinking. Sometimes at the entrance to the exhibition you will see 'HELLO WORLD', and at other times it is 'HELL WORLD'. We are definitely proposing two ways to look at the world that we live in, with or without anxiety, or either pessimistic or optimistic. I myself am more optimistic!
Moulon is an art critic and independent curator who has written for Art Press, Digital MCD, The Seen and Neural and has curated Variation Media Art Fair since 2014. He has spoken extensively on the digital arts at international conferences and roundtables, and has a PhD titled Arts and Sciences of Art. He has written works titled Art Contemporain Nouveaux Médias and Art et Numérique en Résonance and has produced an extensive research project titled Outils et Création Numérique. He is currently carrying out research at the Art & Flux (CNRS) laboratory at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.