The artwork is a digital file, yes
Pau Waelder

When considering how to collect digital art, we come across two preconceptions: what an artwork must be and what digital files are worth. First, it is commonly assumed that an artwork is an object with unique attributes, original, and irreplaceable. The object routinely goes from the artist’s studio to the gallery, where it is acquired by a collector. There is no doubt that it is always the same object that trades hands, and it is finally the collector who decides where the artwork is placed and who has access to it. Conceptual and performance art has challenged this notion again and again, but the artwork always finds its way into the market and the collector’s home in the form of a more or less stable object. Thus, if an artwork (a) is not an object, (b) can be copied, (c) can be accessed or experienced beyond the control of its owner(s), and/or (c) requires a computer, software and display to be at all perceivable, some may find it “difficult,” “challenging,” or even not worth collecting. This relates to the second preconception.

Our computers, tablets and smartphones are constantly storing digital files. Most of them we have created ourselves, others we have downloaded for free or for a fee. They fill the device’s storage space and force us to either copy them to other devices, store them in the cloud or delete them. Digital files are therefore constantly moved around, copied and erased, both a necessity and a burden. In most cases, we don’t know what to do with them, they just linger in folders and hidden directories until detected by a cleanup app or simply obliterated when the device that stores them reaches the end of its service life. Digital files, therefore, tend to be considered expendable in the sense that there should always be another copy somewhere. In fact, a growing segment of the entertainment industry relies on selling access to content on digital files that we temporarily store in our devices and swiftly remove when we are done watching the film, tv series, or documentary; listening to the song or podcast; reading the book, graphic novel or magazine. Many times, the file is not even downloaded, it is streamed and thus disappears the moment it is not used anymore, without leaving a trace. When we pay for the content, we either rely on it being safely stored by the provider and always conveniently accessible or we just want to experience it and never care what happens to it afterwards, because there will always be more, newer content ready to be clicked on.

My point is that artworks and digital files seem to be incompatible, due to how we tend to conceive artworks and our daily experience with digital files. Artworks are forever, digital files are ephemeral. Artworks are unique objects, digital files are immaterial worthless copies. However, an artwork does not need to be an object. In fact, a painting is not an object, it is an image that becomes a physical object because the pigment needs to be placed on a surface and canvases make it easier than walls to create, move around and sell the images. An artwork created in a digital format (a video, sound, jpeg, gif, 3D animation, browser-based piece or what have you) is not only always a copy but also the result of a software interpreting a file on a certain display, so every time it is experienced it turns out to be, in a way, a unique performance. Of course, one has to make sure that the software works with the file and that the display shows the piece as intended, but that’s all part of the artwork being something other than a static, physical object –which would nevertheless require certain conditions of placement, lighting, humidity and so forth. Finally, the artwork may be available to others even if it is safely at home and a certificate of authenticity, kept in the safe, states that no one else owns it. Artworks have a life of their own as they are viewed in exhibitions, reproduced in photographs and videos, distributed in magazines, books and blogs. Most of the art we know and love, we have never owned and will never own – even big collectors know and love much more art than they have bought. A large part of that art we have seen through reproductions, mostly on screens. It is still part of us, and for those who were lucky, smart or powerful enough to buy it, the more people who feel that the artwork is part of them, the better. For what good is it to own something that no one else knows about, that none can appreciate, that cannot be shared?

Digital art allows us to own and at the same time share an artwork – not only its reproduction. This can raise some eyebrows and insecurities. It may be argued that if the artwork is available elsewhere or that it can be copied, it loses its value. However, in addition to what I have already stated about the nature of a digital file, let us consider what Nelson Goodman found to be the difference between an original artwork and a forgery: its history of production. A digital artwork that has been purchased from a reputable source with a valid registry of authenticity has a history of production that can be established from the artist to the collector. No matter how many copies of the artwork may circulate, only the collector – or collectors if the artwork is editioned– can claim ownership and, more importantly, become part of the history of the artwork. This is not just provenance, which will matter to the next owner, but an active involvement in the existence of the artwork, its relevance and also in supporting the work of the artist. This is where Daata Editions comes in. Daata commissions art that is sold through its online platform in limited editions. The artists are paid to produce artworks that anyone can buy with a few clicks. The buyer can download the artwork and store it in her computer, on the cloud, wherever, make copies and display them on any device she owns. The rest of us can see the same artwork – watermarked – on the platform, appreciate it, maybe feel the urge to own it too. But we won’t be part of the artwork’s history, only those who bought it do. And those who are lucky or smart enough get the first edition.

Pau Waelder is a curator, writer and researcher whose work focuses on contemporary art and new media.

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