In the early 1480s Leonardo da Vinci wrote to Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan, looking for a position. He listed ten of his talents as a military engineer. Number three, for instance, was: ‘I have methods for destroying every fortress or other stranglehold unless it has been founded upon a rock or so forth.’ He ended with an unnumbered afterthought: ‘Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.’
Leonardo, then about 32, got the gig. Some years later, commissioned by Sforza to paint The Last Supper, he used new processes, working on a double layer of dry plaster and an undercoat of white lead. These choices soon did for The Last Supper. It’s a ghost.
But Leonardo was on the cutting edge of both art and tech, so it made sense that it was Bill Gates who paid $30.8 million for one of his manuscripts, the Codex Leicester, in 1994. The Codex, which includes a design for a workable helicopter, promptly became the priciest manuscript ever. ‘It’s an inspiration that one person — off on their own, with no feedback, without being told what was right or wrong — that he kept pushing himself,’ Gates said at the time, ‘that he found knowledge itself to be the most beautiful thing.’
That tricky piece of da Vinciana is an appropriate opener for this investigation, I think, because it’s about that terrain where fine art meets hi-tech, which remains an extremely tricky tale — or rather two intertwined tales, that of the artists being the simpler.
Curiosity is part and parcel of the job description of most artists, so in a hi-tech world naturally many find ways to turn tech and digital media into art. Tom Sachs, for instance, who devised a faux Mars shot with the aid of real Nasa engineers. Or Cory Arcangel, who put up a website pairing Kurt Cobain’s suicide note with Google ads promoting, for instance, social anxiety treatments. Or Trevor Paglen, who works with military hardware such as drones (pictured below). (You can see a new Paglen work at Gloucester Road tube station.) Or the Sea Chair Project, created by Studio Swine and Kieren Jones, which scoops up the plastic dreck which is throttling the world’s oceans and turns it into such useful goods such as chairs.
In New York alone, three spaces are given over to art which is often co-equal with highly experimental technology: Eyebeam Art+Technology, which is a not-for-profit; Bitforms, a gallery specialising in new media; and the smallest and most recent, Hyphen Hub, launched a year ago in a former rock ‘n’ roll rehearsal studio. I went to an evening there given over to Stephen Auger and Erwin Redl, both of whom work with light and neurobiology. What was the programme? ‘The intention is to make it financially sustainable,’ said Asher Remy-Toledo, one of the founders. ‘We want to continue as one of the last experimental places in New York, which has become a very corporate and expensive place for creativity to happen.’ Also: ‘Technology art is very hard to monetise.’
There’s the rub. Which launches us into the second narrative of art and hi-tech, that of the collectors. It was to investigate both narratives that in April I went to Silicon Valley Contemporary, a new art fair in San Jose, northern California. The fair was started by Rick Friedman, whose Hamptons Expo Group already runs art fairs in Southampton (Long Island), Palm Springs, Houston and Aspen, and the general strategy was a no-brainer, Silicon Valley being one of the most billionaire-congested places on the planet.
Last year Facebook became more valuable than the Bank of America; Frank Gehry is doing its campus at Palo Alto. Norman Foster is completing a $5 billion campus for Apple in Cupertino. So looks matter. It would seem that some Silicon Valley boys and girls at least should be ripe for plunging into Contemporary art.
But just what art are techies going to like? That’s what has been on the art world’s collective mind. The dotcommers before them didn’t make much of an impact on the art world at all, with the space cowboy exception of Josh Harris of Pseudo.com, who was tagged ‘the Warhol of the web’ by Time but flamed out in the dotcom crash. Paul Allen, a founder of Microsoft, is a substantial collector, but Gates has been little heard from as a collector since the Codex.
The bold-faced names in today’s art world — the hedgies, the traders, the traffickers — have tended to favour trophy art, namely in-your-face blue-chip repositories of value, which they can put on the wall, traffic and trade. But techies are different, being problem-solvers who stare at screens, so was it not possible, the argument went, that some of them would be flattered by artists who used their gizmos and understood their language? In short, by Hi-Tech Art?
So, on to Silicon Valley Contemporary. Paul Young, an LA gallerist, was the fair’s curator of moving images. I quizzed him early on.
‘It’s a matter of the collectors. If they don’t support it there won’t be another of these next year,’ he said. Artists with global reputations had work on view, such as Marina Abramovic (no, the artist was not present), who had a team presenting her Mutual Wave Machine, and Gary Hill, there with an installation, Depth Charge. Naturally there was a strong Californian contingent, and there was lowbrow (aka Pop Surrealism), dished up max strength by the San Francisco gallery Bash Contemporary, with images that had migrated on to art surfaces from tattoos, skateboards and comic books.
Any art fair is a maze of paths that loop the loop, a choir of dissonant voices, but a roadmap will usually be discerned, a theme does emerge. So it was here. Mark Borghi, a substantial dealer with spaces in Manhattan, Bridgehampton and Palm Beach, brought a 1970s de Kooning and a Francis Bacon — sky-blue-chips, both of them. Doug Chrismas of the Ace gallery in Los Angeles brought along a Robert Irwin. In short, the tried and true.
But others bet on tech, including entire galleries, such as Untitled from New York, and artists like Brad Troemel, who inserted Bitcoins into art; Mark Flood, who manipulated corporate logos; and, at the Hole, Katsu, the Manhattan street artist, who made wall paintings with Duchampian happenstance by inexpertly hand-guiding mini-drones. It was in this neck of the woods that I found agreeable surprises.
Here’s just one, Clive McCarthy, who was being given a solo show by the San Jose Institute of Art. I was looking at what seemed to be Post-Impressionist figure painting, executed with considerable expertise. But it moved. Then again. And again. I learned that McCarthy was a fellow Brit who moved to California in the mid-Seventies. He had an estimable career as an engineer, becoming director of chip and software design for the Silicon Valley semi-conductor maker Altera. In 1997, aged 51, he took a leave of absence and went to art school.
David Hockney has been much praised for making work with hi-tech devices like iPhones. And rightly so. But Hockney works on them much as he might with a pen or a brush. McCarthy makes art with algorithms. Algorithms! We spoke briefly at the fair, and then later on the telephone. This — trimmed — is how it went.
AHG: I assume you had art interests while you were an engineer?
CMcC: No, actually I didn’t. I wasn’t a thwarted artist. I had a delightful engineering career. In fact, that was one of the reasons I went to art school. It was, ‘Oh, I became an engineer by getting an engineering degree. Maybe if I get an art degree I can become an artist?’
AHG: I’ve never seen work that so uncannily reproduces some of the qualities of easel painting without pretending to be an easel painting (pictured top). What took you in that direction?
CMcC: Well, it wasn’t just a single step. You start in one place, and then you do one thing, and you do another. It was a whole series of steps. I realised that putting things on screens made a whole load of sense, because screens were available and relatively inexpensive and you could overpaint them any way you liked. I started off with straightforward photographic images and hacked them in relatively simple ways, and then I became more skilful at doing some of these things. One day I thought: ‘I wonder if I can make paintings?’ It was October 2010 when I was working at my work station and I got my first dab of something on the screen. And it was like, ‘Oh! Good!’ This was the beginning. It was a very crude dab, it was just a flat circle. But I knew that once I had got a flat circle I could start doing other things.
AHG: How did you make that dab? That circle?
CMcC: I had already written a lot of code to animate images on the screen. It’s a bit hard to describe. Like a lot of programming the detail is horrible, but if you put enough detail together you can make something much larger. Anyway, so I wrote the code; I was very excited. But anybody looking at it would have said: ‘What’s so clever about that?’
On the Friday I ran into Paul Young again. ‘I just saw a Gary Hill go for $50,000,’ he said. ‘There’ll be a fair next year.’
Not all those present will be aboard, though. Mark Borghi failed to sell either the de Kooning or the Bacon. ‘The whole thing is a giant waste of time,’ he said. Does he see the Silicon Valley überclass buying fine art? ‘No,’ he said bluntly.
Anyway, all agree that it won’t be an overnight process. ‘I think if you do a programme you have to just not hit them once,’ says Doug Chrismas. ‘It’s more a volley of shots that they just get hit with in a wonderful way and they start responding. A lot of people that haven’t been involved in art, you forget, they’re fearful… they’re not sure… they certainly don’t want to make a mistake, they don’t want to look foolish… and the art is not always easy to understand… and repetition kind of eases that fear.’
Rick Friedman of Hamptons Expo says: ‘There was a lot of interest in video, but people sold paintings too. A tech guy at Apple actually said, “I look at a computer screen all day long. When I get home I don’t want to look at a screen. I want to look at a beautiful painting.” If these new technologies are being used in a sophisticated way in art, I think that’s a source of satisfaction for them, and that is valuable. But what is it that people really want to buy? That’s really hard to say.
‘It’s a new market but it’s OK — we knew we were doing pioneer work. We’re doing God’s work!’