Excerpt from 'The Great Reframing'
Since I desperately needed a weekend off but couldn't leave you wanting for some sweet, sweet weekly content, below is an excerpt from the final chapter of my book The Great Reframing, now available in Amazon's Kindle store. You can find more information about the book, including a detailed description and links to two previous excerpts, here on the blog.
Those others excerpts both take a fairly harsh view of aspects of the gallery system and open-access e-commerce, respectively. This one at least cracks the door to hope, although not the variety that traditionalists would prefer...
From Chapter 8 // Breaking the Frame: New Possibilities for a Twenty-First Century Art Market
Despite my prior analysis of Daata Editions, I’m not convinced that digital artwork’s best outcome is to follow the well-worn tire tracks of traditional media to a gallery-like sales model. Instead, my sense is that our thinking on digital work generally remains too anchored to the past to allow us to access the most valuable comps. To short-circuit our default settings, we have to go back to this entire subject’s source code.
Until now, this chapter has been dedicated to answering what seems like the most basic question in the nascent business of new media: How should we sell digital art? But that’s actually already a step too far down the line from where we need to begin.
The real starting point in this discussion is even more fundamental: What is digital art? Or even more to the point, what can digital art be?
With one exception that I’ll circle back to shortly, the three new-media sales platforms we’ve examined already—Daata Editions, Sedition, and Depict—all basically agreed that digital art is a still or moving image generated through software for passive viewing on a screen.
In other words, their businesses were based around a conception of new-media artwork as being more or less just like a painting or film, only born digital. And nothing crystallized this narrow conception of the format as perfectly as the single most significant distinction between Sedition and Depict’s respective business models in early 2017: Frame.
Developed, manufactured, and sold by Depict, Frame was billed as a “museum-quality” 4K Ultra HD screen embedded in (you guessed it) a traditional maple picture frame.
When I first wrote this chapter in 2016, Frame was available in three colors of molding—natural, white, and black—hemming in a 50-inch display, for a price of $1,800. When I rewrote this chapter in May 2017, Frame’s display had dropped to 49 inches; it had been temporarily pulled from the market in anticipation of a re-release; and Depict’s Chris Tung pledged that the company was “confident” the new price would be “below $1,000.” (The FAQ also promised that additional Frame sizes were in development.)
Once installed on an everyday wall, Frame’s circular mounts allowed it to be rotated from vertical orientation to horizontal, as needed, based on the artwork its owners wanted to exhibit. The device could be controlled through the cloud via either mobile apps or a computer. The description promised no wires, a fairly reasonable weight of 50 lbs., and power usage similar to “a typical large-screen TV.”
For clarity’s sake, collectors on Depict didn’t need to purchase Frame in order to acquire individual works or a monthly streaming subscription from the platform. However, the implication weaved throughout the site’s copy was that those works would look their absolute best on the device.
Additionally, Depict designed Frame to be compatible with any digital artwork, regardless of whether that work came from its own marketplace or someone else’s—at least, as long as it obeyed a 16:9 aspect ratio, achieved 4K resolution, and came as either a PNG or JPG file. In that sense, Frame subtly reinforced the idea that digital artwork should both literally and figuratively fit into the boundaries of the past.
I certainly understand the impulse behind Frame. Aside from improving the viewing experience available through a computer monitor or mobile screen, the device partly exists to ease buyers’ transition into collecting new media.
How? By approximating the trappings of collecting traditional artwork. It’s a classic strategy for introducing consumers to a novel market or product: Make the new thing feel like a significant evolution of the beloved, familiar thing.
Yet Frame and its competitors—including, previously, the since-pivoted Electric Objects and, more recently, even mass-market retailers like Samsung—also can’t help but make me think of the often-cited (and likely apocryphal) quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
To me, in the grand scheme of what digital artwork could be, buying Frame or a similar display in 2017 feels more than a little like buying an awkwardly fitting stallion suit to drape over your Model T in 1908: It might make the new thing more like the familiar thing, but it might also hold back progress for the sake of familiarity.
This possibility leads us back to the lone discrepancy I mentioned between Daata, Sedition, and Depict’s respective definitions of digital art. As of my writing, Sedition and Depict focused entirely on marketing digital stills, videos, and animations. Daata, in contrast, branched out further, specifically by offering audio works.
To be clear, my point is not that sound-based artwork, and sound-based artwork alone, is the future. For context, this genre has existed since at least the 20th century via analog technology—shouts to John Cage, for instance—so there’s nothing inherently disruptive about digitizing it.
And yes, some of Daata’s sound pieces—for example, Ilit Azoulay’s stories of individual objects left behind by Palestinians driven from their homes during Israel’s 1948 Independence War—also included still images as an integral component.
Outside of these few exceptions, though, Daata’s other available sound works all existed solely as WAV files—which means they existed as disembodied audio artifacts.
Why is this important? Because it jailbreaks new-media artwork from the commonly understood definition of “digital images to be stared at on a flat surface.” It allows collectors to eschew designated art spaces of all kinds, from official public venues (see: museums, galleries, project spaces) to unofficial private ones (see: well-lit rooms in collectors’ homes).
More to the point, it enables these works to be experienced anywhere, at any time, on any capable device. And in the process, it shows that a much larger liberation of new media is possible, from the standpoint of both aesthetics and business.
Any pieces that can be downloaded to, or streamed on, mobile devices crack open the door to a freer, more fluid, more welcoming relationship with their audience. Whereas fine art and the traditional industry around it have generally demanded that we meet them on their terms, certain new-media works are willing to prioritize the casual consumer’s wants and needs instead.
For a point of comparison, think about the difference between watching a movie in a theater versus, say, on Netflix.
In the former case, would-be audience members have to travel to a designated physical destination by a specific showtime, then settle in for a nonstop viewing experience. If something else comes up in their lives during the screening, they are powerless to pause the story and come back to it at a more convenient time. Rather, they have no choice but to step out while the movie continues in their absence, meaning they also take a loss on some or all of the ticket price as a result.
But in the Netflix or video-on-demand (VOD) case, viewers enjoy drastically more power and flexibility. They can start a movie any time, anywhere, on practically any connected device. They can pause whenever they want, for however long they need, and resume again later at the exact point where they left off. They may even be able to switch to a different device midway through the film if they like, allowing them to, say, start a movie at home on their TVs, then finish it on their smartphones on the train to work the next morning.
Although a candidly NSFW David Lynch would beg to differ, neither of these two viewing experiences is necessarily “better” than the other. But they are fundamentally different. Their respective strengths and weaknesses don’t just provide options to viewers, either. Increasingly, they also affect the aesthetics of the films, TV series, and other content being produced. Long story short, you’d probably make at least some parts of a movie differently if you thought it would only be seen in its entirety in theaters versus understanding it could be split up between a TV, a laptop, and an iPhone over a couple of days.
While movie fans have been able to toggle between these two choices for years circa 2017, art lovers still seldom, if ever, encounter works that offer such trade-offs. The industry has historically treated artwork as an all-or-nothing proposition. If you’re not willing to submit to dedicated viewing in a designated space, take your stone club and lurch back to your hut with the rest of the philistines.
Digital artwork introduces the prospect of a more flexible, lower-stakes experience. And while it’s possible that this genre could enrich our culture by broadening our thinking about what “new media” means, it might also have serious business advantages for its artists and distributors.
Such digital pieces could scale much better than quasi-mass-market stills, videos, and audio, i.e. those available on platforms like Sedition in edition-runs of up to a few hundred at prices up to a few hundred dollars each. As a result, they could compensate artists significantly better than streaming subscriptions, whose almost comically meager payouts we dissected earlier in the chapter.
But to achieve these goals, digital artists and distributors would have to be willing to do what their predecessors focused on traditional media have rarely, if ever, done: make an unabashed mass-market play.
All of which begs the question we must turn to next: What might this strategy, and the artwork powering it, actually look like?
That’s all for the excerpt. Back to the usual format next week, barring catastrophe. Til then, keep on keeping on.