Hyunjoo Byeon
2020.05.03
Essay
Circulation of Art in the Digital Age

Text. Hyunjoo Byeon
Image. Ed Ruscha | Gagosian’s Online Viewing Room

Harald Szeemann, a pioneering curator of the late 20th Century, was known to never include an artwork in an exhibition ‘that he had not travelled to see in the flesh’.¹ Considering the impact of the physical presence of artworks using traditional media on the experience of art, his curatorial principles and sincerity as a curator seem both admirable and unsurprising. However, at the beginning of a new decade, we are experiencing art in environments where his principles need not always be applied. Art galleries and museums often provide online viewing rooms or Instagrammable images of artworks; curators make exhibitions by assessing works via digital links artists send by email; and galleries distribute lists of works to be presented at art fairs to collectors in online brochures. With this in mind, this article examines some examples of how art circulates in this era where the aura of an artwork is experienced in different ways than in the past.² I hope this article might offer an opportunity to think about how art platforms in the digital age could, or should, represent works of art.

Distribution of artworks in non-traditional media

When displaying a painting, a sculpture, or an installation using traditional media in an exhibition, usually the condition of the work is firstly checked and recorded. Then it is wrapped, to prevent it from damage, and transported and stored in a shipping crate, although handling instructions can vary depending on work. The work is then displayed or installed in accordance with a manual created by the artist. When the artwork is sold, a certificate of authenticity that includes a signature of the artist, a family member of the deceased, or the artist’s estate is sent to the buyer along with the artwork itself.

But if the artwork is immaterial, how is it distributed and sold after the display? Can people own the piece even if it does not have a physical presence? I found some answers to these questions when I was working in the commercial galleries. The most innovative distribution of work that I have experienced was that of Tino Sehgal, a German artist.

Tino Seghal is known as an artist who produces temporary works of art using immaterial media such as voice, language, and movement. The artist himself describes his work as “constructed situations”. In his work, audiences interact with a performer who acts according to the rules set by the artist and they experience the situations he has constructed. I knew that such non-material and temporary pieces of Seghal were being sold before I worked at Esther Schipper, the gallery representing him in Berlin, but I always had questions about the way his works were being sold. To be honest, I had guessed that even if the work consisted of no single object, there would be a document detailing the order in which the “situations” should be carried out and instructions for the performer, or a certificate of authenticity with the artist's signature on.

However, I found out his work is completely immaterial. The gallery’s database has no information on the works, except for the title, production year and price of the works, as the artist intended. No photographs, videos or exhibition catalogues documenting the “situations” were made. According to a colleague who had sold his piece, he did not even make documents such as a sales contract, manual with instructions, or receipt. Everything related to the distribution of the work was delivered orally and carried out as a performance or artistic gesture in itself. Likewise, Seghal's works are sold to art museums or collectors in an immaterial way, presenting a completely innovative way of distributing works of art and transforming the way art can be perceived and experienced.

While Tino Segal shows one extreme of the way immaterial work circulates, most works using digital media still circulate with detailed manuals, which are written by artists, to represent their non-materiality in physical spaces. For example, I have learned how to distribute a work of digital media when working at Kukje Gallery as the artist liaison of Park Chan-kyong, whose three-channel video work Citizen's Forest (2016) was collected by several museums both in Korea and abroad. The collected edition was delivered to the museums stored on a USB or hard disk drive. This could be seen to be as simple, in contrast to the way in which artworks in traditional media are distributed, but an artwork in digital media is also normally distributed with a large amount of additional digitally processed information. It typically includes a manual for when the digital work is installed and displayed in physical spaces, in addition to the artist's biography (both in Korean and English in this case), a description of the work and other related information: still images, the video files to be used for display, and the original files. From technical parts such as devices to be used when a file is played, to all the protocols that needs to be followed to adhere to the artist’s standards – such as the size of space required when projecting the work, the color of the wall and carpet for the floor – each detail is delivered to the collector of the work.

Another example is in the works of Hito Steyerl, another German artist represented by Esther Schipper. Her works are often multi-channel videos displayed in three-dimensional installations which require even more specific manuals. To display one of Steyerl’s works, even the gallery’s production team works on making various renderings collaborating with the artist’s studio and they sort out different requirements. This information is fundamental to correctly represent the artworks in physical spaces.

As seen these examples, even if the materials of the work are unconventional, most of them seem to follow the traditional criteria of distribution in the gallery context, apart from the revolutionary example of Tino Seghal. There are only differences in how art pieces might be stored and transported. If it is the case for the distribution of artworks in digital media, then how might a piece of art be distributed on digital platforms, rather than in traditional physical spaces like galleries or art fairs? Are there new innovations to be considered?

Distribution of artworks on digital platforms

Art Basel Hong Kong, which was supposed to take place from 19 to 21 March 2020, was canceled. This art market, one of the biggest in Asia with its total sales reaching one billion US dollars, could not escape from the threat of the coronavirus.³ Instead, they announced that they would launch online viewing rooms, open from 18 to 25 March for exhibitors to offer the works they had planned to bring to the fair.

Considering that online viewing rooms have recently become a popular tool for art markets, this announcement was not a surprise. In January 2017, David Zwirner, a mega-gallery with spaces in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong, first launched the Viewing Room on their website and started selling artworks with their information and prices open to the public. In response to the aggressive marketing strategies using digital technologies by auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, it began to reach a new generation of collectors who are mostly digital natives. According to Elena Soboleva, Director of Online Sales at the gallery, 52 percent of those inquiries about artworks online are from new customers, and expensive works are often sold to collectors based in the locations where the gallery does not have a physical space. David Zwirner, which has been pioneering in using various digital platforms, has also opened Basel Online in 2019 that featured online-only artworks to purchase during Art Basel; its website also features other online content such as podcasts.

ED RUSCHA, Cosmo, Selma, Vine, 2000, Acrylic on canvas, 70 × 138 inches(177.8 × 350.5 cm), In Gagosian's Frieze Los Angeles 2020 Online Viewing Room, Artwork © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian.

Unlike David Zwirner’s Viewing Room that can be accessed at all times, another mega-gallery, Gagosian, runs online viewing rooms that are only open during major art fairs. Its first online viewing room, launched in 2018 just prior to Art Basel, made a powerful impression despite the fact it was not the first gallery to sell artworks online. Gagosian sold selected works by ten artists in the online viewing room for ten days, beginning the day before the fair's VIP Preview and ending three days after the end of the fair. The viewing room allowed potential buyers to zoom in and out of presented images and information was provided in English and Chinese. The gallery's sales department was available online twenty-four hours a day for Live Assistance, and the gallery directors provided presentations about the economic and aesthetic value of the works on videos in a manner reminiscent of home shopping television channels. Through this first online viewing room, which was carefully and delicately organized, the gallery sold works with a combined value of two million US dollars. Since then, it has opened online viewing rooms during art fairs including Frieze London and LA, and Art Basel Hong Kong.

Gagosian's Frieze Los Angeles 2020 Online Viewing Room, Courtesy Gagosian.

The online viewing rooms of David Zwirner and Gagosian have lowered entry barriers to galleries. They serve as new art distribution platforms, beyond traditional physical spaces, and have contributed to the transparency of information and prices that had previously been more veiled. However, unlike existing online shops where consumers can pay for goods to purchase them right away, the galleries’ online viewing rooms are a sort of extension to the traditional way of selling artworks in the sense that customers have to click the ‘Inquire’ button for a purchase, or need to connect to a sales department through the ‘Live Assistance’ button rather than making a payment directly. In other words, they operate in a kind of hybrid format using digital platforms, but still require human interaction and support.

In Korea, there have not been many attempts to actively utilize online platforms for the distribution of artworks. Big galleries are still conservative in the way they conduct their sales; online sales are typically limited to relatively inexpensive prints or high-definition printing of works. Although some of the works at the 2020 Galleries Art Fair are displayed at Naver Shopping’s Art Window, the presentation does not seem to highlight the merits of a digital platform compared to the examples of international online viewing rooms

In addition to the examples mentioned previously, a number of online museums, art platforms, and independent media are circulating artworks – or their images. However, I focus on the distribution of non-traditional media works and the use of digital platforms in the commercial context to look at the circulation of art in the digital age, in which it has become common to perceive works as images rather than to feel their aura by encountering them in physical galleries. The examples have shown that, despite the rise of new media and digital platforms, these are primarily absorbed into pre-existing institutional formats or coordinated accordingly for distribution. Works using unconventional media, which have the potential to be circulated through online links, are also displayed or distributed according to general pre-existing standards within the system. Digital platforms such as online viewing rooms have dramatically increased accessibility to works, but they have a hybrid existence where traditional exchange methods are applied when artworks are actually sold.

Nevertheless, the accessibility and transparency of digital technologies in art still have great potential. With a simple web address, one can access artworks all over the world (excluding countries with higher levels of internet censorship) and information regarding sales and prices can be more transparent. Anyone can showcase their work through various channels and voices from the periphery of the existing art system can be reached. Therefore, these advantages should actively be utilized in representing art in various formats on digital platforms and constant attempts should be made to evolve existing institutionalized methods. As the curator Simon Sheikh said, ‘another art world is possible (if we want it)’. He continues: ‘the imaginary, as articulation, naturally has to do with the processes and potentialities of artistic production itself: to offer other imaginaries, ways of seeing and thus changing the world. An artwork can indeed be seen as new modes of instituting, of producing and projecting other worlds and the possibility for the self-transformation of the world’. ⁷ Of course, this will not happen quickly, and sometimes small attempts may feel futile. But if art cannot allow us to imagine freely and without boundaries, then what can?

Hyunjoo Byeon is a curator, writer, translator, and art book publisher. Having worked at various institutions such as Esther Schipper in Berlin, Kukje Gallery and Art Sonje Center in Seoul, Byeon has organized many exhibitions. As an independent curator, she has curated shows and exhibited projects at: Royal Academy of Arts, London; Iniva, London; Alternative Space Loop, Seoul; and Brain Factory, Seoul. In addition, Byeon has translated Curating Subjects (Open Editions/De Appel, 2007) and The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (MIT Press, 2012) into Korean; contributed texts on contemporary art including Curating Research (Open Editions/De Appel, 2015), which she has participated as co-author; and lectured at colleges including Kaywon School of Art and Design, Uiwang, and Ewha Womans University, Seoul. In 2019, Byeon has launched The Floorplan (http://thefloorplan.net), an art book publishing house and online platform, with art historian Boyoung Chang, editor Youngjoo Lee and designer Dokho Shin, in a bid to explore a new way to institutionalize contemporary art.

  1. Andrew Renton, “Forms of Practice: Curating in the Academy”, The Exhibitionist, No.4., June 2011.

  2. German philosopher Walter Benjamin argues in his influential 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that ‘aura’ is the traditional artwork’s quasi-sacred halo of originality and uniqueness.

  3. It is the figure from 2019 Art Basel Hong Kong. In the same year, the total sales of the Korea International Art Fair recorded 25 million US dollars.

  4. This article was written in February 2020 before Art Basel Online Viewing Rooms were presented.

  5. Gerlis, Melanie. “Online Shows at David Zwirner Gallery – Virtual Selling is the Real Deal.” Financial Times. 7 June 2019.https://www.ft.com/content/8875d2fe-8772-11e9-b861-54ee436f9768. Accessed on 25 February 2020.

  6. Kazakina, Katya. “Gagosian Embraces the Web.” Bloomberg. 13 July 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-13/hidden-room-secret-prices-give-way-as-gagosian-embraces-the-web. Accessed on 25 February 2020.

  7. Sheikh, Simon. “Constitutive Effects: The Techniques of the Curator.” O’Neill, Paul (Ed.). Curating Subjects. Open Editions: London. 2007.

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