What Does It Mean To “Own” Digital Art?

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That question was on people’s minds a few weeks ago at the  first-ever digital art auction, at Phillips in New York City. Katheryn Thayer has more:

Though digital art is shared, liked, retweeted and embedded free-of-charge all over the web, the 20 pieces Lindsay Howard selected for this exhibition demonstrate a new level of comfort with bringing digital art offline and traditional media online. And, unlike the digital art shared and spread online, these pieces pulled in prices of $800 to $16,000 each.

The pieces [ranged] from Rafael Rozendaal’s interactive HTML and Javascript website ifnoyes.com to Molly Soda reading emails into a webcam for eight hours straight, “performing her online celebrity as a mirror that reflects Internet culture.” Rozendaal’s site sold for a final price of $3,500 and bidding on Soda’s video closed at $1,500. … The final sale of 16 of the 20 pieces totaled $90,600, a modest sum for fine art auctions. Regardless, the inclusion of digital art in a fine art auction shows changing attitudes towards new media that are so often found for free online.

In an interview, the curator explained what bidders got for their cash:

[Rafael Rozendaal] has this contract, it’s called the “Art Website Sales Contract,” which stipulates that the collector who purchases this piece must renew the domain annually, maintain the work, and keep it online, which is of primary importance. In exchange, the collector’s name goes in the title bar just above the URL, so it says ifnoyes.com in the collection of whatever the name is of the collector. … For the animated GIFs and videos, the collector will receive a USB drive with those files on them or a Mac Mini with the files on them. We wanted to keep the costs down for the auction and keep everything below $20,000, so we’re not including any of the hardware. But some galleries will sell you the whole monitor, which is really great and convenient.

But Molly Osberg contends that digital art is “impossible to really own, in the ‘hanging an original Picasso in your antechamber’ sense”:

This isn’t to say that digital work can’t move into the highbrow arts market. Artists like Cory Archangel, with his video game modifications and computer-generated works, have been catapulted to fame for their screen-based projects. The Cooper Hewitt museum recently acquired a piece of code as part of its permanent collection, MOMA now houses 14 video games, and members of Rhizome, which received 20 percent of the proceeds from Paddles ON [the auction], have sold GIF files at the world-famous Armory show in New York. … But the question of ownership — and how you get someone to pay notoriously high art-market prices for something as relatively immaterial as Molly’s webcam video or a 24-second YouTube clip – is still unsolved, and what the organizers of Paddles ON repeatedly called “the elephant in the room.”

(Video: Ilja Karilampi’s New York Minute)