Alys Beach (pronounced “Alice”) is the last place you’d expect to find graffiti, but for one weekend every summer the pristine white walls of the homes in the private beach community—nestled along a luxurious stretch of pillow-soft sand and clear blue water on Florida’s Gulf Coast—get covered with the bright, graphic, and (literally) moving work by a handful of international artists selected to show at the Digital Graffiti projection art festival.
Since 2008, the houses at Alys Beach have acted as 3D canvases for projection art—also called “photon bombing” or “guerrilla projection”—a burgeoning art form that combines design, animation, video projection, and architecture. Though the artists hail from all over the map, their work is surprisingly similar in tone and approach; perhaps the result of a widespread yet small, tightly-knit group of artists working in a niche field. Most of the work involves slow-moving, brightly colored abstract forms that revolve kaleidoscopically, changing shape but never quite evolving into anything else. If there’s music, it’s usually of the ambient variety. Though projection art shares similarities with video art and animation, these works aren’t narratives. They’re more like living paintings: moving compositions of color and form meant to simply be experienced.
If the turnout at the festival this year was any indication, projection art can definitely draw a crowd. People queued up and down the pathways that wound visitors around the Alys Beach homes, ultimately sending them onward to a party where a DJ was set up not poolside, but on a stand inside the pool (this is Florida) and played between performances of a piece that involved some high-flying acrobatics (from Italian art group fuse*, above).
The real stand outs were by Yandell Walton, whose “Human Effect” won the Best of Show award for its clever use of responsive technology (a wall of lush plants wither and die when a person touches them, hence the name); Jonathan McCabe’s “Evotree” (above), a hypnotic pattern of floral forms that morphs endlessly into itself each other and was easily my favorite; Robert Seidel’s “Advection,” a dramatic blur of color projected onto the spray of a fountain; Olga Guse’s “Journey to the Olympus,” a fun, jerky stop-motion animation of figurines acting out Greek myths; Courtney Egan’s “Sleepwakers,” a revolving bouquet of blooming flowers that’s just plain pretty; and Jasmine Powell’s “Side/counter/parting,” which she filmed through the window of a train cutting through Germany, and then did some crazy splicing to “blend” mirror images of the footage (watch it below).
While it’s still new to many audiences, there’s no question that projection art has a place in the canon. But as an art and design lover who dreams about one day owning some of the pieces that currently live in my Pinterest boards, I had to wonder: who’s buying this? And how?
“Video art is no longer perceived as a separate category,” Whitney Museum curator Henriette Huldisch confirms. “Collecting film and video art is definitely no longer in its infancy; most major institutions have fully embraced it and many major private collectors do as well.” True, though of the record-breaking $2 billion spent on contemporary art last year—up 40 percent from the previous year—the artists who brought in the biggest bucks were Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Gergard Richter, Mark Rothko, and Jasper Johns. Their work brought in some eyebrow-raising sums ($142.4 million for Bacon’s 1969 “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”), but beyond that, the names on this list are hardly surprising, and neither is the fact that none of these artists work in video.
As more artists find patrons for their expensive practice, and museums and private collectors work out issues of “digital scarcity”—the fact that the ability to create identical copies of a work is literally at the touch of a button—there’s the hurdle of properly displaying and housing digital work. Thanks to major advances in technology, buying and collecting video-based art is easier than ever before, but as digital media collector Ivo Wessel noted in a recent Artsy interview, “as a collector, owning something is not enough—upkeep and preservation are also part of the job.”
Olga Guse’s “Journey to the Olympus”
Buying digital work is not for the faint of heart. Julia Stoschek, another collector, opened up a public space to showcase her growing collection. “For collectors there was—and still is—a significant trepidation about art that is, first of all, easily reproduced and, second, sustained by a technological medium,” she says. “The greatest challenge, however, lies in its proper archiving, which constantly increases in complexity.” She’s quick to point out that it’s not an insurmountable challenge, but a specialized form of art—at least for the time being—requires a special kind of collector.
Or, as Digital Graffiti’s curator Brett Phares says, “Conflating the art market with the pursuit of creating and viewing digital art might be part of the problem with collecting it. Instead of digital art being seen as an investment, it might need to be seen as simply something to be enjoyed. For now.”