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The Digital Art Revolution

By Kames Narayanan

‘Water Bodies’ by Adeline Tan is an interactive virtual reality installation that the presence of microplastics in our drinking water.
Adeline Tan
‘Water Bodies’ by Adeline Tan is an interactive virtual reality installation that the presence of microplastics in our drinking water.

Housed within the Singapore ArtScience Museum is the city’s largest permanent digital art gallery “Future World”, the brainchild of Japanese tech-art collective, teamLab. Inside the sprawling exhibition space resides a digitally immersive universe of 16 diverse art installations, each strategically designed to prompt interactivity with the museum’s visitors.

Since being unveiled three years ago, the exhibition has transported more than a million visitors to the foot of a virtual waterfall where each drop of water reacts to the human touch just as it would in nature; a seemingly infinite man-made celestial universe; and a digital oasis of serenity, amongst others. Just as its name suggests, the capacious exhibition foreshadows a conceivable digitised future. Yet, at its core, what it speaks of is the present state of art. 

Long understood as a mirror of the cultural zeitgeists during which it was birth, art is largely reflective of greater societal shifts beyond its insular realm. For that matter, in the age of technology, contemporary art has perceivably graduated from the traditional medium of putting a paintbrush to a canvas. As technology continues to steer ahead of time, the artist’s repertoire of tools has also grown alongside. 

This intersection of art and technology is loosely parked under the umbrella term new media art — which essentially encompasses all artworks created with digital technologies from computer graphics to virtual art. 

“The convergence of art and technology has certainly become more pronounced in recent years. In fact, video is almost ubiquitous to contemporary art in Singapore these days,” says Dr June Yap, Singapore Art Museum’s director of curatorial, programmes and publications.

Andre Wee‘A Better Tomorrow’ by Andre Wee is an augmented reality piece that expounds on the idea of creating a sustainable future for Singapore.
‘A Better Tomorrow’ by Andre Wee is an augmented reality piece that expounds on the idea of creating a sustainable future for Singapore.

A glean across the exhibitions on show at the city’s leading museums warrants enough reason to believe digital technology’s strengthening grip on the art world. Last month, the ArtScience Museum unveiled “MeshMinds 2.0: ArtxTechForGood” — an introspective into the coming together of art and technology for the greater good — which writes its own thesis on new media art alongside the earlier mentioned “Future World”. Earlier in the year, Singapore’s largest sustainable light art festival made its return, only having grown from strength to strength from 25 to 33 exhibits since its debut in 2010. 

It is a burgeoning realm of artistry that teems with interest from not only art enthusiasts and artists but also art institutions who hold a reputation for being sticklers to timeworn notions in defining art. While the genre may have only recently streamed into public consciousness, it is not entirely unchartered territory. 

“Artists themselves tend to be extremely early adoptive of technology and have always been interested in pushing its potential conceptually, politically, socially and aesthetically, but it is true that art institutions often lag a little bit behind,” Honor Harger, executive director of ArtScience Museum. 

“Singapore, I think is actually known to be quite a pioneer in the coming together of arts and technology. One of the most important global exhibitions which mapped up the importance of the internet to artists hosted in Germany in 1997, saw the participation of artists from Singapore,” she continues. 

Albeit, counting an art industry that may be relatively small, Singapore and the artists at home have picked up speed in moving with the times and furbishing themselves with the knowledge to navigate the changes in technology.

“When I first started five years ago it was lonely. People like me who have both the technical confidence and the creative spirit were rare but now I’m seeing more people with both the ideas and the substance,” says local new media artist, Eugene Soh.

Cheng Yu Hung‘Replay’ by Cheng Yu Hung is an interactive musical instrument made from upcycled materials.
‘Replay’ by Cheng Yu Hung is an interactive musical instrument made from upcycled materials.

Living in the thick of a digital revolution, it is but a matter of time before artistic endeavours followed in the same vein. As much as art is a reflection of the times, it is a reaction to much of a society’s present state. 

“Like the painterly brush, technology is a medium and a tool for art and artists. Through technological instruments and platforms, artists continue to reflect upon what is happening around us,” says Dr Yap. 

In hindsight, it is only a natural progression for art to shift into the digital and virtual sphere as virtual reality continues to gain more currency in the day-to-day. Consider the unprecedented amount of time people invest on social media and the Internet in general and the appeal of technology is as apparent as daylight. 

“The internet is very much the defining media of our time and its inescapable, it is in every conversation that we have. It has become enmeshed into our reality and it is no surprise that artists are making work using these mediums,” says Harger. 

The resultant works of art conceived through the aid of technology are immersive experiences that play to more than just the human eye — it engages through interactivity and entices with Instagram-worthy photographic memorabilia. 

“Young audiences take to art with technology like fish to water. We recently had our President’s Young Talents exhibition, and the winner of the grand prize presented an artwork that references Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), which our younger and web-savvy audiences immediately understood,” says Dr Yap. 

To be understood, contemporary art has to learn the language of the now — today, we arguably speak digital. “Artists have been using tools for a very long time and just as paintbrushes were a tool, microphones and projections are a tool. Everything is a means to create. We live in an overwhelmingly digital world and naturally, artists look to these digital tools,” says Harger. 

As enamouring as it is, new media art is riddled with its own set of trials. Inherently, the seemingly transient state of digital artworks raises the question of its eventual traceability years forward. It is a far trickier situation than preserving a canvas or a sculpture. 

“Digital conservation and preservation is one of the biggest headaches for collecting institutions. Not only art museums, libraries too have a massive issue with this. Luckily, there are conservationists and collection management institutes who specialise in this area,” says Harger. “It is not easy.”

Beyond the conservation, the consumption of new media art itself raises the question of whether it is mere gimmick to draw an audience: when the novelty wears off — what remains? 

“Digital technology is very relevant to the age that we live in right now but it is not to say that it is better than any other tool. It is a raw material that good artists can do some fantastic work with and the not so good can do some pretty ordinary art with,” says Harger. 

After all, in the conversation of art, subjectivity underscores all judgment that fundamentally boils down to the question of whether one buys into it.