13 Jun 2014

New project to make ‘The Space’ for digital art

We live much of our lives in the digital sphere in Britain in 2014, from dating to food shopping. But art?

The official charts company has been counting downloads to find the Top 40 for a decade. Sales of paper maps fell by 25 per cent between 2005 and 2012. And in 2013 UK shoppers spent £91bn online.

Is art, with its links to traditional galleries, theatres and official screenings, at risk of getting left behind in the great digital revolution of the 21st century?

That’s the thinking behind a new project called The Space, which is aiming to be a new online platform showcasing the best digital art – an online gallery, without walls.

There are some big names backing it, including Ai Weiwei and David Hockney in the art world and the father of the internet himself, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, representing the technologists.

We’re at the beginning of a digital millennium. We’ve only started to imagine what we could do. Sir Peter Bazalgette

Sir Tim said: “Artists wake us up to what happens in the world. The Space can make that happen on the web.”

The project is a partnership between the Arts Council England and the BBC.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of the Arts Council, added: “We’re at the beginning of a digital millennium; we’ve only started to imagine what we could do creating and distributing great arts and culture. The Space is designed to be right at that frontier.”

So what is digital art? For The Space, initial commissions include a video by David Hockney showing the brushstrokes as he creates one of his iPad paintings of a lily (watch below).

There’s also a play performed in a Google Hangout by actors in three cities on the same longitude line, an interactive animation project led by the Barbican, and a beautiful global collaborative online piece called Moon, loaned to The Space by Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson, which is pictured above and will also be housed in the Tate Modern turbine hall for the launch of the project.

In it, drawings from people around the world are featured on a moon. “Ideas, wind and air no one can stop,” the artists say.

There is another attempt to show the world what digital art can be overnight on Friday in London, when a 24-hour hackathon will begin, also in the Tate Modern turbine hall. Around 140 artists and technologists are expected to gather in the building to create new digital projects.

As well as a large digital screen showing Moon, where some of the projects will also be showcased, the Turbine Hall will host robots and bunk-beds for the artists.

It is apparently the world’s largest art hack – an event where people are encourage to make things, and use the concept of hacking positively rather than negatively. The theme of the event, called #hackthespace, is making art out of large data sets, including one from Ai Weiwei himself, who gathered together the names of more than 5,000 victims of an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 who died when their school collapsed.

The Chinese government refused to confirm how many students died in the tragedy, and Ai Weiwei tracked down the names online with a team of volunteers, before shouting and recording the names, along with more volunteers, until he lost his voice for a project called Nian (Remembrance).

Crossover between real and virtual

At the same time, The Space has launched an “open call”, asking for original ideas to be submitted online by anyone above the age of 18. The aim is to find new digital art talents and commission them to make new projects for The Space.

But while The Space is an interesting and innovative idea, there could be challenges ahead. Chairman Alex Graham said the aim was to reach 10 million users over the next three years, which he admitted was an ambitious target.

While it aims to be inclusive, art websites in the past have struggled to break through into the mainstream because there are already free and open platforms like YouTube where artists can share their work. It is also worth pointing out, of course, that The Space’s first commissions are not the first ever pieces of digital art – although it is fair to say that the project is the biggest attempt yet to celebrate and showcase the genre, which has been growing since the 1970s.

More art coverage from Channel 4 News: extreme cat memes hit the classics 

On the other hand, one of the key selling points of The Space, which began as a pilot project in 2012, is the crossover between the physical world and the digital – seeing Ai Weiwei’s project in the turbine hall is arguably more exciting than seeing it in your bedroom; and the first 10,000 who sign up to the site’s newsletter have the chance to receive a free digital artwork by Jeremy Deller.

Mr Graham told Channel 4 News: “There is nowhere in the world you can go to see The Space. It isn’t physical. But our partners, like the Serpentine, the Tate, the National Theatre of Scotland, are, I suppose, physical manifestations.

“But the real answer [to whether there will be more physical events to showcase work from The Space] is we don’t really know. That’s the interesting thing about this.”

There is another hurdle to face though, perhaps from the more traditional end of the art world, which may not be convinced about bringing together “serious” art and what they could describe as the “frivolous” internet, awash as it is with porn, listicles and – worst of all – cat memes.

Was it just coincidence that this (see below) is what Channel 4 News saw on Moon when we visited?