Emann Odufu: Digital art is creeping into the popular consciousness, owing in part to NFTs. But you’ve been working in the digital space for over 20 years. Tell us about the formative years of your practice?
Auriea Harvey: My mother was involved with computers very early on, back when they involved punch cards. She was a punch card operator and, for her, computers were the future. But she was only an operator; she didn’t have access to a computer. So when I was very young, maybe eight or nine, she put me in a computer club for kids. At that time PCs were not like they are today — they were little boxes. That is, unless you were a businessperson, in which case you might have a big mainframe.
In the mid-1980s, they started making these boxes which hooked up to your TV so that you could program stuff. I had a Commodore VIC-20, from which I learned BASIC coding, which I really enjoyed. Back then, my sister and I would get these magazines with programs printed in them and we would spend all day typing in the program and then debugging it. As kids, we quickly became bored, but occasionally we would succeed, ending up with a little computer game or the ability to draw on screen. I really enjoyed the early text-based games. In fact, I was hooked. But when I became a teenager I hated computers. As a teenage Black girl, that was just not something you did. Computers were for boys and there was also a mental block that may have been rooted in society not supporting girls in getting into computers. I hope that’s not the case anymore.
When I was at university at Parsons School of Design, they opened a computer lab in my first year. My friend was like: “You know a little bit about computers, you should get a job at the computer lab, it’s going to be rad.” It was the highest paying work study job one could get as a student and I’m not dumb, so I went there. They said: “The more you learn the more money you make.” And my response was: “Well, teach me everything.”
EO: When did you start to see the potential of technology as a tool to create art?
AH: I graduated as a sculptor, and the problem was that in New York at 22 years old, I couldn’t afford a studio. In 1994 I encountered the Internet for the first time, which I thought was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. Early web pages were really simple, and I was so enchanted that I quickly learned how to do HTML. But at the time, businesses didn’t know how simple it was, so they would hire people for mad money to develop websites.
I started my own company, getting jobs around the city. I had a lot of fun and started doing design work for music companies. I worked for Virgin and made websites for Janet Jackson and Lenny Kravitz and other big pop stars as well as for movies. I also had a strong photographic practice back then and, of course, I knew Photoshop so I was producing all of these strange images, making net art.
I was also coding websites as art and putting them on the Internet. That was my work at the time. At first, it felt really strange because I had been a sculptor, but it also felt like creating whole worlds formed of only text and image. One felt a connection with people all over the world through the website, but in a different way from today.
EO: Eden.Garden (2001) was one of the first websites you translated into art. What was your experience of that project? Did it prompt you to change your focus from net art to video games?
AH: Eden.Garden came right before we switched to video games. The first site we made that engaged with the art world was called skinonskinonskin (1999), which is now part of Rhizome’s net art anthology. My husband Michaël and I made that on hell.com, a server that many net artists were part of at the time. It was a big collaborative experiment. We all met one night through very early video chat software, trying to figure out how we might do a live performance together. That was actually the moment I met my husband. We hadn’t even met in person, but we decided we were going to work together the day after meeting online. Skinonskinonskin is actually a record of us falling in love, made in a secret directory on the server. But then someone discovered it and was like: “This is great you’ve got to release it.” But it was private.
In the end, we decided to release these digital interactive love letters with sound, images, and photos on a pay-per-view basis. Although this approach followed that of porn sites, it was actually a way of protecting the beauty and preciousness of these moments. The way we could tell people cared was if they gave us $10 to go see the site. It meant they wouldn’t just cruise by, but would really look at the work and try to feel it. If you paid $100, you received lifetime access, but over time the site stopped working on our server. However, Rhizome has since resurrected it via emulation which allows it to be seen in the way it was meant to be. Of course, it’s also practically unnavigable because people aren’t used to Web1 websites anymore.
In 2000, Michael and I were invited to be part of the Whitney Biennial because that was the year they showed a whole suite of net art sites. However, we refused to do it because we wanted our work installed in a way that gave it some context and showed it in the way it deserved. In short, we wanted to be treated like any other artist, not just net artists included as part of a film program. We ended up doing our planned installation at Postmasters, New York. The following year, SFMOMA invited us to exhibit as part of “010101: Art in Technological Times,” for which we showed Eden.Garden. But in the end they didn’t keep the site up.
That was when we started viewing the art world as kind of useless when it comes to digital art. We kept telling them: “Technology is changing, we should come in and fix the website,” but it wasn’t possible. A lot of digital artists are probably feeling the same way about the art world now — that we don’t need them. We make our work, we put our work online and what are they for? We got our audience already.
With time and experience, I’ve learned the truth, which is that we want each other. We may or may not need them, but they definitely want us. Now is the time to see how sincere they are.
I’ve seen the greatest minds of my generation forced to make video art. All of these digital artists, people who were on hell.com, had to go off and make videos of their interactive work for it to be acceptable to the art world. I felt like that was just criminal. I still do. That is also what led us to make video games, not only because we were interested in them as an interactive art form, but also because they were completely unexplored as any kind of art form. We found the gaming audience to be fully invested in actually looking at the work, which often didn’t happen in the art world. It’s hard to get someone to look at a painting for two hours, but people are happy to play a game for 20. Video games allowed us to tell stories in a way which actually felt much closer to art history. So we went off and made video games for 13 years and didn’t connect with the art world much at all.
EO: What does it feel like to be an original Web1 artist who is now working in Web3?
AH: I’m cautious about Web3 because I’m not sure anyone fully knows what it is yet. It’s all about phones and mobile experiences at the moment, which is interesting, but there are also so many possibilities for GPUs (graphics processing units). Games explore the limits of what can be done technically. Graphics, programming, story, sound — everything has the potential to make a total work of art. Yet we’re still swapping JPEGs.
There’s a lot of great generative art being made right now, interfacing via Web3 principles. Web3 is interesting because it offers a hypothesis that we can get away from Web2 monopolies that control our entire digital lives. However, there’s still no desire to embrace the greater capabilities of computing. Maybe I am simply in love with software as an art form. Art that runs and executes and is interactive in real time still seems underexplored to me.
EO: You live in Rome, and anyone who knows about Italy knows that there were Moors in Southern Italy. I see a lot of your work as part of an ongoing disruption of Western art, which has not been inclusive of Black people and Black bodies. Is that something you’re conscious of when you’re creating?
AH: In some cases, I’m extremely conscious, in other cases it’s just the face that I end up making. Some of my works rely on 3D scans and some are imagined. Some start with me looking in the mirror, and some consider other people. In those cases, it depends on the model. I grew up in Indiana, which I felt was a very racially segregated place. I had friends who said to me: “Oh my mom doesn’t want me to play with you because you’re Black,” and this was in the 1980s!
I have a very artistic soul and I wanted to adore the things I saw in art history — to look at paintings by Van Eyck or Velazquez and feel a part of them. But I was told that I wasn’t a part of that, that I must “go over here and make this kind of art.” It was a very segregated situation and so for me, growing up, it became a real conflict. When you investigate African history, the multiple layers of colonialism get stripped back and you start to open your eyes to the richness of things, wanting to dialogue with what could have been. But it’s not about going back to a past that didn’t exist. It’s not even about correcting a past that happened. It’s about saying, “Look, I’m a part of this and always have been.”
In Indiana people say, “oh our family goes back to this and that” and I’m sitting there thinking, “well I know who my grandmother and great-grandmother were, but, beyond that, we had to wait for genetic testing. The history of my family just disappears at a certain point.” I feel like everything is just stories within stories and I’m a part of this story of the world that we’re all a part of. You don’t have to be of a certain race to be a part of it. When you’re creative, you can open other people’s eyes to the beauty of a Black face. Of course, there’s also the notion of borders, of lines that can’t be crossed. But in a digital context, there are no lines you can’t cross. The fact that we’re talking to each other from different continents feels borderless. But that’s also what we did with games — connected people through digital artwork. That’s what I do when I make physical and digital sculpture.
EO: I’m curious about the character Minoreia and how she manifests in different ways throughout your work.
AH: She started out in 2017 as a character that danced in a VR labyrinth, and has since become my avatar. She was originally based on a scan of my face and body. Next, I want to animate her with my own body motions. When I decided that I wasn’t going to make video games anymore, my first physical sculpture was of her. When I started doing 3D printing as a way of actualizing virtual sculptures, it held the same magic as when I first encountered the Internet. Now I can hold something in my hand that was once in a computer. At the same time, VR is a place where you can put your body and feel the reality of the virtual.
EO: You see yourself as a “born digital” sculptor, in contrast to artists like Kehinde Wiley and Damien Hirst who you see as using the digital “in denial of itself.” Can you explain this further?
AH: So much art today is made digitally. Behind the scenes a lot of blue-chip artists have highly skilled digital artists working for them, whose labor is viewed as a means to an end. That’s fine because every artist has their own concept. But sculpture has always been made with machines. Indeed, the history of sculpture is a history of technology. Most sculptors today are using some kind of digital process, just as painters are preparing work with Photoshop. There’s no shame in any of this.
But there are also artists for whom the digital is their entire working method. I consider the material I work with to be polygons — essentially sculpted math. I have a lot of respect for that (digital) material. I see a lot of work at the moment where the digital component is somehow negated. But this is not the 19th century. No single genius is creating 25 sculptures single-handedly. I don’t wish to diss anybody, I’m just saying that as a digital artist it’s a little annoying and it feels like a double standard.
EO: Some of your work is only available IRL. How do you feel about severing the physical artifact from its digital origin?
AH: I don’t feel like the physical is ever severed from the digital. The actual sculpture is the digital model on my computer. That is the real sculpture. The physical pieces derive from a digital model which can be changed, much like a website never has to be a fixed entity — its code can be edited. In the same way, I can go in and turn my digital model into another physical sculpture or indeed another digital version that people see in AR.
Digital sculptures live in the now, in a future that never ages. The physical object is the archive. That object was digital, but now it is real, pinned to a certain moment, and it can travel through different times and contexts as long as it exists.
EO: Tell us about your current work, mother/child (2022).
AH: This is a very special piece to me because it actually began as a 3D scan of my niece and her son as they lay sleeping in the back seat of a car. I’ve stayed largely true to that scan. I knew I wanted to show her with her beautiful hairdo and her sleeping son; they just looked so peaceful to me. I really felt that I was looking at a Pietà, a Michelangelo. That work also channels feelings around me never having a child. But I wanted it to reflect the joy of young motherhood, to be something colorful, unlike other physical pieces I’ve made which are monochrome and sort of ancient. I feel like I’m just getting started with that particular image; that’s only the first realization. I would love to make another version as a colorfully patinated bronze or combination of precious stones. The beauty of working this way is that physical materiality is something variable. I’d love to get to the point where it’s as variable as digital materiality is to me.
EO: What is your hope for the future of digital art?
AH: My hope is that it will continue to be possible for artists to work purely digitally and to make a living in the same way as any other artist — with sovereignty.
Auriea Harvey is a sculptor who lives and works in Rome. Her practice encompasses virtual and tangible sculptures, drawings, and simulations that blend digital and handmade production including AR, VR, and 3D printing. She is half of an award-winning artist duo known by the names of Entropy8Zuper!, Tale of Tales, and Song of Songs for their pioneering works in Internet art, video games, and mixed reality. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; KADIST, Paris; rf.c Collection, as well as Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology. Her video games and VR works have been exhibited and performed at the Tinguely Museum, Basel; V&A, London; New Museum, New York; Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York; and ZKM, Karlsruhe. She is the recipient of a Creative Capital grant and winner of the Independent Games Festival Nuovo Award. She is represented by bitforms gallery, New York.
Emann Odufu is a writer, artist, curator, cultural critic, and filmmaker hailing from Newark, New Jersey. His writing and film work have been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Document Journal, Hyperallergic, and other leading magazines. He has spoken about his creative practice at universities across the country including, but not limited to, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and New York University.