The RCS Book Is Here!

Purchase a ClubNFT subscription and get the RCS book Free!

Get Your Copy
Community
July 10, 2024

The Digital Art Mile at Basel

The Tickle’s Johnny Dean Mann with a First-Hand Report on Art Basel 2024
Now Reading:  
The Digital Art Mile at Basel

Art Basel 2024 was a narrative of separation, but also of meaningful progress. Digital art, once again, existed awkwardly at the periphery, for the most part outside the grand halls of the Messe, but a refiguring of the genre within the big picture of the art world was encouraging. 

In previous years, Tezos had facilitated the visibility of a few notable digital artists, initially a showcase of the leading lights of Hic et Nunc (RIP) and, in subsequent years, a display of generative artistry from fx(hash). The location of these booths, past the onerous security barrier of the main entrance, was a statement of intent among an art world not historically too kind or even aware of the more obscure outposts of the genre. 

In this context, the absence of a similar presence in 2024’s edition could have been taken as a step back. However, Tezos instead sponsored the first dedicated satellite event during Art Basel — The Digital Art Mile — and, despite being situated downtown a few streets, the presence of the genre was emboldened, showing a maturity in both content and expression. One step back, two steps forward, perhaps. The Tickle traveled to Switzerland to compare the old world with the new.

The Old World

There was always a sense that, despite some encouraging moves towards digital art, acceptance by the organizers of Art Basel, the premier art fair in the world, was pushing back slightly against the inclusion of artists too heavily associated with the notion of NFTs. Digital art’s enthusiasm for the technology — understandably so, given its transformative effect on the genre — was seen as too outwardly associated with pure commerce. This was at the point of NFTs during their worst (publicly perceived) moment of greed, speculation, and environmental damage, so the reaction is perhaps understandable. This is all in addition to the historical ghettoization of digital art, often seen as the lesser cousin of photography and video art. 

Each Tezos presence at the fair was, of course, entirely separate from the worst excesses of the NFT boom. Their environmental credentials, at the very least, have always been peerless. Each booth was a superb aesthetic experience — a tightly curated expression of the best of Tezos-based art and, subsequently, as its appeal broadened, the mostly generative web3 avant-garde, backed by the expertise and reputation of fx(hash). A wide range of panels complemented the experience, featuring some of the most cerebral practitioners and eloquent voices from both within the space and the traditional art world. 

While touring these booths, expertly put together though they were, a feeling developed that visitors unaccustomed to the space would simply enter bewildered and leave nonplussed. There are sure to have been exceptions, but the sense that a space full of screens inhabited by geometric, shifting forms representing only a sliver of the full scope of their long-form nature, was a little too much to process. After a tour of the paintings, sculptures, and other analog artworks in the main hall, this strange world, with its uncertain scope, fiddly mechanics, and distasteful crypto connections would have been perhaps too alien and intangible to care about.

The screen is, of course, the native environment of the art form, so why not dazzle visitors with huge examples and celebrate the ephemeral, light-based nature of the genre? It makes a good deal of sense, and it formed the general direction of thinking around the abundance of exhibitions in the newly NFT-emboldened digital art world. From the outside, however, and from the viewpoint of a traditional art world more used to enduring screens when real art wasn’t around, this insistence on an experience that amounted to a room full of big TVs felt like a recurring mistake. Perhaps a new approach was needed. 

The New World

The new “post-NFT” approach began to develop meaningfully, generally speaking, during 2023. There were, of course, exceptions to this “big screens” rule in the years previous, and without a doubt during the pre-NFT years of digital art obscurity. In that sense, we are simply returning to the multifaceted approach that developed over decades from the inception of the genre, but taking advantage of a new post-NFT world in which digital creativity has reached a heightened level of external visibility. 

Perhaps the first successful attempt at engaging with the analog in a digital context was the “Node to Node” exhibition in Paris hosted by Kate Vass Galerie in October 2023. This was an attempt to represent physically the two digital art forms perhaps most confusing to the traditional art world or the average punter: generative and AI. Nestled in a cozy side street in the heart of Paris, the show featured an oil painting by William Mapan, a photo collage by Iskra Velitchkova, and a live plotter performance with audience-interactive elements from Zancan. Compared to the multiple-screen approach, this was bordering on theater, and refreshing to witness. 

The exhibition blurb put it succinctly: 

A common misconception is that computer-generated art exists exclusively in the digital sphere due to its digital nature. In truth, the movement boasts a rich materiality… As generative art gains newfound popularity, there is a resurgence in the importance of the physical component, reviving early practices.

In this context, the urge to broaden the display horizons of digital work represents both an attempt to bridge the gap to the traditional art world and a conscious reconnection to the genre’s often misunderstood and poorly documented history. For the second point, The Tickle’s mission aligns with Kate Vass as our columnist, researcher, and historian Catherine Mason continues her work to uncover the rich history of the genre. For the first point, the standard was set, and the baton passed to the organizers of the aforementioned and inaugural Digital Art Mile, helmed by the digital art advisor Georg Bak and gallerist Roger Haas. 

ArtMeta

Art Basel 2024, through its new Chief Digital Officer Craig Hepburn, has made some encouraging moves in recent times, including this year’s Digital Dialogues, a series of discussions around the future of the art form featuring Sasha Stiles, Cory Arcangel, Krista Kim, and more. They also hosted the Digital Art Meetup with Refik Anadol, Lukas Amacher, and others. 

The most encouraging digital art event, however, was elsewhere. Sponsored once again by Tezos, marking their commitment to the digital art community, ArtMeta’s Digital Art Mile consisted of a broad collection of partners, including the generative art experts at Le Random, and a host of platforms arriving with superbly curated shows, including Objkt, MakersPlace, and fx(hash). Spanning three venues, including an underground cinema hosting several panel talks, the event attempted to reframe digital art as a comprehensible thing, something of beauty and simplicity that happens to be attached to notions of digital currency rather than being defined by them. The presentation question was answered elegantly in differing ways.

OONA, artist

Objkt, the oldest extant NFT platform on Tezos, approached the event via their curator Kika Nicolela with a two-pronged approach, assembling works from a coterie of genre-spanning artists from their home platform and a single room dedicated to the pioneering, and still practicing, digital artist Analivia Cordeiro and her countrywoman, Regina Silveira, a key figure from Brazil’s visual arts scene. Each instance of the display was varied, from anonymous artist OONA’s mini-installation piece, involving a curtained-off display of silicone breast inserts accompanying her video work, to Auriea Harvey”s holographic portrait triptych with bespoke framing. For the video-based work of Monica Piloni, a small plinth nearby hosted a sculpture of the figure on screen. In this varied context, the screen-based work sat more naturally, not burdened with the responsibility of representing the genre purely with pixels on a wall.

Kika Nicolela, Objkt curator
It was extremely refreshing to see and be part of the birth of an art fair that gives space to this new market, of blockchain based art, and to new ways of thinking how to sell, present and collect digital art. (Kika Nicolela)

Perhaps the artist most suited to a physical component, with their work frequently crossing the digital-physical divide during a long career, was the duo LoVid, who incidentally feature in the latest issue #93 of The Tickle. Known for accompanying their video and digital works with stunning, wall-size tapestries, fabric pieces, and bespoke analog synthesizers, the single video work coloringbook was appropriately enhanced with Auriea’s LoVid-designed outfit, neatly tying in with the evolving nature of the [exhibited] space. 

Next door in the same venue at 31 Rebgasse, the fx(hash) team appeared to have also gotten the memo, with two tapestries from the generative artist Andreas Rau, alongside an audio-enabled digital display from the same work, Klangteppich.

Aleksandra Jovanić, GM.GEN.MATH, 2024

Another standout was the intriguingly framed pieces from Aleksandra Jovanić, part of her GM.GEN.MATH project, with the artist having stated the challenges of transmitting such a kinetic work to a fixed medium: 

It was a special task figuring out how to compromise the least. Moving from an animated piece with interaction to a fixed physical piece was a challenge.

The elegant solution was an edge-on placement, with two-way framing — the position and movement of the viewer evoking the sense of movement achieved in the original animated piece. The fx(hash) space also, intriguingly, featured a “generative art kiosk,” a mini gift shop featuring unique printed works from existing generative projects on the digital platform, frameable and tangible. This proved an immediate and enduring success — soon after the event, fx(hash) announced the online rollout of the kiosk, enabling all non-Basel attendees to join in the physical fun.

fx(hash)’s generative art kiosk at The Digital Art Mile 2024

Crucially, this proved a success with a number of critical figures within the larger Art Basel family. On a tour of The Digital Art Mile conducted by the artist-poet Sasha Stiles, the Head of Editorial for Art Basel, Jeni Fulton, commented to The Tickle enthusiastically on the effectiveness of the kiosk. While purchasing a selection of prints for her personal collection, Jeni described exactly where they would be proudly displayed in her house. Quite the success, then. Sasha agreed, and had some positive comments on the merging of the two worlds:

A clear highlight of the week for me was touring Jeni Fulton through Digital Art Mile — pausing to peruse (and buy) prints at the fx(hash) booth, dancing with Analivia Cordeiro’s interactive piece at the Objkt space (which itself was a duet with Operator’s choreographic installation nearby). It was a proud moment to share the work of so many brilliant peers — artists, curators, founders, writers, producers — and feel digital art becoming a palpable, visceral presence during such an important time for the art world at large, much more so than on my previous trip to Art Basel in June 2022.
Objkt booth at The Digital Art Mile 2024

A note of positivity on the increasing likelihood of digital art acceptance by the Art Basel behemoth, amid sightings of other important figures gracing The Mile, including the Serpentine Galleries Director Hans Ulrich Obrist, but a word of caution was sounded by Leander Herzog, another exhibiting artist: 

It feels like it will happen soon, but remember, this is Switzerland. Things happen very slowly around here…
Analivia Cordeiro and Nilton Lobo in conversation with Peter Bauman of Le Random

UNHCR

It would be remiss to not mention the other curations visible at The Digital Art Mile, perhaps the most notable being the multiple screens and cocktail reception afforded at Space 31 to the charitable endeavor curated on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR is, in their own words, the agency mandated to “aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people” and the “Nowhere To Run” collection, featuring several high-profile Tezos artists, asked for works that capture the effects of climate change on displaced people.

The exhibition, in association with Tezos, Objkt, and the Collector’s Club, stuck to the simple, big-screen approach, rotating through two or three pieces per screen in the social area and entrance hall. The impact of such a beautiful collection of artworks from among the finest in the space, and the generous framework of the project — at least 50% of artwork sales were donated to UNHCR — represented the old way of exhibiting, but that was, perhaps, tenuously relevant as a statement on the isolation and suffering of refugees. The lineup of artists and their connection to the theme was strong, including Violet Bond, LeChatN0ir, and Diane Drubay. GoldCat, whose upbringing in Kenya and recent experience added a personal touch to her piece, was showcased during Art Basel for the first time:

I don’t think I need to explain what a privilege it is to have my artwork as part of the first-ever Digital Art Mile. I must also commend Tezos for increasingly bringing philanthropy to the web3 world. Creating art for the UNHCR exhibition felt as natural as it could possibly be. Having worked on a refugee program as a student and having witnessed the effects of extreme weather firsthand, the issue of displacement is close to my heart.

The Future?

Diane Drubay, artist

Diane Drubay, another artist long associated with environmental and charitable causes, was a natural fit for the UNHCR. She attended The Digital Art Mile after being invited by the artistic director Georg Bak to organise the “Museums in Web3” portion of the event. She gave us her thoughts on the project, mirroring the sentiments of many attendees who saw a positive new direction after some recent troubles:

Christiane Paul, from the Whitney Museum of American Art, told me last week that for years, digital art was always present in art fairs – it’s only in recent years and the arrival of the word NFT that it’s disappeared. The division between the two worlds is not symptomatic, it’s contextual. 
We had to do something to show that the web3 art world is different today from what it was in 2021. And so The Digital Art Mile was born, standing under the noses of fair visitors and inviting them to create a bridge. 
We saw exhibitions of the highest quality, whether in terms of curation, works presented, scenography, or hanging. The names of the artists on show would make the biggest galleries jealous, and the prices, as well. The profile of the exhibitors was also important – we saw exhibitions proposed not only by digital art galleries, but also by NFT marketplaces, design studios, a collector and his foundation, and an artist agent.
The web3 art world proved that it was time to bring digital art back into the aisles of Art Basel.

Is The Digital Art Mile a sign of things to come, and strengthen year on year? Will it eventually be unnecessary in the face of increased visibility of the genre in the mainstream art world? Will we finally move away from the crypto-bro associations of the darkest days of NFT fever? Time will tell, but a more impactful statement of intent than The Digital Art Mile at Art Basel 2024 we find hard to imagine. This is undoubtedly a strong start, but, perhaps, as Leander Herzog suggested, some patience may be needed.

🎴🎴🎴
Protect your NFT collection and discover new artists with ClubNFT

Johnny Dean Mann, also known as @GuysWily, is a creative writer and digital sculptor/painter based in the UK. His work explores the interplay between looseness and exactitude, drawing parallels to quantum computing. Mann writes prose poems covering themes such as technology, the English countryside, and more. He serves as the Editor of The Tickle, an art magazine that spotlights Tezos NFT artists and creative writers. Mann also acts as a guest curator at objkt.one.

Subscribe to The Tickle for in-depth interviews with Georg Bak of ArtMeta and Le Random co-founder and CEO thefunnyguys in forthcoming issues.