On January 22, 2022, at Honor Fraser Gallery in Los Angeles, artist Claudia Hart introduced an exhibition that proposed a new genre. “Digital Combines” provides a framing device for artwork made up of two parts: A physical piece and a digital file — with each hybrid bound together by poetic instructions found in the metadata.
Hart has been making artwork that examines the relationship between the virtual and the physical for twenty-five years, and she worked with NFT conservation specialist Regina Harsanyi to develop protocols, first, for her own work, and then, as a model for other artists in the show. “Digital Combines” is an exhibition with a dual heart. When you walk into the space, you see a set of pictures for a human, and a set of pictures for a machine. The QR codes on the wall are a representation of compressed data that we can’t read or interpret, but we carry an intermediary device that can, which summons the second, virtual half.
At the opening, I sat down with Claudia in a public discussion about the concept and its history. That text came out of a number of conversations we’ve had at my home in Los Angeles, as well as via text and email, about the virtual and the physical. We were interested in how the Digital Combines interrogated duality — the mind-body split — based on the idea that art is a liminal, impossible space binding the concrete and abstract. And we realized there were really two parts of the conversation. There’s the mind-body split itself. And there’s the attempt to reconcile it through language and art. This conversation is about both.
Katie Peyton Hofstadter: Claudia, can you start by defining a Digital Combine?
Claudia Hart: A Digital Combine is a hybrid form. Imagine a grotesque mythological creature, half man, half beast — but a beast that is a god, like the jackal-headed ancient Egyptian Anubis. So, a Digital Combine is a single artwork that is half digital file, half physical object — half tactile, half ephemeral — minted and bound together by a symbolic text that rests inside its metadata.
More specifically, upon minting, a small, low-resolution version of a digital artwork is distributed across a computer network, encrypting it. This file is attached to an encoded “smart” contract. The metadata is a linked file folder — uploaded to a Web3 location — which has an address, provided to a collector but also made searchable and publically available on the internet. This folder contains a number of files, including high-resolution versions of the digital artworks, their related archival materials, and a text file with notes and instructions for conservation and exhibition, etc. This is the crucial file that states that the physical and digital components cannot be sold or exhibited separately. If they are separated, the piece will be disavowed as an artwork, and removed from the artist’s catalogue raisonné.
KPH: This metadata file contains the poetic instructions that bind the virtual and the physical. It’s a poetic construct, because we can’t precisely nail it down — the meaning is slippery — but we also instinctively understand it. We’re going to come back to this theme of the rational and the irrational, as well as the virtual and physical. But let’s visit your history for a moment. You began your career in the downtown New York art scene.
CH: I started my art practice as what was called an “intermedia artist,” showing with Pat Hearn Gallery. We were the generation immediately following the Conceptual movement. We were called "post-conceptual," and we developed installation practices that brought together physical objects and pictures into mise-en-scènes — different versions of theatrical installations.
KPH: You’ve observed that right now, “the NFT metaverse has seized the public imagination.” But you take a much longer view, beginning with the invention of mathematical perspective, extending through photography and 3D animation, finally arriving at the present moment. I’d love to talk about some of the works on that historical timeline, which might provide a window of understanding into the concept of Digital Combines.
CH: After showing work like this for a dozen years, in 1995, I had a life-changing experience. I saw Toy Story in pre-release at the Berlin Film festival. This technology — what I call “simulations” software — crunches big data, meaning accumulated scientific information, resynthesizing it to make images that can be more or less hyperrealistic. So one can think of it as an epistemological software, crunching accumulated cultural knowledge: Mathematics, topography, Newtonian physics, material sciences, biology — including fractal mathematics — optics, the physics of light, gasses, particles and waves, kinesthesiology, anatomy. You input values that come from scientific recordings and observation to create a simulation of not just how things look, but also how they move, grow, etc. That’s what gives them an uncanny, seductive aesthetic. I call work created with this technology “Post-Photographic Simulations art,” which includes 3D imaging, animation, AR, VR and now NFT. I thought of this kind of imaging as a hybrid of classical renaissance painting and photography, and I felt it defined a new paradigm of representation.
You’ve curated two artists into this exhibition who also use 3D simulation software to create their work. Sara Ludy builds abstracted environments as a 3D computer model, then transforms them using 2D and 3D programs like Photoshop and Maya. The physical painting is set on linen. The “machine painting,” meaning the QR code beside it, summons the virtual file and set of instructions for the physical piece. The metadata tethers them together as two manifestations of a single painting. They resemble a sort of multidimensional Georgia O’Keeffe.
KPH: For her “Slipstream” series, Nancy Baker Cahill builds works from a 3D model, scanned from a physical sculpture made from torn paper. She creates both a physical print and a digital video, accessible via QR code. In literature, Slipstream fiction passes between boundaries, usually between fantasy, sci-fi, and literary fiction to evoke the strangeness of being alive in a hybrid world.¹ The work is a migration of the simulated model through time and materials. You, Ludy and Baker Cahill all incorporate 3D simulation software to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. But your interest in machines and mathematics in art goes much further back.
CH: Below you'll find Melencolia I, the famous Dürer engraving of a woman and her dog, seated in a mysterious environment with a caliper, a number of platonic solids, the planets in the sky outside her window, and the stars. I identify with Melencolia as an alter ego, but I love Dürer because he made his work with drafting and perspective machines of his own design. He integrated mathematical perspective with figurative image-making by means of a systematic, rule-driven machine.
KPH: The idea that concrete objects can point to abstract concepts (in this case, philosophy, theology, astrology) is a thread that runs through your genealogy.
CH: Vermeers also have a strangeness because they are so obviously handmade, but at the same time, convey an uncanny hyperreality. This is because Vermeer used the camera obscura to paint with. So again, as with the 3D simulations used in games, animated kid’s movies and Simulations Art, we have an artwork which is a hybrid of a machine-made and a hand-made art object. Vermeer turned the entire room that he was depicting into a large camera — a truly virtual environment — just as I do when I build virtual worlds using 3D software.
KPH: The Concert (1663-1666) is so realistic that the silence is actually unsettling. In fact, you’ve curated several artists into this exhibition who have done what Vermeer couldn’t: Bind digital audio files to physical paintings. Tim Kent’s Data Lake (2021), for example, tethers digital audio about data collection to a traditional oil painting. It creates this uncanny convergence, and a time-bound experience in an impossible space. And it’s hard not to see this juxtaposition with romantic, traditional landscape painting as a metaphor. The lakes of the future are us.
CH: Robert Rauschenberg created a series of artworks between 1954 and 1964 that merge aspects of both traditional painting and sculpture. He coined the term “Combine” to describe this new artistic category. A work like Monogram (1955-59) exemplifies the idea of the Combine as a free-standing sculptural artwork that also incorporates a painted canvas. It is an absurdist work: A tire and stuffed angora goat attached to a wooden board, painted and collaged, placed like a low table on the ground. With his Combines, Rauschenberg transformed painting from something in the service of figurative representation, into something that undermines illusionism and the idea that a work of art might be uniform in its meaning.
KPH: For Rauschenberg, objects and ideas themselves were the materials, not paint, hair, taxidermy fluid, etc. In your exhibition, Gretta Louw and LoVid really use that juxtaposition to startling effect.
KPH: Louw’s source images are clouds, and she manipulates them using physical and digital processes, including embroidery and the stylized algorithmic pareidolia of DeepDream. The QR code summons poetry, read in a soft, echoing voice. You’re almost lulled into this fantasy of surfaces. But the thing about the digital cloud is that we know it isn’t vapor; it’s a huge industry with an enormous physical footprint. The poetry is filled with warnings, the canvases with grotesque fantasy creatures in opalescent colors. These artworks use the vernacular of digital pop to reject this metaphor, and re-materialize the cloud. LoVid’s work is so lush it invites touch, which — during Covid — feels dangerous! (Also in a fancy art gallery). For the past two years, the artists have also been separated from people they love. These pieces channel that longing. The QR code summons the digital heart of the piece, the “hug” video cycles, with the sonic energy LoVid’s known for. The two halves of this piece manage to invoke a rare, three-part grand synesthesia of sight, sound and physical touch. With LoVid’s work, the idea passes through materials and back to the body itself.
CH: This brings me to Sol LeWitt. To me, Digital Combines represent the re-materialization of conceptual art by merging a material painting and an ephemeral digital file to create one hybrid: The single but uneasy whole. This presents a resolution to what the art historian Lucy Lippard called “The Dematerialization of the Art Object [sic],” whose second edition she dedicated to LeWitt.² For Lippard, “Conceptual art… [sic] means work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and/or ‘dematerialized.’”³
LeWitt was a Conceptualist. His ideas were algorithms, consisting of procedures and tools to produce his work, which was then created by others. The instructions preceded the image: Ideas and symbolic representation were prioritized. Lewitt is also admired by digital artists who produce what’s often called “generative art,” those abstract coded animations now widely thought of as “NFT.” With the Lewitt drawings, the mathematical language — the procedure — is written, and what results is also an abstract image. You can think of the image as the “child” of a “parent,” which is the code. Daniel Temkin, one of the artists in this show, actually interviewed the folks who produced the astonishing MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) retrospective of LeWitt’s wall drawings, and got the technique straight from the horses' mouths.
KPH: Temkin was inspired by LeWitt’s proposal to “follow irrational thoughts logically.” With his “Dither Studies” (2016-ongoing), he wants to show that logical processes can also lead back to impossible or irrational space.
CH: 15% Teal (2021) illustrates that paradox.
KPH: They are representations of error-diffusion dithering, a coding algorithm used to transform a photo into a systematic pixellated grid. At the top of the physical piece, we see a pattern we visually grasp. But as the process continues, our ability to detect the pattern fails; then our ability to focus on the colors also begins to fail. The triangles are painstakingly painted, but they also aren’t perfect. It’s a human attempt to be fully logical, and what we realize is that we aren’t really fully logical. The virtual half of this piece is a video, depicting this perfectly logical process, cycling from 100% orange to 100% teal. The program processes this quite easily. When we look back to the physical piece, it is clear that we don’t.
KPH: Jacob Dwight is addressing this same paradox, but achieving a very different visual result. With acrylic paint on canvas, Dwight attempts to follow the computer’s hyper-logical fractal processes, using the file as a set of instructions, but we actually can’t follow instructions the way a computer can. And the most beautiful parts of the canvases, to me, are where the simulation falls apart.
CH: LeWitt rejected the idea of the object, meaning a concrete thing, like the modernist paintings or sculptures that dominated his own time. He rejected the body, in favor of mind, or spirit. In 1968, he wrote: “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.… [sic] Irrational judgements lead to new experience.” LeWitt was a friend and collaborator of Lippard, and she included that quote in her 1997 edition of Six Years.
KPH: I love this quote, because it speaks to that poetic link — the creation of the uneasy whole. It keeps reminding me how we have historically put art in spaces dedicated to impossible belief, which invoke intangible worlds. As you’ve mentioned, the artists in this exhibition are making virtual, ephemeral, digital or de-materialized work — and also, re-materializing it. It’s a good transition to [Joseph] Kosuth, and the struggle to comprehend a concept on different planes simultaneously.
CH: Kosuth's famous installation, One and Three Chairs (1965), consists of a wooden folding chair, a mounted photograph of a chair, and a mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of “chair.” Kosuth made a single work out of three separate ways of being: Things, their representations and language, all existing on different planes. LeWitt believed that conceptual artists are mystics and not rationalists — I know I am! So I consider these pieces in poetic terms, and here invoke Baudelaire’s idea of “convergence” — synesthesia — the way sound might evoke color, or a picture might evoke a poem, or vice versa. Kosuth brings them all together to create a paradoxical, impossible object.
KPH: An attempt to represent the unrepresentable is powerfully present in the work of Saya Woolfalk. Her work refers directly back to mythology and metaphysics, through a fictional chimera species called the Empathics. These three pieces share a single QR code, which summons a video of the collective digital heart of the Empathic species. As one studies the remains of Empathics, one becomes Empathic. To facilitate the transition from a single human ego to a collective consciousness, Empathics must first develop multiple heads, which will be shed when the transition is complete. Let’s conclude with your own work. For Lippard, conceptual art offered a bridge between the verbal and the visual. Digital Combines are a bridge between the virtual and the physical. They are two versions of the same thing.
CH: Yes. This kind of paradoxical relationship between a thing and its representation is at the heart of my work. To return to my story about a Digital Combine as a mythological creature, my works are ouroboroi, snakes devouring themselves, recursive systems. So are many other works in this show. The works i’ve exhibited here comprise two different elements: A simulated-painting and an NFT digital component that is actually a photorealistic 3D reconstruction of the painting: A representation of a simulation built in a game world. Together these parts form an impossible object — a paradox, also described in my poetic metadata text, where mind meets spirit.
“Digital Combines,” is on display at Honor Fraser Gallery until April 2, 2022. Charlotte Kent contributed scholarship and Jeff Mclane exhibition photography.
Claudia Hart emerged as part of a generation of 90s intermedia artists in the “identity art” niche. She still examines issues of identity, now focusing on how technology effects cultural constructions of gender identities and issues of the body, perception, and nature collapsing into technology and then back again. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she developed a pedagogic program based on this concept — “Experimental 3D” — the first program dedicated solely to teaching simulations technologies in an art-world context. She lives in New York, is represented in the US by bitforms gallery, and is married to the Austrian media artist Kurt Hentschlager.
Katie Peyton Hofstadter is an LA- and Brooklyn-based writer, artist and curator. Her work has been published in The Believer, BOMB, Gargoyle, Pank, and the Vienna Biennale for Change. She designed and led the Future Art Models program for apexart, guiding young creatives to experiment with alternate professional models in the arts. She teaches at Parsons, The New School, and lives with a dog named Peanut in a room full of books.
¹ Richard Dorsett is credited with coining the term, which is nautical and aeronautical. It is first reported in an interview with Bruce Sterling, originally published in SP Brown and DJ Steffan, Science Fiction Eye, vol. 1, No. 5, July, 1989.
² Published as LR Lippard, Six Years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.