Digital Art: Expression Beyond Capability

“Digital design is like painting, except the paint never dries…”

– Neville Brody

Last weekend I had the amazing opportunity to visit NXT Museum in Amsterdam, a first of its kind concept museum dedicated entirely to digital media art. What I walked away with was a broadening of my artistic horizons like I’ve never experienced before. 

Surreal DJ Set by Willikens & Ivkovic / Desilence at Minimal (Nxt Museum x ADE 2020)

Digital Art is a very fluid genre in itself, but broadly speaking it is the use of digital technologies in the creation and presentation process of art. As expected, this opens endless opportunities that often transcend the boundaries we are confined to by our anatomy and makeup. From light fixtures, to data visualization, to computer generated algorithm art, there are many ways in which this umbrella genre can provide a hack into human sensory experiences like no other. Whereas traditional arts like painting, drawing and sculpting – despite how impactful and important – are constrained by human physical capability, digital art hands the symbolic paint brush to the machine, equips it with data and algorithms and guides it to produce work beyond comprehension. This is what I was very lucky to see last weekend.

The collection during my visit to NXT Museum was rightfully named “Shifting Proximities”, intending to focus on changing human experiences and interactions in the face of new age social, technological and digital developments. Not only did I find this relevant to developments in the art world, but I could also draw crucial comparisons with real life and changes in how art is perceived in the era of pandemics. What struck me as most exciting about this collection was the synonymity of digital art with the sciences. NXT Museum was a beautiful amalgamation of both the laws of physics as well as their defiance and manipulation. Science with a little bit of imagination. It was a collection that challenged many taboos, such as the legitimizing of science through the arts (or vice versa), as well as whether or not digital art can be perceived as traditional art at all. In definition, what is traditional art even meant to mean? It is safe to say I walked away from this mind boggling collection with more questions than I had answers. Of all the fascinating installations that were on show on that night, two works of art particularely caught my interest, as I could not help but draw similarities to aspects of data visualization I study in the Digital Humanities minor at Leiden University. These are the two works of art I’d like to present to you.

“Econtinuum” by Thijs Biersteker & Stefano Mancuso

The first installation was “Econtinuum”, an ingenious piece of work by ecological artist Thijs Biersteker in partnership with Italian botanist and plant neurobiology pioneer Stefano Mancuso.  The installation was a visual reconstruction and digital representation of bio-communication between the roots of two trees, thus highlighting the symbiotic relationship flora engages in without us ever paying conscious thought to it. The installation is entirely data and statistics driven, which makes it all the more interesting. Sensors in the room collect a slew of data ranging from air moisture to light exposure, while lights in the installation depict electro transmissions that theoretically occur between the roots of two plants. Together, this forms a stunning partnership between art and the sciences to bring forth a beautiful installation that highlights how plants take care of each other, warn each other of threats and most importantly, demonstrate strength through cooperation. To be seated in a dark room, gazing at this alluring light show was something else. The installation had an accompanying data screen that showed the changes in the conditions both roots were exposed to in real time, and how they worked to balance each other out. The effect of science presented through the lens of art, or art given a meaning through the equipment of science is something that enhanced my perspective.

Econtinuum – By Thijs Biersteker and Stefano Mancuso

“In a giant star’s final moments, atoms compress to a point where density becomes infinite, time stretches to a stop and the gravitational field is so strong that not even light can escape: a black hole. But the force that creates this dark shadow also spews out a supernova explosion of matter that can eventually coalesce to form planets, plants and people. In Distortions in Spacetime, visitors will see themselves reflected in this matter and will begin to understand the cosmic connection between black holes, dying stars and our very existence.”

– NXT Museum, Collection: Distortions in Spacetime
“Distortions in Spacetime” by Marshmallow Laser Feast (NXT Museum)

The second installation that had me in awe was “Distortions in Spacetime”, by the ever creative London based experimental collective Marshmallow Laser Feast or MLF for short. In this particular piece of work, MLF focused on digitally recreating a simulation of one of humanities most incomprehensible and questioned phenomena, the black hole. The installation was set up in an isolated room covered entirely – floor to ceiling – in mirrors, except for the largest wall in which the projection created by MFL was played. The endless reflection created by the mirrors can only best be described as an incredibly disorientating, yet ethereal experience. With this wonderful piece of work, brought to life by the intersection of art, science and technology – I was given the chance to have a sensory experience beyond human comprehension of what it must visually be like to enter a black hole. Considering the centuries of study and speculation that has gone into this cosmic phenomenon, I could not help but find myself extremely lucky to have witnessed such a visually comprehensible and detailed work of art that is entirely rooted in science, physics and astronomy. To call it moving would be an understatement. 

“Distortions in Spacetime” by Marshmallow Laser Feast (NXT Museum)

What I think both works of art had in common that struck a cord in me, was how they changed my perception of what constitutes art. In essence, art is not art if it can be easily defined, and that is something we often forget. The purpose of art differs from one individual to another, there is not one consistent definition for it. For some, art is expected to awaken feelings, while for others it is more meant to evoke deep thought, but one reality that remains constant, is that there is no singular overarching definition that can encompass the wonders of art. Installations like the aforementioned “Econtinuum”, or simulations like “Distortions in Spacetime” reaffirmed to me the borderless and fluid nature of art. 

This becomes even more true with Digital Art, where achievements beyond human capability could be reached by employing the tools we have evolved far enough to create, who’s to say such works are not as impactful as the Mona Lisa once was?