Digital art takes many forms: installations; Internet art; virtual-reality projects that use devices such as headsets and data gloves to immerse participants in a virtual world; software coded by the artist; or even “locative media” art that uses mobile devices (such as cell phones) to turn public spaces like buildings or parks into a canvas.
Digital photographs, films, and videos have been common in the arts since the 1990s; even paintings and sculptures are now sometimes produced with the aid of digital tools. But projects that use digital technologies as a medium in themselves–and that, like their medium, are interactive, collaborative, customizable, and variable–still occupy the margins of art institutions and find their audience mostly at new-media art festivals or on the Internet.
A few artists use digital technologies as a medium for reconfiguring more traditional forms such as paintings, photographs, or videos. Among them are Brody Condon, John Gerrard, and Alex Galloway and the Radical Software Group (RSG). All use the technologies of game development to investigate the status of traditional media in the digital age. Their works consider how the digital medium has changed the nature of representation, erasing the boundaries between established categories such as painting, photography, cinema, and sculpture.
All these artists generate images that are reminiscent of paintings or photographs, yet change and evolve. Condon, Gerrard, and RSG create computer-generated 3-D scenes that are framed–in that they show a clearly delineated view, like a photograph, rather than being navigable worlds, like a game–and at the same time have a temporal, cinematic element in that they change over time. However, the cinematic movements are not simply video loops that repeat; rather, the changes are generated in real time, algorithmically. John Gerrard’s projects, in particular, could be described as image-objects, artworks that are as much images as they are three-dimensional sculptures in virtual space.
The combination of painterly, photographic, sculptural, and cinematic elements in these works would not be possible without current game-development technologies. Over the past decade, computer games have become an inspiration for artists in new media. Gaming references in digital art have been called a trend or a new style–a description that neglects many of the inherent and historical connections between computer games and new media. Early on, games explored concepts now common in digital art, such as navigation and simulation, points of view, nonlinear narrative, and the creation of 3-D worlds. Many if not most successful video games are violent “shooters” seemingly far removed from art. Yet they often create sophisticated, navigable, immersive worlds. It is only natural that digital artworks should take a critical look at computer games in a different context.
Computer games are successful, in part, because their virtual worlds can be expanded and modified. Games frequently come with “level editors” that give amateur designers the tools to develop their own virtual environments and gaming scenarios, or to customize game content by creating modifications (often called “mods”) or patches–extensions that change features of the game world or the behavior of characters.
Some artists have used level editors or game engines–the core software of computer games, which runs their real-time graphics and audio, among other things–to create mods for commercial games or to generate stand-alone scenes. Others have designed their own games from scratch. But both types of gaming artwork have critically examined the politics and aesthetics of their commercial cousins. While most art based on gaming technology makes the technology itself its subject, Brody Condon’s Three Modifications, John Gerrard’s Dust Storm (Dalhart, Texas) and Animated Scene (Oil Field), and RSG’s Prepared Playstation more explicitly focus on the representational qualities of the 3-D image.