Essay 6: Materiality and Nonmateriality: Defining the Work of Art in the Digital Age

Many artists identify themselves by the primary medium or methods they work with: painter, sculptor, performance artist, printmaker, watercolourist, and so on. These kinds of labels have become increasingly inapplicable to me and my work. I see myself as an artist, period. My media choices for a given body of work are less dependent upon the materials I’m working with than on the pieces I want to create. This idea of the artist as a multi-disciplinarian, or at least a serial disciplinarian, was introduced to me when I was in art school but only recently became a key aspect of my practice.1 My choice of media is often dependent on mundane concerns such as studio space, equipment, storage, exhibition, or budget. I have many latent bodies of work in different media that are ready to be made and are simply waiting for the appropriate opportunity. For example, I have clear ideas for projects in fabricated steel, small wooden reliefs, works on paper, video, and more.

Because my practice is not topical, my ideas for physical works can remain latent until the opportune time. There is no hurry to materialize them. Marc Chagall once said “I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment.” (Chagall, unreferenced in Wikipedia 2006: Chagall) To expand on this idea, I see media as analogous to friends or acquaintances, where my choices of media are similar to how I socialize with various friends at different times and for different reasons. Sometimes, no matter how much I might want to get together with a friend, extenuating circumstances—time, distance, evil spouses—conspire against us. Sometimes there is a mutual goal to achieve, or an event that we are working towards. Other times I want to get to know a casual acquaintance more closely or refamiliarize myself with an old friend after a long separation. And sometimes it’s simply a matter of enjoying someone’s company and wanting to spend time together.

Looking at my art practice this way—as not tied to specific media or self-imposed labels—my work could be described as moving towards the nonmaterial. For me, the materials and/or physical manifestation of the work are less important than the act of making the work. This differs significantly from the anti-materialism of conceptual work in that I’m still working with images, and eventually making presentable objects.2

My attitude towards materiality in my practice has been reinforced by the past three years of leading a quasi-nomadic life. This period included a number of intercontinental moves which led me to question the practice of making physical works of art. Whereas many artists see themselves as practitioners of a single medium, I find myself less interested in the concerns of specific media, and more concerned with continuing to make art regardless of the materials at hand. Aside from an ongoing—though recently intermittent—practice of drawing in sketchbooks, and a few painted wooden assemblages, my last major physical works were the individual sculptures in Crossroads (2002). This series of large, free-standing wooden figures was based on smaller low-relief assemblages I had been making for a number of years.

The Crossroads project—for the most part completed in 2002—led to a sculptural installation, a video which is still in progress, and a great deal of reflection on the nature of my studio practice. It was this project and its material demands that catalyzed the formation of my current attitude towards materiality in my art. Having so far denigrated the importance of material as the primary focus for art practice, I now have to say that my work is about material or the medium I’m working in, but not exclusively so. Once I’ve chosen a material or method, I try to play to its strengths. Unless it is necessary for achieving my evocative intent, I’m not interested in disguising the component parts of a piece to fool the eye or otherwise trick the viewer. Furthermore, I also tend to avoid trying to make a material mimic something that it isn’t, or use techniques for tasks they are ill-suited to. Nevertheless, it has often been my experience that viewers ask me what materials a given work is made from, or what media I use. My painted wood reliefs have often been mistaken for ceramics, and my digital work has elicited a wide range of guesses as to media.

The challenges of dealing with material stuff—physically working the material, storage, transportation, and such—are entirely different from the challenges associated with nonmaterial works. A great deal of my recent thinking about materiality has been in the context of digital art and how to present it. This is because for the last number of years the majority of my practice has been digital. Until—and if—I am engaged in a material-based studio practice again, my challenge with the digital work is to figure out how to translate my code—instructions within the computer that when interpreted create beautiful images—into something people can buy. Because the kind of digital work I make is such a young medium, the translation of digital code into a marketable product is a complex process that requires a multitude of decisions about physical properties. Materials, scale, format, longevity, technology, size of editions, and whether to limit my printings are just some of them. In some ways I wish I had a nanoassembler that would take my source code and create the objects on demand. But this technology, which some have called a “Santa Claus machine,” seems more at home in science fiction than in contemporary reality. Still, despite the fact that the challenges of deciding on the physical properties of the work would remain, I think such a machine would make my life easier. I could then simply treat my source files like a pattern library and try out various physical manifestations as I see fit. However, such machines don’t exist yet so I’m stuck with the messy problems of bridging the digital and material worlds.

These issues perhaps demand an understanding of the art object as something that is simultaneously an object to see and leads a nonmaterial existence. Given that we live in a material culture, my challenge as an artist working with digital tools is to find a way to continue the practice in a way that is authentic and sincere, yet can be supported within the surrounding material culture and its institutions. Philosophical questions arise that are almost identical to issues Walter Benjamin addressed in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Issues such as “What is an original?” as well as how one authenticates a reproducible work and so on. Today, parallels in the digital age to what Benjamin addressed 70 years ago for the mechanical age are extensive, but out of scope for what I am able to discuss here.

Even with all of its challenges, one of the benefits of a non-topical digital practice is that I can create new work now, aware that exhibition, marketing, and other material concerns will eventually come to bear on today’s practice, but also aware that I’m fully capable now of addressing those concerns. I can make decisions today that affect the physical manifestation of the work, but I don’t have to manifest the work until I have a venue for it. This is more like the life of a performer of classical repertoire than what we imagine an artist’s business model might look like. The works are like a rehearsed play or piece of music: complete but latent, waiting for presentation, and mutable depending on the venue. I have by no means abandoned a material practice in my art and I’m looking forward—when circumstances allow—to once again creating physical objects that I can hold or touch.

Because my work is digital, the immediate assumption is that I should pursue a technological solution to the challenges of presentation and marketing, perhaps somehow leveraging the internet. But although the internet is a good medium for displaying and disseminating ideas and images, creating a revenue stream with images is at best a difficult proposition unless the images can be sold as pornography, comics, or as some sort of video game. Rather than the internet, I could make some kind of video display for gallery installations but this brings up the ugly issues of technical support and long-term usability of the work. I find these technological solutions wanting, probably because although I use technology to create my work, the work itself isn’t about technology.

For the purposes of setting up the short-term gallery exhibitions that are standard in the art world—rather than worrying about issues of collectibility and permanence—it might make more sense for me to simply print the pieces on demand, discarding or destroying the display copies at the end, much as trade shows are handled. Other options include large, disposable matrices of posters to be glued on construction hoardings, or smaller collectible posters or limited edition prints, chapbooks, coffee-table books, animations… there are myriad possibilities.

The fact remains, however, that most of these ideas come after the creative act. While it could be argued that some are creative processes of their own, these are considerations that come as part of the marketing and commodification process as opposed to the creative one. This brings up questions about where and when to distinguish between the creative process and the commercial process. As well, questions arise about the nature of the work of art, questions asked by the conceptual artists of the 1960s who felt that the idea was the work, and that you couldn’t commodify it. As I’ve noted, they were trying to bypass or critique the commericalization of the art world but I find myself on the opposite side of the problem in that I’m at a stage in my career where I want commodification and its commercial benefits.3

Another aspect of the physical realization of digital works is size. I want to get as close as I can to creating an immersive environment while still staying within the conventions of traditional art. To this end, I want my images large so that people can get lost in them, not just for the machismo of bigness. Given that people are already used to looking at big pictures, I want them to look at at my big pictures, and in so doing become reacquainted with the mystery and beauty of human experience. However, I don’t believe that technology has advanced enough for me to be able to make affordable portable immersive environments. At one time I had thought about using technology to create immersive in-gallery replications of the worlds I depict in two-dimensional pictorial space. However, I found that not only were the available tools prohibitively expensive, they didn’t step far enough beyond traditional methods and materials to be worth the attempts to suspend disbelief.

Non-portable created environments can be found in theme parks, historical sites, and other similar such places. They are often very illusionistic, but I don’t see installations of my work being as permanent as these ones. My works are art, and sometimes immersive, but my purpose is not to create these kinds of simulations. And though I’m not averse to creating new contexts for the presentation of my work, contexts for permanent installation of art are not yet available to me so I don’t see this as a possibility right now.

I want closeness and intimacy, something that the machine-ness of a great deal of technology is poorly suited to. As well, the novelty of new technology often creates distance between the work and the viewer.4 I learned early that change either needs to be gradual or sudden, otherwise the art works will be too unfamiliar in the former case, or not groundbreaking enough in the latter, leading to viewers who are baffled, offended, or otherwise put off by the work. None of these kinds of response are goals in my work so I have to find alternate approaches.

I expect a willing suspension of disbelief when people approach my work—much the same as they suspend disbelief in watching a film or reading a novel—and I give my audience the freedom to interpret the work, assuming that they’ll understand it on some level. Part of the power of art is to narrow focus, to create highlights, not to show every single mote of dust in excruciating detail as seems to be the convention in computer-mediated reality simulations. Each successive generation of computer modelling improves the rendering of such things as water, mist, hair, and other natural textures but this versimilitude often masks a lack of content. I don’t believe that the technology has matured enough in this area for me to explore it in my work. And because I’m not attempting to create a kind of virtual reality, I find that I am able to spend my time on evocative gestural composition instead of simply describing the myriad petty details of an imagined world. This is similar to some literary traditions, where the setting of a scene is accomplished not only through what is described but by what is left out or unsaid.

Even as I sort out technical issues, marketing is still an area of concern. Just like other creators of media that are reproduced for distribution—writers, musicians, photographers, film-makers, to name a few—individual visual artists are having to face up to issues of the uniqueness or reproducibility of their work as never before. Because digital tools have become ubiquitous, we need to develop strategies for distribution that learn lessons from these other industries but we need to do so without making the same mistakes. Part of the challenge is that digital distribution—still in its infancy—has turned many of the traditional distribution models for intellectual property upside-down. It is also challenging our views on copyright and ownership. In my case, this is especially relevant because much like an author, my digital work is easily copyable, and as such I can keep an exact duplicate even after I sell the work. It becomes difficult, in this age of materialistic collecting, to define what, exactly, is on offer to the collector, and what, exactly, the original is. Some of the marketing issues I am encountering are similar to the writer’s question of “now that I’ve written the novel, how am I going to market it?” Or perhaps it’s closer to “I have a story idea. Do I write it as a novel, a screenplay, or a short story. And after I’ve finished it, shall I market it myself, license it, or find an agent?”

For me, having an active practice in digital media raises many questions that I have yet to find satisfactory answers to. Here are some of those questions:

  • What is the place or cultural role of virtual art? How does one make an audience for it? Furthermore, how does one get paid or otherwise make a living as an artist or in order to be an artist? How effective is the work of art when the primary audience is other artists and artist/researchers?
  • How does one address the issue of permanence? A lot of my attitudes towards permanence came from my training in printmaking, where the emphasis was on using archival papers and permanent pigment. Permanence is an issue that has to do with market considerations as well as ego attachment to the piece, and is related to attempts to achieve immortality and create legacies that will become part of the art-historical canon. These latter issues are rarely discussed.
  • How do issues of infinite reproducibility contrast to printmaking, where creating an original is like making a clone in a process where multiple exact copies are made at one time rather than serially. And how is this affected by the practice of creating limited editions and then destroying the working materials at the end? Or using methods whereby the working materials are consumed in the process, for example reduction woodcut/linocut printing?
  • In archaeology, many sites of interest are purported to exist, but for various reasons aren’t being searched for or haven’t been located yet. They could inadvertently be destroyed without anyone realizing it. My practice is similarly fragile. I spend a lot of time creating works that don’t physically exist. Because I haven’t yet connected with a large audience, the existence of my work outside my studio is extremely tenuous. Until such a time as I have solidly established myself, what can I do to preserve the work?


  1. A visiting lecturer introduced this concept. I can’t remember who it was, but I suspect it might have been Walter Jule. Regardless, the speaker had recently returned from a conference or a printmaking exhibition or some such in Poland. He described the practices of some of the artists he met there, and the fact that they often jumped from one area of practice to another, areas that he was familiar with only as the segregated specialties of individual artists rather than areas that could be part of a single artist’s practice. For example, a printmaker, wanting the immediacy or scale that is possible in paint would take up the brush and palette for one project. Performance art might become the vehicle for another, and so on. Expressive means became dependent on the needs of the work, rather than on a particular specialization of the artist. ^
  2. The conceptual artists of the 1960s were motivated by anti-commodification as a reaction against the rising commercialization of the art world. This isn’t a factor for me, as my decisions about materials—or lack thereof—are based more on utility of practice than on the critique of a situation. ^
  3. Note the distinction between commercialization of the work, and making work that is commercial. I’m not advocating the wholesale selling out of artistic values for the sake of profit that the word commercialization implies. What I see as commodification is the materialization of authentic creative work into form factors that can be dealt with in ways the art market recognizes. That is, work that can be displayed, bought, sold, and collected. ^
  4. This, combined with my previous discussion of size, begs the question does large scale eliminate intimacy? My response is that I believe intimacy is still possible in large-scale works, but rarely happens through accident. Addressing the topic of intimacy as it relates to scale is an essay of its own that I won’t attempt to address here. ^