Reading Assignment: A Companion to Digital Art

A Companion to Digital Art is a collection of essays, edited by Christiane Paul that gives a good introduction to the definition and characteristics of digital art. The essays explore the histories, aesthetics, politics, and social context of digital art, as well as its relationship to institutions and its historicization, in terms of its presentation, collection and preservation.

In the section on the politics of digital art, it is covered how the “technological history of digital art is inextricably linked to the military‐industrial complex and research centers”. For some reason, this darker history of digital technologies makes me appreciate digital arts even more. Digital technologies were developed and advanced within a military context, as weapons to serve destruction and create discord between people. Digital artists take the same technologies and envision them to be used creatively for utopian ideals, to create positive social and political change to benefit mankind. Digital art is an attempt almost, to salvage the mistakes of mankind and restore faith in humanity. It comforts me to know this, as much as I am conscious of the risk of these technologies being misused and creating a dystopian climate of distrust nonetheless – unsurprisingly, this is an issue contemporary digital arts frequently address. 


Paul defines digital art as “digital‐born, computable art that is created, stored, and distributed via digital technologies and uses the features of these technologies as a medium.” Before, I hadn’t given much thought to the definition of digital art or new media, much less the necessity of assigning one at all. I held the reductionist view that whatever contemporary art (I had mistakenly equated ‘contemporary’ with ‘new’) that employed technology, and perhaps with mixed media, qualified as “new media” or “digital art”. However, given the ubiquitous use of digital technologies in even traditional art forms today – in photograph, print, sculpture and painting even – I have re-examined my position after learning about the inherent characteristics unique to the digital medium that, employed as a tool for creation, rather than production, make a work digital art

Of these intrinsic characteristics, Paul highlights that digital art is computational; process‐oriented, time‐based, dynamic, and real time; participatory, collaborative, and performative; modular, variable, generative, and customizable, among other things. The characteristics of digital art that pertain to time and change intrigue me the most. 

D  N A      Y I   M       C                                  DIGITAL ART


With the continuously changing state of the digital medium and its methods of application, it is perhaps unsurprising that the terminology and definition for technological art forms has always been extremely fluid too. What is now known as digital art has undergone several name changes since it first emerged: originally referred to as computer art, then multimedia art and cyberarts (1960s–1990s), art forms using digital technologies became digital art or so‐called new media art at the end of the 20th century.


With the medium of technology I think it is interesting that new media’s characteristic of being “dynamic” and “time-based”, evolving and advancing with time, is not limited to the understanding of the nature of a single artwork, but extended to the entire medium as well. The medium of technology itself is always changing, we hear the words “technology” and “advancement” go together all the time. This is in contrast with other traditional mediums like painting and sculpture which are not “dynamic” in relation to time. The medium itself does not continuously change and take on a different form as drastically as technology does, because the traditional materials themselves are derived from nature, while technology on the other hand is literally immaterial software “generated out of thin air”. Changes within traditional mediums involve technologies changing the way materials are manipulated and used, less so involving changes in the nature and form of the materials themselves. Time-based dynamism in media form is a characteristic unique to new media art.


“digital artworks seldom are static objects but evolve over time, are presented in very different ways over the years, and adapt to changing technological environments.” 

I find it interesting that the “posterity” and preservation of digital art differs so much from those of traditional art. While preservation of traditional paintings is concerned with protecting the original state of the work and exhibiting them in their unchanging static state – or with time-based mediums, exhibiting the work as it registers changes from the flow of time – this is not necessarily so for digital art.

“The variability and modularity of new media works implies that there usually are various possible presentation scenarios: artworks are often reconfigured for the specific space and presented in very different ways from venue to venue.”

It is easy to assume that the immateriality of technologies allows the original state of a digital artwork to be preserved for generations after easily. However, digital art is engaged in a continuous struggle with an accelerating technological obsolescence that serves the profit‐generating strategies of the tech industry. This obsolescence contrasts with the illusion of advancement with time, when one thinks of “technological advancement“. Unlike traditional media like paint, technology is less subjected to material changes like crackling with the flow of time. The changes that transform digital art from their original state (those that do not continuously reconfigure themselves over time) are instead advancements in technology driven by humans, changing not the form but the context within which digital art is displayed. This presents institutions with difficulties in the preservation of digital art.

“Probably more than any other medium of art, the digital is embedded in various layers of commercial systems and technological industry that continuously define standards for the materialities of any kind of hardware components.”


One of my favourite insights I gained about digital art is how how the rapid change and advancement of the medium itself does not imply or necessitate likewise for the content and ideas behind new media works. It is true that many new media artworks explore issues that are current and pertinent to our time – especially those central to the conditions of the age of technology we live in, since the very medium makes it effective to do so. However, it is also possible for the concepts explored to date centuries back, addressed previously in various other traditional arts. Digital artists continue to address universal and timeless human concerns, with new technologies.


Not everything about digital art is necessarily new and dynamic afterall.

Future World: Reflections

It had been a few years since I last visited  Future World when it first opened so I didn’t have very high expectations about revisiting it this time, especially since a large part of it was designed to appeal to younger children and I was aware of how much older I was now. While the installations were intriguing for me back then, I thought I had been somewhat “desensitised” to interactive technologies, given its extensive exposure in Singapore over the past years (at iLight, Singapore Night Festival etc). So when I caught myself actually enjoying myself during this visit, I was honestly surprised. I was still fascinated by how the technologies empowered me to shape my surroundings and be a co-creator in the installations – alongside others. Revisiting Future World this time has led me to believe that every person regardless of age has an innate desire for play and impulse to create. Appealing to these instincts I think, is the greatest draw of interactive art. It has a powerful potential to engage viewers in a way other art forms cannot.

Technologies were used in different ways to encourage the participation and immersion of visitors. Different works required different extents of participation from visitors. While installations like “Sketch Aquarium” required them to simply touch the screen or colour and scan in their artwork, others demanded more physical activity and involvement of the body. In “Inverted Globe, Giant Connecting Block Town”, visitors had to physically bend down, pick up building houses, and navigate themselves within the room to build the city and its transport networks. On the floor map, roads and rivers would appear where they placed their building blocks. I enjoyed how their physical actions involved more deliberation and conscious thought, in deciding the position of their placements, compared to other exhibits like the slide where there is no meaningful control attached to the action of sliding.

Inverted Globe, Giant Connecting Block Town

The magnitude of  that change that each installation allowed viewers to affect also differed. Personally I was more emotionally gripped by those that translated my input to something of a larger scale, like when my single touch of the wall created an elephant out of thin air 5 times larger than myself, or when my simple choice of a star changed the colour patterns and sound waves of the galaxy of LED lights (interface on

Crystal Universe

That is not to say that I also derived great delight in watching my own scanned drawing appear as part of a greater collective tapestry, or when I made more subtle interventions like blocking the way of a tiny bull projected on a table with my hand.

Sketch Aquarium: tapestry of individuals’ coloured sea creature drawings
Changes affected within the frame of a table

In trying to engage the visitor, many of the installations strove for the Gesamtkunstwerk ideal to appeal to multiple senses. A lot combined the use of sound/music with tactile and visual stimuli. Glowing balls did not only change colour in response to touch, but also sang notes of different frequencies corresponding to the colour.

Thinking about it now, despite the installations being positioned in relative close proximity to one another, especially in the last section of the exhibition, they fit together harmoniously, as a whole environment. Multiple soundtracks from different installations could be playing simultaneously in the vicinity, but they all blended together somewhat, together with the different coloured lights emanating from the different works, to form one large seamless, interactive, immersive playground.

Reflections on “Life Circuit: I/O” at NGS

In “Life Circuit: I/O”, I think the artists were trying to not just recreate but reinterpret the activities and chaos of daily life that surrounded people in the setting of a bar, as it did in the past era of Korea that Lee was trying to capture in his original work. Instead of noise and sights coming from the natural surroundings or participants themselves, “Life Circuit: I/O” generates images and noise from live footage and technologies, seeming to reference the age of technology and visual and media culture we live in. In the same way that present day’s immense amount of information and media overwhelms the ordinary person, the music and lights produced by the DJ (conductor of the performance) create an environment that overwhelms the viewer with stimuli. What is usually perceived as background noise (visual and audio), INTER-MISSION manipulates to grip everyone’s attention with a different perspective on everyday life. What people usually ignore, engrossed in conversations amongst themselves at a bar, the artists amplify and use to drown out conversation (I struggled to hear myself, much less my friends with all the noise). Within the cacophony of images projected in the environment, a performer also projects that of his own face through a “reinvented selfie-stick”. This particular action provoked reflection on how the individual is lost and disappears so easily within such a culture – the image of his face blending in with other lights bathing the gallery. Likewise, the disappearance and quick transitions between footage of everyday life, provoked reflection on the difficulty of reaffirming our fleeting existence – via technologies and media that made expressions of our existence even more so, fleeting. 


However, the context of the performance being held within the setting of another installation, just as charged with its own messages and spatial directions, I felt, undermined the effectiveness of its delivery of experience and understanding. In my opinion, if the performance had been carried out in a separate environment or dedicated space of the gallery, viewers would have been better able to focus on the essential parts of the work (music, screenings, movements etc.), without the setting of Korean bar tables and furniture confusing rather than enriching their interpretation. Personally, not knowing that the installation was a stand-alone work, not conceived specifically as a ‘stage’ for the “Life Circuit: I/O” performance, I had initially  tried to weave the (almost) distinct intentions and artistic languages of both works together to understand the performance. I ended up with guesses I was not too persuaded by myself: the artists wanted to transport viewers to Korea’s past, but also have it intersect with the multiple realities of the present live-streamed from different locations. Why bother with the Korea bit, I don’t know. I suspect I was not alone in questioning why Singaporean drinks and kueh were served at Korean tables by attendants in hanboks either. I considered things like these distracting in my understanding of the performance experience. 

The attendant in a hanbok selling the Singaporean snacks and drinks.

Although I am sure that INTER-MISSION was asked to produce a work to respond to Lee Kang-So’s installation and the setting it created specifically. The only value that I think “Disappearance, Bar in the Gallery” provides for “Life Circuit: I/O” is the spirit of experimentation and participation it embodies–which INTER-MISSION pays tribute to and expands and explores in a different form.

Lee Kang-So’s “Disappearance, Bar in the Gallery” (1973)
Participants conversing in “Disappearance, Bar in the Gallery” (1973)

Lee Kang-So was one of Korea’s representative contemporary artists who advocated for the experimental arts in his practice, combining installations, happenings and new media technologies. His work thus seems to set up a meaningful stage for INTER-MISSION to experiment with the intersections between video art, music and performance. In “Life-Circuit: I/O” as well, viewers are transformed into participants – by default – as they are recorded (without consent) on footage and screened in the environment. This contrasts with the more active nature of participation that viewers of Lee’s work had when they engaged in conversations with one another over Korean drinks and snacks. Ultimately, I think “Life Circuit: I/O” could have been designed to better relate to Lee’s “Bar in the Gallery” within our present time and space. If the confusion that arose from the intersections of multiple realities (Korea’s past referred to in the original work, the present inhabited by viewers in the National Gallery of Singapore, and the present live-streamed by the Japanese artist collaborator) was intentional however, then I guess the work was successful. It was most puzzling to interpret, notwithstanding the engaging experience it offered with blaring lights and sounds. 

Interactive Art: “Tape Recorders”

Tape Recorders (2011)


Rows of motorised measuring tapes record the amount of time that visitors stay in the installation. As a computerised tracking system detects the presence of a person, the closest measuring tape starts to project upwards. When the tape reaches around 3 meters high it crashes and recoils back. Each hour, the system prints the total number of minutes spent by the sum of all visitors.



Tape Recorders is an installation that tracks and visually represents the duration a viewer stays at the exhibit. I like how the work addressed the nature of art-viewing today–and in fact, perhaps, not just with regards to art but all stimuli in general. All too often viewers spare artworks only a glance while passing them. Stopping to look at an artwork proper for more than a few seconds is rare, much less for the duration it takes for a measuring tape in the installation to reach 3 metres and crash to the floor.  This is so especially with removed minimalist pieces or when a museum has an overwhelming amount of exhibits to visit. The viewer for whom time is of essence (in capitalistic societies commodifying time) sometimes brisk walks through even time-based video and durational performances. By creating a work that actively encourages viewers to stay (I might even use the word “beg”), incentivising them with the excitement of watching measuring tapes slowly grow and finally crash and recoil (almost like a grand prize for staying “long enough”), Lozano-Hemmer presents a unique and effective commentary on our short-attention span. I like this work even more because it was an artwork commenting about the very viewing of artworks, through a transformed viewing experience designed to engage the very-difficult-to-grab-hold-of public. In terms of effectiveness in communicating its intent, or simply engaging viewers otherwise (degree of engagement measured, literally, by the duration they spent viewing the work), I thought it was also successful for all ages. Not just adults but children also, who are arguably even harder to engage for prolonged periods, were effectively engaged in interacting with the artwork. There is something appealing about interactive art–seeing how one’s actions visually manifest and shape an artwork in real-time–that makes it worth investing time to view, or more accurately, experience. Tape Recorders is an exemplar of art that people would spare more than a glance or a  few seconds to view.