While computers have taken over all aspects of our lives, the materiality and surface quality of digital images and sounds remains obscure and uninteresting to most people. Everybody is quick to romanticize pigments used in painting, even highly toxic ones, but pixels and vector graphs are commonly thought of as the stuff of designers, not artists—as utilitarian forms without poetic potential.
Although “digital art” might sound like a synonym for desktop wallpaper and online greeting cards, it drives the conversation in the Bay Area artist scene, if you ask me. Data is to the Bay Area what marble is to Carrara. Since the late ‘90s, artists in San Francisco and Oakland have pushed their digital projects through the doors of museums, galleries, and other art spaces. Early practitioners like Alan Rath, Jim Campbell, and the musical duo Matmos built projects out of zeros and ones that transcended geek culture and the local scene. Around 2000, San Francisco-based Josh On and the San Jose collaborative C5 were among the pioneers of the international net art movement.
Today’s noteworthy Bay Area digital artists are not defined merely by the fact that they use data. Instead, they combine their math skills with a looseness and irreverence that echo the attitudes of hippies, beat poets, and punk rock musicians that thrived in the Bay Area in previous decades. One protagonist of the contemporary digital punk scene is San Francisco artist Nate Boyce, a kind of digital painter who produces animated abstractions through an alchemy of digital processes. His animated paintings, displayed on data screens and imbedded in sculptural objects, don’t impress by their innovative use of computers or software, but by their closeness to the formalist sculpture and painting of 20th century artists like Anthony Caro and late Willem de Kooning.
Oakland video game designer Porpentine, who is just beginning to be noticed by the local art world but has already participated in a Whitney Biennial, strikes me as an artist who points to the future of the Bay Area art scene. Porpentine creates games that don’t center on player performance but on the poetic experience of wandering through digital worlds. Her unashamed use of digital platforms sets her apart from previous generations of artists who either refused to go digital or tried to turn digital into a haptic experience. Too young to have witnessed punk rock firsthand, she still embraces the DIY, three-chord rock band as the model for her oeuvre.
You don’t have to live in the Bay Area to use a computer as your paint brush or rock guitar, but doing it here makes more sense than in Aix-en-Provence. I have confidence that digital punk will stay fresh and uninhibited because the art market still obsesses over canvas and large-scale objects that fill spaces no one can afford. In addition, the Bay Area real estate crisis forces artists to work on kitchen tables and closet studios, and digital presents a welcome alternative to miniature painting.