Words by Etan Ilfeld

Contemporary Art is constantly evolving and incorporating new artistic practices. It is only a matter of time before a novel technology is appropriated by an artist and utilized as a expressive medium. As a result, Contemporary Art is in a perpetual state of flux. ‘Contemporary history’ refers to the period in history that has occurred during the lifetime of most living adults (approximately forty years). Meanwhile, ‘Art’ is a fluid and polemic term. Some theorists assert that it is completely context dependent and that anything is art, if claimed as such. Marcel Duchamp’s readymades precipitated 20th-century conceptual art and exemplify the context-dependency of an art object.

Duchamp’s Fountain | Duchamp submitted a standard Bedfordshire urinal that he purchased in 1917 to an art exhibition that had proclaimed it would display all art entries. However, the item was rejected by the exhibition’s committee. Duchamp’s series of readymades consisted of mass-manufactured products, which he would slightly modify—often by rotating and signing the object.


In the 21st-century, digital information itself—which is often harnessed and processed by a virtual agent such as a computer—has become an abundant resource for artists to tap into and re-present as a new type of readymade, a ‘digital readymade.’ Digital information can be reformatted and manipulated via software, and easily duplicated and transferred at the speed of light. A plethora of data sets ranging from weather forecasts to stock prices are accessible via internet application programming interfaces. While 20th-century readymades represented a minimum amount of interactions between the artist and the art object, the 21st-century ‘digital readymades’ enable the artist to be further removed from the production/curation of an art object. Just as waterfalls can emerge out of the combination of water flows and topography, digital ecosystems can produce aesthetic patterns out of digital data.

Data is all around us, and can be curated to produce functional or aesthetic objects. Jeremy Wood is an innovative artist who always carries a GPS-tracking device, which archives all of this movements; Wood utilizes his historic GPS-data to produce stunning cartographies, which he refers to as GPS-drawings. Meanwhile, Aaron Koblin has created a series of visual works that are computationally produced via software systems such as the Processing programming language, which was specifically designed for the visual arts community to interact with digital data.


Aaron Koblin, Flight Patterns, 2008 | Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns is a series of works that were created by plotting FAA flight data across North America along a single day such that altitude and aircrafts types affected the patterns and colors of the images.


Jeremy Wood, My Ghost, GPS drawing, 2000–2009 | Conscious of the fact that his movements may result in cartographic object, Wood often walks along quirky paths in order to spell out a Moby Dick quote or draw a giant pentagram.


Lev Manovich has pointed out that new-media objects such as jpegs and quicktime files are readymades in the sense that they can be re-appropriated and compiled via software tools. However, the application of digital computation on Big data sets such as the human genome, may result in previously unfathomable patterns that are free of human culture and bias (e.g. experimental data from the Large Hadron Collider).

Artists routinely sample digital information, and re-contextualize it into an art object. Perhaps, info-graphics can be considered to be the prototypes for digital readymades. Both information graphics and digital ready-mades can communicate large amounts of information in a concise visual manner.


David McCandless, Colours and Culture, 2009 | Colours and Culture maps the emotional perception of colours in various cultures.]


Instead of the artist being the sole-inventor of an artwork, a digital readymade can sample both raw data and metadata and communicate patterns from an assortment of collective intelligences—such that virtual and physical ecosystems (e.g. metropolises) are often intertwined. Alexandra Ginsberg’s Yesterday’s Today is an art installation of an air conditioning system that ensures that today’s temperature in the gallery will always match the weather previously forecast for that day.


Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Yesterday’s Today, Supertask series, 2011


Akin to Yesterday’s Today dynamic sampling of environmental information, Natalie Jeremijenko’s Fish Interface is another art object that is constantly in flux. Artist-engineer Jeremijenko is fascinated with the idea of creating interspecies communication platforms; Fish Interface consists of motion-sensitive buoys connected to LED lights on New York’s Hudson River, which convey the presence and movements of fish along the river.


Natalie Jeremijenko, Fish Interface


Data streams can be sampled from a diverse set of domains, and provide an ever-emerging resource for the production of digital readymades, which can manifest in either virtual or physical forms. The Pirate Bay have recently added a ‘physible’ category, which anyone can upload or download digital files for a 3D printer to generate a physical object. One can only wonder what Duchamp would have thought of the physible. Whereas Duchamp’s urinal alluded to the underground sewage networks, which connected every household in Paris, the digital networks of the 21st century present an even more global rhizome with radical potentials that have yet to be explored.


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.
˝2011 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/ADAGP, Paris/Succession Marcel Duchamp. Photo: Alfred Stieglitz, ˝ 2011. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum /Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York.