Abstract Art in the Age of New Media 
Digital Art Exhibition

Space and aesthetics

Interplay between the ‘where’ and the ‘what’ in human evaluation and memory



A multidisciplinary team headed by two UCL researchers has been awarded a research grant from the British Academy, to unravel the psychology of how people view and remember artworks in a gallery. The collaboration between cognitive psychologists, cultural and digital sector professionals takes place in the context of an online shift for art collections worldwide.


An art gallery is a psychologically interesting place. Different art objects form a spatial layout, and visitors must navigate around the space to view the objects. The team’s previous research (https://psyarxiv.com/a59e2) shows the spatial environment surrounding an artwork is implicitly integrated with our aesthetic responses to the work itself. Building on recent neuroscientific work on how the brain represents space, this new project will investigate how spatial layout of objects within a museum can influence different aspects of the viewer’s experience.


How does the position of each object within the gallery layout affect how much we like the object, and how well we remember it? The researchers will conduct a number of online experimental studies, using specially-developed art exhibitions within a virtual museum. This project involves a unique collaboration between cognitive psychology researchers Dr Mariana Babo-Rebelo and Prof Patrick Haggard (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL), art curators Serena Tabacchi and Marie Chatel (MoCDA The Museum of Contemporary Digital Art) and real-time artist and developper Allen Namiq (Hobs3D).

Abstraction as an art form emerged at the beginning of the 20th century following the introduction of photography, a medium allowing for the production and distribution of images that depict the reality of our physical world. The technological revolution led to a pragmatic shift away from realistic representation and initiated a series of questionings about the nature and function of painting. Since then, artists have continuously explored non-objective depiction through the use of geometrical or informal shapes. Art movements such as Constructivism, Suprematism, Concrete Art, Abstract Expressionism, Tachisme, Minimalism, and Op Art successively brought new insights to abstraction. But how does abstract art remain so present in contemporary practices and what has new media brought to this stream of art history?


When asked by UCL researchers Dr Mariana Babo-Rebelo and Prof Patrick Haggard to dedicate a show to pure aesthetics, or rather, artworks devoid of relatable references from our memories and physical environment, we had to build an exhibition upside down. The question, then, was not to think about a topic relevant to new media but to see how new media dealt with a recurring theme of art history. Artists presented in this research-exhibition reveal the diversity of practices and media we find today, through generative art, glitch art, AI art, light art, net art and immersive art (VR and AR). With this 360 perspective, we hope to observe the way artists now approach formal abstraction with digital tools.


While identifying these different perspectives, two thoughts came to mind, which we would like to highlight before delving into individual media approaches. First, current new media practices rarely, if not ever, explore only compositional matters. Of course, there is a discourse on colour, form, and the relationships they sustain, spanning the history of abstraction, but the reflection on media specificity is all the more present. When taking out elements from their context, either in real life or online, artists largely reflect on the nature of their media.


What we notice is a strong inclination towards testing computational tools and pushing devices to their limits. The second preliminary note concerns the relevance of the relationship between human and machine. When Alfred H. Barr defined abstract art for the first time in the exhibition and catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936, the art form came with a dichotomy. It either examined the geometric, pragmatic, reasonable, and logical, or it delved into the organic, biomorphic, emotional, and intuitional. What we observe in new media practices today is perhaps the amalgamation of two genres, where the machine is not so austere and the human not so intuitive. In fact, we see a new language between artists and devices, one which involves processes of exchanging information. The magic is that somewhere in between, lost in translation, errors, accidents, and chance operations happen.


Classifying artists would be reductive as many of them merge different concepts of abstract art, making individual practices unique. However, we will use examples here to share some insights. First, the exhibition features artists whose art values processes. Instead of composing an image or an output, generative artists such as Manfred Mohr, Casey Reas, and Alexander Reben, use code and play with rules to construct complex imagery. Shohei Fujimoto shows a similar interest in processes, using virtual 3D shapes and light to create lines out of reflection data. On the other hand, artists such as Sara Ludy and Aaron Scheer are less oriented towards mathematical logic and share, instead, an approach that is compositional, working on the blending and morphing of human and machine aesthetics. 


Artists also make a case for experimentation, as they implement a form of discussion with the machine. Chris Dorland, for instance, looks at glitches and interferences when plotting digital material through analogue techniques, using obsolete plotters and hardware to create textured collages. Mattia Cuttini shares this interest in translating digital data into tangible artefacts, this time giving generative designs a handmade feel through traditional printmaking techniques.


However, experimentation also happens with code and computational manipulations. Yoshi Sodeoka, for instance, develops generative designs combined with glitch and hacking techniques that result in unexpected events. Quests in altering features and manipulating parameters to build illogical (or differently logical) patterns apply to practices involving Artificial Intelligence and the use of Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN), as we see in the works of Mario Klingemann, Robbie Barrat, and David Young.


Taking from reality and extracting components from their context is another strategy utilised in abstract art. Often negatively referred to as "near abstraction", this practice involves stepping away from the geometric and probing shapes that are more organic and biomorphic – something telling of Bård Ionson's practice. Abstracting visual information from real and online worlds creates a disconnection between the subject and its representation - a strategy that Damjanski uses in Computer Goggles to depict our physical world as understood by an image recognition system. In Mathieu Merlet Briand's case, the collection and de-contextualisation of data allows for a study of internet materiality as he translates online images of natural environments into a fine weaving or texture. These strategies result in pieces that are non-objective but still representative, meaning that the content is derived from reality, despite the viewer being unaware of it.


Non-objective-yet-representational approaches are also present in practices that involve virtual reality and user interactions. Banz & Bowinkel, Gibson/Martelli, and Darcy Gerbarg have all experimented with depicting bodily movements held in a virtual space and then translating this vision into video or prints. Another expert in Computer Graphics Imagery (CGI), Maurice Benayoun uses 3D neuro-design to portray informal shapes that correspond to the way our mind conceptualises emotions. Overall, these practices involve the representation of forms that bear meaning that we cannot decipher as we observe.


Finally, we would like to emphasise that the artworks displayed in the show appear in still images because of the scientific analysis. However, artists usually pick different ways of showing their art online and offline. While abstract artists in the 1960s emphasised the importance of physical presence to observe nuances and hidden details in the painting, practitioners in the digital age may prefer digital or analog renditions of their pieces. Some prefer to engage our visual senses and connectedness through moving images. This complexity towards physicality and movement (of the image and the self) is not fully depicted in the show, but is also significant in current practices. Another consequence of the research is that artworks appear at random in the virtual gallery, without any logic or narrative inferring the display. While it makes it hard to carry a discourse, we appreciate how the experience empowers viewers in drawing individual interpretations.


We hope you enjoyed the experiment and invite you to dive further into the content of this show at mocda.org. We would also like to give special thanks to the incredible panel of artists who joined us on this fantastic journey, as well as their gallerists and supporting team.

Marie Chatel

Art Curator

© 2020 MoCDA Museum of Contemporary Digital Art 

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