The perils of selling electronic art.

The big picture.
Nov. 23 2004 7:38 AM

Psst! Electronic Art

Will digital editions become the art world's new headache?

Last month the Frieze Art Fair, held under a giant tent in Regent's Park, temporarily turned London into the art world's epicenter. On display were the usual array of photographs, paintings, and sculptures, generally sized at the "domestic" dimensions appropriate for most private collectors. Given this environment, fair-goers who wandered into a mini-disco designed by Eli Sudbrack, a Rio-born, New York-based artist also known as "Assume Vivid Astro Focus," could easily have mistaken the dance floor for a simple contribution to Frieze's hipster ambiance. What could be for sale there?

In fact, a minute's walk away, two galleries—Peres Projects of Los Angeles and John Connelly Presents of New York—were offering to sell the digitally printed wallpaper from the installation for $15,000. And the galleries planned to sell that wallpaper not once but thrice over, using an electronic-edition sales model that has left other art dealers perplexed and envious. In this model, buyers receive only a certificate of authenticity and a CD-ROM holding the giant Adobe Illustrator file used to produce the wallpaper's image. Despite the high price tag, getting the wallpaper physically fabricated remains the collector's problem—and an expensive one at that, easily running into thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars.

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This approach has helped turn Sudbrack into one of the 2004 art market's breakthrough stars. A conservative estimate of his sales this year easily reaches seven figures. And anyone curious about the art world's future should understand the underpinnings of this ascension. Because no matter how many art-market insiders dismiss Sudbrack's success with electronic editions as freakish—the lucky combination of a particularly hot artist, represented by particularly aggressive dealers, selling to particularly fervent collectors—it is a model whose applicability will only grow and whose implications for the market are far-reaching.

Sudbrack vaulted to art stardom with his contribution to last spring's Whitney Biennial—a surreal full-room installation with a Brazilian-disco vibe that included images of drag queens, soft-core porn, and serial substance abuse. Traditionally, such installations are unique pieces. Those created by artists firmly inscribed in the artistic canon—such as Joseph Kosuth, Richard Long, or Mona Hatoum—might sell for $150,000 to $300,000. But Peres Projects broke the Whitney piece down into multiple units (somewhat like the suit, shirt, and shoes of an autumn ensemble in a Barneys window) and sold each individually. To reproduce the whole installation, a collector would have to buy one of each element, at a total cost of $150,000. The defining elements—the installation's floor, walls, and ceilings—were in an edition of three. But the five sculptures, priced at $5,000-$15,000, were in an edition of five while the $2,500 decals and $5,000 video were in an edition of 10. Thus, the total list price of products available from the Whitney show was $600,000, minimum. Such sums only matter, of course, if someone will pay them. But by the time Frieze opened barely seven months later, Peres Projects had sold every last item from the Whitney show.

Is this madness? That's debatable. But the sales model definitely reflects a fundamental change in how art can be produced and sold. Purely digital art—sold as software or access to online environments—has been creeping into the art market over the last decade, but it still remains very much marginalized. What sets Sudbrack apart is that his model is a hybrid, safely within the object-oriented paradigm of classical collecting yet exploiting digital production's advantages. (In the broadband age, the CD with the piece's image is really just a prop, after all.)

In some sense, the art world has long been moving in this direction. The candy sculptures of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, created based upon the Cuban artist's written instructions, are a prime example; collectors buy the right to install a work rather than the work itself. But those directives are publicly available—so you can make your own Gonzalez-Torres installation, no less legitimate in appearance than one installed by the collector who paid $666,000 for the piece at Christie's in 2001. At an abstract level, you could argue that almost all art collecting is more about ownership than about the object itself, which explains why so many major collectors have warehouses full of work they rarely see.

And the range of artworks to which Sudbrack's model could be applied is constantly growing. Another of the market's current darlings, Loretta Lux, produces her work by digitally altering images of children. So, collectors are buying a digital print, albeit framed like a photo and at prices comparable to major stars using classic darkroom methods, such as Candida Höfer. Sculpture is hardly exempt. Karin Sander took the art market by storm a few years ago with a system that allowed people to stand in a 3D scanner and then have their Sander sculpture "printed" out in a grainy green plaster.

From an art-market standpoint, the impact of electronic editions derives from the fact that the artist's direct involvement with the work terminates in a series of bits and bytes. That means each piece within an edition can potentially look different from the others. With Sudbrack's work, for example, the digital images are infinitely scaleable, so the collector can produce the works at any size. And though Sudbrack or one of his studio assistants must personally inspect each piece's production quality, that's hardly the same thing as every piece coming from the same foundry or photo lab.

When it comes to the handling of resale and loans to public exhibitions, electronic editions pose a new set of complexities. While collectors can produce unlimited versions of Sudbrack's installations for museum loans, they may create only one version for private use. And if they sell it, the collector is legally obligated to destroy his personal copy. Short of installing a Webcam in every room of all the collectors' homes, of course, these are hard provisions to enforce.

But the bigger issue involves the so-called "secondary market" for these pieces, i.e., everything after the original sale from the gallery. As Napster and KaZaA have taught us, once creative works have been digitized, controlling their distribution becomes problematic. In video art, for instance, there is a trading site with everything from Matthew Barney to Nam June Paik available for bartering. Once files start floating around in cyberspace, the certificate of authenticity becomes paramount. And what if that certificate gets lost? That's precisely what happened with a Dan Flavin neon-light piece recently offered at Christie's London. Estimated at roughly $83,000 to $117,000, it had to be withdrawn from the sale because the owner mislaid the certificate and Flavin's estate would not issue another.