Face on, Chris Levine's All Right Now looks like little more than strips of bright light. Until, that is, puzzled, one turns to walk away. Then an image of the Buddha flashes into view. Look back and it is gone. Show-ground novelty, making a spectacle through the latest computer and other technologies? Or art piece?
Sales of Levine's works - this one, held by the artist, uses rapid scanning science and a quirk of biology so that the image is only apparent through peripheral vision - would suggest the latter. Light-box pieces he created in 2008 sold for the equivalent of Dh89,000. Now the same works go for Dh446,000. Indeed, Levine, who created the first holographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, is a leading name in arguably the art world's latest, most progressive incarnation: digital, or new media.
"And the demand for it is there and the collector base is only growing," says a happy Levine.
Certainly digital art has turned a corner. Last year London's Victoria & Albert Museum put onDecode: Digital Design Sensations, its first foray into digital art - examples of which are increasingly being added to its permanent collection. And Yota, the Russian mobile internet company, hosted and curated Yota Space in St Petersburg, the biggest festival of digital art to date - including static installations, screen displays and interactive pieces - and which is now an annual event, with the next starting this month until December 19. The show pulled in some 40,000 visitors, with collectors in force.
Part of the medium's new appeal has also been responsible for the market's doubts about it: the fact that it seems familiar but non-specific, straddling graphic and product design, entertainment - in the form of animation and film - and even industry, with pieces often exploring the artistic potential in new materials leading-edge in, for example, surgery, or even submarine building. Many artists also have parallel lives in just such more mainstream creative fields.
"But there has been a major step forward in that people are now looking at works and seeing the art for itself, rather than firstly being intrigued by the technology that allowed it," says Subhas Kandasamy, formerly the director at the digital art-friendly Carpenter's Workshop gallery in London. "There is less of a need to put digital art in any sort of box."
That has come about also through digital art addressing the same problems that video art - now a well-established medium - first posed in the 1970s. With an endlessly reproducible medium, what exactly is the work being bought? And, given the use of technology, is the art the visual output, or the technology required to produce it as well?
"There is the challenge of expectations for art to be a physical thing when some digital works could be emailed," concedes Shane Walter, of the London-based digital art curators OneDotZero and the co-curators of Decode. "But the art world is increasingly open to the idea of digital art, and it is already accepted by those generations who have grown up with computers, for whom there is nothing strange about using technology much as another artist might use paint."
The more practical problem of display is also being addressed. Normally, a painting might make an easy transference from gallery to domestic setting or private display. But how about Jason Bruges's Peasoupa, comprising a room-size series of boxes filled with a smoky mix of glycerine and water through which are projected a series of time-lapsed moving images of the very people looking at the piece?
"Digital artists have seen much work commissioned by public institutions or corporations but are becoming more aware of the need to produce scalable pieces that can be sold commercially to individuals," says Jerome Delormas, the director general of Gaite Lyrique, a new Paris city government-owned gallery that opened this year specialising in digital arts. "But, in turn, with the art market so speculative and saturated, collectors are seeking out whatever is original. Many see digital art as the definitive genre exploring new horizons."
Certainly the work is diverse. Among pieces shown at Yota (and held by the artists) include those by United Visual Artists, a collective of 12 artists and engineers whose best-known work is Volume, a grid of monolithic tech totem poles that respond in light and music according to the movement of the people walking through it. Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings is akin to an abstract stained-glass window that, almost imperceptibly, changes in pattern and colour on a cycle that offers enough unrepeated views to last a lifetime. Joon Y Moon's equally meditative Augmented Shadow allows the manipulation of a computer-generated world of shadows by moving sensor-laden blocks across a table top. And Quayola's Strata series sees classical art slowly given a digital overlay determined by the palette and composition of the original. While some digital art perhaps has to fend off accusations of gimmickry - the very accessibility of computers and graphic software now is seeing dabblers consider themselves artists - much of it is genuinely arresting, rigorously researched, using technology in new ways, profound and increasingly offering considerable investment opportunity for more adventurous buyers.
"Of course, there are a huge number of collectors out there who couldn't care less about digital art and are quite happy with traditional painting," says Steven Sacks, the director of New York's BitForms, 10 years old this year and arguably the pioneering gallery for digital art. "But that still leaves a huge amount of excitement about the medium among others."
A history of digital art
While digital art may be as contemporary as art now gets, it does, in fact, have a history dating back a half-century – essentially as old as modern computing and often pioneered more by scientists of an artistic bent. Now highly valued programme-based and plotter-drawing works by the likes of Charles Csuri, Herbert Franke and Paul Brown, for example, can be dated to the 1950s. By 1965, the artist and mathematician Georg Nees had organised one of the first digital art exhibitions, Generative Computergrafik. By 1968, London’s Institute of Contemporary Art hosted the ground-breaking Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition, with work by artists who, as its curator Jasia Reichardt put it, had “never drawn or painted a picture with a pen or brush in their life... all of a sudden are creating still or moving pictures”.
The home computer revolution – the launch of IBM’s first personal computer in 1981 and the Apple Macintosh in 1983 – first allowed the potential of digital art to be explored by dedicated artists, with the advent of the world wide web providing further avenues to explore by the likes of Heath Bunting and Vuk Cosic. During this period, the first dedicated computer art festivals also launched, with the likes of VideoFest or Ars Electronica still prestigious annual events. But it is now, thanks to ever more accessible, affordable yet advanced computer technology, that the world of digital art is opening up. “Its history means digital art can be more seriously considered, but we’re still only in the market’s infancy,” says Wolfgang Lieser, the author of The World of Digital Art and the director of Berlin’s ground-breaking DAM Digital Art Museum.