Digital Canon of the Netherlands

Published on March 20th, 2019

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The Digital Canon accords twenty pioneering works of art with the attention they deserve. However, a canon is never fixed. The Digital Canon presented here is a snapshot of a field of practice that is continuously in motion. This Digital Canon was compiled by LIMA in 2018, in collaboration with Josephine Bosma, Martijn van Boven, Annet Dekker, Sandra Fauconnier, and Jan Robert Leegte. As well as adding new works, discussing this list and its selection criteria are of critical importance.

Experts from the field of digital culture selected twenty of the most prominent and influential works made on Dutch soil by artists who lived or worked here over a long period of time. The works and their makers are not all equally well known, yet this does not detract from their lasting influence on digital art and culture. Each of the works makes use of or responds to digital culture’s increasing impact on art and society.

The Digital Canon accords twenty pioneering works of art with the attention they deserve. However, a canon is never fixed. The Digital Canon presented here is a snapshot of a field of practice that is continuously in motion. This Digital Canon was compiled by LIMA in 2018, in collaboration with Josephine Bosma, Martijn van Boven, Annet Dekker, Sandra Fauconnier, and Jan Robert Leegte. As well as adding new works, discussing this list and its selection criteria are of critical importance.


With (unordered list):

Being Human, Annie Abrahams
Moiré, Livinus van de Bundt & Jeep van de Bundt
Breed, Driessens & Verstappen (Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen)
Nara Zoyd/La Zoyd’s Pataverse, Yvonne le Grand
The Senster, Edward Ihnatowicz, JODI (Joan Heemskerk & Dirk Paesmans)
TST, Bas van Koolwijk
Agora Phobia (digitalis), Lancel/Maat (Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat)
Scrollbar Composition, Jan Robert Leegte
clickclub/Click Club, Peter Luining, Martine Neddam
Spatial Sounds (100dB at 100km/h), Marnix de Nijs and Edwin van der Heide
Ideofoon I, Dick Raaijmakers
#11, Marey <-> Moiré, Joost Rekveld
Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam (IAAA), Remko Scha
Points of View, Jeffrey Shaw
the_living, Debra Solomon
Violin Power, Steina
Computerstructuren, Peter Struycken
The Hands, Michel Waisvisz


Canonisation as an Activist Act
LIMA Amsterdam 21/11/18
What makes digital art important? What makes it special – and why is a canon for digital art in the Netherlands necessary? The Digital Canon?! working group members discussed the importance of the digital canon and their interest in the subject. Annet Dekker led the discussion.

Participants Josephine Bosma (JB)
Martijn van Boven (MB)
Annet Dekker (AD)
Sandra Fauconnier (SF, via Skype)
Jan Robert Leegte (JRL)
Gaby Wijers (GW)

AD: In general, the artworks I’m drawn to concern an event or a subject in the present or something that happened in the past – work that reflects on the time in which it was made. I’m not an art historian in the sense of following art historical developments or movements. I am particularly interested in what is happening now in society and how this relates to other domains, such as art. What is your interest in art and culture?

JB: For me, it’s a question of following the art that is in keeping with the world at this moment. In the eighties, I would visit galleries and think: ‘Is this it? The media is crucial to our cultural life, but art is locked up in these white boxes!’ When I encountered artists that worked with the internet in the early 1990s, a new world opened up. It was such a liberation. There also appeared to be a history of art that exists outside the well-trodden path and which received hardly any attention, of which internet art is a part.

GW: I also don’t consider my position as art historical, although I am somewhat more historically oriented. I’m interested in the performative character and changing practices. I focus on theatre, dance, performance art, conceptual art, and the Fluxus movement, with media and digital art as an extension. I am occupied with how to translate a historical framework into contemporary practice, knowledge and technology.

SF: My familiarity with new media art developed while studying art history. I am very interested in art history and also in rewriting history and offering other perspectives. When I was a student, the digital was on the rise, and immediately I realised it was going to shape our society. That’s where my interests lie: in the art that looks at and questions this new, pivotal issue for our society.

JRL: I didn’t use the computer for my early work; I was more interested in phenomenology. When I came across the internet as a medium on the computer, it actualised those issues for me. I was using methods from the sixties and seventies. Via the net, I stumbled into a sort of avant-garde because the internet is an entirely underground, open field. On the other hand, it introduced me to the phenomenon of the computer, something I still don’t understand to this day. Digital art is an essential way of understanding what this object is we have created as human beings and why it is so influential and image defining. Technology is advancing at breakneck speed, so the field is continually evolving. I often miss this particular aspect in the art world. The speed of the evolution of technology is so essential, so I think it’s imperative that we pay attention to it. Worldwide there is still only a very small group of people actively engaged in digital art – which is actually quite crazy.

AD: Concerning the canon for digital art, I think it’s important that different connections become visible: social, technical and political or economic structures and systems. The canon enables you to investigate how one thing becomes connected to another and within which contexts art has been created or has been influential. What are the essential topics, periods or developments we should not overlook?

GW: Within this project, I’ve mainly focused on historical works, which stems from my interest in kinetic, electronic and conceptual work. However, I don’t believe one period is more important or remarkable than another. I came to media art from dance and theatre. I was fascinated by their differences, but especially their similarities. They are very different platforms. However, in their alternative, experimental aspects, they definitely employ the same principles. I’m not interested in ‘what you see is what you get’ but in art that seeks out and exposes structures.

JB: Media politics and media activism are therefore crucial aspects to include in the context of the canon of digital art. Making media environments and connecting physical spaces through media are not neutral acts. We are all part of the media landscape. The question of who’s in charge and what one’s role is within this is fundamental. Computer networks, such as the internet, have the potential to connect spaces and people and offer opportunities in the social and political areas that were previously only dreamed of. Having access to media is not a foregone conclusion. Artists and the public now have a common interest: to maintain this access. Historical insight can help to make that clear.

MB: Machine aesthetics fascinate me. For example, what happens with the introduction of the laptop? How does this change a genre? What is the influence of the introduction of certain software and the opportunities this provides for connecting different technologies? For instance, the video synthesiser enabled an entirely different visual language. This idea of the influence of the introduction of new technologies does not take place in a defined period; it is a changing relationship between the artist and the technologies he or she uses.

SF: What interests me, and I think we also reflect this in our canon, are art projects that have had an influence, works that stick to the retina. There have been artists who have sensed certain developments very well and who have shaped them in a very distinct and, as it turns out, influential way.

JRL: It is challenging to exclude things because there are always works that are an exception to the rule. But in general, I am most attracted to works that are grounded in the performative nature of the algorithm. Works that are rooted in the process are the most exciting because they more readily show the nature of the beast. This attraction is related to my interest in the apparatus itself.

AD: Several publications mention developments, such as Fluxus, conceptual art or technical innovations, that have had a significant influence on the evolution of digital art. What are the most significant developments that we want to bring to the fore with this canon? And how important is it to represent their context?

GW: Context is important because the history of digital art is partly unknown. Let me give an example based on the works of Peter Struycken. In the seventies, Struycken conducted experiments in which he compared colours using computer programs, or with computer-made structures and rhythms. At the time, a technical university gave Struycken access to a colour screen for about four hours a week. Seeing the work now, this is hard to imagine. However, the effort it took to make the work is crucial. The state of the technology at that moment, the blood, sweat and tears and the time and money that it took to do that research are all contextually relevant.

JB: Technological history is indeed important; this also applies to video art, especially when you consider the massive influence of the camcorder.

SF: What makes media or digital art so special is that it is about and uses a medium that has become very embedded in our society. Understanding the context is also about what we now know about the medium and understanding how it has evolved both technically and socially: its construction, the organisation of the power structures, but also how the technology works. Such factors make digital art different from other art media.

AD: There is often little awareness of how a digital work came about, or what its value is, and this perpetuates a poor understanding of digital work. I also believe the socio-political context is very important because a lot of work is about this or responds to it. If you don’t know anything about this context, then you don’t know what or why something is happening. Although this may be true for many works of art.

JB: I often return to Edward Shanken’s text, Historicizing Art and Technology: Forging a Method and Firing a Canon in MediaArtHistories. [Edited by Oliver Grau.] In it, he talks about changing approaches to art history since the late fifties. Up until then, the material side of art was an important part of the research; the artist’s medium was an important consideration. This medium-specific approach became redundant in the fifties, the era in which technology was emerging. It was the first days of television, and not much later the computer was developed. All those things that are important for the development of the discipline have not become part of the art-historical discourse. There was a shift towards a more conceptual and theoretical approach, which has been to the detriment of the understanding of digital art.

AD: In recent decades there have been many discussions about terminology – how to interpret these ‘new’ works of art. Do you think it is still important to use the term ‘digital’? In other words, do we also lose something if everything is just art?

JB: It is necessary because discussions about media art and technology within art are often negative. There is also a lot of ignorance of this area, thus if you don’t draw attention to it, it won’t be addressed, and too many blind spots will remain.

GW: For me it’s twofold. I also consider digital art as contemporary art; at the same time, it is also a very specific field. Therefore it should be termed digital art. The addition of ‘digital’ allows you to be precise.

JRL: It’s about disciplines. We can discuss painting in very normal terms. Moreover, many interdisciplinary artists make different kinds of work. Hans Ulrich Obrist recently said: ‘Painting is an act of protest.’ I think this is a somewhat reactionary statement, but the intention is clear. It’s about resisting a certain mechanism, and the word – the discipline – is used very clearly here. Discussing disciplines is not at all problematic. You shouldn’t limit yourself; you should relate to those other disciplines – that’s the most exciting thing.

MB: For me, it’s very much about a digital culture, which includes work that is important for that culture, even if they are completely analogue. If a word is needed to make it specific and clear – although I don’t favour it – it is ‘digital’. I prefer ‘digital culture’ to ‘digital art’.

JRL: This also implies networked, generative or procedural works. It’s a handy umbrella term.

SF: In the case of this canon, digital is a vehicle that works for me; it is a label we can use to bring our agenda to the fore. We outline a particular culture that we think is underrepresented. Without this label, we are less able to make our point, although it may not completely cover every aspect.

AD: Canon formation is an important art-historical instrument, but it has been subject to criticism for decades. Nowadays, the situation is more favourable: a canon provides appreciation and visibility to works, and by having multiple canons, it may be easier to ensure inclusivity or dissemination. What does the canon mean to you? Why is this digital canon important now? In other words: what is its function, what are the interests, and who are the stakeholders?

GW: There is a certain element of art that is underexposed, unknown and perhaps even unloved. I want to give this element a place. I think all of us, the profession, and we, as a group, are the stakeholders. We compile and make a selection, with an emphasis on doing this together. As a place where we want to provide insight and access to the history and importance of specific movements and disciplines, LIMA is continually running up against the fact that there is no historical awareness of digital art in the Netherlands. If we want to show the works for a long time, we have to take care of them. On the one hand, this project allows us to question canon formation: who selects, and why? However, on the other, we also use it as a valuable tool. Based on our expertise and selection criteria, we present the most important works. We are making a statement.

JB: The people to whom we offer the canon are also stakeholders. For them, it is imperative to fill specific gaps in collections. The canon can enrich the field of contemporary art. By placing digital artworks in the canon and establishing connections, you contribute to the understanding of a particular context and way of working.

MB: It is essential that digital art is no longer considered as obscure. These works often happen to be in collections accidentally. I think the canon can offer stakeholders tools to look at such works: therefore, it’s not just about randomly showing a Peter Struycken work, organising an evening on the work of Joost Rekveld, or giving Jodi attention somewhere. It should be possible to place these items together so that we can make connections, and so that Peter Struycken, Joost Rekveld and Jodi can be seen as part of the same line. Such an approach rejects the idea this field has no history and that digital culture has only taken place sporadically.

AD: The good thing about a canon is that it shows how items are excluded and included and which interests play a role, but I wonder whether this canonisation process still plays a role today. I think it shows how the existing canons of contemporary art are challenged both by the emergence of new media and platforms and by interdisciplinary approaches – but even more because old concepts, such as authenticity, authorship or ownership, change. That said, I also wonder what the difference is between the annual top-ten lists, and the hype surrounding them, and the canon? In this respect, I see a canon as something that, at a certain point, emerges from small groups or communities. The tricky thing is that these communities often end up agreeing with each other – as in the search for agreement or arriving at a common ground – and this often leads to an established order and standardised ideas or attitudes. Fortunately, this often gives rise to more far-reaching discussions, new or counter canons, and so forth. In this sense, a canon may provide a specific framework that is up for debate, and that’s what I guess is important – critically questioning the canon, continuously.

SF: For me, the canon is primarily a form of action. I very much consider it as a starting point for discussion. So I hope there will be a lot of reaction and also alternative lists and discussions. I think what we are doing has an activist function.

GW: A canon provokes discussion. It immediately raises a dialogue about who decides who is in the canon; why are certain artists in and others not. The art world has for a long time considered the canon as neutral and objective; the canon was an attempt to substantiate, scientifically, what are the best works. Despite our expertise, we have done this rather intuitively.

AD: Another aspect associated with canon formation is the market, the economic factor. If you are part of the canon, you will have traction in the market.

JRL: I have never associated the canon with the market, but more with education. A canon is a historical-educational tool, an understanding of history.

GW: As an artist, inclusion in such a canon increases your market value. The canon adds value to the work and the artist because it is recognition of importance. One of our original goals was that institutions should include the works in their collection. Consequently, the market value also changes. That’s how the system works.

AD: Could we also present this canon differently? We now seem to maintain the basic elements and characteristics of the canon, we add new people and lists, but what can be done to change the canon as such – to radically re-examine it? Is there scope to broaden the canon or change the perspective?

JB: I think it’s good to maintain the idea of the canon as a list of twenty works. We could also put together an exhibition of these works. Since some works no longer exist or are ‘broken’, then it also becomes about presentation and restoration. Every work from the canon could feature in a separate exhibition with peers or related works, like a cloud around the canon; this provides the opportunity to show both the choices we have made and the richness of the field.

SF: I also think it would be good to publish the longlist we have chosen, which in itself is also quite incomplete; this allows people to dig deeper and see what else there is. We could also indicate all the alternative canons. I would be interested in asking others about their canons – and placing them next to ours.

MB: The canon must be broadly accepted. It must be interesting and vital to the field, and it should be possible to add to it. If we can guarantee such a mechanism, I think we have created something valuable. The worst scenario would be if it were to grind to a halt or leave people indifferent. The canon must become the starting point for activating the field. At the same time, it must also be a starting point for stakeholders, such as museums. We can show them what there is, and the field must also be able to relate to it – in an active way and in a form that keeps it alive.

About the participants
Josephine Bosma is a researcher and critic
Martijn van Boven is an artist and teacher
Annet Dekker is a curator and researcher
Sandra Fauconnier is an art historian
Jan Robert Leegte is an artist and teacher
Gaby Wijers is the director of LIMA

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