Stem sell technology

David Hockney's love of digital art is on show at an exhibition in Paris. Julian Stallabrass asks: is it just a fad?

December 2, 2010

Painting with light: David Hockney uses computers to do, more conveniently and rapidly, much what he would have done in paint

Many of those who are given cut flowers value the gift because of the short, poignant span of the blooms' beauty. As with a firework, just slower, money is sacrificed to transient display. The presence of flowers in a vase is also bought at the price of their death.

A digital image of a flower is quite different. If it can be read, it will remain unchanged (as long as the varying colour registers of different monitors are discounted). A Belgian artist, David Claerbout, recently played on these contrasts by designing flowers that could be downloaded to a computer desktop where, over a period of weeks, they would wilt and decay. His work was named Present.

David Hockney has lately been "painting" flowers on an iPad and iPhone, using an app called Brushes, which allows the user to make the touch-screen display colours by stroking it with a stylus or fingers. Any colour can be laid over any other without the lower layer showing through, which is not the case with paint. Hockney traces out the designs of cut flowers, often seen against a window in the early morning, and sends them to a small group of friends. He can get rapid comments on his work, and his friends are apparently free to circulate these gifts as they like.

Hockney is currently showing 200 of these works in Paris at the Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent, displayed on iPads and iPhones. Since the software also allows the user to replay each stage by which a composition was built, viewers can see how Hockney went about making a digital picture of the nearby Eiffel Tower. This is a nicely demystifying display that should encourage others to turn their iPads into sketchpads.

Hockney's interest in computer technology is long-standing - he was experimenting with Quantel's Paintbox, a dedicated machine made for the design of TV graphics, as early as 1985. In a remarkable TV programme made at the time, he showed how the machine and software could be turned to make pictures, "painting with light", as the artist put it. He revelled in its precise emulation of material media, in the speed with which ideas could be tried out, and the ease with which failed attempts could be erased.

While, at the dawn of computer art, many artists used their work to reflect on the nature of the universal simulator, Hockney (then and now) uses computers to do, more conveniently and rapidly, much what he would have done in paint.

Unlike fresh flowers, Hockney says, "my flowers last". Digital media tightly entangle an ideal immortality with an actual disposability and ephemerality. If a file can be read, it will not age, but that "if" is not a trivial one. The physical media on which files are held do, of course, deteriorate; as software is developed, incompatibilities with older versions can emerge, while other programs are abandoned altogether; media become obsolete (punched cards, magnetic tape, floppy disks and zip drives, to mention but a few).

Ensuring the continuing freshness and life of digital files requires work, and that will continue only if the material continues to be of enough interest to warrant it. The vast majority of the 5 billion photographs on the photo-sharing site Flickr will surely be left to digital oblivion.

Giving gifts is one way to gain attention, and digital gifts are easy to give to many people. Adding a name to an email list takes little effort. The digital gift economy offers genuine goods (think of the music, video, photographs and texts shared online), in the hope that attention may itself turn out to be valuable, and may lead to the opportunity to sell other goods (material paintings of flowers, for example) at a premium.

So one way to view Hockney's exhibition is that it is a successful joint advertisement for the artist and Apple, the iPad and iPhone's manufacturer. In a much-quoted statement, Hockney makes this clear, comparing the iPad favourably to a drawing pad, and saying that "they will sell by the million".

The conjunction is also illustrated nicely by, a leading technology reviews website, which carries a brief account of the exhibition. Directly below a reproduction of one of Hockney's pictures there is a link entitled "Read full review" - which takes you, logically enough, to a review of the iPad.

Apple has marketed devices of remarkable visual polish coupled with alluring and access-ible interfaces, but its software is proprietary and closed source. Software designers are not free to alter and improve it, as they can with the open-source or free software that runs much of the internet. The success of Apple's various communication tools, and of other closed parts of the web such as Facebook, can be seen as digital enclosures. As Richard Stallman, one of the founders of the free software movement famously put it: "'Free software' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in 'free speech', not as in 'free beer'."

With free software, people are able to update and improve programs if they think it worth doing, and one of the things that they may do is to ensure that old file formats can be read on modern machines, just as fans of old games write software to give them continued life.

Closely linked to the issue of software is the distribution of these images. In principle, they could be copied freely, forwarded widely and dwell on the hard disks of millions of computers at once.

In fact, neither Hockney nor his friends seem to have given them public life. Google searches for the iPad flowers throw up only a few low-resolution images published online. If the iPad is used to closely emulate the old art of painting, its old economic model is also being followed, as if digital files have to be guarded as closely as unique objects.

Using a closed-source device to make the flowers is to stake their future on the survival of a single company and its continued interest in protecting its past file formats. The life of Hockney's flowers may be shorter than he imagines.

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