“I must not hurt humans”… The repeated written sentence as punishment… for a robot! The installation Punishment (2017) by Filipe Vilas-Boas and Paul Coudamy features a large articulated arm “sitting” at a desk, busy copying the first fundamental law of robotics, as formulated by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. However, artificial ‘intelligence’ in the field of art – and life in general for that matter – has long since overstepped the boundaries of Sci-Fi. From Nicolas SCHÖFFER (1912-1992)’s first creative machines (CYSP 1) in 1956 to Takashi MURAKAMI (1962)’s humanoid self-portrait Robot Arhats in 2016, art history already has 60 years of experience with robotised phenomena that challenge the traditional definition of art, the artwork and the artist. Last spring’s exhibition Artists and Robots at the Grand Palais in Paris provided an excellent overview of the role of new technologies in contemporary creation… so far.
The advent of digital art
Artists have always been on the lookout for technical innovations to open the field of creative possibilities. The arrival of photography and video allowed the creation of new works using new media. At the International Exhibition of 1937 Raoul Dufy celebrated the major technological advance of the 19th century – electricity – in his painting La Fée électricité. Dufy was given just 10 months to paint 110 figures on a surface covering 600 m². The artist innovated by using a ‘magic lantern’ to project his preparatory drawings to scale onto the canvas surface. In 1989, Nam June PAIK (1932-2006) paid tribute to Dufy’s work with his audio-visual installation La Fée électronique consisting of 200 television monitors and 5 video robots each representing a figure of the French Revolution, including the famous Olympe de Gouges. The world of Contemporary art is in fact highly porous to virtual reality. Some artists use digital tools in their creations… some set up totally dematerialized creations like Ai WeiWei and Oliafur Eliasson’s moonmoonmoonmoon.com website in 2013 allowing people to draw or write something on a virtual moon and thus interact with each other. Others use digital codes to create works with traditional media. Aram Bartholl examines the relationship between the digital world and the physical world: his project Map is a large format installation of Google Map’s red pointer at the exact centres of cities like Kassel and Taipei, giving ‘material reality’ to Google’s GPS calculations. In short… the digital era raises serious questions about the place of humans in the world, and artists have quickly found themselves at the heart of this question.
Artist and AI
‘New media artist’, ‘multi-media artist’, ‘digital artist’… certain artists have escaped the standard appellations of sculptor, printmaker, painter etc.. The appearance of digital applications in practically all areas of human activity has changed the relationship between artists and their creations. By opening the field of ‘virtual’ possibilities, the artist gains autonomy and discovers new models. It makes non-adherence to the processes imposed by tradition and institutions a lot easier. With computer programs, the importance of manual techniques is receding in favour of digitally generated shapes and forms. Colours and materials are nowadays just series of numbers. The creative process can be infinitely faster. The artist delegates to the machine a part of his power, and what it produces can be infinitely and constantly modified. With Deep Learning, the machine instructs itself and becomes independent… until it is creating more or less on its own: the artist Leonel MOURA (1948) makes robots able to paint and draw independently. This is the idea behind his RAP (Robotic Action Painter, 2006), a permanent installation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The result is impossible to determine because the robot runs algorithms. It decides for itself when the work is finished and then signs it.
The relationship between the artist and his audience also changes. Digital tools have become a universal medium: everyone has access to know-how and culture; everyone can express themselves and create works of art. Digital art is above all a participative and collaborative art. The artist / public relationship is much flatter. The public takes an active part in contemplating the artwork and even becomes a participant and/or an integral part of the creative process. This idea is at the heart of the work of Miguel Chevalier, a French artists born in Mexico in 1959 and considered a pioneer of virtual art. The movements of visitors to his video installations actually modify them in real time, as in Liquid pixels (2009). The movement of each visitor is converted into a brush stroke creating a trail of colour that gets blended with the backdrop, using a technique described as electronic dripping.
Redefining the ‘artwork’
What defines a work of art in the digital age? Since the advent of abstraction in art, artworks can no longer be defined by their subject. The lawsuit that Constantin BRANCUSI (1876-1957) filed (and won) in 1928 against the United States Customs Service to have his Oiseau dans l’espace recognized as a work of art put a definitive end to the need for a subject in art. Since the advent of printing and then photography (not to mention sculpture and manufacturing) a work of art can no longer be defined by its unicity, since many artworks are produced in series and editions. Now that an artwork can be created by a collaborative process or a team or as a result of a number of different production layers, the work is no longer defined by its author. Perhaps we should define an artwork by its audience, the persons for whom it is destined? After all, as many have observed (including famously Oscar Wilde), beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. An artwork may be defined first and foremost by its idea, i.e. by the work of personal imagination in its conception rather than by its realisation that can be delegated or even automated. Nicolas Schöffer anticipated this vision of art by stating that “the role of the artist will no longer be to create a work, but to create creation” (1956). Yes… but… digital creations – processes that are open and often collaborative, monumental and/or deliberately ephemeral – are struggling to get accepted within the art market’s traditional economic circuits.
A market for digital art?
In recent years, the art market has moved massively into the ‘online’ sphere and, since 2010, Internet sales have exploded. But ownership of a digital artwork is still a rare thing and there are very few places where one can actually buy one. In effect, digital art poses problems of conservation, maintenance and reproducibility since the bulk of the works started life as computer code. Then there is the problem of pricing: what values can/should be attributed to artists who only do digital art? Is this type of art destined to be sold uniquely via the secondary market? The models and networks of the Contemporary art market are not necessarily applicable or relevant to digital art. Back in the day, photography, then video, started by mimicking the commercial codes of the Contemporary art (certificates of authenticity, limited editions, etc.). On 29 January 2014, anniversary of the death of Nam June Paik, the first video art auction was held at Hôtel Drouot organised by auctioneer Vincent Wappler. All the lots proposed had digital or online versions. Buyers were offered the ‘originals’. But even if digital art follows the same road, it must overcome technical and legal problems related to the specific media required for a multimedia work. In fact the very sale of a digital work raises questions right from the start… What exactly is being sold? The software, the computer, the microphone, the screen… or everything. The Paddles on! sale organised by Phillips in New York in October 2013 and curated by Lindsay Howard was the first digital art sale. It featured websites, YouTube videos, software and animated GIFs. Most of the pieces sold, some up to $16,000. The following year, Phillips reiterated the experience in London but the proceeds fell short of expectations and since then no auction house has taken the risk of trying to sell digital art for the lack of a clearer economic model. However, but some ideas are beginning to emerge, such as a ‘exhibition rights’ (fees paid to an artist when his/her work is shown in public) and the establishment of dedicated streaming services, connected to screens already in place.
Encountering difficulties in finding its place within the existing spaces, the digital art community is organising itself in a parallel and autonomous fashion around dedicated fairs like the NEMO Biennale (4th edition in 2018) and the ELEKTRA festival and via websites or online magazines like Digitalarti created in 2009. To avoid the risk of ghettoising digital art, further collaboration is needed between the art world, economic platforms and the tech world in order to find sustainable models for these new forms of creation.
How Lisbon’s Dazzling Tile Traditions Continue to Thrive Today
Sep 21, 2018 6:18 pm
Cortiço & Netos. Photo by Pedro Sadio Photography. Courtesy of Cortiço & Netos.
I like to think that Lisbon was given the nickname “Queen of the Sea” because its tile-covered buildings resemble the precious stones that decorate crowns. Under the Portuguese sun, the painted ceramic squares glisten like gems, set across the city.
Walking through the Portuguese capital, nestled between the Tagus River and the Atlantic, you’ll find tiled façades on nearly every street. They blanket former palaces with depictions of palm fronds and strapping Portuguese heroes, as well as church walls with biblical scenes, rendered in deep blue brushstrokes. My personal favorites are less grand, but just as mesmerizing: tall apartment buildings veiled with kaleidoscopic patterns and windows tucked inside alleyways, framed by depictions of orange blossoms.
On a trip to Portugal this past summer, I was struck by the ubiquity and diversity of azulejos, as these tiles are called, and went on something of a pilgrimage to understand the origins of the tradition—and how contemporary artists, from
Handmade panels by Viúva Lamego. Courtesy of Viúva Lamego.
The journey began with a trip to Lisbon’s National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo). Located within a former convent, it houses a treasure trove of the painted ceramic pieces, produced between the 15th century and the present. The earliest examples are simple: geometric bits of clay, fired and glazed in a single hue, like white, blue, and forest green. Denizens of towns across Portugal used tiles like these as pavement—a technique they adopted from the Moors, with whom they’d traded and battled since the 8th century. The term “azulejos” hints at the art form’s North African origins: It’s an adaptation of the Arabic word alzuleycha, meaning “small polished stone.”
It wasn’t until the 16th century, though, that more intricate tiles became prevalent across Portugal, and moved from streets onto the façades of buildings—often covering them completely. “Many other countries have tile art, where it is used as decoration like a tapestry,” the museum’s director, Maria Antónia Pinto de Matos, has said. “But in Portugal, it became a part of the building. The decorative tiles are a construction material as well as decoration.”
Over time, the Portuguese gave painted tiles their own stylistic spin, too. Unlike their Muslim counterparts in North Africa, the Portuguese were primarily Christian—and thus didn’t feel obligated to adhere to the teachings of the Quran, which discourages the portrayal of living things in art. In turn, a wide range of styles, from geometric patterns to figurative and narrative scenes, began to spread across Portugal’s increasingly tile-flanked streets. (Portuguese artisans had also adopted the use of tin oxide from their Italian peers; the substance allowed them to paint directly onto the tiles’ surfaces, without the hues sliding into one another, which could happen with glazes.)
Inside the Viúva Lamego workshop. Photo by Homem Cardoso. Courtesy of Viúva Lamego.
Inside the Viúva Lamego workshop. Photo by Homem Cardoso. Courtesy of Viúva Lamego.
Soon, churches and wealthy residents were commissioning opulent, colorful façades and interiors. In the aristocracy’s hands, tiles became canvases for
-inspired scenes that reflected Earthly pleasures and conquests—picturing subjects from overflowing bowls of fruit to Portugal’s bustling trade economy. The papacy tended towards biblical scenes and geometric designs.
Within the museum, the convent’s chapel, dating to the 16th century, has been preserved. One especially enchanting wall hosts three different tiled patterns: an area filled with green and white rectangles borders a lattice of flower buds and a grid of blue starbursts, ensconced in golden arabesques.
After leaving the museum, I noticed tiles everywhere. Some were yellowing and cracked, clearly relics from long ago; others appeared to be from the 1950s and ’60s, painted with chartreuse flower-power daisies. One park was bordered by a distinctly contemporary mural—the work of Paris-based street artist André Saraiva. On a long wall of white tiles, he’d painted a cartoonish world, where cities as far flung as Lisbon, New York, Paris, and Uppsala existed within the space of a single city block, all connected by slim bodies of water and short bridges.
Inside the Viúva Lamego workshop. Photo by Homem Cardoso. Courtesy of Viúva Lamego.
When I arrived at my next stop, the tile workshop Viúva Lamego, I learned that Saraiva created the piece within its walls. Viúva Lamego was one of the first tile factories to emerge in the 19th century (previously, individual tile makers worked independently). By bringing a range of artisans together, they were able to produce more work. As a result, they helped make painted tiles available to the everyman—not just the rich.
António da Costa Lamego founded the operation in 1849, initially producing utilitarian red clay objects and white tiles. His earliest clients were mostly Brazilians, who’d realized the benefits of covering their homes in traditional Portuguese tile (it helped protect them from the sweltering climate). As the 19th century approached, however, the factory witnessed a growing demand for decorative tiles. Soon, they were employing artisans to design a variety of motifs, from angular to organic to figurative. In turn, Viúva Lamego offered handmade tiles to a wide range of clients, with differing tastes and budgets.
Viúva Lamego’s operations today are not all that different. While the original building now acts as the company’s showroom, its sprawling workspace (located on the outskirts of Lisbon) still buzzes with artists painting all manner of ceramic slabs. Large work tables are covered in grids of white tiles, waiting for paint and glaze. They’re surrounded by countless stacks of color swatches, tools for carving raw clay, jars of paint, drying racks, and kilns.
Joana Vasconcelos, Trafaria Praia, for the Portugal Pavilion at the 55th International Art Exhibition, 2013. Photo by Bruno Portela (Cortesia Unidade Infinita Projectos). Courtesy of Viúva Lamego.
When I spoke with Sofia Sampaio, Viúva Lamego’s marketing director, she emphasized the importance of the company’s artisans—and the fine artists they routinely collaborate with. The workshop employs about 15 full-time tile makers, who regularly work with outside artists and architects. Viúva Lamego embarked on these partnerships in the mid-1900s, when tiles “started to capture the imagination of the creative community,” Sampaio explained.
Indeed, in a time when Salazar’s oppressive dictatorship ruled the country, artists were drawn to the democratic nature of tiles. In the 1950s, avant-garde painter Maria Keil realized that tiles could be a vehicle through which to bring her work into the public realm. She was also drawn to the material because of its ties to Portuguese history. Ceramic tiles had transitioned from an art form available only to elites into a decorative element used by many. Through a series of tiled murals installed in streets and subway stations, Keil transformed the medium yet again—into visual art that was accessible to all.
Keil produced her work with the help of Viúva Lamego’s artisans. The installations played with traditional geometric motifs by distorting them and pushing patterns beyond the borders of individual tiles. “She was one of the first artists to explore the limits of tile standardization,” Sampaio explained. In other words, it was a radical act.
Since then, Viúva Lamego has collaborated with with esteemed artists ranging from
was in situ working on an upcoming solo exhibition in which several works would be constructed from tiles.
Rem Koolhaas, Casa da Música, 2005. Courtesy of Viúva Lamego.
Anahory Almeida, Pitaria, Lisboa, Portugal, 2017. Photo by Rodrigo Cardoso. Courtesy of Viúva Lamego.
For artists who’ve worked with tile, the appeal of the medium is wide ranging. Sometimes, they’re interested in playing with the social, cultural, and socioeconomic history of tile painting. Others are intrigued by the architectural or utilitarian uses of azulejos, or their shape-shifting formal qualities.
For filmmaker Ricardo Cortiço, the appeal of the material has everything to do with family, home, and memory. Cortiço is one of four brothers who own and operate Cortiço e Netos, a company started by their grandfather in the 1960s to preserve and sell painted tiles that had been discontinued or discarded from factories where they were mass produced. Their Lisbon shop is an archive of tiles that went out of favor in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. But today, they’re seen as beautiful, novel, or even moving to most who pass through.
“The majority of the Portuguese customers, or passersby, always recognize one or two patterns at the store,” Cortiço told me. “It usually triggers old memories of their families’ houses. There is something about the tiles that makes people very emotional.”
Cortiço’s brother, Pedro, is an artist who’s recently taken to using tile from Cortiço e Netos as the basis for large-scale mosaic wall pieces. For him, the material is deeply personal—but also universal. Like photographs, they represent memories. And when found long after they were created, they’re like jewels, meant to be collected and preserved.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a Staff Writer at Artsy.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, a statement regarding the relationship between Salazar’s dictatorship and artists working with tile was misattributed to Sofia Sampaio. The text has been changed to clarify that this was not said by Sampaio.