HELP DESK: Digital Dilemma

Welcome to HELP DESK, where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to–contemporary art. Together, we’ll sort through some of art’s thornier issues. Email helpdesk@dailyserving.com with your questions. All submissions remain strictly anonymous and become the property of Daily Serving. HELP DESK is co-sponsored by KQED.org.I recently had to pick the edition size of a digital interactive project I made. I just went with a standard ten but it got me thinking. I understand that when you are making prints for example each piece in the edition has to be physically produced by the artist. Thus it makes sense to limit the number of pieces that can be made. But why arbitrarily constrict the number of something that can be copied infinitely at no cost or time to me? Video works would be another example of this. Movies, music, and literature don’t have this type of artificial supply constriction. Can you please explain the function and process of editioning digital art?

In general, edition numbers vary for reasons both pragmatic and market-driven. Traditionally, the edition run of a print on paper is determined partially by its technology; most printmaking media such as etching plates degrade with repeated use. Therefore, if you want the last print to look as good as the first, you have to limit the overall number of prints produced so that every print is of nearly the same quality. It has less to do with being physically produced by the artist—many editions are contracted out to printing houses—and more to do with the inverse relationship between edition size and print quality.

But, of course, there is no limit to the amount of digital copies you can generate from an original file, because unlike prints on paper, the reproduction quality never deteriorates no matter how many CDs or DVDs you burn. So should you limit the number of copies available? It’s a great question, but the answer isn’t arbitrary even though it may be artificial.

Cory Arcangel, Sweet 16, 2006. Projection from a digital source, dimensions variable, edition of 5

One factor to remember in digital editioning is that it’s contingent on the art-historical precedent set by the conventions of more traditional media. Capital-A Art typically has an aura, in part because the art object is singular (a painting) or because the technology that produced it can only last through a limited number of runs (lithography stones, ceramic molds). This has a direct bearing on digital editioning—generally, when a new technology is introduced to the arts it has to fit into the established paradigm.

In addition to its reliance on preexisting standards absorbed from other media, editioning of digital work is also market-driven. In a capitalist society, restricted supply means increased value, so when the medium itself is cheap and infinitely reproducible, value can be contrived by limiting its availability.

In the case of digital editioning, historical precedence and market forces conspire—sometimes to an absurd extent. For instance, some videos are now created in editions that include “artist’s proofs”—a term used in traditional printing for the very first prints, of higher quality resulting from the fresh printing stone. Print-on-paper APs, it can be reasoned, are more valuable because they are generally sharper and more colorful than subsequent prints; but video APs have no such enhanced clarity, making them into something between an embarrassment and an in-joke.

Cory Arcangel, I Shot Andy Warhol, 2002. Interactive video installation

All skepticism aside, creating a limited run of a digital work is a perfectly legitimate practice. Doing so is a promise to collectors that you will not devalue their purchase by making additional copies of the work at a later date. And if you do limit the edition, it is important that you stick to this promise, painful though it may be in the long run if demand for the work increases. The question of whether or not to limit an edition of a digital work hinges on your priorities. If wide distribution is your first priority then it would be more advantageous to produce a larger edition or an open edition. If you desire a high financial value for the work then a limited edition and the scarcity it creates will serve you better.

But beware, there are many factors that will make a big difference to the success of an editioned project. For example, if you are very early on in your career and your reputation is not widespread enough to add any value to the work, then it might be better to create a large or open edition that will get your work in front of more people. On the other hand, if the work will be exhibited at a gallery that has a good history of sales and you can reasonably expect to sell most of the works in the edition, then limiting it will allow you to command a higher price.

One resource for ideas about editioning is the recording of the 2009 panel discussion at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Australia entitled, “Editioning: Photography and Video.” The first speaker, Elena Galimberti (who collaboratively built the Australian Video Art Archive), discusses the minutiae of editioning videos, noting, “Emerging artists will generally offer early works in larger editions, lowering the price to more accessible levels. As an artist becomes more established, the edition size will usually decrease.” Another issue that Galimberti touches on briefly in her remarks is the manner in which the perceived value of an edition may be enhanced by certificates of authenticity, signed copies, special packaging, or other related ephemera. If you’re working with a commercial gallery, creating related materials that accompany the CD or DVD can reinforce a sense of significance and value. And when in doubt, the gallerist or dealer should be able to help you decide on an edition size.

Cory Arcangel, Super Mario Clouds v2k3, 2003. Installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art

However, if you prefer to try for the widest possible distribution, or if the idea of accessible dissemination fits more closely with the conceptual goals of your work, you may choose to produce unlimited open edition. It’s important to note that an uneditioned work is not necessarily free for those who exhibit it. The Electronic Arts Intermix Online Resource Guide explains that the creator of an open-edition video can still enforce, “restrictions governing who may make copies, how they are made, and how they may be used…With uneditioned video, artists are typically paid a royalty when the work is exhibited or sold. Thus, exhibitors pay a fee for the inclusion of an uneditioned work in an exhibition or screening.” That is, they pay if you want them to; remember that you make the rules here.

Of course, interactive digital artwork is a relatively new field that fits rather poorly into traditional structures governing the distribution of editioned works. The EAI also has a section on best practices for computer-based arts, noting, “…most works and exhibitions need to be considered on a case-by-case basis… Although distinctions between single-channel video, video installation and computer-based arts continue to blur, the interactive attributes of many computer-based installations create unique requirements.” It’s likely that there exists an entirely novel solution to the problem of editioning your next project, one that serves the needs of producer and consumers, and will be as new as the media on which it is based. Good luck!

 

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