Art Dubai Digital, An Alternative Art World?
By Alessia Piacitelli and Amy Qian
Published on March 14, 2022
Located in the splendid Madinat Jumeirah, this year’s 15th edition of Art Dubai presented over 100 art galleries from more than 40 countries, from Contemporary, Modern, Bawwaba, and Digital sections. With full-day programs of Global Art Forum talks, guided tours, and with after-parties going late into the evening, the art fair was not only an avenue for Dubai’s public to enjoy seeing regional and international galleries, but also an opportunity for local practitioners to meet their counterparts from the region, to socialize and exchange ideas.
2. Souad Abdelrassoul, Waiting, 2021. Acrylics on canvas. 200 x 235 cm. Image courtesy Circle Art Gallery.
3. Dickens Otieno, Celestials, 2022. Shredded aluminium cans woven on steel mesh249 x 168 cm
98 1/8 x 66 1/8 in. Image courtesy Circle Art Gallery.
Dubai’s art market emerged from a pandemic with a fresh revolutionary section: Art Dubai Digital. Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) were undoubtedly the highlight of this year’s Art Dubai. Inaugurated this year, Art Dubai Digital was a section dedicated solely to digital art. Following green signs, visitors were invited to enter into a different part of the Madinat Jumeirah complex, outside of the main halls, and into an underground space lit by neon lights, screens, and symbols of our post-digital age. With seventeen participating galleries, including some from Seoul, Istanbul, London, a wide variety of digital works were on view, displayed mostly on flat screens. For some of the galleries, Art Dubai Digital represented the first time they participated at a modern and contemporary art fair, in the traditional sense of the word.
In the current digital era, Art Dubai Digital showcased ways in which new artistic models can adapt to the usual art fair structure. The section looked like a parallel world, a variation of what an art space can become if it did not strictly follow white cube form. Exhibited on LCD screens, digital artworks looked like living paintings. Black walls, neon lights, canvas screens, and Ethereum wallets made up the new reality of this space.
In the current digital era, Art Dubai Digital showcased ways in which new artistic models can adapt to the usual art fair structure.
“There is a lot of interest, a lot of questions – which is fine,” said David Johnson from Institut, a London-based art organization with over five decades of experience in all fields of contemporary art. “We want to make sure that traditional collectors include digital art in their collections,” Johnson continued. Their target audience was not necessarily made up of young Gen Z collectors. Institut proposed artworks by Tyler Hobbs and Drift x Don Diablo x Sil, which range from ETH 90 (USD 180,000) to ETH 285 (USD 750,000), attracting clients usually in their late 30s and 40s with “enough liquidity.”
Black walls, neon lights, canvas screens, and Ethereum wallets made up the new reality of this space.
Interestingly, many gallerists of Art Dubai Digital were Gen Z representatives with backgrounds in finance, technology, design, and marketing. Ready to educate audiences about NFTs, blockchain, and Ethereum, the general feeling in this section was one of accessibility and pedagogy surrounding the novelty of this technology and the potential it presents to current and future art collectors. Gallerists’ patience and willingness to share their knowledge was necessary to open the world of nonfungible tokens to the general public as well as serious art connoisseurs with years of experience in the art world.
“We, as a gallery and as an organisation, are comprised of technologists, and thus have expertise in displaying NFTs”, shared Keith Casadei from Bright Moments, a digital globally-based DAO platform. With communities in Venice, New York, and Berlin, BrightMoments hosts supporters and a group of Crypto Citizens who attend in-person events and vote for the next city where community events are held. As a complete Web3 initiative, Crypto Citizens create their digital identities and build online reputations. Rooting this initiative in broader art history, Casadei compared Bright Moments to Sol Levitt’s instructions for mounting artworks in galleries. Events in different cities are some sort of art happenings, which clearly depend on a community of both old and new “citizens.”
As we went further into the space and started to engage with the gallerists and artists, we came to realize that this world also felt new to the majority of the visitors. The whole experience of Art Dubai Digital felt at times like some kind of gaming hub, presenting unordinary concepts. While some visitors seemed to struggle to appreciate the intricacies and thought process behind digital pieces, most were left with the feeling of acceptance and optimism. “NFTs are here to stay and we need to accept the different approaches that are being developed right now,” is the opinion we were personally left with.
As we went further into the space and started to engage with the gallerists and artists, we came to realize that this world also felt new to the majority of the visitors.
6. Refik Anadol, installation view at Pivelneli Gallery booth, Art Dubai Digital 2022. Photo courtesy of Alessia Piacitelli and Amy Qian.
Not all Art Dubai Digital booths were as detached from the tangible world. Sam Spike from Fingerprint DAO explained the concept behind Seed Capital (2022), the artwork on view at Fingerprint DAO’s booth. The installation consisted of a plant which ground humidity and temperature were analyzed every fifteen minutes. Based on the health of the plant, NFT certificates were being issued right in front of the viewer. If the certificate reported good results, the artwork could be bought.
Whereas these new developments might seem disruptive to the art market, one should not forget that some artists, such as the renowned Turkish media artist Refik Anadol – presented by Istanbul-based Pilevneli Gallery – found a logical continuation of their practice in the world of NFTs. Anadol’s new media works have always been based on code and data analysis. Blockchain represents a a new way of transporting – or encrypting – his creative output. His living compositions and data visualizations looked stunning on walls, as portals that can transport viewers to previously unimaginable worlds. These worlds are now slowly but steadily occupying space in the art world. As an example, it was said that agents of digital galleries reached out to their counterparts in other halls of the fair, to what have now become “traditional” contemporary art galleries, and asked whether their artists were interested in “going digital.”
Whereas these new developments might seem disruptive to the art market, one should not forget that some artists, such as the renowned Turkish media artist Refik Anadol – presented by Istanbul-based Pilevneli Gallery – found a logical continuation of their practice in the world of NFTs.
NFTs represent a new, refreshing way of exhibiting and selling art. Storage and transportation are simplified. Issues of provenance and authenticity are automatically solved by blockchain technology. For artists and collectors alike, the idea of emitting eternal royalty fees is extremely tempting. While many people dislike this idea, NFTs represent an inevitable future for the contemporary art world. Art Dubai Digital has shown ways in which digital artists and dealers can educate a new public, and expand the definition of physical art (installations, sculptures, paintings, photographic prints, sketches, drawings, and more) with elements and tools of digital activation.
In parallel to Art Dubai Digital, there were a number of talks surrounding topics of memes, image circulation, crypto gaming, and NFTs. Aside from Dorian Batycka’s fascinating Global Art Forum 15 lectures on meme culture and the vocabulary of “the world of crypto/blockchain/NFTism,” we had the opportunity to attend another talk called “Dubai Youth and Crypto” featuring Yasmine Karimi, an 18-year-old undergraduate student and co-founder of Menaverse gaming guild, and Mr. KEY (Karnika E. Yashwant), an impact entrepreneur who has been in the blockchain space since 2013. Mr. KEY stressed that crypto is community-driven. The next step for NFTs is to “provide a platform to allow everyone to shine,” he said. Art Dubai provided multiple entry points into conversations around digital art, and included young, community-led initiatives with Dubai’s fast-growing art scene. Huda, one of the volunteers of this year’s Art Dubai, assisted with the information desk and helped guide the visitors. Interested in photography, she was amazed by the variety of galleries at the fair, including the digital ones. “This is my first time at Art Dubai. The people, the culture, and the art are really beautiful and innovative,” she said.
Alessia Piacitelli is an Italian-Russian student at New York University Abu Dhabi where she studies Art History and Economics. Interested in the development of the art market in the UAE, she currently interning for Carbon 12 gallery and pursuing a Student Assistantship at NYUAD Art Gallery.
Amy (Yuanchen) Qian is from Wuxi, China. A second-year student studying Art History at New York University Abu Dhabi, her research interests focus on East Asian contemporary art. She worked as a Volunteer for Art Dubai 2022.