Photo Innovation: sedition Selling Fine-Art Photos for the Screen

By Edgar Allen Beem

Wim Wenders Lounge Painting 1
© Wim Wenders/Courtesy of www.seditionart.com
Wim Wender's "Lounge Painting 1" is available to s[edition] members as a digital limited edition for $8, but it can only be displayed, not printed.

British art star Damien Hirst has sold some of his iconic spot paintings for more than a million dollars. But London-based s[edition] sells Hirst’s spot art for just $21. What collectors get for $21 is not a one-of-a-kind painting but a “digital limited edition,” a high-resolution digital file limited to 10,000 copies and capable of being displayed on any electronic screen from a smartphone to a flat-screen TV.

The obvious question digital art that exists only on screens raises is whether file art is really fine art or just a likeness of art, a reproduction or a virtual representation of a physical object. But s[edition] Director Rory Blain points out that people once asked the same question about photography. Is it art?

“It’s a very logical extension of an art world tradition,” replies Rory Blain. “It’s the modern-day equivalent of the art world multiple, like photographs and prints.”

S[edition] was the brainchild of Rory Blain’s art dealer brother Harry Blain, formerly of Haunch of Venison, now a partner in the art gallery Blain|Southern. Harry Blain first toyed with the idea of marketing affordable screen-based copies of expensive fine art in the early 1990s, but it was not until 2011, when screen resolution and bandwidth had improved enough to enable the online delivery of high-quality digital imagery, that Blain teamed up with Robert L. Norton, then director of Saatchi Online, to launch s[edition].

Initially, s[edition] marketed digital representations of existing artworks, but most of the works for sale on its website now were created exclusively for s[edition].   

Rory Blain says that while several online art portals use the Internet to market digital art, usually the output is in physical form, so s[edition] has no direct competitors in the marketing of digital images that “turn screens into art.”

S[edition] collectors, who range from traditional fine-art collectors to art lovers who cannot afford the original art they flock to see in galleries and museums, are actually buying access to a computer code and the right to stream the encoded digital information on as many screens as they like. The hi-res digital images and videos are not downloaded directly but are stored in collector “vaults” on the s[edition] server.

Collectors receive a certificate of authenticity and the digital images are protected by digital watermarks on the s[edition] website and by a security code attached to individual pixels, a technology the company is in the process of patenting.

In just two years, s[edition] has signed up some 60,000 members, who can buy access to the PNG and MP4 files s[edition] uses. The members can then display the images, but not print them. Prices range from a mere $8 for Wim Wenders’s “Lounge Painting 1,” a photograph of a hotel lobby in Gila Bend, Arizona, to $1,600 for Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s video of a day in the life of their “Prada Marfa” installation in Marfa, Texas, made from hundreds of still photographs of the faux Prada boutique in the high desert.

“Generally our collectors gravitate more to moving images than still images,” says Rory Blain.

The only edition that has sold out so far is Ryoji Ikeda’s “A Single Number That Has 124,761,600 Digits,” a video in which numbers flash by in a blur. All 300 sold at $8. Idris Khan’s “After Twombly … One Evening” is a stop-frame animation of photos made as he wrote a poem on a chalkboard and the series is sold in an edition of 1,000 for $29. The artists receive a 50 percent commission on each sale.

As flat-screen televisions become more affordable, s[edition] foresees collectors exhibiting their art on multiple screens displayed like sculpture and paintings in their homes. The company also issues public display licenses to enable museums and corporations to display s[edition] artworks. Collectors can sell or trade digital works once an edition is sold out, though they must do so through the s[edition] website.

“It really is most helpful to just think of it as another form of art,” says Rory Blain. “Anything you can use art for, you can use this for.”

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