Kunstsammlung NRW

App Art: the Artwork on Your Tablet

Can work of art also function as an app? On July 11, the App Art Award will be conferred at the ZKM in Karlsruhe – for #32, Arnika Fürgut took a closer look at the four winner apps, and suddenly found herself among avalanches, sand dunes, and the Bak-Tang-Wiesenfeld model.

Avalanches, sand dunes, grains of rice, self-organizing criticality, dynamic systems: summarized artistically as a digital visualization of a physical phenomenon, the app bearing the title “Sablo” received this year's special “Art & Science” prize of the App Art Awards. For the fourth successive year, the prize was awarded by the ZKM Karlsruhe in collaboration with CyberForum e.V. in four categories: “Sound Art,” “Crowd Art,” the “Prize for Artistic Innovation,” and “Art & Science” – each recipient receives 10,000 euros.

The Bak-Tang-Wiesenfeld model in its most beautiful form: Ernst Uys’ "Sablo"

After your initial contact with the monochrome start screen, the app “Sablo” (2014), developed by Ernst Uys from South Africa, makes the impression of a colorful, shimmering chaos, whose pixels and particles rearrange themselves continuously when touched, guided as though by chance into newly emergent pathways and channels. Each attempt at rearrangement miscarries: once activated, the dynamic particles evade all external influence, so the user’s only available recourse is the renewed production of chaos, the renewed triggering of movement. If however the user allows the numberless elements sufficient time to organize themselves, they end up in a static and reorganized condition of natural contingency: the colorful pixels cluster together into geometric structures, order is restored, before is after.

This physical phenomenon that is the natural generation of systematic order from an equally systematic chaos through unpredictable and equivalent movements is referred to as the Bak-Tang-Wiesenfeld model, as exemplified by avalanches and sand cones, for example. Ernst Uys has succeeded in calculating this model digitally in a lifelike way, in visualizing it, aestheticizing it, and implementing it in a participatory fashion.

The user becomes the catalyst for avalanches, observes the increase and reduction of complexity, becomes a part of the system. “A marvelously designed app in graphic terms that conveys the theme of chaos and complexity simply and playfully. It is a joy to observe chaos progressing slowly toward rigid structure,” commented the jury of the Art App Award on this project.

Can “Sablo” then be interpreted as a functioning media artwork in the form of a mobile app? Has art finally exited the institutional framework of the museum, not simply because it can be experienced outside of that institution, but because it is now designed specifically for such alternative forms of reception? What might come after the appropriation of end devices by art? Must art defend itself via novelty – and as with nearly every development of technical reproducibility – against accusations of devaluation and the loss of auratic levels of meaning? Or has this hurdle already been cleared, with the “Sablo” icon asserting itself in a self-evident way alongside mail programs, games, and navigation apps on the start screen of smart phones and tablets? Will we engage in the future unhesitatingly with digital artworks simply because we have also learned to use mobile apps?

Between Artists, Programmers, and GooglePlay

At this point, one aspect in particular bears stressing: the characterization pertains only to the form of the work, whose haptic qualities are found in the mobile end device. When it comes to media art, this virtuality and anti-materiality is nothing new – regarding availability, access, range, reception, and options for participation, mobile apps nonetheless open up options that go beyond clearly circumscribed exhibition contexts. Now, artworks move within spaces of daily visibility and availability, and could at long last take the form of democratized every day and functional objects, as called for already by Pop Art.

Just as artists expand the repertoire of their craft from painting, sculpture, and photography toward knowledge of design and programming, programmers and designers are in turn discovering the niches and interfaces of media art. That the consumer at the end of the chain must decide between the Google and Apple stores (and not for the museum of her choice) seems to be simply the logical and manifest extension of the advance of digitalization in all areas of society. “Everything that can be digital will become digital,” says Nicholas Negroponte, the American professor of computer science and media scholar. Art is certainly well on its way.

Arnika Fürgut is a trainee with the Department of the Digital Communication at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. She is interested not just in digital interfaces, but also in intersections between art, science, and technology.

App Art Award

App "Sablo"

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