Electric Objects is an Internet-enabled, digital art frame that hopes to change the way we imagine computers and new media art.
In 2011, The Creators Project wrote about a digital picture frame called FRAMED*, a proposed "new platform for digital art." Crafted by new media artists for new media artists, the 40" screen included a self-contained computer powered by an Intel Core i5 processor and Windows 7, it supported artworks made with Processing, OpenFrameworks, Cinder and Flash—and, with WiFi capability, promised users the ability to purchase digital art and display it on the screen a la Netflix. While the concept was, the prototype didn't sustain a market reality, and FRAMED* fell by the tech wayside (though the company purports to be working on a new version). Three years later, one similar-but-updated technology has emerged, with hopes of succeeding where FRAMED* failed.
With a Kickstarter launching today, Electric Objects (or, EO) may be the technology that sparks a paradigm shift regarding how we preserve, share, and even purchase digital art. Conceived by Jake Levine and refined with Zoë Salditch—the former general manager of Digg and a former director at Rhizome and Eyebeam, respectively—EO is an attempt to "put the Internet on your wall" and offer people a new type of way to interact with computers.
Two years ago, Salditch and Levine organized an art exhibition together that focused on new media art. "We brought in a bunch of artists, and they all showed works on screens," Levine explained to The Creators Project. This idea stuck in the tech entrepreneur's head, and pretty soon he was thinking about why cultural objects are trapped inside computers, with value that potentially gets lost or overwhelmed by the device's countless other functions.
Levine asked himself: "Why can't we enjoy digital art in the same way we enjoy paintings or photographs? Can we have a different sort of relationship to computers and to media objects that are contained within them?"
Last summer, Levine approached Salditch to collaborate on this product and start a company. They developed a prototype and shared it with just shy of 100 beta testers, including a variety of digital artists. Several months later, version two is ready, and with a $25,000 Kickstarter goal that hopes to cover production costs, the duo seeks to construct a community in the process.
The Creators Project: If someone had this in their house, how would he understand that this Internet-enabled object is meant for cultural use rather than pragmatic functioning? Will it be clear that this is an art object?
Jake: Well, art is a category. Art is such a nebulous term. You'll notice whenever we write about the project, we try not to use the word art, because it means so many different things to so many different people. The separation is that this is not your TV, because you watch your TV and you don't watch this thing, right? It's not your computer or your tablet, because you don't use this thing in the way that you use your computer or your tablet. So it occupies this different space, and paintings and photographs are the easiest metaphor for us to help people understand how they should relate to this thing.
So it's on your wall. It doesn't demand your attention when you walk in the room. It doesn't require you to watch it. It just sort of contributes to its environment. And it communicates something, but sort of in a peripheral, ambient way, if that makes sense.
Phones and laptops often inspire an individual experience, even if you're connected to everyone, everywhere. It's still, say, not easy to watch a movie with a group of people on a 13” screen. Would you consider a goal of Electric Objects to create a communal information system?
Jake: Yeah, but the words you might use are that it supports more than one user. But when you think about it, none of us are really users of this thing—at least, not in the typical way we think about users. We're like passers-by or something. I think we're basically, there's a failure of language here, because this is a new—it's a new metaphor for computing.
The word ambient seems pretty apt to describe it.
Jake: Ambient is good. But, would you call a painting ambient? Another way that I sort of describe it to people is that we already have screens on our walls. They just aren't electronic or connected to the Internet. They display objects, media objects that we have some sort of emotional or pragmatic relationship to. It means something to us or it communicates something or it inspires us, or it angers us, or it says something about us to ourselves and to the people around us. Plus, it adds something to our home. As I see it, there's no reason why digital objects couldn’t fill a similar function.
Well, could you imagine people seeing this and saying, why not my whole wall?
Jake: I think there's a theory about what we're doing, and then there's the market reality. I think creating a start-up from scratch around the proposition of building a wall in your home that is all screens is just a very different company.
Zoë Salditch: Yeah. I think it's a step in that direction, but I don't think people are ready for the entire Internet-enabled walls or having a screen the size of your wall in your home. Before we get there, we have to make some steps, and this is just that.
Jake: This experiment is something that we want to touch lots of communities. We want lots of people to experience a new kind of computing.
Who do you imagine your first market audience to be?
Jake: We think it’s a weird sort of overlapping group. I put myself in the category of first users, and I would sort of describe myself as someone who's interested in art and native to the digital environment. I spend a lot of time on the Internet and I'm slightly overwhelmed by the amount of digital objects that I come into contact with. But occasionally, I'll come across something that I really love, and I want to sit with it for longer, and I want it to sort of be a part of my life more than just one in 30 browser tabs. I would love that sort of magical moment of being able to send it to my wall and live with it for a week or a month or a year, whatever.
So I think one category is early tech adopter. Those are the people who are going to be interested in this thing right out of the gate. I think there's also a category of emerging digital artists that are going to find this fascinating, like a new way to reach an audience, a way to sort of do their work.
Zoë: Right, without trying to version it for a gallery, like, a physical gallery space.
It almost seems geared towards digital galleries and digital artists.
Jake: Yeah, I think they're going to find it, too. Art is such a weird market. If you go out and talk about this as art – and another reason why we don't use the word art, you have people who get it, right, and that's probably a small group of people. It's the digital artists who are working in this area every day. Then there's other art people, like, the fine art world, which can't really wrap their heads around digital art because there's no built-in scarcity. Those people hear digital art and they think of a sort of a cheap knock-off of a physical work.
The super fans are trying to build their own version of this. But they're, like, hacking it together with an iPad, which is expensive and small and glossy, or they're hacking it together with a screen and a Mac Mini, which is, like, over a thousand dollars to get the basic screen, and it doesn't look good, and they have to hire someone to drill a hole in their wall. It's just a messy experience. So for those people, this screen is going to be a no-brainer because it works out of the box. It supports a huge variety of formats, and it's way more affordable than those other options.
Can you maybe give me an example of a project that would pair well with Electric Object?
Jake: Yeah. There are a million possible uses. So, static images, animated GIFs. Visualizations that are built by developers. They also might not be in the category of art. They might not also call themselves artists, but it's worthy of time and space that this product can afford.
Zoë: Processing works great with EO. Anything that can be rendered in your browser can be displayed on the screen. So it's ripe with potential for net art projects. Screen-based work is always going to look great on this device. Anyone who makes something natively for the screen in the browser will work great with EO. And I think those are going to be people who are early adopters.
What will happen with this second prototype over the next few months?
Jake Levine: We're going to build a community application, and we think it'll be a nice community, and a great place to see really good work. And we'll build a store where artists and developers can submit work and get paid for it, and maybe others can subscribe to certain artists. But we also don't think that we're going to be the only place on the Internet with stuff that you should put on your wall.
We’ll be launching alongside artists who agree to make work for the debut and get content into the system. People like Casey Reas and Nicolas Sansoon. Their work will be in the video. Yoshi Sodeoka, too. They’re willing to take a chance on this. They’re participating in something Zoë’s working on called the Artists in Residence program.
Zoë: We’re working with artists to make wok specifically for EO. We’re giving out the prototype and working with them to figure out how the storefront will function when it launches in January. There’s a lot of competition with Philips and how do you commodify digital art. I think this program will be one way that we can get start up money into the hands of artists.
Something I find interesting is that if this did become omnipresent, how would the art or work be commodified? Like, would users rent artworks for this screen? Would they license them like iTunes?
Jake: Ownership of digital work is a really difficult concept. I think we're going to model it after iTunes, App Store. The fact that the reproduction of the digital work can grow and that there's no built-in scarcity, we're going to honor that. We're going to sort of design the economic model so that's in line with how the Internet works. We'd rather have 10,000 buying $5 works than one person buying a $50,000 work. And I think most artists would agree.
Do you think it will take a larger cultural shift for a bigger market to even want to dedicate a screen to specifically something that they can get for free on their home computer?
Jake: What you're paying for is not the object; you're paying for the screen. The comparison would be, like, why do I need an iPad when I can get Clash of Clans on my computer? They're very different. That's not why you're buying the iPad.
And so to the question, won't it take a while for mainstream users to adopt this thing? Yeah. Like any new product, it takes years for the early adopter group to try it, and then they tell the next group that's a little bit more cautious about new things, and, you know, so the early adopter group becomes your evangelists. This is the story of proselytizing, Marketing 101, right?
What makes me confident enough to go out and raise capital is because we've been putting things on our walls for thousands of years. And that's one of the oldest human behaviors. I think this is just an inevitable thing that ultimately, everyone is going to have in their homes. And so it's just a matter of is it too early? I hope not. I think the time is right.
Over the next six months, the team hopes to better understand how users and artists will interact with this platform, and Salditch will lead an Artists in Residency program to build an even stronger community around EO. In January, the company hopes to have an economic model around Electric Objects for both the machine and the type of work that it can support. Currently, they imagine EO having an online store that parallels the iTunes or Spotify model, though Levine and Salditch fully understand that commodifying digital artwork is still a tenuous and complicated endeavor. As Julia Kaginsky wrote in her article on FRAMED*:
"[Digital] works have yet to find their place in the art market and aren’t as sellable or accessible as the established, traditional forms of painting, sculpture and works on paper. They’re a gamble for gallerists to take on, are difficult to move and display, and the logistics of installing, maintaining and caring for them still requires some technical knowledge (which tends to strike fear in the hearts of most arts professionals). In short, they’re kind of a pain in the ass."
On top of EO offering a new way to share and sell digital art, Levine wants this device to change the ways in which we use computers and also convince us that we're no longer resigned to traditional desktops and laptops. He summed it up well, noting, "It’s a new and weird platform and it’s a new and weird way for people to experience their work."
And in support of the crowd-funding campaign, the company is hosting a pop-up gallery to showcase the machine. Visit 11 Kenmare Street in Manhattan to get a sneak peek at EO. The space will be open from 11:00am-7:00pm from July 11th-13th.