Zoom Out, Zoom In: Looking at Digital Art Through Media Visualization
In May 2007, Beeple, real name Mike Winkelmann, embarked on a long journey of his EVERYDAYS project. Ever since then, the American graphic designer committed himself to an artistic exercise, where he created a new digital illustration every day and posted it online without a single absence. 13-and-a-half years later, Beeple made all his individual creations into one digital collage named EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS. The digital work with a Non-fungible token was offered at Christie’s in an online auction and realized a total of over 69 million dollars. Composed of 5000 images, the work is one of the most recent artistic examples using the method of direct visualization.
In What is visualisation?, Lev Manovich introduced the idea of media visualization, a more recent method that “[created] new visual representations from the actual visual media objects or their parts. Rather than representing text, images, video or other media through new visual signs such as points or rectangles, media visualisations buil[t] new representations out of the original media.” (Manovich 41) Indeed, Beeple’s EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS is an honest digital mosaic, preserving every single illustration with original details. The large, square image file consists of 21,069 x 21,069 pixels, or 319,168,313 bytes, hence the viewer has the option to zoom in on any brick of the montage. Although each image varies in shape and size, Beeple has stitched the pieces together seamlessly, while maintaining a predominantly chronological order.
When viewed at large, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS is an exceptionally dense gathering of pixelated colors. Similar to Mapping Time by Jeremy Douglass and Lev Manovich, the collection of images show the “variation in the data over time.” (Manovich 45) The top right corner is a cluster that appears mainly white, because Beeple started the EVERYDAY project by sketching and drawing on physical pieces of paper. The colorways then shifts to black and garish colors, as the artist began to explore rendering images on the computer. Shortly after, the psychedelic, fluorescent color palette may have suggested Beeple’s period of interest in the aesthetics of Techno-Japonisme. The wave-like patterns continue to develop, revealing an overview of the maturation of Beeple’s artistic practice over the progression of time. In The Language of Images (2020), Maria Giulia Dondero elaborates on Moretti’s concept of “distant reading” through direct visualization, as “[s]uch visualizations would reveal a working program which may have been unconscious from the part of the designers and which may have gone unnoticed…[s]uch visualizations highlight the trends which may have not been intentional or premeditated by the designer.” (Dondero, 107)
Since media visualization is a method of visualization without reduction, it is worth considering that a closer examination of the object is also necessary when approaching a digital artwork. The mapping of 5000 digital images provides a comprehensive view of the 13-and-a-half-year project of Beeple’s, but without zooming in on the individual illustrations, the media visualization would find its limitations in telling a digital art piece’s significant narratives, which could easily cause neglects of important facts behind the creations.
To gain a better grasp of the vision of EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, I went onto Beeple’s official website to navigate through the tiles of illustrations. With access to clear stock images and recorded dates and titles, a much more dimensional Beeple – one who has gone through several persona changes – emerges. For instance, since the end of 2019, the artist has become visibly enthusiastic in making satirical political illustrations, in which repeatedly depicted politicians like Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and occasionally Kim Jong-un. It is also worth mentioning that Beeple has been constantly posting the EVERYDAY project on Instagram for the past 7-and-a-half years. With more than 2.2 million followers on Instagram and over 422 thousand followers on Twitter, Beeple is certainly considered an influencer. In other words, as Richard Rogers suggests, the artist now inevitably engages in the “visibility labor”. As a digital artist, Beeple’s main stage is the online world and his success depends on the online audience. The more associable his artwork is, the more likes he receives. When scrolling through Beeple’s Instagram account, it becomes evident that the political satires receive much more comments than his usual sci-fi-themed illustrations.
A disconcerting persona also surfaces when taking a closer look at the artist’s early works. In 2007, when Beeple just started out the EVERYDAY project, he posted racially problematic illustrations like “it’s fun to draw black people!” and “a fat nerdy chinese kid and his imaginary friends” – both would have caused immense offense and outrage from his audience if exhibited individually on Christie’s sales page, but then conveniently concealed when shrunk into tiny tiles through media visualization.
Manovich emphasized that media visualization is “particularly important for humanities, media studies and cultural institutions which now are just beginning to discover the use of visualization but which eventually mau adopt it as a basic tool for research, teaching and exhibition of cultural artefacts.” (Manovich 47) EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS happens to be a digital artwork that is associated with the media visualization method, but not all digital art apply. Nevertheless, when approaching topics of art and culture, media visualization can be a powerful and flexible tool if utilized creatively, especially in the contemporary landscape.
On the other hand, media visualization also adds an intriguing layer to the creation of digital art. When draughtsmanship and materiality of ownership is no longer essential, the ability to skillfully adopt media and advanced technologies become key in the digital art world.
Beeple. “EVERYDAYS.” Accessed October 1, 2021.
Christie’s. “Beeple’s Opus.” Accessed October 1, 2021. https://www.christies.com/features/Monumental-collage-by-Beeple-is-first-purely-digital-artwork-NFT-to-come-to-auction-11510-7.aspx?sc_lang=en.
Davis, Ben. “I Looked Through All 5,000 Images in Beeple’s $69 Million Magnum Opus. What I Found Isn’t So Pretty.” artnet News. March 17, 2021. https://news.artnet.com/opinion/beeple-everydays-review-1951656.
Dondero, Maria Giulia. “The Metavisual.” In The Language of Images, by Maria Giulia Dondero, 73–142. Lecture Notes in Morphogenesis. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-52620-7_4.
Farago, Jason. “Beeple Has Won. Here’s What We’ve Lost.” The New York Times. March 12, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/12/arts/design/beeple-nonfungible-nft-review.html.
Manovich, Lev. “What Is Visualisation?” Visual Studies 26, no. 1 (March 15, 2011): 36–49. https://doi.org/10.1080/1472586X.2011.548488.
Rogers, Richard. “Visual Media Analysis for Instagram and Other Online Platforms.” Big Data & Society 8, no. 1 (January 2021): 205395172110223. https://doi.org/10.1177/20539517211022370.
Walsh, Colleen. “Harvard curator examines emerging new creative market.” The Harvard Gazette. March 24, 2021. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/03/harvard-curator-examines-the-worth-of-a-digital-work-of-art/.