🔦 Illuminating Lumen (Issue #83)
Art + technology = magic.
Carla Rapoport is the founder of the Lumen Prize and Lumen Art Projects. Previously a financial journalist, Rapoport has always loved art. An encounter a decade ago with landscape paintings created on iPads piqued her interest in the use of technology in art-making, and prompted her to create a prize to recognize excellence in the field.
Carla Rapoport. (Image: Carla Rapoport / Patrick Lawler)
Metaversal’s content director, Craig Wilson, hopped on a call with Rapoport — who’s based in the Welsh countryside — to talk about the remarkable things that happen when art and technology intertwine, the value and power of community, and the joys of looking at anything by David Hockney.
Craig Wilson: What prompted you to start the Lumen Prize in the first place?
Carla Rapoport: Well, my background is not art. I spent my career as a financial journalist. So I would say I'm uniquely unqualified to have founded and run a digital art prize and a digital art business. But maybe it's because I wasn't in the field that I had no inhibitions about what could be tried.
I was always interested in art, and I was always told by my family that it wasn't a career. So I kept it as a hobby all my life. And then, when I stepped away from journalism, I realized I wanted to do something connected to the arts.
And just coincidentally, I wandered into the 2012 Royal Academy exhibition, “A Bigger Picture” by David Hockney. And I just kept going back and going back and going back.
"The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty-eleven)" by David Hockney. (Image: David Hockney)
I was writing about technology at my last job at the Economist Group, and I was writing about how technology had flipped journalism, it had flipped publishing completely, but it didn't seem to have touched the art world… except for David Hockney, who was doing all these incredible digital paintings on iPads.
CW: As it happens, I went to that show too… I was blown away by the fact that he’d done these incredible landscape images that were essentially finger drawings because it was long before the Apple Pencil came out.
So you know exactly what hit me between the eyes. I found myself explaining it to people. These are iPads. This is art. And it occurred to me that it couldn't just be Hockney doing this.
I went to a friend who's a curator at the British Museum, and she connected me to a Chinese artist who was doing something called “photo manipulation.” And I just went down a rabbit hole, and I really never came back.
It occurred to me at that point that the best way to shine a light on this amazing ecosystem of incredible artists who are willing to experiment with tech tools would be to create a prize. That was really the beginning of Lumen.
CW: How did you get the first sponsors on board? It must have been very difficult selling something with no precedent to point to.
CR: We didn't get any sponsors on board [laughs]. I mean, it was a passion project from the beginning. I found some people — friends really — who gave a bit of money here and a bit of money there. The City of Cardiff, bless them, gave us an office, specifically, the Office for Economic Development in Cardiff. I was based in Wales — then as now — and they gave us an office and some money to hire a young person to help me, but we’re still looking for that sponsor.
There’s Metaversal, of course. Our relationship with you is as close as we've gotten. But people kept saying to me, “Why don't you call Microsoft?”
“That's a good idea.” I'd say, “I'll just get Bill Gates on the phone.”
Anyway, it was really a question of making the decision to ask artists for a small entry fee. Opening up the competition and realizing, thanks to the cloud — which was just becoming a thing at the time — that you could store all kinds of stuff very cheaply online without having to pay huge amounts of money for storage.
So we could store the artwork that was coming in inexpensively and build a judging platform inexpensively. All those things were getting cheaper at that point.
I'm uniquely unqualified to have founded and run a digital art prize and a digital art business.
We basically bootstrapped it… and then the art just came in. We built it and they came. It was so humbling to see the quality of work that came in those first few years, and then people heard about us, and we got some amazing partnerships with a museum in Norway and the British Computer Society.
But it was very organic, and it's always been very organic. It was always meeting people in person who got to love what we were doing. But we still haven't found that magic connection to X company. It's still very independent and feels very independent, which I like and I hope we can stay that way.
How has the art that people are submitting changed over the 12 years since the Prize’s inception?
It's changed completely, as tech has changed completely. So art comes first, of course, these are artists, but the tools that they can access have changed completely in 12 years. When we started, no one thought about AI and art. And now people think of little else but AI and art.
It's in the latest long list. ChatGPT shows up. A year ago, would I have even known what that was? I'm not sure it was around a year ago. So each year the long list reflects what's happening in tech from an art perspective. And that's why it's so exciting to look at the new works each year.
We build a community of artists through the long list. Once you're on a long list, you're part of our Lumen community and we then get opportunities to place the work with partners. And this has been one of the most rewarding developments of the prize, that the prize has created a community for artists to meet each other and network and so on, but also for us to connect institutions that want to find out about this with this art.
Naturally, as the sponsor of the inaugural generative art award, we have a special interest in that category. Generative art isn’t new by any measure, but it does feel like it’s having a moment, thanks to the perfect storm of crypto technology and distribution mechanisms and platforms like Art Blocks and fxhash. How do you feel about it as a category, and about where it’s heading?
It's another beautiful example of how the genre has developed over the years. Back in 2015, Scott Draves won the Founder’s Award with “Electric Sheep.” It was the second year we saw generative work that used CPUs to program new software.
I love the fact that his day job was working in software development for a financial firm, and in his night job he was doing these amazing generative works. In fact, he’d been doing them for many years.
An image from "Electric Sheep" by Scott Draves. (Image: Lumen Prize)
Then the tools became more sophisticated and developed and crypto and blockchain came along. It's just beautiful to see what's happened and how, again, the artist community embraced these tools and created this magic kind of art.
As you say, it's definitely having a moment. Now we have a prize — thanks to your sponsorship of it — and it's just amazing to see this develop in a way that you never could have imagined 10, 12 years ago.
It’s also so thrilling to see it being taken seriously in a way it wasn’t a few years ago. Even the great Vera Molnár speaks about how, in the early days, there was ridicule for “computer-aided art,” — that it wasn't real art. I wonder whether you've seen examples of that in Lumen over the years, of things that have gone from being derided to being more accepted by the art establishment?
Oh definitely, I mean I've had artists say to me, "Oh, a lame computer art prize… oh, this isn't art.” We were basically put in a niche for a long time, a very small niche, and inevitably people would make that old joke about monkeys with typewriters. I got that comment on a panel once.
But thanks to the great pioneers of the ‘60s and their works that have been put in museums and collected, now — today — people don't talk like that. When I go to events there isn't someone on the stage talking about monkeys and typewriters anymore.
Nobody says, “It's the computer making it.” But in the early days, people would say that all the time. “It's cold, it's artificial, it's clinical.” None of those things are the case. As you know, from going to that 2012 show at the Royal Academy of David Hockney, it was the most life-affirming show that you could think of.
The work only gets increasingly more a part of our lives, especially the interactive work, which kind of developed as we rolled along, and we created categories as the work developed. 3D Interactive became a category, and then AI became a category, and then generative art.
It's been brilliant being able to track the progress of this genre, and to see the contemporary art world come knocking and get interested. I think I'm okay to say publicly that Tate is working on its first big digital acquisition, which is really exciting.
When the serious collecting institutions start putting this in their collections, that's a big move for the genre of art and technology.
Absolutely, well we've seen LACMA and the Centre Pompidou adding CryptoPunks to their collections.
And Whitney, of course, is a trailblazer. I haven't seen it, but MoMA has Refik Anadol in the lobby as you come in. It's attracted some criticism. One of the famous art critics didn't like it. But it's just been beloved by people who've come in.
I've been meaning to go, and I should do it sooner rather than later, because it was meant to end months ago, but MoMA keeps extending the deadline.
Well, there's the proof in the pudding. It's pulling in so many people, People vote with their feet, if they didn't like it they wouldn't come. It's really changed the game. Refik — who won the Lumen Prize in 2019 [for “Melting Memories”] — has become as close to a household name as possible from this genre, and that's really exciting. What a lovely artist for that to happen to.
"Melting Memories" by Refik Anadol. (Image: Refik Anadol)
Right, and while he’s become a household name, for many other artists, art is necessarily a hobby or side hustle. Are there artists that Lumen has helped to turn their practice into a full-time pursuit as a result of being long-listed, or winning an award?
Yeah, quite a few artists that we work with have. Andy Lomas was doing animation for Hollywood films and doing a teaching job on the side. He won in 2014 and now he has a full-fledged art career.
There are also lots of artists who come into the community and develop what they do over the years. There was a collective of artists who became part of a show we did for Eureka! — which is the National Children's Museum in Halifax in the UK. It started four years ago, and it's still going, and all of the artists in that collective have been able to use what they did.
Also, an artist on the West Coast who has a big job in a creative agency has been working with us over the years, and he would be one of the ones that I would expect would become a full-fledged artist.
You can use your connection to the prize to get yourself out of education. A lot of those who submit are teachers — but not at the level that they want to be teaching necessarily — so they either go up the education tree, or they break out of education, and they go into exhibitions.
Nitcha Tothong and Kengchakaj Kengkarnka. (Image: Lumen Prize)
Or they're in the creative world — they do landscapes for games, for instance, which is very lucrative, but maybe that's not what they want to do full-time — but they've done enough of it, so they use this as a springboard.
When I founded the Prize, just as you said, I expected we'd get moonlighters — people who did this at night over the weekend. Over the years about half the winners are in that category: They've never won a prize, they do this on the side.
Last year's winner was a duo from Thailand [Nitcha Tothong and Kengchakaj Kengkarnka, who won for their work, “Jitr จิตร”] who’ve have had this huge boost from winning.
Then there are the other half of winners who are already big names in the space, like Mario Klingemann or Refik. It's about half and half at the top level, but at the lower levels, it's all kinds of moonlighters, which is really lovely.
One of the categories that’s my baby is the Student Award, and the winner of that two years ago, Cezar Mocan, has really gone on to a fantastic career. We were all gobsmacked when his work came in, and he's been public about the fact that winning the Student Award really propelled his career.
One of the things we loved about the Lumen Prize is how global it is. There must be plenty of entrants you’ve never met if they’re not EU-based?
Oh, absolutely. We have 27 countries represented on the 70-person long list this year. It's very international, and it gets more international each year.
For a long time, there were very few entries from what we used to call the “global south,” and we now call the “global majority,” because the countries represent most of the people in the world. We set up an award for that, and that's helped, but it is still hard for us to get entries from those countries.
[T]he only lagging indicator about Lumen is the technology itself.
There are communication networks we’re developing, and that we need to develop. Scandinavia has also been a big, big, big part of what we do. We've had some really valuable partnerships with a regional museum in Norway. So there's interest in surprising parts of the world, and I hope that continues.
In the same way the gen art award is new, are there other categories you’d like to see added to the Lumen Prize in future?
I can't answer that one, Craig, because the only lagging indicator about Lumen is the technology itself.
Right, so you find someone who's got an entry that doesn't quite fit anywhere else, and take your lead from that?
Exactly. We learn from the entries, and we say, “Oh my word, 10 artists have entered using this technology and it's not fair to have them in this category,” and that's how we learn. Every year we reassess the categories on that basis.
I know artists and deadlines aren’t great bedfellows. What’s your advice to someone who's been umming and ahhing about entering? Who perhaps thinks they’re too amateur or their work is too amateurish. How do you get them over the line and get them to hit the submit button?
It's such a good question, and we think about this a lot. I talk to groups myself to encourage artists to enter. At universities, for instance, I have a short talk that I give to students, and I have a couple of things I say.
One is, you can't win if you don't enter. Another is, your work will be looked at. It's a case of trying and trying again. You can't see it as a one-off. You have to give it a couple of tries, and then you have to look closely at who did win.
If you don't win, it doesn't mean your work is bad, but it means it didn't catch the judge's eye. What did catch the judge’s eye? And is that something you want to work towards? If yes, try again. If no, you've got yourself an answer.
The last thing I say is that entering a prize like this — which has a small fee, not a big one — supports the genre because we put the proceeds to use by promoting the work to institutions and partners worldwide. So even if you don't win, your money goes directly into the promotion of this kind of art and it will be a fellow creator of it who will benefit.
So that's the pitch. But, at the end of the day, it's got to come from your heart. You've got to think, “I want to show the world what I've got. And I'm willing to try a couple of times to see if this will happen.” Even then, having the courage to do it isn't everybody's cup of tea, and we totally get that.
But we really hope that they do want to join, because even if they get on the long list — which is 70 works — they become part of a community, and that means we share opportunities with them.
Right, it’s not just about winning, it’s about becoming part of a community of people working with technology to make art.
Exactly. And while we don't represent artists who aren't selected for the long list, we are interested in approaches from artists’ collectives who we could work with. For instance, if you are a collective and you're in South Sudan and you want to reach out to other collectives that are in this genre, we like to make those connections: it's what we're about.
Even if you don't want to enter the prize but you have a good idea for an exhibition, or you have a collective with a lot of people in a country we don't know anything much about because they don't have a lot of light shone on them, they should get in touch. Because we aren't just the Lumen Prize we're also Lumen Art Projects.
Lumen Art Projects is the parent company and its goal is to promote the understanding and excitement and enjoyment of art and technology. If you feel that your part of the world or your genre is underrepresented for any reason, we'd love to hear from you.
Connect for more 🔌
You can learn more about — and submit entries to — the Lumen Prize here.
You can find our more about Lumen Art Projects here.
Until next time, see you in the metaverse.