Interviews, Writing

26/08/2014

Sedition: Collecting Art in the Age of Access


Interview with Rory Blain, director of Sedition

[Article published in ETC Media, Issue 102, p.52-61, 2014]

In November 2011, art dealer Harry Blain, co-founder of Haunch of Venison, and Robert Norton, chief executive of Saatchi Online, launched Sedition1, an online platform dedicated to selling digital editions of artworks by famous contemporary artists at very low prices. The title of an article by Lizzie Pook, published in the British magazine Stylist at that time, summarizes Sedition’s offer with the effectiveness of an advertising campaign: “An original Tracey Emin: yours for £50”. The platform achieves this unprecedented combination of high art and popular prices by selling videos or digital images of artworks in large editions (initially up to 10,000 copies) at a price range between six and one hundred dollars, although some editions reach higher prices. The artworks sold in this format are stored in Sedition’s server (the “Vault”), the user being able to access them through a web browser or the Sedition apps for iPad, iPhone, Android and Smart TV. Besides obtaining unlimited access to the artwork, which can be viewed on any number of screens, the collector receives a “digital certificate of authenticity” and has the right to resell the artwork on Sedition’s “Trade” platform, once the edition has sold out.

Although known for the Hirsts and Emins in its catalogue, Sedition has gradually introduced works by other artists who already conceive their art to be experienced on a screen. Be it a video, digital animation, generative composition or net art piece, the digital editions of these artworks are closer to the original than a photograph of a painting or a rotating view of a sculpture. By focusing on screen-based works by established or emerging artists in smaller editions (under 500), Sedition seems to move away from the hype and find a potential niche group among art lovers who understand and appreciate the work of the artists they follow but cannot afford to buy an original, as well as collectors who are interested in digital media. The launch of an “Open Platform” in June 2013, which allows artists to sell their work directly, further expands its customer base, while the “Trade” platform, initiated in September, has created a secondary market within Sedition.

The online platform is constantly evolving and responding to the challenge of selling digital files under the conditions of exclusivity dictated by the contemporary art market. In the following interview, which took place at the UNPAINTED Media Art Fair in Munich on January 19th, director Rory Blain explains how Sedition is establishing a new form of selling art.

When Sedition was launched in 2011, it was presented as a platform that sells art by world famous artists at affordable prices. Is this your main objective? Are you aiming at what could be considered a market niche?

It is more about making the world’s greatest, most celebrated artists accessible on a purchase or collectible level to the everyman, or at least the everyman in the Western world. Our intention has always been to bring this art to people who are interested in it and can afford a digital device such as an iPad or iPhone. Lawrence Weiner, one of the artists we work with, said in an interview that to participate fully in your culture it’s important that you take some responsibility for the people that bring you your music, your literature, your art… And the way to do that is to patronize them, to pay them for it. Obviously, when it comes to the world’s most celebrated artists, this has only been available to very rich collectors. Therefore our objective is to take that to a wider context and a broader audience. The artists we work with love this model because they can make their work more accessible, and at the same time it allows the public to engage in the discussion on contemporary art in a way that they couldn’t before.

Initially, you sold animated images, videos or JPEGs of works created by famous artists such as Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin in other formats (sculpture, installation, painting…). Later on, you began introducing video and new media artworks. How did this transition happen?

It was always the idea to offer video and new media art on the platform. We wanted to make sure that sedition would be interesting for people, and Hirst and Emin are among the world’s most popular artists. Many collectors want to own their work. But we also wanted to offer a platform and some infrastructure to the artists who are developing their work in the online world. Normally, they don’t have the infrastructure that would let their work to become known. And that’s something we wanted to change. Now that the site has been up and running for a while, we tend to focus more on artworks that are made specifically for the platform. There will still be the occasional artist that will give us a work that derives from a physical piece, but the shift has been very much towards pieces that are specifically designed for our online platform.

This year you can see a fairly even balance, give or take, between established physical media artists and artists who are working just online. The reason for it is that we are not solely dedicated to presenting net art or new media art, but ultimately we intend to present great contemporary art. Great contemporary art comes from all stripes, and therefore it is necessary to have artists like Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Matt Collishaw, Yoko Ono or Bill Viola, alongside other names such as Casey Reas, Aaron Koblin or Matt Pike. We are trying to present the best of what’s available in contemporary art, not just the best of what’s available in new media, or what’s available in traditional gallery media.

Still, the work of some of these artists, for instance Rafael Rozendaal or Angelo Plessas, which is usually interactive, loses that quality in Sedition since the platform does not allow for interaction.

Yes, that’s something that we hope to develop down the line. At the moment, it only supports video files and JPEGs, so the artworks that are created through a generative process or an interactive process become a record of the original event in the digital edition. But that is something that is going to change: for instance, one of the things that we’re doing with performance art is to offer a private view of the performance through a URL that will allow the collector to view it live and interact with it, and afterwards obtain a video file which will be the digital limited edition. So we’re getting closer to that interacting, real-time world. We are on the process of fully integrating it on the site, although it’s an awful lot of programming.

In some cases, an original artwork that is for instance a generative work and costs several thousand dollars in an art gallery, is visually identical to the digital edition of this same artwork, costing less than thirty dollars. Does this create a conflict between Sedition and the art galleries?

Not really, because the pieces in Sedition have all been changed slightly for the platform, so it is never exactly the same piece. There was a file, early on, that was exactly the same as its physical counterpart, but we removed it for that very reason. Still, it’s not unprecedented. Take, for instance, some of the photographs by Andreas Gursky. The big, full-size framed piece is a physical object which has been sold recently at auction for $1.5 million dollars, but you can get that same image online and put it on your desktop background or even use it as a screensaver. So it is not unprecedented to be able to get the same basic image. How it is presented, the physical object, the actual artifact itself, that’s the difference.

One artist told me that he sees the digital editions of his artworks as sketches. Are you worried that the artworks on Sedition might be considered as lesser works or of a lower value?

It depends… I think that describing these artworks as “lesser” or “lower” is slightly pejorative. What I would say is that they are designed to be more accessible and less expensive by virtue of the fact that they are multiples. And again, that’s not unprecedented, there is a very long history of this kind of artworks in the art world with etchings, woodcuts, prints and silkscreens. The multiple is something that has been around for thousands of years already, this is just the modern media equivalent.

When a collector buys an artwork in Sedition, he or she owns a copy of a file that stays in the platform’s server and receives a digital certificate. In this manner, isn’t ownership a fiction?

Yes, it’s true, although the ownership of a digital artifact is a slightly bizarre idea. What we do is that you can download the artwork into the app and obtain the digital number certificate which tells you which one you have. Still, when collectors really start to feel a sense of ownership is when they can sell it again, as well and the fact that by owning a digital edition you might take a loss or make a profit in the same way that you could in the real world. I don’t like the idea of the commodification of art. The art itself is the true purpose of Sedition, but we must admit that the possibility of reselling has been a great reassurance to a lot of people that are collecting these digital editions. Since we opened the Trade section, Ryoji Ikeda has been a star performer on the secondary market with the digital edition of his artwork A Single Number That Has 124,761,600 Digits that started out with £5 and is now selling for £70 to £75. This gives a sense of ownership to the collectors who bought it and now see how its value has quickly risen. In terms of real ownership, though, it is no different from owning a physical artwork in the sense that the imagery always resides with the artist, no matter who buys it.

I think that, in the end, it is an educational process: people need to get used to the idea of a digital edition, just as they have taken years to get used to the idea that an arrangement of pigment on canvas has an intrinsic value. It’s exactly the same as an arrangement of pixels on the screen: the reason why it has an intrinsic value is because the artist designed it, and what you are paying for is that artist’s idea.

I would say that, in Sedition, collectors pay for access to the artwork instead of owning a physical object.

Yes, and that’s really the key: collectors pay for the access. They have the piece, they can sell it and potentially make money. Therefore, they have the ownership of that artifact. But, as it has always been, the ownership of the idea and the imagery resides with the artist.

The piece by Ryoji Ikeda presents a successful example, but I wonder if there will be many other editions going on the secondary market, since most of them are very large in number and may not sell out.

Mostly the early editions are very large, but there are many getting close to selling out already. The majority of the newer pieces are in much smaller editions: in the last six months we have released editions of 500 or under, and they are selling out quite quickly. There are about seven or eight editions on the site now that are within 20 to 50 editions of being sold out. I expect that will happen quite shortly, so there will be a whole host of new works appearing on the trading platform soon.

As a collector, am I allowed to show my digital editions in an exhibition?

No, as a collector and a private individual you can display the artworks in your home or private surrounding in as many devices as you like, there is no limit to that. But, if you want to display it publicly, then you have to pay a public display license. This condition ensures that the artist retains the control of the public presentation of the artwork. We obviously don’t charge museums because it is both in the artist’s interest and in our interest to show the artworks there. Another possibility is to have a commissioned artwork: Ian Schrager commissioned a new artwork by Matt Collishaw, Prosopopoeia, for the EDITION hotel in London. The artwork was sent out as a gift to all of the guests at the hotel. That artwork forms the new gist of his collection, which is displayed in the screens of the guest rooms in the hotel. But to do that, they pay a yearly subscription fee.

Do you establish a relation of exclusivity with the artists?

We don’t tend to do that. We ask for exclusivity for the work that they give us, so that it is not available everywhere else as well, but it is somewhat complex: some of the artists come from prior relationships, some come from galleries that we work with (in that case we collaborate with the gallery), some come from museums we have made exhibitions with, and they have recommended the artist to us. In any case, we don’t represent the artists, we are not a traditional gallery, instead we are simply offering them a platform from which to sell their work. So we are not interested in trying to restrict who else they can work with.

Sedition’s relationship with the artists seems to be clearly differentiated by the two main sections: curated and open platform. How did this division into two sections come to be?

They curated section is, if you will, the gallery idea, the white cube concept. We consider that it is helpful to have curators and experts in the field to try to guide us towards the body of work that they feel makes sense, the art that it is worth looking at. The curated section is the part that we are standing behind and that we are presenting as a selection of what is good in the contemporary landscape.

The open platform, on the other hand, is exactly that, a free forum where any artist can sign up and present their work. The idea is that there are hundreds of people out there that we may have not heard of, or may not have seen, who are creating interesting artworks. We wanted to give them a position where they can present their work, so we provide them with the tools to do it. The open platform is therefore a more self-regulated environment.

Since all of the artworks are stored in Sedition’s server, what would happen if the company had to close down?

We have been working on this recently. We are making arrangements with Amazon in order to use space in their servers if for some reason we had to close ours. You must also consider that you can download the artworks into the apps, so you do not always depend on the server, and the apps would still work, maybe with some updating after a certain time. In any case, we will make the files accessible on a permanent server somewhere. But at the moment, they are locked in place for about 20 to 25 years.

Can a collector donate his or her collection to another person or institution?

This will be possible in the future. We now have a gifting service that allows users to buy an artwork and give it to someone else. But it is not possible at this moment to gift something that is already in a collector’s vault. We will be introducing this option later this year: basically it will be possible to transfer an artwork from one’s own collection to another collector, inside Sedition.

Sedition was launched at a time when several other initiatives (such as VIP Art, Artspace or Paddle8) have emerged. It seems that the contemporary art market is increasingly interested in the possibilities of digital media. Do you think that this is a good time to explore new ways of selling art?

The idea for Sedition actually came out around 1997-1998, but it was impossible to do it at that time because the screen resolution was nowhere good enough. The two drivers that have made Sedition possible are screen resolution and Internet bandwidth: the ability to deliver the artworks on the Internet and the ability to display them the way the artists want them to be seen. These are the things that have made it possible for us. As well, of course, as the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and smart TVs.

As for the contemporary art market, I don’t think that there is a huge shift of focus towards the online world, but it certainly is “the new thing” and it is getting a lot of attention, but it is not going to bury the other areas, it just widens the landscape of what there is. Is it a good time for it? I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I think it’s inevitable. We have reached a point where no one can ignore the online world anymore, so museums, galleries, collectors, artists, everyone is now aware that that it exists and that it is necessary have a presence there or at least be aware of it.

Entrevista a Rory Blain, director de Sedition

[Artículo publicado en inglés en ETC Media, núm. 102, p.52-61, 2014]

In November 2011, art dealer Harry Blain, co-founder of Haunch of Venison, and Robert Norton, chief executive of Saatchi Online, launched Sedition1, an online platform dedicated to selling digital editions of artworks by famous contemporary artists at very low prices. The title of an article by Lizzie Pook, published in the British magazine Stylist at that time, summarizes Sedition’s offer with the effectiveness of an advertising campaign: “An original Tracey Emin: yours for £50”. The platform achieves this unprecedented combination of high art and popular prices by selling videos or digital images of artworks in large editions (initially up to 10,000 copies) at a price range between six and one hundred dollars, although some editions reach higher prices. The artworks sold in this format are stored in Sedition’s server (the “Vault”), the user being able to access them through a web browser or the Sedition apps for iPad, iPhone, Android and Smart TV. Besides obtaining unlimited access to the artwork, which can be viewed on any number of screens, the collector receives a “digital certificate of authenticity” and has the right to resell the artwork on Sedition’s “Trade” platform, once the edition has sold out.

Although known for the Hirsts and Emins in its catalogue, Sedition has gradually introduced works by other artists who already conceive their art to be experienced on a screen. Be it a video, digital animation, generative composition or net art piece, the digital editions of these artworks are closer to the original than a photograph of a painting or a rotating view of a sculpture. By focusing on screen-based works by established or emerging artists in smaller editions (under 500), Sedition seems to move away from the hype and find a potential niche group among art lovers who understand and appreciate the work of the artists they follow but cannot afford to buy an original, as well as collectors who are interested in digital media. The launch of an “Open Platform” in June 2013, which allows artists to sell their work directly, further expands its customer base, while the “Trade” platform, initiated in September, has created a secondary market within Sedition.

The online platform is constantly evolving and responding to the challenge of selling digital files under the conditions of exclusivity dictated by the contemporary art market. In the following interview, which took place at the UNPAINTED Media Art Fair in Munich on January 19th, director Rory Blain explains how Sedition is establishing a new form of selling art.

When Sedition was launched in 2011, it was presented as a platform that sells art by world famous artists at affordable prices. Is this your main objective? Are you aiming at what could be considered a market niche?

It is more about making the world’s greatest, most celebrated artists accessible on a purchase or collectible level to the everyman, or at least the everyman in the Western world. Our intention has always been to bring this art to people who are interested in it and can afford a digital device such as an iPad or iPhone. Lawrence Weiner, one of the artists we work with, said in an interview that to participate fully in your culture it’s important that you take some responsibility for the people that bring you your music, your literature, your art… And the way to do that is to patronize them, to pay them for it. Obviously, when it comes to the world’s most celebrated artists, this has only been available to very rich collectors. Therefore our objective is to take that to a wider context and a broader audience. The artists we work with love this model because they can make their work more accessible, and at the same time it allows the public to engage in the discussion on contemporary art in a way that they couldn’t before.

Initially, you sold animated images, videos or JPEGs of works created by famous artists such as Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin in other formats (sculpture, installation, painting…). Later on, you began introducing video and new media artworks. How did this transition happen?

It was always the idea to offer video and new media art on the platform. We wanted to make sure that sedition would be interesting for people, and Hirst and Emin are among the world’s most popular artists. Many collectors want to own their work. But we also wanted to offer a platform and some infrastructure to the artists who are developing their work in the online world. Normally, they don’t have the infrastructure that would let their work to become known. And that’s something we wanted to change. Now that the site has been up and running for a while, we tend to focus more on artworks that are made specifically for the platform. There will still be the occasional artist that will give us a work that derives from a physical piece, but the shift has been very much towards pieces that are specifically designed for our online platform.

This year you can see a fairly even balance, give or take, between established physical media artists and artists who are working just online. The reason for it is that we are not solely dedicated to presenting net art or new media art, but ultimately we intend to present great contemporary art. Great contemporary art comes from all stripes, and therefore it is necessary to have artists like Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Matt Collishaw, Yoko Ono or Bill Viola, alongside other names such as Casey Reas, Aaron Koblin or Matt Pike. We are trying to present the best of what’s available in contemporary art, not just the best of what’s available in new media, or what’s available in traditional gallery media.

Still, the work of some of these artists, for instance Rafael Rozendaal or Angelo Plessas, which is usually interactive, loses that quality in Sedition since the platform does not allow for interaction.

Yes, that’s something that we hope to develop down the line. At the moment, it only supports video files and JPEGs, so the artworks that are created through a generative process or an interactive process become a record of the original event in the digital edition. But that is something that is going to change: for instance, one of the things that we’re doing with performance art is to offer a private view of the performance through a URL that will allow the collector to view it live and interact with it, and afterwards obtain a video file which will be the digital limited edition. So we’re getting closer to that interacting, real-time world. We are on the process of fully integrating it on the site, although it’s an awful lot of programming.

In some cases, an original artwork that is for instance a generative work and costs several thousand dollars in an art gallery, is visually identical to the digital edition of this same artwork, costing less than thirty dollars. Does this create a conflict between Sedition and the art galleries?

Not really, because the pieces in Sedition have all been changed slightly for the platform, so it is never exactly the same piece. There was a file, early on, that was exactly the same as its physical counterpart, but we removed it for that very reason. Still, it’s not unprecedented. Take, for instance, some of the photographs by Andreas Gursky. The big, full-size framed piece is a physical object which has been sold recently at auction for $1.5 million dollars, but you can get that same image online and put it on your desktop background or even use it as a screensaver. So it is not unprecedented to be able to get the same basic image. How it is presented, the physical object, the actual artifact itself, that’s the difference.

One artist told me that he sees the digital editions of his artworks as sketches. Are you worried that the artworks on Sedition might be considered as lesser works or of a lower value?

It depends… I think that describing these artworks as “lesser” or “lower” is slightly pejorative. What I would say is that they are designed to be more accessible and less expensive by virtue of the fact that they are multiples. And again, that’s not unprecedented, there is a very long history of this kind of artworks in the art world with etchings, woodcuts, prints and silkscreens. The multiple is something that has been around for thousands of years already, this is just the modern media equivalent.

When a collector buys an artwork in Sedition, he or she owns a copy of a file that stays in the platform’s server and receives a digital certificate. In this manner, isn’t ownership a fiction?

Yes, it’s true, although the ownership of a digital artifact is a slightly bizarre idea. What we do is that you can download the artwork into the app and obtain the digital number certificate which tells you which one you have. Still, when collectors really start to feel a sense of ownership is when they can sell it again, as well and the fact that by owning a digital edition you might take a loss or make a profit in the same way that you could in the real world. I don’t like the idea of the commodification of art. The art itself is the true purpose of Sedition, but we must admit that the possibility of reselling has been a great reassurance to a lot of people that are collecting these digital editions. Since we opened the Trade section, Ryoji Ikeda has been a star performer on the secondary market with the digital edition of his artwork A Single Number That Has 124,761,600 Digits that started out with £5 and is now selling for £70 to £75. This gives a sense of ownership to the collectors who bought it and now see how its value has quickly risen. In terms of real ownership, though, it is no different from owning a physical artwork in the sense that the imagery always resides with the artist, no matter who buys it.

I think that, in the end, it is an educational process: people need to get used to the idea of a digital edition, just as they have taken years to get used to the idea that an arrangement of pigment on canvas has an intrinsic value. It’s exactly the same as an arrangement of pixels on the screen: the reason why it has an intrinsic value is because the artist designed it, and what you are paying for is that artist’s idea.

I would say that, in Sedition, collectors pay for access to the artwork instead of owning a physical object.

Yes, and that’s really the key: collectors pay for the access. They have the piece, they can sell it and potentially make money. Therefore, they have the ownership of that artifact. But, as it has always been, the ownership of the idea and the imagery resides with the artist.

The piece by Ryoji Ikeda presents a successful example, but I wonder if there will be many other editions going on the secondary market, since most of them are very large in number and may not sell out.

Mostly the early editions are very large, but there are many getting close to selling out already. The majority of the newer pieces are in much smaller editions: in the last six months we have released editions of 500 or under, and they are selling out quite quickly. There are about seven or eight editions on the site now that are within 20 to 50 editions of being sold out. I expect that will happen quite shortly, so there will be a whole host of new works appearing on the trading platform soon.

As a collector, am I allowed to show my digital editions in an exhibition?

No, as a collector and a private individual you can display the artworks in your home or private surrounding in as many devices as you like, there is no limit to that. But, if you want to display it publicly, then you have to pay a public display license. This condition ensures that the artist retains the control of the public presentation of the artwork. We obviously don’t charge museums because it is both in the artist’s interest and in our interest to show the artworks there. Another possibility is to have a commissioned artwork: Ian Schrager commissioned a new artwork by Matt Collishaw, Prosopopoeia, for the EDITION hotel in London. The artwork was sent out as a gift to all of the guests at the hotel. That artwork forms the new gist of his collection, which is displayed in the screens of the guest rooms in the hotel. But to do that, they pay a yearly subscription fee.

Do you establish a relation of exclusivity with the artists?

We don’t tend to do that. We ask for exclusivity for the work that they give us, so that it is not available everywhere else as well, but it is somewhat complex: some of the artists come from prior relationships, some come from galleries that we work with (in that case we collaborate with the gallery), some come from museums we have made exhibitions with, and they have recommended the artist to us. In any case, we don’t represent the artists, we are not a traditional gallery, instead we are simply offering them a platform from which to sell their work. So we are not interested in trying to restrict who else they can work with.

Sedition’s relationship with the artists seems to be clearly differentiated by the two main sections: curated and open platform. How did this division into two sections come to be?

They curated section is, if you will, the gallery idea, the white cube concept. We consider that it is helpful to have curators and experts in the field to try to guide us towards the body of work that they feel makes sense, the art that it is worth looking at. The curated section is the part that we are standing behind and that we are presenting as a selection of what is good in the contemporary landscape.

The open platform, on the other hand, is exactly that, a free forum where any artist can sign up and present their work. The idea is that there are hundreds of people out there that we may have not heard of, or may not have seen, who are creating interesting artworks. We wanted to give them a position where they can present their work, so we provide them with the tools to do it. The open platform is therefore a more self-regulated environment.

Since all of the artworks are stored in Sedition’s server, what would happen if the company had to close down?

We have been working on this recently. We are making arrangements with Amazon in order to use space in their servers if for some reason we had to close ours. You must also consider that you can download the artworks into the apps, so you do not always depend on the server, and the apps would still work, maybe with some updating after a certain time. In any case, we will make the files accessible on a permanent server somewhere. But at the moment, they are locked in place for about 20 to 25 years.

Can a collector donate his or her collection to another person or institution?

This will be possible in the future. We now have a gifting service that allows users to buy an artwork and give it to someone else. But it is not possible at this moment to gift something that is already in a collector’s vault. We will be introducing this option later this year: basically it will be possible to transfer an artwork from one’s own collection to another collector, inside Sedition.

Sedition was launched at a time when several other initiatives (such as VIP Art, Artspace or Paddle8) have emerged. It seems that the contemporary art market is increasingly interested in the possibilities of digital media. Do you think that this is a good time to explore new ways of selling art?

The idea for Sedition actually came out around 1997-1998, but it was impossible to do it at that time because the screen resolution was nowhere good enough. The two drivers that have made Sedition possible are screen resolution and Internet bandwidth: the ability to deliver the artworks on the Internet and the ability to display them the way the artists want them to be seen. These are the things that have made it possible for us. As well, of course, as the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and smart TVs.

As for the contemporary art market, I don’t think that there is a huge shift of focus towards the online world, but it certainly is “the new thing” and it is getting a lot of attention, but it is not going to bury the other areas, it just widens the landscape of what there is. Is it a good time for it? I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I think it’s inevitable. We have reached a point where no one can ignore the online world anymore, so museums, galleries, collectors, artists, everyone is now aware that that it exists and that it is necessary have a presence there or at least be aware of it.

Entrevista a Rory Blain, director de Sedition

[Article publicat en anglès a ETC Media, núm. 102, p.52-61, 2014]

In November 2011, art dealer Harry Blain, co-founder of Haunch of Venison, and Robert Norton, chief executive of Saatchi Online, launched Sedition1, an online platform dedicated to selling digital editions of artworks by famous contemporary artists at very low prices. The title of an article by Lizzie Pook, published in the British magazine Stylist at that time, summarizes Sedition’s offer with the effectiveness of an advertising campaign: “An original Tracey Emin: yours for £50”. The platform achieves this unprecedented combination of high art and popular prices by selling videos or digital images of artworks in large editions (initially up to 10,000 copies) at a price range between six and one hundred dollars, although some editions reach higher prices. The artworks sold in this format are stored in Sedition’s server (the “Vault”), the user being able to access them through a web browser or the Sedition apps for iPad, iPhone, Android and Smart TV. Besides obtaining unlimited access to the artwork, which can be viewed on any number of screens, the collector receives a “digital certificate of authenticity” and has the right to resell the artwork on Sedition’s “Trade” platform, once the edition has sold out.

Although known for the Hirsts and Emins in its catalogue, Sedition has gradually introduced works by other artists who already conceive their art to be experienced on a screen. Be it a video, digital animation, generative composition or net art piece, the digital editions of these artworks are closer to the original than a photograph of a painting or a rotating view of a sculpture. By focusing on screen-based works by established or emerging artists in smaller editions (under 500), Sedition seems to move away from the hype and find a potential niche group among art lovers who understand and appreciate the work of the artists they follow but cannot afford to buy an original, as well as collectors who are interested in digital media. The launch of an “Open Platform” in June 2013, which allows artists to sell their work directly, further expands its customer base, while the “Trade” platform, initiated in September, has created a secondary market within Sedition.

The online platform is constantly evolving and responding to the challenge of selling digital files under the conditions of exclusivity dictated by the contemporary art market. In the following interview, which took place at the UNPAINTED Media Art Fair in Munich on January 19th, director Rory Blain explains how Sedition is establishing a new form of selling art.

When Sedition was launched in 2011, it was presented as a platform that sells art by world famous artists at affordable prices. Is this your main objective? Are you aiming at what could be considered a market niche?

It is more about making the world’s greatest, most celebrated artists accessible on a purchase or collectible level to the everyman, or at least the everyman in the Western world. Our intention has always been to bring this art to people who are interested in it and can afford a digital device such as an iPad or iPhone. Lawrence Weiner, one of the artists we work with, said in an interview that to participate fully in your culture it’s important that you take some responsibility for the people that bring you your music, your literature, your art… And the way to do that is to patronize them, to pay them for it. Obviously, when it comes to the world’s most celebrated artists, this has only been available to very rich collectors. Therefore our objective is to take that to a wider context and a broader audience. The artists we work with love this model because they can make their work more accessible, and at the same time it allows the public to engage in the discussion on contemporary art in a way that they couldn’t before.

Initially, you sold animated images, videos or JPEGs of works created by famous artists such as Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin in other formats (sculpture, installation, painting…). Later on, you began introducing video and new media artworks. How did this transition happen?

It was always the idea to offer video and new media art on the platform. We wanted to make sure that sedition would be interesting for people, and Hirst and Emin are among the world’s most popular artists. Many collectors want to own their work. But we also wanted to offer a platform and some infrastructure to the artists who are developing their work in the online world. Normally, they don’t have the infrastructure that would let their work to become known. And that’s something we wanted to change. Now that the site has been up and running for a while, we tend to focus more on artworks that are made specifically for the platform. There will still be the occasional artist that will give us a work that derives from a physical piece, but the shift has been very much towards pieces that are specifically designed for our online platform.

This year you can see a fairly even balance, give or take, between established physical media artists and artists who are working just online. The reason for it is that we are not solely dedicated to presenting net art or new media art, but ultimately we intend to present great contemporary art. Great contemporary art comes from all stripes, and therefore it is necessary to have artists like Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Matt Collishaw, Yoko Ono or Bill Viola, alongside other names such as Casey Reas, Aaron Koblin or Matt Pike. We are trying to present the best of what’s available in contemporary art, not just the best of what’s available in new media, or what’s available in traditional gallery media.

Still, the work of some of these artists, for instance Rafael Rozendaal or Angelo Plessas, which is usually interactive, loses that quality in Sedition since the platform does not allow for interaction.

Yes, that’s something that we hope to develop down the line. At the moment, it only supports video files and JPEGs, so the artworks that are created through a generative process or an interactive process become a record of the original event in the digital edition. But that is something that is going to change: for instance, one of the things that we’re doing with performance art is to offer a private view of the performance through a URL that will allow the collector to view it live and interact with it, and afterwards obtain a video file which will be the digital limited edition. So we’re getting closer to that interacting, real-time world. We are on the process of fully integrating it on the site, although it’s an awful lot of programming.

In some cases, an original artwork that is for instance a generative work and costs several thousand dollars in an art gallery, is visually identical to the digital edition of this same artwork, costing less than thirty dollars. Does this create a conflict between Sedition and the art galleries?

Not really, because the pieces in Sedition have all been changed slightly for the platform, so it is never exactly the same piece. There was a file, early on, that was exactly the same as its physical counterpart, but we removed it for that very reason. Still, it’s not unprecedented. Take, for instance, some of the photographs by Andreas Gursky. The big, full-size framed piece is a physical object which has been sold recently at auction for $1.5 million dollars, but you can get that same image online and put it on your desktop background or even use it as a screensaver. So it is not unprecedented to be able to get the same basic image. How it is presented, the physical object, the actual artifact itself, that’s the difference.

One artist told me that he sees the digital editions of his artworks as sketches. Are you worried that the artworks on Sedition might be considered as lesser works or of a lower value?

It depends… I think that describing these artworks as “lesser” or “lower” is slightly pejorative. What I would say is that they are designed to be more accessible and less expensive by virtue of the fact that they are multiples. And again, that’s not unprecedented, there is a very long history of this kind of artworks in the art world with etchings, woodcuts, prints and silkscreens. The multiple is something that has been around for thousands of years already, this is just the modern media equivalent.

When a collector buys an artwork in Sedition, he or she owns a copy of a file that stays in the platform’s server and receives a digital certificate. In this manner, isn’t ownership a fiction?

Yes, it’s true, although the ownership of a digital artifact is a slightly bizarre idea. What we do is that you can download the artwork into the app and obtain the digital number certificate which tells you which one you have. Still, when collectors really start to feel a sense of ownership is when they can sell it again, as well and the fact that by owning a digital edition you might take a loss or make a profit in the same way that you could in the real world. I don’t like the idea of the commodification of art. The art itself is the true purpose of Sedition, but we must admit that the possibility of reselling has been a great reassurance to a lot of people that are collecting these digital editions. Since we opened the Trade section, Ryoji Ikeda has been a star performer on the secondary market with the digital edition of his artwork A Single Number That Has 124,761,600 Digits that started out with £5 and is now selling for £70 to £75. This gives a sense of ownership to the collectors who bought it and now see how its value has quickly risen. In terms of real ownership, though, it is no different from owning a physical artwork in the sense that the imagery always resides with the artist, no matter who buys it.

I think that, in the end, it is an educational process: people need to get used to the idea of a digital edition, just as they have taken years to get used to the idea that an arrangement of pigment on canvas has an intrinsic value. It’s exactly the same as an arrangement of pixels on the screen: the reason why it has an intrinsic value is because the artist designed it, and what you are paying for is that artist’s idea.

I would say that, in Sedition, collectors pay for access to the artwork instead of owning a physical object.

Yes, and that’s really the key: collectors pay for the access. They have the piece, they can sell it and potentially make money. Therefore, they have the ownership of that artifact. But, as it has always been, the ownership of the idea and the imagery resides with the artist.

The piece by Ryoji Ikeda presents a successful example, but I wonder if there will be many other editions going on the secondary market, since most of them are very large in number and may not sell out.

Mostly the early editions are very large, but there are many getting close to selling out already. The majority of the newer pieces are in much smaller editions: in the last six months we have released editions of 500 or under, and they are selling out quite quickly. There are about seven or eight editions on the site now that are within 20 to 50 editions of being sold out. I expect that will happen quite shortly, so there will be a whole host of new works appearing on the trading platform soon.

As a collector, am I allowed to show my digital editions in an exhibition?

No, as a collector and a private individual you can display the artworks in your home or private surrounding in as many devices as you like, there is no limit to that. But, if you want to display it publicly, then you have to pay a public display license. This condition ensures that the artist retains the control of the public presentation of the artwork. We obviously don’t charge museums because it is both in the artist’s interest and in our interest to show the artworks there. Another possibility is to have a commissioned artwork: Ian Schrager commissioned a new artwork by Matt Collishaw, Prosopopoeia, for the EDITION hotel in London. The artwork was sent out as a gift to all of the guests at the hotel. That artwork forms the new gist of his collection, which is displayed in the screens of the guest rooms in the hotel. But to do that, they pay a yearly subscription fee.

Do you establish a relation of exclusivity with the artists?

We don’t tend to do that. We ask for exclusivity for the work that they give us, so that it is not available everywhere else as well, but it is somewhat complex: some of the artists come from prior relationships, some come from galleries that we work with (in that case we collaborate with the gallery), some come from museums we have made exhibitions with, and they have recommended the artist to us. In any case, we don’t represent the artists, we are not a traditional gallery, instead we are simply offering them a platform from which to sell their work. So we are not interested in trying to restrict who else they can work with.

Sedition’s relationship with the artists seems to be clearly differentiated by the two main sections: curated and open platform. How did this division into two sections come to be?

They curated section is, if you will, the gallery idea, the white cube concept. We consider that it is helpful to have curators and experts in the field to try to guide us towards the body of work that they feel makes sense, the art that it is worth looking at. The curated section is the part that we are standing behind and that we are presenting as a selection of what is good in the contemporary landscape.

The open platform, on the other hand, is exactly that, a free forum where any artist can sign up and present their work. The idea is that there are hundreds of people out there that we may have not heard of, or may not have seen, who are creating interesting artworks. We wanted to give them a position where they can present their work, so we provide them with the tools to do it. The open platform is therefore a more self-regulated environment.

Since all of the artworks are stored in Sedition’s server, what would happen if the company had to close down?

We have been working on this recently. We are making arrangements with Amazon in order to use space in their servers if for some reason we had to close ours. You must also consider that you can download the artworks into the apps, so you do not always depend on the server, and the apps would still work, maybe with some updating after a certain time. In any case, we will make the files accessible on a permanent server somewhere. But at the moment, they are locked in place for about 20 to 25 years.

Can a collector donate his or her collection to another person or institution?

This will be possible in the future. We now have a gifting service that allows users to buy an artwork and give it to someone else. But it is not possible at this moment to gift something that is already in a collector’s vault. We will be introducing this option later this year: basically it will be possible to transfer an artwork from one’s own collection to another collector, inside Sedition.

Sedition was launched at a time when several other initiatives (such as VIP Art, Artspace or Paddle8) have emerged. It seems that the contemporary art market is increasingly interested in the possibilities of digital media. Do you think that this is a good time to explore new ways of selling art?

The idea for Sedition actually came out around 1997-1998, but it was impossible to do it at that time because the screen resolution was nowhere good enough. The two drivers that have made Sedition possible are screen resolution and Internet bandwidth: the ability to deliver the artworks on the Internet and the ability to display them the way the artists want them to be seen. These are the things that have made it possible for us. As well, of course, as the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and smart TVs.

As for the contemporary art market, I don’t think that there is a huge shift of focus towards the online world, but it certainly is “the new thing” and it is getting a lot of attention, but it is not going to bury the other areas, it just widens the landscape of what there is. Is it a good time for it? I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I think it’s inevitable. We have reached a point where no one can ignore the online world anymore, so museums, galleries, collectors, artists, everyone is now aware that that it exists and that it is necessary have a presence there or at least be aware of it.