How the Dirty New Media Movement Informed the First Virtual Art Galleries

Locating Technology

How the Dirty New Media Movement Informed the First Virtual Art Galleries

By Janna Avner February 27, 2018

Locating Technology considers technology and artworks in rather broad terms, such as: mechanical objects, analog and digital photography and video, and computer and web-based work. Through these types of works, writers explore the evolution of technology and its effects on artists’ processes, disciplinarity, and the larger social context of media creation, dispersal, access and interactivity.

Dirty New Media (DNM) is the inconformable art of disobeying software. Prompted by anarchic open-sourcing webpages and hacktivism, DNM flouts computer programming rules by merging incompatible file formats. An opened piece of software translated by a mismatched program might react by twisting its file out of its “natural” or expected rendering. If its files comprised a video game, for instance, DNM might endeavor to disengage with linear perspective, ignoring program commands by inversely sharpening and dulling the game’s virtual environment, which results in the reification of an inchoate spatial poetics, often appearing onscreen as ribbons of white noise.

Artists who incorporate DNM into their work push against normative coding languages to see what will happen and to see how “dirty”—which for DNM implies both terra firma as well as online pornography—raw, or muddled their designs can get. Unlike succinct storytelling narratives with character development moving through a beginning, middle, and end, we might define DNM as William S. Burroughs’s or Gertrude Stein’s cut-up, experimental use of poetry—a merging together of scraps of coding language-actions, often resulting in glitch-art animations that highlight the material objecthood of coding as something other than straightforward, prose-like communication.

The process of distorting the program is also the attempt to surprise the program’s provocateur: “You get something sporadic and sometimes beautiful,” states Alfredo Salazar-Caro, digital artist and co-founder of the Digital Museum of Digital Art (DiMoDa), in an interview about his usage of DNM. “Dirty New Media was about exploiting error before [a software] completely crashed and it gave you a beautiful image in its agony.”1 Possibly the first online platform to display art born from DNM’s digital wreckage, DiMoDa was conceived by Salazar-Caro and William Robertson while they were students at Art Institute of Chicago around 2013 and 2014. DiMoDa’s founders question Facebook® and Instagram’s®  sleek renders, from reduced illustrations in the form of shaded buttons and emojis to hyperrealism and photography. DNM is similar to the graffiti art of the digital world; it exists to integrate and disrupt expected visual paradigms, and it is sometimes sourced from pirated materials.

Alfredo Salazar-Caro. Room Four, 2014 (screenshot); website. Courtesy of Panther Modern. 

In contrast to how people spend most of their time scrolling websites with streamlined formats designed to enhance the presentation of information, DNM distorts these same formats to reclaim users’ attention spans. As a parallel example, one might imagine DNM as graffiti tagging the coveted and often exclusionary wall spaces within museums and galleries. DNM is both virtual and physical, as a desire and intention to both hypothetically reframe social order and rejigger software design. In 2012, Salazar-Caro began the installation project Street Team with other net-based artists and filmmakers who would install miniature projectors, guerilla-style, in major museums throughout the world, such as Tate Modern. The installers would then record the projectors’ activities and document them as pieces of artwork. Salazar-Caro got caught once doing this in Mexico City, as he mentioned in an interview.

“I guess this is all something that dates back to 2011. [Street Team] and DiMoDa were conceived and consolidated as ideas in 2013, but before that, there was Chicago Dirty New Media. It was really catalyzing in Chicago, but came from all over the world—similar to glitch art via Rosa Menkman out of Amsterdam [and those using] D.I.Y. CSS glitch, aestheticizing breakages and machine errors as art works. My partner [William] and I were part of this scene by providing audio and visual performances for gallery exhibitions and warehouse parties.”

Alfredo Salazar-Caro and William Robertson. Screenshot of the Digital Museum of Digital Art's home page, 2018; website. Courtesy of the Digital Museum of Digital Art.

Around the time of DiMoDa’s inception, a cluster of online platforms called virtual art galleries sprang up with similarly progressive goals. While not directly stemming from DNM’s aesthetic, the galleries bring an experimental and fringe use of rendering software to the forefront. Gallery webpages were often designed as trompe-l’oeils of real-life white cube galleries, depicting roguish artworks installed in virtual three-dimensional spaces flooded with false ambient light. One such example is the virtual gallery Panther Modern, founded in 2013 by a digital artist only known as the online avatar LaTurbo Avedon. The gallery Panther Modern is an architectural masterpiece of rooms pulsing with illusionistic, curated exhibitions in false radiance that alters user interaction via implicitly “clickable” role-play and coercive immersion. Examples include room sixteen, room one, and room eight, which might be defined as portals to another world entirely; the natural light reflecting from incandescent objects in these virtual rooms glows unlike anything that can be viewed with common sight. The format of virtual galleries defines how viewers interact with them, and many of these galleries function as either businesses or nonprofits dedicated to the archival, promotional, and sales aspects of digital art as a respected art medium.

As with DiMoDa, anyone can access Avedon’s gallery by entering their (Avedon’s preferred pronoun) website. Of course, commercial art can exist anywhere, but because digital art is often widely distributed, the non-exclusive, ephemeral component of the medium often allows its users to fill in the blanks for themselves. Unlike advertisements designed to elicit specific responses from their viewers, digital art often permits free choice; as users participate in digital art movements by witnessing pieces at galleries, warehouse parties, or through virtual-reality headsets, viewers might take on further creative and collaborative roles. “The history of new media and digital art is one that is built from a sort of transgression,” explains Avedon in a Facebook interview,2 “as all of us continue to learn how to show the world that these tools from Hollywood, web development, and other industries are not just commercial and practical applications, but very real parts of how we create, feel and communicate today.” Like poetry formed by feelings inexpressible in straightforward prose, DNM and the aforementioned forays into digital art work toward the authentic communication of complex thought, otherwise obsolete within most market-driven initiatives.

Just like galleries in real life, virtual galleries in-fight for complex reasons. Recently, Acute Art claimed to be the “first virtual art platform.” In response to this statement, Hyperallergic called Acute Art “ignorant” of the many platforms that precede its 2017 inception, and other virtual gallery owners have called Acute Art “imperialist.”3 In opinionated responses in group Facebook message interviews about Acute Art’s debut, founders like Salazar-Caro and Robertson of DiMoDa, Kate Parsons and Ben Vance of FLOAT Museum (founded 2016), Kelani Nichole of Transfer Gallery (founded 2013), Avedon’s Panther Modern (founded 2013), and many others found Acute Art’s pioneering “firstness” to be tenuous. Other digital platforms include the 2014 and 2016 installments of the Wrong Biennial, constituting 60 pavilions and 40 IRL galleries, and the New New Wight Gallery founded by digital media artist Julieta Gil in 2013. Some of these founders—many who consider collective action essential—are open to working with Acute Art, and some are not.

Acute Art debuted celebrity artists Olafur Elaisson, Marina Abramovic, and Jeff Koons, who are some of the highest-valued artists today—but are not primarily digital artists. In an online interview, these artists seemed eager to participate in forward-thinking digital trends, but Salazar-Caro and other virtual-gallery owners noted that these artists had little hands-on experience creating the VR works they present, unlike the vast amount of digital artists out there who do. Various coders often bang their heads against “code walls” just to articulate the perfect visual accents, unlike Acute Art’s star artists, who do not have this technical background and hired others to do the work for them.

Due to billion-dollar investments in virtual reality and augmented reality, these technologies will permeate our lives soon, revealing how much faith we place in major technology companies and social-media platforms. Digital art exhibited at virtual art galleries provides viewers with challenging aesthetics, presenting visual abnormalities that give consumers the freedom to consider the technology they’re using or literally putting on their faces. DNM’s mashed, misperceived, or at times fully realized distortions of programming languages leave users with some remedy and room for critique for the ensuing psychological confusions4 to come as the digital universe expands.


  1. This and the subsequent two quotes from Salazar-Caro are from a Facebook® conversation with the author on May 12, 2017.
  2. This and all subsequent quotes from Avedon are from a Facebook conversation with the author on February 18, 2018.
  3. The museum founder Alfredo Salazar-Caro of the Digital Museum of Digital Art (DiMoDa)—which launched two years before Acute Art revealed their website—called them “imperialist,” as have other owners in one-on-one Facebook interviews with the author.
  4. The long-term cognitive effects of VR are unknown, though one prominently cited experiment showed a reduction of the hippocampus function by 60 percent in adult mice placed in VR simulations. Without perfect congruence of the body and environment, the mice’s “place cells” stopped firing.

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