Bare-Knuckle Reflections About Art and Commerce from a Digital Nomad


Marius Watz. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Artist Marius Watz doesn’t make traditional art objects, but instead writes computer code. He uses generative systems to create dynamic visuals, which range from web-based software to large-scale projections to physical objects. Vivid color and hard-edged geometric shapes tie his work together. Marius’s work requires a computer and an Internet connection; he is practical; his overhead is low; and his work doesn’t require studio space. Watz is represented by [DAM] Berlin and LUMAS Editions. His work has been shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University, The ICA in London, The Hague, and Ars Electronica to name a few. Our interview discusses Marius’s pragmatic approaches to art making, and the ramifications of being a digital artist in today’s art market.

Currently, Watz is featured in a group show, titled Colliding Complexities: Extreme Feats of the New York-New Aesthetic, at Storefront Bushwick. The show includes Pedro Barbeito, [dNASAb], Cliff Evans, Carla Gannis, Shane Hope, Michael Rees, John F. Simon Jr., Vargas-Suarez Universal, Oliver Warden, and Marius Watz. Curated by [dNASAb] in collaboration with Frederieke Taylor Gallery.

Marius Watz. “Prime Hex” (installation view), 2011. Fluorescent tubes and tape, dimensions vary. 

BC: When I asked you to participate in this guest blog series, you replied: “As an ex-designer it took me a long time to understand just how fucked up the art economy is, mostly because I was having a hard time letting go of my rational beliefs that surely no one would agree to do skilled work under such conditions. My go-to crass joke about art and money is that at least I’m not a painter. Digital artists may not get much respect from the commercial art world but they have plenty of skills with which to pay the bills.” Your anecdote is funny, and painful, because, in my case, it’s true. In your experience, why do many skilled artists work under such poor conditions?

MW: First off, let me apologize about the painter joke, it sounds offensive out of context. Hell, it sounds offensive even in context, but then that’s the point.

The joke serves two purposes: A: To shock anyone not aware of the difficulties of being an artist. B: To put artists working with digital media (aka media artists aka “my people”) on notice that they shouldn’t feel too sorry for themselves. Digital art might not be respected in the art world proper, but digital artists do enjoy the privilege of being able to feed themselves using the same skills they use to create their art. Perhaps not always without compromise, but you know what they say: A successful artist is any artist who pays her bills.

I also follow up by saying that I didn’t choose what I do. Like most artists, I fell into my practice, an accident of my interests more than conscious speculation. If my obsessions tended towards ceramics I would be a ceramicist, regardless of the relative market realities.

As for “poor conditions,” I’ll sidestep the obvious complaints here but I do have some pet peeves. Stated somewhat brutally: In terms of financial and social security becoming an artist is not an attractive proposition. An art career requires a high level of training and massive personal investment, but generally does not offer proportionate opportunities for a sustainable income.

In terms of labor politics art is a bizarre outlier, its very existence contrary to most theories of free market capitalism. Art is a luxury (if not utopian) commodity, priced according to volatile and subjective market parameters. The art market is exceptionally hierarchical, with a long tail structure that means that most art “workers” receive little renumeration for their efforts while a tiny minority trade their goods at markups that would make a stock trader blush.

But hey, I love being an artist. I’m able to make art full-time without too much compromise or the distraction of a day job, which puts me in a position of privilege by default. The realities of art economics don’t make for a pretty picture, but obviously there are collateral benefits.

Anyone able to carve out a niche for themselves will find plenty of rewards, as long as they accept that fiscal stability is rarely one of them. The freedom to define your own job, to explore your personal obsessions (no matter how obscure) and having ample opportunity for travel are not bad job perks. Some would add fame and self-realization to that list, but I wouldn’t make any promises in that direction.

Some principles to live by: I will not pay-to-play. I will ask for an exhibition fee (common in Europe.) I will not license work to Fortune 100 companies for free. I will not give a gallery percentages on income it did not generate. Finally, I won’t accept the implication that art making is an end in itself and thus should require no compensation. The production of the sublime is not without economic realities, and the failure to acknowledge this fact merely helps to marginalize art as a utopian pursuit fit only for idealists and dreamers.

Marius Watz. “Wall Exploder B,” 2011. Wall drawing made with digital projection and artist tape.

BC: What type of work do you create, and why? As you make the work, do you consider the cost involved in the project? How do you strike a balance between the cost of stuff and the work in the studio? 

MW: I don’t draw, paint or make objects – I write computer code. All my work originates as custom software processes that encode forms as a set of rules (algorithms) governed by certain parameters. Think of it as making a drawing by defining all the aesthetic decisions necessary to produce it, thus creating a “drawing machine” capable of producing endless permutations of that composition. This shifts the focus from a single unique product to a vast parameter space of possible forms.

My process is 100% digital, requiring only a laptop and an Internet connection. “Digital nomad” is a tired buzzword, but it does describe my situation. My approach also allows me to work in a range of formats, from pure software works to physical objects produced using digital fabrication technology. For a long time I focused on software as art objects, which conveniently meant low production costs and no need for shipping or storage. I have since shifted towards manifesting virtual structures in physical space (using laser cutters, 3D printing (Makerbot!) etc.), which threatens to make me a little more like a studio artist. But since I can do fabrication on-demand wherever in the world I need the piece to appear I can still hold on to my freedom of movement.

Cost is always a parameter in the creation of a body of work. Since I rely on out-of-house fabrication I can rarely afford to produce works not intended for a specific show or sale. For exhibitions I usually have a limited production budget, which means that I choose output formats strategically to maximize the result. Public art commissions are the dream scenario, not only is the artistic process treated with understanding and respect, but you get to work with realistic budgets.

Ever the pragmatist, I have also developed some pieces (like my tape drawings) that are low cost but high impact. But for gallery quality artworks intended for sale there are only so many ways to cut corners without compromising the work. It becomes a matter of making a capital investment without any guarantee that you’ll recoup the cost in a predictable time frame. The market for digital art is growing (slowly) and I do sell the occasional piece, the income from which goes towards producing new works.

BC: How do you manage your money, and how do you earn income? I want to know how economics, and money-management, affects your decisions inside and outside the studio. 

MW: Like most artists I make my money in a myriad of ways. Listed in order of importance: Commercial work for advertising, public art commissions, teaching and public speaking, sale of artworks. This year public art will be about 50% of my income, but when I first moved to New York in 2008 I lived for two years from two big advertising commissions.

Commercial commissions does not mean design, illustration or programming-for-hire, rather it’s a matter of creating an artwork to be used in a commercial context. The work is always clearly identified as being my artwork, in fact the client typically has a selfish interest in explaining the process behind the work since the futuristic narrative of how the work was made is half of the attraction. The same way street art became a convenient expression of street style, tech-based art is often seen as a poster girl for techno-optimism. It’s a mixed blessing, but ad agencies and high-style corporations (Swarovski, Cartier, Chanel etc.) will throw real money at you to get some of that high-tech pixie dust.

Money-management consists of making sure my account balance doesn’t go below a certain pain threshold. Freelancing for 18 years I have learned that a three-month lull or sudden market catastrophe might just bankrupt you. I can have long periods of back-to-back shows, lectures and commercial work, followed by a deafening silence. As a survival measure I try to always have a buffer of 2-3 months of income, which I can only do because my income comes in lump payments rather than a monthly cycle.

Fiscal paranoia is helpful, even if it doesn’t help you sleep at night. Whenever my buffer runs low I know that I need to proactively look for work. The last few months I have been teaching creative code workshops, which to my surprise have provided a somewhat stable income. Small wonders, etc.

Marius Watz. “Probability Lattice,” 2012. Parametric object, 3D printed in ABS plastic using a Makerbot.

BC: If you seek monetary compensation as an artist, do you see it as a possible compromise to the type of work you create, and your integrity as an artist?

MW: Some artists would probably consider the kind of commercial work I describe above as mercenary, some hardliners might even find it outright distasteful. But frankly I have few reservations about doing it as long as I am able to protect my process and assert an ownership over the work. I’m not naïve about the Faustian bargain I am entering into, but to be honest it feels far less exploitative than some art world arrangements I’ve come across. My priority is to be able to continue my practice as a free agent, and apart from taking a full-time teaching position or a day job unrelated to my interests there are not so many options.

Obviously, artistic integrity is an issue when working according to a brief, but I am always clear about setting boundaries. My clients are familiar with my work and have no interest in interfering in the process beyond providing the initial parameters that frame the work. I might not have complete artistic freedom and I do have to rationalize my decisions to a certain degree, but I’m able to make it work for me.

The romantic idea that artists should create their work in blissful ignorance of market mechanisms is contradicted by even the briefest investigation of art world realities. Even in an art economy based on public funding (say, in my motherland of Norway) artists will adapt their work to fit market demand, such as the tendency of state-run institutions to value socially relevant or discursive projects over object-based practices.

BC: Have you purchased the artwork of another artist? How did your financial investment in another artist’s artwork influence or inform your practice?

MW: I have done trades more than outright purchases. I would like to have the chance to collect and support the work of other artists, much of which is actually cheap compared to the quality of the work. But it’s hard to justify buying luxury commodities over making more of my own work. I also try to avoid accumulating too much stuff, it’s hard enough throwing out books when you move and I would never be able to throw out a piece of art.

Fortunately, new funding sources like Kickstarter provide ample opportunity to support interesting projects, and I have already given modest amounts to several campaigns. I do wish more art admirers would consider buying work in a lower price range, a $1000 piece is really quite affordable but for many emerging artists a sale even at that price helps support the creation of new work. I also wish that artists could produce medium-volume, medium-price multiples without risking the scorn of the “professional” art world. Etsy might seem low-class compared to a Chelsea gallery, but if it helps an artist to keep creating in a difficult market I really don’t see why she shouldn’t.