For digital artists, apps offer a new palette

Publishers weren’t the only ones drooling when Apple unveiled its iPad to much fanfare in the spring. Digital artists have also marveled at the device’s potential.

“It’s like I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment,” said Scott Snibbe, an interactive artist based in San Francisco. “I had literally given up on screen artwork.”

For years Mr Snibbe, 41, had been trying to figure out how best to display his computer art programs, which consist largely of abstract lines and shapes designed to evoke a ‘happy’ feeling in users handling the ever-changing models. In the late 1990s, he even made a series of drawings of a portable device similar to the iPad that he wanted to see exist so that his artwork could be freed from the desktop computer screen.

By 2002, he had become so frustrated with the available technology that he stopped doing screen work altogether.

“It wasn’t seen by so many people,” Mr Snibbe said, “and then there was the problem that it wasn’t making any money. There was no way to sell it.

But the advent of mobile devices with touchscreens and tilt sensors changed everything. Starting last January, Snibbe dusted off some of his old code and got to work. He has since launched three mobile apps – Bubble Harp, Antograph and Gravilux – and became one of the first artists to gain recognition on the iTunes App Store. In total, its three apps have been downloaded more than 400,000 times.

The majority of these downloads, however, occurred when he released Gravilux free of charge; eventually, it priced 99 cents per download for the iPhone version of Gravilux and Antograph, with Bubble Harp and the Gravilux iPad priced at $1.99. He wouldn’t say how much he earned, except to admit that he covered “significant” start-up costs.

Its Gravilux app, a sleek black-and-white field of dots that follows the user’s finger across the screen, was released in May. Within 24 hours, it rose to the top of the app charts. Apple has selected Gravilux as its featured application, a coveted slot machine.

Mr. Snibbe’s apps look like interactive screensavers, with compelling patterns that respond to touch. He has more on the way this fall and winter.

While artist-created apps are only a fraction of the iTunes Store’s 225,000 apps, the field is growing, with some well-known artists trying out the technology. In June, John Baldessari, a conceptual artist, announced an iPhone app to coincide with his solo exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that would allow users to rearrange elements of a 1667 Dutch still life from the museum’s collection.

Other artists who have created apps include Amit Pitaru, who is based in Brooklyn and brought his “Sonic Wire Sculpture” installation to the small screen, and Japanese artist duo Exonemo.

This fall, Camille Utterback, an interactive video artist from San Francisco who won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship last year, will release her own apps, based on previous interactive works. For her application, she plans to adapt aspects of her “Untitled 5” wall, made in 2004, which created colorful crystalline patterns based on the viewer’s movements in the room.

Richard Rinehart, curator of digital art at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, has shown mobile apps in his NetArt series and will do so again this fall. He said artist-created apps were “the perfect marriage of mass distribution with the potential for collaboration and the ability to have a local bodily experience.” Artists can get their work seen widely and get paid by charging per download.

But there are downsides. Ms Utterback said her first hurdle was learning how to write app code – Mr Snibbe coached her. Programming can be expensive if outsourced: Mr. Baldessari’s app, for example, cost $35,000 to produce.

There may also be conceptual resistance. “I think it takes a bit of time for artists to start building apps because for a lot of artists it requires a shift in mindset,” Ms Utterback said.

Launching an art project into the iTunes marketplace, an arena full of “throwaway” programs, won’t sit well with many artists. Moreover, the gallery system is at odds with app distribution: as Steve Sacks, owner of New York-based new media gallery BitForms, said, the iTunes model would do away with it altogether.

Then there’s the question of Apple’s approval. Each application must be approved by the company before being made available in the iTunes Store. Some artists might find it difficult to work under these constraints.

The development of artist-created apps is still in its infancy, but Mr. Snibbe’s success has helped pave the way.

Mr Rinehart said he expects a rapid influx of artists working on mobile apps, in the same way artists flocked to early internet projects, although art is not currently among the 20 categories from the Apple App Store.

Mr Snibbe said he welcomed the confusion over the exact nature of his apps. Some negative reviews “were saying things like, ‘It’s a useless program,’ which I loved,” he said. “Is a short story useful? Is a paint useful?

Usefulness, he continued, is not the point.

Marilyn M. Davis