Diner Dogma 3: Down in Flames

This time, K and L discuss the demise of Eyestorm, the widely ballyhooed and fatly bankrolled web-based art retailer that promised to bring contemporary “high art” to the masses, only to crash and burn in May, 2002. Their post-mortem takes place in McDougall’s restaurant, a coffeshop on the corner of McDougall and Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, NYC.

L: Tell me, where did Eyestorm go wrong? (pause) After you’re finished chewing that dinner roll....

K: Let me just say what a nice roll this is. McDougall’s always supplies us with a fantastic bread basket every time we’re here, which is at least two times a week. And this roll is dense and chewy and fresh. It’s bringing my blood sugar back up, so my mind is clear enough to talk about this Eyestorm debacle.

L: We should tell people what Eyestorm was.

K: Eyestorm was a major, well-financed attempt to sell visual art over the internet, more or less according to the traditional art model: limited editions, original objects, signed and numbered prints. The site stressed, over and over again, the authenticity of its prints. The strict controls that were being placed on editioning and how you could, as a supposed connoisseur, trust in the exclusivity, rarity, preciousness and value of these objects.

And then, miracle of miracles, nobody bought them over the internet. The article that Matt Mirapaul wrote in the New York Times about the folding of Eyestorm is interesting because it opens by saying, “Eyestorm.com, an online art gallery that was established to sell exclusive artwork to the internet masses has been declared insolvent”

Stella (the Waitress): I’ll get you some water...

K: So right there in the first line is that inherent self-contradiction of the business model of the site. To sell “exclusive” artwork to the internet “masses”... well, the internet masses don’t want exclusive artwork.

L: Perhaps they should have said “to sell exclusive artwork to the agoraphobic connoisseur.”

K: They seemed to think that there are a lot of people out there who would otherwise be buying art if not for the fact that they had to go into these galleries which were set up to be very exclusive, pretentious and intimidating.

But what they failed to understand is that the reason those galleries are set up that way is so the type of person that is prepared to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars for this supposedly exclusive and original object will feel that this is a justified expense. They’ll feel right at home in that environment.

So in a sense, Eyestorm was trying to apologize for the nature of the art market by saying “look we don’t like the elitism implied by exclusivity any more than you do, so we’re going to make exclusive art available to - wink, wink - Joe Sixpack.”

Joe Sixpack doesn’t want it! And they knew that. They were emphasizing all of these subtle qualities of authenticity which ironically could only have been established within a gallery or studio visit. “What is the patina of this work? What are all the little subtle signifiers of its authenticity? I want to see them”. But you can’t over the internet!

L: So they tried to compensate by opening galleries in London and New York.

K: Undermining their entire original premise. In a weird inversion of their situation, PODgallery found when we had a 2000 square foot gallery space in Greenwich Village that we hardly ever sold prints because we were offering inexpensive open editions in an environment that was similar to a traditional art gallery.

But as soon as we just started selling them on the internet it worked for us. Since we only charge fifteen dollars or twenty dollars, whatever you want to spend, fifty dollars or a hundred dollars, people have no qualms about buying them. That’s why we’re selling prints every single day.

(speaks inaudibly with mouth full of grilled cheese and bacon sandwich)... and it’s interesting to me that Matthew Mirapaul wrote this article after just a couple of weeks ago writing in his Arts Online column about how Mark Napier...

L: The one who was selling shares?

K: Yeah, about how Mark Napier was trying to sell his work, which is “net art”, he was trying to sell this evolving, interactive, internet-based piece as though it was a traditional art object in a gallery.

But Mirapaul in his article about the failure of Eyestorm conspicuously fails to differentiate between selling art as an authentic object and selling art as some sort of multiple object. To quote him “The company soon learned what most suspected; unlike the online purchasers of books and CD’s, art lovers are reluctant to buy works with no experience first-hand.”

Now, what Mirapaul doesn’t mention is the reason for that: it’s not intrinsic to the nature of art, rather it’s intrinsic to the way that visual art is being marketed - as a unique object. Books and CD’s are being sold as copies, visual art isn’t. And that’s the only reason people are concerned about this whole issue of the cachet, the authenticity, the elitism and so forth. But Mirapaul fails to recognize that (even though I had an email exchange with him on that very issue just two weeks ago).

Anyway, I think it’s kind of fun to watch all these sites go down in flames. Because they have this noble attitude about how they’re going to help disseminate art to the masses in limited editions. And that’s just the sort of misguided, well-meaning, liberal attitude that’s typical among the weathy that are the patrons of art. This sense of themselves as socially enlightened but this complete unwillingness to recognize the nature of their privileged position.

L: The idea that art is going to bridge the social divide somehow?

K: Yeah, the idea that art constitutes this great enlightening and ennobling enterprise if it could just be made available to people, at some reasonable price ...say, five hundred dollars. The average family in New York City, struggling to get by in some crappy apartment that costs them $2000.00 a month and every single member of the family has to work and nobody’s got health insurance... but they’re going to go out and spend $500.00, right? For a Damian Hirsch acid blot print in an edition of 1000. I mean, what a joke!

(the melodic sound of cutlery against cheap diner china)

It’s at the very, very highest end of the income scale, the top one tenth of one percent, that you actually see people buying contemporary “high art”. Literally just a few thousand people in the entire world.

Now, Eyestorm was trying to position itself slightly further down the scale, this is why they were putting up this rhetoric about availability and openness -- which only makes sense relative to the existing art world. Relative to the rest of society it’s laughable. But from their perspective they weren’t looking at the rest of society. They were looking at the existing market.

L: And the people directly below it. The “wannabe collectors.”

K: Yeah, so they were marketing those prints to well-off yuppies. Professionals who want to own contemporary art and couldn’t afford $15,000 to $100,000 but could afford $200 to $1000, which was the typical price range on Eyestorm. The funny thing is just how completely oblivious they were to what a privileged market that was in the first place and secondly how the internet did not make sense for marketing “authentic” art. I’m sure SharperImage.com does great with that segment of society but they’re not selling art.

L: Eyestorm would have been better off putting their efforts into creating a more appealing gallery model for that demographic. Like the Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn for visual art.

K: I think they tried to do that, with the stores in New York & London.

L: Yes, but I meant that should have been their starting point.

K: Yeah. I think one of the reasons they failed is that they had the whole overhead of the website that wasn’t working for them. I mean, given this whole idea that you can make print-on-demand limited editions I don’t know why they’re aren’t more places doing that out of brick-and-mortar storefronts. Positioning themselves just below the demographic of the traditional art market and selling prints by well known artists - but not on the internet!

L: Where do you see PODgallery positioned at?

K: POD is positioned much more for the middle-class, which I don’t like actually. I wish we were positioned for absolutely anyone the way the music industry can be. And this is again the whole idea of the word lexis.

(to waitress) That was just excellent, Stella!

L: I think we’re moving toward that position, the more POD splinters up into different sub-sites like ArtLexis.

(sound of spoons stirring coffee)

K: But it’s not just a question of content, it’s a question of price point. Our content I think is great, in that it really does represent a broad spectrum, from neo-conceptual academic work to the work in the Mondo or Taboo galleries, low-brow populist imagery. But our price point is too high. The cheapest thing we offer, for fifteen bucks, that should be a buck fifty. The most expensive thing we offer for $680, that should be $68. That would truly be a new lexis.

(conversation is momentarily drowned out by firetruck sirens)

L: Is it possible to achieve that price point?

K: Not with the way we print now. I would ultimately like to have retail storefronts where we used toner-based printers like the Xeikon to make inexpensive prints on demand while people waited. And those really could sell for about 10% of the price point we have now. Then you’d have something priced the same way books are priced, the same way CD’s are priced - and that’s what we mean by lexis. The lexis is the socially determined unit of reception for cultural products.

L: So in a way Bright Cube is pursuing the right model.

K: Yeah, although I don’t think it’s going to take off super quickly. But getting totally away from the print model, I’ve had my ear to the Macintosh grapevine and I think one of Apple’s next lifestyle appliances is going to be a digital frame. One of the applications that they’re emphasizing for this “Digital Hub” is photo sharing.

L: Well with the advent of iPhoto that certainly makes sense.

K: They’ve got iTunes to organize the songs and the iPod to play them. I think for iPhoto they’re going to have an “iFrame” for display. I think that may be coming out at Macworld here in New York. If that happens, I think it’ll go a long way toward pushing this idea of delivering images in a purely digital flow.

Which I think is the real future, as we’ve discussed in the past. The real future for POD and for ArtLexis might be the “dollar download” of the image and then people will start collecting art the same way that they’re now starting to collect MP3s and pornographic JPEGs. So sitting on people’s hard drives you have this cloud of data, just an arrangement of magnetic particles, but people think: “these are my songs” and “these are my porno pictures.”

Now given the existing digital distribution model of those two very, very obsessively collected types of cultural product, songs and pornography, we can well imagine that the next one should be art. Movies will come in too, when the bandwidth issue is solved. But there’s no reason why art couldn’t be right where porno is right now. Hundreds and thousands of art images sitting on people’s hard drives.

L: The problem is how do you get people to pay for it. There’s the file-swapping issue.

K: Well, that problem is also being faced by the music industry. I think it’s best addressed through either the subscription model or the pay per download model.

L: But it’s got to be cheap.

K: It’s got to be cheap and it’s got to be convenient. The reason file-swapping (the Napster model) is threatening to undermine the popular music market is that the big base audience is very young people. Now those are the same people that thrill and delight in the pursuit of these free MP3s through the internet. And they’re very patient and they’re prepared to try it a whole bunch of different ways until they get their song.

But anyone over the age of 25 lacks that patience. I know I do, I’ve tried a couple of times to find songs on the internet and it’s been very frustrating. I don’t have time, I have things to do. If there were five or six sites by major publishers where I could go and just download the songs I wanted for a buck apiece I would do it happily. I would create an account with them and I would come back and I would be like “okay, bill my account for this song, this song and this song”.

Which I think is better than the subscription model for a couple of reasons. One, unless some provider has everything, you don’t want to subscribe to just them. Cable television only works on the subscription model because you can get every channel for your 30 bucks a month. But if every single individual channel was like HBO, saying “give me ten bucks a month and you can have my content”, most of them would fail.

L: Of course they would, most of them suck.

K: Yes, but also there’d be too many channels at ten bucks a month for you to afford. You’d want to go to pay per view/video on demand.

L: But I think the reason the music industry is slow to embrace this because they have to give up the idea of albums and start selling individual tracks. I don’t think they want to do that.

K: I think you could sell albums.

L: But I think people would be much more inclined to buy if they could if they could buy single tracks. Just the songs they wanted.

K: I think so too. But I think the key problem here is just convenience. They need to make it easy. I think that the subscription model is a little unwieldy inasmuch as it presumes that people will be prepared have an indefinitely large number of subscriptions to various services - not just music services but other kinds of online information.

Whereas the pay-per-download model is much more suitable and that’s why our next major site revision will include the “dollar download”. And then I think people would say “I don’t mind paying a dollar for this.” Then if they swap it to a few of their friends and get their friends turned on to the idea of going to POD for the 15 or 20 thousand images that are up there that they didn’t get from their friend but they know are available, that’s fine too. I think that’s a workable model. If someone starts creating their PODster site where they have everything in POD available, then we shut them down. Just like Napster got shut down. We’ll go after them pitilessly!

L: (laughs)

K: To that hopeful and optimistic vision of a bright, new digital future let’s just add that as always, it was an excellent, excellent lunch and service here at MacDougall’s Cafe in the heart of Greenwich Village.

L: It was! Come and see Stella some time.