What is Phygital Art?
Phygital is a portmanteau of the words “physical” and “digital” and is used to describe the intersection of these two arenas.
Phygital experiences are becoming increasingly commonplace. QR code restaurant menus, Snapchat filters, Pokemon Go, and digital maps apps are all examples of how the digital world is enmeshed with our lived experiences.
With the explosion of creativity that has followed the digital art revolution, it’s no surprise that artists would wield these tools to break down barriers between what can be seen on a screen and what can be experienced without mediation.
What follows is an in-depth overview of trends in phygital creations. We hope that this article will inspire readers to continue to push the boundaries of digital art into real life as well as push the boundaries of real life further into the digital.
Categories of Phygital Art
The Phygital Dilemma
The most obvious use case for phygitalia (my own word) is to include a physical corollary with a digital piece. As soon as the hype around NFTs began in earnest, artists started testing the philosophical boundaries of the endeavor.
First, Damien Hirst famously sold NFTs of 10,000 unique dot paintings for $2,000 each. He told collectors they could burn their NFTs in exchange for the original painting or keep the NFT, at which point, Hirst would burn the painting. The majority of buyers (5,149) kept the physical painting; 4,851 opted for NFTs.
Taking a different approach, Spanish artist Antonio García Villarán created original digital paintings, which he painstakingly recreated as physical paintings. He offered his buyers the same dilemma (though less violent): keep the NFT or the painting; whichever you don’t choose goes to the artist. Of the three unique 1/1 pieces, every collector opted for the NFT over the painting.
And artist Matt Gondek has taken this approach to a perhaps greater extreme with his Fight Club series, for which he and his team created 300 painstakingly hand-crafted spiked baseball bats painted in Gondek’s signature colors. The bats were then photographed, and those photos sold at NFTs. Following the sale, owners could burn their NFTs for the bat or keep their NFT and let the bat be incinerated.
Going beyond the most obvious is someone like Dutch footballer-turned-street artist DOES. Instead of selling merely the NFT and a print, DOES released cinematic behind-the-scenes videos demonstrating every step of a piece’s creation. Buyers of these audiovisual art films received a print of the finished piece.
With a fly-on-the-wall recording of Thelonious Monk composing in private, Javier Arrés’s animated “Brilliant Corner” NFT couldn’t possibly be IRLd (my own word again) without the audio. As the digital art revolution continues to expand the possibilities of what can be included in a single artwork, digital frame makers like Tokenframe that enable audio in their displays will come out ahead.
And then there are technological innovations like holograms that require a leap forward from the digital and physical sides of the equation. The Holoverse’s first release, Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Bella Principessa,” accomplished exactly this, presenting this obscure masterpiece as a half-a-billion-pixel 3D hologram floating inside a crystal glass case.
Augmented Reality & Phygital Art
Artists and technologists have also found ways to enhance the experience of viewing physical artwork using augmented reality technology.
Artists Violet Jones, Henrik Uldalen, Santiago Pani, and Daniel Martin collaborated on the project Peyote Ugly, which involved heavily animated digitized versions of their paintings, which were sold as NFTs. NFT holders then received the correlating physical painting as well as the ability to use their phones to experience the animated version in augmented reality.
The creative agency Basa Studio works with street artists and muralists to create Plein-air interactive AR experiences on the sides of buildings as well as in mid-air. And Heather Dunaway Smith further melds the permeable borders between digital and physical with her large-scale AR-powered installations and exhibits, as well as AR games that (perhaps paradoxically) encourage a greater engagement with the physical world.
But art doesn’t stop on the edges of the human body: Caledonia Tattoos has gone so far as to augment the reality of a tattoo!
Sculpture is ripe for disruption, and the technology to do so is ready and waiting.
Art world legend Frank Stella just released his first NFTs: carefully sculpted 3D “forms and shapes that would be difficult if not impossible to conceive of with analog tools alone.” In addition to the 3D artwork, owners of Stella’s genesis NFTs receive a file that allows them to 3D print the sculpture.
Pop art sculptor Jeff Koons announced in March 2022 that he made a series of 125 sculptures with corresponding NFTs that would “land in the Oceanus Procellarum after being launched from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in a fully automized mission orchestrated by the private aerospace company Intuitive Machines.” The stunt, ahem… the mission was supposed to launch in July 2022, but there have been no updates on the project since April 2022.
If the concept of NFTs can be reduced to “inviolable proof of authenticity,” then the opportunities in the fashion world are quite bottomless.
Always on the forefront, in 2021, Nike purchased virtual sneaker powerhouse RTFKT (just call it artifact) and shortly thereafter began producing Airforce 1 NFTs with physical corollaries.
In August 2021, fashion house Dolce&Gabbana released the world’s first luxury NFT collection, the record-breaking Collezione Genesi. The nine-piece collection, personally designed by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, features entirely hand-made, museum-grade items across their women’s, men’s, and jewelry lines and brought in $5.7MM at auction.
Nick Graham released three space-themed bomber jackets in early 2022, each with a QR code stitched inside to allow the wearer to virtually walk in space while also linking it to a wallet as an NFT.
And startups like Jigen and Arianee approach the phygital with a much more practical goal: to give digital life to high-value luxury items, allowing them to be tracked on chain throughout the entire product lifecycle.
While the metaverse promises to be a cooler, artsier reality to reside in, it’s already influencing the actual reality we live in.
3D designer Andrés Reisinger’s ‘Tangled Chair’ is one such example: originally created as part of a 3D artwork, The Tangled Chair has since been manufactured as a limited edition physical collectible. Similarly, American designer and sculptor Misha Khan designed and sold ten unique designs through Christie’s auction house, all of which could be 3D printed by the owner or through Khan’s studio.
Designer Dr. James Novak printed the world’s first full-size bicycle frame as a single piece way back in the more innocent days of 2014, and he’s since released the design as an NFT. According to the 3D Printing Media Network,
“…unlike current 3D printing platforms (e.g., Thingiverse), blockchain technology can track who owns the design at any point and allow designers to reach a broader community of artists and collectors.”
When it comes to digitized experiences, Gucci is all we’re going to talk about here.
On the occasion of the legendary fashion house’s 100th anniversary, Gucci opened the newly designed Gucci Garden, located inside the historic Palazzo della Mercanzia in Florence, features a store with one-of-a-kind items, the Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura restaurant, and the Gucci Garden Galleria exhibition rooms curated by critic Maria Luisa Frisa. To allow remote audiences to tour the space, Gucci worked with Roblox to create an immersive digital extension of The Gucci Garden where visitors could browse and buy digital versions of Gucci accessories and clothing.
In a similar (but perhaps even more ambitious) vein, Trevor Andrew (AKA Guccighost) built guccighost.com, a meticulous reproduction of his art studio in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The digital re-creation will be auctioned off in toto to a lucky collector who will own the Guccighost brand and legacy. This “miniverse” studio represents a nested NFT embedded with 386 digital re-creations of physical work sold during the Guccighost era. If the new owner sells one of these NFTs, it will disappear from the website.
The Future of Phygital
I’m not the first to say that we’re barely on the cusp of a major shift in how we interact with technology. Between the leaps and bounds of virtual and augmented realities, 3D printing technology, and blockchain technology, the future of phygital seems bound only by our collective imaginations.