Across Digital and Physical Worlds, Auriea Harvey Expands What Art Can Be

For Auriea Harvey, form begins, always, in code. Whether in her experiential net art, meditative video games, or uncanny 3D-printed sculptures, the Rome-based multidisciplinarian has long remained steadfast in her commitment to the digital, constructing her fantastical sculptures and mystical interactive worlds on the computer before bringing them into the physical realm.

“Sculpture has always been about transmuting one material into another,” Harvey explained. “Most bronze sculpture starts as clay, which turns into plaster, which turns into metal. I just happen to start with digital material.”

Auriea Harvey, Minoriea, 2018. Collection of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Albert H. Tracy Fund, by exchange, 2022.

Auriea Harvey, Minoriea stamps her foot, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and bitforms gallery.

That alchemical approach has produced an expansive practice—one that is constantly pushing into new territories of materiality and interactivity. In her early net-based work The Kiss: Incorporator (2007), for example, the user navigates a landscape made up of 3D scans of Harvey’s and her husband’s bodies stitched together in an eternal kiss. Just over a decade later, she made the sculptural work Minoriea (2018), a minotaur-like trickster that encapsulates Harvey’s persistent interest in hybrid, mythological creatures.

Through her work, Harvey prods at the membrane between digital and physical worlds, inviting viewers to ponder how code might permeate that divide. Minoriea first appeared as a digital model in a VR labyrinth, but Harvey soon repurposed the figure as a physical sculpture printed in a polymer composite of bronze, plaster, and other epoxies. Since then, the artist has brought the character back into her digital work, letting her loose in a series of augmented-reality works from 2021 called “The Adventures of Minoriea.”

Portrait of Auriea Harvey in her studio, 2022. Photo by Tommaso Salamina. Courtesy of Auriea Harvey.

Harvey’s mythological motifs are a product of her recombinant philosophy. “I’m always looking at stories and songs and trying to see what resonates there, what shakes loose in what I’m looking at and reading, at how these things turn into sculptural form,” she said. “I don’t have this desire for true originality. These don’t come from any specific tradition, but show the influence of ancient Egyptian myth, thinking about idols, something to be worshipped—what is the spirit that can live inside a sculpture, in the minds of humans.”

Harvey’s experimentation has led her to considerable success. She recently presented solo exhibitions at bitforms gallery in New York and new-media platform Feral File, and has a forthcoming show at the Crystal Bridges offshoot The Momentary. This recent acclaim represents a détente of sorts for the artist, who has woven her way into and out of the art world over the course of her career.

Auriea Harvey, installation view of “Year Zero” at bitforms gallery, 2021. Photo by Emile Askey. Courtesy of bitforms gallery.

In the mid-1990s, fresh out of Parsons School of Design and unable to afford the sort of airy studio space that her sculpture practice required, Harvey found freedom in the unfettered openness of the early internet. She began to produce inventive and trenchant net art pieces in the wild chatroom west of Web 1.0: There was the aforementioned Kiss, but also pieces like skinonskinonskin (1999), a collection of love letters between Harvey and her soon-to-be-husband Michaël Samyn, which was only accessible through a paid access program that seemed to foretell the prevalence of subscription models today.

The innovation inherent in these early projects caught the eye of a few of the savvier institutions of the day, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which featured Harvey and Samyn’s work in its 2001 survey “010101: Art in Technological Times.” But Harvey soon felt alienated by what she perceived as a persistent devaluing of digital labor and creativity in the wider art world.

Auriea Harvey, Webcam Movies, 1999. Photo by Emile Askey. Courtesy of the artist and bitforms gallery.

“The digital just wasn’t valued,” Harvey said. “I mean that monetarily, but it also felt like that it could never be seen for itself.” She said her works were often seen as “just a game” or a model for a physical artwork. “That level of disdain was a lack of understanding.”

Then the halcyon era of the early internet began to shift, as social media giants like YouTube and Facebook staked their claim in the mid-2000s. Harvey abandoned net art to begin designing video games with Samyn under the studio moniker Tale of Tales. The games that they made continued in the vein of their meditative and curious web experiences: The Endless Forest allowed players to inhabit deer wandering aimlessly through a magical forest, while The Graveyard, about an old woman visiting a cemetery, was free to play, but cost five dollars to let the woman die.

Harvey’s work at Tale of Tales allowed her to return again to thinking about the boundlessness of digital-native work, and the financial possibilities of selling an endlessly reproducible art form. But by the mid-2010s, Harvey decided to shutter Tale of Tales, in part due to the difficulty of selling games at scale. She purchased a 3D-printing machine—an act she refers to as “seizing the means of production”—and, armed with an invigorated philosophical framework centered on reproducibility, began to move back into the traditional art world that she had left years prior.

“When I saw 3D printing, I thought that this might be a way to make physical sculpture again, to combine this magic world of computers with something I could touch,” she said. “It felt like I really needed solid things again.”

Her most recent pivot to hybrid sculptures synthesizes all of the themes that have defined her career so far. During her first show at bitforms, visitors could scan QR codes of the physical objects to take their digital counterparts home. Harvey said she’s interested in how her artworks travel, and “what happens to them over time. That’s part of the content going forward, this notion of materiality and time.”

And with the rise of NFTs, Harvey has also begun to sell editions of her virtual sculptures, an act that allows her to continue her explorations into what it means to properly value digital labor.

Auriea Harvey, installation view of Pelops I, 2022, in “Future Bodies” at Upstream Gallery, 2022. Photo by Gert Jan van Rooij. Courtesy of Upstream Gallery.

“I think NFTs are on the road to providing financial equity for artists on the one hand,” Harvey said of her Web3 endeavors. “But I know how impossible it is to foresee what’s going to actually happen. I see it as a good way to say, ‘Look, my work has value, and you should understand that.’ It’s a tool to have that conversation.”

As the art world seems to be rocketing inexorably towards some digital future, Harvey stands out for her deep understanding of its potential—and her advocacy for understanding its value. For more than three decades, she’s had her hands directly on the material substrate of the electronic world, shaping code into creatures and experiences that expand our notions of what art can be.

The Artsy Vanguard 2022

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.

Header: Auriea Harvey, from left to right: still from “Ram v1-dv2,” 2021; “The Mystery v5-dv1 (Eternity Render 1),” 2022; “The Mystery v5 (tower),” 2021. Photos by Emile Askey. Courtesy bitforms gallery, New York.

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