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Conclusion [Main]

The computer has been promoted as a revolutionary artistic medium, yet the points of continuity with older artforms have proved important during its fifty year gestation. The most significant continuity, at least in the wider context of computer graphics, is the adoption of projective geometry into 3D graphics software and the consequent push towards “realistic” imagery. The disparaging attitude of many artists towards the achievements of simulation and graphical realism in the design sphere has prematurely closed off an area to artistic experiment. Part of the reason why contemporary art is tentative and anaemic is because it fears visual richness, unless it is underscored by some ironic twist or (often vapid) sociological concern.

A second point of contact between digital and pre-digital art was the conscious emulation of Constructivist and Abstract forms during the 1960s. Perhaps a Constructivist influenced may also be discerned in the widespread use of photomontage, although that is more a consequence of current graphics software. In a sense, all digital imaging points back to Moholy-Nagy’s prescient use of indirect techniques for producing art.

These two strains of art seem diametrically opposed, yet the computer makes each seem like a natural consequence of using its processing abilities to make images. The graphical computer can make both the spare abstract aesthetic and the luxuriant realism of perspective seem like natural outcomes of its use in the arts. Yet both types of image have a mathematical basis: linear abstraction seems to make the mathematics manifest, whilst perspectival images cloak it in natural forms. Both aesthetics also result form the computer’s procedural basis, and the exactitude with which one can specify actions or set chains of actions in motion. Yet the image space in which computer graphics are found seems to have an underlying reality of its own, one we tacitly accept when we use the computer’s physical and visual interfaces. We impact on its surface at second hand; we are outside this bounded graphical world.

There is a further point of separation between the computer’s images and those from previous formats. The computer may be invested with a degree of independence  which sets it apart from all previous art-devices, including the camera. Programs such as AARON incorporate a rudimentary artistic sense, which points beyond the use of the computer as another tool, however attractive and useful that function proves. Gradual independence of action and indeed creation may come to determine the face of computer art. The irony is, of course, that what was once a byword for control and cold precision may end up making works of art that seem to be invested with apparently human traits: imprecision and perhaps even emotion.

Here the “computer” – as we now term the combined hardware and software that generates the image – supports and extends the artistic work and may even become part of its aesthetic, yet does not absorb it into purely computational concerns. The “art” remains in the concept and guidance of the artist: it is not simply the working out of an algorithm with no further input, as with fractals. Rather (as with the algorists) it is honed and developed along visual and structural lines with a regard for its visual and aesthetic impact.

Work produced on the computer can suffer by association: its perceived novelty (astonishing at a time when computers are more widespread than cars) condemns it to a form of ghetto which narrows its impact and appeal as far as the art specialist or the more general art viewer is concerned. It is still prevented from standing on its own terms by the suspicion of those who regard the computer as a mere mechanical contrivance rather than a reactive and responsive assistant, who think that an artist using a computer is a “cheat” for daring to turn to modern methods. This view works with (and is sometimes allied to) the divisive urge of curators to hem artworks with restrictive definitions, in this case based on the underlying technology used to create the artwork rather than the artistic merits of the work itself. And the impression given by writers on computer art is usually no less enclosed by limited conceptions of what the computer can achieve in the arts, rather than what the arts can achieve through the computer

The reason I gravitated towards the artists included in this thesis is because their projects explore the computer as an artistic means rather than a symbol. Though aware of its cultural and social implications – no serious computer artist is blind to these – they put visual and artistic concerns first and for that reason their projects have been successful. Disregarding for a moment their individual pieces, it is the exploration taken as a whole that is most valuable, for it expands not only the frame of visual reference with regard to computers, but their abilities and possibilities as well. Instead of endless, groundless and self-referential theory, they have taken on the practical aspects of computing and the exercise of visual form, and from them produced works in personal styles, with lineages and developments of their own.

This is partly because three of them began their artistic work before the rise of current theorising and for that reason remain more committed to their own concerns than those of the critical community. Their frames of reference are considerably wider than those of a critical community which begins at Benjamin and ends at Baudrillard, and more relevant to the specifics of computer practice. Interestingly, all my artists arrived at the computer through interests that were not initially linked to it: Cohen through the process of drawing; Hébert through algorithmic generation of images; Cuba through abstract animation; and Latham through the evolution of form. To further their art, they had to immerse themselves in computing to such an extent that it became an integral part of their work, inextricable from the result and (perhaps) the artist as well. Thus the computer is not some fashionable addition to their artistic arsenal – it is essential to their practice.

I acknowledge this thesis has not covered contemporary media theory in any great detail. It is an oversight, but it occurred because my own exploration took in other areas of interest, in particular the underlying technologies of imagery and the artist’s response to the interface. The work of Marshall McLuhan should have rated a mention in the section on the 1960s and my vague references to “post-modernist” conceptions of computer art should have been more fully developed. In part, this is because I was determined to plough my own furrow in this field and partly because nearly every commentator on this area seems beholden to certain shared critical assumptions about digital art.

Equally, there are certain artists whom I have ignored, for no other reason than lack of space. Perhaps I have taken too little notice of Virtual Reality and computer-based installation art; if so, this is because I did not come across some of its best proponents until quite late. Had the thesis been longer, I would have included Paul Sermon’s fascinating work on telepresence, with its attendant notions of viewer projection and interaction. Internet Art, as I stated previously, was not within my original remit and in any case is attracting much critical attention at the moment. It seems to me that although Net Art overlaps with Computer Art in many areas, it also seems to be branching off because of its networked, non-local attributes. Much Computer Art, by contrast, is still localised in the print, sculpture or workstation monitor, suggesting another form of classification. Such omissions may seem to vitiate the conclusions of this thesis, but my preferred route is to explore what has previously received scant attention yet seemed so vital to me: the artist’s relation to the computer.

Hébert’s immersion in programming, utilising the system to visual effect, is an example of the computer’s conceptual use in the arts; its procedures form part of the art’s aesthetic. Yet Macintyre and Warhol’s approach is at the other extreme: the usage of the computer for specific ends rather than as a focus for the whole piece. This is its operational usage, the computer as tool or meta-tool which serves to extend the art’s visual range rather than the artist’s conceptual world. Thus another continuum for Computer Art suggests itself: a sliding scale from “operational” to “conceptual” importance.

The computer’s flexibility enables it to be the centrepiece or the production tool, without leading to an imposition of specific forms and restrictions. The entirety of the image, system, tools and context rests upon – is dependent upon – the instructions delivered as code to the processor and displayed on the graphics hardware.

The artist turns mute material into a vehicle for meaning by working its structure into forms,m or making forms appear through it. This applies as much to waveforms transmitted through the air as to ink on a page. The instruments used to create art also become more than mechanical objects and what they produce is not merely an inherent property of their operation but the result of artistic thought and action. So a piano is not considered solely as a mechanical arrangement of strings and wires, but a means of making music, with specific associations of sound and operation.

The instrument’s artistic usage defines its perception by artists and they see through its physical mechanics to its potential deployment in their work. Simultaneously, they are aware of the parameters within which it works; they will try to exploit its strengths and bring out subjective inherent qualities to which it lends itself. Most important of all is its capacity to transmit and inscribe the artist’s art in their chosen medium – it takes the mechanical registration of image or sound (in the widest sense) and imparts a form which is only present when the artist uses the tool for this purpose. Thus the combination of direction and production results in a new layer of meaning that would otherwise have been absent, had the instrument been used for a more mundane purpose (or one that was closer to its intended usage).

The compter allows for all operations of other instruments to be modelled, to a degree, in the space defined by programs running on its hardware. It confounds the expectation that a single tool has only a limited range of operations: the computer may be deployed as a bewildering variety of tools, many of which have no physical counterpart. Thus its perception in artistic terms is far more complex – and not yet fully defined or appreciated, hence its somewhat fringe status in the art world. Yet it allows for a continuation of the artistic employment of tools, adding layers of meaning to productions that might otherwise have been mundane exercises. What the computer grants the artist is a control over temporal and spatial elements, rather than simply enabling them to produce a set of lines on a page or a range of musical notes. True, those abilities are there as well, a very small and shallow subset of the computer’s possibilities.

Artists must bend the computer to their will, simultaneously understanding its potential for hosting artistic and graphical systems, without simply flailing around to make something vacuously “open-ended” or mere critical commentary. To result in satisfying art, the computer must be brought in as a generative instrument, one whose potentials are comprehended in the context of the artist’s work and intentions. Mere exploration, with no ultimate purpose, is as bad as making “graphics” and claiming them to be “art”. This afflicted the earliest manifestations of computer art and still continues to haunt the area.

The need to satisfy various criteria of art, and the need to continually check to see if the artworld’s dictates are being fulfilled, has somewhat imprisoned “computer art”. It may well go on to develop its own standards, as with cinema or photography, but a more likely future is to be an adjunct to the successful developments in computer games and computer SFX in films. This is the pessimistic vision: I prefer to acknowledge the “wonderment” factor I have seen in many people whilst explaining and demonstrating this area. The most effective computer artworks intrigue people in various ways; whilst acting as effective demonstrations for the possibilities of computer art, they also succeed as pieces of art. In this way they are quite different from much 1960s computer art, which not only had to demonstrate the computer’s possibilities, but also showed a marked dependence on preceding Constructivist and Abstract forms.

Only by a gradual process of development, which of necessity takes in a wide range of styles and procedures, can distinctive computer artforms emerge. Each of these can be identified and further developed; all merit the title “Computer Art”. But each also benefits from a driving purpose and direction that derives from individual artists, who are often using the computer not merely for its inherent powers but also as part of a wider experiment or investigation. Importantly, most computer artists are not fixated on “the computer”, but have rather developed or identified specific software that can further their art. For them, the computer is a route to realisation, a necessary stage that must be comprehended so the art can flourish. Whether they comprehend the computer as a system or as a device, it is not the centrepiece of their work but a supporting structure. Perhaps this is the best way to overcome the alternating technophilia and technophobia of the art world; to avoid the obsessions with technology of the 1960s that resulted in much low-quality art and simultaneously counter 1980s and 1990s technological nihilism that reduces the computer to a mere cipher, a useful symbol for artists but nothing more.

One possible future for the computer in art is presaged by the usage of computers in film, graphics, communications and all other visual enterprises. In all these areas, increasing sophistication gradually increases the computer’s invisibility, or should I say transparency.

This is most obvious in the area of film and TV graphics, for instance in the 2001 BBC series Walking with Beasts. Here, designers and graphic artists recreated the extinct giant mammals that followed the dinosaurs: graphical problems included modelling fur and locomotion, integrating computer visuals with footage of real locations, and imparting that elusive quality of life to creatures long since vanished. I thought they succeeded admirably; a biologist friend was less impressed. The series owed its entire existence to fast, efficient and realistic computer modelling techniques, and a special programme documented the making.

Yet the whole point of these techniques was to impart visual reality into mathematically-generated animated figures; which perforce means hiding their origins and making them seem solid. Part of this was achieved by following the conventions of wildlife documentaries, which instantly made the series easier to comprehend and more believable, and partly by going to great lengths to make the beasts and their environments contiguous. The greatest special effect, in my opinion, was the achievement of apparent normality, which let the viewer pass through the willing suspension of disbelief to admire the creatures themselves, rather than their provenance.

The computer here is a production tool: an absolute essential, one that has the extraordinary ability to reanimate long-dead bones and make them seem real. Yet its greatest feat is to slip unnoticed into the background, until the viewer recalls its central role in generating all this high-resolution footage.

The informed viewer will of course still notice “artefacts” and other leftovers which advertise the computer’s hand in imagemaking. Yet these are getting fewer and other giveaways, like perfectly rendered surfaces, cede to authentically grimy and organic materials which mimic natural patterns of distribution. One might contend that the computer is not so much rendering the real world as reflecting our expectations of what it looks like, when perfection and veracity boil down to specks of mud and pitted textures, or the striations on the canines of a sabre-toothed cat.

The ethical questions surrounding the use of highly realistic graphics, like digitally-manipulated photographs, will be addressed by others. I feel that re-creation of extinct mammals greatly aids our understanding of them and even increases our appreciation of the natural world overall. Indeed, it boosts the viewer’s imagination and they can add giant, exotic, once-living creatures to their visual material and wider knowledge. But striving to recreate the boundaries and conventions of a standard wildlife film is just blurring the edges into fantasy. A hard-edged approach – with graphics in a supporting, not starring, role – would have been more effective.

Why concentrate on Walking With Beasts? To be frank, I found it more involving, and in many ways more telling, than most effusions of computer art. Without pretending to any critique of modern life or the media, it speaks volumes about both; yet it was also a compelling use of imagination and a technical achievement in itself.  It was the logical extension of the work I had seen at SIGGRAPH two years ago, and suggested the opening of new frontiers; it was the product of a team rather than a single identifiable individual. For all that, it could not be described as “art” except under the broadest heading; yet its dissemination will no doubt ensure its longevity as a piece of visual work. And, as mentioned above, it also points back to our own origins, not simply through its subject-matter but through its depiction of them, and the suggestion that the impulse to sketch on cave walls still drives the visual artist today.

Computer Art may begin to mature and push aside the work that is really “computer graphics.” This should happen as the computer is gradually absorbed into mainstream arts practice. Ultimately, the fact that work is computer-produced will cease to be problematic as it is more widely adopted. This, at least, is Brian Ashbee’s view in Art Review May 1998:

[…] current artists [are] turning to new technology not as a fashionable alternative to painting, but in order to extend their traditional fine art skills. [The computer is] a tool which extends the artist’s capabilities, both manual and intellectual, so radically that it promises to transform the process of image-making beyond recognition.[1]

Yet Ashbee underestimates the computer’s special characteristics, and the necessity for the artist to adapt to its conditions. However, the extension of existing techniques may result in the development of wholly new ones, especially in terms of comprehending the computer’s imaging tools.

I feel that Computer Art is more likely to percolate into the margins of the artworld, rather than stand out as a movement in its own right. The price of this “acceptance by stealth” is that the computer becomes a production aid and a tool, or at the most a sort of para-medium which incorporates the functions of several other media into itself. The over-stretching of the term “Computer Art” to cover entirely unrelated artforms demonstrates how far this process has gone. It also reflects the great change in the computer itself from a monolithic object of wonder to widely distributed commodity.

Another facet is that with the absorption of the computer into popular culture, it is no longer enough to say that a work is “Computer Art” and leave it at that. Not only because art critics will now understand there is far more to the work than that, but also because this description cannot be more than a very simple statement of fact.

Computer-based art will move into the mainstream only if it loses its status, at once special and pariah, as “unnatural” because of its computational origins. Instead, it should be viewed as the work of an artist in a developing medium, using the constraints and opportunities this medium offers. Greater computer literacy on the part of galleries and sellers will also ensure this, and that Computer Art begins to receive a similarly critical eye to the rest of the arts.

There may be no need for any unified Computer Art movement for the simple reason that the computer’s artistic potentials could develop outside the current structure of the art world. As with photography and cinema, the institutions and standards surrounding computer imagery may flourish as an independent aesthetic, which is partially visual and partially systematic – rule-based – in a way that no visual artform can be. Combined with the intricacies of computer hardware and the transitional nature of computer artworks themselves, perhaps it is more likely that computer art will develop into a parallel structure. Simon Penny considers this possibility:

As cinema emerged as a technology and an esthetic, it also built its institution its cultural niche. Cinema did not find its home in the museum. It built another institution, where the notion of the `original’ was absurd. (No one asks if the particular print of the film you’re watching is an `original or a copy’.) In the same way, interactive art will forge its own cultural niche. Is the web the environment where Interactive art will settle? Only time will tell.[2]

Moreover, as some computer artists move into producing and selling commercial versions of their image-generation systems, then the work of art will increasingly be regarded as the process that generates the final picture. Following his exhibitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Latham decided to commercialise his Formsynth and Organica software, and later applied their graphical techniques to computer games. Amongst his reasons for moving into this area, he cites dissatisfaction with the art world and its general technophobia. As with Harold Cohen, he has released the software to generate his imagery as a product. This indicates a possible route for future computer artists, at least those whose images are generated using their own software. Future computer art, with a strong algorithmic and evolutionary component, may breed not just individual quasi-organic forms, but entire scenes or even navigable worlds. Kenton Musgrave’s Mojoworld is an indication of this, as is the RCA’s Biotica project.

The computer has percolated into design courses and art schools everywhere, though usually as little more than a graphics workstation. Notable exceptions include John Maeda’s course at MIT and CaiiA/STAR, where interesting developments in using the computer as a system have taken place. Furthermore, the gradual realisation by contemporary of the computer art heritage will encourage more novelty by paradoxically building on past achievements. A trawl around the Net  reveals many artists who claim historic significance for their work, apparently oblivious to previous developments. Hopefully, a survey such as this one will demonstrate the range of computer art over the past fifty years and the potential lines of development.

Paul Brown considers the computer interface to have passed through two stages, following Charles Saunders Peirce’s Semiology, and is approaching the third. The first generation was Symbolic, concerned with alphanumeric communications and a textual interface; the second is Iconic – the GUI – with its menu- and icon-based approach; and the third, which is developing through richer context-based interfaces involving a degree of immersion, may correspond to Peirce’s Indexical stage as they map emotional and tactile experiences onto the computer.[3

The latter stage is prefigured by experimental interfaces like the Electronic Cocktail Napkin project, a whimsical name which conveys its aim of using informal sketches as an interface, as if one were drawing on the back of a napkin. Using a combination of image recognition and databasing, the computer brings up possible matches for the sketch; this interface can be used:

as the central medium for information retrieval, simulation, design critiquing, and collaborative work. We have used it as a prototype interface for other programs: retrieving images from visual databases, providing diagram bookmarks for a case based design aid, and as a front end to interactive simulations.[4]

Indeed, the designers call their approach “Drawing as a Front End to Everything”. Meanwhile, a yet more immersive technique has been deployed in the Responsive Workbench, which is a 3D interactive system using a “workbench” as a metaphor. The users view projections on a physical tabletop with stereoscopic glasses, their head and input movements being tracked so the objects retain some illusory solidity and react to the user’s directions.[5]

The progressive embodiment of the artist in a digital interface raises wider questions about the nature of a human’s interaction with a machine. What Frank Biocca calls “the cyborg’s dilemma” is fundamentally connected to the use and perception of technology, not necessarily just for artistic purposes:

[…] it raises questions of what is “natural” about our relationship to our technology. We tend to think of technology as something alien, not a reflection of ourselves. […] It may be our nature, therefore “natural,” to embrace our technologies. What do I mean? A number of scholars have pointed to the similar neurological, cognitive, and structural substrates shared among language, fine motor movements, and tool use (see [(Gibson & Ingold, 1993)]. It may well be that the human brain and body evolved to fully inhabit these externalizations of mental processes and amplifications of the body that are our technologies.[6]

At the “Beyond Art” conference at the Oxford Union in May 1999, Roy Ascott talked about Ubiquitous Computing. This refers to the increasing embodiment of computer intelligence in commonplace objects which are networked together to provide a responsive environment, in a physical setting, which means the user’s activities are no longer focused solely on a screen. Such embedded computers are being investigated by MIT’s “Things that Think” group, in the wider context of design and industrial applications.[7]

This would allow interaction to take place within a wider context, perhaps via the Active Desktop envisioned by Xerox/PARC. Here, physical objects stand for processes or instructions to the computer, or an intelligent space, say a room, where the user was monitored by infra-red beams and could operate the computer simply by breaking or manipulating these in various ways. Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of the concept is in the Golem Project at Brandeis University.[8] (GOLEM stands for (Genetically Organized Lifelike Electro Mechanics.) Here the goal is to evolve locomoting machines from simple electro-mechanical components: in the project’s final stage, such devices will even have the ability to remould their physical construction to deal with different terrain. If this gives rise to some malleable electronic material, then Computer Art may have found its true physical medium at last.

The important factor in computer art is Time, and this runs counter to all expectations about the computer’s revolutionary potentials. Because it is so much of the moment, few realise that the development of this new artform will take a considerable number of years, even decades. Perhaps not before the middle of this century will a new computer artform be fully realised, and it will be one that takes in areas such as computer games, new graphics technology, input devices and other areas.

Does computer art have to be about unceasing novelty, or can it be a process of gradual adaptation and growth? The most artistically satisfying computer art projects – those of Hébert, Cohen, Ferguson, etc – seem to indicate the latter, contrary to expectations of continual computer advances. In fact, there are signs of maturity, even conservatism, in many aspects of the computer graphics area; often due to the longevity of legacy programs and their associated methods of operation. However, this maturity is not necessarily to be contrasted against the artistic development of Hébert, Cohen and Ferguson; rather, it represents the same urge to make the computer comprehensible and thus usable for its given tasks. That these represent a fraction of its abilities is not necessarily an immediate concern.

There can be no going back to the pre-digital world, no matter what becomes of our experiment with computer-mediated images. This might seem rather dramatic, given that only a handful of artists are using the digital medium in an interesting fashion. Yet there are countless illustrators, designers, architects and engineers for whom the image has become first and foremost a bundle of pixels on a screen. Fine art is still on the periphery of this digital maelstrom, which has separated the image from its physical manifestation and bestowed upon it the fluidity and transience of light. As with music (to use a very broad analogy), the digital instructions for making the image can be separated from the performance, or manifestation, of that image; which can either be “live” on the screen or “recorded” in some linear medium. Yet it is this very record of the transient signal that is so interesting. Whatever its provenance, even from a computational process, it bears the stamp of its human creator no matter how much it has been mediated through and by a machine.

[1] Art Review May 1998 “Computers… The Last Frontier?” – Brian Ashbee  pp59-61

[2] “From A to D and back again: The emerging aesthetics of Interactive Art” Simon Penny, Leonardo Electronic Almanac April 1996

[3] “The Ethics and Aesthetics of the Image Interface” Paul Brown, 1990 – revised version ACM SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics, Vol. 29, No. 1, February 1994

[4] “Ambiguous Intentions: A paper-like interface for creative design”, Gross, M.D. and E. Do. Proceedings ACM Conference on User Interface Software Technology (UIST) `96 Seattle, WA.  183-192 1996

[5] “Interaction- Responsive Workbench”

[6] “The Cyborg’s Dilemma: Progressive Embodiment in Virtual Environments” Frank Biocca, see IEEE ref and website.