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The digital space

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Although computer images can be described as grids of pixels, they really consist of instructions: in other words, their constituents are not visual (or physical). Thus they can be completely re-written because the artist sits outside this tightly-defined reality formed of instructions.

Understanding the space represented by computer graphics is most important since it has consequences for Computer Art. This space may be a 2D surface, a virtual canvas, or a section of 3D space. The associated GUI tools are constrained by this basic separation, as there are few programs that operate in both two and three dimensions. At another level, the objects forming a computer image are contiguous with their surrounding space, since everything is a product of instructions from the program. Moreover, because each point is discrete, it can be addressed separately, without affecting its neighbouring points. So every surface modification is actually a deeper change in the structure of the image.

However, for the user of the graphical interface the image on the screen is of much greater moment than the code. It is understood and modified in visual terms, not programmatic ones. The means of image creation and display reside primarily in the immediate and accessible consequences of the visual interface: there is little conscious reference to the underlying structure.

The artist-programmer works in a similar capacity to an architect, specifying the dimensions and structure of a structure to be realised by builders. Of course, the relationship is not quite so exact, and the resultant form may be somewhat different from that anticipated. But the computer ends up doing the calculations and the realisation. Thus the programmer’s contribution is primarily conceptual and can only be seen visually when the computer has generated the image.

The GUI user, by contrast, directs the computer in a different way. Here, the user directs operations at close quarters, like a master mason who can intervene and change things in real time. Thus the image develops through interaction and modification. The programmer sets the computer a task; whilst the user is assisted by the computer in carrying out a task.

In the computational environment, the image and its associated tools exist at a higher level than the data: they are its form but not its matter. The matter, the instructions in code, is fundamentally linked to the form and provides its substructure, but it has no direct visual correlation.

If computer images can be said to have certain qualities, they structural characteristics rather than visual ones. They can be freely deleted, rearranged, transformed and returned to their original state, provided that the software allows all these steps. In many programs, the component parts of the image can be edited without affecting the whole, or freely grouped and combined to form new pictorial elements.

The image the artist sees is comprised of an utterly different substance from material reality, because it is built up from the first as a visual object and not a physical mass. All computer-generated objects are “hollow”, comprising hierarchical groups of instructions rather than densely-packed physical structures. These model visual appearance and dimensions in the first instance, and physical characteristics from the point of view of their visual interactions.

The peculiarity of computer image space is that not only the tools but the space itself can change its characteristics. This is due to its origins as a sequence of coordinates. Also, specific properties of its organisation (such as layers in Photoshop) only apply within a particular program; at other times, the image is completely inert, held in potential in the data.

It prompts the somewhat flippant question: Do all computers running the same program and using the same data set partake of the same image space? Or is it only re-created every time it is displayed?

Every re-running of the image code (especially a 3D image) in different software and hardware environments seemingly shows the viewer the same segment of reality. Users of Internet-based 3D chat rooms experience the “same” 3D space from different viewpoints, though their machines may be running quite different software on entirely separate hardware. In the same way, a 3D CAD plan may be experienced simultaneously on office intranets, and modified by group collaboration across the network. Is the image seen at every workstation the same image, or simply the same environment displayed in slightly different ways? The question does not arise for TV or video footage because it is recorded as an image and thus every iteration is a duplicate. By contrast, the computer re-creates the image every time the code is processed. When objects are moving and the scenes depicted from slightly different viewpoints (as with online games such as Unreal Tournament), players might be said to be participating in the same space, whilst viewing an iteration of it.

The pioneering computer artist John Whitney Sr considered that this dynamic space only existed “by virtue of the abstract forms that move in it”.[1] For this reason, Timothy Binkley sees the computer’s role not as an inert medium, a resistive surface or material, but rather as conceptual space:

It appears that its function is much closer to the conceptual contribution of the artist than to the physical contribution of the medium.[2] [italics mine]

Binkley argues that the computer, functioning simultaneously as the image space, the tools for executing the design and the display medium, contributes to the conceptual creation of the artwork rather than simply providing the means for its reification. After all, until the image is printed or publicly displayed, it may be endlessly edited and modified. In this context, the artist may construe the “tools” either as those constructed within the program, or external hardware interfaces which affect the digital image. Only in the most general sense can the computer be said to be a tool in itself.

The computer moves images away from physical materials towards a data structure that can only be interpreted by devices, not directly by the viewer. As Levy describes it in the ACM Transactions on Digital Libraries 1998:

Digital documents are split between an intangible digital object (which is ineffective outside of a complex, technical context) and a set of perceptible but transient manifestations.

It is important that this “intangible digital” visual form cannot be manifested without the computer. Unless it is printed or otherwise materialised, at which point it ceases to be digital, it remains tied to the computer. Nevertheless, this space may correspond with physical space and materials; indeed, much Computer Art has a necessary physical component. Though it is mediated through and by the computer, the artist still remains the decisive factor in its creation and thus in its definition as “art”. In addition, the art’s non-physical existence enables it to be modified, transmitted, displayed and erased in ways that circumvent the limitations of physical materials.

The computer medium can only be penetrated with instruments and worked on at one remove; but insofar as it works to our expectations of scenes and objects beyond our immediate tactile range, it is effective and affective.

[1] John Whitney “Computer Art for the Video Picture Wall” from Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art p194

[2] “The Wizard of Ethereal Places and Virtual Realities”, SIGGRAPH 89