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The material traces of Computer Art

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The following factors are the most significant in determining the nature of Computer Art:

i)               There is no unitary description of visual qualities because there is no intrinsic visual form. Subjective qualities usually derive from display and painting technologies

ii)             The computer image in its raw state is a work of dynamic process. It has properties quite unlike any physical material.

iii)            Change occurs by altering the content of the code – or working directly on a visual image.

iv)            Because the image has to be approached through the computer as intermediary, it exists in a different space to the user. It can be manipulated in very new ways.

Much of the earliest Computer artwork survives only as photographs or film sequences, not in its “native format”, that of the code itself. Although this might seem to disbar it from consideration as true Computer Art, the material traces of this immaterial artform are worthy of study. These images have migrated several times between the discrete, internalised realm of the computer program and the wider physical world, taking on different characteristics with each transformation. Yet they retain the semblance of their original form and may be understood as the same image, refracted alternately between two different worlds.

For instance, an image which was first displayed as a plotter trace in the late 1960s might subsequently have been published in a catalogue; then in the late 1990s a researcher could have scanned the catalogue and placed the image back in the digital realm. Of course, it would not have the same digital basis as the first plotter image; the code and the ancient computer that drove the plotter having long since vanished. All that has been preserved is the visual result, the surface trace of the underlying structure.

Printed versions of Computer Art are really approximations of the original image, and in some cases will be totally misleading. In many ways, this process illustrates something of the nature of Computer Art itself and elucidates several of the problems, or rather challenges, faced by artists in this field.

Numerous pieces of Computer Art are not designed to be printed out at all, but rather to be displayed on a monitor or projection system. However these images are often seen in printed formats for which they were not designed. In this form they can be easily stored and disseminated, and may even be rescanned and placed on the Internet.

When this image is displayed in any form, whether as a print or on a monitor, variations in quality set in. This idea raises the unresolved problem of the “original” in Computer Art. A number of theorists have argued thatthe computer data itself is the original and all displayed or printed versions are only copies, each with a specific loss of quality. The code can be duplicated exactly, but not the visible form which is the result of this code. However, this is the only form which is visually meaningful to a human viewer.

The image displayed on a computer could be considered a snapshot of the data. Sculptor Andrew Greaves’s Iris prints are inferior to the images displayed on his monitor. In turn, the screen can only display renderings of parts of his overall design because it usually exceeds the boundaries of the screen. Thus one can only see a section of his art at any one time. In his move from physical sculpture to computer sculpture with 3D packages, he claims to have reached a medium which can approximate the images and ideas in his mind more closely than the physical sculpture ever could.

Greaves finds the computer a better interface with his imagination; there is a connection between the changing, shifting world of his ideas and the digital realm which is malleable and alterable to an infinite degree. Greaves achieves closer fidelity to his artistic ideas by using a computer than by sculpting physically. Is this not the best justification for the use of computers in art?[1]

[1] Andrew Greaves’ artistic statement, “Making Waves”, 1998