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The “work” of Computer Art

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Crucial to the recognition of “Computer Art” is my realisation that Roger Malina’s first criterion – “Could the artwork have been made without the use of a computer?” – does not necessarily tell the whole story. Indeed, the very reason that artists have attempted to produce computer work that is rooted in pre-Computer Artforms is that the computer enables them to do things which were previously impossible. But these new techniques are harnessed in the context of older artforms, such as Catherine McIntyre’s Photoshop-based photomontages. In short, they are computer-produced but not intrinsically computer-based. And it is this computer basis that I see as the primary criterion for Computer Art.

Discovery and the sense of collaboration between artist and computer also makes the question of attribution somewhat less important. The artwork can be experienced as a totality rather than broken down into specific inputs; the complete appreciation of the work is the culmination of all these plus the viewer’s experience. One can appreciate the results of “Computer Art” without needing to analyse who did what.

Certainly, the questions raised by Ken Knowlton regarding his collaborations in the early days of Computer Art, are still germane. If the software engineer’s input was comparable to the artist’s, why was the artist still given overall credit; was Billy Klüver right to focus on the artist in all his Bell Labs and EAT experiments?

Consider the case of a hypothetical painting computer, [1] which uses two interacting programs to execute a design on a canvas and receives feedback from the physical aspects of the surface and the paints. Using my terminology, the resulting canvas is not a work of “Computer Art” since it seemingly derives from the established tradition of 2D painting. Yet it could also be viewed as a trace of the conceptual and interactive activity of the program, as it created and reviewed possibilities and drew the resulting figures.

Perhaps the canvas could be seen as the artistic result of the artwork, which is simultaneously conceptual, physical and dynamic. The canvas is contingent on the physical actions of the painting machine, which is in turn contingent on the parameters of the program, which is the codification of the artist’s intentions and thoughts expressed in the design of the whole piece. In a sense, what the artist creates is a microverse that underpins the work, a space containing its possibilities and results.

My concept of the microverse involves a “concentrated world”, described by instructions, that one looks into. It draws upon the interrelated areas of mental imagery, animations and the imaginative worlds evoked by literature. Its visual manifestation in art has parallels with the “reader’s vision” evoked by descriptive language. In a wider sense, this feeds into the need for detail and background, present in fiction generally but especially in the fantasy genre. Because a “microverse” is self-contained and self-sustaining, it can be manifested in computer-based interactive forms such as games, VR simulations and animations. It is strengthened by the computer’s representation of three-dimensional space, even geographical space. Perhaps the desire to encompass reality within the bounded world of the computer screen has driven the photorealistic focus of much imaging software. As Arnheim remarked of the world formed by artistic works:

Each of the works of painting or sculpture we see in our museums and each musical composition we hear at a concert is, one might say, a complete and closed world of its own. These works are either detached from the broader context of the environment they represent, in which they and we dwell, or they occupy within that environment a central place that calls for such completeness of representation.[2]

The unique canvasses turned out by the hypothetical painting machine are an expression of possibilities inherent in this microverse. They are “long traces” of this self-contained aesthetic universe, as opposed to the instant captured by a camera or the sequence shot by a video of the same operation. By “long traces”, I mean a record that develops in such detail and over such a period of time, including the accidentals and evolving development of the program, that it is effectively unique. Hébert’s plotter prints are an excellent example of this.

The concept of the “microverse” may be compared with the idea of the Reader’s Eye. Because computer art relies so heavily on descriptions to accomplish the display and transformation of images, there is an analogy to be made with the affective use of language to conjure mental images in a reader. E.M. Forster referred to this in his essay “On Anonymity”, discussing the “world created by words”:

It resides not in any particular word, but in the order in which words are arranged … It is their power to create not only atmosphere, but … a universe that only answers to its own laws, supports itself, internally coheres, and has a new standard of truth. […] The world created by words exists neither in space nor in time, though it has semblances of both, it is eternal and indestructible, and yet its action is no stronger than a flower: it is adamant, yet it is also what one of its practitioners thought it to be, namely the shadow of a shadow.[3]

Stephen M. Kosslyn’s article “Pictures Inside and Outside the Head” from World Art: Themes of Unity and Diversity, led me to note the apparent similarity between the malleable objects created in digital space and the pictures visualised in the mind’s eye. The key section concerns the way in which the images generated (or recalled) in the mind are manipulated:

Perhaps the most interesting implication of the finding that [mental] images can be scanned is the idea that images “depict”. That is, they seem to extend in some kind of “functional space” in the brain. Although not real pictures, they mimic the spatial characteristics of real pictures.[4]

Kosslyn’s examples show that people visualising objects usually see them at sizes and resolutions suggested by the limits of physical vision, and that although they can rotate them, zoom in and out, multiply the images and mentally alter them, there seem to processing limitations on all these processes. Interesting analogues with computer image processes are suggested by this process.

In The Reader’s Eye, a study of the visual imagination evoked through reading textual descriptions, Ellen Esrock points to the basis of Kosslyn’s theory in concrete images:

Originally formulated through analogy with the visual displays generated by computers Kosslyn’s model hypothesizes the actual projection of imagery on a screenlike surface and its manipulation according to processes applicable also to three-dimensional objects.[5] [Emphasis mine]

I propose to reverse this analogy and suggest that the appeal of computer images lies precisely in their resemblance to the abilities of human mental imagery. In this respect, computer images are most relevant when displayed in dynamic form on screens; their physical manifestations are of secondary importance. Yet the term Microverse refers to more than the internalised mental imagery which the malleable computer images reflect. It also means the structured environment built up by programs: a specified space which may generate art in ways that parallel human creativity. Several computer artists have developed systems to do this, but the most in-depth long term investigation must be that of Harold Cohen, using his picture-making system AARON.

[1] Suggested to me in conversation by Rev’d Dr Allan Doig, Lady Margaret Hall, in conversation.

[2] New Essays on the Psychology of Art Rudolf Arnheim (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p131

[3] Forster, E.M., ‘‘Anonymity: An Enquiry [1925]’, Two Cheers for Democracy (London, 1951), 87–97.

[4] Stephen M. Kosslyn, “Pictures Inside and Outside the Head”, from Irving Lavin, ed. World Art: Themes of Unity in Diversity, (Pennsylvania State University. 1989) p166

[5] The Reader’s Eye Ellen Esrock, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins 1994) p90