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The physical trace as a record of artistic process

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This musical connection might also have wider implications for Computer Art. As mentioned above, Lydia Goehr thought Goodman’s conclusions about “allographic” artforms too simplistic. She also pointed to music as an ideal form, one that nineteenth century musicologists aimed to preserve and propagate; however, music could not be captured in physical form and placed in a museum. Because it was time-based and performance based, essentially ephemeral, music was placed in a canonical collection of works that were regularly performed and considered masterpieces. This Goehr calls a metaphorical museum, an “imaginary museum of musical works”. [1]

Goehr adds in a footnote that her term ‘imaginary’ includes the musical work as composer’s activity, written score and the resulting performance. She means that the “work” exists in an intangible sense, as a concept that achieves auditory form, which cannot easily be brought into a museum. Musical preservation involves recording this performance, storing or recovering the scores and researching the composer’s life and works: only in this way can the music as a whole be preserved.

Might Computer Art also exist as a work in this sense? It is based on the conceptual activities of artists, the instructions they write or create for the computer, and the resulting computer-based reinterpretation, which is a performance of sorts. The intangible result is only ever partially captured in physical form: the “art” lies at the nexus of artist, data and computer. In this way, simply copying the image files is only copying the “score” for the art; to fully recreate it requires the artist’s involvement and the original computer as well. For Hébert and Cohen, the art is the results of the action by the computer as opposed to the input alone.

Following Goehr, I would say that Computer Art exists in an “imaginary” space which is quite different from its underlying data structure. This space also exists in the viewer’s head and in the potentialities built into the work by the artist. ‘Imaginary’ does not equate to ‘virtual’: it implies a constructive and interpretative act and points to the art’s existence in a mental, rather than physical, space.

Computer Art obviously occupies a slightly different niche from most other “material artforms” in that its material form is mediated through an intellectual or non-physical stage. By this I mean that its product, like its concept, exists in a mentally-mediated space like music and literature. A further analogy may be drawn between Computer Art and dance, at least in the J.Huizinga’s scheme in Homo Ludens, where the arts are divided between the musical and plastic arts. Huizinga recognises this division places dance

[…] in an anomalous position. It is musical and plastic at once: musical since rhythm and movement are its chief elements, plastic because inevitably bound to matter. […] Dancing is a plastic creation like sculpture, but for a moment only. [2]

This allows for a “third state” in the arts, with Computer Art exisiting between the plastic and “immaterial” (or “musical”) arts. I hardly need add that dance can be represented by notation, and can vary from highly stratified to extremely free forms. But it is an analogy only, and as I have noted previously, Computer Art suffers from a surfeit of metaphors aimed at explaining what remains a very new and different form of art.

On Goodman’s theory of notation and Huizinga’s concept of the “plastic” and “musical” arts: it would seem that the plastic arts are autographic and the musical are allographic. Notation, it seems, is necessary to convey the non-physical arts which require a performance (even in the case of reading a book silently), whereas the plastic arts are made self-evident by their production of a material object. Following Huizinga’s example of dance, which can be notated and depends on performance, yet has an undeniably physical component, I would say that Computer Art, indeed anything produced with or by a computer, could sit with both the musical and the plastic arts. It is non-material so long as it exists within the computer, but as soon as its form becomes externalised it joins the physical world and is thus plastic.

Could it be that the desire to render moving form, which Schillinger found in music, also lends appeal to certain kinds of Computer Art; and that its non-physical or descriptive basis also arises from older desires (previously expressed in kinetic art) to make use of transitory and mobile forms; in other words, to set something living in motion?

[1] Goehr, Lydia, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, p174.

[2] Huizinga, ibid, p166