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The status of Computer Art as a musical “work”

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The material status of Computer Art is even more interesting when seen in the context of computer animations and interactive pieces. Although I argue that animation and interaction are core components of Computer Art, recent developments, such Hébert’s Sisyphus and Ulysses demonstrate how material and immaterial aspects combine to form the experience of digital art.

There is a certain attractive quality about the independence of motion exhibited by objects and characters in animated films that also informs the compelling nature of computer animations. Somehow, setting objects in motion to apparently go about of their own accord (and this could even apply to moving sculpture, clockwork, robots and the like) holds a very great fascination, equivalent to building a complete lifeform, albeit one that is very restricted in its operation or (like the animated cartoon figure or the computer model) restricted within the limits of its own medium.

This is not simply or strictly a matter of perception or vision, though the object’s visual qualities have their own attractiveness. Rather, it seems to link in with the microcosmic appeal of building a world in miniature: it is as if setting objects in motion is a subset of this, the attraction of seeing one’s own creating (or someone else’s) performing its movements, however controlled or arbitrary, without any outside intervention. I first had this thought when I thought of animatronic puppets and stage effects which relied on the illusion of no intervention to function. Somehow, independence of movement and existence within a created objected, even if constrained within a screen, has an attractiveness all of its own.

The Abstract Animators intuited a connection between their moving images and music. This illuminates a shared relation of temporal qualities, as Schillinger noted [see Sch]. So long as the artwork unfolds along a timeline in accordance with harmonic and rhythmic principles, it could be said to partake of a musical quality. John Whitney connected these in Digital Harmony with a sense of anticipation and satisfaction brought on by the harmonious resolution of a sequence. This applies only to sequential animations, however; neither static nor interactive artworks have this quality: the former is fixed, the latter dictated by the viewer’s whims.

Larry Cuba avers that musical experience makes the difference between seeing a single frame and experiencing a sequence. For an abstract animator, the mathematical structure cannot be too rigorous, nor yet too chaotic; there is a balance to be struck which resembles classical theme & variations in music. Cuba’s metaphor was that a tree is a play on the variations of a leaf, in that a basic and recognisable design is put through countless transformations and permutations, creating an overall structure that is still intrinsically interesting. Cuba wanted to express the essential balance between chaos and order, exemplified by the tree’s leaves.

Whitney claimed the temporal order set the viewer/listener up with an expectation and this gives a clue with which to anticipate the next move. This expectation can be defeated by moving in a different direction, or satisfied by moving with it, all of which is down to the composer. It all gives the structure of harmony.

Cuba holds this is one of the mechanisms: harmony is only one way to create and satisfy this anticipation. And, as I pointed out, the structure of other cultures’ musical scales also created different expectations & resolutions for the listener.

Cuba explores the connection between moving geometric forms and music in his work. He began studying this attraction between geometry and algebra on an architecture course, then he discovered John Whitney’s films as a pure expression of this connection with geometric forms. As Cuba discussed with Gene Youngblood, this geometry in motion underpins his visual work. Youngblood raised the issue that mathematics and intuition were often viewed as antithetical, yet he recognised an almost spiritual element in Cuba’s “graceful musicality”. Cuba pointed to the mathematical structure of music, adding that his principal interest in experimental animation was “the design of form in motion”. Cuba considered that the underlying factors of this design in motion were shared across the board by animators, both traditional and computer-based. [1]

[Plate XXIX: Larry Cuba’s animation Two Space (1979)]

In her article on the Abstract Animators, Devlin Gascard considers that the underlying urge to animate abstract form springs from the sense that “this expression is utterly appropriate to our age of accelerated movement” (p293). However, she also notes, following Gombrich, that there was an inherent dynamism in certain abstract forms. “By setting non-objective forms in motion, the ‘abstract’ animation responds twice to the kinetic urge – with the technical answer afforded by cinema and the aesthetic answer offered by the extreme ambiguity of non-representationalism.” (p293)

However, in this division of formats the identity of abstract animation becomes harder to discern. Where does it belong? In this, it is rather like Computer Art: it includes a wide range of forms, includes many possibilities and has boasted artists who have developed true masterpieces, such as Mary Ellen Bute. It has also, at times, straddled the boundary of extreme experimentalism and commercial acceptability. Yet, as Devlin Gascard notes, “after more than sixty years, it is still floundering after its aesthetic identity”. (p296) Its attractiveness may well be found in its incorporation of motion into the abstract repertoire, and the other important factor of music, which connects with the image in a way impossible with static paintings. Also, the motion of forms can suggest spatial dimensions which the avowedly flat canvas of abstraction can only hint at. The very motion of the forms makes explicit what the earliest abstract painters (especially Malevich and the Suprematists) were trying to achieve in their depictions of four-dimensional forms. [2]

As with any recorded medium, animation remains inert unless played through a suitable display device. Moreover, although stills can capture a frame of the motion, it is the interplay of moving images and sound which is essential to this artform. As Joseph Schillinger noted regarding music:

Music is merely a mechanism simulating organic existence. Music makes one believe it is alive because it moves and acts like living matter. Even Aristotle observed that “rhythms and melodies are movements as much as they are actions.” […] Music appears emotional merely because it moves – since everything that moves associates itself with life and living. [3]

Quite apart from the visual qualities of a piece of abstract animation, it is its coordinated motion, reacting to and extending the music, which makes it compelling and gives it an illusion of life. The compelling nature of animation is examined later; here it is enough to note that is intimately bound up with the music and the dynamics of abstract objects.

[1] Ref Larry Cub interview

[2] “Motion Painting: ‘Abstract’ Animation as an art form” Loretta Devlin Gascard, _

Leonardo_, Vol.16, No.4, pp293-297, 1983.

[3] Schillinger, ibid, p5