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The act of using the GUI


The artist’s interaction, or collaboration, with the computer is what differentiates “Computer Art” both from computer graphics and from non-computational art. Artists using the GUI prefer its visual directness and the range of processes they can bring to bear. In Malcolm McCullough’s view, this makes the computer an extension to, rather than replacement for, many traditional artistic skills.  He posits that computer technique can be developed with as much finesse as skills in other media, and artistic creation with the machine needs intimate knowledge of its quirks and peculiarities.

As to the term “user”, referring to one who deploys the GUI to make images, the computer artist Frieder Nake has decided to remove it from his vocabulary and replace it with the term “actor”. His reasoning is that “user” implies a certain type of directed activity, concomitant with forcing people to “use” computers in a very constrained way. By contrast, “actor” allows for a greater range of interpretation and latitude.[1]

The overall experience gained by GUI-using artists may be considered to be an artistic technique. Pierre Francastel notes there is a technical aspect to all human activities, and that technique “is not an autonomous function”:

In certain respects, science as well as art or philosophy is a technique in the broadest sense of the term, if it is viewed as a regulated body of thought. From this perspective, there still cannot be a natural opposition between Art and Technology, since art always has techniques that apply to figuration and to execution.[2]

Because the GUI is activated using hand movements analogous to drawing that initiate computational processes, the resulting technique may be placed somewhere between Francastel’s “Art” and “Technology”. The image is regulated both by inherent processes in the software and by the artist’s mastery of the metaphorical interface.

The interface provides a tool-like extension into the mathematical space, which appears to the user as a 2D canvas or 3D grid upon which their actions have definite effects. Such metaphors convince computer theorist Tim Binkley that the computer user’s concept of a tool is a “false subterfuge”:

Her hand holds a stylus that looks like a pen, and she moves it over a flat surface that looks like a drawing table. But no marks appear. […] Her gesticulations dis­play the purposiveness without purpose of a rapt music fan playing the “air guitar” Is this person merely pretending to draw? As it turns out, an image does show upon the video monitor[3]

This emphasizes the metaphorical nature of the “drawing” that takes place on a screen. The action produces lines and directs effects. To the artist wrapped up in the field of concentration surrounding the monitor, it seems as though they are working on a physical surface. But it is only a semblance of drawing; it abstracts the act from the impact on paper and derives a wide variety of software controls from the simple act of making a line. With the same gestures, the artist can implement many other processes, so the act of drawing has in itself become an  interface.

The growth of direct interaction with computer graphics has brought many artists from other areas to experiment with the computer. Increasingly fast and user-friendly computer hardware attracted artists from outside the field to experiment with computers, exemplified by Richard Hamilton’s recent work with Iris prints, and combined media that include digital imagery. Hamilton views the computer as an addition to the arsenal of printing and painting techniques, which he freely combines with his more traditional output:

A medium need not sit in isolated purity. It has always been my contention that the first objective is to achieve a compelling image, and that aim demands a felicity in its implementation. There is no law that forbids paint and photography from combining on a single surface or requires that silk-screening can never benefit from a liaison with collotype or offset or even, etching.[4]

Another prime example is Andy Warhol, who worked with the Commodore Amiga in 1986 shortly before his death. The Amiga became renowned for its advanced colour graphics, and it used the GUI like the slightly earlier monochromatic Macintosh which cost appreciably more. The Amiga became widespread as a mass-market games and graphics computer, yet it was also used for TV and video production, and for creating complex 3D images.

Questioned by an interviewer from Amiga World in 1986, Warhol identified the computer’s major benefit as being the time saved by avoiding repetitive processes. As he said:

It would save a lot of time. I wouldn’t have had to do all these portraits all at once. I could have just picked out the colors I wanted and sent them out [5]

Warhol was simply using the screen as a drawing medium, working on digitised footage of the singer Deborah Harry. The result is appreciably similar to Warhol’s screen prints, especially in its colouration. This provides a good example of a non-specialist computer artist utilising off-the-shelf software. Warhol considered the computer’s primary appeal resided in its multifunctionality:

An artist can really do the whole thing. Actually, he can make a film with everything on it, music and sound and art… everything.[6]

The computer’s ability to combine image and sound were the most attractive features of using the Amiga, which was a “multimedia” computer before that term was coined. Warhol also identified a (superficial) resemblance to xerox art as being another appealing factor, especially to his artist friends who had created xerox art. No doubt the connections with Xerox art revolved around the use of technology and the shared ability to produce collages and photomontages. Yet whereas some artists stayed with Xerox art (such as Hockney, who advanced it to considerable levels of sophistication) it has proved less widespread and open-ended than Computer Art.

Warhol considered that working on the Amiga enabled him to do images in his own style: it did not force him to greatly modify his practice in order to get pictures which were recognisably “Warhols”. This is perhaps the central point of GUI usage in visual art. It establishes continuity with the artist’s previous body of work through the metaphorical interface. To a degree, this presents problems for any definition of “Computer Art” which depends on discontinuity and innovation, and is the main reason that long-time computer artists oppose the GUI. Yet it is clear that many artists want to continue their established style on the computer with as few breaks as possible.

The adoption and usage of commercial solutions is a major dividing line between the earlier and later computer artists. It is very much a result of changing models of computer usage and increased availability. As discussed previously, critics such as Delle Maxwell see this increased usage of commercial software as limiting and detrimental, though in many respects it is analogous to artists who buy their brushes instead of making them.

[1] RESPONSE to “Software as a new Art Form“ by Frieder Nake – see Gerry Stahl’s website

[2] Pierre Francastel, Art & Technology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York 2000; published in French in 1956), p270

[3] “The Quickening of Galatea: Virtual Creation without Tools or Media” by Timothy Binkley

[4] Richard Hamilton, Preface to Alan Cristea Gallery exhibition catalogue New Technology and Printmaking 1998.

[5] From AmigaWorld Jan/Feb 1986, pp19-20. Interviewer

[6] From AmigaWorld Jan/Feb 1986, pp19-20. Interviewer