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Conceptual frameworks imposed by GUI software, and by the artist


In one sense, the conceptual and practical framework imposed by off-the-shelf software is rigid, because of the restrictions it foists upon artists through the tools it supplies for image creation. In another sense, this framework is flexible, because there are multiple levels of undo, layers, frames, etc., that give artists an unprecedented amount of control over the structure of their work. Programs written by artists (or written according to their instructions), involve limitations that they themselves impose from the ground up. The resulting software is a much closer reflection of their approach to art, and their programming abilities.

Remarking on a system’s propensity to restrict artists, William Moritz claimed that the Bell BEFLIX system resulted in the animations of Stan Vanderbeek and Lillian Schwartz looking too similar:

[M]ost artists have relied on software packages prepared by a technician or endemic to a particular hardware system. Their artistic compositions had to cope with the parameters, demands and limitations of a program over which they had no control.” [From "Visual Music: Larry Cuba's Experimental Film" by William Moritz, Mediagramm, ZKM, 1996]

As with any other medium, the strengths of the tools may lead artists in certain directions and it seems likely that any artist working with a computer develops a ‘feel’ for its idiosyncrasies and knows its parameters. The artist/programmer’s principal constraints are their knowledge of the programming language and also (often overlooked) the ability to describe a picture mathematically.

By contrast, the visual computer artist operates in real-time within the boundaries of their chosen software. Nothing prevents them from moving between entirely different classes of software except their own competence and the exportability of their images from one package to another. Thus the computer becomes a point of departure for a variety of artforms, rather than a fixed tool with a few distinctive visual effects.

The setting in which the artist works includes their personal space immediately around the computer, which is both the setting for their visual work onscreen, and the physical context within which it happens. As Jennifer A. Hall says:

Yet through all the universal attributes [e.g. of computer memory as discrete and corporeal, or internal computer space as finite], the process of computing is usually experienced as a relatively private and personal affair. The act of personal computing is one of intellectual and spatial seclusion. It is during these computer intimacies, that an emotional bonding to the machine occurs.[1]

Thus the artist concentrates on a contained space, even more so than when working on a canvas (but not as tight as the viewfinder on a camera). This bears out my idea of the “Microverse”, which is the universe defined by description that both artist and viewer concentrates on to such that it shuts out the wider world. The GUI is part of the human interface process that surrounds the computer and renders it intelligible to most users.

A key question when considering Computer Art created by direct manipulation is whether the computer extends the artist’s creative knowledge, or rather imprisons them within its predefined boundaries. The latter leads to stereotyping and complacency. Yet surely it is as much a reflection on the artist as tool-user as the tool’s capacity to restrict and constrict. If its abilities are properly understood, then it will not be readily identifiable for the fingerprints it leaves on pictures, but function as part of a greater artistic whole.

The difference between experimenting on paper and on the computer is that the computer’s tools must be discovered before they can be employed. Paper, by contrast, has no intrinsic functions; it is just understood as a surface to be filled and herein lies its flexibility.

The marks made by pen or pencil assist in discovering forms or phrases rather than giving them specific concrete forms. Collages of photographs also possess an intrinsic physicality and form that may suggest novel arrangements. A computer may assist in this process by discovering appropriate forms from pre-existing possibilities delineated by the program. In this sense, it is less open-ended than pen and paper, but its use tends to reflect this fact.

Images tend to emerge from pen sketches; but they are set down on the computer because the tools are predefined. In this formalising process, it hardly matters whether the artist was also the programmer.**[2]

The GUI tends to enhance play and experimentation, offering a more direct correlation between the artist’s hand and the screen. One could say, after Huizinga, that direct manipulation encourages the ludic impulse. Programming to create images is a more compositional, or allographic, processes, i.e. describing the desired picture in notational form analogous to placing musical symbols on a score. With programming, the picture’s existence as a set of instructions is made manifest, whereas graphical interfaces take the input from the user’s movements and describe it invisibly, in a way that does not enter the artist’s experience of using the computer unless they choose to alter parameters manually.

An example from Beardon and Gollifer shows how the computer can “slot in” to an artist’s existing practice, especially when the artist in question has previously been systematic in their working. Their artist liked the computer’s accuracy, ability to explore ideas, the ‘undo’ function and the multiple versions of an image that can exist. One point was especially notable:

[...] the initial idea generation usually takes place off the computer. The act of transferring work onto the computer is a new stage and quite distinct stage in the production of the artifact. [3]

This more than anything marks out the artist who adopts the computer into their art-making process. Instead of remaking the whole established procedure to suit the computer, it becomes an element in their modus operandi. The fact that idea generation happens away from the computer in this case seemingly bears out what I said earlier about the degree of formalism imposed by computer usage. however, creating ideas “offline” counteracts the natural formalising tendency of working on a computer.

[1] Jennifer A. Hall, “The Human Interface in Three Dimensional Art Space” Thesis for MSVS October 1985, p12.

[2] Fish, Jonathan and Scrivener, Stephen “Amplifying the Mind’s Eye: Sketching and Visual Cognition”, Leonardo, Vol.23, No.1, pp117-126, 1990.

[3] “Designers as Users”, Colin Beardon, Sue Gollifer, Christopher Rose & Suzette Worden

Paper presented at Computers in Context: Joining Forces in Design, Third Decennial Conference, Århus, Denmark, 14-18 August 1995. Http:// find ref