This page has been archived by the Computer Arts Society.

Section conclusion

The “portability” of Computer Art across a range of computers would have once been impossible, and as I have noted, this impacts on the survival of historic works of Computer Art since they were so dependent on the systems they were created for, or on. However, one benefit of standardisation of modern desktop systems is that not only software can be widely supported, but also artistic method can be applied across a range of computers.

In the case of GUI-based artists, this means they can apply their knowledge across a broad section of systems and it will still be valid because the methods are so similar, though differing in detail. In the case of artist-programmers, their code can be compiled for use on widely-accepted computers and thus achieves an element of portability. This is not seamless: Hébert’s sand artwork, for instance, is very sensitive to changing its host computer and requires careful reconfiguration, especially of the serial interface with the sand-machine. Yet it runs on Linux and thus, in principle, can be supported on any Intel-based PC platform. This suggests that the important factor is the method, not the computer that supports it.

The development of a distinctive method may be the greatest advantage of programming one’s own software instead of using commercial products. As Larry Cuba remarked, this allows an artist to embody their techniques in the computer’s workings, rather than having to live with the consequences of another programmer’s software. Such long-term artistic projects have succeeded in harmonising the artist’s input with that of the computer. Though they remain unequal partners, the computer contributes a distinctive and meaningful element to the art, even if the “meaning” is in terms of visual structure rather than narrative content.

These artists do not accommodate themselves with the computer, but rather follow directions suggested by their computer experience whilst pushing the machine along a path they want to take, regardless of whether it can be realised exactly. That is how JP Hébert described his relationship with the computer when making an image. It is a precarious reciprocal relationship in which the computer acts both as sounding-board and executor of the artist’s ideas.

Certain artists simply use the computer as part of a greater process; often for specific effects rather than an end in itself. I feel one cannot consider pragmatic computer usage with the same criteria which are used for artist-programmers. On the one hand, Hébert’s immersion in the deep workings of his software has produced excellent results exemplifies the computer’s conceptual use in the arts. With Hébert, the computer is used as much for structural as for visual effect.

On the other hand, the approaches of McIntyre and Warhol involve deploying the computer to specific ends rather than as a focus for the whole piece. This is its operational usage, the computer as tool or meta-tool which serves to extend the art’s visual range rather than the artist’s conceptual world.

Thus the primary division in Computer Art, according to this thesis, is between the computer as conceptual basis for the artwork; and the computer used in an operational context, for specific tools and results. This should not imply that “operational” artists have a lesser understanding; rather, they incorporate the computer into their work at a different level to the “conceptual” artists, who are nearly all programmers.

Even so, as Catherine McIntyre implied, the computer need not be the sole means or justification for the art. An artist can suddenly conceive of entirely different departures simply through close knowledge of a program’s functions. In this way, a computer extends the artist’s conceptual range as well as their immediate physical abilities.

Computer Art should not involve a hierarchy which makes artist-programmers more “virtuous” than non-programmers. Perhaps the division between GUI-user and programmer, between computer-based realism and artistic abstraction, is less strict than it seems. Where fidelity to reality has formed an important component, it is often the case that it is underpinned by complex modelling or rule-based processes, whether these are executed by lines and triangles on the surface of a canvas or by algorithms in a computer. By contrast, the more freeform art of the 20th c, whether “abstract” or figurative, has tended to base itself in complex theories to account for (or justify) its existence and goals, whereas the processes used to create its visual surface are often far simpler and less constrained.

Computer Art may have suffered for its lack of polemical justification, but in its utilisation of complex rules it actually derives from earlier approaches to art. Instead of appealing to complex theoretical arguments, it implements complex visual rules instead, like the painters from the Renaissance to the early 19th c, and in doing so the art takes on a different hue. This is not to say that computer artists lack theoretical or polemical justifications – indeed they may be required by the present climate to have them – but it seems to me they are neither so glib nor as specious as many self-justifying artists in other fields because their art is grounded in a medium which is mathematical in nature