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Why use the term ‘computer art’?


The term “Computer Art” means very little. It is almost as imprecise as referring to “drawings on paper”. One could talk of “digital art”, but that would exclude all the early computer artists such as John Whitney and Ben Laposky who worked with analogue computers. Indeed, if one stretched the definition of “digital”, it could refer to any medium where the image was contained within a discrete sequence of instructions.

Perhaps a definition of Computer Art should only focus on artists who program the computer to produce their art. Yet such a narrow view would exclude the many artists who have extended their more traditional art practice by using commercial graphics software. Nor can a definition of “Computer Art” be tied to a specific aesthetic or visual form, because the computer does not proscribe the forms and appearance of the artwork. Moreover, the computer appeals both to artists who create ordered abstract and geometric forms, and to those who aim for chaotic and naturalistic forms. The proliferation of powerful desktop computers amongst artists also makes special characteristics of “Computer Art” hard to pin down, as they can develop very individual styles with little need to follow a specific approach.

In short, the phrase “Computer Art” only indicates that certain images originated on a computer. It gives no indication of style, aesthetic qualities or technique. If these are the best ways of classifying art, then “Computer Art” as a term is practically useless. As long ago as 1989, Richard Wright noted  that “Computer Art” is being supplanted by phrases such as “computer-aided art” or “computers in art”: “[partly] because the computer is now used for so many different purposes that it can no longer form a basis for comparison by itself.”[1] Thus the blanket term “Computer Art” seemingly contributes little to an understanding of the image or the artist’s intentions.

Some confusion is caused by the way “the computer” is treated as an entity with certain fixed attributes, an assumption which stems from its physical presence as a piece of hardware. It is in fact a collection of processes running on that hardware that the artist may utilise in a variety of roles. As a consequence, the computer is often used as a symbol or cipher for the modern technological society, giving it a presence quite unlike any other contemporary machine. Its role in the modern imagination is comparable to that of the steam engine in the 19th century: it summarises the achievements and consequences of technology and is variously perceived as highly beneficial or insidious. Unlike the steam engine, however, the computer is not a physical vehicle but acts as an extension of mental capabilities. Its multiplicity makes it hard to grasp, so it is conveniently regarded as a unitary device and any artwork produced through the agency of software is similarly made “with” or “by” a computer.

This corralling of computer artwork into a single category may have contributed to its sidelining by the mainstream art world. The involvement of mechanical and computational devices in art has often provoked controversy, and rarely proved to be of more than passing interest to galleries and curators. Moreover, Computer Art is itself a subset of an even broader category: “Art and Technology”, which encompasses everything from holographic art to sculptures in exotic artificial materials. Just as the “computer” is a convenient overall term, so with “Art and Technology”.

Observing this tendency toward overarching categories, Pierre Francastel claimed that “abstractions like Art, Society, Machine and Technology [are treated] as attributes of man in the absolute.”[2] The computer joins this list of abstractions which streamline the understanding of more complex phenomena. Due to this tendency, “Computer Art” became more than an observation on the art’s means of production: it was used as a convenient catch-all for many unrelated artworks. Thus museums have tended to relegate Computer Art and similar technological artforms to the periphery.

The abstract animator Larry Cuba laments this homogenising tendency. He is often seen as a practitioner of “Computer Art” but his work has a greater degree of continuity with the pre-computer Abstract Animators, even though it incorporates computational processes into its aesthetic and execution.  But categories in art tend to rest on visual or polemical connections, so by calling his animations “Computer Art”, certain visual expectations are evoked.  Cuba uses the computer as a vehicle for his art and it annoys him to be thrown into a group defined for curatorial convenience. He claims that despite this perception of an over-arching genre of technological art, “[there] is nothing about using tools which unites you with others using this technology.” Rather, he points to the “visual kinship” of abstract animators, which is more important than differentiating which of them used computers.[3]

Cuba is reluctant to be forced into a category of “Computer Art”, in which the specifics of his artistic practice are subsumed by the technology. Also, the issue of “kinship” suggests that visual links might be established between computer artists and pre-computer genres. In such cases the computer provides a new way of realising an existing artistic approach and may be seen as an extension of the older form rather than a new artistic undertaking.

To complicate matters, images generated with the computer may be incorporated into other artforms. For instance, John Whitney’s animation Permutations, 1968, was generated on an IBM 2250 computer, recorded with a film camera pointed at the screen, and processed using film production techniques. It was presented as “animation” or “experimental film” rather than “Computer Art”; Whitney himself is more often considered an “experimental film-maker” rather than a “computer artist”, again showing the power of categorisation. Whitney’s work illustrates how a work’s computational origins may be disregarded in its presentation and categorisation. [Plate I]

In addition, some artists who have developed innovative uses for the computer bridle at the suggestion that they also belong within a broadly-defined grouping called “Computer Art”. Harold Cohen, for instance, has created a program called AARON that acts as a semi-independent extension of his artistic understanding: it constructs pictures according to programmed routines based on Cohen’s encoding of the decisions taken in drawing a picture. AARON’s pictures seem subjectively freehand; they resemble neither stereotypical “computer graphics”, nor earlier examples of abstract “Computer Art” from the 1960s. In addition, Cohen perceives the computer artworld as insular and introverted, and for this reason he actively avoids any association with it:

Cohen’s hostility was provoked by what he regards as the simplistic content and approach of early Computer Art, and the unfulfilled expectations surrounding it. This underpins his stance against an identifiable genre called “Computer Art” which encompasses every aspect of computer-mediated art. Cohen places AARON outside such definitions because it is a form of collaborative art which employs Artificial Intelligence, not a straightforward act of art-making with a computer. AARON uses computational processes in a more fundamental way than simply drawing or painting with a mouse.

It is interesting that Cohen, himself a practitioner of a computer-based artform, has a fixed image of what Computer Art is, or is supposed to look like. Even in dismissing it as a type of art, he assumes its partisans represent it to some degree. The “Computer Art” to which he refers is exemplified by the first generation of computer artists which culminated in the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968. This was influential in forming perceptions of the computer’s visual potential until the early 1980s, when computer graphics became typified by photorealistic 3D animations. However, the very fact that the stereotypical concept of “computer graphics” has changed over time suggests that any attempt to define Computer Art using a specific visual aesthetic is futile.

[1] Wright, Richard “The Image in Art and ‘Computer Art’”, Computer Art in Context, p49.

[2] Pierre Francastel, Art & Technology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York 2000; published in French in 1956), p85

[3] From my interview notes, “Interview with Larry Cuba and Robert Darroll.” Based on partial transcript.

[4] Harold Cohen “Off the shelf”, The Visual Computer (1986) 2 : 191 – 194c Springer – Verlag 1986