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Metaphors as a basis for understanding technology


Defining Computer Art is not simply a matter of declaring it to be “art produced on the computer”. Apart from the intractable question “what is art?” one must consider how art is made on the computer, why the artist turns to the computer, and the nature of the computer’s impact on their work. How else can it be differentiated from preceding artforms?

No technological process has a straightforward effect on the art produced through it. Some technologies, such as photography and film, are more easily characterised than others. Moreover, they have gone on to influence the perception of their successors in those crucial intermediate stages where a new technology is ousting an older one. To complicate the issue, the computer interface has taken metaphors from previous settings – the desktop, files, folders, drawing tools and the canvas – and recreated them to allow wider access to the computer. This has led to important discussions on the topic of Human-Computer Interfaces (HCI) as to what effect such metaphors have on the development and comprehension of the interface.

William J. Mitchell considers that our fondness for metaphors such as “electronic photography” and “digital camera” makes it harder to understand their underlying differences from previous photographic techniques.[1] They are obscured by resemblances rather than illuminated by analogies. Earlier, Edgar Wind had noted the capacity for newer media to begin by imitating the conventions of their immediate predecessors.

At its first appearance a newly mechanized art always looks like a fake, because it models itself on an unmechanized or less mechanized kind of art.[2]

Thus in Wind’s example, film began by borrowing theatrical conventions and looking like “degraded” theatre; television was doing the same to film at the time Wind was writing. Computer software often borrows metaphors and effects from physical art media, making it a “degraded” darkroom, studio, etc. Such metaphors ease the comprehension and operation of the computer by non-technical users. The metaphors reduce complex conceptual operations to concrete tool-functions, associated with specific graphical effects. Yet this veneer of familiarity must give way to some inherent “computer factor” which might be discovered in the material of the computer image itself.

For Mitchell, digital cameras and scanners do not work with images per se but rather produce a configuration of data that can be reconstructed to form an image. Although the digital camera borrows the metaphor of a traditional camera’s form and operation, this development cannot be ignored. The need for making the new device resemble the old reinforces the notion that the images it captures are analogous to those of the camera. Once the resemblance has been absorbed, the images transcribed by the digital camera are regarded in a similar way to those from its analogue predecessor.

Whereas images are integral to photography, which arose from a tradition of optical instruments and perspective machinery used since the Renaissance for the creation of art[3], the computer has no such irreducible visual component. Because it treats images as sets of instructions, it prescribes no single way of creating or displaying them. Of course, the image data specifies the way the image will be displayed, but its subsequent modification and transmission may be carried out in a variety of ways, none of which is dictated by the visual or material structure of the image. To put it simply, an image constructed from strings of instructions is contingent on the outcome of these instructions, not their layout or appearance. Also, the image may be modified either at the visual level or by directly manipulating the instructions themselves, thereby changing their outcome. This is what differentiates Computer Art from all previous artforms.

For this reason, the computer is a powerful channel for creating imagery from many sources, some of which are internally generated or the results of equations.  As Andries Van Dam states, computer graphics is

the pictorial synthesis of real or imaginary objects from their computer-based models […] we can make pictures not only of concrete “real-world” objects but also of abstract, synthetic objects [and] of data that have no inherent geometry.[4]

In this respect, there is no division between computer “graphics” and “art”: all images produced on the computer have such properties, regardless of intent.

Thus there is a twofold rupture between Computer Art and all traditional art because:

I propose that artworks must satisfy both points in order to qualify as Computer Art, which is distinguished from other artforms because these two qualities occur in combination. Each in itself is an important departure, but taken together they provide the strongest argument for treating computer artforms as an entirely new field rather than (for instance) a new type of animation, or photography, or drawing.

If Computer Art qualifies as a separate field of art, one should be able to identify the processes, tools and qualities of this image space. Once Computer Art is demarked, artists will have a better sense of where their own art is located, which will prompt further developments of computer artwork. “Computer Art” will benefit from a constructive definition that draws together computer artists as a field, where they previously lacked a unifying principle beyond their technology.

[1] Mitchell, William J. The Reconfigured Eye, (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press 1992), p4

[2] Art and Anarchy Edgar Wind (London 1963) “The Mechanization of Art”, p70

[3] Kemp, Martin The Science of Art, 1992

[4] Van Dam, A Computer Graphics: Principles and Practice (1997)pp2-3