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Previous attempts to define ‘computer art’


It is useful to examine previous theorists’ attempts to define “Computer Art”. For instance, H.W. Franke’s definition of from 1971 focuses on the “aesthetic formation” of the work, pointing towards artistic intention as a major criterion. The intention is considered simultaneously with the work’s computational origins; Computer Art is “the logical or numerical transposition of given data with the aid of electronic mechanisms.”[1] This cumbersome expression covers both digital and analogue systems, a necessary recognition that much pioneering computational art was made with oscilloscopes and Whitney’s mechanisms. To qualify as Computer Art, there has to be significant artistic intent and the computer has to be of integral importance to the work.

Franke does not, however, consider the relative inputs of artist or computer, or whether the aesthetic formation is sufficient to qualify as art when viewed in its finished form. Rather, he is more interested in the potentials of Computer Art to produce something new; the procedural elements and the process are particularly important, as is his absorption of Max Bense’s philosophy. Although the definition is not framed in terms of specific visual forms, there is a tacit understanding that Bense’s concepts would result in abstract, linear images redolent of contemporary art.

By contrast, the definition put forward by Roger Malina approaches the computer as a “meta-tool” that enhances creativity in the broadest sense. Rather than focusing on its procedural elements, any putative computer artwork must fulfil the following criteria:

(1)        Could the artwork have been made without the use of a computer?

(2)       Does it take advantage of the computer’s unique capabilities? [2]

These two points reinforce each other: a work of art which could not exist but for the computer surely makes full use of its “unique new capabilities”.  Though such considerations are independent of the work’s artistic or aesthetic validity, the extent of the artwork’s dependence upon the computer for its existence surely informs its categorisation. Malina frees Computer Art from any specific visual expectations without burdening it with a particular philosophy. The absence of an aesthetic judgement, however, makes these categories too loose to properly define the boundaries of “Computer Art”.

Following Malina’s reasoning, if a computer artwork is created by simulating and speeding up a traditional graphical function, one may well question its artistic legitimacy insofar as it is claimed to be “Computer Art”. Thus the term implies that true Computer Art introduces new factors and ideas into the artwork by virtue of its novelty. By contrast, digitally-manipulated composites of scanned images differ very little from their photographic forebears and may not qualify as “Computer Art”.

However, the Italian artist Aldo Giorgini countered this point by observing that the drawing instructions he used for his art, whilst technically feasible by hand, would be prohibitively slow: “[like] carving marble with a sponge” as he memorably put it. He continued: “The time constraint is of paramount importance in all endeavours and we are talking here of time ratios that approach some orders of magnitude.”[3] Thus the computer’s utility in speeding up artistic operations can be justified as an artistic act, not as mere labour-saving. Faster processes allow for more complex designs to be developed and modified rapidly, without losing artistic momentum.

Giorgini proceeded to reformulate this question as follows: “Does your work with the computer affect the direction of your results?”  In traditional art media, the properties of surfaces and materials can cause an artist to change the course of a piece. Thus to understand how using a computer modifies and informs the work of an artist, one must explore the artistic experience of using the computer. It is likely that artists turn to computers with a particular task in mind that is impossible or impractical in physical media. They must begin their computer work with certain expectations, so in the course of making their art do they bend the computer to their will or do they instead adapt to it?

[1] H.W. Franke, Computer Graphics, Computer Art, p7.

[2] From SIGGRAPH ‘89, Leonardo special edition.

[3] Artist and Computer, Ruth Leavitt (1976), p11