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Vol.32 No.1 February 1998

The Space Between: Fine Art and Technology

Will Tait

February 98 Columns
Images and Reversals CG Around the World

Will Tait
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This is a personal opinion about communication between the worlds of fine art and technology. I have been a SIGGRAPH member for six or seven years, and a practicing artist for more than 35. Having perceived a predominantly technical leaning in the SIGGRAPH journals I sometimes wondered where an artist, as in fine art, might actually fit in the organization. I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the opportunity to speak out. Perhaps, other traditional artists who have taken up the challenge of the computer will speak up also. It is only by making our concerns known that we will find a voice in the SIGGRAPH community. First, I ask you to go along with me as I define some terms for the purpose of this article.

Art and Fine Art

Art and fine art are separate and distinct. Practitioners of fine art are those who have a particularly pressing vision and a need to express it. The product of their vision -- paintings, sculptures, prints, film or whatever -- may or may not be art. One of the peculiarities of fine art is that in the crucible of time all works of fine art find their true level. Future generations determine what, of today's works, will be considered art. For there is a peculiar quality about art. It is timeless. Let us say then, that we cannot determine if a particular work is art. We are too close to it in time to know if it has the lasting quality that enables it to transcend time.

Fine art is a discipline unto itself. While some choose to spend their lives writing computer code, building bridges, driving a bus, developing virtual worlds or countless other disciplines, there are a few who feel compelled to make what is called fine art.

It is important to realize that fine art is created by people. It is a response to how we relate to each other and the world in which we live. Being involved in the making of fine art does not, by itself, guarantee that the product of the artist's efforts will be art. As in other disciplines, some that make fine art will see more clearly than others, will take the time and expend the energy necessary to make their chosen tools extensions of themselves. Having done so, they will look beyond the current boundaries and through their art, communicate their unique vision to the world.

Let us agree then, for the sake of this article, that we cannot know if a given work is art, and that if one chooses to practice the discipline of fine art, there are historically valid means of expression. Traditionally these are painting and sculpture. This does not mean that the computer or other technologically sophisticated tools cannot be used for the creation of works that might some day be considered art. The tools do not determine what is art. It is worth noting however, that the traditional tools, paint on canvas, chisel on stone and modeled clay cast in bronze, are those that provide an artist with the greatest freedom of expression. Any image "imaginable" can be painted. Any form can be modeled in clay or cut from stone. Let us digress a moment then return to tools.

Some History

From the dawn of mankind, artists have struggled with technology. This is nothing new. At first, it was which colored mud would stick to the cave wall and keep its color after being applied to that wall. Over time artists discovered they could mix powdered rocks of many colors with egg yolk to produce jewel-like translucent colors. Then, fresco, oil paint and watercolor came along accompanied by the need for tools with which to apply them to a substrate (paper, linen, cotton, etc.). Meanwhile carving of wood and stone and the casting of metal took their place among the artist's toolbox. In common with much of today's computer technology, the underlying technologies that made this possible, in many cases, came from advances in the military use of what was at the time literally the cutting edge.

To put things in perspective, let's see what parallels might be drawn between a contemporary software project manager and a renaissance artist.

In order to start, the project manager needs to have a clear idea of precisely what the end product of his team's labors will be. He needs to know what steps get done first, decide which development tools will be used, determine what the logical milestones are and when they can be expected to happen, what tasks can be done concurrently and at what point in the development cycle they will converge, what test procedures need to be in place and when to use them, etc. In addition he needs to have competent programmers who can write clean code in a timely manner. QA procedures need to be put in place. Time for bug fixing, has to be scheduled. Alpha and beta testing must occur. Having done all this, preparation will be made to do maintenance releases that take care of the inevitable minor bugs that somehow slip through the net.

Now imagine the purely technical problems of an artist who has been commissioned to create a fresco mural. Fresco is a lime plaster mix that is applied to a wall in a specific way that makes it permanent when dry. The artist paints into the freshly applied wet fresco with colored pigments. When dry, the colors will be quite different than wet. The artist must know how each color will change and make adjustments in his mind for blends. Because the fresco plaster dries quite rapidly, only a small piece of the mural can be painted at a time. As the plaster dries, the pigment is changing color. Once pigment is applied to the plaster, it can't be changed. Any technical mistakes during the process means stripping the wall and starting over.

In order to start, the artist needs to have a clear idea of precisely what the end product of his team's labors will be. He needs to know how to prepare the wall for the plaster, section off the wall in pieces small enough to paint before the plaster starts to set, concurrently have competent apprentices mixing the plaster and grinding the pigments for the next section to be painted, and have the work organized so that when the day ends a logical section of the mural is done and there is no freshly mixed wet plaster left over. This procedure is repeated until the mural is finished. It cannot be touched up, and if the plaster was not mixed or applied properly it falls off the wall. No maintenance releases allowed. The technique must be completely internalized by the artist so he can focus on the creative aspect of the work.

Similar technical demands exist for all fine art mediums, although it has become fashionable in some contemporary art circles to ignore technique and the benefits it confers on an artist.

Artists tend to drive technology in directions which, due to lack of commercial demand, it might never go. Of necessity some artists, Andrew Glassner and Alvy Ray Smith for instance, expand the bounds of the technology envelope thereby widening the creative space for all of us. When shifts in technology such as the printing press, photography or computers come along, there are always those who predict the death of art. Somehow art never dies.

Digital Artist

Quoting from Grant Boucher's "Post Script" column in the October 1997 issue of NT Studio magazine:

"The usual model for a digital artist in the modern special effects world is that a very talented computer user and/or artist goes to a school where he is taught the "right way" to use software X on hardware platform Y (read: anything SGI). This is fundamentally wrong. Why? It breeds students without problem solving skills and without a grasp of WHY they are doing what they are doing."

Being in a position to hire digital artists, I agree with this statement. It is difficult to find graduates who can solve creative "art" problems on a computer.

Grant also says, "They fail to learn how to think outside of the purple box, for simply put, THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY! You must be ready to change, adapt, reinvent whenever and wherever necessary." Shortly, he adds, "In the past, you either had programmers or you had programmers trying to be artists, but there were so very few "PURE" artists using technological tools to create a 'look.'"

I believe what Grant means when he says, create a look is what artists call developing a style. Refining personal vision is another way of putting it. A pure artist is one who lives to create fine art; then practices enough to develop a personal style. For my part, I am a classically trained artist, or, practitioner of fine art. That is, I spent years learning to realistically draw whatever I see outside or inside my head. I studied anatomy, color theory, form and composition, painting, printmaking and other traditional disciplines perfected by practitioners of fine art over centuries. In other words, I was taught to think and see in 3Space, and am able to tangibly realize my vision with traditional tools. Now that I use the computer as my primary medium with which to create art, I no longer fit within bounds of the "art" world I knew.

Apprehension is rampant among the fine art community about where the computer fits in, if it fits at all. Misconceptions abound. Reflecting on the art world, I realized I had somehow experienced a "digital epiphany" at one point in my personal shift to the use of computers as a creative medium. Here is what brought that home to me.

A Look Back

To gain some perspective, I recently attended an exhibit of paintings created by Masami Teraoka, a well-known painter who's style developed from traditional Japanese art techniques with some western influence. Masami is an example of a "PURE" artist. He has mastered tools that enable him to realize his personal vision in the objective world. As with many artists, he chose paint as his medium. The point is that Masami has a vision he wants to communicate. Choosing to become proficient with a medium capable of conveying ideas to the world outside his head was part of his artistic development. He has an intensely personal vision and an inner drive to communicate it to the world. In Masami's work, traditional Japanese and contemporary Western cultures meet in what are sometimes unusual juxtapositions. He explores the contemporary world in which he lives, and communicates his vision in paintings. He is highly regarded in the art world. You may have seen his flying McDonald's hamburgers, painted in a style reminiscent of Japanese block prints.

A Struggle with Technology

In the exhibit was a series of paintings dealing with the use of computers. Here were wounded people, computer mice dangling from bloodstained bodies. Fear and repugnance oozed from these paintings. Many traditional painters and sculptors I have spoken with feel this way, and they are not sure why.

Traditionally trained artists face a common dilemma. Computer equipment has never been readily available in traditional art schools where all classes are hands-on studio classes. It is not immediately obvious what benefit might be gained from the use of the computer as a medium with which to create fine art. If an artist reads about "artistic software," he finds all that is needed to be an artist is to own Brand X, or Brand Y, or a certain brand of computer. No experience needed, no vision necessary, buy me and you too can be Vincent Van Gogh, Matisse, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci perhaps. A lot of people seem to believe this. It isn't true.

Complicating matters for painters or printmakers who make flat art, is the fact that compared to painting, etching and lithography, digital output is far from being expressive, although digital printing is getting better. Trying to mimic traditional mediums with computers is in many ways a step backwards. So there has to be a compelling reason for an artist, coming from a traditional background, to make the commitment and leap of faith necessary to plunge in and become as sophisticated digitally as he or she is with traditional tools.

Awakening to Ones and Zeros

Animation gave me a glimpse of the computer as a possible medium for fine art. 3D Studio caught my interest and got me started working with a computer as an art medium. Once, due to lack of hard drive space, I was not doing regular backups while working on a series of 60 to 70 megabyte images for an exhibit. Imagine my frustration when a well-known utility overwrote all the files on my hard drive. As I watched months of work disappear, I experienced a newfound freedom which I called "Enlightenment through Data Loss." For the first time I truly understood the transitory nature of all things, especially ones and zeros. This was a major breakthrough.

Until then I was still painting with oil paint on linen canvas. This stopped abruptly. A different sensibility had taken root inside me. One that no longer needed the "object," painting, sculpture or whatever, as a final vehicle for communicating my artistic vision. I began to explore how to create fine art using the computer as a computer, not a fake paintbrush. I asked myself, what unique quality does the computer bring to the party. I began to question the form that fine art takes.

The Space Between, A Vision

My unique creative vision evolved from an experience I had in the mountains. One day I was high in the Sierras, at about 11,000 feet. I sat on a rock looking out over a high mountain lake, feeling the breeze as it blew off the distant rocky peaks. Nearby, a gnarled tree that looked like a large 'miniature' bonsai grew from a crack in the rocks. The wind had shaped it to look like an extension of the rock. As I watched the wind pressing against the tree I became aware that the tree was equally shaping the wind, and that a zone of turbulence existed between the tree and the wind. I called this zone "The Space Between." For me this came to symbolize what I think of as a zone of mediation that exists between all objects, or things. A buffer zone filled with potential.

An Artist's Quest

Facilitating "The Space Between" with computer graphics, animation, video, audio and various installations, is how I currently practice much of my fine art. The problem I struggle to solve is how to facilitate creative interaction between people, using technology in a way that does not interfere with their interaction. Toward that end I have created some interactive installations. One of these was done in collaboration with Steve Harrison, an acquaintance at Xerox PARC. It was exhibited for a month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Rental Gallery. We hung signs that said, "Please Touch the Art." The piece was made to be handled. In fact people handling it is what it was about.

Lately, picture making has worked its way back into my life. I love making pictures. I now find, with the sophisticated software available, I can make pictures on a computer in a way that is artistically satisfying. Perhaps I have finally become comfortable with computers. Which brings us back to tools.

Why, when I have said that any image imaginable can be painted, do I now find a computer "artistically satisfying"? The answer lies in how I have learned to use the tool. The computer lets me work through multiple possibilities. By itself this is not momentous. Many artists have done series of images, exploring a theme. The crucial difference is that the computer lets me do this quickly. It compresses time so that working with multiple versions of an image becomes a creative stimulus. I believe this is a valid use of the computer as a tool for the creation of fine art.

The question then arises, is purely computer-generated imagery fine art? I will tackle this with an example.

The work of Karl Sims stands out in bold relief against a background of technology posing as art. By including human aesthetic sensibilities in his work, he maintains the connection between art and humanity. In Karl's work however, the original imagery does not spring directly from the mind of a person, but from algorithms. This is very problematic for many traditional artists. Did the computer create the work, they ask? And if so, can it really be art? Well, artists throughout history have used anything and everything around them to stimulate their creative thinking. Leonardo da Vinci drew the patterns of various substances encrusted on walls, landscape artists have always abstracted from nature, the dadaists produced decalcomania pictures by pressing two surfaces with wet paint together then peeling them apart. Examples too numerous to mention abound.

Taking the example of Karl Sims once more, let's see how the use of his algorithmic tools might compare with an older technology, etching. I assume you may have heard of Francisco Goya, whose work has stood the test of time and become recognized throughout the world as true art. Although primarily a painter, he chose etching as the medium with which to create a series of images known as "The Horrors of War." No other medium could have so powerfully portrayed his feelings and reactions to the atrocities he witnessed. He fit the technology to his creative needs.

Will Tait studied classical drawing and painting at the Art Student's League of New York. He was the founder of COMA (COMputers and Art), a guerrilla digital art group in the San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to bringing about public awareness of the computer as a fine art tool and medium. He is currently working as a multimedia producer at Intuit. "Art, it's not a job, it's a way of life."

Will Tait

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

What then is the creative need fulfilled by Karl Sims algorithms? Although I have not met Karl and cannot speak for him, I sense that he has opened a channel for the exploration of beauty, a creative subject that has also become somewhat out of fashion in the high tech world. The exploration of beauty however is a timeless theme winding its way throughout human existence. It is a rare occasion when a new creative tool appears that allows us to reach out and touch beauty. This kind of tool, if generally available, would go a long way toward bridging the gap between contemporary art and technology. This brings up the fact that too few tools, at that level, are available to artists. Most artists must rely on those who are technically inclined to perhaps make their innovative work available. That by the way is a shameless pitch for greater access by artists to creative computer tools of the sort that are not necessarily suited to becoming commercial applications.

I contend then, that the use of the computer is irrefutably valid as a tool for stimulating artistic creativity, and the making of fine art. Time will filter out what is and isn't real art.

A Last Comment

The computer as an artistic tool is in its infancy. Much of what we see created with computers today is merely a reflection of the tool, not the mind or soul of a person. It is my belief that as traditional artists and artistically inclined technologists experiment and collaborate, unique forms of artistic expression will evolve. Since these will depend on technology, there will continue to be conflict with established concepts of what is and isn't art. Artists, however, are innovators. Some of us will use technology as a means to express our vision of the contemporary world in which we live. Contrary to some fears, this will not be the death of traditional forms of expression. It can only add to the richness and diversity of the human experience.