FIG 25-1 Christopher James, Niépce Grab Shot at Le Gras, 2007 -Piezograph
THE DIGITAL ARTS:
A 3rd EDITION PERSPECTIVE 2014
The Soft Democracy
For the foreseeable future, the digital arts will likely be an odd waiting-room where the thrills and options of the new tools are not enough, or perhaps all too much, for artistic work to consistently stimulate interest as a legitimate form of creative expression... where the uniqueness of an artist's vision is not compromised, excused, or instantly identified by the software or hardware that is used to make the work. The reality of "needing" to have the latest and greatest upgrades every year creates an expensive and financially difficult environment for younger artists who are operantly and culturally tuned-in to this moment in the digital evolution.
The medium, and what is created with it, is increasingly homogenized by its tools and syntax and is, in great part, responsible for the current democracy of digital imaging where photography has increasingly been reduced to a condiment in the grand social networking buffet. This raises issues for further discussion; for example, the distinction between pictures and photographs, like tourists and travelers, where experiences and images are packaged rather than earned. Setting this aside for the moment, I want to approach this segment from several separate but contemporaneously evolving perspectives and digital art forms... here's what I've been thinking about lately.
THE SIGNAL: INFORMATION & PERFORMANCE
Fig: 25-11 here, William Larson, FAX 1, 11-18-76
The first thing to consider in a discussion of the digital arts is the signal... the free transmission of electronic information and the World Wide Web itself. In this new cosmos, the artist works independently as a solo act or forms a collaborative creative relationship with others... who often might not be aware of the collaboration, to express and influence ideas and perceptions... and sometimes just to have fun. I see this room in the genre as being divided into two separate parts; the signal itself and the influence, or underlying meaning, of the communication via that signal.
The Signal: Information
On a basic level, it is the physical signal that carries the information that is critical to the expression and interpretation. This transmission had its birth in the mid-1800s through the inspiration of Alexander Bain's crude facsimile machine that was subsequently improved upon in 1860 by Giovanni Casselli, an Italian priest, who invented a working machine he called the Pantelegraph.
To use a Pantelegraph, the operator would draw, or write, with fat infused ink on a sheet of tin. The tin was then placed on a plate that was charged with an electric current, while in contact with a transmitter, that was connected to a telegraph wire. A stylus would pass over the fatty ink and the electric current, unable to penetrate to the charged electronic plate through the fatty ink drawing areas, would transmit what could not be transmitted (the fatty ink) to the other end of the telegraph line where the image was received on a chemically treated paper... thus making an electronic picture of the thing itself.
Perhaps the first artist to think about rendering a photographic image using electronically coded signals was William Larson. He reasoned that the FAX machine's ability to translate images from sound signals over a telephone line would produce images in values of gray. More importantly, according to Larson in correspondence, "it transformed the image into a mediated electronic state where it was compatible with other electronically encoded information."
When Larson began this work he considered how photography might be used within an electronic system able to translate everything it was given into a FAX code / signal, from a song to a picture in a family album... and how visually this was, in essence, a montage of signals that could be re-constructed as a complete visual entity. By using the available FAX technology of 1969, Larson may have created the first electronically constructed photographic montages that were critiqued with the same critical concerns of a traditional photograph.
In recent years, the ability of artists to pan for raw digital signals from diverse sources such as museum collections, surveillance videos, and the never ending debris of social media, has provided a distinctly new way to work with photographic imagery that is not dissimilar to what William was thinking about with the FAX machine... where everything was considered signals to be de-coded... like an electronic curiosity cabinet. In a recent talk at the College of Art and Design at Lesley University, our MFA Visiting Artist / Scholar, Lyle Rexer, related that his current students, unlike those from the past, were far more interested in images that could be collected, used, and reinterpreted than in images that could be found, photographed, and put on a wall. This is a very important perspective on recent changes in photographic practice and philosophy.
Fig 25-12 here, Matt Belanger, A Google Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2005
The Signal: Performance
The second aspect of the signal is one of the current driving forces of contemporary digital arts... the performance. Within the last 15 years, digital performance has evolved into a major artistic movement, not dissimilar to the one Fluxus enjoyed in the '60s or the subsequent non-linear Happening movement of the '70s. This movement of stuff that doesn't hang on a wall, or that can be collected by a corporation, (some would call it anti-art) is alive and well. A fine example would be James Downey's 2001 Internet campaign to have as many people as possible direct their personal red laser pointers at the moon at the same moment... in order to change the color of the moon. No, it didn't actually work, but it enjoyed the same status and critical theory referencing as the event promoted by New York City radio host Jean Shepherd in 1965, where he urged the people of New York to construct miniature box kites and come to Washington Square Park to fly them in conjunction with the transmission of pictures from Mars.
Another performance work in this genre would be Mike Parr's, Malevich, at Artspace, University of Western Sydney, in 2001. Parr nailed his arm to a wall, had his eyes taped over, deprived himself of nourishment and featured all the suffering and humiliation that one would expect in a person willingly nailed to a wall for an extended period of time. The performance was broadcast over the Internet with more than a quarter million hits in the first 24 hours. Parr performed another work the following year called Close the Concentration Camps where he had his lips sewn tightly together to illustrate solidarity with prisoners being held in Australia's detention centers.
These performances bring to mind the legendary performance piece by Chris Burden who, in 1971, created the piece Shoot in F Space, Santa Ana, California, where Barbara Burden recorded him being shot in the arm by an assistant. This event became famous via word of mouth and is now, over 40 years later, easily experienced on YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JE5u3ThYyl4
Given the power of the Internet to create a world stage in an instant, or a private theater as in the case of YouTube, it is mind boggling to consider the impact that Burden's performances may have had if he could have enjoyed real-time Internet transmission to work with... like Jackass star Steve-O who repeatedly stapled tender boy parts of his body to his thigh. As one of my artist friends said of these examples, "Some people would chew off their leg to make it in the art world."
Digital performance requires the strengths, and the limitations, of the medium's transmissions to be effective and appreciated. Sometimes it's really funny. Sometimes its sole intention is to promote social and political disorder and to disturb cultural lethargy. Sometimes it's deeply personal and poetic as in the case of Marina Abramovic's 1974 piece Rhythm 0, or her more recent, and intimately beautiful 2010 work, The Artist is Present, at MOMA. In almost every case where art, or anti-art, expression is the motivational intention, the recorded digital evidence forever re-celebrates the immediate experience of the performance and the power of the idea being communicated. Financial gain is seldom the reason for the performance as hanging it on the living room wall is impossible... and that's what makes this part of the genre so alive and powerful and thoroughly democratic.
Fig 25 - 13 here, Nam June Paik, TV Buddha, 1974
The Eye of the Monitor
This evening I was considering the relationship between technology and intimacy and the thoughts boiled down to need... the human need to connect intimately to a person or place, which can be done so quickly through technology. This digital level of fulfillment, even though it's instantaneously satisfying, fails to meet the essence of touch, temperature, and all of those sensory pleasures that we associate with person-to-person experiences. This failure creates an awkward disharmony where, after some conditioning, it is ultimately easier to deal with intimacy through the sterile distance of a monitor's screen.
The unblinking eye of the monitor as the piece itself must be considered. In this example, the monitor is both the equipment required (the tool) and the display (the art), and the making of the image on the computer screen, or screens (as in a modular construction), requires the computer's optical and adjustable features to be used in the translation / transmission of the work of art.
This idea got its spark decades ago with the Fluxus (meaning flow) movement in the early '60s. Fluxus, an international collaborative network of iconoclastic artists, including Nam June Paik, John Cage, Alan Kaprow, Charlotte Moorman, and George Maciunas, was highly regarded for its dedication to the integration of all disciplines... a plugged in Bauhaus if you will. One of the few principles of Fluxus was that a performance required an audience to complete the piece and the late Nam June Paik may be considered the "godfather" of what is presently active in this room of the digital arts mansion. Some examples...
In one of my favorite Nam June Paik works, TV Buddha, a statue of Buddha contemplates a TV with an image of Buddha contemplating the TV... permitting the audience to make the connection of this perfect "oneness." In another piece, Paik incorporated the projection of a clear film leader with a numerical 10-9-8-7... etc. sequence that was once so familiar to people who watched movies made with film. When the film leader got to the number 1... instead of rewarding the viewer's anticipation and patience with the film, the leader simply began again, forcing a renewal of excitement for a film that would never be seen.
In 1969, Paik collaborated with classical cellist, Charlotte Moorman, in a work titled V Bra for Living Sculpture, 1969, that featured miniature TV monitors in Moorman's bra, broadcasting the sights and sounds of Moorman playing her cello. Earlier, in 1967, they had collaborated on a work called Opera Sextronique in which Moorman had played her classical cello topless, resulting in her expected arrest for "indecent" exposure. In these pieces, and in Paik's other major works, the monitor functions as the visual source, the guide, the narrator, one of the actors, occasionally the director, and always the eye of the experience.
In a contemporary context, the monitor plays a role very much like the one that flew over the perpetually raining night-time city in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. The monitor today is a force field of digital information, designed to distract, pacify, direct, influence, baby-sit, teach, coerce, seduce and entertain... consider Jumbotrons in stadiums, Times Square NYC, or the Ginza in Tokyo. I figure that in all of this there must be a discussion of what the monitor is and what it signifies about the image, or artist, or signal that is represented from within it, and the culture that it emerged from. Other questions begin to be asked. Who is the monitor directed towards, where is it located, how big is it, and who paid for it. An example for our discussion might be Doug Aitken's 8-channel powerful 2007 video piece, Sleepwalkers, projected onto the side of the Museum of Modern Art. Did projecting it on MOMA, instead of your neighbor's garage, instantly contextualize it as Art? Did MOMA's permission to use its building as a screen give the piece critical muscle? Would Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, have approved of integrating the ART into the architecture? Of course!... is the answer to these questions, all of which are simple references to the power and context of the monitor, no matter the size, and how it will eventually replace static advertising, print media, galleries, museums, cultural propaganda, and perhaps, one day, intimacy.
Fig 25-14 here, Graham Nash, Joni Listening, 1972.tif (Iris Print)
The Print: Graham Nash, Mac Holbert & Epson
We'll finish up with a return to the familiar, the print on the wall. To begin, much of the credit for the concept, and institutional acceptance, that ink jet materials and process could be considered as an archival and unique system of making art goes to Graham Nash and Mac Holbert of Nash Editions. In the late 1980's Nash and Holbert wrote image management software and applied it to the creation of large-scale digital images using an Iris 3074 printer, archival inks, and rag paper stock. Their work, research and inspiration marked the beginning of the mind-set and ultimate acceptance of artists integrating photography in their distinctive mediums, and considering the concept of the dry darkroom with an unlimited set of tools and materials for archival photographic image making. The word archival is included as part of this definition due to the need of having the blessing of the curators and archivists who were still in charge of the system. It wasn't just about the print. As it turned out, this new digital addition to the process of making a photographic image also instigated a shift in how photographs were made, edited, worked on, archived, collected, and where the artists using this technology fit into the medium's history.
Fig 25-15 here, David Hilliard, Rising, 1978 .jpg (Iris Print-Singer Editions)
Of all the commercial printer and ink manufacturers, Epson leapt into the fine art category and cannot be given enough credit for their commitment to the photographic arts and for utilizing the willing resources of grateful artists and photographers in the development of its printer and ink product lines. Epson has also shown an amazing ability to consistently improve on its printers, profiles, and pigment-based ink sets while maintaining a business model geared to professionals and students alike. Although Hewlett-Packard and Canon have joined the parade, in my working experience and comparisons, Epson continues to lead it.
At this writing, images produced as state of the art prints are generated from silver gelatin negatives, single exposure or fabricated digital files, and scans of alternative process imagery and integrated media, that are re-interpreted digitally to become extraordinarily rich 2-dimensional images... or components in a 3-D piece. The current home-based printers, such as the Epson 3880 that I am working with these days, in concert with their Ultrachrome K3 ink sets, have set a standard for excellence that continues to separate it from the competition. Included in this digital stew are the individual pioneers whose ways of modifying and working with digital printing technology have induced larger corporate entities such as Epson and Hewlett-Packard to put a lot of effort into mass-market technologies. These individual digital pioneers include landmark figures in the digital evolution such as Jon Cone, of Cone Editions in Topsham, Vermont, whose ink sets, delivery systems, custom printing, and workshop instruction set a bar for all in the industry. Others, besides Nash, Holbert, and Cone, who deserve mention in this sphere of influence, include John Paul Caponigro, Stephen Johnson, Pedro Meyer, xtine Burrough, George DeWolfe, Dan Burkholder, Gary Rodgers, and Mark Nelson.
Fig 25-16 here, John Paul Caponigro, reflection i5- 1998 (adagio)
Photographic prints made with carbon pigment-based, lightfast, water-resistant inks on rag paper can accurately be described as archival with a life span that will generally exceed our own. Of course this is predicated upon the care and conditions where the print spends its life. This realized digital artistry is familiar in process to traditional wet lab photography and printmaking where editioned prints can be produced from a single source. These images are normally two-dimensional and evaluated, as well as artificially elevated, with the languages of critical theory and historical context that is oh-so familiar to theorists, curators, critics, and enthusiastic MFA candidates.
As a result of the impressive evolution in the quality of the inks, papers, printers, and profiles employed in fine art digital printmaking, curatorial resistance to digital syntax has largely evaporated. The critical discussion of digital imaging has recently changed from one regarding the technical substitution for making photographs to one that is now more centered on content, intention, and context rather than on the devices and programs used to make them.
What has changed, however, is the nature of the critical dialogue. Will it ever be possible, or for that matter relevant, to critique a digitally generated photographic print without considering the truth of the subject within the print, its originality, or its relationship to Bresson's decisive moment... for that moment in time can now and forever be digitally re-adjusted with ease? Does it matter? For me, it doesn't matter any more than it matters if Willem de Kooning's Woman With a Bicycle (1952) looks like an actual woman with a bicycle... I still love the painting. As long as I'm interested in the content and concepts within the work, and am allowed the pleasure of creating with the artist while looking at her work, I could care less how the piece was generated.
Fig: 25-17 here, Scott Hilton, CYCL.tif (digital wpc)
The Art As has been the case for some time, the puzzle for critics, but presumably a huge relief to the rest of the art world, is that a formal mass of academic and critical theory for determining the merits of any of this new digital work, or the systems that render it, seems to presently be missing or unfinished. There is a tendency to wedge post-modern and post-structural semantic theory into the dialogue of digitally generated expression but I've yet to hear anyone do it in a manner that communicates a creative philosophy particularly well.
In the genre of the digital arts, it should be difficult to fully comprehend, appreciate, and evaluate the art without a discussion of that art's syntax... the technological components and processes that facilitate the construction and delivery of that art. Think of this as the critique of a jockey without a discussion of the merits of the horse. Digital syntax clearly exceeds the comparison of what type of brush a painter uses to render a stroke of paint, as the technology is a true collaborator in the art making.
Fig 25-18 here, Amanda King, Clover, 2013 (digital scan & inkjet print)
One of my favorite critical thinkers of late is the German cultural theorist and philosopher, Vilém Flusser, who wrote beautifully about photography, in the 1970s and '80s, and the implications of digital technologies upon that medium. His seminal 1983 book, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, argued that photography represented a moment in civilization that could only be compared to linear writing and that it had become the dominant representative language of how reality was understood. Photography fundamentally altered the way we understood our world. It was, for my generation, black and white truth and the power of the moment and the machine to capture it. I used to sleep with my battered Leica under my pillow! For my student's generation the world is primarily seen in color and the moment is ever adjustable and interpreted through the construction of the image... and often the machine is their iPhone... which is likely to also have a place under a pillow but for an entirely different reason.
Within this system of image making there is an endless flow of images from real-life and the internet-life... constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed with the specific intention of, as my friend Lyle Rexer wrote in a recent email, gaining purchase on an experience for the purposes of sharing it with others who will "get it." It is a generational claim of ownership on a method of image making and not at all dissimilar to generational ownership of music in now non-revolutionary compositions of jazz, rock, and rap. It's exciting, re-energizing, complicated and totally reasonable as a powerful mode of expression.
Fig 25-19 here, Tabitha Sherrell, Intimacy_interrupted, 2013
It is equally reasonable, and simultaneously impolite, to apply traditional critical theory to the various incarnations and outcomes of digital expression. What is, after all, the criterion? Where is the traditional atelier, as in painting, that the dedicated digital artist can look to for re-evaluation, inspiration, guidance, and mentoring, in order to return to the roots of the process? At the moment, analog standards are still the referent but maybe in the future that will not be the case.
Flusser distinguished painting from photography as a creative process that could be reasonably decoded by a viewer due to the painting style, interpretation of subject, and coloration that the artist had chosen as the language of the work. In comparison, Flusser argued that a photograph harbored information that could not be readily deciphered or decoded simply because photographs of things reflecting light back to film were the result of operations of the apparatus (the camera and photographic process), which could not be clearly decoded simply because their existence, unlike a painting, was bound by a set of technical, chemical, and physical rules that were disconnected to creative expression. This may be a similar dilemma to one faced by Peter Henry Emerson in 1890 when Ferdinand Hurter and Vero Driffield explained the photograph as being tethered to the quantitative science of sensitometry and densitometry rather than artistically inspired naturalistic practice.
Where will digitally generated art fit in the history of human expression and will the digital apparatus one day be as relevant as the artist using them... as, say, the apparatus in horse or stock car racing? I get a sense that this might be coming sooner than later, especially when I see so many institutions featuring photographic workshops like iPhone Artistry as the lure and purpose for attending them.
Fig 25-20 here, Liz Lee, Cicada, 2011 (faux cyan, vdb, digital print)
These are a few of the current questions evolving from the marriage of digital imaging and artistic expression and inquiries that will find their own perfect and unique answers in time. One thing is certain... as in every new form of creative expression, there will be voices that will determine the etiquette of the marketplace and there will always be people who will make a living by becoming arbiters of what is, and what is not, art in a particular genre. Fortunately, there will always be artists who will be compelled to blaze new ways of adopting, integrating, and transforming the medium's map to discover new ground without conceding to the accepted protocol, hierarchy, or social scene. The primary hurdle in the formation of a legitimate critical base is more obvious now than it was five, or even ten, years ago. The sheer speed of change in the digital arts makes the shaping of a new theoretical or critical structure quite challenging. As the technology surges ahead, and the speed of the apparatus jousts with the impossibly incomprehensible speed of the human mind and imagination, it will be fascinating to see how we eventually place the old square pegs of formal criticism into the informal round holes that are being so rapidly drilled by the digital artists... primarily the young-guns in the world's colleges of art and design. These gifted young artists are redefining the medium in ways that challenge the status quo of institutional pedagogy and its requirement that everything, including a student's imagination, be assessed with prescribed and standardized learning outcomes. Alas, that's food for a presentation to the College Art Association... or another book.
Fig: 25-21 here, Steve Bliss, GA/ME, 1995
Here's a decent example. In April 2002, Matthew Mirapaul wrote a piece for the New York Times about NYC artist, Mark Napier, who was attempting to carve out new territory for himself and his art. Mr. Napier, an anointed digital artist, whose work had been shown in the cathedrals of the Whitney and Guggenheim Museums, decided that the Internet was not a gallery and that he still had to make a living. The article went on to describe Mr. Napier's solution to the problem. He had somehow succeeded in selling three $1,000 shares in his new work, called The Waiting Room. It turned out that The Waiting Room was an interactive and animated painting installed in a private gallery, in a secret chat-room place on the Internet. If you wanted to play with, or even look at the work... you had to invest in the experience. Sure enough... as in the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes, and the zeitgeist-shaping intellectual performance work of the 70's, some people actually paid for the experience. For their investment of $1000, the investors received the chance to play with Mr. Napier's software that generated swirling sights and sounds against a very arty black background... with each shape and form linked to a specific hum, beep, or chirp.
Fig 25 -22 here, Willey Miller, The Rent is Past Due Art Boy, 1997
Mathew Mirapaul wrote, "Mr. Napier hopes to sell as many as 50 shares in The Waiting Room, an approach that emphasizes the work's participatory nature. When multiple owners (investors) view it online at the same time, they can produce shapes that complement - or obliterate - those made by others (perhaps the other two investors). This sounds a lot like bad manners in the world of graphiti. In any event, the work is the visual equivalent of an Internet chat room with conversations occurring in geometric shapes instead of words."
The article continued by stating that the key investment points were that the shareholders could visit "their" art anytime they were on line, that they would be receiving a genuine Certificate of Authenticity and a CD that contained the software... sort of like going to the theater and getting a T-Shirt for Cats. The work's value, according to the author, resided not in its keepsakes, but in the experience it provided for the viewer. Says Mr. Napier, hoping to find a marketing strategy to reach a fourth investor, "Once you forget that there's a computer mediating this, it is just as physically there in the space as a canvas. It's just a question of shifting an art culture that for centuries has been immersed in the collectible object."
This reminds me of another good anecdote from the Manhattan art scene. There was a self-important artist in New York who announced to a number of self-important collectors that he was going to be producing a very important work and that all they had to do to own and collect this important work was to write him a large check. Of course they did, whereupon the artist endorsed the checks and cashed them. Later, when the collectors inquired as to when they might be receiving his important work of art the artist asked if the bank had returned to the collector, the signed, and cancelled, check... which was, of course, the work of art. With digital electronic banking, this strategy fails completely.
Another good example might be the ability of the computer to challenge a sacrosanct discipline... such as sculpture. Several years ago, I saw an example of an artist who had her body scanned by an extraordinary laser device that was able to record every nuance, tiny hair, and goose bump of her skin and physical self. The scanner then relayed this information to a computer-controlled casting machine that proceeded to scale, proportion, carve, and duplicate her body in Lucite. Most would agree that evaluating her sculpture from a traditional perspective would be impossible without recognizing the role of the machine / apparatus in its creation. In truth, the present forms of digitally based photographic aesthetics are experiencing philosophical growing pains not all that different from those that photography experienced in its own beginning.
An illustration of this parallel might be even more apparent if we consider a few sentiments from the perpetually cranky 19th-century poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire. In fairness, I'll point out that Baudelaire was a man of deep moods and unrelenting despair, whose poetry centered on the inseparable connection between beauty and the inevitable corruption of that beauty.
Fig 25-23 here, xtine Burrough, Browser Poems, 2013 (hybrid literary hyperlink)
A former student of mine, xtine Burrough, a legit digital art-star, professor, and mother of twins, wrote to me with this thought, "Yes, in keeping with all-digital-all-the-time you might want to include Critical Art Ensemble's Steven Kurtz's definition of "digital" as anything that is recombinant, in which the starting elements, and end results, have different meanings... hooray for the sign / value system."
What's great about this definition is that a computer is not actually necessary for a process to be digital. A digital process (as Ada Lovelace discovered) does not have to include 1's and 0's, although this definition of "being digital" is indebted to great meditation on what happens in 1's and 0's processing. It's possible that at some point, the digital arts may be as defined by its philosophy as by its process, and if relevant, its product. My colleague Ben Sloat sent me an email not too long ago detailing a news worthy event in which Microsoft's Bill Gates called "an unfortunate but necessary step to protect our intellectual property from theft and exploitation by competitors," the Microsoft Corporation patented the numbers 1 and 0 on Monday. This is an example of digital humor and if you read The Onion then you know this is a parody. http://www.theonion.com/content/node/29130
Fig: 25-24 here, Ben Sloat, Gerontion, 2006 - (digital)
When Baudelaire described his first impressions of photography he wrote about it in less than glowing terms, implying that society was squalid and narcissistic in its rush to gaze on trivial images of itself rendered on scraps of metal. He followed that with a critique of an exhibition of photographic impressions in 1859 by writing, "If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether." This is a disposition that has its twin in statements now uttered by many traditional artists and critics speaking about the brave new world of the digital arts... dismissing it as a never-ending avalanche of bad pictures of meaningless stuff. Perhaps Sontag and Szarkowski had been correct all along... without realizing why. Unlike a few years ago, however, these critical voices are becoming fainter as the art, flexibility, beauty, and immediate options of the digital arts become more deeply embedded in our everyday lives, and as in the idealistic aspirations of the enlightened civilizations of the past, it is getting easier to see the artist's life within their work.
Fig: 25-25 here, Jerome Strum-Pocahontas-Fire-Truck 2012