KCAC Forum Magazine June 1992
FINE ART… (WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM YOUR FRIEND – THE COMPUTER)
by Michael J. Pronko
“Art on the computer” or “Computer Art,” which sounds better? “Computer art” brings to mind mathematical equations, x/y graphs, parabolas and rectangular grids, and more like math class. “Art on the computer” sounds like the Mo wink or some kind of computerized collection of paintings used to print up T-shirts. Neither concept is accurate or current. Today, the computer is being used more and more to create fine art, and fine art it is.
Although finding mediocre art of any time is not difficult, the computer has generated, perhaps, more than its share of bad artistic work. But those early pieces were mainly simple plotings of mathematical formulas and usually done by computer programmers, not by artists. It was fine programming, but not fine art.
Now, with the spread of computers into almost every aspect of daily life, artists are finding this powerful technology helpful in creating art. Rather than simply using the computer to churn out mechanical patterns, artists are finding that the computer provides a marvelously new and almost limitless medium. To talk with area artists and witness the possibilities and potential of the computer in art is truly an energizing experience.
More than being just another new medium, the computer offers completely new processes, requires new ways to thinking creatively and provides some totally new directions for art altogether. Art and technology have always interacted explosively, but is this an artistic revolution? if the tremendous changes brought by the computer in the past few years continue to take hold in the art world, we won’t have to wait long to find out.
Bill Crist, artist and professor of art at UMKC, initially used the computer in the early 70s strictly to help him design sculpture. Now, however, he works mainly on the computer, because “there are fewer roadblocks.” Colette and Jeff Bangert have collaborated since the late 60s on progressively more involved art works using the computer. According to Jeff, they use the computer “because of curiosity, a sense of play, but focused and goal-oriented.” Still the reasons for working on or with the computer are not so simply explained, nor is the process.
The computer is capable of expanding almost all dimensions for the creative process. Crist says, “The computer affects the three parts of creating: art history, aesthetic concerns, and the design; the natural part, getting inside nature, relating to nature; and the artist’s own creative urges and needs.” Each of these parts is expanded and more easily manipulated with the computer. One can literally have a complete set of historical and personal images, patterns, and designs in the files ready to use. The computer can allow an artist to explore a natural object more deeply. A giraffe or a piece of driftwood can be analyzed from any angle, inside or out. Notes Colette, “I can see things that I haven’t seen before and think things I haven’t though before.” The computer can increase the awareness of the artist’s needs by quickly allowing them to be examined by various changes easily accompanies by the computer.
The artist, then, is affected deeply. Colette continues, “Who an artist is changed, broadened, deepened. Using the computer is an eye-head thing, instead of an eye-head-hand thing.” Crist notes that although he misses the tactile feel of the objects, he also does not have to spend as much time, for example, polishing metal, waiting for glue to dry, or carrying out the physical manipulation of objects. The computer allows him to spend more time on the creating or the conceptualizing aspects of the art. He says, “I can play with a lot of things… that I could not do before [as a sculptor], and save each step to go back if I want.” An endless number of possibilities can be easily tried on the computer, without spending huge amounts of time just “manipulating material in mindless labor.” The role of the artist inside the artistic process is sharply re-defined and at least partially liberated.
An important possibility for Colette and Jeff Bangert is that they can more fully collaborate on a project. To somewhat oversimplify their method, Jeff primarily does the programming, while Colette does the printing. Still, it is not that simple, because an image can be worked and re-worked by both of them in different ways. The computer is a catalyst and facilitator in the interactive process. this interaction tends to “break down a certain narcissistic tendency in the artist and creates another aspect of the artist’s being.” they look forward to possible collaboration with other computer artists in the future. “The computer has expanded our lives, and lives are what goes into art,” notes Colette. Still, even with such positive enhancements to the artistic process as the computer provides, it is easy to think of the computer as just another medium. But, Jeff disagrees, “It is not just another medium, it is not like another medium. It is intelligent, complex, and time-consuming.” It does not simply expand already existing processes, but adds a totally new dimension. There is a complex interaction between artists and machine.
There are always variables which make each result unique. The Bangerts say they cannot predict the result of any programming very accurately because it is too complex. So, rather than computer mechanizing the artist, which many people fear, “I can humanize the technology by bringing my understanding of the creative process,” says Crist. The number of variables is multiplex by the computer making the number of possible results limitless. This quantitative change in the process transforms itself into a qualitative change in the process.
Crist and the Bangerts emphasize the unpredictability of the outcome. The process becomes spontaneous in a very unique way. it is not simply manipulation of images or a paint program but something altogether new and different. “The computer does generate surprises,” says Bill Crist. For example, in filling in space or creating a three-dimensional representation from several two-dimensional inputs, the computer leaves holes or fills in holes unpredictably. It blurs lines, it bleeds colors, it drops things out. That is not to say the computer acts irrationally in some human way, but rather that the unpredictability is increased tremendously by the power of the machine’s capabilities.
Some of the things the computer can do are just not possible to do any other way. And those new things require a new way of seeing and a new way of thinking.
The computer can input any image and manipulate that image in countless ways. It can take two two-dimensional shapes, plot the cross-dimensional object and look at any of the interior surfaces from any distance. One can look from inside that object outward to see what that object might “see.” Also, the object can not fit only onto some other object but into that object as well. Using the computer, the artist can manipulate the object to fit into another object at any angle or position also. The new object can then be rotated to see what it looks like from any angle, inside or out. Changing the size, texture or color is also as easy as pressing a button.
Mathematical equations can also be plotted three-dimensionally and the resulting object viewed from any angle. The possibilities are indeed without limit both in number and degree of abstraction. The computer then is different because it is not an extension of the physical aspect of creating art, but is an extension of the mental-conceptual aspect. This is something new.
One finds oneself searching for similar changes in history, the change after the discovery of perspective, or after the printing press, or after photography or after motion pictures. Each of these changes was comparable to some change before it, but was also extremely different. With all of these changes, there was resistance to change. Certainly the same is true with computers.
It is somewhat doubtful that all art will be done on computers in the future or that entire shows will be on a disk, but the change for these artists personally is clearly profound. As a result of using computers, “I’m totally different as an artist,” says Crist. The Bangerts concur that it has expanded their view of art and of themselves as artists incredibly. “Everybody has to give up something to get something,” says Jeff, but with computers you get a lot. “Change is the key ingredient to being human, to being alive, and computers have changed us a lot,” adds Colette. From these artists and indeed from anyone who uses computers to create, there is this sense of somewhat bewildering passion,a n almost embarrassing zest.
On a larger scale as well, computers have caused a huge social and cultural change, so there is no reason to think that the same will not continue to happen with art. the most advanced computer capabilities of fifteen years ago are now available and affordable for home use. Computers are already an essential component of almost all art school curriculum. That trend will only accelerate. And with the rapid advances in holography, animation and virtual reality, it is hard to even imagine the future possibilities.
But, more important perhaps even than those future developments, is the prospect that the computer will continue to profoundly change how we see the world. Art has always changed and reflected change in technology, but with computers humans will be able to see and visualize previously unimaginable possibilities. “You can see what you are imagining,” says Crist. Perhaps, then, we’ll even be able to see ourselves and our world more clearly, and maybe even more correctly.