The Art of Computer Art
by Simon Biggs, 3.4.1990

Originally presented as a talk at the European conference of Eurographics, Bath University, UK, 1990


The Art Of Computer Art contains three terms, all of which need a little definition before we can really discuss the subject. The terms are "art", "computer" and "computer art". One of these is fairly easy to define, the other is probably quite impossible and the third may exist as a signifier but have no referent. As such, the term "computer art" may be found to belong to the same class of words as "unicorn" or "fairy". Let us see?


Cats and Dogs:

Definitions are not always so simple. For instance, let us take the meaning of a word like "life". It is perhaps possible to arrive at a materialist or empirical interpretation of the term, but only by narrowing our perception of terminology to the limited frameworks of these approaches. We would need to avoid other dimensions of interpretation, such as the social, ontological, metaphysical or psychological. Perhaps "life" is an exceptionally nebulous term, referring as it does to all that we may know, but is it an any simpler undertaking to define a word such as "art".

For centuries artists and theorists have sought to agree upon a meaning for the word "art", however no dominant meaning or agreed principle in its functioning has been established. In fact, the only agreement that has emerged is that it is better not to agree on a definition for something which draws much of its value from being ambiguous, arbitrary and insubstantial. The accepted definition of art is therefore purposefully confusing in its tautology - art is what artists do.

So, perhaps seeking a dialectic or fixed meaning here is misguided, and we are better off with playful tautologies. Perhaps art has to be left to our respective intuitions for any interpretation? Nevertheless, with a subject such as the Art Of Computer Art some distinctions obviously need to be made, so that the value of the idea can be studied.

A more relativistic approach may yield more fruit, considering the term "art" alongside that of "computer" and "computer art". This relativistic approach to terminology has a fine pedigree. If we look to the Swiss linguist de Saussure he pointed out, at the turn of the century, that the words "cat" and "dog" derived their meaning not from any direct relationship with their referents - the animals themselves - but from the arbitrary distinctions between the two terms. That as such meaning arises not from apparent distinctions between the signs' referents but from intra-linguistic difference.


Computing and art both deal in information and each are concerned with both communication and representation. These two points may suggest that there is a strong similarity between the two practises. Perhaps these surface similarities explain why for over thirty years artists and scientists have been often concerned with each others fields when we talk of computer graphics. With computer graphics art and computing seem to be in close proximity. However, why is it that a definitive or successful computer art has failed to develop? Perhaps this has more to do with the fundamental differences between cats and dogs, than any surface similarities.

In computing, and especially computer modelling (the area most often closely associated with artistic practise), the objective is to establish an agreement between the modeller and their interpreter. The models function is to communicate clearly. It is this that is the primary value of computer modelling, removing the need for expensive and potentially dangerous experiments in real space-time, and yet working with a certitude that the model is as effectively as good as the real thing.

Art, on the other hand, is not concerned with either exact information or any such notions as the real thing. For the artist truth is only an idea, veracity relative in all its dimensions. I imagine that few artists would consider being in touch with any particular reality, other than their own, as being of much value to their work or life. Art has no clear objective, in the sense that computing has. The realm of art is that of the subjective, the cathartic and personal. Rather than clear interpretation, dependent upon an agreed lexicon, the process of reading art is associative, foregrounding the value of the personal and idiosyncratic vision - in both production and consumption.

People from outside the arts often have the misconception that there is a secret language to art - that if they can understand this, then they can understand the art itself. This just isn't the case. It is true that it helps if you have a certain attitude, related to what has just been said about the personal and the non-existence of truth, but this will not help you understand a particular work of art. In the end there is no way of understanding art - it refuses such an approach. The value should be placed not in the knowledge of the thing, but in the pleasure of interpretation for its own sake. As such, the dominant mode of engagement is the poetic, not the declarative.

Perhaps we can say that art is founded on the imperative to create, whilst computing is founded on the indicative to describe. The artist may be concerned with questions of philosophy, politics, economics or some similar area of knowledge, but although this may lend richness and weight to their project such things are only incidental to the sublime that is at the core of art. The artist is their own God, finding enough to sustain their faith in what they do from the knowledge that they can say "let there be light", without consternation as to whether light is this or that, or what the ontology may be in the idea of such an act.


Towards a Computer Art?

So, by the nature of the subject the definitions established here are neither resilient nor coherent, but they do point up some of the fundamental differences that delineate the two practises, each orienting around computers and art. Aside from such basic questions, which are undoubtedly unresolvable, the primary issue is related to the failure of a successful computer art to emerge, and therefore questions as to whether such a thing may ever, or could ever, exist?

If one is familiar with the field of computer graphics there is no doubt much to be seen that is truly astounding, when considered on technical grounds. The level of ingenuity, smart logic and the sheer amount of resources brought to bear on many of the little computer animations we see is quite simply breathtaking. Breathtaking not in themselves, but in the question as to why anyone could ever be bothered to expend so much on so little. The general banality, and often acutely distasteful character of the work in question is what, from an artistic point of view, appears ridiculous. The usual cliche is about boys, with their mega-expensive and terribly macho toys, inspired by third rate sci-fi ideas masquerading as science, philosophy or art. It isn't surprising that artists run as fast as they can in the other direction.

The Boy-toys Principle isn't however what makes me personally despair - it is after all only natural for the larger part of what is half of the human race to be preoccupied with such things. I can even appreciate, on a limited level, the visualisation of fluid dynamics, or a fly-by animation of the solar system, for what they are. What angers me is the masquerade! That when work that is of this class of thing - or even less, just simple exploitation, a kind of intellectual pornography - pretends to be something such as art. I am not going to point the finger at any particular producers of computer animations or the like, but I am going to talk about the so-called "culture" that has grown up around it. Perhaps in doing this some producers will feel tarred, by association, with the same brush. If this is the case I am afraid I cannot apologise, as it is probably true.

If you are at all involved in computer graphics or, as it is called, computer art, you have no doubt attended numerous events - symposia, exhibitions, audio-visual presentations, etc - devoted to the area. What is the function of these events? On the surface it is to reveal to the cognoscenti the latest developments and to celebrate achievements that are especially outstanding. However, at many of these events there is another dynamic at work. The organisers and many of those involved are using the opportunity to add weight to the credentials of a computer art.


But, they have a slight problem. Perhaps several, each of them insurmountable. One is the poor quality of the work. I've been working in this field, as an artist who happens to use computers in the realisation of their personal vision, for well over ten years. In that time I've seen an awful lot of so called computer art - probably most of that which has appeared in computer art events - but I have only seen a handful of works that had any artistic merit at all. As I have said, most of the work is of technical merit, but artistically it is completely off the planet - in an entirely different orbit. It is quite obvious that only a very small number of people working in the area are actually artists. The rest are therefore questionable in their motives when they ask for their work to be regarded from within an artistic framework. Why do they want this? Is it so important for their work to be bestowed with artistic credibility?

Given such a poor statistic regarding the actual amount of computer related work that has been produced that is art - and perhaps I should point out that I am fairly forgiving on judging this, as most artists would simply state that it is impossible to make art with computers - then it would seem that if the "culture" around computer art - the events, publications and showreels - wish to gain artistic credability they had better do something about attracting some artists into the field. To do that they must transform themselves and, in turn, transform computer art practise. The emphasis must be on the art, the computer being only incidental, if they wish to represent what they do as art.

What needs to be addressed to achieve this end, if it is achievable at all? Artists see themselves and their work as operating from the outer margins of society, in opposition to the mainstream of culture. Even those that are successful and are seen often enough to be regarded as part of a mainstream are never, if they remain true to art, assimilated. They are forever alien - the more original then the more alien. Their work is there to disrupt and destroy what is about them - not to function as a complacent entertainment - and to do this they must always refuse assimilation. The ethics of the artworld are no doubt questionable, and as corrupt as those of any other area of human activity, but with its continual search for the radical and disturbing can be seen a measure of the oppositional character of the artist.

Most of the events and other such things that make up the "computer art culture" (perhaps a truly ridiculous group of words to find together) are regarded from the artists perspective as mainstream, and therefore something towards which they feel a deep antipathy. Computer art culture must come to recognise this, and accept as their own values the values of artists, if they are to produce the art they seek. To date they have failed to comprehend in even the most simplistic terms what it is to produce art.


Artists' antagonism toward computer culture is complex. The history of this is not linear, but it is well documented, and perhaps a condensed outline of that should be mentioned here. In the sixties there was a small number of artists, some of them influential at that time in the formation of artistic trends, who were attracted to technology and the computer as a medium. Their attraction was not that simple though. They saw that technology as being, before all else, the product of a society that valued the destruction of Vietnam over the education or health of its own people. Not only that, but that the technology was the primary tools of this madness.

These artists (and here I am thinking of those such as Robert Rauschenburg, Andy Warhol, Peter Campus, Karlheinz Stockhausen) were attracted to using technology not because of the technical possibilities it allowed them - although this was not lost on them - but simply because it was the tool of destruction. They sought to critique this state of affairs, and show the human tragedy and comedy that technology represented. They failed, and they knew it, and you have never seen a group of artists back pedal so fast in your life. They discovered the difficulties in sustaining a radical and oppositional practise in such proximity to the heart of the military-industrial hegemony, the driving force behind the post-war mainstream.

Since then the balance of power has moved away from the military-industrial complex (although this is still terribly important to the fabric of our society) to the multi-national corporations who fuel, and are fuelled by, our post-modern consumerist culture. Everything can now be had for a price - and it is getting cheaper every day. The social position of the computer has also changed due to this, from being some monster kept chained in a dark basement Hades to almost as friendly as a family washing machine or lawn-mower. It has evolved from being a dog guarding the gates of hell to something resembling a Corgi. The computer has become a consumer item, and artists are now, after a twenty year hiatus, renewing their interest in it as an artistic medium.

But this development is not to be regarded as a certainty. Artists, due to their sheer horneriness, also regard consumerism with as much paranoia as militarism. It is still only a small number of this new generation of artists who have been attracted to the computer as a potentially viable means to making art, and they could again turn away as they once did before, left with a sense of despair and frustration regarding the society they live in. I suppose that I am one of those artists. I was too young to be involved in the first flush of interest in technology in the sixties, but old enough to begin working with computers whilst you still needed to access them through the doors of a weapons research centre or the like. Like that earlier generation of artists, I believed that as an artist utilising such tools I could somehow change them. I believed that the gun was innocent, and only the gun-man was guilty. Boy, was I naive. The gun is as guilty as the gun-man, simply because it was only made for one purpose - to kill. This ambivalence toward what has since become my primary tool for making art has not gone away, and in some respects represents the centre of my rationale and practise.


Any Suitable Analogies To Be Seen lately?

In the defence of computer graphics seeking to become art the history of the camera and photography has been evoked as a parallel innumerable times. We all know it. Computer graphics are new. Once photography was new. Look at photography, relative to art, one hundred and twenty years ago. No-one considered it of any consequence to the arts - merely the latest technical marvel, great for the kids to play with. Its direct and indirect effect upon the arts since then is well documented. Its indirect effects are seen to have lead to the forced emergence of abstraction and the collapse of narrative in the arts. Its direct effect is to eventually have had itself considered as an artform itself.

But let's look at this a little closer. It is true that abstraction, and other similar artistic trends, emerged shortly after the advent of the camera, and no doubt the camera had some persuasive role to play in this. But more recent events would seem to suggest that it was not primary. The last forty years has seen the gradual but accelerating collapse of such artistic trends. Dominant now, and for the foreseeable future, is a form of what can only be called allegorical or narrative art - the very thing that photography is supposed to have destroyed. This would seem to bring into question claims that the camera saw off art that made this its domain, as it was a more successful means towards such an end.

In regard of art-photography - photography that is seen as art - the situation is no clearer. The story goes that photography has been widely accepted as an artform, but we should look at that myth a little closer. Photography is only accepted as an art on art's terms, not photography's. If one looks at the type of photography accepted as art, in galleries and art journals, it is obvious that only a very limited aspect of its practise is tolerated - photography by artists, not photography by photographers. It has taken such work nearly one hundred and fifty years to gain a foothold in the pantheon of artistic values, and only through the heavy contextualisation by the photographer of their practise - often compromising the very tenets of what are regarded as the primary values of the photographic medium.


What I am trying to point out here is that if we use the artistic development of photography as an analogy for a future history of a computer art we may all end up terribly disappointed. I also want to point out that for various reasons I think it is questionable to suggest such an analogy in the first place. The computer is a very different beast to the camera. The manner in which it is used and for what it is used is radically different, and its social role right from the start quite unrelated. The camera is first and foremost an imaging system, whilst the computer is nothing of the sort. It is a control device for other devices. It is not what Alan Turing envisaged - the machine that could be all other machines - but the machine that can control all other machines. Some of the machines that it can control are involved in image making - cameras, monitors, printers, etc - but this does not make the computer itself an imaging machine. It is a machine that can control imaging machines, and post-process some of the results.

This raises questions as to the very status of the computer as a medium - as the term is usually used in regard to things such as painting or photography. It is possible to see the computer as quite something else in the equation between artist, medium and viewer. Usually the medium is regarded as that with which the artist works and that which the viewer sees. There has never been a division between the two. As an artistic means, the medium functions to manifest and to relate the artists vision to their viewer. With the computer this is far less clear. In the case of computer animation displayed on a monitor or projector it could be argued that the medium is video - no more nor less - and that the computer was only a link in the process of manipulating the seen images or in their production. The viewer sees video, and the artist, when conceiving the project, also saw the final result in their imagination as video. Certainly the computer has replaced the camera, the requirement for a lens or artificial eye, but the camera has not generally been regarded as a medium itself. In photography the medium was the photographic process as a whole, whilst in video it was the camera-tape-monitor.

So perhaps we cannot regard the computer as a medium, and therefore to speak of a computer art would be as silly as speaking of camera art or stone art (in the case of sculpture). This raises two questions - firstly as to whether an output medium will develop which is in itself a computer (in which case one could speak of a computer art) and secondly as to the type of methodology that has to be applied to such an invention if it is to become an artistic medium.

Some of the territory around these questions has been explored here, but there is far more left to be done. For me the future issues that must be addressed by those who are serious about developing an artistic use for the computer and its related technologies are numerous, but must include questions about its nature as a medium, the social role of the computer (including critiques of the economics of the information industries as well as analysis of how the computer is mythologised in society) and the character of the techniques employed in computing, ultimately concerning whether they can function to liberate the artistic imagination.