Essays & Articles
Digital Art: The Quest for Presence
"Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. In all arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art."
Paul Valery, "The Conquest of Ubiquity"

It has been over 60 years since Paul Valery wrote those words and in that time we have seen his predictions materialize two or three times. And now, as the century prepares to turn over, we again see the emergence of technological tools that will reshape or expand nearly ever aspect of art. It is time to put down the operating manuals, lift our eyes from the luminous screen and look at where we are, and where we may be heading.
Where does digital art fit into the history of fine art? Does work created on the computer constitute a new art form? Or, is the computer simply a new tool for making old art? How does digital art fare in the word play of post modernist theories and esthetics? Those of us who are working on computers to create art need to consider all this and more if we are to see that work advance into its rightful place. In fact, unless we grapple with these fundamentals we will not be able to describe where that "rightful place" is, nor will we be able to argue that such a place does, or should, exist.

THESIS: "Where did we come from?"
From the beginning, human beings have always found artful ways to employ their culture's latest, emerging technologies. Shaman took the technology of fire and developed charcoal drawings on cavern walls. And, although these images served a purpose outside what we now call "art", the long history of employing technology to create meaningful imagery had begun. During the Middle Ages cast iron, paper making, porcelain, popular literature and the vaulted arch challenged artistic hands. Science and art merged during the Renaissance to advance math, geometry, perspective, oil paints, printing presses, engraving techniques, global navigation, the solar centric planetary system, anatomy, magnetism, electrical energy, domed architecture and the academies of classical art.
During the Industrial Revolution, discovery of world cultures and religions and the rapid dissemination of information about this seemingly shrinking world led to the questioning and deterioration of old ways and habits. The machine age took huge bites from established human ways. As old things broke down, Art led the way with a seemingly endless chain of "isms"... Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism... Each of these brought changes in techniques, subject matter, materials, as well as the purposes, politics and standards we held for art and artists. Not all these changes were easily accepted.
An important example of this point is photography. A truly mechanized means of creating art, the photographic camera presented the art world with its first "point and click" dilemma. Could something so easy be Art? Could anyone with a camera be an Artist? If the camera can be used to create exact reproductions, how does this affect the authenticity of Art? Where is the original and who owns it? Do these concerns sound familiar? They should, because these are the same questions that digital artists confront today. In the minds of many critics and art dealers the hard won legitimacy of the photographer's art has not been instantly or seamlessly applied to the work of digital artists. Why?
The writing of German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, especially, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", anticipates some of the problems that face digital art. According to Benjamin, while a handmade reproduction of a work of art is often termed a "forgery", the mechanical reproduction does not bring into question the authenticity of the original work. But "authenticity" is the essence of the thing itself, so mechanically reproduced art lacks the presence of the original work. "Presence" is the effect of seeing the thing in its own time and place, plus the object's "historical aura". The "historical aura" includes the history of the object's owners, what collectors call "provenance", and the apparent ravages of time seen in the cracking paint, faded colors and general wear and tear that a piece accumulates in its travel through time. The disconnect from "presence" and "historical aura", along with the absence of real tactile texture, make the mechanically reproduced work seem wan and weak.
While some of this holds up for contemporary appreciation of digital art, we must remember that Benjamin wrote his works in the early 1940's and looked only at mechanical reproductions of already existing artwork. He did not see digital works that do not refer to or reproduce any physical art piece. Digital art is the ultimate "reproducible art" since it does not truly even begin to exist until it has been decoded or "reproduced", if you will, onto a monitor or inkjet print. The question, "where is the original?", is almost totally moot. "The piece" is non-existent except as binary code, which is only very precise instructions for the ultimate display or construction of the piece at some other place, via some other device. These "re-constructions" are separate from, yet symbiotically linked to, the coded "material" which holds the so called "original" artwork. This rather large paradigm shift is one that digital artists take for granted, but may yet require years of indoctrination, education and exposure to wide numbers of people before we see universal acceptance and understanding of this basic nature of digital art and its techniques.
Also, Benjamin points out that the lack of "presence" in reproducible art is made up somewhat by the reproduction's ability to be in places and times that could not hold the original work. Therefore, "accessibility" can outweigh the lack of "presence" and the highly reproducible art of the computer can be energized by wide distribution and affordable price. The potential for large numbers of people to collect and appreciate original artwork created with a computer can not be overlooked as a significant breakthrough for artist and art market alike.
Technology and Art have always led the way in culture. Out of necessity or need or just plain accident, people have created technological advances, new tools or better toys. The artist is quick to respond to these inventions. Perhaps this is because it is simply easier, surely it is faster, to use something before we consider the wide ranging cultural effects of an invention's impact. In this way, Art always proceeds Philosophy. But, it is through Philosophy's study of history, art and culture that we finally recognize how an invention has changed our perceptions and where those perceptions may be leading.

ANTITHESIS: "Where are we?'
It's hard to say when "Modernism" began. Since the term, "modernism" is used to refer to both an epoch of art making, whose seminal force is often identified in Cezanne's work and covers the whole range of art accomplished since that time; or (mainly for the USA) can also be used to identify work from the American Abstractionists forward. Without doubt, Cezanne's attack on the picture plain, traditional perspective, in addition to an altered color palette and freer brush strokes, set the stage for nearly all the rest of the "isms" to follow. And, as the spirit of aesthetic revolution began to spread, art became more and more political. Cubism trumped Impressionism, Fauvism ripped color to shreds, while Dada attacked the conventions of "Fine Arts" and its academic pretensions, then Futurists roughed up cultural values, as Surrealists tackled the culture's previously hidden dream world and mined the rich recesses of psychoanalysis. Finally, Abstract Expressionists attempted to put all this action into one place at one time; to get it all up there, the whole preceding century of art-"isms" in one big splash and drizzle. The seminal force here is most often identified in Jackson Pollock's work, which seems to put aside all subject matter and craft but, by its absence, includes all that it seems to deny. Without the accumulated experience of perspective, then anti-perspective, art then anti-art, reality turned on its ear, color set free, Pollock's work would have been seen only as paint splashed on canvas.
Perhaps it is easier to say when "modernism" ended. Jackson Pollock's splash and drip ended the evolution of techniques for placing paint on canvas. Aside from attempts that involved obvious things, like shooting paint packets at the canvas or smearing painted bodies across a canvas floor, releasing paint coated worms, and such, the experiment seemed to have concluded. But, you can only truly see that one thing has ended when something new arrives to take it's place, so that is where we are now; at the instant between the end of one thing and the beginning of something new...that moment when the trapeze artist has let go of one bar and is hanging, suspended in air, waiting for the next bar to arrive. Perhaps Robert Rauschenburg's description, "the place between art and life", which he used to describe his work, now applies to life itself...the twilight zone of curious invention were such things as "post-modernism" can rise like toadstools from the debris.
In his twilight zone between art and life, Rauschenberg invented his aesthetics off. He got rid of the canvas, splashing paint on stuffed goats, tires, bed blankets. He created sculpture, attached it to a wall and applied paint. He stretched canvas and applied no paint or just one "non-color" of paint. He designed costumes and settings and sounds and let them loose with only slightly programmed or even random activity. Art no longer had to be "object" at all. His work released the first spores of something new, that marks a place in time after "modernism". This place being inhabited by, among other things, computers and digital art.

SYNTHESIS: Where are we headed?
Robert Rauschenberg's work is important to digital art as a mirror that may be useful in bouncing some light on the path ahead. An interesting story about Rauschenberg's work is that when he first presented his painted collages of collected junk, photos and newspaper cuttings no one seemed to know what they were looking at. He could not get shows. He could not make sales. People would ask, "What is it?"
Finally, he struck on the idea of calling them "combines". "What are they?...They are Combines!", he said.
"Oh!", they said and things started to happen. "They're combines, don't you know? Yeah...Combines!" He began to get shows, he began to make sales. He quit his job dressing windows and the rest is art history.
This is why words are so important. A person can stare right at something and not see it until you give them a word for it. "Oh, I see it...there it is."
Synthesis is the core concept for digital based art. Synthesis is what computers do better than any other tool we can lay our hands on; except perhaps for the human brain, which has always been the model, the holy grail, of computer development. Digital Art is the art of synthesis. Where else can we combine all that has been discussed thus far: authentic, non-object, photographic, painted structures, randomized, materialized, infinitely reproducible, oil and water, impressionistic, surreal, cubism with drop shadow text in fractal aspic. You don't ask, "what's new?" in digital art, you simply ask, "what's cooking?". The computer is just a tool, but through works that exploit the principal of synthesis, digital art will make its grandest entrance and most significant contribution to the world of fine art.
What does it look like? We don't know yet, not really. This is why the work we now see on the web often seems lacking. Web art is like staring into the boiling pot. It's not done yet. The tools are there, but often the lack of awareness concerning the accumulated experience of Art itself weakens the work. This will change only when we begin to make informed art works, with one eye on computer technique and the other eye scanning back and forth from the past, to the present, from history to philosophy, from now into the future. We can make a good guess that what will be done will be a synthesis of what can now be done. By examining this visual field we can get our ultimate inspiration and a hint of things to come.

I. Photographic the most pervasive style and set of techniques that is currently employed in digital art. The synthesis between photographic and digital tools allows for the elimination of many cumbersome and toxic materials, while retaining and expanding upon all the traditional imaging techniques established by more than one hundred and fifty years of photo making. In this digital configuration of tools the port of entry is the scanner (or digital camera, which is essentially a handheld scanner with a lens) and that which can be scanned can be treated as if it were a photo. With this technology we see advanced abilities to re-touch and cut and paste bits of images from divergent sources combining them seamlessly to form striking collages and super realistic photo composites. We see unprecedented control and manipulation of color, as well as, the distortion and re-sizing of images. Basically, we see an exponentially expanded field of photography.
It is important to note that the question of diminished presence in reproducable art, as discussed earlier in terms of Walter Benjamin's writing on the subject, is modified somewhat by what he calls the "cult" aspects of photography. He refers to the ability of photos to preserve the images of family and cultural figures who have passed away and points out that it is no coincidence, therefore, that photographers have chosen people, places and monumental events as primary subjects for their cameras. By preserving these individuals and scenes the photographic artist creates an object that has "cult" value and thereby re-gains some of the presence it loses by being an art piece which is, at its core, a reproduction.
In and of itself, the expanded ability to manipulate photographic imagery is not what makes digital art unique or original. We have simply switched from photo-chemical to photo-digital with the resulting art piece remaining grounded inside of and indistinguishable from, in most cases, traditional photography.
II. Natural presents the digital artist with a dazzling array of graphic tools that simulate the appearance of nearly all the traditional art making tools known to humans; plus some added capabilities to create line, texture and pattern that were beyond imagination before the computer. Working with a mouse or pressure sensitive tablet, the artist's dance between hand and eye, imagination and material is maintained along with the familiar look of pencil, chalk, ink, paint, airbrush; on canvas, paper, cardboard or what have you. Visually mixing traditional media in combinations that would be physically impossible has expanded the digital artist's repertoire beyond anything that has existed up to this point.
As with photography, the artist has been freed of certain physical and material restrictions and new working techniques have evolved. Not all visual artists can or want to make this transition (nor should they), but their hesitations and questions often point to the significant changes that these "natural-digital" tools have made in the making of visual art. Here are a few you may recognize, "Don't you miss the smell of the paint?" "I could never give up the feel of the paint on my fingers." "I have to be able to smear things around, don't you miss that?"
It is true that some of these sensual pleasures are left behind, but in the process of these material trade offs much can be gained. For example, time that went into preparing a stretcher, gessoing canvas, mixing paints, cleaning brushes now goes directly into the design and composition of the work itself. Although watching a filter render is just about as exciting as watching paint dry, it usually takes a much shorter amount of time which again gets re-directed into working on the piece. But, despite these time saving aspects of digital media it is a common mistake to assume that artwork can be completed more quickly on a computer. In fact, the time it takes to complete a digital work is roughly equivalent to work created with physical materials. The difference being that time formerly spent with material concerns, now goes into exploring and pushing a digital composition to its limits. Consider that as one approaches the completion of a traditional media piece, that piece becomes very precious. The artist is often prevented from taking last minute bold maneuvers that may destroy a piece even if the artist believes such actions might improve the final artwork. With the advent of multiple undos, or "revert", those risky maneuvers can be fully explored with no harm done if the great idea goes sour. Even if the risky business is only half successful, utilizing "cut and paste" or "cloning" the successful part of the venture can be brought into the final artwork. In this manner, digital works should be bolder and ultimately better thought out compositions than have ever before been achieved.
Again, the synthesis of natural media simulation and photographic techniques points to the ultimate strengths of digital art. The artist's interface with such a responsive and versatile machine has opened the door to an unprecedented art, of hand, heart and imagination. And, still we have not discussed those image creating capabilities that belong only to the machine itself. Photography and natural media artworks are in fact nothing new. So, what's cooking in that digital machine that belongs to it and it alone?
III. Machine Art...refers to those processes and generators that are automated and achieve the finished effect mainly by and within the computer's software. This includes a large number of filters, fractal, texture and pattern generators. In general, the output of these programs are often considered trite and over used by graphic professionals. Since these are the first tools that a potential digital artist stumbles across and because these filters create significant and dramatic changes to an underlying image they are very seductive and do receive a lot of attention. But, because of this tendency and high profile, this sort of digital art is perhaps the edgiest. It requires great skill and taste to create interesting machine art that does not look worn out and already "old hat".
Usually, this tendency toward triteness is a result of not pushing the image far enough. One pass with a fractal generator usually yields results that most have already seen. But, interesting work does evolve from multiple applications and consciously directing the filter's effects into controlled areas of the image. Here, again the synthesis of machine imagery and photographic image manipulations mixed with touches of natural media does yield highly regarded and unique work. Its the mark of an accomplished artist to bring out work that is personal, warm and human, yet generated by repetitive and redundant machine driven programs. And, since these are the newest of tools; tools that did not exist before the arrival of the computer, these images have great potential for carving out a place for digital works in the world of fine arts and popular taste.
Within the genre of "machine art" one must also consider the currently booming interest in 3D modeling and animation. Many companies have marketed powerful rendering, modeling and animating tools and along with a rapid proliferation of computers in the commercial cinema and television production community many artists and individuals have risen to the bait and purchased the software. Obviously, there seems to be many commercial applications and some artists may find an outlet for their work. It is problematic, though, whether, in the context of fine art, a niche will be established for this sort of work.
When considering fine arts, the question of context becomes very important. The context for visual, two dimensional work has long been established and understood by gallery owners and patrons alike. And, while the current boom in "installation art" seems to offer a possible venue for 3D animated work, a curious thing happens when you present work that features motion as an integral part of the piece.
Video Art offers a good analogy for this discussion. Even thought video has been around for over thirty years, and while there is almost a glut of video installations flickering in all the hippest galleries all over the world; critics still complain about the lack of an "aesthetic language" with which to evaluate such work. For the most part this hesitation has to do with the misconception that video art is a kinetic, visual art form. While video art does exhibit visual and kinetic qualities the work can not escape and is almost totally bound by the prevailing context of long established film and TV viewing. Even when projected large or scattered out among hundreds of monitors, people expect a certain kind of experience when viewing anything on a film screen or cathode ray tube.
In the history of Video, visual artists began exploring the latest tools. Analog video synthesizers, coupled with analog audio synthesis and layered overdubbed imagery created hour upon hour of beautifully textured, sensual moving light and sound. The human form and movement was explored, feedback patterns and awe inspiring mandals of electric colors floated on the glass surfaces of the latest Sony Trinitrons. But, the medium was never really collected nor understood by critics at large. The lack of critical understand or a language to discuss such work was most often offered as the excuse for this failure.
And then came "performance". Performance artists began to apply video tools to record and distribute their conceptual works. Some mixed their concept with the visual discoveries that had been made, others simply used the video image and camera straight up and unadulterated to construct interactive or expressive installations. This is what became known as "Video Art"...not the visual, but the literal piece.
As it turns out motion implies narrative. So that any screened art work that employs motion creates the expectation of literature or narrative. In fact, people will create their own narrative for moving pictures if none is provided. And, while this may sound quite interesting; that is, the creation of "pseudo-narrative" on the part of each individual viewer, such work has not proven to be successful. Perhaps individuals are not comfortable with creating their own understanding. Perhaps the individual mind creates disturbing "pseudo-narratives" and it all becomes too self confronting in a Rorschach sort of way.
Given this idiosyncrasy of human nature, the critical language that seems to have escaped video art is the time honored language of literature. We should talk about plot and character development, story structure, meter and rhyme, the beginning, the middle and the end when viewing even abstract animation and video performances. What this all says about digital animation and 3D is simply that to create successful work the artist must also become an author. 3D animation that fails to satisfy the yearning requirement for story telling will not find an audience. That is why animated work, without narrative, is often relegated to "illuminating" musical performances ala' the 70's light show or MTV. And, please note the most successful music videos are those that exhibit plot and narrative.

The matter of "presence" has two major, inter-related implications for the digital artist. One has to do with the nature of "reproducable art" and the other with raising the visibility and "presence" of the work within the "marketplace". While designing work for the marketplace is not what it is about, this writer is certainly of the opinion that artists should be able to live from what they do best. The often expressed portrait of the artist starving in order to continue their work is an embarrassment and a lie and should never be glorified or accepted in any form, especially by artists themselves. "Marketplace" is not a dirty word for art, rather it refers to the whole fine arts, gallery and popular culture scene. As a digital artist this is your marketplace, it is huge and wide open, ready for new and exciting work.
However, new and exciting work is often not enough. We must realize that as digital artists we have a lot of explaining to do. Be prepared for discourse. Know who your antecedents were. Know the traditions from which your work has grown. Name it...Label it. Learn to discuss what may be obvious to you, but to others is still "subtle nuance". Help to build that all important critical base of language, reflection and recognition. Without this verbiage, the most innovative and provocative work will disappear right before the eyes of the uninformed viewer.
Synthesis is the strong suit for digital art. Bringing together old ideas and techniques in radically new ways, never before possible, is what the machine does best. Apply photo-techniques to paint, turn the machine loose, then edit it all back as if on a word processor. Drop shadows onto thin air. Texturize light. Smear pixels. Import the old and spit out the new...synthesize your imagination.
Here again, the work of Robert Rauschenberg holds a candle to what is digitally possible. Working in that place between art and life, he became an artist/inventor. His innovations in printmaking enlivened that whole genre and brought it out of the closet of academia and into the light of a popular marketplace. His photographs which had been glued or chemically transferred to canvas became hand held silk screens that inhabited still larger canvases, re-appearing here and there with different visual qualities determined by chance. The size of his prints increased to hold the size of his invention and a new presence for modern printmaking was born.
And, today in what some critics are calling his strongest work, Rauschenburg has turned, as artists have always done, to our culture's latest technology to make his art. His photos are now scanned, sometimes altered in the computer, then printed on large format inkjet printers, using waterbased inks. The prints are then brought to a larger canvas. Areas of the canvas are made wet with water and the inkjet print pressed against the wet surface causing the image to transfer to the new ground. In this way, large collages are formulated and I'll bet no one is asking about the colorfastness of the Master's work. Invention, synthesis, a good solid base of critical language and high marketability can overcome all things.

Walter Benjamin's observations on the diminished "presence" of reproducable art objects is a reality for the digital artist. It is seen in the eyes of gallery goers, web surfers, and critics alike. Often I am asked, "what is it a photograph, is it a print, is it a painting?" I used to cringe when I heard it, but now I know that question for what it is. It's a blessing. It is proof that I have created something that no one has quite seen before. I have synthesized all those traditional things into something new and exciting. I need to hear that question now in order to know that I've really done my job!
Walter Benjamin lived in a time very different from ours. He was able to imagine where we might be headed, but he didn't breath it or taste it, or touch it. And, for the most part neither do we. The world we live in today is heavily mediated. We see it in our magazines, on our tubes and screens but for the most part we don't touch it and it does not touch us. In this "post modern" world, the appearance and presentation of a thing shapes the reality of our perceptions. Physicality is less an issue than accessibility. A good part of the answer to this digital dilemma lies in Benjamin's observation that the lack of presence in reproducible art is made up, in part, by the reproduction's ability to be in many more places and times than a single original can accomodate. In a non-object world the concern for the whereabouts of the original art object is a greatly reduced; and, the lack of tactile texture becomes an engaging trick for the eye, a gentle reminder that all things demand further examination.
When we examine the technical and visual field of digital art we find photographic technique, simulated natural media and machine art. Taken separately they could be seen as familiar, traditional and potentially trite. But, the true power of digital work is in the ability to create a synthesis of all these aspects into something that is totally different and actually new. It is not a matter of this "with" that...that "or" this. It is, that "AND" this. Traditional and digital. Diminished presence and expanded accessibility... knowledge of art history and knowledge of art software. Digital is not here to put an end to anything. Rather it is here to expand all things, to combine and to make more things attainable. For the artist, it is the edgiest work of all; the biggest, most exciting challenge in a long history of the synthesis between technology and hand and mind and heart. Delivering us again to a point in time described for us over sixty years ago by Paul Valery, wherein...
We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.
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