Futures Past: Twenty Years of Arts Computing
James Faure Walker, London
Painting Digital, Letting Go
Keywords: computer art, digital painter
What is a painter (and in my case a digital painter) doing at a conference on computing and the history of art? The short answer is, I am as interested as anyone else in trying to understand this combustion of art fuelled by high technology, and in part, it is my own history too. Along with my colleagues, I often wonder how I have got to be where I am, and wonder how many wrong turnings I have taken. Have I been tinkering on the edges while the important action has taken place over the hill? If histories are now becoming official, are they being dug out of cupboards, built out of theories, or drawn from the memory of witnesses? Do I see this as self-evident art history written in a sequence of major works, each deserving its marker at Tate Modern? No. Have I been programmed to think the way I do? Should I reboot my thinking in the light of new historical findings?
As a student at St Martin’s School of Art in London in the sixties, I watched here and there a few of the first clatterings of computer art: kinetic art at Signals, Cybernetic Serendipity 1, Bruce Lacey (who was the janitor of my studio from 1971 onwards), and the beige card science/art pages of Studio. As a painter and critic in the seventies, I was aware of computerised type-setting (I was editing and designing an art magazine) and instinctively knew this was something I should know much more about, though generally I did not rate ‘computer art’ as art, apart from Richard Hamilton’s Tyres. In the eighties, I half-evolved into a ‘computer artist’ but without ceasing to be a painter. Now, I suppose, I am something of a sleuth, being an Art and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) Research Fellow, both practitioner and commentator.
I know of several books in production and plenty on the shelves documenting the route to net art, information art, digital art, or new media art. Naturally I am curious as to how this history shapes out. Will it be contested? For one thing, painting does not feature very much in these accounts except as a ‘technology’– that is to say pigment on canvas –a technology past its prime. My impression is that here is a history that zeroes in on the beginnings of ‘computer art’; it identifies pioneer figures, particularly those developing what is best described as ‘computer-generated’ images, primarily linear patterns. Yet if I reflect on who have been the dominant figures and the dominant topics of discussions over the past ten or fifteen years, I find much broader influences at work. Important as they are, algorithmic artists would feature only as one strain alongside performance art, video, installation, conceptual, interactive technologies, the web, the futurology of Wired , innovations in computer graphics itself, and contemporary art in general. In other words, in the small segment of all this that concerns me – painting with the computer – the history of machine art is only one fraction. In today’s ‘digital art’ it is not possible to isolate just the one history, the one DNA signature.
The subject of painting and the computer is complex, little understood, and neglected. To put it simply, each new survey that comes out on ‘digital art’ has an interest in saying ‘here is something new and distinct from the old order’. The thesis of the book I am writing, Painting the Digital River, How an Artist Learned to Love the Computer, argues that painting is a living, adaptable art form, and painters can weave these wonderful visual tricks into their repertoire. 2 Art historians may object to the notion and argue that a painter has no critical distance; they could point to the lack of highbrow magazine articles, proper exhibitions, the lack of sustained interest by critics. All this I would have to concede, but I would also ask how anyone could be expected to find out about this way of painting except by doing it themselves. You cannot investigate retrospectively what does not yet exist. There have been one or two minor surveys and there are networks of artists but that’s about it. With software, as with painting, only a user can really taste the difference. It is not like a documented installation with photos in a catalogue or a promotional critical essay; material that can become instant history – what Hal Foster has described as ‘hind sighting the present’. I have found it hard to get the basics of computer graphics across to colleagues who are critics and sophisticated thinkers – I wonder how many understand the difference between bitmap and vector, not that I am that good at explaining it. They will always counter my argument by saying, well, as there is no major art – as yet – in that field we do not need to bother with it. But some do.
I recall a Courtauld art historian a couple of years back, supposedly an expert on the web and a curator, giving a talk with 35mm slides at the Tate. A leading expert on avant-garde film did not know what a website was. At a talk I myself gave six years ago at the Tate on Patrick Heron, a substantial number of the audience were quite unaware that you could ‘paint’ with the computer in colour. I still find it bizarre that a technology which has so many echoes back and forth in the history of painting (and that would have been sheer dreamland for any assistant slaving in a Florentine studio 500 years ago) means little to today’s cognoscenti . There have been advantages in having so few art historians and critics around with expert knowledge. It has been liberating to work with a powerful technology where there are few precedents, few established idioms, and few tracks in the snow to follow. The downside is that prejudices go unchallenged; in the Jerwood Drawing competition, digital drawing has been effectively excluded on the grounds that it is printed, and so is not ‘real drawing’. It is only in the past few years that galleries have recognised that inkjet prints are viable and sellable. In the teaching of Fine Art, the computer room is still labelled with the catch-all ‘media’, which these days means predominantly video editing. So this marvellous instrument often remains segregated and under-used – though not for long, I hope.
What do I mean by liberating? In part I am thinking practically, of the speed of response, the immediacy, the ability to catch an idea while it is still in flight. For years I have had a digital camera in my bag, and in moments I can catch something from a bus, or can move between liquid and digital paint, can process a mark through a filter, a colour correction, a pattern. Working with these ‘instruments’ every day they become second nature.
Before using computers I would make many drawings and studies connected with a painting project, more as rehearsals than as ‘working drawings’; I still make the drawings and the paintings, but my preferred medium for ‘thinking visually’ is digital. One reason is that snapshot photography allows a painting to have the occasional glimpse of the textures of the ‘real world ’– a counterpoint to the eerie ‘otherness’ of geometric abstraction.
So the longer explanation for why a practitioner wants to join the conversation is that perhaps sometimes the wrong history may be under discussion: the genetic make-up of today’s digital artist is thought to consist of just one stream of art: the history of ‘machine art’ and the history of computers. The ‘early’ works that make up this supposed canon are the pioneer ‘experimental’ photographs of Muybridge; Duchamp’s spinning disks; Constructivism, and algorithmic art. Then here was the onward march like the Chinese dynasties where a succession of technological art formats annihilate their predecessors: Artificial Intelligence, interactive, net art, wearable information art, consciousness enhancing art. It is really a Woody Allen script: New Media! New Art! It is not that I do not respect those achievements or feel the force of the counter-culture. It is that they have no special relevance or priority in the vast seas of art history. There are so many other influences that would enter my own equation: from Pollock, de Kooning, Dubuffet, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Beuys, Richter, to younger painters such as Neo Rauch. I cannot speak for other painters using computers except to say that most I speak with are not isolationists, purists or dissidents shut off from ‘the art world’ – whatever that is – but feel connected with the wider history, and with the dynamics of contemporary art. If they are frustrated it is because they feel trapped in this ghetto of trade show exhibitions, in the ‘digital’ art label, as if the only art they ever look at is digital art. In their hearts they feel they belong in the bigger picture. Some no longer show at digital shows or contexts where they will be identified primarily by medium. Using a computer was once such an all-absorbing task that it probably meant letting the ArtForum subscription lapse, but now there is no excuse for being uninformed. It is a tough message, but these days your work has to hit the spot as art, not as ‘computer art’.
If the next generation of books on digital art do not have a Muybridge ‘animal locomotion’ reproduction in Chapter 1, what would they have instead? A facetious answer would be they might begin with medieval digital, and go through to pointillism, showing that even though they lacked the mainframes, artists were thinking digital, seeing digital, and arranging the structure of paintings with colour and spatial awareness that was centuries later customised in Adobe Creative Suite. That, I confess, is, my approach. As a reader, I find the history of computer graphics itself (especially the anecdotes of Alvy Ray Smith 3 , as interesting and certainly humane) as the story of computer art. The trouble is that at every computer art conference I go to I tend to be as interested in the latest release of software, the new motion capture system, and the latest piece of interactive art. Then after a few hours in the museum nearby I come out wondering why my generation, – myself included – ,is not producing works that can hold their own in that company. At the Frieze Art Fair I see the finesse, the lightness of touch, the confidence of a milieu aware of its cultural references, a place where painting and photography command most attention. In comparison, the world of digital art seems parochial, fixated on its own issues, speaking to itself, and preoccupied – some of it – with its family tree. Your work may be feeble, but leave it in a drawer for thirty years, and who knows, it could be Ph.D. source material.
The problem is not the lack of historical recognition so much as the lack of critical thought. Sometimes practitioners who use the model of an old medium – like painting – to get to grips with new technology are described patronisingly as lightweights, unable to come to terms with the real ‘digital issues’. It as if there is some agreed master plan that lays out what route a ‘serious’ artist must take once they have bought the laptop. The “Big Idea” is that digital art should be about ‘digital things’ – i.e. Artificial Intelligence, surveillance, the media, bio-feedback. Saying that digital art should concentrate on what cannot be done any other way sounds fine, hitting the core. In comparison using software to imitate paint is on a par with repro rococo. Speak about ‘code’ and you go deep. Speak about colour, pigment structures, compositional principles, decoration, and you are messing in the froth.
I would much prefer a more relaxed framework for interpreting what has taken place, not the tunnel vision of those who worship self-customised programming much as Henry Tonks 4 – a few hundred yards from here [at the Slade] and a hundred years ago – saw anatomy and his surgeon’s X-ray vision as the key to painting. English painting, dare I say, for a long time had an appalling record, repeatedly inhibited by the fear and dogmatism cultivated in its art schools. Perhaps that is one history that deserves to stay buried. Some of us prefer to use “high tech” to examine leaves, insect wings, what lurks in the pond, or to make frivolous patterns in the air. Amongst the literature on ‘new media’ there is not much criticism that reflects on the fact that there was plenty of art around before there were any electronic systems. It was possible to make art without a computer then, and it is possible now.
1. Ed. note: The Signals Gallery in London evolved from the Centre for Advanced Creative Study established in 1964 by David Medalla, Keeler, Guy Brett, Marcello Salvadori and Gustav Metzger; Cybernetic Serendipity , An exhibition curated by Jasia Reichardt at the ICA London, 2nd August to October 20th, 1968 .
2. Faure Walker, J. (forthcoming 2006), Painting the Digital River, How an Artist Learned to Love the Computer, Boston Massachusetts: Addison Wesley.
3. Ed. note. Alvy Ray Smith’s website is at http://www.alvyray.com (20 September 2005).
4. Ed. note. The English painter and draughtsman Henry Tonks (1862–1937) came to painting from a successful surgical career. From 1887 he studied at Westminster School of Art, finally abandoning medicine in 1893 to join the staff of the Slade School of Art in London, where he taught until 1930.
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