In the chapter Coded Form and Electronic Production in the book Art and Electronic Media, electronic and digital art is given a fairly nostalgic and fascinating glimpse-of-the-past – specifically at its history. From the 1950s where oscilloscopes were used to create geometric patterns, to simple algorithms that created clusters of patterns – either abstract or obfuscations of familiar objects (e.g., people), to three-dimensional representations of people lip-syncing to electronic music.
It’s an amazing walk through several decades where artists find new and interesting ways and uses to express their creative drive using tools that – at that point in history – had never been considered artists’ tools.
The chapter starts off posing the premise so many luddites have expressed which is: techno-art “lacks the aura of an individually handcrafted original”. This stems from the very nature of what computers do for us which is perform repetitive tasks consistently and quickly and much faster than humans can perform. Or perhaps because math, algorithms, and complex rules are used this somehow removes any chance of intuitive processes, any sort of eureka moments of inspiration, penning it as a strictly perfunctory and analytical process.
But how is this different than a potter using a potter’s wheel to shape clay quickly and repetitively instead of using his bare hands? Or an artist who uses an airbrush to create a work of art in a fraction of the time that it takes the painter who uses a paint brush? Of course the low hanging fruit or straw man logical fallacy is to insist that not only does the tool automate quickly, but it replicates at the same speed if not faster, thus creating a work that is industrialized, mass-produced, and missing its soul.
This line of thinking dates at least as far back as the fifteenth century where opponents of the printing press expressed disdain at the automaton that threatened the uniqueness of individually crafted objects: books. Is the computer the machine that makes art? I don’t believe it is. That seems to be a posthumanistic, almost nihilistic outlook from where I stand. I prefer to look at it the same way Sol LeWitt described conceptual art (i.e., conceptualism) which is that the “idea becomes a machine that makes the art”, which eliminates the technology from being anything more than an extension of the artist’s mind, an appendage.
Digital art has always had a controversial side and one more recent example that seems to have garnered Internet buzz is the resurrection of dead celebrities, as in the case of Disney’s 2016 film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In this film, the character Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by Peter Cushing in the 1977 Twentieth Century Fox release Star Wars: A New Hope, is resurrected using Computer Graphics Imagery (CGI) in order to bridge the narrative between the two films. The attention to detail by the artists and the state-of-the-art technology were able to provide a rather convincing and believable persona back-from-the-grave (see figure 1). The binary reaction has been either fans loving the recreation (or even better, not even aware of it), to critics’ shouts of “digital indignity” and “reduction of the soul” (Shoard, 2016) lashings out.
Figure 1 – Spot the CGI Peter Cushing
And while this controversy is more about the potential disrespect of deceased actors, it once again points to the automation, mathematical, and algorithmic power that digital art allows artists to wield in order to express an idea, capture a feeling, or, in the case of the digital representation of Peter Cushing, connect a story arch between two movies created decades apart.
Shoard, C. (2016, December 21). Peter Cushing is dead. Rogue One’s resurrection is a digital indignity. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/21/peter-cushing-rogue-one-resurrection-cgi