A formulation by Marshall McLuhan that has become axiomatic to me is that the content of any new medium is an older medium.
A corollary to this is the notion that it takes some time before the true nature of the new medium is understood, both in terms of its social consequences and its proper application -- that is, until one that takes advantage of its true aesthetic potential.
Presumably, it is the serious artist, more specifically the "avant garde" artist who is the first to recognize the intrinsic nature of a new medium. In this schema, the content of film, for example, was the novel, but it took an Eisenstien to understand what was filmic about film. This seems to work pretty well for most technologies -- the content of the car (an extension of the foot) is the horse-drawn buggy, the content of the telegraph (an extension of the voice) is print, the content of video (an extension of the eye) is film, etc.
What, then, is the content of the computer? Part of the problem, of course, is how you define computer. In the case of the earliest electronic computers, as with the abacus, the content of computers was, well, computing, as in arithmetic and mathematical calculations. But today's computers, even the humble little box that sits in front of you, is positively omnivorous when it comes to content. What's more, each year it gets not only hungrier but better at assimilating what is already part of the diet.
I am an artist who produces primarily two-dimensional works, ranging from paintings to drawings to photos, by themselves and in combination. So for me, the content of the computer is all two-dimensional media -- in other words, everything I do. Personally, this has had the effect of producing an emotional toggle between giddy excitement and the vertigo of over-choice.
On the excitement side, there is a definite sense of frontier. Though it may not seem like it, digital imaging is freshly out of the womb, as newborn as photography was in the 1830s. Much of the hardware is still embryonic; for example the digital camera. (I won't buy one until they come up with something reasonably priced that will capture 10 million pixel color images in available light, hand held. So there.)
In addition, the theoretical, aesthetic and philosophical dimensions of the medium are still unclear. This makes it a bracing area of investigation for the fine artist, who characteristically develops work outside normal market demands.
I am the first to admit that this technology is powerfully seductive. (With my students and colleagues I habitually refer to the whole subject as "digitalia.") When I first encountered Adobe Photoshop on the Mac, I knew I'd found the darkroom tool I'd been looking for all my life. After working with it and other programs for some time, it was hard to imagine ever not doing this, as if I'd found some forgotten wings that were there all along.
Nonetheless, I object to the soaring technophilia evidenced by the extravagant hype for All Things Digital. Some of it is harmlessly silly. For example, I heard some cyber-yuppie on MSNBC the other night refer to sexier looking computers as a "paradigm shift."
On a more ominous side, I sense a mass psychosis afoot: people worked up into a lather envisioning a future Brave New World filled with boys and their incredible toys. What's distressing to me is blind embrace of thingness at the expense of any kind of interiority. Particularly irritating is the gleeful acceptance of the notion of consciousness in silicon.
Why do people think that? No matter how subtly a machine mimics a conscious being, it's as dead as a doornail. My chess program beats me almost every time, but it doesn't know it, and certainly doesn't experience the joy of trouncing my sorry butt.
In the much-heralded future of techno-guys, if you elicit an "ooooh" from the beautiful cyber-device lying next to you as you touch its g-spot, do you really imagine it's for anybody but you? Well, perhaps that's the appeal.
You'd expect this kind of stuff from the pages of Wired magazine, but silicon consciousness gets support from some heavyweight intellectuals, like the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Most of the time this guy sounds like the towel boy for hard science, but he goes further with pontifications for mechanistic orthodoxy that most scientists themselves wouldn't presume. His rants on this issue amount to officious reductionism and technophilia masquerading as science and philosophy, and a stubborn confusion of model and reality.
While all this may seem somewhat far afield, I felt I had to position myself relative to the current buzz to avoid any misunderstanding when I assert that this technology is, in the McLuhan-esque sense, an extension of the human nervous system and brain and that the content of today's computer is the mental process. Though like all technological extensions, it is utterly a thing, a tool, these tools historically have had a profound effect on us, from radically altering our psychologies (McLuhan refers to "sense ratios") to changing the very structure of society. And all technologies before the computer were extensions of something humbler than the brain.
When students ask me what can be done with digital imaging, I tell them -- quite without fear of exaggeration -- that literally anything they can imagine (within the constraints of two dimensions) can be realized with our existing software, and that they have at their disposal a magic paintbrush that responds to their every creative whim. This, of course, is at once liberating and paralyzing, a fact that pushes some of them into a state of terminal geekhood, stuck in a myopic thrall of the tool itself. Clearly, this brush has teeth.
One of the most salient features of working digitally is the conflation of all the different forms of imagery that are fed into the computer. Photo, painting, video, drawing, film, direct scanning -- all these become a kind of uniform fodder for manipulation.
Besides the obvious and oft-cited havoc this wreaks on the veracity of any photographic "record" that has had the misfortune of making its way into a computer, this affects the artist in a way that is perhaps not immediately apparent. I'm referring to the characteristic look that images originally created in other media possess, a kind of base-level syntax that is almost felt rather than seen.
Consider, for example, the difference between film and video. Irrespective of content, these two media are polar opposites in terms of their feel. Compared with unmediated perceptions of the world, film buffers and aestheticizes vision. Video, on the other hand, seems more real than real, harsher somehow than unmediated visual perception. A brilliant illustration of the brutal potential of video is the ghastly sitcom sequence in the film "Natural Born Killers" in which the action is quite horribly enhanced by the eyeball-smushing oppression of the video image itself, a quality that holds up even when that image has been transferred to film.
So the challenge for the artist is that while the computer's content is completely malleable, one is also in the position of having to preserve, submerge or fake the signature look of another medium. Dissimulation operates constantly at the very foundation of digital imaging, and it is more intrinsic to this medium than anything previous.
For some software, like Fractal Design's Painter, fakery is the entire raison d'être. Curiously, this program falls short of simulating paintings, because the output has none of the physical characteristics of painting. What it really produces are images that resemble photographs of paintings that might have existed. And it does this well.
I tend to physicalize most of my digital imagery in one way or another, regardless of the program in which they were created. To this end, I employ various strategies. The works are usually scaled to the size of large paintings, and process is often apparent in undisguised tiling. In addition, images are buried under resin, transferred to canvas, and combined with painted passages and actual objects, not only to avoid the poster look of most digital output, but also to confound a clear reading of the media status of the image.
Many artists employ the computer to faithfully service other media through logical manipulations, but I am more attracted to the lawlessness of this new frontier. You could say that I have happily embraced the confusion, dissimulation, and subterfuge that are at the heart of working digitally.
Bob Griffin, whose studio is in the North Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, teaches art and digital imaging at New York University and the Pratt Institute. He welcomes your comments at griffin@is2.NYU.EDU.
Digital Art, Composition
In his A Digital Artist's Manifesto, David Griffin discusses the uses of computer technology in art production and the compositional novelties that computers allow when art is produced digitally. Importantly, Griffin hails dissimulation as the foundation of digital imaging here, underscoring the notion that the computer's content is completely malleable.
November 21, 1996