The Artist’s Hand in Computer Art

When I was going to school for design, computers were still pretty new when it came to making art with them. To give an example, while at school, I worked at a print shop that had a Mac SE running Photoshop 2.5 – the version before they added layers! At school, though, things were a bit more advanced, we had 5.5 to begin with. While I was in school, there was a lot of hopeful talk about coming storm of ‘Computer Art’ that was going to wash over us all. Lots of kind of cool stuff was made and explorations were done (For my part, I made some pretty interesting stuff, including a dot-matrix printer that would move over paper rather than pulling paper through the printer.) There were even a few magazines on the nascent subject.

A little after I graduated, the boil of Computer Art had diminished to perhaps a simmer. Magazines that talked about it either went away or turned into graphic design help magazines, spouting infinite Photoshop tutorials. There were a few reasons for this. A main point was that people were really unsure how to price them. The work was really just printed out of a printer, not unlike a spreadsheet or those photos of your kids. That’s really not the case, as it takes really specialized printers, etc, etc, but the damage was done, giving buyers a hard time squaring the cost with a seemingly empty prospect of exclusivity. In their mind, these pieces could be duplicated like your taxes at Kinkos, 30 copies a minute for as long as the store is open. Art valuation is about exclusivity and even invoking the paradigm of print work signing couldn’t help.

The other issue was that it was beginning to be very difficult to separate what exactly was artistic meaning and the practiced hand from those which did not have these things. In the Computer Art world, art was nearly completely democratized.  Just as an artist could conceivably print out a piece for anyone, anyone could create a piece.

And in the way of the world, lots of terrible, terrible junk was made in the name of Art.

The possible heir to Computer Art came in the last decade with the advent of computational or generative art. A practice where the artist creates form through the use of formulas and programming to realize vision. After a number exciting years, generative art has picked up a bit of tarnish, sliding into ruling the more-or-less technical field of Infographics.

What happened this time? Generative art stole back the mastery of process from the hands of the everyman, to be sure. While the art was certainly exciting and new, perhaps at this moment, it was too challenging for people to easily grasp. Perhaps another issue was exclusivity, again. How to transmit, and thus monetize, the work was the real question. Just printing it landed you in the same area as Computer Art. To make it even more intangible, some works were thought to be 3-D or even temporal in nature with no real medium that could work to realize them outside of the machine.

Finally there was the nagging question of how do you detect the artist’s hand? Can you see it in there or is the artist actually the computer. This brings up some pretty interesting questions. Since those questions are a bit difficult to answer, things slowed down for Generative Art.

Today, I came across these two works by artists seemingly asking that question in reverse. Take, for instance, John Power’s God’s Comic :

“The resulting structure gives the appearance of being a computer-aided design but is in reality the outcome of a human-executed algorithm, dictated by the artist’s intuition expressed through the repetitive action of connecting blocks.”

There is also Louise Naunton Morgan’s The Human Printer:

“Morgan’s indifference toward the motifs that are ordered bespeaks a democratic image regime in her work, which is otherwise encountered only in the production lines of industrial photographic laboratories.”

With works like these, we have crossed over the hurdle of ‘is it too machine-like?” to “is it machine-like enough?” A very interesting prospect, to be sure! The artist’s hand has returned from being lost in the machine to being the machine’s mirror. I am not sure how I feel about this, while the projects are really amazing and I’d certainly like to own my own Morgan piece, I can’t help but feel that these pursuits make us subject to the machine rather than driving the future, as artists should.

The art world certainly needs a new direction and people to take it that way. I am excited that Art’s future could be in technology, once again, but I’d like to see the artist’s hand driving the movement rather than recording the movements of machines, but things are not up to me. Maybe this stage needs to happen? Perhaps without this step the real future of Art cannot happen?

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