Monday, June 8, 1998

Reconsidering the idea of Art...

Art and Technology:
Reconsidering the idea of Art.

A quick and global view of history shows that Arts have always followed two axes of evolution. The first is the idea of art and its concept (related to religious, social, economical development). The second is the change of tools and media (technology of the time) that allows the transfer of this idea (visions) to the viewer. These axes were always related, and the development of one directly influences the other. From the cave man informative drawings or sculptural totems (concept), with hand-made biological paints on the walls of the cave or clays (tools & media), to the modern art (concept), with industrial paints on canvas and mixed media installations (tools & media), the artist has constantly developed his ideas and behavior while discovering new tools to express them.

Today, as we enter a new era of technological change, the scheme is still the same. The only difference is, the digital tools and media (computers, internet, multimedia, TVs, satellite transmissions, etc.), are changing our behavior (and sometimes dictating it). The fast rate of technological development leads us to one of two choices. Step back and continue as if nothing happened (and move aside the evolution path), or accept the challenge and re-think our idea of Art and the creativity process.

Image and image maker: Traditionally, when we talk about Art we mean the visual expressions of it, or what we conventionally call “fine arts." Now, seemingly overnight, machines and electronics are transforming virtually everything. No previous century had seen such an interaction between the arts and technology. Photography, film making, Video clips, computer generated images and artistic multimedia products, moved toward the center stage of the cultural activity. We are living in what we all call the “era of the Image." “Image” is now a synthesis terminology of what all visual arts are creating, and “image maker” is the essence of what the artists’ role is all about. This change of terminology affects the role of the image itself and the role of the audience as well. When we visit a gallery or watch a movie, we are viewers with a passive role, we receive what is offered to us without any interaction with the artwork itself. Digital technology, combined with the Convergence technology, allows us now to create an “interactive image” where we are no more viewers but “users." We can interfere with the final output of an image, we can change the course of the story of a movie, or change the elements of a photograph, or add elements to a sculpture. We can watch any movie with our choice of the camera view, and why not our choice of the actors. This is what we call “interactivity," that is spreading fast in all the visual media. This is not science-fiction. Interactive digital TVs will be in the market at the end of the year, Interactive CD-ROMs are the standard of the industry, and Internet is wiring our thoughts, images, and sounds into a World Wide Web.

Virtual and original: Artwork has always been the material expression of the artist’s vision. Whether a painting, a print, or a sculpture, the artwork is something that attracts all our senses. We can feel its texture (although attached signs recommend us not to touch it). We are part of its physical 3D environment (inside a hall or outdoors), that is part of its fundamental “character” (a Calder sculpture inside a small room is not the same transferred to an outdoor place, or viewed in a printed book). This physical character is going to change. Digital artwork or holography, is a virtual one. All our senses converge into our vision and hearing (if sounds are part of the artwork). An immaterial image that we cannot touch. We are alien to its physical space (we cannot enter into a screen or threw a hologram). Colors are light beams creating a palette of millions of colors (another change in nature). The image is ephemeral (switch the electricity off and the image disappears), although it is theoretically eternal. There is no need for chemical procedures or climatic rules of conservation. A CD-ROM lifetime is counted by hundreds of years, and virtually eternal with a limited use.

Artwork can hold mixed media elements. As a concept mixed media is a mixture of media of different nature put together to form an artwork (collage, assemblage, installations). The shift into digital technology allows manipulation of a wider range of media threw the process of transforming them into one digital form of the same nature, into “zeros and ones.” Sound will be easily integrated into images, or moving images, or 3D elements, and vice versa. This is what we call “multimedia." Multiple types of media transformed into one digital form where all the elements are treated alike.

This will also change the idea that Artwork is unique. Whether a painting, a mixed media, a print or an installation, we always have an original artwork and copies of it. Even copies differ from each other (in film making the generations of copies looses in quality). In Digital artwork, the difference is theoretically null (except of the same calibration of the screens), and everyone is receiving the same “zeros and ones” to recreate the original work of art on his screen.

Museum and Database: Artwork is traditionally defined in space and time. If we want to view an artwork we have ”to go” to a specific location (Gallery, museum, outdoors, etc.) at a specific time (duration of the exhibit, opening hours, etc.). Out of this space and timeline, only a copy of the artwork is accessible in printed media (books, prints, etc.). In Digital technology, artwork is not limited by such considerations. It is floating somewhere on a “network," in a database, and can be recalled on the screen at any time and anywhere (at home, in a car or on the beach, and why not in a supermarket, etc.).. Decentralization and unlimited accessibility are the keywords of the new knowledge. Following the same logic, another question arises. If traditional Artwork is preserved in a museum or a gallery, where can these virtual images be stored, or reviewed? Do they need constant procedures of conservation? “Digital museum” (digital database with advanced searching tools) is the answer. Personal users are viewers and “curators” at the same time. There is no need to go to a specific hall in a specific museum, to see a specific artwork, and then move on to another museum (could be in another country) to see another specific artwork of a specific historical period. If the concept of the museum and its role is changing, what about the concept and role of a gallery? A Gallery is by definition the medium between the artist and its audience. What will be the role of a gallery if the user can directly access an artist work with a network connection as the only medium?

Creativity and skills: One of the main restraints for artists to shift into digital technology is that tools are not adapted to the human behavior. While we learn since our early days to use a pen, a brush, scissors, colors, papers, boards, clays, etc., the new tools are not “as flexible," and do not allow us freedom of natural actions and gestures. Using a mouse, a light-pen, a wacom tablet, dealing with limited space (the screen) and machines, are not part of a human natural behavior. A global view of history shows us that even these “human tools” are not part of the human nature. Digital technology spreading into the educational systems, makes the use of these tools as flexible as the traditional ones. It is a matter of education and behavior, because art is never limited to its tools. Creativity, as we know from the experience of mixed media artists, print makers, sculptors, photographers, movie makers, designers, etc., is beyond the artist personal skills. Even in early historical frescoes and classical paintings, several disciples assisted the artist in his work. The movie director is the closest sample of what we mean. He signs his name on the film, although he is not the cinematographer, nor the set designer, or the script writer, or the actor. He is the “director” of these elements, and he is the one who conducts the achievement of the vision that we receive. Artwork has become the joint efforts of a team (technical one this time) managed and ruled by the artist.

With the “interactivity” as a new factor added to the artwork, creativity is no more limited to the artist-artwork domain. The user’s participation to the final artwork opens the doors to unlimited possibilities. This does not mean that everyone can be an artist, although the artist is no longer the sole player in the creativity process.

Associative thinking: We are shifting to a phenomenon of globalization of art and knowledge. We all know Picasso, but few have seen his artwork. Several media (printing, radio, TVs, etc.) spread at all levels this low cost knowledge. The Radio was the first to use this global information creating global “associative thinking." The advance of the movie industry added the image to this global knowledge. Still, if the same movie is watched all over the globe in the same time, few people share the same experience in the same movie theater. With the TV and satellite transmission technology, globalization reached its extended meaning. At the same time, all over the world, people can share the same experience of the same event. Examples are countless at this level. Associative thinking is no more related to a specific community (or specific country) but it is a planetary experience. Artistic events will follow the same path. (The role and nature of the TV are reconsidered now that it is moving into digital technology, but this is not the aim of this article.) The ephemeral nature of TV event is no more an issue since we can store it on a hard disk and use it later, or recall it from a network.

“We can scarcely calculate,” critic George Steiner has remarked, “the mutations in our experience of texts, music and art in the new worlds of the CD-ROM, of virtual reality, of cyberspace and the Internet”. It’s true that things are blurred, and no one can determine what the next century will be alike. But what is true also is that change is the only constant we are living with.

In 1983, at an international convention, I saw for the first time a presentation of computer generated images. I was disappointed -amid the scientists applause- that this event was nothing else than re-creating Leonardo Da Vinci’s Monaliza with mathematical formulas and combination of 16 colors. My first reaction was “is it worth it?”. Later, when I had my own computer and tried to draw with a “mouse," I thought “what a limited tool of creation." Now, after several years of working in the digital media, with all the technological tools, software and facilities that I experimented (and still experimenting), I look at other traditional artists work, and say “what a limited environment they are working in. What limited tools they have.”

Art was always a dynamic force of change. I hope my kids will not say one day “How limited our father was.”....

Beirut, june 8, 1998