Evolving Role of the Computerized Artist
November 13, 1999
Starting out I called myself a "computer artist" who did "computer art". Back then, in 1985, the personal computer for the experimental artist was also a toy with which the possibility of inventing a new look was the challenge, the obsession. After achieving interesting new imagery previously never achieved as a painter and sculptor, the mindset of the times was to worry about decent printout without losing too much image quality. Much time was spent hiding the jaggies, in other words, the downtime drudgery of doing touch up work to complete artistic imagery. But the threat of even further degradation of image quality in printing remained intrinsic to that first generation of crude PC hardware and software tools. All along the criteria for acceptance was the human eye's inevitable comparison between such printout (or photographic output) with the finesse of watercolor or acrylic/oil media expression. Thus most "computer art" was rejected from juried competition, if not flat out declared NOT art but "craft." New vision curatorially meant less than quality of the marks in the 80's. I personally countered by emphasizing the crude pixelation of low resolution imagery, deemed successful by me, considering the meager processing power of l megabyte of ram machines (Amiga 1000 k) and color limited 8 and 16 bit graphic cards. I declared "Pixelism" a new style of "expression" for these pixlated visions, not unlike that of Impressionism and Pointillism of long ago.
This was a time to revolt against the conservative art world that turned its back on upstart computer users who had the audacity to call themselves "artists." I had colleagues who used the computer as part of their graphic fine arts but publicly concealed it because "it could dub me a 'computer artist' and ruin my hopes to be considered a 'serious artist'." Personally, I was proud to declare to the public myself as a "computer artist." In framed and hung "artist's statements," in the invitations, in the papers. It made me feel leading edge, a defiant artist equipped with a manifesto, a rebel with a cause, the way young emerging artists have always revolted against the safe, the approved, the commercialized.
Then came the period where it seemed more "politically correct" to label oneself a "digital artist" instead of a "computer artist." I still don't see the difference. Back in the 80's saying "I'm a digital artist" would elicit "What?" from most (granted, "computer artist" got its share of "What?"s too). Maybe in the future it would make more sense when we can create digital art using wireless, boxless, pocket graphic devices. Ah, someday, to be able to "sketch" digital images while riding the subway! In the meantime the club I founded in Honolulu back in 1989 wanted to change its name in the early nineties from the "Hawaii Computer Art Society" to the "Hawaii Digital Art Society." The old name stuck, through my persuasion of the value of past years of local shows that built name recognition. But winds of change are stirring, especially as I play less of an active role locally as a computerized artist.
With the advent of Internet access digital artists further splintered into different camps. I have lost interest in HCAS's present preoccupation with technical printout quality, shows for sales, and securing of local brick and mortar exhibit spaces. Since 1996 I have had my head aloft in Cyberspace with my www.s. First and foremost has been the building and maintaining of Truly Virtual Web Art Museum at www.lastplace.com. Once totally absorbed in the virtual reality experience of it all, I completely lost interest to "show" - to bother printing, framing, convincing jurors with no understanding of my 15-year trek through hardware and software, arduously honing my work's mettle. I cannot expect the critic (there is hope for the enlightened art historian) to appreciate less sophisticated imagery weaned from old computer systems as I do. The digitally un-"educated eye" of the traditional art critic now criticizes the difference between yesterday's and today's graphic power output as "fine arts." Me? I cherish old works not for their relative simplicity but because they are the survivors of many hours, years, with now extinct computer systems. Such "dated" imagery would, in fact be impossible to replicate with today's machines, successfully engineered and programmed to produce more photorealistic graphics. My beloved pixel is erased, my "Pixelism"of the 80's is dead. My celebratory huge canvases hailing a new "pixelated expressionism" are now antiquities surviving that exciting first decade of PC art. As such, this body of 150+ canvases await eventual induction into contemporary sections of world museums, once they are discovered for what they represent to our ever-changing art history, it too consolidating and going global like everything else around us.
I leave it to the other "digital artists" to continue the fight for acceptance as "real artist" who produce "real art." For me the issue is academic, make that irrelevant, even boringly passe. To me the question, the judgment, is meaningless as I have gone beyond into another dimension of sharing, of displaying, of teaching. In online cyberspace I am proud to be among the pioneer digital artists that realize they are in the Promised Land for digital artists. The work stays IN the place it was created, that is, in the computer. It remains at home, in its domain where it dominates all other forms of art in quality and sincerity of visual representation. The work remains first generation, remains photonic pixels indigenous to the creative process, remains light rays emitted to the eye with the same brilliance, saturation, contrast and subtle millions of hues that the artist saw as he created.
There is the rally call to artists to help build a new online visual arts cyberculture through material innate to the experience of surfing the Internet. In this virtual realm scanned watercolor and oil masterpieces are mere reproductions with characteristics of the original radically changed due to reduction of size (to fit the monitor screen) and digitized representation of reflective pigment alternatively with emitted light. "Cyberartists" such as myself create "cyberart" FOR online viewing, imagining the future rave of a global virtual audience now bestowed with an established online visual culture. The target audience, target population, is the unseen Web site visitor. The monitor serves adequately as a frame for such unique imagery, only found on the Internet. Just as poignant, the physical monitor is a virtual portal to a real emerging global cyberculture. Those users so inclined to be "cultured," can locate and experience Web art and through it, identify with and become citizens of this new virtual civilization at the advent of the new millenium.
The most ardent and dedicated Cyberists move on and experiment to create digital imagery not for the existing "art world," but for the Web audience and posterity. They are inspired through the realization that the surrogate exhibiting space that is online cyberspace, instead of exhibit space in the "real world" (Surreal implication here suggests we all experience online art like a dreamlike scenario), is the great opportunity of working during such historic times, ushered in through high technology. An indigenous visual art form is emerging from a new space and time dimension unlike any the art world has known or even foreseen, prior to the coming of the Internet. For these pioneering spirits I call "Web artists"- or the Webists - whose collective body of works may later be dubbed "Webism." I have seen a sudden shift of intention for digital art creation on the Internet as director and curator of my virtual "webmuseum." How? In 1997-98 searching for digital art abroad on the Internet with titles referring to the Internet, i.e., the content of the work, was few and far between. Now, gosh, check out the titles of many of the artists participating in India's lst International Digital Art Exhibition (1999).
Indeed, from computer to digital to cyber to Web artist, today's online artists are building not just needed culture for the global online community but leading the way towards a basic transformation of art itself as we know, identify and experience it, as we embark though the time portal into the new millenium. Web-based art - now art to associate with online experience, or in more general terms, life, no matter where one spends it.