Making Art Beyond the Speed of Thought

-an introduction to computer graphics and art for Chinese art students and artists

(was translated into Chinese language)


September 1988

by Dr. Rodney Chang


It is a honor to stand today before you with the opportunity to share with you my knowledge, experience and quest for fine art from the computer. I remember how earlier in my life a sense of inferiority hung over me for being an overseas Chinese - cut off from centuries of culture and the language of my ancestors. I dreamed of someday of having some worth to the homeland that my grandparents left, to have some little importance to a country I love that did not even know I existed. Today my adolescent dream is fulfilled, thanks to the receptivity of your art community. I hope to not only acquaint you with the current art revolution in the Western world, but to ignite the beginning of China's contribution to the future of international contemporary art, through the genius of its artists who decide to dedicate their artistic talents to the development of this new art medium. I look forward to the day when I see great computer art with the sensitivity of the Chinese people displayed with honor internationally. I challenge you before me to drop the traditionalist artist's defensive skepticism and learn what this machine can do. I invite you to come play with it. As an artist for over twenty years who has dabbled in every other art medium, I have never been so intrigued by the creative potential of this new art medium. Experimentation in aesthetic concepts is limitless. The labor of being an active artist is reduced. Albert Einstein once said, invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I would like to change that ratio as an artist, as a conceptual computerized artist. It is a medium that challenges the artist to make changes, to keep up with the latest technology. This computer that I have brought to you as a gift is already an "old" computer, although it first came on the market in 1985. But it is still my favorite friend and the machine with which most of the images in the Shanghai State Art Museum were rendered with. You will also learn to appreciate this powerful and innovative little machine.

For those of you who are excited to try this new artistic tool I must warn you of the inherent danger. Should you become trapped by its creative power you can never make art like you did before using the computer. Your art, your feelings about art, will change forever. The computer will become a part of you, it will become an extension of both your intuitive, artistic, and analytical sides of your brain. You will learn to think like the computer. This cannot be prevented because you will internalize the logic of the programmer and the mechanical sequencing of creating visual images with a machine. You will become a more ordered mind, a more efficient creator. At this point of my art career, after total commitment to the computer for 3 years, I can now paint on canvas like the computer without prior design assistance with the computer for the specific image. I have become the computer to a certain degree, as computerized artist.

Like any other art medium, the beginning art student's work will be dominated by the look of the medium. For computer art, your initial work will look very much alike as other student work, especially since you will all work with the same computer hardware and software programs. The work will look stiff, mechanical and full of little squares ("pixels"). This is not "art" yet. The medium overshadows the user. This is still a type of "commercial art" or "graphics." However, for the most talented artist, the images with constant practice and hard work will begin to look personal. The artist becomes sensitive to the intrinsic qualities of his medium - he learns to not fret over the mechanical pixels and criticize them as inferior "texture" to that of the smooth color flow of watercolor. He learns not to compare different art media like one does not compare oranges to apples. He learns to master the new visual possibilities of this new intelligent way of painting with lights. Most important he evolves as an artist as he develops a personal style. The mediocre artist on the computer will always have work that cannot be distinguish from other computer graphic artists' images. The successful computer artist, like any other great artist in any other medium, captures personal expression in his work. His vision, his feeling dominate the strong mechanical patterns of light of the machine. The computer becomes a mere vehicle to visualize what he wants to say as an artist. The successful computer artist makes the computer nothing more than another tool at this disposal to make his great artistic statements. The master may choose never to work on a newer computer, with the latest graphic tricks and power, but settle into expanding his visual vocabulary of effects with one machine and program. However, much more dynamic interaction with the pulse of high technology occurs when the artist also evolves with the latest breakthroughs in technology. He is forced to constantly adapt to the latest offerings of technical products. He tries new programs, selecting those new graphic skills of the computer to incorporate into his own computer style. The long term work of the dedicated computer artist records not only his artistic development but also the progress of technology itself.

Let me now speak briefly of how this art technology came to be available to the artist. It has only been a decade since powerful graphics of the computer became available to the artist in the Western world. The first attempts to make pictures with the computer began in the 1950s. However it took monsters of machinery that heated up whole rooms to make crude and primitive stick figures. No single artist could afford to dabble with such gigantic and expensive machinery, less be an engineer and mathematician to be able to draw an electronic line. Such an environment of punch cards and the sterile scientific laboratory look was not conducive to the human spirit. Artists preferred to remain in their small, warm, and intimate art studios. Then, with the advances in technology that led to the miniaturization of automated information processing, pioneers of computer graphics advanced towards making graphics with the machine easier and cheaper for the non-scientific personality. During the 1960s transistors replaced electronic vacuum tubes. Then during the beginning of the next decade transistors gave way to integrated silicon circuitry, further reducing costs and size of machinery. All this time development of pictures for scientific, military and other non-art activity continued. By the end of the 1970s complex and expensive computer graphics developed by the governments and research institutions were commonplace. The developed technology became accessible to the small company for utilization for other tasks. Computer graphics started to be applied to diverse functions, such as medical imaging, television commercials, architectural drafting, animation, product design, and arcade games. By 1978, with both the development of software and hardware technology, the personal home computer became a reality in the marketplace. Maverick innovators in programming started to make programs specific for use by commercial artists. Instead of $100,000 to $50,000 of a few year previously, a professional computer workstation in 1984 could be purchased for $20,000. An example is Lumena software by Time Arts Corporation in California, from which many of my Shanghai museum exhibition is made. In 1985 I had the opportunity to try computer graphics with such a Lumena-IBM workstation, renting computer time for $50 per hour (actually discounted to $25 for struggling artists). That was exciting but so expensive to use as a developing computer artist. In 1986 I purchased the new Amiga computer by Commodore Corporation. It was a revolutionary machine with so much power at a cost of under $2000. (note 2001- l megabyte operating RAM!) Today it is still the leading computer graphics personal computer not only in its graphic power but also in what you get for the price. The Amiga is a great entry and introduction of computer graphics for the Chinese artist.

The direction of the development of the personal and home computer is towards more computing power at a popular price. More power means faster rates of computing information, whether for calculating numbers or structuring pictures. Faster rates means saving time and getting more done, important for both the business man and the working artist. Computer graphics programming companies compete fiercely with each other to make new visual effects possible that outsell their competitor's product and make their own previous graphic products obsolete, thereby forcing the consumer to purchase the up-to-date new versions. The Amiga is especially targeted by programming companies because of its special co-processor hardware and revolutionary multi-tasking capabilities. Artists like me rush to get the new programs first and to develop personal style from them. However, it must be remembered that fancy effects from the program itself does not make good artists or impress museum curators. It is what the artist does with these new visual "tricks" to assist his personal expression and vision that matters. The artist, not the machine, makes art. Thinking and creative ability still counts, not fancy decorative machine gimmickry.

Although much excitement is occurring within the computer artist ranks, most computer graphics is delegated to the mundane tasks but very profitable function of making business presentation visual graphics. With pictures besides words, companies can show in business meetings how healthy their businesses are, how success can be predicted for the future using beautiful imagery projected from slides. Sad to say there is yet no purely fine arts program. Every commercially available program is tainted with the ability and intent to make business presentation artwork or commercial advertising imagery. Some artists come from computer programming backgrounds and create individualized graphic effects. However the majority of artists using the computer, like myself, have no interest to develop our own programs. It is like making your own clay as a sculptor or making your own paint as a painter from raw pigments, instead of buying what is commercially available as quality art materials. Is the work of a good airbrush painting artist any less valuable because he did not build his own airbrush and air compressor? If the artist had to spend years to learn to program and create professional level graphics besides think like a mathematician and accountant, there would be little time to create. Besides I think such noncreative activity may actually hamper the artistic spirit. Many artists tend not to be logical and rational thinkers but, instead, "irrational" in their psychological process of creating universal visual statements from their unconscious and intuitive side of the brain. I am fortunate as a "user" computer artist without programming experience to be in contact with master graphic programmer John Dunn. John created the Lumena paint program in California after graduating from Chicago Art Institute in 1977. The millionaire programmer has since moved from California to Hawaii where he now works everyday on a new more complicated version of Lumena (Lumena 32). It will include "artificial intelligence" he says; "It will be able to know who is using it and change itself according to the artist's creative habits." John likes how I use his first Lumena program to create my art. He has invited me to be his "test pilot" for his new program that will take about 2 years to complete. As he finishes writing a portion of the program I will be the first artist to try it out, take it for a "ride," so to speak. I am told to act crazy with it, make things go wrong, try to find out what is weak and how to make it more powerful to make great art. I feel honored to have this opportunity to try first a program destined to be used around the world on the fastest current computers (no. 80386 32-bit processors). Dunn's original Lumena software sold for $9,000 per copy back in 1984. The new Lumena should market for around $10,000 in 1990. Remember that this is just the graphic software program and that one still has to buy the computer to run the program (about $20,000 for these new powerful personal computers with extra specialized equipment for operating powerful graphic programs). In short, to operate a Lumena 32 system costs 30 to 40,000 dollars, way above the personal budget of a free lance solitary artist. Lumena workstations are marketed for the small and middle size company that cannot afford the corporate and institutional $100,000 commercial graphic systems. Besides making new art with the emerging Lumena 32, I hope to influence the formation of the software as an experimental and conceptual artist. On August 7, on John's wedding day with his new wife, Nan Love, I presented to him by booklet of 1,000 new computer graphic concepts that I have not yet seen or been able to perform with his original Lumena versions (note 2001: rumor is that Lumena was bought out and became the nucleus for Fractal Painter). If John becomes excited about some of these visual ideas for futuristic graphic programs I have the rare opportunity as a user artist to help pioneer new graphic software to new heights. Of course the complicated ideas I hope can become today's reality may be beyond the technological, mathematical and economical limitations of today's state-of-the-art personal computer industry.

Thus far you have been listening to the words of a disciple of the new art medium - a believer in the creation of a new art. It will help make you aware of the conflict currently occurring over the status of computer graphics as a bonifide art form. Like any other cultural revolution, there are opposing groups who either support or detest. Quotations from opposing interest groups and experts at this point will give you a sense of the discussion going on in the West as to the state and fate of computer graphics in the Western art world. Computer graphics digs up the ageless philosophical questions, "What is art?" Kathie Beals, writer for Gannett News Service: "A computer has no idea of its own. It can't wake up in the middle of the night and invent Cubism or Impressionism or Pop Art. Before it can make an electronic image, it must be fed the right instructions." Robert Morgan, computer artist in Massachusetts: "When I make art on the computer, my intent is not to recreate reality but to create my own reality. ..It's only the tool that is different" (from painting on canvas). Pegge Hopper, distinguished artist of Hawaiian female figures, expressed a dissenting minority mind-set: "If I say I feel it's not what I think of as art, people will feel I'm an old fuddy-duddy (older woman with outdated ideas).

It reminds me of performance and conceptual art of the '60s. In the same vein, computer graphics uses the machine, which does the basic work. The medium lacks the hand, the "signature" of the artist. The idea is more important than the image. The form is too restrictive; the tiny grids are very limiting. I don't think computer graphics will ever touch people in their hearts, like a Matisse or Bonnard: "It has no soul." Rocky Jensen, noted Hawaiian sculptor: "If two people are the same, the creation is useless… There should be a human element involved in art. With computer graphics, the human dictates the idea, and the machine does the rest. There's no substitute for the human being. How can you create another 'Mona Lisa'?" Larry Lovett, Hawaiian computer artist, said: "Let those who scoff at computer art be dinosaurs. Michelangelo could have contented himself with sculpting in marble, but he painted fresco murals, which was then a new technology… The definition of art is still unsettled. Shoemakers make shoes and artists make art. Instead of oils, the computer is my tool." John Dunn, master graphics programmer: "Computers don't make art - people do. The computer is a tool, nothing more. The art is good or bad, depending on the application of the user. …Computers are the world's best sketchbook for artists to try out ideas." Bruce Bromley, computer graphics technician: "I cannot think of it as art because I don't think it will sell. I don't think there's a market out there. I've seen some pretty pictures, but nobody's going to buy them." George Damon Levy, writer for PC Computing Magazine: "Will the PC (home computer) replace the palette in painters' studios? For some of the art world's most respected citizens, it already has. …. Artists quest after a perfect way to translate artistic vision into sight and sound. In the past, the medium might have been a new pigment or stylus. Today, increasingly, it is the computer. An exhibition at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York, "Computers and Art," showcased works of computer-assisted artists and underscored the increasing acceptance of computers within the fine arts community." Roberta Williams, Curator of Louisville Art Gallery, Kentucky, statement on "The Artist and the Computer" exhibition: "The computer has become an increasingly prevalent tool in our society in general. …The capability of computer systems to produce unique art forms is just beginning to be explored… As new programs are developed for the production of computer graphics applications and as the cost of such systems becomes less, this method of expressing ideas will be available to more and more artists. It is our hope that this exhibition will help to stimulate interest in this new medium which holds the possibility of having more impact on the art world than did the introduction of photography in the 19th century." Dorothy Atkins, Ph.D.: "Throughout much of the history of art, art and technology has been kindred souls. There was Leonardo, the Futurists and more recently the computer artists… During the last 10 years there has been an upsurge in the blending of art and technology, computer generated and assisted art is on the cutting edge of innovation in the arts of the '80s. The look of art had already been affected because of our television viewing, but with the onset of home computers the effect has increased. New art media are always suspect and one hears the same statements that were voiced when other new media was introduced, 'art will be destroyed' and in the case of the computers, 'we will all become robots.' All these statements forget to create art one needs the eye of the artist and that the many years of more traditional art training that the artist brings to this new medium maintains the connection between the past and the present in art… It is true that the artist has to learn to use a new medium and yes, all media can dictate what an art looks like and what the medium can be used for, but all this is mediated as the artist gains control of the medium. Increased awareness of the computer's potential as an art medium has spawned an enormous diversity of artistic expression using computer graphic systems." Duane Palyka, computer and programming artist, New York Institute of Technology: "Making computer art through the design and/or modification of programming tools requires great efforts in time and energy. Just to develop the programming proficiency necessary to work this way, I passed up the opportunity to make a lot of conventional art. However, computers are seductive and fun; I enjoy programming. Time and energy permitting, programming by day and painting by night gives a pleasant right-brain/left-brain balance to my life." Frank Dietrich, artist and computer graphics consultant: "The year 1984 has been synonymous with the fundamental Orwellian pessimism of a future mired in technological alienation. Yet one year later, in 1985, we are celebrating the official maturity of an art form born just 20 years ago: computer art … The first computer art exhibitions, which ran almost concurrently in 1965 in the United States and Germany, were held not by artists at all, but by scientists … These scientists were motivated mainly by research related to visual phenomena: visualization of acoustics and the foundations of binocular vision." Patric Prince, excerpts from the catalog, "The Artist and the Computer" exhibition, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1987 (of which I was a participant artist): "The major mind block (in thinking of computer images as 'art') apparently concerns associations with the computer as a machine… Yet, since the time of the Renaissance, there has been artistic production that combined an interest in science, technology and artmaking. The artistic use of electronic technology is part of this historical continuum…. Computer art can include not just three but four dimensions, the fourth dimension being that of time…One of the concepts that binds computer artists together is their approach to artmaking. Twentieth-century artists tend to create by using their experiences as the basis for content or meaning in their art. Each piece of work is a compilation of an artist's life experience and builds upon his most recent work in an ongoing development of style or metaphor. The treatment of form in art (the metaphor) is unique to an artist's experience. When artists work with a computer program, it changes how they approach artmaking. Artists can no longer commence a work with the total composition when using the computer. They are forced to analyze the individual shapes or processes used to create the work first, and only then can the structure evolve. In sum, these artists study forms in terms of individual algorithms and create metaphors related to the computer and its impact on civilization." Luis R. Cancel, Curator, Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York: "…artists … employ the computer at some point in the creative process, be it at the moment of conceptualization of the art object … as an organizer and drone to help sort out and calculate the complex polygonal forms of … sculpture… or as the primary tool of creation…" Patric Prince: "…artists' works involve all three uses (of the computer): the computer as tool, as medium and as inspiration." Copper Giloth and Jane Veeder, computer artists/programmers: "…artists are developing tools to explore the creative digital process, investigate the medium, evolve their own perceptions and skills, and extend evidence of this to others." Nadine Kam, writer, Waikiki Beach Press: "Traditional computer graphics efforts generally involved use of computer power to imitate the hand drawn and painted look … Now Dr. Rodney Chang… and the Hawaii Computer Art Group have reversed the relationship between computer graphics and traditional handmade art by creating original paintings that simulate machine generated images. HCAG produces the 'hard copies' of original work designed on the computer by Chang." And lastly, an artist's statement (mine) of his serious artistic concerns in working with the computer: "My computer art efforts and results are grounded in a Modernist education and a Post-Modernist mentality. The computer serves as a powerful tool to structure balanced (or unbalanced) compositions of shape, line, texture, and color. When an image echoes to me the sense of being 'picture perfect,' it is 'saved' on disk. From that state, it can be manifested as either a completed piece of art (via the monitor in real time, or as a photographic print), or be translated into an original painting or sculpture. At all times, the traditions of judging other conventional media are applicable to determining the success of each computer piece."