Honolulu Star-Bulletin, November 30, 1988

Artist with a cause starts a revolution

20th-century technology meets ancient art tradition

by Nadine Kam

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Rodney Chang, lst row, center


"The computer opens up many possibilities. It's a natural thing
to go to abstraction, to try new colors. This generation will
bypass  the old masters,  because  they have   a tool    which
forces them to think  anew."-
Rodney Chang, Computer artist


Computer artist Rodney Chang went to Shanghai recently and started a revolution of sorts ... with the help of the Chinese government.

The government invited the Hawaii artist to present China's first-ever computer exhibit. In conjunction with a Shanghai Art Museum showing, he taught a class in computer art to 42 of China's most promising young artists.

Prior to his visit, he imagined the biggest hang-ups would be getting the artist to reach beyond centuries of Chinese art tradition to embrace a 20th century medium - a machine at that - and then overcoming a highly stratified education system.

Of the two tasks, the first proved easier.

Though none of the students had previous computer knowledge, the machine was not the problem. "It was the biggest toy they ever had," he said. Students came to class early to play computer games; their favorite was chess.

But work on the sole Amiga computer, donated by Chang to the university's College of Fine Arts, was limited to the three hours the class was in section. Outside of class time, the computer was locked up to protect it from the art students - officials viewed them as "technical illiterates" who might damage the machine.

Chang lamented, "There is no integration, no multi-disciplinary approach to education." He saw dozens of personal computers and a half million dollar new mini computer in the school's engineering department. He tried to convince the department to let art students use the computers but they wouldn't allow it.

"I tried to get a conspiracy going within my class. I told them to go and demand a computer and they all said in unison, 'No way, forget about it.' "

A rebel by nature, a dentist by profession, Chang has spent much of his art career challenging tradition by merging art and science.

As an art student he went against the beliefs of his professors, by studying the psychology of art - theories of beauty and aesthetics. For this he was berated. "Don't read so many books, paint more," he was told.

"It was easy for me to fall in love with the computer because here was an art that got no respect. It was easy for me to jump up and become a disciple of this cause."

His 42 Chinese students - considered among the best in the country (many traveling from different provinces to Shanghai) - took turns working at the Amiga. While one worked, the others crowded around and insults flew as they labored with the electronic paintbrush, trying to create bamboo that ended up looking like charred twigs.

"It was comforting to see that even when you start with geniuses, they don't become masters right away," Chang said.

He plans to exhibit their best works in a show here next summer, giving them half a year to hone their talent.

"Half of the learning process is discovering how to use the machine. For that, anybody can read the manual," he said. "The other half is learning to think like an artist."

One of his more skeptical students said, "I don't know if we can do art of our culture with a Western machine."

"What I told them was the art will be Chinese because ideas come from a person, not a machine."

Chang admits he had preconceived notions about the type of art that would appeal to the Chinese sense of aesthetics. Many of the works he exhibited were monochromatic. The pieces selected by the museum for its permanent collection indeed had little color, but Chang said his students were intrigued with unusual color combinations they said they had never considered.

"The computer opens up many possibilities. It's a natural thing to go to abstraction, to try new colors. This generation will bypass the old masters, because they have a tool which forces them to think anew."

Part of getting them to use that tool involved questioning their approach to art. That he did, in turn criticizing, complimenting, cajoling and otherwise getting them to consider what they might do differently.

At the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Research Institute he told artists their work is dated and asked why they didn't use acrylics.

"From Hawaii, of all places, I was the rebel. I wasn't very diplomatic. They liked that."

Whenever he spoke, the artists were quiet and looked down or at one another. "But they expected me to think differently," he said. "I think I moved Chinese painting in some direction. They might be buying acrylics now, they might be going abstract.

"I felt China was reaching out. If China wasn't receptive to something new or something from the West, I wouldn't have gotten this show."

From a Chinese artist's point of view, Chang's show was indeed a coup. In a nation where the museums, television station, newspapers and magazines are run by the government, artists who are singled out are extremely privileged.

"They invited 25 reporters and took them all out for a nine-course banquet after the show. They were very familiar with Western art, but they never saw computer art before. It was treated as a new art and it was written up that way."

In America people still argue the question: Is computer generated art really art? In Shanghai, he said, "It was accepted as art at the highest level, by the museum curator."

Chang has been invited by Harbing University to go back to the Russian border to create China's computer-designed monument. When he asked authorities if they required any political or social statement, they answered: "No, make it like New York."

"They want to become part of the new century, they want a significant place on the international level. I feel like I nudged a sleeping giant."

Now that computer art is beginning to be recognized, Chang is ready to move on.

"I want artificial intelligence that will let art go further than cultural conditioning allows. Right now, the artist hits a command, a color changes and the computer asks what to do next. I want more randomness put into programs, more bugs, more crashes, more tempermentality."

He envisions a day when the computer is in control. "Right now artists can say, 'The computer is just a smart paint brush. I'm still the artist. I'm in control here.' "

Chang wants to say, "The computer is the real artist!"

Threatening, right?

Not really, Chang says. This would put him in the position of art critic.

"The computer cannot evaluate results. I will decide what to delete, what to enhance, what to save. That's art criticism."


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