Dominic McIver Lopes
The APA Newsletter on Philosophy and Computers and the ASA Newsletter have worked together to publish a series of joint special issues on the influence of computers on art, a project started by Ewa Bogusz-Boltuc. This issue, and the Winter 2010 issue, of both Newsletters will be based in part around Dom Lopes’ upcoming book, A Philosophy of Computer Art, and reflects the recent interest in computer art more generally.
From the invention of the press, to the elevator, acrylic paint, and the electric guitar, technological progress has helped drive changes in long established art forms (in these cases, literature, architecture, painting, and music), but entirely new art forms (such as the movies) also spring from new technologies. As everybody knows, computers are having a profound impact on the long-established arts, but A Philosophy of Computer Art proposes the bold thesis that computer art is a new art form. It bets that making a case for this thesis sheds light on computer art – and perhaps on the arts more generally.
The book begins by using two conceptions of computer technology to distinguish what may be called “digital art” from “computer art” and to then argue that digital art is not an art form.
Since computers handle information in a common digital code, usually binary code, they are all-purpose representation devices. We use them to make, manipulate, transmit, and display text, music, sound, and images, whether alone or combined in multimedia. Many scholars explore the varied and far reaching implications of this for the established arts. Yet digital stories are still stories, digital images remain images, and digital music is a kind of music. “Digital art” names the disjunction of digital stories, digital images, digital music, and the like.
According to another conception, computers compute. They are designed to run computational processes – to carry inputs into outputs by following formal rules, or algorithms. Works of “computer art” take advantage of computational processing to achieve interactivity. For example, Sustained Coincidence by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer detects the location of its users and controls a series of lights to ensure that they cast overlapping shadows on the gallery wall. The artist reports that “the piece is inspired by phantasmagorias on the one hand and surveillance and digital analysis on the other.” Its operation relies on a computer that gathers information on the work’s users and follows an algorithm to maintain an environment with certain features. In this way, the actions of users help to shape how the work goes.
The main elements of a good description of Sustained Coincidence show up in a definition of computer art. An item is a work of computer art just in case (1) it is art, (2) it is run on a computer, (3) it is interactive, and (4) it is interactive because it is run on a computer. Clauses (3) and (4) distinguish works of computer art like Sustained Coincidence from works of digital art like Jeff Wall’s A Sudden Gust of Wind or the musical compositions of David Cope’s EMI. Only the first of these is interactive. What does that mean? A work is interactive just in case it prescribes that the actions of its users partly generate its display. Its display? The display of any work of art is some pattern or structure that’s designed in part by the artist and that we attend to in order to ascertain the work’s meaning and aesthetic features. In La Grande Jatte, the display is a marked surface, in Blow-Up, it is any of a number of screenings, and in “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” it is any of a number of performances. The display of Sustained Coincidence includes any of a number of patterns of illumination and cast shadows. Since these are generated in part by its users, the work is interactive, and this interactivity is mediated by computational processing. Sustained Coincidence a work of computer art, if it is a work of art.
To see why computer art is a new art form, consider why digital art is not. A kind of art is not an art form unless it is an appreciative art kind. Works in an art kind share some features in common. Works in an appreciative art kind are normally appreciated for having those features: they make up a contrast class for purposes of appreciation. Viewed in the context of twentieth- century painting, Broadway Boogie-Woogie is restrained, but it is ebullient when viewed against the background of other paintings by Mondrian, so twentieth-century painting and the Mondrian oeuvre are different appreciative art kinds (here is a demonstration). The same goes for digital images and digital songs. We normally appreciate a digital image like Wall’s A Sudden Gust of Wind in a contrast class that includes arbitrarily any digital image, and we normally appreciate a sonata by EMI in contrast with arbitrarily any digital song. However, we do not normally appreciate A Sudden Gust of Wind with digital songs like the sonata by EMI in mind. We do not appreciate it as digital art in the most generic sense. Digital art is not an appreciative art kind, so it is not an art form.
This argument does not imply that the fact that A Sudden Gust of Wind has a digital display is irrelevant to our appreciation of it. On the contrary, we are right to appreciate it as a digital image. Yet we lose nothing by doing without the idea that we are to appreciate it as digital art. More importantly, the point of the argument is to bring out what is needed to defend the claim that computer art is an art form. The task is to show that it is an appreciative art kind. (If it is an appreciative art kind, then it is an art form, because it is not plausible that it is any other kind of appreciative art kind. For example, it is not likely to be a genre.)
No work is interactive unless its display can vary depending what its user does, and that means its display differs from user to user. That is why a hunk of marble or a written text are not interactive. Moreover, this variation means something. Stepping into Sustained Coincidence, I notice first that the lights inevitably follow me and then that, no matter what I do, they bring my shadow into contact with the shadows of others. I get this far only by gauging the effect of my actions on the current display of the work and thereby scoping out the space of possible displays that the work generates. Once I do that, I begin to appreciate the work itself – as what has those possible displays. Of course, anyone is free to appreciate each display as unique, without regard to the fact that it realizes one of many possible faces of the work. However, to do that is to fail to appreciate the work as using computational processing to achieve interactivity.
Computer art users markedly differ from the audiences for traditional art works. Members of these audiences experience and interpret stories, images, and songs, but computer art users do something more: they appreciate works by generating their displays. This suggests to some that users are artists and it suggests to others that users perform computer art works. Neither suggestion is correct, though each contains a grain of truth. Whereas users help generate the work’s displays, only the artist creates the item that has those many, variable displays (she often does this in part by writing some code for the computational process that the work runs on). And whereas a performer uses his knowledge of a work to generate a performance of it, a computer automates display-generation for users, so that they can discover the work by exploring its many displays. That said, both artists and users make displays of computer art works. More interestingly, users are like performers in being objects of appreciative attention. We appreciate Frost/Nixon in part by attending to Frank Langella’s performance in the role of Richard Nixon. Likewise, I appreciate Sustained Coincidence in part by attending to myself in the act of generating some of its possible displays. Unless I do this, I don’t really appreciate it as an interactive work.
There now exist thousands of works like Sustained Coincidence. Some are installations, but others are more closely allied with sculpture, imaging, story-telling, poetry, music, or architecture. What they share in common is that they take advantage of computational processing to achieve interactivity. They comprise an art form if we appreciate these works, in the way just described, as works of computer art.
An account of computer art should provide a framework for criticism. The book suggests that specifically computer art criticism refers to facts about a work’s computer-based interactivity as reasons for its having a merit or flaw. The book also answers several widespread and rather influential critiques of computer art. One of these is that good art promotes active thought, but computer art inhibits active thought, so computer art fails artistically. At first glance, this argument is surprising, for interaction often seems to require quick witted responses, and if the user does nothing, there will be no display from them to enjoy. However, “active thought” is often defined narrowly as distanced contemplation. The complaint is that users who interact with computer art works get so caught up in the moment – in the feedback loop with the machine – that distance is hard to achieve. Indeed, the very cognitive burden that interactivity places on the user precludes distance. In this respect, computer art compares with video games, which seem to demand real-time responses that block opportunities for leisurely reflection. However, this critique misses a point stressed above. Granted that users get caught up in the flow of their interactions, appreciating the work as generating a range of displays requires stepping back from any single interaction. Immersion in a single display is consistent with – and might even be needed for – distanced contemplation of the work itself. Other critiques of computer art can be answered in a similar way, by a careful study of its nature.
The book closes by discharging the assumption built into the definition of computer art that works like Sustained Coincidence are works of art. The case is not terribly hard to make, but the level of difficulty ratchets up if we take seriously the comparison in the previous paragraph between computer art and video games. Video games are run on computers, they are interactive, and they are interactive because they are run on computers. So if they are art, then they are computer art. The trouble is that the easy case for counting computer art as art then applies to video games and it turns out that video games are art. One response is to retrace our steps and reject the assumption that Sustained Coincidence and its kin have art status. A more interesting response recognizes that Grand Theft Auto stands to Sustained Coincidence as tagging stands to Joseph Albers, as Dune stands to Ulysses, as Die Hard stands to Black Narcissus, or as Feist stands to Strauss. If video games are the popular end of computer art, computer art is not a niche phenomenon, and it might be worthwhile considering what we can learn about computer art from video games.
The argument for the thesis that computer art is a new art form brings out how much it differs from other art forms. It takes advantage of computational processing to achieve user interaction with a highly variable display, and its users engage in appreciative activities that go beyond those of traditional spectators. The common confusion of digital art and computer art obscures what is groundbreaking in the latter. Computer art is not just for nerds with an interest in aesthetics. If computer art is an art form, then it affords an opportunity to fit together many of the components of a complete philosophy of an art form: a definition of the art form, an ontology, a framework for criticism, and an account of its status as art.
2009 © Dominic McIver Lopes