Art with Computers: The Human Spirit and the Electronic Revolution

by The Visual Computer Art Editor Mel Alexenberg

The Visual Computer: International Journal of Computer Graphics, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1988.

Computers are not only giving artists a new tool for creative expression, they are reshaping our world-view.  Computers are extensions of mind.  Telecommunications systems are extensions of our nervous system branching out to give global range to our actions.  These electronic media are changing our perceptions of ourselves and our place in the universe.  Our concepts of space and time are being transformed.  The rapid changes in computer imaging that we have been experiencing in the past two decades are in integral part of the Electronic Revolution.  This revolution, I propose, is the most far-reaching in the history of humanity.

The two earlier revolutions of comparable magnitude were the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.  Unlike the Electronic Revolution which is a quantitative leap, these two prior revolutions were quantitative changes.  They provided extensions of our muscular system.  The ox made our arms stronger and the horse made our legs faster.  The tractor and automobile just added more strength and greater speed.   There was no shift in kind.

The circular/cyclical organization of space and time in the Agricultural Revolution can be symbolized by the round pita bread.  The rectangular supermarket bread fragmented into slices, wrapped in plastic to stop olfactory and tactile contact can symbolize the rectangular/lineal organization of reality in the Industrial Revolution.  Art activity engaged in ritual, teaching, and decoration was replaced in the Industrial Age by “Art for Art’s sake,” by still-life/nature morte, by art clearly separated from every-day life by a golden frame.  Art of the Agricultural Age that told the legends of the tribe and didactically presented the cosmology of a people gave way to visual illusion of three-dimensional space delineated in a single-point perspective.

Dynamic multiform experience of the Electronic Age changes the assembly-line mentality that fragments time and traps it in the rectangular boxes of calendars and schedules.  Telecommunication technology lets us be simultaneously in today and tomorrow.  If I telephone Asia from North America tonight, it will be the morning of the next day for the person who answers my call.  I can speak into tomorrow. 

In contrast to the circle and the rectangle, which are closed forms, electronic information is stored, processed, and communicated in spirals and branching systems.  Spiral and branching forms are open-ended systems of life and growth.  The genetic information for all living organisms is encoded in the DNA helix; electronic information is stored in spiral computer, video and audio tapes and discs.  Like a branching tree, electronic networks, computer architecture, telephone systems, and electrical systems are organized for growth of new branches.

The visual and intellectual demands of computer graphics often leaves the artists feeling the loss of tactile and sensuous qualities of paint, clay and other traditional media.  This need in artists for “high touch” expeience when seriously engaged in “high tech” seems to be a more general phenomenon.  Social forcaster John Naisbitt explains in his book Megatrends that the introduction of any technology stimulates a counter-balancing response – “high tech” demands “high touch.”  The human potential movement, meditation, yoga, and a revival of crafts grew alongside increasing numbers of people spending their days facing computer monitors and television sets.  “We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology,” Naisbitt writes, “with the spiritual demands of our human nature.”

In this issue of The Visual Computer, art critic Amy Slaton, artist John Pearson and computer scientist Herbert W. Franke all temper the enormous opportunities that computer graphics systems provide to the artist with warnings about their limitations.  The limits of current graphics systems are in the realm of the human spirit – aesthetic values, creative freedom and social responsibility.  Isaac Victor Kerlow describes how traditional printmaking techniques can provide a “high touch” hard-copy product for computer-generated images.  Vernon Reed in his paper, “Cybernetic Jewelry: Ornament for the Information Age,” describes how he makes a computer graphics display literally touch the human body.  Not only has computer imaging become a tool for artists and designers, but it also can shed new light in art historical inquiries, as in Lillian F. Schwartz’s research on the “Mona Lisa” at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories.

While considering all the limitations of electronic technology, I believe that the Electronic Age of extended mind and global range carries within it the seeds of spiritual renewal.  Consider, for example, that in this very room in which you are reading my words thousands of events from throughout the world simultaneously: a concert in Moscow, a baseball game in Los Angeles, cooking lessons in Jerusalem, Big Bird in New York, a carnival in Rio, ski jumping in the Swiss Alps, an auto race in the south of France, and more and more events all happening in the room in which you are now reading.  You may ask, “What are you talking about?” My room is quiet and empty.  The only event occurring in this room is my act of reading this journal.”  Think, however, if you has a TV receiver with a large enough dish antenna ot a shortwave radio receiver, you could tune into all the events that have been silently present in your room all the time.  These events will have been electronically transformed into signals of electromagnetic energy that cannot be perceived by our ordinary senses.  But they are here nonetheless, permeating our environment, even passing unnoticed through our bodies.  With the right receivers, however, these hidden worlds are revealed to us.

The Electronic Age of television, radio, computers and facsimile machines bring myriad events from invisible realms into our perception gives us a clue to the worlds the Kabbalists described millennia ago.  These are worlds the artist can tune in that exist beyond our senses.