computers and the arts

By , Mary S. Cowen is a free-lance art writer.

Strange sounds weave geometric figures around the concert hall, laser lights make patterns on puffs of steam, creatures from outer space do wondrous things on film. This is art? It most certainly is the result of artists and computers getting together. Whether you call it art depends on how you define the word.

One wag has said that art is what artists do. Usually one wants more of a guide to quality than that, but at this stage of the game the musicians and visual artists are busy defining their territory, working out their vocabulary and exploring the potential of the latest technological aid. Aesthetic standards may have to be revised to take into account the impact of the mathematics and process-oriented thinking that go into the computer, melded with the playful inquiry and associative, "lateral" thinking that goes into art.

Yet, if one thinks art is that which is aesthetic, which says something, which has intrinsic attraction that is not directly functional, we are getting glimmers, at least, of art coming out of computers. The computer cannot act independently of the information put into it, and artists must work with certain basic elements -- line, shape, mass, rhythm, texture, and color -- no matter what the medium. Visual artists have been moving in a process-oriented direction for some time now while they have also been rediscovering their building blocks.

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The idea of art as process is a fundamental one which is not always apparent in a finished work. But the current mode is to let the process the changes that occur as a work progresses, shine through and be thoroughly documented. So-called "conceptual" art relies on the evidence of process as much as it does on idea itself. So does serial art and some sculpture. Paintings now often look like palimpsests, with every stage of the work showing through the layers of paint, glaze, collage, or whatever else is done to the ground on which the painting is made.

Process is what music is all about, of course. Herbert W. Franke, a pioneer of the computer art world, explains how natural it is for composers to turn to the computer: "Through its strict, formally definable organization, and the abstract regularity of its harmonic laws, music is already exposed to a progrmming approach. The habitual deployment of physical machines -- the musical instruments -- has also eased the transition to electronics. And from there it was but a step to computer music."

Pierre Boulez has been investigating the computer as an aid to composition for a number of years now. This prominent conductor's interest in the connection of science and technology with art has put him in charge of the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, one of some 40 places around the world where composers can go to work with computers.

New music is also coming out of the Experimental Music Studio at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, directed by Prof. Barry Vercoe. His "Synapse" composition illustrates the blending of scientific and artistic discoveries via computer, sounding rather like what one might expect of nervous connections, complete in their input and response.

What happens when composer meets engineer and computer?Professor Vercoe says, "These people really explore each other when they get down to business to find what the potential is. The engineer has to learn what it is like to stand up and perform; the musician has to learn the art of quantitative analysis. The relation of the sound-wave form and perceptual experience is not at all clear, but this is what is needed: Tell the computer how to shape the wave form. The composer can do it intuitively. He has to be very, very explicit when he uses the computer. The composer is responsible not only for the composition but for its execution as well. He may use the computer just for feedback, as he would use a piano, or he may combine live performance with computer-generated sounds." To do this, the MIT composer uses a piano-type keyboard and synthesizer to hear what he is doing; uses a score tablet and video display to see what he is doing; or uses both methods.

Professor Vercoe continues, "We have a new, extended palette of colors, idioms, techniques. Previously we had built-in limitations of natural vibrating systems which we call musical instruments. With the computer we can move from trumpet to violin sound in one note. We can move sound around the room, toward the audience, round and round, even in geometric figures."

And that is just what these experimental composers do for their MIT concerts, illustrating Professor Vercoe's definition of music as "a communication of structural design." Some people call it "organzied noise," but novelty can mask a hearer's perception of form elegantly devised.

At the audience, or receiving, end of computer music is another opportunity for exploration. Dr. David Wessel, who directs the teaching program at IRCAM, wants to provide a listener with a touch-sensitive tablet for reorchestrating or dissecting a Beethoven symphony, for example, thus learning how it works rather like the way a tinkerer learns how a clock works rather taking it apart and putting it back together again. One guesses that it would be possible to do so with either score or recorded sound or both. Whether you are a listener or a composer, as Dr. Wessel notes, "You get what you ask from a computer."

This theme runs through all discussions of computer use. In a computer-composed, "Whole Earth Catalog" type of book on the computer world, Theodore H. Nelson sums it up. "The computer is an incredible projective test," he says. "What you see in the computer comes right off the back wall of your psyche. . . . I have not ceased to marvel at the way people's personalities entwine with the computer, each making it his own -- or rejecting it -- in his own, often unique and peculiar way, deeply reflecting his concerns and what is in his heart."

An artist who is not unsettled by such revelations can have a great deal of fun and growth as he or she comes to terms with contemporary technology. Agnes Denes, a New York artist who took the plunge into computer possibilities, has come up with some intriguing results. Bored with the problems of visual illusion on canvas, she used the computer to analyze how illusion arises in the mind. She turned Pascal's triangle into a pyramid, worked out statements of logic within it, and wound up with a "truth table" neatly divided into two parts -- truth and lies. She also produced maps of the earth showing the deformations that arise when information is incomplete.She relishes the infinitely broader scope for investigation into the wellsprings of thought which the computer offers.

Using computers to control other devices, rather than as a medium, is another way to go. A group of artists and engineers at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, where Otto Piene is director, created an environmental sculpture called "Centerbeam" this way. It was an installation on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1978, and was meant to incorporate the viewer right into the evanescent sculpture created by projecting computer-controlled laser light patterns onto a three-dimensional screen of steam.

Chris Janney created "Soundstair" as an experiment in translating people's movement patterns into sound by connecting photocells placed along a stairway to a computer and sound synthesizer. One's steps up the stairs sound like the kitten on the keys.

If making music with your feet does not appeal, how about the idea of putting your audience in the sky? Tom Van Sant, a Los Angeles sculptor, thought of that one when he was commissioned to do a piece for the Los Angeles bicentennial celebrations this past year. He constructed an eye-shaped array of mirrors in the desert to be photographed by the Landsat satellite, whose piture would then be available to all the world. Computers helped position the mirrors so they would reflect sunlight the Landsat camera at just the right instant in the satellite's pass, and then the resulting photograph was computer-processed and color-enhanced. It was a nice double play on the theme of eye in the sky.

More abstract puzzles occupy some computer graphics artists. What M. C. Escher did visually for the mathematical ideas of Roger Penrose and his father makes a good exercise on the computer, as many artists have amply proved. The computer is the ideal machine for visually exploring permutations, transformations, and randomness. It helps teach the relationship of mathematics to art, which has sometimes been shrouded in mystique, sometimes openly avowed in the history of art.

Film animation is a natural medium for computer graphics, since transformation is the name of the game -- changing one shape into another by stages. The computer can do in seconds what it takes an artist hours to produce. But the process is still very expensive, because of the hours of programming and the photographing involved.

The big market is sci-fi moves in which special effects play a very important part, such as "The Black Hole," "Star Trek," "Star Wars," and "The Empire Strikes Back." The Disney studios and a host of smaller groups have been using computers, not only for animated graphics, but for controlling and keeping track of the thousands of camera movements required for shootin sequences of miniature models or for manipulating complex images and lighting. It all costs a fortune.

The computer graphics field is developing so rapidly that the artist may find that the technical obstacles in his way are disappearing. A artists and engineers cooperate and learn more about each other's needs, more satisfactory systems evolve.

Already the graphics equipment includes drawing tablets connected to the computer, which digitizes the information for video display or later printout in color or black and white. The Architecture Machine Group at MIT has experimental setup that allows an artist to wave a wand and have color and line and shape appear on the wall in front of him, or allows him to manipulate a "joy stick" to control what happens. Such gadgetry is meant to extend the possibilities for what the artist's arm and hand do naturally, without making him go through all the technical drudgery of programming and working with incompatible machinery.

Writing in the September 1980 issue of Datamation, Dr. Dionysios Tsichritzis, a University of Toronto computer science professor, calls for an architectural approach to systems design. "Determining what the users want, rather than what they say they want, is the real art. A building architect does not follow an exact procedure; he communicates with his clients, and together they design the system." He elaborates some of the principles that go into the training of an architect and calls for similar training for systems engineers so that the computer serves the human rather than the other way around.

Other pioneers of art and computer relationships, such as Tom De Fanti, george Lucas, John Whitney, Leslie Mezei, are scattered across the United States , Canada, and Europe teaching in universities. more artists run workshops or summer programs in computer use.

But it is not only the various kinds of artists that are finding the computer interesting. The art historians, the museum curators, the librarians, are beginning to take a look. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is working on a pilot program to catalog art collections on laser-scanned videodiscs with computer access. If the idea is adopted, it means that scholars anywhere would be able to look at any item with its relevant information and compare it with other items of interest elsewhere much more easily than they can now. Auction houses and collectors could keep track of the values and whereabouts of art objects instantly. Teachers and students could have a much wider range of visual material at their finger tips. Museums interested in offering more education to the public could present much more informative packages. Videodisc color reproduction is, despite some limitations, much better than the average printed version for conveying accurately the appearance of an art object. It is also better than slides, because the image can be projected over a period of time without damage.

So what good is all this for people who just want a picture on the living room wall? Go down to your local computer store from time to time and check out the latest developments. You may find you can create your own computer art. Already you can get instructions for programming musical scores and making your own equipment by consulting various computer magazines and books. And if you'd rather have somebody else do all that work (and have the fun), you may be able one of these days to hook up with a network or art center as if you were going to the neighborhood library or art gallery. Either way, you can be your own wizard.

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