Arts Will Change as Artists Discover Computer Power

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

INTERACTIVE video displays like those at the Getty Museum [see story at right] barely hint at the changes digital image and sound technology will make in the presentation - and creation - of art over the next few years, predicts Eric Martin, director of the Macintosh Lab at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, north of Los Angeles. This year is ``sort of like the point 20 years after the invention of photography or 20 years after the invention of the movies,'' says Mr. Martin, who has been a consultant to Apple Computer and is writing a book called ``Start Anywhere: The Revolution in Personal Media.''

``Photographers first thought the way you were supposed to handle photography was to imitate painting, and with motion pictures it was to imitate theater,'' he told the Monitor in a telephone interview. ``And then somebody came along and said, `No, no. Here's what it is.'

``We haven't quite gotten to that point with computers. ... We don't realize yet that there's a wholly original, new creative entity at the heart of this'' - a tool that can manipulate words, pictorial images, and sounds and make them interact with one another. ``That will come to us in fits and starts and then explode ... somewhere in the next five years.''

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As a computer-literate teacher and experimenter, Martin is a bit ahead of many artists and curators in understanding this technology. ``When I write, I write with a concern for the langauge, but I'm also concerned about the pictorial images that will go with the words, because they're all addressable by the same box I'm writing on,'' he explains. ``The image I've designed for the page could as easily appear in a movie I might make using the computer. And sound becomes a possibility when the page becomes an electronic page.''

At the Getty, the museum's four years of experience with interactive videos have made clear that computer-related technologies raise important questions for the museum world, especially when coupled with the potential for the crystal-clear pictures available on high-definition television (HDTV), a format in limited use in Japan and a few other places.

``If you can see Greek vases on high-definition television in your living room and put on a power glove and `feel' their textures and simulate reality in other convincing ways, then why go to the museum at all?'' asks David Ebitz, who heads the Getty's education and academic affairs section.

In a Monitor interview, Dr. Ebits also raised questions about interactive presentations inside the museum. ``Although we've put these vidoes in very discrete little dark rooms, the videos are compelling - sometimes more compelling than the original object,'' Ebitz says. ``If interactive video is allowed to compete for the visitor's attention with one-point Renaissance perspective, for instance, Renaissance paintings will always lose to the competition.

``I wonder if these reproductions - as they get closer to reality and then, with high-definition TV, even go beyond the range of saturations and light intensity a painting can provide - aren't going to take over. I don't say that fearfully; I'm sort of bemused by this.

``But I think the status of things in museums is going to be deeply affected by the improving reproductions. And with interactivity, there'll be a way of welcoming people in the handling of these images that museums can't ever do. So we're going to see some interesting changes 30 years down the line.''

The technological format that might allow a museum's interactive videos to be used in the home - CDI, for ``Compact Disc Interactive'' - and will be launched in about a year by a group of Japanese and European companies, says Peter Bloch, owner of Interactive Arts in Santa Monica, which produces videos for corporations, the military, and museums.

Commenting on the potential for the computer to mimic or swallow up all such technologies, new and old, CalArts's Mr. Martin says, ``The theme for today and tomorrow is hybridization. It's the result of all these prior formats collapsing into one digital format. If you have a laser disc, for example, you can access it in interesting ways, but the material itself is not alive; it's static. But once you digitize all that video and audio information, it is capable of being edited with all of the tools available to you in the digital environment, in such a way as to be able to do anything with it - and to do it rather easily. ... Once it becomes digital information, it is always alive and always available to be intelligently handled.''

In addition to offering a toolbox of unprecedented power to the individual artist, curator, or home user, digital technology also exerts a democratizing influence, says Martin. Witness desktop publishing and electronic bulletin boards, and imagine the potential when ``reasonably bright people'' are able to make their own videos, music, and other art-hydrids at computer consoles of moderate cost, he adds.

``I think it will involve people more intimately with all the processes that affect them, from art to the political process, simply because they will be able to more directly engage in those very processes, ... to interact with what they see and hear in ever more creative ways.''

One example of what Martin has in mind is a display he created last year for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Called ``Letterform,'' it uses a Macintosh computer to produce ``slowly evolving loops of images'' shown on computer screens imbedded in a wall.

``What I was trying to do was to explore a mood - a slow, conversational kind of mood, changing all the time. ... A panel will slowly drop down and show you how a silkscreen is made. Or a letter-form will evolve into another letter-form. Just as something takes place, it starts to change. You're in some funny mid-place between recognizing the integrity of a given form for a moment but also seeing how it is part of a continuous process of change.''

Both ``Letterform'' and the Getty's interactive videos are early indications, says Martin, of the ultimate impact of digital technology: ``breaking down all barriers between all things.''

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