File spoon-archives/avant-garde.archive/avant-garde_1998/avant-garde.9801, message 2

Date: Sat, 03 Jan 1998 09:29:38 -0500
Subject: War Sci to Sci-Art

   The New York Times, January 3, 1998, pp. B7, B9.

   From Science to Art to Science to Cyber-Art 

      Signs of a Revolution in a Centuries-Old Symbiosis 

   By Paul Lewis

   Throughout history, technological advances and artistic
   innovation have gone hand in hand. Without the advent of
   slow-drying oil paint in the 15th century Renaissance
   painters would not have used such subtle coloring and
   shadows. Without printing, professional novelists may not
   have emerged. Without certain instruments, some musical
   classics would not exist. Liszt, for example, could never
   have composed the "Annees de Pelerinage" if the piano
   hadn't replaced the harpsichord.

   Now a school of contemporary artists is trying to create a
   new electronic art form based on the latest information
   technologies. Using digital imaging techniques and the
   worldwide Internet, these artists work with computers to
   mix cocktails of images, texts and sounds that are
   stimulating to ear, eye and mind and are instantly
   available through the Web to an audience of millions.

   What many of these cyber-artists may not consider is that
   their art is the unlikely offspring of the cold war. Most
   of the technologies they use, like digital imaging md the
   Internet itself, were originally developed for the military
   and have only become readily available since the cold war's
   demise as manufacturers seek new markets for them.

   The growing popularity of cyber-art--which more than any
   other art form, some would say, is dependent on
   technology--is leading more art historians to appraise the
   complex relationship between science and art. It is also
   spurring an examination of the impact of these newly
   developed art forms on artistic tradition and the audience.

   In "Techniques of the Observer," a study of modern artistic
   vision, Jonathan Crary of Columbia University argues that
   the roots of the whole modernist movement--of which
   cyber-art is merely the latest example--lie in the science
   and technology of the early 19th century. "In this book I
   have tried to give a sense of how radical was the
   reconfiguration of vision by the 1840's," Professor Crary
   writes. "If our problem is vision and modernity, we must
   first examine earlier decades, not the modernist paintings
   of the 1870's and 1880's."

   He cites such developments as medical research into the eye
   and the advent of entertaining devices like the
   kaleidoscope, the magic lantern and the stereoscope, which
   created what he calls "subjective vision" and encouraged
   artists to see the world in new ways.

   Painters like Turner were experimenting with light decades
   before Monet and the other Impressionists did. In the
   1850's, the critic John Ruskin defined a new kind of artist
   when he urged painters to recover that "innocence of the
   eye" that would allow them to see objects "as a blind man
   would see them if suddenly gifted with sight."

   The impact of present-day information technologies on the
   art world is even more revolutionary, says Professor Crary.
   He argues that "cyber-art" represents "a transformation in
   the nature of visuality probably more profound than the
   break that separates medieval imagery from Renaissance
   perspective." No longer is the artist an "observer" seeking
   to depict an external reality from a fixed point in space.
   Instead he is creating images that exist only in
   electromagnetic form, have no fixed relationship to him in
   space, yet can be seen simultaneously by the whole world.

   History is filled with examples of new technology that
   enabled new art forms to develop while vastly widening the
   audience. Printing created the best seller -- first the
   Bible, eventually the novel. Lithography, an inexpensive
   printing process that also permitted wide distribution,
   brought art out of palaces and galleries and into ordinary

   In his book "Technological and Social Change in the Middle
   Ages," the American scholar Lyn White draws a parallel to
   cyber-art's cold war origins, showing how the introduction
   of the stirrup into Europe during the eighth century and
   the heavy iron plow in the tenth laid the foundations for
   medieval art and civilization.

   Mr. White uses indirect linkages and extremely complex
   chains of events to draw a connection between the invention
   and the art. By harnessing the power of a charging horse
   behind a knight's lance, for example, the stirrup made
   cavalry the most potent force on the battlefield. That in
   turn encouraged the development of the feudal system, under
   which the nobility provided the king with prized horsemen
   in return for land.

   The feudal world, with its aristocracy of landed warriors,
   its castles, troubadours and wandering knights, in turn
   developed a distinctive culture of its own based on the
   ideals of chivalry and courtly love, which left their mark
   on all the arts of the Middle Ages.

   Similarly, by boosting farm output by more than 30 percent,
   the introduction of the heavy plow and the three-field
   rotational system created a food surplus in northern Europe
   that allowed people to move to towns, where they could
   specialize in arts and crafts.

   But if science is often the leader, it is also led:
   sometimes esthetic needs are the motor of technological
   invention. French hydraulic engineers developed new
   techniques to supply fountains at Versailles, not to bring
   clean water to Paris. And today's oxygen blowtorch is the
   direct descendant of the blowpipes used for centuries to
   make glass ornaments.

   In a 1970 essay on "Art, Technology and Science," Cyril
   Stanley Smith of the Massachusetts Institute Technology
   offered examples of new technologies that developed first
   in what he termed "an esthetic environment."

   He theorizes that the first use of metal, in the fourth
   millennium B.C., was for decorative buttons. Bronze was
   cast as church bells for centuries before it was used for
   cannons. Medieval illuminators developed metallic powders
   for the silver and gold inks they used.

   Similarly, interest in chemistry and the properties of
   natural substances was stimulated by the centuries of
   searching by Europeans for the right mixture of minerals
   and clays to make porcelain. The potters of Meissen in
   Saxony finally discovered it in the 18th century, although
   it had been known to the Chinese since the seventh.

   Artists' dependence on modern technology has reached its
   highest level yet, and not just in cyber-art. Without
   formaldehyde, the British artist Damien Hirst could not
   exhibit his sliced-up pigs and cows. An hour-long video of
   bored policemen shuffling and scratching as they pose for
   a photograph has just won the Turner Prize in Britain.

   Art scholars argue that the new "global information
   culture" has tremendous implications for artists and their
   audiences. Barbara Stafford, an art historian at Chicago
   University, says cyber-art will "change the structure of
   the art world" by allowing "anyone to make art and show it
   to the world."

   "Artists will no longer need to exhibit at some tony
   gallery to succeed," she added.

   For Ronald Jones, director of the Digital Media Center at
   Columbia University, the emergence of cyber-art shows that
   "our culture is embracing information as a medium for the
   artist to work with," with far-reaching implications.

   Artists are becoming technicians again as they were in
   Renaissance days, he said, because they must learn to write
   software, and operate the more sophisticated computers.
   They are rethinking relationships with audiences they never
   see. And they are forced to reconsider the nature of
   originality by working in a medium that permits infinite
   reproduction and distortion of any image.

   Still, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the
   quality of the cyber-art produced so far. "I'm struck by
   the similarity of the images," Ms. Stafford admits. "They
   do not recognize the richness of our of artistic

   "It's art all right, but we have not yet seen a great
   computer artist," is the view of Robert Storr, a curator of
   painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in
   Manhattan. So far, he said, "these artists still seem more
   interested in the technology itself and not in what it
   could express."

   [Photo] Detail from "Mistaken Identities," a 1996 work on
   CD-ROM by the artist Christine Tamblyn.


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