Situation Report on Computer Art, January 2001

1. Computer drawings and paintings have now become the norm and not the exception. Drawing programs are inexpensive and are able to handle high-resolution pictures. With various graphic filters, all sorts of graphic and painted effects can be brought into existence. Excellent scanners can be purchased inexpensively while prints worthy of museums can be made with $900 printers. The computer can be used as a tool similar to a pencil or brush, and the final result doesn't differ in the least from a work made with any other graphic techniques of reproduction. These works can be seen in many art galleries and can be sold easily because they fit into traditional business practices. In my view, they have completely lost the characteristically experimental quality they used to have back in the '70s and '80s; in concordance, the desire to bring about some new kind of visual effect with the help of the computer has disappeared.

2. In the past twenty to twenty-five years, computer animation has become very big business. It turned out that using computers in commercial film industry is very lucrative, so movie and TV screens alike have been flooded with computer-generated monsters. Several computer festivals illustrate this change well enough. In 1987 at the Austrian Prix Ars Electronica festival, almost every one of the fifteen prize-winning animated works had an experimental quality, both scientifically and artistically. I don't remember a single specifically commercial work, although one of John Lasseter's short films was presented, but even that had a predominantly experimental quality about it (illustrating the Renderman-type of computer language development and similar technical novelties). It was like seeing a computerized Walt Disney production. This resulted in general indignation and prompted one to question the worth of similar works presented at electronic arts festivals. Eleven years later, judges awarded prizes to thirty animated works; only three of these could be placed conditionally into the category of modern art. So nowadays when hearing the words "computer animation," most people don't think of the bitterly political film called Hunger by Peter Földes but rather associate it with dinosaurs and spaceships. Currently there are still a few artists who continue to create beautiful avant-garde computer animation, but it is unlikely that we will find their works among the mass of commercial productions. This is an unfortunate change of events because the treatment of space and time in the world of computer animation has many undiscovered frontiers.

From a technical point of view, one might say that computer animation is quite developed. Computers these days are capable of creating and displaying complex three-dimensional animation; countless different types of animation software can be purchased in various price ranges. Not to mention the high-quality freewares that may be accessed, as for example a Dutch-designed, 3-D animation software called "Blender," which caters to all desires and can be downloaded free (and legally) from the net. This software is of such high quality, that a few years ago something similar could only have been found on the market in a ten-thousand dollar price range. Artists - usually the younger ones - don't often have a lot of money to spare, therefore, the ability to access such software presents a fine opportunity for someone to start their own computer-animation experiments at home. This is a great thing; and just as Godard hoped to witness the renewal of film with the spread of inexpensive, amateur-film cameras, we might think that the increase of low-priced hardware will yield new and interesting electronic creative products that reflect individual visions. But according to my experience this isn't what's going on. Instead, more and more young and talented people use low-cost personal computers to try and perfectly reproduce the same dinosaurs, spaceships, and monsters that Hollywood super-productions crank out these days.

3. The above mentioned commercialization is probably closely connected to the modification of the general opinion about the computer. In the '70s, when computers were mentioned, one conjured up images of enormous, futuristic rooms filled with long lines of shiny, metallic, wardrobe-sized machines, with huge reels of magnetic tape turning according to some mechanical choreography at changing speeds and directions. Scientists in white smocks would pace these rooms, immersed in thought, or would hover above the buttons of the complicated control panels and press down on them in a dignified manner. In those days we associated all this with space exploration and robotics. We thought of HAL 9000 the tragic fate of the self-aware computer in Stanley Kubrick's film, 2011 A Space Odyssey. The computer itself was science fiction. The computer was associated with a happy and exhilarating future. The people who worked with them were those who shaped the future, the champions of knowledge. Nothing of this sort is true today. Who cares about conquering space? The future - as several commercials unceasingly remind us - is already with us (in the form of a new detergent, for example). So let us enjoy the blessings of a present future! If I think of computers today, I see Microsoft in my mind's eye. I see Nintendo and Playstation. Internet and e-mail. And through all these: money. The Microsoft Corporation, wealthier than several third world countries. I think of young web-millionaires. I think of Hollywood super-productions. And if I meet programmers, then usually I don't see the champions of knowledge in them; I just acknowledge that they have chosen a good profession. Computers now have nothing to do with sci-fi. They have become tools of every-day use, and balding fathers discuss their computer processors or hard-disc drive capacities with the same fervor as if talking about the speed or mileage of their cars.

4. Electronic installations and interactive installations: these are the two categories where we are most likely able to discuss art. Firstly, the installation is an artistic category; secondly this is the style that could be connected most easily to avant-garde traditions. In the 1960s, Nicolas Schöffer had already built cybernetic sculptures that reacted interactively to the sound and light effects of their environment and were able to process several types of information in realtime. His works leaned on the results of visual research of artists like Moholy-Nagy, Picabia, and Duchamp. As a result, it is not entirely strange anymore to find such works on display at larger museums. Hence the financial situation has also become better for artists producing these works, at least for those whose art is exhibited by the aforementioned museums. While it still seems unimaginable that a commercial TV channel would sponsor an experimental computer-animated short film (the centers that were founded to support these kinds of short films have either dissolved or are too poor to do much funding), it's common practice for larger modern-art museums to pay the costs of the invited artist's installation. Unfortunately, not many museums like this exist, and there are even fewer where they purchase these works for inclusion in their permanent collections. But the numbers are increasing. It might be important to add here that these days the interactive installations presented at electronic art festivals are usually more interesting technically and artistically than the animations also shown there. Fifteen years ago it was the other way around. The CD-ROM is also a part of the realm of interactive techniques. A CD-ROM is a great media, because it can be easily produced and these days there are only few machines incapable of playing them. Around '93-'94, these characteristics of the CD-ROM boosted the hope that it might become an ideal artistic medium. Numerous such artistic works were produced, but obviously we cannot say that the CD-ROM has become a new representative of modern art in the eyes of the general public. It's difficult to reach audiences through material published on CD-ROM. Those people who are open and interested in new artistic forms don't much like to fiddle around with technology in their own homes. Even if they do own a computer they would never dream of purchasing a modern-art CD-ROM to look at it at home. Therefore, these CD-ROMs are usually presented at exhibitions and festivals just like installations even though they are not really fit for such an environment.

5. Computer art that appears on the Internet is still in a pioneer stage. One reason for this is the limitations of Internet technology. It is interesting to observe how the technology of the Internet follows the same, albeit accelerated, evolutionary path that computer animation and other computer technologies have, from simple texts to realtime interactive 3-D simulators. The most successful software, Micromedia Flash, uses the same technology for Internet that, for example, the Caesar Studio of Budapest developed in 1987 for animation. Back in those days the machines were slower, now the Internet transmittal time is slow. But the speed will probably increase very rapidly and the technical limits of today will cease to exist. The Internet is a very interesting environment, truly a new concept in communication, and as a result, in the presentation of Internet artworks as well. For me, the Internet is problematic in the aspects that are usually highlighted as positive. Personally, I think the Internet is a very lonely thing. And it's not very easy to use either. Readers experienced in technology will surely smile at these statements, but a regular user probably likens "simple usage" to turning on a television, and they are right. Internet technology is pretty easy while you just read text on it, but as soon as you have to download a few plug-ins, or a Java application comes up" In sum, it is almost impossible to find anything on the Internet if you don't know exactly what it is you are looking for. And uploading a new web page on the net today is like adding another drop of water to the ocean. I can get exact information on recently published books if I spend one or two hours a week in a good bookstore. This is nearly impossible on the net. I'm afraid this situation will only get worse by the Internet's fast-paced commercialization, since even now, larger search programs charge for the guarantee that a new web page will appear on their lists. In other words, what reaches audiences will again be a question of money. This idea is very distant from the original concept of the Internet.

Tamás Waliczky

Translation: Zsuzsa Nagy