by and (c) Laurie Spiegel
It is posited that the computer arts, like the more traditional arts, embody
many of their society's concerns. As both the computer arts and their cultural
context will doubtless change, an attempt is made herein to document a philosphical
side of the computer arts as currently
Among those of us who used to be an original lunatic fringe of artist-hackers,
who got lost in the wilderness crevices of the computer-and-art intersection,
a surprising percentage have by now been vindicated as avant garde instead
of crazy, ahead of our times rather than parallel or right-angled to them.
This vindication has taken form in the integration of our work into commercial
business contexts more often than by its integration into the mainstream
worlds of music and art. This is understandable, as our work, like any other
new art movement, breaks with "art world" traditions, in this
case obscuring boundaries between such previously separated realms as art
and music or science and art, and between such separate output forms as
artists' tools and works of art per se.
But this one-sided vindication is also regrettable, as high tech's potential
of wealth and glamour, and business's more abundant financial assets overshadow
Art's nebulous (and dubious) attractions with other distracting images of
reward. What seems to pose threats within the mainstream artworld offers
profits in the world of business, and so our work as artists may be sidetracked
by offers of homes other than those to which we had intended to go.
A surprising number of us are now welcomed by companies which pay us to
do work which is remarkably similar to what we used to do on our own, and
at our own expense, to be considered crazy for doing. Computer images and
sound have changed from basement inventors' midnight insanities to viable
business. Large companies can make large amounts of money by plucking the
fruits of what was till recently only a rather bizarre underground rootwork.
The Art gets lost in the picture, and possibly the artist too. Paradoxically,
we also have unprecedented support available for our work.
The "state of the art" poses new and unforseen questions at every
stage of its advance. Many of these questions were not asked within vector
spaces whose dimensions were purely technical, structural and aesthetic,
and whose incentives consisted almost entirely of intellectual,
emotional, and artistic highs. These questions, new in a new context and
for the toolmaker, gamewriter, and software artist, echo their counterpart
queries as found in the traditional artworld, in which "commercialization,
co-optation, and compromise" and many other all-too-familiar terms
already refer to classic dilemmas.
Ironically, it is a mark of our new arts media coming of age that they have
evolved to the point where such questions apply. Since they do apply, they
must be stated, discussed, and thought through by each of us.
This readiness for a sort of conceptual adolescence strikes me as the most
important recent development in the "state of the art" despite
an amazing number of other advances. The computer arts are beyond their
nursery, but far from being maturely placed in the world.
For those of us who are addicted to challenges, the greatest questions are
those that can't be answered. ("Stupid questions" are those which
are too easy.) The following are questions which I have asked myself or
heard other people ask. I list them here to clarify, to help generate thought,
discussion, and exchange, and to predict or forewarn for those who haven't
encountered them yet. I also list them because they constitute an important
aspect of the current state of these arts which needs and has received insufficient
My list bears no pretense of universality or comprehensiveness. Each of
us would make a different list.
Computer Arts Businesses:
In the long run, the largest perspective, is it in the best interest of
these new media to provide more people with less powerful lower cost tools,
or to endow a smaller number of individuals with much more powerful creative
and expressive potential?
If it seems you are getting paid at last for what you used to have to do
alone at night at your own expense, is what you are doing now really what
you were doing then? How is it different? Are you being paid, rewarded,
supported for being yourself, or for not being yourself in some fairly subtle
Who "owns" the "rights" to our ideas, inventions, and
creative output ("software art")? Those who do the creative thinking?
Those who do the drudge work? Those who subsidize and provide tools, money,
and distribution? Those people out in the world to whom our creations might
really mean something or be really valuable?
How can we balance the amount of time we spend making computer arts tools,
the time spent making art or music per se, and the increasing amount of
time that successful commercialization of the field seems to require for
the "3-D" reality of: Demonstration, Documentation, and Distribution?
How can we continue to openly exchange ideas, to educate and help each other,
to synergisticly raise the momentum of accomplishment together, as more
and more of us affiliate with separate companies in the private enterprise
sphere? Much that we create or learn from may be subject to "non-disclosure"
agreements. Even if it weren't, business thinking encourages us to be afraid
that the other guy will steal anything we mention. How can we prevent paranoia
from destroying free open exchange?
If we decide to publish in the public domain, we can protect our ideas from
ever being the exclusive property of any interest and guarantee their open
access by all. It also undermines our own self- support for the furtherance
of our work, and equally guarantees free access to our
inventions by the same interests who have brought us Muzak and the "30
second spot." What are the pros and cons of private ownership of intellectual
If private companies are a new breed of patrons for the arts and sciences,
if we don't safeguard our creations for them the way they wish, will they
(or any other potential patrons) continue to be in a position to be able
to provide needed subsidy for the creative research and development we believe
in and want to do?
What are the differences between employers, patrons, and collaborators?
What are the trade-offs in working with tiny low budget computers while
keeping total freedom and independence, versus losing the latter but getting
further in in the work via tools we could never afford as individuals? What
are these trade-offs for each of us individually? What are they for the
whole field, technically and artisticly?
To what extent do our own personal and artistic interests coincide with
those of the companies we work for (or start, run, and own ourselves)? To
what extent do we find ourselves overlooking the difference because it is
easier to be in situations where our work is wanted, waited for, rewarded,
and well-equipped for progress, than to be free, independent, visionary,
and broke, frustrated, and unwanted?
Can visionaries and idealists succeed in "business" without being
somehow changed in ways that may not have been forseen or wanted?
Computer Arts Tools:
How do the best systems organizations for artistic use of computers differ
from those which have been evolved for other purposes, such as business
How do the purposes of computer arts systems differ from the purposes of
other kinds of computer systems?
How does the process of artistic creation differ from other interactive
processes to which computers have been adapted?
How can we convey these differences to other computer technical professionals
who we may be working with or who may be hired to make instruments by companies,
but who have no personal experience of doing music or art? (This may be
especially problematic for those who have artistic backgrounds but are self-taught
and/or without credentials or standard vocabulary in technical areas?)
How much more (and what) should a designer of computer-based tools for the
arts know about these arts than a maker of canvas, brushes, or pianos needed
to know to make the (simpler?) tools for these older arts?
How much does knowledge of established technique help, and how might it
hinder, the development of new techniques? (How does knowing history improve
the quality of our actions (works), and how does such knowledge inhibit
How can a logical medium best accommodate the intuitive, the irrational,
the emotional, the spontaneous and the unpredictable?
How do sequence and simultaneity intermix in the mind of the musician during
the creative process? How can we make both of these dimensions equally accessible
at each moment? (Most computer music systems push people toward the sequential
dimension, by defining musical voices ("tracks" or "channels")
which must be entered sequentially as in multitrack tape, and also require
to sequential specification of parameters which are to be simultaneously
perceived, instead of allowing all sounds or sound parameters to be defined
together if they are going to be heard together.)
How does the overview of a picture in progress intermix with concentration
on detail in the mind of a visual artist? How is the "shorthand"
of sketching used?
In creative processes which artists and musicians conceptualize in stages
(or multiple "passes"), what are those stages? (Rough sketch,
light and shade, edge definition, rendering, color; chord sequence or melodic
line, voicing and orchestration, articulation and dynamics ...)
What do artists and musicians dislike or feel constrained by in traditional
media? What would they be willing to learn new techniques to be free of
(or free to do)?
What has prevented each of us from going further than we have in our own
work in "conventional" arts media?
Why did we turn to computers in the first place instead of sticking with
more traditional arts media?
How are the tools we create for others to use different from the ones we
create for our own personal use in doing art or music?
At what points and in what ways do we choose to sacrifice generality and
flexibility for specialized power in a creative system or tool? In what
situations do we make the opposite trade-off?
If we design a tool dedicated to a highly defined application, how do the
processes and data structures best for that specialty differ from those
more general to the medium (musical composition versus spontaneous improvisation,
design versus drawing)?
What kinds of individuals do we envision using the systems we produce? How
much learning time do we expect them to put in? (In the old days anyone
serious about the arts expected to invest quite a bit more than a single
hour in learning to use that art's tools. But then again, few attained mastery.)
To what extent and in what ways might the tools we create be too "complex"
for the "average" user? To what extent are they really just too
personal or personalized? To what extent does a decision to reach more people
with less of a custom fit, or to cut invested time or cost, or get a
system out to "market" faster motivate a reduction in complexity
or power (e.g. the number of options to learn and use) when we go from writing
for our own use to writing for distribution? To what extent are we trying
to make it easier to use, versus making it easier to create or to market?
To what extent can each person be equipped or expected to create their own
art or music (expression, satisfaction) instead of relying on a small number
of "talented" specialists who create images and music for all?
(What do "talent", "masterpiece," and "amateur"
mean? Is our goal to make masterworks more possible or to increase the amount
of pleasure people get from the process of doing art? If both, how do we
balance them against each other, and how might the tools for each differ?)
To what extent do we (or should we) judge what we create by its peer context
versus judging in terms of some ideal? ("This is amazing for such a
small computer" versus "How does this fall short of how we can
envision an ultimate for human expression?" "More commands than
others" versus "How would someone say this in natural language
or gesture?") Whic gets the highest priority -- Conformity to a vision
or ideal, or conformity to (exact fit for) actual context?
Do we get further by starting simply and then adding features as we need
them, or by designing a totality that would satisfy all our envisioned needs
and choosing what subset we will implement? What complexity or quality of
organization might make one of these options preferable over the other?
How can one avoid getting so involved in the beauty of the tool (program,
etc.) one is creating that one gets out of touch with the purpose of the
tool? If the two conflict with each other, which tends to get priority in
a trade-off? Why?
Is distinction between tools to make art and actual "artwork"
still a valid distinction?
In what ways can new technologies reduce the need for extensive training
in artistic composition or self-expression? Just in expediting the assembly
and generation of material, or in the heightening and refinement of sensitivities
as well? How else?
What will be the differences between the arts of the past and those of the
future? What will be the same?
Will art and music continue to be fields of professional specialization
in the future in this society if new tools permit easy generation of material
without extensive (time-consuming and often expensive) training and physical
To what extent is one considered to be an artist or musician in this culture
1. mastery of specialized technical skills
2. sensativity to a medium
3. completion and outputting into the world of finished works, regardless
of their technical
sophistication or of the sensativity or expression embodied in them?
Is it easier to rely on external considerations such as audience, market,
or "fashion" to structure our creative output, or to let inner
directions and interests structure our work? For some, conflicts with the
environment are harder to tolerate, and for others, conflicts with inner
impetus are more intolerable.
Forget the computers. What is art? What is music? What do we need or want
them for? What drew us to them when we first felt, heard, or saw them? What
parts of us do they touch, intrigue, excite, or open up? What are the structures
of these parts of us? How do we make new languages to describe and tools
to generate what fits these parts of us?
What difference is there between graphics and art? What difference is there
between audio and music?
Is there a difference between what we started trying to do once and what
we're doing now? What is it? Have we evolved, or just forgotten?
What differences are there between my own computer music and art and the
music and art that I do without computers?
What differences are there between my art and music as I have produced them
and the internal visions and feelings that I have tried to embody in such
How is my work different from the work of those who are doing things most
similar to what I do? In what ways is my work similar to that of those who
appear to do these things most differently from me? How do I want to be
different? How do I want to be the same? How am I the same or different?
From others? From how I see myself?
In what ways do I value the final results I complete and for how long? How
do I value the process of doing, creating? Which is more important to me,
doing or having done the software, music, or art? When is one more important
to me than the other? What triggers the change back and forth?
To what extent am I creating for myself versus for others? When do I forget
them and lose myself in the doing for long periods? How does the awareness
of my audience (market) influence the work I am creating? How do immersion
and self- consciousness alternate or mix? How do they compete or conflict?
How do they refine or propel each other?
How can objectivity and subjectivity be maintained in balance during the
creative process, so that neither overshadows the other?
What moves us emotionally in music and art? What excites us intellectually?
What feels gentle, grating, or violent to the senses? What inspires us as
beautiful? What reminds us of sadness? What textures, images, and archtypes
do we see when we look inside ourselves instead of out?
What have we experienced in common but never had means to point to or communicate?
What are we trying to do that we have been unable to do?
What are we able to do now that we have never been able to do before?
What can each of us do beyond what we've already done?
Copyright ©1983 by Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.
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