State-of-the-Art Questions

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 documentation.

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 way?

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 property?

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 or science?

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 us?)

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?

Computer Arts:

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 coordination skills?

To what extent is one considered to be an artist or musician in this culture because of:
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 forms?

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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