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Ars Digitalis

By slambo in Culture
Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 02:10:19 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

Recently, I read an article in the December issue of Trains Magazine about the career of railroad artist Howard Fogg (online here). Model railroading and tinkering with my home LAN are two hobbies that are about equal in importance to me right now, and it struck me that there aren't any real "computer artists" of any note. I don't mean that people aren't using computers to create art - far from it. The computer artists that I'm talking about are the ones that portray the computer as the main subject of the artwork.

Perhaps we need to look at the underlying moods of each subject to determine the answer. Railroads are naturally associated with travel; the allure of a faraway destination, perhaps to the gold mines of the Klondike or the jungles of Borneo, or to heavily populated centers like New York, Berlin or Paris. Railroads are also associated with industry; moving millions of tons of coal from Wyoming each year, while getting grandmother's Christmas presents delivered on time. Railroad equipment is imbued with a life of its own - the Iron Horse. The routes that railroads travel and the trains that travel them are given names that belie their humble uses - the Empire Builder, the Broadway Limited, and the Super Chief. Trains and railroads have been the subjects of many movies through the years - "Union Pacific", "The Great Train Robbery", or, more recently, "Silver Streak" and "Runaway Train".

What is a computer to do to compare to this? Computers usually don't go trudging around the countryside on their way to Timbuktu, but they can still take you there. Computers don't haul millions of tons of anything, but they can track a package sent with a tracking number and they can transfer an email greeting to its recipient in mere seconds. Computer equipment is given flashy (or sexy, as my father-in-law likes to say sometimes) names to help it sell, like VooDoo, BlackBird and Athlon. There have even been some movies made recently where a computer played a central role - "Wargames", "Electric Dreams" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" all feature a computer as a starring character (if you don't know HAL, then it's time to relinquish your PC and turn in your computer user's license).

Maybe the problem is in the one thing that the two industries have in common - the operator's title. A train's operator, like a computer's operator, is often called an Engineer. Before you go jumping up and down, a large part of the world calls the person who operates a train its Driver (which I think is really a more appropriate title), but here in the US, this person is normally called an Engineer. People who use and work on computers for a living are usually called either Software Engineers or Hardware Engineers, at least professionally. Yet, even with this commonality, the two professions are perceived a world apart. A railroad engineer is out there battling the weather behind the throttle of an enormous beast of burden, while the computer engineer is tucked away in a cubicle somewhere eating chips and drinking soda.

The problem seems to be one of image. If you ask 100 people on the street to describe what they think of when you say the word "train", and you're likely to get a great number of different images. However, if you ask the same 100 people to describe what they think of when you say the word "computer", you're more likely to get a great number of them to describe a grey box that sits under a desk. Is there anything that we can do to change this? Can we convince the average bloke that a computer isn't just a grey box, but a portal to a world without borders or the link pin between a mother and her son who has gone to war? Can we build our own "million tons of data in a year" slogans and have the data to back it up? Can we romanticize the box under the desk to be our connection that extends our spheres of involvement to a world without end?

Howard Fogg created more than 1200 oil and watercolor paintings featuring trains and railroads. Who will be the Howard Fogg of the computer industry? Will it be you?


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Ars Digitalis | 20 comments (18 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Lack of computer art? (3.77 / 9) (#2)
by Anonymous 242 on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 11:11:59 AM EST

What about the person that made a lego case for his Mac laptop?

What about the howto on how to turn an old Mac classic into an aquarium?

What about the person that made a wooden end table into his smart house server?

What about the person that crammed an iMac into a 21" monitor?

What about the G4 cube, is that not a work of art?

What about the contest for uses for old AOL cdroms. A working clock with gears made out of AOL disks seems like art to me.

It seems to me that computer art is alive and well. Perhaps it hasn't acheived mass popularity yet. That takes time. Its not like motion pictures were recognized as an artform overnight.

As an addendum, I'm too lazy to search for links for the above piecees of art. I'd wager that a bit of a search on google can turn up a few virtual museums.

This *is* changing (2.80 / 5) (#3)
by sugarman on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 11:13:54 AM EST

But it takes a while. The Train has several hundred years of head start on the computer. But look around, and you are seeing the change.

Slimmer, more fashionable PDAs, the iMac, the G4 Cube, the Stealth Black IBM stuff, this will all help to change how future generations look at computers. Of course, we're going to need a generation which grew up knowing the iMac before this changes, so it might be a littlle ways off.


One big reason... (4.00 / 7) (#4)
by theboz on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 11:15:43 AM EST

Trains are often inspiring to people because they are big devices that do very hard physical labor, and can do it quickly. Computers, are more abstract. They are little boxes with a few blinking lights that do very abstract things. I am not trying to say that computers are not very useful things, but that you can't "inspire" people with them, unless they are like the ones in a huge NOC with a movie sized screen showing a map of the country and blinking lights on that. Then you might be able to inspire people.

Also, think about the state of society. There's not really anything inspiring out there. Even outer space, and things like the ISS are not high in the public's opinion. Most people just think of it as a waste and would rather have the money spent on that in their own pockets instead of doing something to have worldwide cooperation (or at least the crew cooperates to cuss out the people on the ground.) and to do scientific experiments that might help make things better on earth. People are too jaded and greedy to be inspired by anything for more than a passing moment.


Oil Painting of a Computer? (2.75 / 4) (#6)
by reshippie on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 11:42:42 AM EST

I think part of the reason that there isn't a lot of artwork out there with computers as the subject, because, well, it doesn't really make a great subject.

There are a limited number of backdrops you can reasonably place a computer in front of, unlike trains. They also, at least right now, aren't much to look at. They are a simple, 1 or 2 colored, box. A bowl of fruit may be just as simple, but it has colors and shadows and things.

No that I don't think it would be cool to see a Cubist Computer, or something, but it'd take a lot of imaginiation to make a beautiful painting of a computer.

Those who don't know me, probably shouldn't trust me. Those who do DEFINITELY shouldn't trust me. :-)

But what is there to show? (3.25 / 4) (#7)
by zakalwe on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 12:08:55 PM EST

The main problem is surely that the fantastic things we get from the computer are so abstract. How can you paint worldwide communication or sculpt the idea of a turing machine?

With trains, there is a huge, impressive physical machine. With computers, we have, in general a grey box. But focusing on the physical machine is like trying to show the wonder of the human imagination by painting a lump of grey matter. A chip is no more a computer than a pile of scrap metal is a train. The most important thing is the idea of the computer.

If you want computer art though, take up programming. There's nothing more beautiful than writing an elegant, neat solution to a problem, or in visualising a new idea, and bringing it into being. OK, not all code is art, and the dead ends, frustrations, and boring 'have to do it' work are legion, but the one moment of creating something new and beautiful is worth it, and I'd say it's the most perfect expression of 'computer art'

Uh (none / 0) (#15)
by kagaku_ninja on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 09:45:42 PM EST

Open one up. Better yet, create massively enlarged pictures of microchips. Why yes, people might even make posters of chips and display them as art... :-)

[ Parent ]
Computers Are Tools (4.00 / 5) (#8)
by michaela on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 12:22:08 PM EST

They're the hammer and saw of the digital age. While there are works of art that use computers as their subject, they're really just tools. You're more likely to use a computer in creating art: digital painting, photo editing, music production. As the subject of art, they're about as exciting and inspiring as a telephone.

Trains, on the other hand, are awe inspiring. More so in the steam era, but still with modern diesels. They haul thousands of tons worth of cargo and passengers. They are amazing machines. In some cases trains, both locomotives and cars, are decorated as though they were art themselves. Trains also travel through some beautiful scenery which becomes part of the art.

Computers just sit there. I can't think of many circumstances where a computer desk or office space could really be considered beatiful scenery.

Don't give up hope, however. I'm sure that in the early stages of railroads, trains didn't get that much play in the art world.
That is all

A comment and a question (3.00 / 4) (#9)
by Rand Race on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 12:49:38 PM EST

First the impertinant question; What does 'digitalis', a drug used to stop the beating of the heart, have to do with this?

Now my comment. I can't remember who said it (Jobs?) but someone once remarked that 'Computers won't be cool until someone writes a rock and roll song about one'. But I don't think that will happen. Unlike trains and cars, computers are seen as a tool much like the telephone, and like the telephone they have been used in songs (Life During Wartime by the Talking Heads for instance) but are rarely, if ever, the subject of the songs. Graphic arts are the same way. You may see a computer or telephone in a painting, but only rarely will they be the subject of the painting.

Trains and, more applicable to me, cars are seen as extensions to our physical presence while phones and computers extend our mental abilities. And, as those of us more intelectualy gifted than physically gifted know, society places a greater emphasis on physical traits than mental ones. That's my pet theory at least.

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson

Answering the question... (3.00 / 1) (#10)
by slambo on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 02:04:05 PM EST

First the impertinant question; What does 'digitalis', a drug used to stop the beating of the heart, have to do with this?
I don't know, but it sounded like something in Latin, yet still looked like "digital". Yeah, the title leaves a bit to be desired, but this is all I could think of.
Sean Lamb
"A day without laughter is a day wasted." -- Groucho Marx
[ Parent ]
Rock 'n' Roll (4.00 / 1) (#13)
by delmoi on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 04:37:35 PM EST

I can't remember who said it (Jobs?) but someone once remarked that 'Computers won't be cool until someone writes a rock and roll song about one'.

Its all about the pentiums
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
[ Parent ]
Rock 'n' Roll (none / 0) (#18)
by Ming D. Merciless on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 07:09:58 PM EST

Yes: Machine Messiah (early '80s)

A little slice of 1987 on the internet. Visit KAOS -- Central NY's premiere BBS. Multi-user, telnetable, Citadel/UX.
[ Parent ]
Rock Songs about a Computer (none / 0) (#14)
by kagaku_ninja on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 09:28:40 PM EST

David Bowie, "Savior Machine", 1971

[ Parent ]
Here's one (none / 0) (#20)
by lastwolf on Sun Dec 10, 2000 at 10:43:51 AM EST

A song on Bad Religion latest album, called I Love My Computer:

I love my computer
you make me feel alright
every waking hour
and every lonely night
I love my computer
for all you give to me
predictable errors and no identity
and it's never been quite so easy
I've never been quite so happy
all I need to do is click on you
and we'll be joined
in the most soul-less way
and we'll never
ever ruin each other's day
cuz when I'm through I just click
and you just go away
I love my computer
you're always in the mood
I get turned on
when I turn on you
I love my computer
you never ask for more
you can be a princess
or you can be my whore
and it's never been quite so easy
I've never been quite so happy
the world outside is so big
but it's safe in my domain
because to you
I'm just a number
and a clever screen name
all I need to do is click on you
and we'll be together for eternity
and no one is ever gonna take my love
from me because I've got security,
her password and a key

"Take your wings, go out and fly.
Learn, read and soar the sky."

[ Parent ]

computer parts art in their own right (and mine) (3.20 / 5) (#11)
by AtomZombie on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 03:53:57 PM EST

the subject is very interesting to me since every single painting or sculpture i have ever done has computer parts slapped, strapped, glued, wired, or welded onto it. computer parts are art in themselves. ever looked at a motherboard... i mean really looked at it? it looks like a tiny civlilisation. i find that computer parts, especially obsolete computer parts, add an incredible dimmension to art. they show interconnectedness: i can connect parts of the sculpture to the wires hanging off some power supply. computer parts create a juxtaposition of technical and organic on canvas. old computer parts give off a stark industrial feel.

...especially when baby-dolls wrapped in electrical tape are involved :)


"why did they have to call it UNIX. that's kind of... ewww." -mom.
digitalis (2.00 / 5) (#12)
by AtomZombie on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 04:00:04 PM EST

digitālis, e, adj. [id.], of or belonging to the finger: gracilitas, Plin. 14, 3, 4, § 40: crassitudo, id. 22, 20, 23, § 48; cf. Varr. R. R. 1, 55, 1 Schneid. and Gesn. (al. digitabulis).


"why did they have to call it UNIX. that's kind of... ewww." -mom.
advertising as art (2.00 / 1) (#16)
by kazeus on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 08:40:27 AM EST

Plenty of companies have plenty of money riding on these questions -- after all, a Portal to the Universe is much sexier than a gray plastic box, and people pay more for things that are sexy.

Which means that if you're like me, and believe that advertising is the most technically sophisticated form of art around today, there's all kinds of art out there that romanticizes computers (and especially the internet). I'm a bit too drunk right now to think of a good example, but an hour of commercial TV would probably produce several.

If the general public isn't convinced, it's not for lack of effort on the part of your friendly local marketing department.

Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?
Computer Artists Exist! (4.00 / 1) (#17)
by Kunstwerk on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 07:07:09 PM EST

Art of which a computer is the main subject exists. It's just not always obvious.

Let me elaborate...

First of all, I totally agree with you that we won't find eloquent oil paintings of a computer anytime soon, because the subject is, let's be frank, visually uninteresting. Even a G4 Cube, though a design tour-de-force, is not very artistically inspiring.

However, if you expand your definition of a work of art beyond the standard painting and sculpture and stuff, it gets really interesting.

Artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson, for example, has been involved in new-media art for a very long time. To give you an idea of what she does, one of her works is Difference Engine #3, where:
-The images of people entering the museum gallery are scanned, put into a database, and labelled with a number corresponding to the time in seconds since the exhibition began.
-People can visit the same exhibition on the Internet through VRML.
-To visit the exhibition, Internet visitors use the 3D-scanned model of a "real" physical visitor as their avatars.
-The physical and virtual visitors may interact and talk.

There's more to it, but you get the idea. This work of art raises many questions. "What is identity on the Net?" "Is being virtually there like being physically there?" "Are the lines blurring between virtual and physical?" "Are we stealing someone else's identity by using it as an avatar?"

Yes, it's quite conceptual in nature. No, it's not as obvious and as simply understood as a Howard Fogg. But it certainly shows that a computer is more than a glorified typewriter - as you put it, that it's the gate to a virtual world with its own concerns.

This is is one counter-example to the point your story makes. There are others.

Now, of course computer art is hard to grok. People have enough trouble understanding computers themselves, let alone art about computers. But I firmly believe that as the computer becomes a better understood and more familiar part of everyday life, that computer art will grow and acquire more of a following.

BTW, two coincidences I would like to share before I quit:
1) The story is titled "Ars Digitalis." There exists a contest called "Ars Electronica" (sorry, link in German) which regroups many of the computer artists whose existence this story denies.
2) I was just about to print my 15-page essay on computer art for my Fine Arts class when I stumbled upon this story :)

--KW [Diary] /* Do all humans pass the Turing Test? */

How about this guy? (3.00 / 1) (#19)
by Captain Napalm on Sun Dec 10, 2000 at 04:55:11 AM EST

What about Robert Tinney?<?a> He does computer related artwork, and between 1975 and 1987 (approximately) he did nearly every cover for Byte Magazine. I always did like his work.

Ars Digitalis | 20 comments (18 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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