With apologies to Richard Hamilton
Just what is it that makes today's Digital Art so different, so appealing?
Stephen Jones
©Stephen Jones 2004

I want to explore what it is that makes the presentation of an event such as this so important as to justify the hoop-la that surrounds it - specially invited speakers, a special venue, an international awards program and so on. And make no mistake this is a special exhibition. But what is it that makes digital art worth remarking in any way that is different from any other collection of pictures be they paintings, etchings or photographs? Why is this collection so special, other than for its extraordinary diversity?

Of course that diversity is a leading reason for its specialness - and the collection here is most diverse. In an ecology of imaging, digital art presents a wildly diverse yet stable developmental trajectory. Works that appear under its rubric spawn and mutate with astonishing ease, rapidity and fecundity - bringing an ever-expanding range of things to say, ideas to explore and ways of saying them, limited only by the imaginations of the people who wish to make the comment. And this ease of access to the means of production is but one of the characteristics of the digital art that I am going to look at here today.

But what is it that makes a digital image? Why is it different from any other kind of image? Is it simply a factor of its mode of production or are there other factors that contribute? And it is these other factors that I would like to explore here today.

Basically I am asking about the aesthetics of the digital image and whether or not there is anything particular to digital art that suggests that a new aesthetics might be applied to the images made. In this situation I am going to talk pretty much exclusively about the still image (though I recognise that there are various versions of the video image in the collection as well). It seems to me that there has been very little attention paid to this matter of the differences between traditional art and digital art when we talk about still images, painting, photography etc. Sean Cubitt’s book Digital Aesthetics is a primary work but to a large extent he doesn’t dwell on the matter at all. Mostly he deals with the cultural politics of the digital and how it affects our understanding of the world. Likewise Charlie Gere’s book Digital Culture. The only one that does venture some opinion regarding the aesthetic qualities of digital art is Christiane Paul’s Digital Art which devotes a chapter to it but mainly deals with the role of the internet and with interactive and installation art, which are of course the main kinds of new work that depend to a large extent on the use of computers for their production.
So Cubitt and Paul talk about web aesthetics, the kinds of cultural processes and perceptions that are made newly available by the hypertextual, linking functions of the Internet for example, or such things as the capacity for the operation of programs on the net that possess what are effectively autonomous behaviours, programs that have some level of agency or the capacity to make decisions about their digital environment that serve their own purposes in order to serve the purposes of their makers.

Most digital aesthetics is concerned with interactive art, but here we are dealing with still images that offer only the most limited form of interactivity and that is how we all, as viewers, are able to read the image in our interaction with what the artist has offered us on the printed surface.

Obviously, what makes a digital image is primarily that it is made within a computer and not directly onto the support material, be it paper, canvas or whatever else one might use. Essentially the image is made not onto a material support but onto a screen and the artist then has the liberty to project it onto any other possible support medium according to whim. A digital image could appear on paper, on a video projection screen or an LCD, or it could be etched onto a metal plate by some sort of milling machine or any other way of transferring an image to some material support. This by the way is not to suggest that the image itself, as information or computer data, is somehow immaterial as was supposed in the early mythology of cyberspace but that its materiality may take any of a wide range of natures, even though, when in its most abstract form the image cannot be seen as such but is a collection of bits of information on a disk surface or even more rarefied a collection of instructions on how to produce the image on the fly as was the case in the earliest computer graphics which could only be made manifest with a plotter.

So let’s look at some history

Now back to the question of the materiality of the image may be the primary difference that exists between an art which directly impacts the support material, and thus to some degree depends for its surface appearance on the nature of that material, versus the digital image where it may be manifest onto any number of possible supports which may or may not affect its surface qualities in a distinct way. In collage, in painting and in photography some material: a piece of paper, the liquid paint, or the light sensitive chemistry is affected; the image is glued down, manipulated or brushed into position or made to appear by exposure to light onto a canvas or hand-made or chemically sensitive paper which itself then affects and has some impact on the qualities of the image. The production of an image in traditional artforms inherently affects the qualities of the image whereas the digital image is not inherently affected by the surface upon which it is made manifest. It is possible though, that the artist may select a particular kind of textured material to print the image onto but that comes as a second stage.

Thus, it seems to me that the biggest difference between traditional image making and digital image making is in the materiality of the digital image, either it is an electronic screen image or a print of some sort, usually an ink-jet, made onto some kind of paper or canvas, but it is laid onto the paper as a scan across the page with the changes of colour in the inks being controlled by the computer and the colours merging more or less smoothly from one to another, depending on the edges in the objects being represented. Nevertheless, however material the final print, there is a virtuality to the digital image deeper than any imagined object. That is the materiality of the digital image is, in a sense, itself a virtual aspect, it represents the qualities of photography or lithography, etching or painting but it doesn’t possess those qualities. The nature of its projection onto its support reduces the surface to smooth layers of distributed colour that bear no resemblance to, for example, the lumpiness of the painted surface or the scratched and cut quality of the etching or woodcut.

Digital art is most like photography in terms of its surface and materiality - it is often a kind of extended photography in which the image is no longer simply recorded to the film or the paper but in which it is generated and recorded in the computer at the same time, where it remains virtual, and is only subsequently projected onto the paper. And of course photography itself has followed this trajectory in being recorded to digital memory and, as often as not, edited and retouched in the computer and then projected to the paper.

Sources of digital art

So do the sources of digital art bring any difference? To a large extent I suspect they don’t. The photograph, the painted or drawn image and textured materials, cloth, plants, metal, etc, all make perfectly good sources for either approach whether they are directly employed or are scanned into the computer. A possible exception is in the case of the algorithmic, mathematical or geometric image, which would be almost impossible without the computer, although perhaps the hard-edge abstractionists and the op-art painters could present a good argument against that view.

Likewise with composition. It is the organisation or structure of an image that brings it to life. What the artist does is to reduce the equilibrium of a blank surface by doing work - making marks - on it and, through this work, adding information or meaning. Thus the artist is often described as bringing an image “to life” or imparting something like what Walter Benjamin called the “aura”. This negentropic process offers a direct analogy with life, which is often signified with the use of the word “creation” when referring to image making. The notion of the reduction of entropy through doing work appears both in biology and in any form of information processing which, whether you like the term or not, is what making art and the reading of art is.
The qualities of that organisation, in which the composition consists; namely form, grace, elegance, style and their geometry (by which I point to the use of symmetry, centrality or the Golden Mean ratio, for example) as they applied to any of the analogue or traditional forms of image making still apply to the digital image, so it is not that digital imaging has done anything per se to our perception of the image. What the digital image has done, though, is to bring us a much-extended range of images, in the sense that it has introduced, for example, what I am calling here the algorithmic and the mathematical image.

Mark making
As I have just suggested, the notion of doing work in art is rendered as mark making, which in terms of the result, ie, the mark, can be much the same in traditional or digital forms. The tool in digital art may not be so direct as a charcoal on paper, but using a pen and a drawing tablet with an algorithmic airbrush tool in, say Photoshop, is arguably the same in its feeling, hand eye coordination and result. Though one has to remark that this is only a fairly recent situation. When computer art first began it was often rejected by the artists of the day because they could not get anything like the feel of working the tool they used to make their marks, and this then raises the issue of the artist’s touch which may be understood both as the quality of the mark as made by the hand of a particular artist (which is often a serious matter in the attribution of unidentified paintings or the discovery of forgeries) as well as the feel that artists experience in the making of the work and how that feel impacts upon their process. Now, the artist’s touch, in either sense, is very likely to be obscured if not completely lost in digital art, although this does presumably depend on the software the artist uses and their facility with it. And here in this collection there are many works in which the artist’s touch is clearly sensible and recognisable.

So having suggested both a prime differentiation between digital and analogue art as well as noting some areas where there is little serious difference, one might ask to what extent does digital art emulate traditional analogue forms?

The Varieties of Digital Art

It seems to me that digital art has adopted several well-established traditional forms, and so, perhaps this is a taxonomy, a differentiation of the images in the collection into three approaches to art and each their several variations. These approaches I shall designate as collage, digital painting and the generated image.

The main form that digital art seems to derive from is collage. Already existing images, found objects of textural or compositional value or meaning significance are cut up and laid onto the paper to construct an image very often having considerable political meaning. In digital collage much the same goes on except that the image or texture source is scanned in and then cut out in the computer for laying into the virtual image on the computer screen. Once it is printed out the image has much the same utilisation as a pasted up collage. The main difference with digital collage might be that the source images scanned in may then be put through considerable manipulation to shape them for the overall composition or to combine them with other image segments to make up some completely new picture element.

Collage has never really sought to regale us with order and beauty - it has always been tough, critical demanding and outrageous from Max Ernst, to John Heartfeld to Richard Hamilton to the images in this collection here, which are every bit as provocative. As Hamilton put it, art “can be a product of thought rather than feeling” [Compton, p.60]. Though sometimes subtle, and here in digital art it is often very much so, collage is often brash, garish, and accused of being shallow but for those who like what they see and agree with it the argument is always “spot on!” And it is Hamilton’s famous collage Just what is it that makes today's home so different, so appealing? that offers an epitome of the form. That work was a poster for the 1958 exhibition “This is Tomorrow”, held by the British Independents Group at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and as Michael Compton in his 1970 study Pop Art notes, it

“shows the world, or rather the home and the city, as a network of references which we are trained to understand, and makes the point that our experience of and our response to the world is structured by those references and images” [Compton, p.47]

This is something that raises an important understanding of the role of the image as a sign, an understanding that has become an important basis for any aesthetics of digital art through the ease with which images can be re-contextualised and the fact that this is so often done. It works through that necessarily human process of reading signs, represented in Barthes’ recognition that the way we perceive, and how knowledge is constructed in us through that network of meanings that Compton refers to, leads to the understanding that the world functions as a text. The meaning of an image or a picture element becomes governed by naught that is absolute, it is simply a function of its relation to its neighbours. Meaning is constructed in signs as referents in a context of other signs and this is what the collage does. Images as signs referring to otherwise conventionalised referents, in their placement and juxtaposition with other image-signs, develop new and unexpected meanings. And the reading of the image thus becomes of crucial importance.

In digital art, collage is generally the recontextualisation of photographs and other images - scanned in, possibly manipulated and then composited. Photographs are always of the past. They provoke a fascination that draws us into a new space we cannot remember, the space in which the collage forms an image that is always new to us. This is the problem of memory, every remembering is exactly that a re-member-ing, a new experience, so that we are constantly forced to appropriate the past and its artefacts in the construction of our present. The artist collages a new image as an evocation of the past to produce a comment on the present. Wherever the images come from, family photographs, historical postcards from museums or the tourist moments of our ancestors these appropriated images form components of our present and they become a collage of moments constructed as memory. This is the paradox of memory. Every memory of the past is a new present, a new experience, no matter how often we go there. The ease of the digital scan and the facility with which it can be layered up against so many other scans of our history, makes each history a private affair that is read uniquely, by each of us.

Digital Painting
Having been finished and printed the digital image itself is essentially stable (barring problems of the archival quality of its materials). That is, that particular printed image (that particular manifestation of the stored data) cannot be added to by any further digital process. In this way it is like a photograph in the material form that constitutes it, but quite unlike a painting or collage, which can always be further added to. The digital image and the photograph as such are only unstable in their generative or formative stages, that is before their printing, where they both might suffer selection, cropping, retouching and other editing and manipulation procedures. However the printed image itself may then become a substrate. If it is then used for painting upon or adding to in collage, then it becomes a hybrid. We already see this in recent painting onto digital images and I have no doubt that it will continue to develop both in painting and in hybrid forms of photography.

And thus we then find ourselves entering the realm of Digital Painting, which comes in two forms. One is, as I have just mentioned, the process of painting onto the printed image (for example in John Young’s recent work), and the other involves using the brush and pen tools in, say, Photoshop so that something resembling a painting is made directly in the computer. But using the brush tools in the computer to produce a digital painting cannot possibly bring out the surface that painting on canvas can do and this is so often an important factor in the work of the traditional artist. Technologies of printing may one day get around aspects of that problem. For example the painter Joseph Nechvatal uses a robotic painting system that allows him to directly transfer the data of an image generated in his computer to the controller of the robotic machine which then brushes the image onto the canvas. This gets him the textural surface of painting while still working with the digital image in the computer. Of course where the artist’s touch is in this process remains to be determined, but it’s obviously not in the brushwork. Nechvatal now uses viruses to eat away at his digital images and then has those painted out, so his direct touch is even further removed. For other artists the touch and the irregularity of the painted surface is an important part of their work and so to paint onto a printed digital image brings their touch directly into play again.


So what are the main characteristics that differentiate digital art from its ancestors? What draws the digital image so far from the features it shares with photography? The thing that first comes to notice in digital art is the extraordinary ease with which current software applications allow its manipulation. Yes, the photograph can also be manipulated but in digital art it is almost mandatory to manipulate the image. After all, why would an artist go to that extra bother if they were not going to manipulate it at least at the level of collaging an ensemble of pictures into a single image? (Though, obviously, with digital photography one may only wish to fix the exposure.)

It is not that in analogue art the artist does not manipulate the image, but in the computer that process is made so easy that it is almost inevitable. Any image removed from its context is manipulated and even cutting out an image is a manipulation, as is changing its contrast or rebalancing its colour or even retouching to remove the specks of dust. These are the things that have always been done in photography. In the digital, many new types of manipulations have become available. These include means for stretching and scaling the image, altering its shape, removing whole sections of an image or painting in new objects, cloning of the image both in its re-use over a series of works by one artist as well as its multiple use in the one work, adding texture or removing noise, sharpening the image or blurring out features so that they become backgrounds, making certain layers transparent while veiling and obscuring others. Once scanned in, the photograph, full of potential yet unrealised meaning, then awaits its fate and, most importantly, all manipulation is a manipulation of the meaning evoked by the image in its new context.

Photo manipulation covers a vast range of possible processes and I won’t go into them in any depth here. Suffice to say that the capabilities of most imaging software provides a great variety of ways for manipulating images, though there don’t seem to be that many ways for directly generating images within the average photo-editing application.

One thing about manipulation which is made especially easy in digital compositing is the quality of the cutting-out and the range of ways in which this cutting-out can achieve the seamless combination, juxtaposition and blurring of distinctions between objects and layers in the image. It can be extremely difficult to determine whether two different images have been put together to make one with the feathering and anti-aliasing that is available to merge two juxtaposed edges.

And the use of transparency is another of those manipulations that seem to really mark out the digital image. Although it is by no means solely a digital characteristic, considering its use in painting where the thinness of the paint layer may often deliberately allow through aspects of an already laid down image - perhaps for juxtaposition of meaning, perhaps for an indication of time - it is almost de rigueur in the digital image, whether it reveals or hides, whether it draws a veil across the scene or opens a way through that veil revealing another layer of meaning, perhaps a fantasy or acting as some convention through which multiple layers of meaning; reality and desire, are invoked. It is as though the ghostly form becomes reality exposed, withdrawn (into the eye), dreamed and re-dreamed, where subjectivity is redeemed, re-presented so as to guide our dreaming and our desire. Think of all those advertising images attempting to make desires manifest and aspirations available.As British digital artist Penelope Wakeham says of her work:
“Computers have their own quality of space. The depth seems infinite. Layer upon layer can be created so that, when viewed through one layer to another, only the merest trace of a mark might be seen. Or something might be glimpsed through or round a line wandering across the foreground, which meanwhile, is slipping out of the picture plane.” [Penelope Wakeham (not in the collection here) describing how she thinks about her work on her website <http://www.penelope.wakeham.btinternet.co.uk/>]

The beautiful image
In many ways it is probably a matter of the quality of the surface, but many of the images in this collection have a striking hyper-reality about them. They have an otherworldliness about them which makes them glow and gives a surreal or an almost science-fiction feel, especially some of the landscape work and in much of the story-telling function of many of the images. It is a future perfect beyond our dreams that is invoked, the world of Platonic immateriality, the ideal version of everything, impossible to achieve in the real but perfect for the needs of the advertiser.

But many of the images are simply beautiful, without their being over-cooked. For me the image that took my heart is Leah King-Smith’s Look Up. That moonlit night sky with the stars transformed into seeds floating down and falling on us, released by those dark mythical constellations invented in an astronomy that is not ours. We, the colonists with our cranes and construction proclaiming our power, are softly defeated by the beauty of those seeds among the stars.

Yet even beauty can take a hit in this world. Jiri David’s pictures of Bush, et al, are far from beautiful and one supposes they were never intended to be so. It is through their ugliness that they gain their impact - the message of this lack of beauty makes them count and makes them winners.

However the real winner, the standout work is Anne-Marie Taranto’s Quantum Dreamtime in which she attempts to invoke the 4-th (time) dimension, the sequential fluidity of time. Delicate and translucent the image moves inwards to the cellular and beyond to particles of that deeper unknowable world that we gain access to only by inference. The sequence of images hints at the depth of the world, bringing us into its realm while reminding us of its fragility and constructedness. Here reality is revealed as it can only ever be, as an imaginary, as the illusion that is its destiny.

What becomes of reality in the digital realm? Was there ever such a thing (as truth)?
The manipulability of the digital image leads us to the vexing debate over truth in the image, and ultimately to the question of whether there is any possibility of knowing something true about the world. The question becomes can we have absolute or certain knowledge of anything at all? And of course it is in this question that post-modernism both has its roots and has most to offer.

Nietzsche observed of history that it all depends on the point of view and the intentions of the historian and that the documents, which the historian uses as evidence, themselves depend upon the intentions of their authors. That is, all reporting of anything is filtered through the perceptual experience and history of the reporter whose point of view has been shaped by that experiential history. We can only know by experience and our sensory systems can only mediate images, sounds, tastes and so on to us. Ultimately our senses act as barriers to any kind of direct knowledge of actuality and what we think of as real is only ever a function of our experience. Anything that we know cannot represent actuality (whatever actually happened) it can only represent what the socialised and cultured structure of one’s mind makes possible through its formation via our personal experience.

But worse comes - how can we ever assert that there could be truth given what I have said previously about the mutability of the reading of the signs, and that all images are signs: their contexts re-directing their meaning. No picture ever reproduces reality (that which we know by experience). It simply points to parts of that reality and reminds us that there is meaning and significance there wherever we look and that meaning is a floating thing - place the picture element in another context and the meaning changes - the picture element is only ever a “floating signifier”. [Hayles ?]

Meaning is always a function of context. There is a sense in which one can describe all art as collage, from the placement of pictures in a room to the placement of pictorial elements in the frame. The elements of a picture depend on their neighbours within the frame and outside of it, within the room or even the kind of building. Consider how a picture’s meaning is differentially elaborated by its presence in an art gallery as opposed to its presence in a history museum, or even more starkly how the value of an image changes from its presence in the art gallery versus its presence on an advertising hoarding. We may claim that photography is less prone to this but photography is still a selection - an extraction of signifiers from their context so that their meaning is considered in some kind of isolation within the frame.

Duchamp provided several excellent examples of the re-framing of meaning, by placing the object in a different context, eg, with Bottle Rack or with the even more extreme shift of meaning revealed through Fountain where the simple act of inverting the urinal and placing it in the gallery space (thus designating it “art”) inverts all the meaning and value of the object, thus pointing out its new role as source versus its original role as a drain (sink) and marking its intense revaluation through its isolation from its original context.
Thus a thing becomes a work of art by virtue of the idea that it is used to represent and how the viewer understands that representation. The context governs the reading of the signs and art becomes recognised as a process of communication. [Cubitt, p.x] This communication is achieved through our reading, as viewers, of whatever the artist has placed in the frame to focus that reading. We do not have direct access to what the artist was intending we only have access to what our experience in the world can make of the picture elements as signifiers that are there for us to encounter.

The reading of the image
Design and the so-called “commercial art” stand at the centre of our economy [Design as Art, p.21] usually as an encouragement, a tease, a seduction, tugging at our aspirations yet always moving the goalposts and placing them out of reach. That the picture is an extremely efficient means of carrying information is the basis of so much in design aesthetics and values, and that it is very variably understood presages a political issue of some importance - in capitalist economies it is the corporate client who is the primary user of images for communication. They want their image, especially their carefully chosen and cultivated brand image to be recognised and understood without variation so that its message comes across directly. Any subversive reading of those images or even the questioning of them needs to be controlled and ultimately this becomes the control of a culture, be it through an FTA or the WTO, be it the French protecting their culture or Australia pretty much giving it away it is of immense importance to the propagators of images and advertising. As Sterling McIlhany says, in his Art as Design: Design as Art, regarding Pop Art, the “painter is able, as an artist, to triumph over a world that threatens to engulf him and all of us.” [Design as Art; p.22]

This collection that we are here to see achieves a major part of its success through its willingness to expose images that successfully evade the tendency towards the visually normative thereby subverting the corralling of digital imaging for corporate purposes and making clear that there are other more important values in the making of art in the world. As Sean Cubitt points out: “The playful mode of reading … is central” [Cubitt, p.15] to both the construction of meaningful and exciting art and to our critical understanding of our culture. The digital art here stands as a warning, a criticism, a note to our souls saying look at things another way, a critical way, be guarded, cautious, conscious of the spin. For example, Jiri David’s images of Bush et al crying are so blunt that although, as manipulated images, they seem not only lies in themselves, but they remind us to see the politicians they represent as liars, as sarcastic and specious - it is the overcooked intensity of the red eyes and the raw undecorated flat portraits that speak to us perhaps more than the idea that they are crying.

The generated image
The one thing that can only be done in the digital realm is the abstract, mathematical, generated art that uses the re-iterative following of an algorithm to create an image, whether it is the visualisation of scientific data as represented by Eric Heller’s Caustics or the dragon curves of the fractal geometry discovered by Mandelbrot. Heller’s images evoke the subatomic world, where things cannot be seen but only described and where the descriptions are generated from data built from tools we construct to make those data visible. If the subatomic world has shape or form we, by producing these self-referential tools, can only project upon it what we think it might be like. Mandelbrot’s images represent the chaos and turbulence of water flows, the coastline and the weather, and were a great hit during the 90’s but have lost their power today.
From the spirograph-style work of the early computer artists to the guided fractal images of Italian artist Francidy (Francesca De Santis) in her image Caronte or Karkowski’s fractal aqueduct and landscape the mathematical image has come a long way. In both these images, though each in unique ways, the lines that make up the image show the self-similarity of the fractal yet they are guided into form by the artist’s intention and control.

The algorithmic image speaks of hopeful, ideal worlds, where Plato’s perfect forms belie our materiality and limitations, yet they reflect that irregularity and unpredictability that is the actuality. But this algorithmic image is aesthetically difficult. It does not represent things that are readily recognised as art, it is not landscape, or portrait or even political collage, it is something else with different rules and a somewhat unfortunate history of having been long regarded by critics as anything but art, definitely not art. So the questions of how do you read it? To what does it refer except itself? remain unanswered. But this is very odd because a music that is synthesised or algorithmically generated can be very beautiful (though there is no automatic guarantee) and in one sense so are the better algorithmic images, but we got so tired of fractals over the mid-nineties that they are rarely accepted, although certain recent uses show revived and newly interesting developments in their utilisation.

And finally, to wrap this discussion up, the issues of the authenticity of the print. The problem is that the data from which the print is struck can remain utterly unchanged, barring a disk crash or virus. So instant copying without degradation is always possible. What is the value of the print given this perfect reproducibility of the image (always supposing that the same support materials are used)? And how does the artist guarantee the authenticity of the print? Is the copy of the image that you bought at great expense from the artist’s gallery an original? Of course this problem is not restricted to digital art - it also arises in photography and a good forgery in painting can also be extremely difficult to detect. But it has great importance in the digital because every printout of the data has as its source exactly the same data. How can one printing or one edition be determined to be any different from any other printing? It is often left to some means of signing the work and the elaborate measures analogous to those carried out in analogue printmaking where the plates are destroyed or in photography where the negative might be destroyed, but I know of no cases of that. So ultimately it is down to the signature and maters of faith.

And somewhat more abstrusely, how do we deal with the fact that whatever you are looking at, a print, a screen image, it is always a copy and in many ways a real copy of a virtual original? This small fact of digital art is what turns contemporary art on its head reversing so many of the notions we have of what is real and what is not. It is as though Duchamp’s move with his Fountain has spread to all art like a one of those viral infestations that somedays threaten to turn the Internet into one huge traffic jam.