Thoughts of a Computer Artist

Publication Type:


Source: (1995)




Prepared for the Symposium on Innovation and the Information Environment at the University of Oregon School of Law Eugene, Oregon November 3-4, 1995

Full Text: 

Prepared for the Symposium on
Innovation and the Information Environment
at the University of Oregon School of Law
Eugene, Oregon
November 3-4, 1995

Preface and Background
In 1971, I was an architecture student and musician living in Copenhagen, Denmark. I found myself thinking about architecture as
fluid experience rather than static objects, and felt constrained by traditional materials and was drawn to media studies. I had an
idea for a kind of three-dimensional painting that would come off the canvas and surround me, and move in response to my
movements the way a musician performs a musical instrument. It would be a kind of interactive liquid architecture, realized through
real-time animation of computer models. I imagined that through the use of telecommunications technology, there could be many
artists spread around the globe, interacting and performing in this common space, bringing their own visual and cultural traditions to
it. As the technology developed, I grew closer and closer to realizing this dream. Along the way, I developed parallel interests in
video, electronic/computer music, and computer graphics, as well as concerns for my own cultural heritage, feminism, environmental
issues and scientific visualization, and have produced numerous works dealing with these processes and ideas.

From the beginning, it was clear to me that there would be an inevitable integration of communications and information technologies,
if for no other reason than a sense that anything that provides accurate information faster, will be desired by large numbers of people.
Today, I find that the complexities, concerns, and contradictions that arise from the intersection of digital technology with its
multi-media and social components, leads, like a 4-dimensional spiral, back to fundamental questions of human nature. It seems
that our general, cultural thinking about social structures, for example, has until recently been based on the maintenance of distinct
and separate categories of human behavior and interaction, based on obsolete assumptions and technologies (ie. Marshall
McLuhan's rear-view mirror concept). The extreme depersonalization of 19th century industrial technology is giving way to a more
interdisciplinary, wholistic 21st century telecommunications-information technology. While still fraught with dangerous uses and the
potential for isolation, there is great hope for its humanization due primarily to interactivity and interconnectivity of its many users.
This technology can respect individual choice and provide a voice for the hopes and dreams of those previously excluded.

Just as people encompass both personal and public physical identities and communities, so their digital identities follow suit. But
the social structures evolving on the Internet, for example, are not inhibited by physical limitations and structural separation, and
take on completely new forms. The most interesting (and problematic) to me include collective identities, collective memory,
constructed memory and constructed identity - such as individuals that never could exist physically, some with genetic code and
behaviors that act as immortal, mutable agents. These agents can act on the psyches and bodies of real people in physical realities
and on digital creatures that inhabit only cyberspace. How does one get a grip on these possibilities, and understand non-physical
behavior? What affect will it have on the economy and vice versa? I don't have answers to all these questions, but I do have
observations and further questions based on the premise of this conference.

1. What is Innovation?
Innovation is the advancement of a discipline, finding new solutions to problems, new paradigms for thinking about things, and
change in the way things are done. It implies the application of research to a body of knowledge, and incorporates imagination,
leaps, free thinking based on stored information. It could even be that computers could assist in this process, being that they are
dynamic instruments with nearly perfect memories. For example, process and time based art have already used computers to assist
in the creative process: text based algorithms for generation of poetry, branching processes for the development of images, evolution
based processes for sculpture (present choices - artist chooses on the basis of esthetics, computer presents more choices, etc).
Moreover, synergy, the synthesis of other fields, the intersection of seemingly unrelated disciplines, the ability to see unusual
relationships between seemingly unrelated fields and information, is to me the basis of innovation.

2. Just what is the Information Environment?
First of all, there are qualities unique to digital media. They include memory, computational prowess, high bandwidth data transfer,
and high speed data transformation. It affects most fields of science, commerce, engineering, entertainment, and art. Being digital,
they share a common structure and language, and are part of a continuum rather than completely separate entities. The most
popular means for traversing this continuum is the Internet, particularly the data dissemination structure referred to as the World
Wide Web.

Being a public space, the Internet is an environment where innovative activity can and does flourish, and the processes invoked are
the mechanisms of change in this space. Computers are powerful, dynamic instruments more than just static recorders of data.
Data changes quickly, and computers give us a window into what things are changing, the speed of change and how that change
manifests itself. Since the information environment is both global and local, data does not necessarily need representation through
proxy on the Internet. While humans have problems remembering details of large, complex systems, the computer does not. It does
this for us. On the other hand, while it can translate data, it cannot interpret it. People are needed to give meaning to data and
change it into information.

The issue of scale is an important one. Our ability to comprehend global events is very limited, but greatly improved through ethical
use such things as remote scientific sensing devices (ozone measurement and deforestation, water and air pollution, earthquake,
and other natural disaster monitoring). Electronic instruments, as Marshall McLuhan stated almost 3 decades ago, extend our
central nervous systems, our perception of the world in and around us. But our devices are very limited, they exclude things beyond
their grasp. Beware that you don't fall into the trap of thinking that data defines a phenomenon or community. It does not. It is only a
sample. With this warning, my opinion is that the most important thing we can do with improved awareness is to protect and nurture
our extended environment, especially the fragile ones such as our natural and human communities. Further, I feel that the
information environment in some way or other touches all of our environments, and should not be seen as something separate -
everything is connected and is part of a continuum which potentially informs and affects our world - for better or worse. It is up to
humans to decide whether their activities will be inclusive or exclusive, destructive or constructive. Our history is to use technology
mostly destructively, or with good intentions but with destructive consequences. This is a danger which is very much a threat today.
We have to actively and ethically work against destructive forces and promote constructive behavior. Censorship is not the answer in
a democracy, but free and open discussion and education is. As a vehicle for education (formal and informal) and global, cultural
discourse, all people regardless of class, race, nationality, gender, etc, should have equal access to information and opportunity
provided on the Internet. Using the excuse of poverty to exclude people is a cruel and outmoded weapon. We should be as
enlightened as we think we are and realize that helping others is helping ourselves. The earth and all its creatures is one, it is our
own body, our community, our family, our home.

3. What are some of the changes that new technology brings to society and to artists?
The internet connects individuals globally, primarily through text (content) based computer systems, based on numerical information
but also through static and moving graphics. As global, digital telecommunications seamlessly integrates into computer networks,
the way in which we communicate on a daily basis with people all over the world will radically change. We will have real-time cellular
video phones, where each person will be a reporter. Journalism will change. Some will become editors, researchers and consumers
themselves, and some will return to trusting a specific editor, someone who has a track record we trust to do the editing for us.
These editors, however, will have to win the respect of the user community rather than being ordained as experts, since
corroborating evidence through computer searches will be easier than before, and feedback spreads like wildfire. We will have many
public access Cable News Networks on the Internet, like discussion groups but with video and audio. But, just as images can be
easily captured and transmitted, so too, can they be easily and undetectably altered. The most profound questions will have to do
with truth...old questions to artists and photographers, but ever more relevant today.

4. What is the Market in the Information Environment? Should the Internet be free?
Expanded choices, in general, make for more responsive markets and ones which will be as volatile as any fashion, and as fickle or
loyal as any group of human beings.

Data is shared amongst libraries, banks, private industry, private and public science laboratories, universities, artists and art studios,
individuals, political parties, etc. What information is relevant to whom? And who should be able to get it and for what fee? I feel
strongly that it is in the interest of everyone to provide equal access to everyone, and in so doing help those with less to achieve it.
But as my colleague, artist Jane Veeder pointed out, "the '90's is an era of small minded, self interest." (from a telephone
conversation 10-15-95) I feel that the Internet should remain free to those who cannot pay for it, and Jane feels that people who can
afford it should pay for it, and those who can't shouldn't have to. She suggested having IRS data linked to fees for Internet use, so
that a sliding scale can be worked out for US users. This way, people with low incomes would not pay anything and as people's
income increases, so do their fees. This is a good idea, but I would prefer a global solution, especially since there are no
international boundaries (yet) on the network. Perhaps this would mean infrastructure support from the World Bank, or the United
Nations. On a national level, I feel that access to the network should be like access to public roads, schools, libraries, courts, etc.
and should be considered vital to survival. A possible scenario: global infrastructure (satellite technology) paid for by the World Bank
or UN, with downlinks and backbones of regional networks paid for by individual countries through taxes, and local hookups paid for
through local taxes (organized by libraries) and private sources. It's sort of like shortwave radio, where anybody can broadcast and
send (from a public or private/commercial entity), and everybody can receive for free. The waves themselves are public and should
not be privatized. One can still do commercial work, it's just that important public work - such as informing people of impending
natural disaster, social issues like elections, riots, wars, etc. - can continue independent of commercial pressures. If it means
paying some taxes, so what? We're the richest country in the world, we can afford it. Moreover, there is in fact a public, and there
are still public spaces and public interests, and they, including a public Internet, should be vigorously protected so that democracy
can flourish. The sign of a strong democracy, to me, is one which allows and supports free and open discussion, and embraces the
right to express divergent views on principle. One reason why the Internet is so popular is because it is free and open. That's why it
is so interesting. It is imagination that people want to see most, and you can't always correlate money with that. Often, the most
imaginative people are the ones with the least resources. So, restricting use of the net to those who can pay for it will make it much
less interesting, much less democratic, and much less popular.

Just as we have private businesses on our public roads, we already have private concerns on the network. The World Wide Web is
the hottest advertising medium of the '90's. But there are differences between commodities in cyberspace and those in physical
space. Goods and services take on new forms. We have access to libraries of information, images from satellites and image banks,
interactive television, interactive games on the network, edutainment, long distance, interactive studios for the creation of artwork for
publication, design services for the creation of web pages, etc. How do we charge for what we provide? By hits? Or should we give
things away for free? Do the images available on the network belong to the public? Is our private web page public? Is it mostly
advertising for something else, the real thing, a physical product sent to your home after you enter your VISA number? How do we
protect data on computers we don't want people to have access to? My answer to the last question is simple: take the data off of the
server if you don't want it on the net. Finally, what rights and protections do we have for our work that is on the net?

5. What is Intellectual Property in the arts in cyberspace and how do we protect it?
Some artists feel that the Internet is a public space and that art on the network should be considered public art. This also means, to
some, that all material is in the public domain and is free to be used by others. They feel that artists should not put work out there
that they would feel badly about if copied and distributed. I feel that putting artwork on the network is putting it in the electronic town
square for everyone to view for free. But that does not mean that advertising agencies, for example, should be able to take that work
and exploit it without permission and proper credit. I, myself, have put a great deal of my work on the net to make it easier for people
doing research on me and my work to get the information. I am more interested in better representation of me and my work than
protecting a currently impossible to protect copyright. However, I have included the copyright notice as a formality - because there is
no alternative that deals with my rights on the network. Something like: it is permissible to copy for personal (non-commercial) use
as long as the proper credits are included. It is desktop mass publication and distribution, but it reaches primarily Internet users. In
this environment, I would have a dilemma about asking people to pay for it, especially if they are just looking. Theoretically, the value
of artwork goes down if everyone has it for free. But giving away computer software makes a bigger market for that software. And
with art, fortune follows fame, working more or less the same way.

Generally, the market for computer art has been problematic, since no one knows what the original is. Is it a list of 0's and 1's? Is it
the program that created an image or the first experience of the artwork? And what about the ideas, sensations, and thoughts that
created the art or constitutes the experience of the artwork? Are they the same? Is there a breakdown of distinctions between the
artist, the artwork and audience? Between process and product? Is the idea the most important thing? If so, can you copyright an
idea? Digital art obsolesces the notion of the original. It fundamentally dematerializes art and is not really about objects anymore
(although there will always be people who want to make objects using computers). It is something else, especially if it never leaves
the realm of the computer. There is a continuum between all measurable phenomena and all media using digital processes. In the
realm of the computer, everything can be translated into something else, and those forms can be "things" we have never seen
before. If it mutates over time like a movie or a piece of music, is it a performance? And if you or someone you don't know can freeze
an algorithmic process at any point and make a printout or milled object, who is the author or artist? Art is about change and
transformation, and is partly process. On the Internet, the users or audience are part of that process and part of that artwork. The
original is the experience, and everyone has their own, original artwork in their mind.

6. Information is Money is Power vs Information is Education is Empowerment
If money is power, then information is money is power. Hits on a Web page could translate into money. Should the more popular
sites get more money, or should they get less per hit since the volume is so high? When commerce is based on exchange of
information, such as statistics and market data, then the information itself is the commodity. When this information takes the form of
text, an image, or sound, these are also commodities. This seems appealing, especially when I see my ideas and artwork
propagated through other people, who often gain financially as a result. I would like a tag on that information so that even if I don't get
income as a result, at least I would get credit. On the other hand, I worry about the tendency to hoard anything worth money, in this
case information. We should be less selfish and more generous, and empathize with those who have less. It is noble and good,
improves lives and makes for a healthier, friendlier community. As an artist/professor, I feel that the benefits to the individual are
greater when the entire population (a collection of individuals, after all) is raised up, as through public education. Information
educates and empowers, and in an egalitarian democracy, all should have equal access to information and opportunity regardless of
income. The idea that information should be hoarded strikes me as regressive, and reminds me of when only rich people could get
an education, when all schools were private and minorities were excluded. Just as the informed worker is more valuable and can do
more, so, too, a smarter public earns and consumes more. From a purely economic standpoint, it seems that education is good for
business. It is also ethical. And ethics, the most important human quality, should guide us as we navigate this digi-incognita, this
expanding universe created in reflection of human thought.

Vibeke Sorensen
October 17, 1995