Imaging by Numbers: A Historical View of Digital Printmaking in America
Prince, Patric D., Art Journal
An artist once told me that she "was there in the beginning of computer art, in 1984." She believed that digital art making sprang fully developed and functional after the personal computer was on the market. Many creative practitioners began using computers at this time and have no idea of the knowledge necessary for and the technical innovations involved in the invention of the processes. New-media historians generally date the advent of computers in art, on paper, to the early 19 cos. A period of experimentation by the pho- tographer Ben Laposky resulted in his first Oscillons, early visual research of phase form images. His work culminat- ed in an exhibition of photographs at the Sanford Museum in Cherokee, Iowa, in 1953. Laposky titled the catalogue for the show Electronic Abstractions, indicating a new approach to design. The exhibition consisted of images photographed directly from the cathode-ray oscil- loscope screen, Lissajous patterns to which Laposky added color processes for interest. ' Herbert Franke, in Germany, made large (thirty-six by twenty-four inches) black-and-white screen prints of his early phase-form patterns, for example Serie 1956. There were several European exhibitions of his work. Franke then went on to test many other digital art processes.2 These beginning experiments with analogue devices took place a decade before specialists began using computer systems for standard visual expressive purposes.
Algorithmic Approaches Lead to Printmaking
The early search for form was based on algorithmic approaches to making art. Artists had to change the way they conceived of a work. The traditional methodology was to begin with a concept that became the composition of the piece. The artist made studies, and once the composition was organized, the practitioner would lay down marks to build up the work. Because of the nature of computer programming, in order to make graphic art it was necessary to start with the definition of a mark. The final composition was a result of the placement of the accumulated forms. The important change was that all of the thinking and planning had to be done before the program was realized. Once written, in theory, the program executes automatically.
Users were interested in exploring the limits of what computer systems would do for them visually. The machine was good at repetition of forms, creating randomness (in the form of "noise"), showing variable viewpoints of objects and forms, making color and value changes, creating interactive experiences, powering computer-controlled devices, and the expansion of telematic media. Computer programs were also used to manipulate text in the context of art, including the computer program as a design element, and to apply texture mapping (applying two-dimensional textures to the surface of forms). Curved forms were made up of short straight-line segments.
The early practitioners had additional technical problems to overcome. Institutional computers were huge and required a team of specialists to run the system. Work was processed in batches. A set of punched cards or paper tape would be presented to the operator to be input to the computer. The image was created in its turn. There was no immediate visual feedback. Microfilm printers would eventually produce photographs, and work could also be photographed from the cathode-ray-tube screen, but there was a limited scope for the production of the work.3 The early plotter printers were difficult to use and failed frequently. The inks available were limited in color and were fugitive. Thus, many artist-scientists made prints from their original computer images when they wanted multiple copies that would last over time. In addition, beside thing pieces of paper, at that time using print media was the only way to scale up works from standard smaller paper sizes.4 The transfer of some of their works to various print media solved some of these problems, and this evolution fit in nicely with a renewed interest in traditional printmaking in the mid-twentieth century. …