On the Uniqueness of Digital Art by JD Jarvis PDF Print E-mail
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Recently, I have been called to task to explain my seemingly obsessive contention that digital art is a truly unique art . . .

Recently, I have been called to task to explain my seemingly obsessive contention that digital art is a truly unique art, how and why I see digital photography to also be unique and why I believe this quality of uniqueness is important to the development and promotion of digital art in general. I think it is an undeniable given that from a purely technological and media based point-of-view digital imagining tools are totally unique in the approach to materials (or the lack of them) and art making processes. Regardless of the practice of applying traditional terminology, such as “brushstrokes” or “cut and paste” to totally new and different tools and procedures, there should be no need to debate that digital imaging technology is a new and unique media for making art.

The questions confronting me seem to be more about the resulting imagery. With the contention being that why should I make such a big deal about unique technology when the resulting imagery appears to be so similar to the traditional output of cameras, paints and brushes, scissors and paste, etc. And, although my immediate response is that the “result” we see from any art media is not fully the responsibility of the technology, but rather the results of how the artist chooses to use it; I will attempt to describe here in words and a few images why I feel the “results” of using digital art technology are (depending on the intent of the artist) extremely unique and important.

Also, you may be asking yourself “what is so important about being unique?” Certainly, given the ennui of contemporary art and the contention promulgated by an army of jaded and bored art critics that everything in Fine Art has already been done, it might be hard to convince anyone that anything “new” or “unique” could be produced regardless of how new and fancy your tools are. Again, my immediate response to this would be that “uniqueness” like “beauty” is also in the eye of the beholder. While the contemporary art scene is filled with what might be every conceivable style and anti-style, it is the duty of the beholder to become even more knowledgeable, nuanced and sensitive to change. But, to answer the question directly, if you are interested in fine art, then you also realize that it is driven, for good or ill, by what is new and unique. It devours “new.” It lies, hunkered down in the bushes, waiting to pounce on “unique.” If you intend to be a player in fine arts, then you will need to play the newness game.

Through the Looking Glass
Visualization through the lens of a camera has its own qualities, challenges, and limits which makes traditional photography a unique creative experience in and of itself. This “image capturing” is what, usually, defines “photography” with any additional descriptors or adjectives added to describe the type of camera/lens arrangement used, as in “35mm photography” or “pin hole photography,” or “large format photography.” With the waning accessibility of traditional cameras and related supplies we see the use (especially among manufacturers and sales reps) of the term “digital photography” to mean any image captured with digital technology. But, in this sense the term “digital” is referring not to the camera but to the image fixing mechanism that has replaced traditional film. Theoretically, any one of these traditional cameras could be outfitted with advanced digital technology and the captured image would be unique not because of the digital chip but because of the box and lens that brings the light to the fixing mechanism. Digital capture is followed by digital printing and if this is as far as you want your understanding or application of the newly expanded and energized field of digital imaging to go, it is quite tempting to say that digital photography is identical to traditional photography based on these results. To my mind, if the purpose is to simply mimic traditional photography, why use the word “digital” at all? I take as a “given” that unless, there is truly something unique about the results there is no need to differentiate it from photography.

“Digital photography” is a nearly useless term unless you are a salesman or you intend to make work that pushes beyond the traditional realms of photography. Within traditional photography there are whole separate sets of finely nuanced tools and materials that produce “prints.” Here the captured image is expressed in the material form of Cibachrome prints, Albumen prints, Silver prints, Polaroid prints (which are uniquely tied to a special camera, as well as a film base), prints on tin, prints on glass, etc. Each of these is unique. Even if we remove any tactile cues that can be sensed from the physical prints themselves, for example by viewing this array of prints through another imaging device such as a TV camera, we still see the undeniable imprint of the technology and techniques employed to make the photographic print. Printing is a separate, secondary (albeit very important) step in the process. It is in this manipulation and materialization step that the term “digital” has more to offer in describing where the unique and transformed photographic results lie.

Along Comes Digital
In basic terms, photography employing digital tools seems to fit nicely into a simplified traditional model. But, to an informed eye, the results of an inkjet printer share with these other traditional photographic printing technologies in having uniquely nuanced qualities and therefore unique “results.” To a trained or sensitive eye, an ink jet photographic print is clearly different than a Cibachrome or a Tintype and so on. Since there are crossovers between digital and wet chemistry photographic printing (namely “Lightjet” technology) it is easy to see why someone might be seduced by the idea that digital photography and traditional photography could, conceivably, produce identical results. Again, however, that depends on the intent of the artist and not the technology. As with most unique technologies the emphasis is usually on change, improvements and making something new.

If the artist so desires, the unprecedented controls to digitally manipulate, combine, adjust and output photographic images in ways that were nearly impossible to achieve in the past has moved the current potential (if not the current reality) of photography to the point where we could redefine all together what is visually possible with a photograph. Is the resulting image called a “digital photograph” merely because it has passed through a particular set of tools or because of unique results that are now at hand? Where does one draw the line between how a digital photograph “should” appear and what other forms of digital imaging look like? Is “digital photography” a subset of “photography” or are they separate things? Can something be called “painting” if the artist uses tools other than handheld brushes and pigments suspended in a medium? These sorts of quandaries (and misunderstandings) persist when attempting to parse the intricacies of digital imaging because of our misuse of language in the service of making us feel more comfortable or safe when confronted with change and something truly new and unique. Such shortcomings in our use of language to describe digital imaging processes demonstrate, if nothing else, how unique these tools and their results truly are.

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              Figure 1. Detective by Myriam Lozada-Jarvis

 In Figure 1, the artist has taken a single digitally captured photograph and through some basic manipulations created an energized and complex image. It is not traditional photography, but it certainly is digital and photography. If the argument is that it does not look like photography, then the point about the absolute new and unique potential for “digital photography” is made. One cannot limit digital photography to works that look only like traditional photography and then argue that because it does such a good job of simulating traditional photography that, therefore, digital photography is not unique. Plainly, digital photography is unique and compared to a lot of the current output it should be more so. If a digitally captured, manipulated and printed photograph appears to be simply the same as traditional photography that is only because the artist has chosen to limit it in that way. Or, perhaps we need to do a better job of specifying what our terminology, in the digital age, actually means. By definition, I believe “digital photography” ought not look like traditional photography at all and the term therefore infers “unique results.” But, if “digital photography” simply means that the image is no longer captured on photosensitive film inside the camera, then perhaps “digital imaging” is a better term for the results I expect.

Brushes and Glue, Cursors and Layers
When the other visual art forms with which digital imaging is most often aligned are brought into the discussion the uniqueness of digital art expands exponentially. In digital painting, for example, we find many software and tools designed to mimic the visual cues associated with traditional material things such as, impasto, chalk, ink, water color, pencil or pen and selections of paper textures. In terms of printmaking this same imaging system can produce facsimiles of any number of traditional printing procedures, but with enhanced repeatability, color control and accuracy of which the old master printmakers could only dream. And, when digitally creating a collage not only can artists simulate “cut and paste” but also can resize, repeat, and shift the hue of each image segment as the composition is assembled. Traditional scissors and glue cannot come close to these unique capabilities emanating from the same, singular, remarkable box.

However, we do not make chalk drawings, etchings or collages with digital technology. We simulate or mimic them using one complex technological device and a very facile system for transferring or fixing the heretofore electronically represented composition onto a physical substrate. While it is often difficult to discern, closer examination of this output clearly reveals that it is not a traditional drawing, painting, print or collage. It is unique. In terms of 2D digital prints, we do not act directly upon the material that will ultimately become the finished piece of art. To a greater degree than even traditional printing, we work on a visual proxy of the composition that will become, upon materialization into a print, an art object. We work with our hands in one place and our eyes focused in another space. Our fingers never actually touch a physical composition or a printing matrix and the digital print conveys the patina of this unique “once-removed” technology. This is often seen as a drawback. It is relatively easy for a digitally printed photograph to “pass” as its traditional counterpart, but how about a painting without the little hairy brushstrokes? Collage without the glue?

Often, straight digital simulations of traditional media fall short. Not because they are not lovely, but because of the lack of materiality that is expected in traditional art. Here, on the flat surface of the digital print, the aesthetics of mimicry, simulation, facsimile and illusion become even more important. The basic tricks that have pleased the eye of art lovers for centuries come front-and-center in this art. Such illusion, of course, has always been an aspect of traditional art; but there is something especially surreal about the way such flat digital artwork can mimic texture and simulate depth. The best work exploits this fully. It is as if the shock of photorealism can now be applied to the emotional qualities of abstraction, uniquely energizing an extremely flat and featureless surface. See Figure 2. And, there are almost an infinite number of tools offering unique visual effects that allow digital art to further offset its somewhat limited physicality.

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 Figure 2.   Reminds Her of Fish 
 Figure 3. Cellophane Refrain

In part, this is achieved by employing self-iterating cloning plug-ins and “action layers” to create “brushstroke looks” which are editable instructions to the computer for how a cursor trace is to appear. This “brushstroke” can take on all sorts of unique appearances. From “liquid metal” to colorful geometric patterns, any image can be imported and used as a basis for making marks that have never been possible with traditional media. See Figure 3. Combined with layering options, texture maps, lighting effects and so on, the digital painter, collagist and printmaker has an open doorway into unique and fresh imagery.

Employing another subset of these digital tools, namely algorithmic sub-programs called “filters” and “plug-ins,” presents the artist with, perhaps, the most unique results of working digitally. Filters provide user interface palettes to allow the artist to set up sub-programs that manipulate full screens or selected areas of pixels into often, unexpected patterns or forms. These forms, which represent the cold, calculating heart of the machine, stimulate the imagination of the artist, who then uses other digital tools to interpret and direct the developing image; thus overlaying the warmth of a human heart. Together a spontaneous back and forth between artist, tools and the evolving composition results in imagery that is uniquely spontaneous and often unexpected. While it is true that any traditional media can and has been employed toward this sort of open-ended image exploration and self-discovery; it is clear to me by the number of digital artists that choose to work in this method that the digital system offers something unique and special to this artistic endeavor. It is the speed and the actual lack of material involved in creating a visual digital composition that supports this. Japanese illustrator, Hiroshi Yoshi, summed this sentiment up years ago when he said, “at last I have a medium that works as fast as my imagination.”

To my knowledge there has never been in the history of visual art anything that matches this unique capability to offer up spontaneous interaction between artist and the piece being created. Certainly there is nothing that allows for such quick changes, “undos” and the ability to save and collect compositions as they develop, while simultaneously continuing to destroy the previous iteration and push the work forward into new areas. Only music and dance come close. Like a self administered Rorschach test the ability to lead yourself to your self is totally and uniquely supported by this digital art technology. See Figure 4.

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           Figure 4.  Waiting in the Garden

Is that all there is?
Having seen what digital technology can do, my tendency is to focus as much on the journey as the goal. And, in this sense I mean focusing on the technology as much as the result coming from it. Why? Because it is not quite clear to me why we invented this device in the first place. Because, I have to ask myself and whoever else might listen, “Is that all there is?” Has this truly remarkable technology, which is the culmination of at least 500 years of human dreams and effort to become an active and integrated part of our own inventions, been developed to serve as a copying machine? Are we, as artists, to be satisfied with facsimiles of past materials and processes? After my initial exposure to digital art making, and having grasped the simple and most basic realization that art is art no matter what you use to make it, I have sought a deeper more nuanced approach and understanding. By trying to identify and focus on the unique qualities and capabilities of digital imaging technology I hope to arrive at something, some imagery, some understanding that is new and unique in a world of art and perhaps culture at large. So, I focus on what is unique about the technology in hopes of finding or striking a new cord.

When I look around the rubbish bin of art history I find myself in good company, because all great art was at first “off-putting” to those stuck in the past or clinging to worn out traditions. Picasso said, “I want to make ugly pictures.” Warhol said. “I want to be a machine.” It is clear to me now what they meant. Of course, if you make something truly unique and new it must appear ugly or at least strange to eyes blinded by tradition. Right now, at this place in art history, at this point in the arc of digital art, if what I do as an artist seeking to discover what is unique about this media and working to push beyond the boundaries encountered is seen as rubbish by some, then I am doing exactly what needs to be done, at exactly the right time.

I, and many digital artists like me, have not pushed the unique qualities of digital art making far enough. We play it safe, settling for mimicry and familiar results. This is why my focus must now be on this remarkable technology and what it can do better than any other art making tools and materials before it. Is there anything there? This is the search that defines the living force of my work and my words.

JD Jarvis can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it
or visited at The Dunkingbirdproduction website.  

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