Can Digital Art Lie?

John Haber
in New York City

Kysa Johnson and Casey Reas

Can digital art lie? Data have a way of lending images authority, even as artists use the computer to manipulate both the data and the image.

The argument will take me through older media by Sol LeWitt and by Kysa Johnson. Already, they supply a vital antecedent for digital art, including the risk that the data may lie. I then return to the digital world, with simulations by Casey Reas. Reas describes his work as "process/drawing," but one might equally call it Minimalism on steroids. Surprisingly, one can also almost call it life. A related review looks at digital landscapes by Christina McPhee and sources of authority for digital art. Casey Reas's Process 4 (Bitforms, 2005)

Above scrutiny

Of course art lies, as Plato notoriously objected. Artists have always created images and objects. They have invented or adjusted represented scenes. They have evoked, parodied, and sustained myth, mistaken beliefs, and outright propaganda. Data-driven art does not change that. It does, however, relate to claims to literal truth particular to art of the last half century or so.

Would an artist as plain as Sol LeWitt lie to you? In a trivial sense, he does repeatedly, and one happily ignores the fact. His lines have thickness, and their application by assistants inevitably diverges from the stipulated pattern, much like art from his collection. His Equal Cubes at the National Gallery are inherently unequal. Most viewers start by checking for at least a rough compliance with the concept at hand, and most end by giving up. Indeed, that overflowing of perceptual boundaries adds significance.

Suppose, though, that one perceives enough, and one perceives trouble. Suppose that, say, a diagonal intrudes where the title leads one to expect a curved segment. If it happens once, one might accept it as a mistake— a human imperfection that does not so much disturb the concept as comport with the overflowing. At some point, though, one may wonder if LeWitt has started to lose it, like an aging Willem de Kooning. At some further point, one may start to ask if the artist has laid a trap. The imperfection has then become part of the work once again—only not the same work as before.

When looking at art, "realistic" or not, it pays to ask what constitutes realism. It also helps to expect multiple answers. One needs to imagine a viewer questioning the data and, from that beginning, the processes underlying a digital work. One cannot simply oppose data structures to narrative ones or the literal to the metaphoric. Rather, the translation of data into image and interaction amounts to a layering of representations, including the artist's self-representation. Through that layering, art has the power to watch stories unravel and return like memory.

Philosophers of art have tested the boundaries by examining hypothetical works of art. For a provocative example, Arthur C. Danto compares indiscernible red squares with different titles. He concludes that, since late Modernism, all art has become conceptual. Hardly, but in a sense all art is hypothetical, because it asks one to imagine alternatives. Its experience involves testing what one sees in light of what one knows—and vice versa. And the best art makes those urges hard to disentangle.

A conceptual artist always draws a frame around the art object. And the frame then becomes part of the work, like the pedestal for Constantin Brancusi. As Jacques Derrida insists, art and philosophies of art inevitably draw such frames—and just as inevitably violate them. Art's vitality derives from the fragility of the boundary between the work and the world. One's physical experience of art, in turn, suggests the fragility of the boundary between oneself and the world. LeWitt's art can look lush or dry, sometimes in different incarnations of the same wall drawing.

The risk of infection

Artists like these make the case for seeking out symbolic structures—a hallmark as well of biology. As Hal Foster notes, a twin fascination with the body and the machine underlies both Surrealism's nightmares of prosthetic parts and dreams of the superhuman. Christina McPhee, for another, has identified some of her seeming landscapes as cyborgs. They describe art as natural history. Consider, then, Kysa Johnson. Her drawings play with all these representations of data and of life.

Some work draws me close to the surface, only to force me back all at once. Maybe I feel the fragility of a pencil trace. Maybe I get sucked into the illusion of oil-on-canvas blackboards by Cy Twombly. I feel that way about paintings by Johnson, except for one small detail: they are not paintings. They really are chalk or, in a few cases, watercolor on fiberboard.

Many look like particle tracks in a cloud chamber, winding tightly before they give up the trace and decay. Yet they also show the overlay of a human hand. Many approximate the Greek symbols that label diagrams in the laboratory or on an actual chalkboard. Others look like networks of buds or spores. The artist in fact drew on medical imaging of yeast infections. Apparently, art based on computer imaging does not require giving up older media.

Given enough time and distance, the particle tracks gather into larger, denser nodes. The buds together form what look like flowers, vines, or entire forests. If I am to trust the artist, the infection spreads by cell division to colonize a lung or two instead. One can even discern a third level of organization, both an overall near symmetry and, at times, the outline of human beings. She has adapted a pyramid of forms from an Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in London's National Gallery, by Juan de Valdés Leal. Call it yet another instance of asexual reproduction.

Johnson returns in 2007 to infection and gender, this time arranging the curlicues of microbes into epic battle scenes from the Renaissance and Baroque. Do the germs build toward great art and great events, or do they eat away at them? One could emphasize the disjunction between science and art or between infection and human aspirations, but war kills, too. By contrast, the Spanish Baroque Virgin more stable, more obvious, and less uncanny. Each time, though, the works keep shifting before one's eyes. They slip between the accidental and the created, the literal and the figurative.

All this may sound too artificial even for art, but Johnson relishes the artifice. Once again, I cannot swear whether to trust the artist. And once again the different kinds and levels of self-assembly, as well as the fragile nature of the results, held me. A full experience of the work requires seeking connections between each mode of representation at hand. Each serves as a metaphor, or arbitrary linkage, and the work emerges from the further metaphoric linkages between them. Art and the machine alike thrive on the risk of infection—which brings me at last to digital art.

Minimalism on steroids

LeWitt has long relied on assistants. But what if he had started with a laptop? If a handful of human beings could create all those lines and curves, just imagine what enough DDR-RAM could do. With Casey Reas, one may finally find out. Like LeWitt, he foregrounds drawing by rules. Like Johnson, he also envisions emergent structures that could serve as models of the natural world.

A recent work, in fact, grew out of a project commissioned by the Whitney in conjunction with LeWitt wall drawings. The titles alone sound like quotes from the older artist, only intensified by digital processing:

Process 4: A rectangular surface filled with varying sizes of Element 1. Draw a line from the centers of two Elements when they are touching. Set the value of each line so the shortest line is black and the longest line is white, with varying grays between.

Judd would know when to shut up.

Reas has something else in common with Minimalism, too. As with LeWitt, the movement managed to revere both the found object and the handmade. It embraced both rigor and chaos, the given and chance. It aspired at times to encompass not just the history of technology, but also of nature and the earth. And, again, LeWitt's drawings may look quite sensual. Reas uses the digital to scale that up.

As his ultrafine lines proliferate, one could easily mistake them for crystals. They have something in common, too, with Johnson's organic forms. Alternatively, they could represent nothing more than an algorithm or a game. They see things, literally, in black and white. Then again, the most famous mathematical game of all time goes by the name Life. AI will be here any moment, I promise.

Reas runs the risk of producing little more than a game. Cory Arcangel can at least claim to hack his models of digital media. No wonder that, when Reas turns away from the monitor, the results seem more inert. Still, I took pleasure in changes unfolding faster than perception. I got to puzzle over whether to call the computer an intermediary between the artist and the work. I could smile at my own illusion of seeing into the nature of life.

Hiding the machinery

Too often, digital media has seemed above scrutiny—the dilemma of what the International Center of Photography calls "Public, Private, Secret." Between the language of data sets on the one hand and virtual reality on the other, it begs for the aura still accorded science and art. It can seem as immune to artifice as implied in the very title of one Web site, Like Buckminster Fuller, it can embrace space-time at one moment and design in three dimensions the next. When Donald Judd termed his work "one thing after another," he could be describing a digital processor. One can easily forget the symbolic strategies that enable technology and art in the first place.

As Reas shows, digital art adds unprecedented speed and accuracy of execution, although I bet LeWitt's assistants crash less often and develop fewer bugs. It adds closer touch to many terms of the viewer's day-to-day experience, much as genre painting once did. Interactive art can bring closer touch with the viewer still. Many consumers of art feel more at home with a mouse than with a brush. Daniel Rozin exploits just that by daring gallery-goers to paint with life-size but electronic brushes. They recognize the patterns that they themselves may use to decipher reality and to communicate with others.

Still, that promise of perfection comes at the expense of hiding the machinery. The viewer cannot, even in principle, verify Reas's title. The computer also adds an element not yet in Reas's work. It can process reams of data not otherwise available to the artist. McPhee can work not just with rules, concepts, and images available to sight, from memory, or in photographic prints—but with any signs she chooses. And McPhee, too, really can lie in the interest of self-exposure.

More to the point, digital input comes from an existing physical model, rather than solely from the artist. And that makes more apparent the disjunction between the metaphor that goes in and the metaphor that comes out. Not even the most innocent eye can see computer animations as a window onto nature. I do not question that science and art serve as fully adequate models of phenomena, even if their intersection has a way of disturbing both. I mean that the data themselves do not have a natural relationship to landscape. They, too, arise in context of a methodology, model, or metaphor.

Digital art does not eradicate or naturalize representation. Rather, it has the potential for making representation an even more vital part of the work than ever. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich sees data-driven art as intrinsically nonlinear, owing to a computer's random access, its ability to read and write data anywhere in a file rather than sequentially. He contrasts this with narrative, and he asks provocatively for art that will include both. But that art is everywhere. An artist cannot access a database or give it compelling visual form without a concatenation of metaphor in the first place.

And there, too, the imperfections become part of the work. Once one enters the digital landscape, it is not so easy to escape, no more than from the landscape of a book. Had you noticed that this review itself draws you into a hyperbook? No wonder digital artists keep turning to ecosystem data. Not even art's dependence on money can displace the dream of recreated worlds. So what if they are still a lie?

BACK to John's arts home page

Kysa Johnson exhibited at Roebling Hall in Brooklyn through February 14, 2005, and again through May 26, 2007. Casey Reas exhibited at Bitforms through April 2, 2005. An excerpt from The Language of Digital Art (2001), by Lev Manovich, on "The Database" also appears in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985 (2004), edited by Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung. I also refer to Hal Foster's Prosthetic Gods (October Books, 2004). An accompanying review looks at digital landscapes by Christina McPhee.


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