bleep (2011)

I hate digital.

(This essay was first published in The Nimble Magazine iOS Edition No.1)

I really do. “Oh, no, I do like digital, but you know, eventually I want to use real paint again, you know” — it’s statements like these or similar ones I get a lot.

And it drives me crazy.

It drives me crazy, because it puts ’digital’ on the un-real side, the imitative or simulative side of things. And certainly we have come to known things done on a computer as being simulations of something we already know from the real world. Take games as an example, or the desktop metaphor. (The whole skeuomorphic interface discussions going on is another touch point for that matter.) But I think when it comes to creating art on computing devices, this thinking will overall weaken the output as well as the process. So before I suggest a different approach to look at what we do, let me quickly cast a light on my genuine disrespect for the term ’digital’.

What does it mean, digital?!

Imagine your old painter friend from down the river is using oil for one part of his work and watercolour for another part. But everytime you go down to meet him and have a coffee together (Mmmh, good coffe!), and he shows you his latest piece, he would keep saying: “Look at my latest new piece. Do you like it? It’s done in liquids!” — “Really?”, you would ask, “what do you mean, liquids. Isn’t that just a state? What material did you use?” But your old painter friend (he has a long beard) wouldnt really care, and keep referring to ’liquids’ as to what he uses. I hear you yelling at him already “Liquids?! That’s just a state for god’s sake! That could be anything or nothing!” See? Now you know how I feel about ’digital’. It means nothing but a state.

Is your mobile art not real then?

You would certainly not say so. Even more, if you never used any oil or acrylics before (like me) — what will you compare it to? Does it need to be transferred into anything real? A print? “Naaa.” That was the old painter friend again. He shaved off his beard, invited me to a google hangout and asked me one question: “What then is your material you are using?” — “Glad you’re asking”, I reply. “I think it’s safe to say it is DATA”

Remember Depeche Mode?

When people ask me why I am not a big fan of making artwork look like [charcoal, oil, pencil, etc.] I often remind them of the snthesizer music back in the 70s/80s. In the beginning, we (ok, my parents) were fascinated by sampled strings and guitars a keyboarder could play by simply pressing keys. And it took us years to eventually get used to and enjoy sounds that were clearly only possible through the use of electrons and data. And by today data-driven intruments are certainly on a same level in terms of perception with resonance-driven instruments. Ok, so data then. Boy, let’s take a look at it.

Data let’s you share easily

We all share stuff now, be it on facebook, twitter, flickr etc. And we can also share our artwork instantly and give and get feedback within minutes. This essentially shortens the feedback loop and let’s us learn faster. Using data, we now can also share our process way easier. Apps like brushes, ArtRage or SketchTime create and store a flow of data while you paint. Each stroke, each tool and color gets stored and can e.g. Being replayed as a movie. That way you can share not only the result, but also the path that took you there. Sometimes, the process can be more thought evoking than the final piece even.

Data let’s you collaborate in new ways

Collaborations between artists have often been a catalyzer for new stuff. Using email or websites to send work back and forth gives you a great starting point for asynchronous collaborations. But take a look at apps like SketchShare: here, by tapping into the flow of each others actions, it lets you create real-collaborations in a way that just wasn’t possible before using data.

Just look at the work of WovenNarratives, a collaborative art project between Fabric Lenny (uk) and Jonathan Grauel (USA). They used SketchShare to create 154 pieces of collaborative artwork later to be displayed at the 154collective art show in Barnsley. Great stuff.

Onward and beyond

So bearing in mind that stuff-based art seems to rely on the fact that most material (sculpting being one exception) has a time-box where it could be used, almost like a ‘window of opportunity’ before it falls into its final (rigid, hardware-like) state, what does data put on the plate here? If we take a look at software-patterns, like updates, licensing or open-source: paintings as updates? Long-term projects instead of short bursts? Open-sourcing work and let others collaborate or fork the data to create own work? Sounds a bit weird still. We shall see.

What I’m proposing for now is to not fall for the digital vs reality trap, and instead see data as our main material to dip our fingertips in. Or to quote my old painter friend, now beardless but wiser:

“Liquids are still cool, but data is cooler.“

(This is part of a paper and talk I held at the massey university in wellington/nz at the mina conference’)

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