If you don’t know SIGGRAPH, you probably should…

Third in a series on the past, present and future of digital art.

“Everywhere in Between” Massive site-specific digital animation projection. Kate Johnson (2017)

As I meet more and more people who have only recently become interested in digital art, especially through its widespread publicly because of NFTs, I am often surprised how little they know about the almost 70-year history of what was once called computer art, now renamed digital art. For example, in 1968, with artist and UCLA educator John Whitney:

Or the 1979 classic “Sunstone” by Ed Emshwiller and New York Institute of Technology researchers including Alvy Ray Smith, a member of the founding team of Lucasfilm’s computer graphics division, later to become Pixar.

https://youtu.be/tMW15OajuKc

As someone who has occasionally curated digital art since 1984, I realize the continuum is long, and one that I was nowhere near at the beginning of. Yet many of the most profound and world-changing advancements of digital art have taken place during my tenure, and therefore I have been a witness to a revolution never before seen on this planet.

For me digital art encompasses any and all art that can be made on a computer. This would not only include graphical art, such as so much of the current NFT interest, but also photography, film, video, music, architectural design, AR, VR, immersive dome, theme park rides, holography and live multimedia performative works that utilize the adoption of digital technology in any aspect of their production.

There are so many early titans to discuss, and I hope to mention a few throughout this series. But many, by necessity, cannot be included. Not overlooked, but simply not included in a short article such as this. But I hope that I will inspire even if only a very few people to delve deeper and explore more the diverse and often heroic efforts of the first generations of digital artists. This would not be instead of but in addition to also celebrating the newest members of the digital arts.

Perhaps one way of embracing many artists at once, is to discuss a long-standing international association SIGGRAPH. If you are interested in digital art, and you aren’t familiar with this word, then you probably should be. “SIG” at the beginning of a word, is old-school nerd speak for “special interest group.’ SIGGRAPH is the ‘special interest group for computer graphics and interactive techniques. Think of it as the American Medical Association for the digital arts. At one point, among the world’s only places to see works by Whitney, Emshwiller and even the early days of Pixar was at a SIGGRAPH conference or event.

Although SIGGRAPH has many chapters around the world, I will focus on the chapter I know best. My local chapter in Los Angeles, LA-SIGGRAPH. Because of its proximity to Hollywood, many of the LA members are, understandably, working in the advanced visual effects practices of the film, television and video game industries, as well as a smaller community of its members, who are interested in digital fine art. A number of long-standing LA-SIGGRAPH members were once students of John Whitney.

From museum-exhibited installations, to massive site-specific projections, onto today’s NFTs, these artists span the panorama of sensibilities, genres and techniques that define the digital vernacular.

Greg Panos, former chair, LA-SIGGRAPH and Michael J. Masucci at EZTV in 1990 during opening of ART 1990 (photo courtesy of Victor Acevedo)

LA-SIGGRAPH and the EZTV Online Museum and its institutional progeny have worked together on and off since the early 1980s. Among its early exhibitions was called ART 1990, curated by Patric Prince, a woman who I will soon dedicate an entire article on in this series.

Starting in September of last year, the first of four annual collaborative events between LA-SIGGRAPH and the EZTV Online Museum took place, because of COVID restrictions, via Zoom. Co-hosted by Joan Collins and myself, it included several seminal digital art pioneers including David Em, Coco Conn, Victor Acevedo, Michael Wright and Dave Curlender.

The digital art continuum contains both the ‘high-end’, state-of the art productions that mainstream Hollywood produces, such as superhero movies, and other special effects driven productions, and the elite contemporary art museum installations that are becoming more commonplace, onto what I call ‘digital folk art,’ art made largely by using off-the-shelf, commercially available software packages, such as Photoshop. Or created through the emergence and proliferation of any of a number of PFP-generating editing tools, now available, some of which are even free to use.

In the early days of traditional painting, artists made their own paints, mixing plants, metals and minerals together with either eggs, water or oil to produce the various colors that transformed their imaginations into their artworks. Likewise many (not all) of the early computer artists wrote their own code, as some do even to this day. For me they are the ultimate digital artists, or more accurately, hybrid ‘artist-scientists.’

Many NFTs would fit in my definition of digital folk art, a category that I mean no disparaging sentiment to, but recognize that is created using a number of ubiquitous techniques, filters and modifiers which allow for production of many of the large editions of NFTS, that vary only in terms of color, shading, contrast, etc. Creating ‘off the shelf” doesn’t mean you are not creating, of course, but does mean that there are absolute technical limitations restricted by any specific software. And that you are making creative choices whose possibilities are defined by others. Those that write or at least modify existing code (i.e. by so-called ‘Script Kitties’ or ‘Code Monkeys’) are able to produce more unique work.

Of course, so much of the creative process is now built using digital code. This article I’m writing is being written down into a word processor, and now by you on some digital device. Buildings are designed on CAD programs, and music is created on Digital Audio Workstations. So much of every kind of art is now digital art, or at least significantly mediated through the access to computing technology.

As we venture forwards with both a new interest in the digital works being produced today we can gain a better appreciation of today’s innovations, with an informed perspective of the innovators and masterpieces of the digital past.

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Internationally exhibited video and digital artist & lecturer. Commissioner & Chair, Santa Monica Arts Commission, Director, EZTV Online Museum.

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Michael J. Masucci

Internationally exhibited video and digital artist & lecturer. Commissioner & Chair, Santa Monica Arts Commission, Director, EZTV Online Museum.