If it’s been done in digital art, Rebecca Allen very likely did it first.
Allen trained in the 1970s, and gravitated to the technological avant garde decades before her peers began using computers, or even considered computation a possible topic for art. First at MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, the predecessor to the Media Lab, then at NYIT, Allen was the perennial artist in residence alongside engineers building the future. Throughout her career, she laid the groundwork for generations of artists painting with pixels.
As part of the 1978–1980 team that built the interactive Aspen Movie Map, she helped shape the predecessor to Google Maps. In 1980, with colleagues at NYIT, she attempted the first ever feature length animated film, a feat only finally achieved at scale by Pixar fifteen years later. She may have even made the first short video loop, a punch card precursor to the animated GIF avant le lettre.
A persistent theme in her work is the animation of human form. Working with famed American choreographer, Twyla Tharp, she developed one of the earliest and most sophisticated examples of motion capture, twinning a live dancer with an abstract digital mime to a score by David Byrne. “The Catherine Wheel” was featured by CBS in a special 1983 feature, “The Computers are Coming: Man or Machine,” the first time a mass audience saw a digitally animated human figure on television. Her 1986 collaboration with Kraftwerk gave the iconic German electronic music group their cyberpunk aesthetic, providing the visual material for their Electric Cafe album and mapping the band member’s faces onto virtual mannequins for the award-winning Musique Non Stop video. From the evening news to MTV, Allen’s creations seeped into the public imagination. She popularized the look of digital art, setting the cast for those to come. And she hasn’t stopped. Her contemporary work continues to explore the edge of technology through artistic practice.
Her piece for the K21 Collection is a fundamental piece of her oeuvre and art history itself. Swimmer (in the abyss), a short video work from 1981, recorded the first 3D animated female figure. In one elegant movement, the swimmer evokes virtual space, the interfacing body, and the siren call of new art spanning the 20th century, from Duchamp to digital animation.
The swimmer’s blocky body once evoked a far off future. Now, encased in NTSC color and spattered with analog video grain, she radiates time. New works might use filters to create a similar patina, or off-the-shelf software to build their models, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. This feeling of authentic and patient engagement with technology is at the core of Allen’s work. As NFTs open the floodgates to the virtual, we find ourselves in need of guides. And so, the swimmer appears, calling us deeper into the abyss.
Below we discuss this work, NFTs, and her career.
Swimmer (in the abyss) was one of the first times human motion was put into a 3D environment. How did it come about? How did that process unfold? What was important to you in the creation of Swimmer?
Swimmer was one of the first examples of human motion, which was considered one of the harder 3D computer animation problems at that time. My early work with computers was centered on explorations of human motion. I was interested in bringing humanity into the computer, through a feminine perspective, using the female form. The computer was thought of as a cold and emotionless adding machine. I recognized that I could bring a sense of humanity by literally bringing a human body into the computer.
I was in a research lab, working with the inventors of today’s computer graphics and animation software, and I was able to work with the first-ever 3D computer model of a female body, which was exciting. My goal was to bring it to life, to get it to move. Getting this frozen human form to come alive involved a slow, laborious process developing methods that gradually allowed the virtual body to move. As an avid swimmer, I identified with the elegant fluid motions of underwater swimming.
I studied swimming motion as well as doing the motions myself. I was drawn to the fluidity that water imposed on human motion. Like the ocean, the virtual world didn’t follow the rules of gravity that bind us humans. In fact, gravity was one of the hardest things to impose on computer animation — that came later. And the virtual world was empty then. I used the swimmer as a metaphor for staring at the black screen, imagining the swimmer immersing herself in the vast abyss of virtual reality.
Was it obvious then the scale of impact that technologies like 3D would have?
I knew from my time in art school, in the early 1970s, that computers and digital technology would have a powerful impact on what makes us human and that, as an artist, I could pursue this focus to invent and explore new forms of art and artistic concepts. That’s what drove me to dedicate my career as an artist to this area.
You introduced Kraftwerk to 3D as an artistic tool. You also introduced AR glasses to Sergey Brin. You’ve brought emerging technologies to very influential people who could change their direction. Could you tell us about those experiences?
When I met with Kraftwerk in 1984, I had already created some very popular music videos using this technology. Having spent hours listening to them as a graduate student at MIT, I loved their music and the concepts around it. We shared similar ideas about how technology affects humanity, with a certain sense of nostalgic romanticism about it. One foot in the future, one in the past. Their shows would sometimes be performed by simple robots they’d made. When I met them, I told them since video is virtual, we don’t need physical robots. I can make virtual representations of each of you and take the virtual aspect further. On the technical side, this involved working on the difficult problem of getting 3D faces to move and express. Over the next two years we worked simultaneously, with the imagery developing alongside the music. Florian, from Kraftwerk, had said that because I was simulating their image, their faces and bodies, they would simulate my voice, so my voice appears singing Musique Non Stop and elsewhere.
In the early 2000s I was director of a research team called Liminal Devices at the MIT Media Lab in Dublin, Ireland. I wanted to go further with my earlier work in VR and AR, to work with glasses and augmented reality. We worked with very early examples of AR glasses and the interface to the glasses was key. It was the way to directly interact with the AR and brought in physicality and the use of the body. We developed muscle sensors that you put on your biceps to control AR glasses using subtle muscle movements, what we called Intimate Interfaces. At one point Sergey Brin and Larry Page came through the lab and I demonstrated this. I heard later that this inspired Google’s look into AR and Google Glass.
You’ve had to invent and build the infrastructure to support the work that you wanted to create, and this has paved the way for many artists who are now working in this way. What are the pitfalls and benefits of this approach? What would be your advice to artists who are pushing the edges today?
In order to do this work in the ’70s and ’80s, I had to learn about technology. I had to immerse myself in research and technology labs. There were no PC computers then. There was no commercial software. This was the only way to carry out the artistic visions I had. I was excited to be in that invention stage. Now artists are working with software that teams of people have developed over many years. They’re handed a tool, whereas I could help shape what the tool would be and how artists could work with it and interact with it. That part was really exciting and inspiring for me, even though it was hugely time consuming, very slow.
What do you think of NFTS? And what do you think is needed for navigating this paradigm change?
I’ve been through many of these paradigm shifts in technology and art. One of my questions from the very beginning was: how do I get my artwork to people who want to see it? There was no market for this work and no distribution channel until fairly recently. That led me to make works for television. I collaborated with the choreographer Twyla Tharp on the piece The Catherine Wheel, which was aired on TV in the U.S. and Europe. My figure represented St. Catherine. It was the first time an animated, 3D-figure was seen on television.
When MTV and other music video programs began to appear, I saw it as a way to distribute short, experimental films and started creating music videos. I was very interested in pop culture and I was happy to get my work out into the public. I used more commercial channels because that’s all that was available. People are thinking more deeply now about how something like NFTs can be used to distribute digital art to a wider audience.
I think it’s going to have a very profound and lasting effect by bringing the art world into this virtual space, forcing new models of showing, selling, and distributing art. So that’s the positive side. The negative side is that so much of it has become a tool for investors. It’s a way for other people to make money, with art seen as just another investment.
You’ve been able to see pretty far into the future throughout your career, what do you imagine now for the future of art?
We’re living simultaneously in the virtual world and the physical world. Both worlds together. With augmented reality you’re grounded both in our physical reality and in virtual reality. I’m looking forward to technical advancements with AR that can provide better artistic tools and help us figure out how to coexist in these two worlds. And emerging areas of generative art using more sophisticated AI can provide profound new insights and expressions of art with a deeper collaboration between the artist and machine.
Early in my career I felt that technology was not keeping up with the ideas and visions for its use. Now it appears that technology is advancing more rapidly than our ideas for how to use it creatively and wisely. I still carry a belief that artists can provide a vision of the future and that artists need to continue to mold the role technology plays in our human expression and even in our human existence.