The author describes four approaches to the configuration of two-dimensional pictorial space and visual language and describes the development of a constructed landscape in the work of eight digital artists. While widely diverse in theme, their constructs share attributes deriving from the effects of information processing, image manipulation, the patterning of mass media, and the fabrication of virtual objects. The author explores the attributes of this emerging visual language.
Even as she was initiated into the mysteries of Three Dimensions,
having been previously conversant with only Two, so too the citizens
of that celestial region may aspire yet higher and higher to the secrets
of Four, Five, or even Six Dimensions.

—paraphrase of Edwin Abbot’s dedication of Flatland [1]

The world behind the computer screen has no scale or boundary; it lacks substance and texture and can wear any palette. This electronic picture plane can appear as a two-dimensional surface, a modeled geometric solid, a fragile membrane of light—or a hybrid containing all three aspects of space and form. Chameleon-like, taking shape as a virtual object, a veil of color, or a photograph, a digital construct can be made physical in almost any medium. Therefore, pictorial conventions in computer-based art reflect not only the strategies of two-dimensional picture-making but also the artists’ interaction with the computer, the very particular nature of the tools, and the special properties of the data space.

Many artists using digital media are exploring configurations of space, using attributes of mutability, patterning, and virtuality to develop a constructed landscape. This visual syntax takes diverse forms. Among these are a use of fragmentation, layering, complexity, and visual ambiguity; the creation of constructs implying infinite boundaries; the introduction of images carrying the visual signature of mass media; and the construction of modeled virtual objects. These spatial configurations are not mutually exclusive constructs—often an artist’s approach may incorporate several of these models of space and environment. Layering, complexity, indeterminate scale, and dissolved boundaries in particular are elements common to a wide variety of artists’ work crossing media and thematic concerns.

Information Patterning

One approach to configuring space that comes directly out of the digital process itself is information patterning. This includes imagery taking its visual appearance from or developed out of algorithms, geometric patterning, the structuring of information or data, and numerical fields. These data-driven images carry the marks of the data and exhibit characteristics of recursion, repetition, and randomness. This imaging of the data space can result in works that depict, almost literally, the working mechanisms of computation. This approach may have visual conventions in common with conceptual art, geometric abstraction, pattern painting, and field images. Yet the spatial structures are determined by data and data manipulation and derive their appearance, variety, and complexity from their origin in computing processes.

Many of the earliest examples of digital imaging reflect this data-driven approach. Beginning in the 1960s, artist-programmers such as Harold Cohen, Charles Csuri, A. Michael Noll, and Manfred Mohr produced work based on programming, randomness, and the incorporation of varied automatic drawing techniques. Practices of automatic drawing and aleatory art, first associated with Surrealism and later with Conceptual Art, were a part of this early computer-based art and are described in Computers and Art by Cynthia Goodman [2].

The work of Roman Verostko continues that tradition. Verostko’s work is shaped by his experiments with random image generation and the development of the tools for its production, as well as by his years in a Benedictine order in Asia. His books, prints, and paintings reflect his broad humanistic concerns, yet at the same time celebrate epigenetic art—the use of form-generating ideas involving gradual diversification and differentiation of an initially undifferentiated entity that is integrated within a “personal expert system.”

Verostko’s images are derived from algorithms and incorporate Boolean logic. Chaotic digital scripts have been transformed with an “electric scriptor,” a multipen plotter using original instructions to generate the entire piece, including scripts, headers, and illuminated “initials.” Verostko regards his finished works as visual analogs of their “form generators,” in that the artwork becomes a manifestation of the art idea embodied in the software. These works are intentionally made as precious objects, incorporating gold and silver leaf, rag paper, and archival bindings to heighten their formal relationship to illuminated sacred manuscripts. A four-panel suite of images, Fourfield Illumination: Struggle-Open-Receive-Embrace, uses this original software, called Hodos (from the Greek for “path”) to generate the recursive routines that shape the work. The brush strokes in Receive (Fig. 1), the third of these panels, are code-generated and executed with oriental brushes mounted on the drawing arm of the plotter. Verostko’s use of algorithms creates an animated visual field that, while describing its own numerical origins, also celebrates the computing processes that drive the information age and illuminates the mysterious nature of earth and cosmos.

Fragmentation and Compositing

Another spatial construct is the use of fragmentation and compositing, employing dissolves, layering, blending, and morphs. While montage uses juxtaposition to combine discrete elements, computer-based compositing shatters the image. With the ability to alter and manipulate image fragments at the atomic level of the pixel, the component elements can be reordered and radically transformed. The conventions that emerge from this process convey dislocation, a seamless sense of time and space closer to a film vocabulary, and the sense of entering into a dynamic continuum.

These issues have become a particular concern in my work and are currently being explored in a series titled Fool's Gold, a set of two-dimensional images concerned with reflected appearances. The title refers to the seduction and deception of appearances and the unreliability of digital information. These images grew out of work that explored the artificial environment of industrial enclaves, highways, and commercial strips colored by the ambient light of illuminated signs. I work with photographic fragments of core elements of architectural language and vernacular graphics, which through their generic qualities can express the hidden dynamism of the urban and industrial landscape. I use layering and compositing as a means of remanufacturing this artificial environment. The components of these pieces are repeatedly ruptured and reconfigured until their superficial identity is replaced by a more charged essence. In Crosslight (Fig. 2), a cruciform structure derived from an architectural support is set in an environment of ambiguous connotations. The theatrically lit structure references cultural icons of entertainment, marketing, and religion and comments on their interrelationship. The dissolved and interwoven components within this piece are the result of a process that underscores the mutability of the electronic image. Implicit in the disembodied and veiled construct that emerges is the immersive flow of images that surrounds us.

Another approach to fragmentation and compositing is evident in the work of Cynthia Beth Rubin. Trained as a painter, and working on still images as well as animation, she integrates images from diverse times and cultures. Rubin’s work shows the commonality of Islamic and Jewish culture through the merging and diverging of composited images. A recent 3-minute animation, Les Affinités Recouvrées, used dissolved images to present an examination of cultural ties and was based on references to historical sites and artifacts of the Jewish community in Morocco. Her still images convey that same sense of elasticity and metamorphosis. Yet with their references to decorative art and patterning, Rubin’s images create a pictorial space that combines attributes of eastern and western conventions yet is distinctly mediated by digital layering. November Memories (Fig. 3), an image completed in 1993, animates the entire picture plane with an undulating movement of images from near space to background and in its spatial ordering echoes the influences, cross-influences, and even dissonance of cultural ties, especially as pictured in memory What results is a completely elastic-space landscape in total dissolve.

Media Imprinting

Taking notice of the immersive and relentless environment of media images, some artists have developed spatial configurations that incorporate the visual texture of television, photography, and video. This river of “noise” and ambient imagery creates a background to daily life, just as the TV on in the background acts as video wallpaper. In fact this endless flow of images pumped out by electronic media creates its own kind of space, a media patterning, with which we are imprinted. The spatial configurations that result use images and conventions clearly marked by these sources to create a media space. Bits and pixels, video scan lines, interruption, static, sound bites, flicker, illumination of the screen, transmissive light, speed, and blurring are signatures of media imprinting.

Roz Dimon uses some of the signature elements of the digital environment to create her visual language. She emphasizes the pixel to make a statement about the electronic environment and explores alternate modes of presentation for her images—light boxes, flat panel displays, and CD-ROMs. Dimon draws on elements that mimic the computer screen and has moved from working with printed output to using hard copy that incorporates transmissive light. While her earlier work was done in low resolution and shot directly off the computer monitor to capture the video scan lines, more recent work incorporates some of the iconic menus of graphics software and other visible computer tools and artefacts. In Information Woman (Fig. 4), Dimon creates a narrative of images and text that wryly comments on the culture of information and its artifacts. Her use of the signatures of electronic media is combined with imagery that incorporates the contradictory messages of advertising, as well as aspects of our ambivalent relationship to the products of technology

Repurposing the flow of commercial media with subversive intent, Steve Bradley views the electronic landscape of mass media in television and radio as a natural source of appropriated sound and images to reprocess within the computer environment. Bradley calls himself a trans-media artist or generalist, and in this role he seeks to convert systems of cultural iconography via media and technology into an analytical and satirical electronic narrative. Attuned to our conditioning by media culture, and aware that this culture has become a substitute for a real civic or cultural life, Bradley has developed images, artists’ books, and installations that create an alternate media In Sound Banking (Fig. 5), an artist’s book that includes a 90-minute audiotape, a broad flow of media images are reconstituted in the computer in a commentary on the World Bank. Bradley’s choice of low-resolution images, his use of collage methods that parody the composition of tabloid and entertainment media, and the linkage of sound, imaging, and physical objects all contribute to the development of a visual landscape with the unique texture of the electronic media.

Virtual Objects, Virtual Spaces

A quite different spatial construct involves dimensional, modeled objects— often abstract objects or constructs in themselves—placed in a space or simulated environment. With surface mapping of texture, plus ambient or spot lighting, these objects are the simulacra of the unseen, reminiscent of yet unlike any object in nature. Calling forth associations with the physical body, natural forms, or elemental forces, these objects are tangible yet remote. Unlike the simulations of computer animation and commercials, which strive for realistic surrogates of actual objects, these virtual objects belong to no real space but to a hermetic, alternate universe. While their presentation may reter to nature morte, their genesis has more in common with artificial life. The virtual object is often situated in a virtual environment in which surfaces are luxuriously described, light becomes a physical property, and the unreal becomes concrete.

Fig. 6. Kathleen Ruiz, Double Life (1994)
Fig. 6. Kathleen Ruiz, Double Life (1994). Digital photograph, 8.5 x 11 inches
Compose of discrete entities—modeled 3D forms and numbers—this image paradoxically invokes the organic and metaphysical as well as a range of emotional associations that belie its quiet neutrality.

While the virtual object may seem hermetic and protected, the images of Kathleen Ruiz reflect temporality and mortality. Ruiz describes her work as “the unseen interior structures of nature and thought; the border between incorporeal, subjective space and physical, objective space” [3]. Her work seeks to question reality by making the invisible or visually insignificant tangible and monumental. Reflecting the importance our society places on the value of numbers and statistical phenomena, Ruiz uses inscribed numbers as a narrative of vulnerability and genetic causality. According to Ruiz, in Double Life (Fig. 6), the image developed out of a consideration of the Hebraic idea of the number 18 representing life, and double 18 making 36, or double life. After completing the work, another numeric association, that of breast size, emerged [4]. Ruiz’s body of work has been influenced by the randomness of physical phenomena and their impact on us through events ranging from mental retardation to infertility, DES cancer, and AIDS.

Unseen life processes and entities also appear as elements in the work of Kent Rollins. His virtual objects are constructs of atomic and biological forms, influenced by DNA, molecular structures, and archaic structures. Rollins’s work focuses on the exchange between the biological and the technological both in process and subject matter. Rollins’s simulated biomorphs are at once primordial and high-tech. Like specimens trapped on a microscope slide they dwell in an airless virtual world where the environmental wallpaper is patterned with anything from the genetic code to geological forms. Dynatom (Fig. 7) is an image that in its polished rendering and lack of spatial ambiguity or mystery still manages to convey an aura of mystery and wonder at the possible configurations of life forms.

Instead of envisioning a world of hard-edged objects separated by space, Char Davies puts us inside an enveloping world of spatial ambiguity. Motivated by a desire to visualize our relationship to nature, she offers an alternative to visions of the world as object. In a critique of the visual conventions associated with 3D computer graphics (hard-edged objects separated in empty space), Davies combines photorealism with spatial ambiguity, dissolving boundaries and collapsing figure into ground. Working with simulated light, optics, and three-dimensional form in virtual space, she interweaves elements of figure and ground, blending archetypal aspects of nature and the body She describes her approach as the creation of an “enveloping horizon” that places the viewer inside the space. The Yearning (Fig. 8) constructs an interior, womblike space opening up to light and was influenced by her experiences diving and looking up to the water’s surface. A painter who began as a realist, Davies shows a progression in her representation of volumes of space and light: she has moved from two-dimensional images to still images derived from three-dimensional models and now has plans for a virtual reality installation.

Char Davies, The Yearning (1993)
Fig. 8. Char Davies, The Yearning (1993), 48 x 60 inches, 3D computer graphics, Softimage software, Silicon Graphics hardware, Duratrans lightbox.
Davies's work, with its dissolved boundaries and collapsed figure and ground, suberts the conventions of 3D computer graphics and proposes a more integrative world view.

Embodiments of Space

For artists working digitally, visual language develops in interaction with the computer While Verostko writes his own software and Davies has had input into the development of the 3D program Softimage, many artists use existing software. Their work is often influenced by tools developed for distinctly different purposes. Software designed for the graphic arts industry or commercial television production may incorporate assumptions that offer alternate possibilities or come with its own bias. Some of the spatial constructs described here come out of interaction with these tools, others out of an investigation of their bias.

Yet our spatial constructs are not merely the end products of particular content interacting with technological process; rather, they are the embodiment of larger world views. In developing alternate configurations of space, artists working in two dimensions describe visions of a physical environment that, because of the very limitations of the picture plane, can become compressed, charged, and essential. These constructs are not merely formal pictorial strategies but articulate deeper moral, emotional, and psychic states. For artists working in this environment of technological change, the invention of a visual language that articulates that change is a compelling challenge.


1. Edwin A. Abbot, Flatland, A Romance of Many Dimensions (New York: Dover Publications, 1992).

2. Cynthia Goodman, Digital Visions: Computers and Art (New York: Abrams, 1987).

3. Kathleen Ruiz, personal communication.

4. Ruiz [3].


Annette Weintraub uses computer-processed imagery to explore the architectural environment as metaphor. She teaches art at the City College of New York and directs the Robinson Center for Graphic Arts and Communication Design. Her work has appeared in many exhibitions of computer art, including Aperture, the International Symposium on Electronic Art 94, the SIGGRAPH 94 Art and Design Show, and the Boston Computer Museum. This paper is based on a talk presented to the panel “Computers and the Visual Arts: A Revolution in Progress” at the College Art Association national convention in San Antonio, Texas, January 28, 1995.

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Last verified: May 28, 2017