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From the room size computers of the 1940s to the desktop, laptop, palmtop, and wearable computers of the present, human interaction with this powerful and pervasive calculating machine has changed. When in the 1960s computers started to become capable of producing and manipulating images, computer graphics became a prominent research topic among engineers. Likewise, computers started to attract the attention of experimental visual artists all over the world.

Surprisingly, at times the work produced by engineers achieved strong visual and cultural impact. This is exemplified by the Japanese team called Computer Technique Group, from Tokyo. In the late sixties they produced classics such as "Running Cola is Africa," a black-and-white graphic morphing sequence showing the transformation of a runner into a Coca-Cola bottle which then morphed into the map of Africa [1].

Working against the background of Pop, conceptualism, and kinetics in the 1960s, many innovative artists abandoned the tactile appeal of the analog realm and ventured into the unknown domain of computer graphics. Classic examples include the work of the Americans John Whitney [2] and Charles Csuri [3], the Brazilian Waldemar Cordeiro [4], the Hungarian Vera Molnar [5], and the German Manfred Mohr  [6]. Many artists working with computers at the time explored algorithms that generated multiple forms of abstract or Constructivist art. Others created figurative images that were charged poetically through specific graphic procedures (e.g.,warping, morphing, zooming). Cordeiro's work is particularly distinct in this context because the artist, living under the worst phase of the Brazilian military dictatorship, produced computer images that were rich in personal, emotional, or subtle political content.

Computer graphics in art continued to flourish in the 1970s and 1980s, as new algorithms were developed and digital images started to acquire color, rich shading, and photographic qualities [7]Computers were gradually becaming incorporated in interactive art installations, as exemplified by historical exhibitions such as "Software," curated by Jack Burnham in 1970 for the Jewish Museum in New York [8]. Computer graphics were prominent in videos and films in the 1980s, and even television commercials started to feature digital animation regularly. The launch of the Macintosh computer in 1984 and the graphic software industry that followed it made computer imaging accessible to a larger number of artists. Consequently, the creation of still images presented new challenges to a younger generation of artists, who enjoyed unprecedented creative freedom. As the new frontier of computer graphics became a stable industry and an established artistic practice, experimental artists in the 1990s started to push the digital image into new areas of imagination and experience. The works discussed below reveal some of the most fascinating works created today in the areas of virtual reality, interactive performance, avatars, telepresence, and artificial life.

Inside the image

Since the late 1980s the term virtual reality has been used and abused in scholarly journals and popular magazines alike, often taken to mean different things for different purposes. When first developed by Ivan Sutherland in the late 1960s, the technology of virtual reality was intended to enable scientific visualization of three-dimensional data in real time through the use of head-mounted stereoscopic electronic displays. Because the technology has grown less expensive over the last ten years, it has catapulted from research labs into myriad applications, such as education, military training, medicine, and gaming. True to its origins, the concept refers to a visual space that can be seen as such by the viewer and in which this viewer can navigate in three dimensions in real time. If the viewer perceives the space through a stereoscopic device, he or she has the sensation of being immersed in the space. For the viewer to have a seamless experience, the computer must be powerful enough to calculate every subtle change in point of view in real time.

In 1995 the Canadian artist Char Davies, working with designers and programmers, created "Osmose" [9], a virtual-reality immersive artwork that invited viewers to move through synthetic infinite worlds. In this work Davies, who lives in Montreal, presented a unique interface to what she calls the "immersant" (the person immersed in the virtual world). In the form of a vest, this interface provided real-time motion tracking based on breathing and balance. This meant that viewers could inhale to rise and exhale to descend and could move forward or backward in the virtual space by leaning forward or backward in the physical world. Viewers navigated a complex world made of natural forms, such as trees, and synthetic elements, such as three-dimensional Cartesian wireframe grids filled with diaphanous substances.

"The public installation of Osmose," explained Davies, "included large-scale stereoscopic video and audio projection of imagery and interactive sound transmitted in real-time from the point-of-view of the "immersant". This projection enabled an audience, wearing polarizing glasses, to witness each immersive journey as it unfolded. Although immersion took place in a private area, a translucent screen equal in size to the video screen enabled the audience to observe the body gestures of the immersant as a poetic shadow-silhouette."

Her most recent work, entitled "Ephémère" (ephemeral in French), was also created with a team of designers and programmers and premiered in 1998 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Whereas in "Osmose" the immersant could move through a forested glade populated by static objects, in "Ephémère" every object is in a state of flux. Organized in three levels, this new work also makes use of organic and natural metaphors, except that this time an analogy is suggested between nature and the human body. As in "Osmose," "Ephémère" uses the breathing and balance vest interface to propel the viewer in space, makes creative use of three-dimension sound, and can only be fully experienced with a virtual-reality headset. As viewers try to make the most of the allotted 15-minute time slots, their sense of time might get warped. The digital image becomes a navigational space, and they might get lost exploring new worlds.


The works examined above reveal new directions for interactive art. Undermining the role of the individual image and giving greater emphasis to the dynamic quality of the experience, these pieces challenge the notion that the artwork must be centered on the "author" and that it must be materially stable, as is common in painting and sculpture. Essentially immaterial, with varying degrees of emotional, intellectual, and technical complexity, these electronic art works are seen regularly, but not as often in the same spaces and by the same audiences that form the art market. These and other artists who are developing a new art based on contemporary media are also finding alternative venues to present their work. In some circumstances, like in the case of Victoria Vesna and Ken Goldberg, the Internet is the "natural" digital space to show the work, which can simultaneously reach multiple audiences worldwide. Char Davies and Sommerer & Mignoneu often show their work in museums and Marcel.li Antunez Roca has shown his performance in more than 50 cities in 17 countries. Electronic art is seen regularly in many different venues, in several countries, and in multiple forms. The Guggenheim Museum, in New York, announced in 1998 that it would spend 1 million dollars commissioning and buying digital art [16]. Institutions such as ZKM, in Kahlsrue, Germany, the Ars Eletronica Center, in Linz, Austria, and the InterCommunications Center, in Tokyo, are primarily dedicated to produce, promote, and preserve media art. Other institutions also invest regularly in electronic art exhibitions, conferences, and documentation, such as the Itaú Cultural Center, in São Paulo, Brazil. This growing international interest is a clear indication that electronic art has a lot to tell us about the contemporary experience, about new possibilities for art in a digital society, and about ourselves.


1. Reichardt, Jasia. Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the arts ( New York: Praeger, 1968), pp. 75-77.  back to document text

2. Whitney, John, Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art. Peterborough, NH: McGraw-Hill, 1980. 
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3- Csuri, Charles. "Computer Graphics and Art," in Tutorial: Computer Graphics, Beatty, J. and Booth, K. (eds), (Silver Spring, MD: IEEE, 1982), pp.558-570. Originally published in 1974 in Proceedings of the IEEE.
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4. Cordeiro, Waldemar. Arteônica (São Paulo: Editora das Américas, 1972); Fabris, Annateresa. "Waldemar Cordeiro: Computer Art Pioneer", Leonardo Volume 30, No. 1 (1997), pp. 27-31. 
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5. Molnar, Vera. "Towards Aesthetic Guidelines for Painting With the Aid of a Computer", in Leonardo, Vol. 8, N. 3 (1975), p. 185; "My Mother's Letters : Simulation by Computer', Leonardo, Vol. 28, N. 3 (1995), pp 167-170.
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6. Leavitt, Ruth, Artist and Computer (New York: Harmony, 1976), pp. 92-96. 
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7. See Franke, Herbert. Computer Graphics, Computer Art (London: Phaidon, 1971) and Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, Creative Computer Graphics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984). 
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8. Burnham, Judith B. (Coordinator), SOFTWARE. Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art (New York: Jewish Museum, 1970). See Also" Edward A. Shanken, "The House That Jack Built: Jack Burnham's Concept of "Software" as a Metaphor for Art", in Roy Ascott, ed., Reframing Consciousness: Art and Consciousness in the Post-Biological Era -- Proceedings of the Second International CAiiA Research Conference (Exeter: Intellect, 1999). Forthcoming.
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9. See: Davies, Char. "Osmose: Notes on Being in Immersive Virtual Space". Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Arts Conference Proceedings, Montreal: ISEAÕ95, 1995, pp. 51-56; Lunenfeld, Peter . "Char Davies." Art + Text, no. 53 (1996), pp. 82-83; Goldberg, Ken. "Virtual Reality in the Age of Telepresence", Convergence, 4 (1), 1998, 33-37. 
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16. Mirapaul, Matthew. "Guggenheim to Add Digital Art to Its Collection", New York Times Online (June 25, 1998). 
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