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       Is Digital Art a genre, a movement, a medium or a technique?  By Janet Curley Cannon

The label "Digital Art" is widely used today on the Internet and by galleries, publications, critics, and artists but what does it describe?  My research aim is to understand its definition within the current art community and how this relates to my use of digital technology within my artistic practice.


The label "Digital Art" is widely used today on the Internet and by galleries, publications, critics, and artists but what does it describe?  My research aim is to understand its definition within the current art community and how this relates to my use of digital technology within my artistic practice.

I began using the computer as an integral part of my work as an artist and printmaker just two years ago. I started out by exploring
compositions for collagraphs and woodcuts and moved onto creating positives from my photographs for etchings.  After acquiring a
scanner and graphics tablet I began developing complete digital images through to inkjet prints.  I collage in photographs, parts of
traditional prints, drawings, and paintings, as well as fabrics and other textures and then manipulate the layers digitally.  I am very
excited and inspired with what I am able to achieve by using it, and it's given me a new form of expression in which to translate my
personal vision.

The process of exploration becomes a vehicle for seeing which is influenced by the technology.  This interaction extends into the world.  Visual explorations undertaken with the computer can influence what one 'sees' in the world, what comes into focus and what demands attention, influencing what is recorded experimentally, mentally, and digitally  (Haworth. 2002: www.haworthjt.com).

So how do I describe the work I am doing by using digital technology as an integral component?  Is this digital art, and am I therefore a
digital artist?  How do I label it for galleries, collectors, and others who need to assign categories?  I was interested to know what other artists using the computer were doing, and how current critics and advocates were defining them.  My research first led me to
Christiane Paul and her definitively titled book Digital Art.  In the introduction she states:

One of the basic but crucial distinctions made here is that between art that uses digital technologies as a tool for creation of traditional
art objects - such as a photograph, print, sculpture or music - and art that employs these technologies as its very own medium, being
produced, stored and presented exclusively in the digital format and making use of its interactive or participatory features  (Paul. 2003: p8).

In her opinion she considers digital art to be 'work that exclusively uses the digital platform from production to presentation, and that it exhibits and explores that platform's inherent possibilities' (Paul. 2003: p67).   Any other use of digital technology by artists is just as a
tool within another style and not digital art.  She concedes that the digital medium lends itself to a variety of art mediums and can lead
to a blurring of definitions and distinctions between different media. (Paul. 2003).

So my work cannot be described as digital art, according to Paul, as I use the computer as a tool.  I thought her definition of what is
digital art rather limiting so I searched for validation. Digital art had created a lot of interest in the UK from 1997 to 2001, but it now
appeared quiet.  I contacted Paul Hamilton who ran a survey in the Winter 2002 Printmaking Today entitled, 'The digital studio: some
questions for printmakers', to learn about his findings and was disappointed to hear he had received only one response.  I turned to the web to find out what was currently happening in the wider world.

Two web sites have been instrumental in my research, the first is International Digital Art (www.internationaldigitalart.com) hosted in
Australia, which is currently very active in promoting digital art both on the web and in touring exhibitions.  The other is the USA site
Museum of Computer Art  (http://moca.virtual.museum) where I was able to get an overview of a variety of digital art and read many
interesting editorials. The resident art critic on the MOCA site, JD Jarvis has published several articles on subjects relating to digital art. 
He agreed with Christiane Paul's position of the computer as a tool, but had a different opinion on the definition of digital art.  He states:

Digital art making tools serve many masters in and outside the visual arts.  As with a paintbrush, the computer can be put to use
expressing many divergent genres, styles and "isms" within the field of 2D visual art.  To nail down a specific aesthetic for so called "digital art" which holds common ground for all its expressive potential would seem a daunting, perhaps, superfluous task 
(Jarvis. 2003: http://moca.virtual.museum).

After looking at the wide assortment of work on the web categorised as digital art, I was very much in agreement with Jarvis.  Digital
technology is a part of most peoples lives today, it is everywhere, and because it is so pervasive asking what is digital art is like asking
what is drawing art?  Drawing is an essential process within many styles or movements and it extends far beyond the fine arts and
architecture, attributes you could equally apply to digital technology.  So are there distinguishing characteristics that categorise art
being made predominately with digital technology and output as a physical object, as Digital Art?

Viewing the art on the MOCA and IDA sites the artists I found most interesting are stretching the boundaries with work exhibiting a
blend of methods or techniques.  Its not photography, painting, or print, but has aspects of them all. These artists proudly used digital
technology and the work is beautiful, interesting, stimulating, and often challenging.  These artists showed the real variety of what could
be achieved with a synthesis of media and techniques. 

The tools and techniques chosen as well as the artist's use of them will effect artistic expression.   Some artists found that a synthesis
between using digital tools and traditional media is the best way to express their vision.  The subject of synthesis is often referred to
in the articles and discussions on the use of digital technologies in visual art.   Another article from the MOCA site was a paper from an
art student who summarised it as:

Digital print technology practices are leading towards a synthesis of art, allowing for the combined elements of a painting, drawing or
photography into a print and then allowing further manipulation.  The cultural shift this represents may blur or eliminate boundaries
commonly classified with the activity of printmaking.  Digital printmaking offers the possibility of generating radically new physical,
aesthetic and conceptual frameworks and process routes within printmaking (Herland, 2003: -
http://moca.virtual.museum/mamta/mamta-essay.htm).

One artist's work that stood out for me is the work of Dorothy Simpson Krause (fig. 1 & 2).  There is a surface quality and texture in her work that made me think it was a painting, collage, and a print, yet not, with something unidentifiable, fresh, and different about it.   When researching her work I discovered that she uses a blend of traditional methods and digital techniques.  I immediately identified in her work a quality that I was attempting to achieve in my own, to get away from a direct photographic look and feel and create a textural surface.

Krause, D., Off Center (fig. 1)       Krause, D., Patchwork (fig. 2)         Lhotka, B., Flow (fig. 3)        Lhotka, B., Bush Frost (fig.4) 

Another artist, Bonny Lothko (fig. 3 & 4), also achieves this surface quality, with a disruptive surface tension that has a synergy with
her subject matter, making it so much stronger.  She has created a very painterly feeling within a photographic context, two effects that play off each other and keep the viewer guessing at what they are actually looking at.   She works in a digital print - mixed media
manner similar to Krause and they, along with Karen Schminke, form an artists group known as Digital Atelier.                                 

These women are achieving a surface play with a mixed media and digital image combination that is very enticing and it compliments and accentuates their chosen subjects very well.   In reading more about them it was interesting to discover that they consider
themselves artist/painters who added the computer as an essential, primary art-making tool, exploring what it could offer them
within their work (Schminke. 2004).

I have always liked to work in several mediums, letting the image dictate what media was best used.  Printmaking offered me a
method of blending my love of drawing with photography, but this new digital tool has given me the potential to take this mix
beyond what I had thought was physically possible.  With experimentation I found that any surface I could lay on my scanner, or
photograph with my camera, I could potentially use blended with any other image to create the effect I sought.  I have started
accumulating a digital database of images, textures, surfaces, and objects that I flip through in the same way that I have a drawer
full of the physical materials for collage.  I scan in my prints, paintings, and drawings to use as a basis for a new image, or can
incorporate a small part of them in another work.   As Jarvis pointed out, 'where else can we combine all that has been discussed
thus far:  authentic, non-object, photographic, painted structures, randomised, materialised, infinitely reproducible, oil and water,
impressionistic, surreal, cubism with drop shadow text in fractal aspic' (Jarvis.1998: http://ww.dunkingbirdproductions.com).

Another aspect of working digitally that I discovered is a newfound freedom in the manner and speed in which I can work.  I can
develop an idea, test out several variations on a theme, change colour, add or delete, basically have the image grow with my
imagination and creative exploration.  If I end up at a dead end, or add an element to the image that doesn't work for me, I can
easily delete or revert back to an earlier state.  I have a tendency to develop preciousness towards my work that is often
unjustified and it restricts my ability to develop an image further with the thought of potentially destroying what I have achieved
so far.  Working digitally has almost eliminated this problem, I can revisit any image at almost any stage in the development path,
working it further or taking it off in a totally new direction.  'The use of computers affords the artist-printmaker both an
unprecedented variety of techniques, approaches, and working methods - a new repertoire of media and processes - and a
variety of ways in which production and decision stages can be made more efficient and more effective'  (Gollifer.1999: p10).

My own development within my artistic practice has been greatly enhanced by this wonderful new tool I have adopted.  I still
draw, paint, print with wood and metal, and use my camera constantly but now I can combine them differently, not as a collage
of mediums or images, but as a fusion of layers creating something new.

I have learned a great deal by what other artists are willing to share regarding their work so freely on the Internet.  I was
overwhelmed by the amount of dialogue regarding what should and should not be defined as digital art, and yet how broadly the
label was being used.  I joined in on some of the discussions on the forum, and through the IDA site discovered an artist in
Winchester, Penelope Wakeham, that was part of the digital art buzz in London in 2000.  I had the chance to visit her studio in
mid-November to see her work and discuss the labelling of digital art.   Her work is about light and transparency and she says the computer gives her the perfect tool in which to explore this vision.  During the course of our conversation she said she was a
painter and her art is painting, but that she could also be a digital artist and the work could be digital mono-prints. Her use of the
computer is very much as a painting tool, as she states, 'If painting is the distribution of pigment on a surface, then I am painting;
except my brush or element of distribution is my computer" (Wakeham, 2000, p4).

There is a large, active community of artists using digital technology as an integral part or tool within their work.  Some like Krause, Lhotka and Wakeham are promoting their use of the digital technologies as integral to their work, others just naturally started
using these tools as they became available, like Robert Rauschenberg.  Rauschenberg was one of the first major artists that started
exploring the possibilities of the Iris printer in the 1980's and his work since 2000 has featured digital transfers and acrylic on
polylaminate.  But the label of Digital Art could not be attached to the work he is currently producing.

I am convinced that there can be no single label that defines what digital art is, it evades aesthetic categorisation.  The multitude of
artistic styles will continue to evolve and expand as more and more artists adopt digital technologies in the coming years.  How,
and to what extent, the digital tools are used to create the art will continue to fade in importance, but their impact will be
significant on visual art, as any new technology used from photography to acrylic paint, has been. 

In the recent discussions on the web forum, an artist posted the following that addresses my search for a definition of digital art,
very well:   If 'Digital' is to describe a movement in art, then I am hard pressed to come up with a historical art movement that was limited to a certain set of tools and materials. Perhaps the term digital is too narrow for such usage and can only describe a set of
specific tools. But, given the pervasive way in which digital computers are being used in our society, I suspect that a recognisable
digital culture will emerge and digital art making will be at its forefront (Anon. 2004: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/digital-fineart).

So digital art is not a label you can attach to a genre or movement, though it could be used to describe the media in the same way
that oil painting does.   It is certainly a powerful tool and a technique that artists can use, along with other tools, methods, and
media.  I think the most profound effect for me is in the way I am able to work as a result of using digital tools.  My form of
expression is benefiting by discovering a method of working that is in keeping with my own personal way of formulating an idea
and developing it through to a physical work.   'Before computers, creation was a linear process.  Now, it is a branching evolution where old paths can be revisited in an instant, and multiple procedures can be compared side by side' (Schminke. 2004: p153).

In all the articles, books, and papers that I read the authors were, of course, in agreement about the basic principle - the quality,
vision, expression, and soul of an artists work was still very personal and could not be achieved as a result of the best tool or
working method in the world.  Digital technology has given me a valuable tool that is allowing me to do things that I could do in
no other way, in no other single medium.  I describe myself as a visual artist working in mixed media, combining digital tools with
traditional materials.  I use digital tools and techniques alongside my photography, drawing, painting, collage, and traditional
printmaking methods.  My work is mainly abstract in style, inspired by the variety of surface patterns, structures, and textures that
I see in the physical world around me.  The satisfaction I have with expressing my art is greatly enhanced by developing a method of working with media and tools that are as mixed and varied as the artistic inspirations.

Bibliography

Hopps, W. and Davidson S. (1997) Robert Rauschenberg - A Retrospective; New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications
Paul, C. (2003) Digital Art; London: Thames & Hudson, Limited
Platzker, D. and Wyckoff, E. (2000) Hard Pressed - 600 Years of Prints and Process; New York:  Hudson Hills Press
Schminke, K. and Krause, D. and Lhotka, B. (2004) Digital Art Studio - Techniques for Combining Inkjet Printing with Traditional Art Materials; New York:  Watson-Guptill Publications
Tallman, S. (1996) The Contemporary Print - From Pre-Pop to Postmodern; London: Thames and Hudson Limited
Whale, G. and Barfield, N. (2001) Digital Printmaking, London: A&C Black, Limited
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Hamilton, P. (2002) Designing the Digital Studio; Printmaking Today, Vol. 11 no. 4 Winter 2002, pp23-24, Oxon: Cello Press Limited
Humphries, T. (1996) The Nature and Status of the Computer Print; Transformations - the Fine Art Print and the Computer - The Integration of Computers Print Technology and Printmaking, pp. 6, London: The London Institute Publication
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Publishing     
ISBN 0-9536240-3-X
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Jarvis, J.D. (1999), A Digital Manifesto, (Internet), Available from <http://ww.dunkingbirdproductions.com> (Accessed 6/11/03)
Jarvis, J.D. (2003), Toward a Digital Aesthetic, (Internet), Available from <http://moca.virtual.museum/> (Accessed 30/12/03)
Krause, D. (2001) Off Center  (online image), and Patchwork (online image). Available from <http://www.dotkrause.com/art/sacred/> (Accessed 07/11/04)
Lhotka, B. (2003), Flow (online image), and Bush Frost (online image).  Available from <http://www.lhotka.com/bonny/gallery/elements/>  (Accessed 07/11/04)
http://www.jcurleycannon.com
Links:                                                         
http://www.camberwell.arts.ac.uk/
http://www.arts.ac.uk/index.htm
http://www.southhillpark.org.uk/index.jsp 
©Janet Curley Cannon     
MA Printmaking 2005
Camberwell College of Art     
01 December 2004