Essay 9: Technologically-Assisted Mimicry

Contemporary digital works seem to be concerned with very basic questions: How well can I render a simulacrum?1 How well can I get digital media to mimic traditional plastic media? What freaky things can I do? One often wonders whether creators spend as much time and energy in the creative process as they do fussing with their technological toys. I think technology creates a problem in that many people who use it in creative fields cannot get beyond an obsession with what can be done with it rather than with what they are trying to say with it. I look forward to a point where all of the technicians presently masquerading as artists have matured to an interest beyond the medium for its own sake.

While techno-fetishism is pervasive in most areas where tools change quickly, it is most readily apparent in the case of Hollywood movies, where many studios seem to be more strongly driven by formula and technology than by story. Bad scripts are bad scripts, a fact that cannot be changed by the quality of the acting or the means of production. Throwing technology at a bad script will not redeem it, and the fashionability and novelty we’ve seen with technological bandwagonism wears thin very quickly. In a multiple-movie review from 1998, Jon Katz talks about different approaches to technology as manifested in the use of special effects. One film “uses special effects to enhance a story” and the other “uses explosions and special effects in place of a story. It’s interesting to see the two back-to-back: one producer using technology to animate, another as a substitute for imagination.” (Katz 1998) I paraphrased this into a guiding principle, and made it into a poster for my studio within which I practiced fine art, graphic design, web development, and commercial illustration. The poster read “Technology exists to help animate what is imagined. It should never substitute for imagination.” While I no longer have the poster on my wall, the idea still forms the core of my attitude towards my tools. What I see with a lot of work which uses technology as part of the creative process—of which film is simply one of the more well-known examples—is technology being used for its own sake.

New materials and media do not necessarily make for new work, nor work that is interesting. In this sense the new is not always new. In my practice, when I start to use a new medium, I find it best to approach the medium with curiosity and explore what the medium is good for, as well as its limitations. I ask myself how I can best express my vision in this medium and why it is more suitable than others. The underlying concern is not with what whizz bang features this new-to-me medium has that we haven’t seen before, but with its expressive potential, its strengths, and how they can be applied to my work. The flip side of this question is to ask what the medium’s weaknesses are, whether it will be necessary to minimize them for the work at hand, and whether the limitations make it necessary to choose a different medium. Because so much of the available technology is so seductive, and because things are changing so fast, many artists not given to such questions become blinded by what they can achieve technically without examining what they, as artists, want to say or achieve. This would be parallel to dating, where wealth, power, fame, or superficial beauty trump rapport, common interests, and respect as a foundation for relationships. Or, to use an art-historical reference, Renaissance artist Giotto was said to have once submitted a freehand drawing of a perfect circle in response to a request for a sample of his work. However, this display of technical skill did not become his primary art practice.2

The superficial approach to technology-based practices is characterized by the trend in the arts towards technological dilettantes, people who explore the practice because the computer makes previously expensive equipment and processes look easy, familiar, or accessible. Compounding this problem is the growing attitude in our society against specialists and expert knowledge.3

While I admit to dabbling on occasion in practices that are outside my area of expertise, I have also gone on record as saying that just because a given technology is accessible and easy for me to learn, doesn’t mean that this is the best use of my time and energy. While I am interested in film, most of my practice is centred around still images and sculpture. Exclusive of issues related to learning trade skills to make a living while trying to establish an art career, does it really serve my purposes to learn how to be a film editor or web designer? If such learning is relevant to the work and practice, then yes. Otherwise it’s a distraction from the real work, an example of the imposition of desire over innate needs which I talk about in Essay 14 (Why I Make Art). I don’t believe art comes solely from the artist’s own hand, but that the artist, as architect for the work, does what he or she can or must do, delegating the menial work as appropriate.

Together with a superficial approach to expressive media comes a host of marketing challenges. Among digital artists who complain about being unable to sell their work due to an absence of markets for their digitally-created art, there needs to be a recognition that there are established markets for this work. These markets exist in traditional, non-digital media. From a consumer standpoint—the consumer being dealers, collectors, curators, institutions—that except for specific habits and tastes of a subset of these consumers, in general there is little point in seeking out unproven media and/or technologies. This is especially true when such technologies simply mimic what already exists in abundance in traditional media, adding nothing aside from the proof that whatever can be done in traditional media can be mimicked in digital media. Digital artists must come to the realization that they have no special market segment and are unlikely to have one in the future. Rather than bemoan a lack of markets for digitally-created art, they need to realize that they are in competition with all artists.

On the other hand, there are artists working in their chosen digital media, who create truly new art, and are starting to see recognition.4 These artists are using digital media as tools and are creating works that would be impossible to make without these tools. Impossible, or pointlessly difficult. For example, looking at my own recent work, I had specific aesthetic goals when I began. One of my aims was to use the medium for what it is good for, what it excels at. My chosen software, a vector-based imaging program called Illustrator, allows easy layering, blending, and colouring, as well as the ability to “fork” or “mutate” a piece and make multiple instances, variant editions, or completely new works from the same base artwork. All of this would be possible in traditional media, but would have been much more laborious than with the computer, or even with other software. Similarly, Illustrator on its own is very poor when it comes to making realistic textures or what artists call “painterly marks,” so in the pieces I create using Illustrator I deliberately avoid trying to make work that requires these properties. What would be the point of the extra labour, aside from the fact that I would have made fewer pieces and made them more poorly than with the proper tools. There’s a chance that I would made have something that traditional media consumers could commodify, plus I would be able to brag about having achieved “the difficult.” But neither of these seems a guaranteed formula for enduring artistic or commercial success, or a satisfying practice.

I find a parallel to issues of difficulty—and using appropriate tools, techniques, and materials—in cooking. In the Japanese television program Iron Chef, different culinary assumptions colour the final dishes. A sushi chef will present the essence of a fish by working with its natural flavours and properties, perhaps coming up with something as understated thin slices of sashimi, or lightly salted grilled fish skin. This demonstrates an understanding of the essential nature of the fish. On the other hand, a French chef might present a whole poached fish sitting in a lavish sauce, with herb garnishes and seasonal vegetables. This demonstrates a different understanding of the essential nature of cooking, where the chef imposes his will upon the fish. These two approaches are completely different but in both cases the chefs have such a mastery of their respective techniques—and understanding of their ingredients—that the final dishes are a product of their intention rather than a product of the tools and ingredients. It is a matter of the chef controlling the cooking rather than the cooking controlling the chef. Ultimately, regardless of the techniques or styles used, judgement of a dish is based on how the dish tastes rather than an understanding of the techniques, processes, and theoretical framework behind the dish.

I liken the approach to different media in the visual arts as being similar to these contrasts in culinary arts. Many digital artists seem to take the path of trying to impose their will on their media rather than letting their chosen medium do what it does best. But because they cannot adequately control the tools, often the result is work that looks like it has been created despite the tools rather than because of them, that the tools have controlled the artist. I like to understand my tools and use them to the best possible advantage for the particular medium. In this way I consider myself to be not a digital artist, but an artist using digital media.

To return to the goals in my recent digital practice, my other primary goal was to make good art. I’m not going to talk at length about what I think constitutes good art, but a mere demonstration of technique or technology is not one of my criteria. Conversely, however, a piece of good art can sometimes be a convincing demonstration of the technology. I am really happy when viewers ask me what media my work is in—that my materials, if they can be called that, are not immediately obvious—and that people are surprised to find out that I make the work using the computer as my primary tool. The frequent reaction is shock and an assertion that the work doesn’t look “computery.”5


  1. A simulacrum is “an image or representation of someone or something… an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute.” (Dictionary) See Note 4 in Essay 1 (Imagery) for a more detailed explanation of my usage of this term. ^
  2. The full story, told by Vasari (1511-1574) in Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects is as follows:

    …Pope Benedict sent one of his courtiers into Tuscany to see what sort of a man he was and what his works were like, for the Pope was planning to have some paintings made in St. Peter’s. This courtier, on his way to see Giotto and to find out what other masters of painting and mosaic there were in Florence, spoke with many masters in Sienna, and then, having received some drawings from them, he came to Florence. And one morning going into the workshop of Giotto, who was at his labours, he showed him the mind of the Pope, and at last asked him to give him a little drawing to send to his Holiness. Giotto, who was a man of courteous manners, immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it[.] Having done it, he turned smiling to the courtier and said, “Here is the drawing.” But he, thinking he was being laughed at, asked, “Am I to have no other drawing than this?” “This is enough and too much,” replied Giotto, “send it with the others and see if it will be understood.” The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill pleased, not doubting that he had been made a fool of. However, sending the other drawings to the Pope with the names of those who had made them, he sent also Giotto’s, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses, which when the Pope and many of his courtiers understood, they saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time. (Vasari in Internet Medieval Source Book 1998)

    There are many translations of Vasari’s book, as well as variations on the title. While I had previously heard the story of Giotto and his circle many years ago, I originally found this specific excerpt in a post about artistic genius on Rod McLaren’s Rodcorp blog (McLaren 2003). Further research indicates that McLaren’s source was the version of Vasari’s book hosted by Fordham University. I have quoted from this latter version, thought to be one of three public-domain 19th century English translations. It is part of Fordham’s Internet Medieval Source Book which describes itself as “a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.” (Internet Medieval Source Book 1998) ^

  3. Charles Pierce wrote about this in his article “Greetings From Idiot America,” published in the fall of 2005 in Esquire magazine. While the article takes aim at the religious right and an assortment of political issues of the time, a common thread that runs throughout Pierce’s critique is a shift in American culture from a population whose members in general sought to improve their lot—or the futures of their descendants—primarily through education, to a culture that distrusts experts and higher education. He quotes scientist Kip Hodges about American achievements in science in the 1960s:

    It was a time that, if you were involved in science or engineering — particularly science, at that time — people greatly respected you if you said you were going into those fields. And nowadays, it’s like there’s no value placed by society on a lot of the observations that are made by people in science. (Hodges in Pierce 2005)

    Pierce laments the shift in American attitudes from curiosity, knowledge, and scientific achievement to a culture of entertainment. He calls this demographic “Idiot America:”

    Idiot America wants to be entertained. Because scientific expertise was dragged into political discussion, and because political discussion is hopelessly corrupt, the distrust of scientific expertise is now as general as the distrust of politicians is. (Pierce 2005)

    He goes on to to say that the prevailing attitude is one in which the belief is that “Everyone is an expert, so nobody is” and quotes Hodges again to illustrate the difference in attitudes towards science between America and the developing world:

    “Even in the developing world, where I spend lots of time doing my work,” Hodges says, “if you tell them that you’re from MIT and you tell them that you do science, it’s a big deal. If I go to India and tell them I’m from MIT, it’s a big deal. In Thailand, it’s a big deal. If I go to Iowa, they could give a rat’s ass. And that’s a weird thing, that we’re moving in that direction as a nation.” (Hodges in Pierce 2005)

    Though the observations of Pierce and Hodges are from America, my experiences in Canada and Britain are little different. As well, the skepticism towards scientists is, as Pierce notes, not limited to the field of scientific knowledge: experts of any stripe are distrusted. It used to be said that “those who can’t do, teach.” Nowadays it seems that those who can’t do, mock and distrust.
    To a certain extent I believe this movement from creativity and discussion to critique and relativism is a symptom of the increasing influence of some strains of postmodernist intellectual theory on politics and media. But that is a topic for another essay, preferably to be written by someone other than myself. I’ll limit my comment to a further iteration of the previously noted “those who can’t do, teach” aphorism: apparently those who can’t do, deconstruct and obfuscate. ^

  4. A discussion of other contemporary artists using digital media is beyond the scope of this essay. ^
  5. This may seem to contradict statements I make in Essay 6 (Materiality and Nonmateriality: Defining the Work of Art in the Digital Age) where in addition to claiming to be uninterested in disguising my materials and media I also say that I “tend to avoid trying to make a material mimic something that it isn’t.” But as I noted there, my intentions don’t always coincide with viewer assumptions and interpretations. I think the response that my work doesn’t look like “computer art” has more to do with the kinds of digital work that are commonly available for viewing—and the fact that my work seldom resembles such work—than a denial that my work could have been made on a computer. In fact, those people who are familar with vector-based imaging software have no such reaction. ^