A "History of Computer Graphics and Art" Project

By Anna Ursyn (bio)

Terrence Masson

It's a big challenge to carry out the first step of action that would put past works in relevance to new creations. This is the case with the history of computer graphics and art. There are many reasons for archiving such a young discipline. People who made history of this branch of knowledge are still creating new works. Data accessible today may be difficult to be retrieved tomorrow. Approaches and assessments change along with the progressive advances in technology. With all these factors considered, this action calls for interaction between people representing various fields, from software/hardware programmers to scientists and artists.

A data bank of computer graphics and art is currently being assembled at the "History of Computer Graphics and Art" project as a part of the ACM/ SIGGRAPH resources. It documents the evolvement of computer graphics, art, and the thought about art in relation to the progress of technology. A collection of images and essays created by artists, scientists, art historians, people shaping the museum and gallery display and those who influenced these disciplines reflects the unfolding of computer art due to technical achievements (hardware, software, languages, etc). With this approach, computer art and graphics are related to the history of inventions in concurrent periods of time. The artists' web sites, along with the existing materials cumulated in various collections, complement this project.

Those who feel their work contributed to the fields of computer graphics and computer art are invited to describe their areas of action and accomplishments. Being a part of this project may be interesting both on a personal level and because it involves a great potential for new approaches in teaching and provides materials for visual learning. This call and the release form is posted on the ACM SIGGRAPH website: http://www.siggraph.org/education/cgHistory/history.html

A Prospective Book

Terrence Masson and Anna Ursyn are working on a collaborative project for a book by linking the text with an online database (http://www.kascope.com/cgibook/cgibookinfo.htm). The major idea for writing this book is to create a data bank that viewers can use to study first-hand comparative data gathered as a resource for art history, scientific visualization and technology-related education. Most of the people who developed progress in these disciplines are still reachable. Terrence Masson's book, "CG 101: A Computer Graphics Industry Reference" (1999, new Riders Publishing) is a comprehensive resource guidebook about people and the companies that formed the computer graphics industry. He is planning to divide a new edition into two sections: a reference for CG Professionals and the history book with an online component. The Artists' responses will provide interested parties (either readers and/or the users of the web site) with the source materials. This will enable them to relate artist's philosophy to technical resources and inventions, which influenced and made possible new ways of thinking about electronic art. For example, concepts and techniques such as morphing, topology, randomness, probability, fractals, laser light technology as affecting computer-based creation (both of art and graphics) might be introduced. Many times, an access to computer-controlled devices helped the artists working on algorithmic works to see the images they created. The idea of following the development of thought in relation to technical, political, 2289 cultural and social events can be applied in a similar way as in many fields of historical studies, such as cultural anthropology or history of mainstream art.

The ideas for further work on organizing materials that might be related to the current project are:

  • Mutual relationship between the disciplines (Computer Science, Dance, Visual Arts etc)
  • Selecting technological solutions most relevant to a particular problem.
  • Print vs. display art (presentation quality)
  • Programming and Art
  • Criticism - phases - artistic quality, Artist as a Critic
  • Thematic Work (e.g. Fractal Graphics)
  • Classification of the product
  • Grouping work (location, cultural tradition)
  • Process in developing a project (involving collaborative efforts)
  • Copyright related issues (detail as a form of representation, watermark, resolution)
  • Perception of the field (biases, preferences)
  • Abstract thinking

Rationale for the Project

There is no sole comprehensive resource describing this fascinating and important history of the inventions in computer graphics and computer art.. There are many books on the history of computers and computing that cover relevant topics but it is hard to find a single book entirely focused on and covering the topic of the history of computer graphics and computer art. There are not many web sites with a comprehensive list of people whose work has contributed to the fields of computer graphics and computer art. Also, there are no collections of syllabi that would be helpful in teaching the subject. The "Birds of a Feather" gathering at the ACM/ SIGGRAPH 2002, San Antonio, Texas (organized by Anna Ursyn and Anne Morgan Spalter) generated a helpful feedback to this online collection.

What did become clear was that the need for good resources in the field grows more urgent with every passing day. Needless to say, the need to establish a base for the subject is growing every day, as more technologies are developed. It seems like it will be harder to develop a documented history the longer we wait. The history written now will become what students of the future read and experience in whatever book, web site, or CD is ultimately created. It is up to communities like SIGGRAPH to ensure that this history is complete and correct. Some students might think that computer art began with Photoshop. Some people find it challenging that the invention of the hidden line removal helped to shape TV. Even for knowledgeable practitioners, putting together a package of materials for students containing a history of computer art requires a lot of research and funding for reproduction of article and papers. Most educators have accumulated a set of slides, articles, course notes, and conference proceedings over time. For new teachers putting together a course in this subject, the materials assembly task is daunting. In addition to not having a single book or web resource that covers the topic, teachers cannot go to a school's slide library and pull slides as they would for, say Renaissance architecture -- they just aren't there yet.

Quite a new approach can be developed, by relating the history of inventions to computer art and computer graphics created in concurrent periods of time. In educational terms, a curriculum for teaching history of computer graphics and art could be formatted according to technological progress and possibilities that have emerged from it. Also, the collection of artwork (access to images) and artists' approaches to their work resulting from the tools accessible makes it possible to develop a new curriculum for visual learning of computer art with the core of this approach based on cognitive study and semiotic analysis of technological thought, not just historical chronology.

Bonds Uniting the History, Actuality, and Education in Computer Graphics

-- Learning of computer art with illustrated and annotated resources. Unlike the history of the science of computers, an art history cannot simply report facts and put them into chronological order and historical perspective. The challenge also lies in interpreting the meaning of the work so far, in hazarding a guess as to what works will be seen and referred to 50 years form now, which will fade away, and in relating the work of computer artists to the rest of the art world and the cultures in which they were created. Although some large museums are now curating computer shows, a historical understanding of the field often seems lacking. Just as Clement Greenberg brought Abstract Expressionism into the art canon with his seminal essays in the 1960s, so we need modern critics and historians to help museum goers understand the vital role that the computer now plays in visual image creation. All we know is that there is an audience waiting.

-- Education in computer graphics must evolve every year to be current and effective. The uniqueness of computer graphics is in its dynamic changes going parallel to the developments in computer technology. Generally, with electronic computers being over 50 years old (the first-generation computer UNIVAC 1 was produced in 1951), personal computers for 20 years (microcomputers became popular in the late seventies), and the World Wide Web known to the public for less than 10 years, the computer competency demands are shifting from a proficiency in some computer applications, such as word processing, through the e-mail, to "visual literacy" which is essential for data mining and web visualization.

-- An increasing demand for education in computer graphics, intensifying with the ongoings in the time-based and interactive technologies in communication media. Understanding processes present in various disciplines becomes more and more intertwined with computer graphics. Both those people who want to gain better understanding of the tools they use and those who feel they are underutilizing them need a better preparation in computer graphics. Exploring options for the integrative learning environment involves collaborative, interdisciplinary learning and teaching with the use of web based 2-D, 3-D, motion, gaming and sound-supported visuals.

-- The time-based and interactive projects (such as websites). Computer graphics are essential for developing the container: how the story is being delivered. Every discipline -- archeology, history, geology, online environment, a game, to name just a few -- can be seen, or even should be seen as a set of stories, moreover, visual stories. The way we unfold and deliver the story depends on the needs and the environment. We have to analyze cultural implications of our products from the perspective of the user, not only in the artist's frame of reference. Website artistic quality is often affected by unintended presence of a banner, therefore a web page developer should not only design a product but also make it fit for the changing environment as perceived by the user. One needs to remember that every color coexists with others. The developer should be trained interdisciplinary, equipped to not only produce pretty pictures but also a cross-cultural impact, since the product delivery is often tested under specific technical or cultural conditions.

-- Computer graphics support mutual inspiration between art and other disciplines and enhance one another. Visual quality is of utmost significance, as people visually arrange and present knowledge by shifting from digits to pixels, even in specialized areas, for example, by creating artwork for financial analysis with the use of an information visualization technique, applying a 3D city metaphor for software production visualization, or making visual tools for editing and browsing semantic web resources. To be workable, every website must not only be visual, simple and effective, but also delightful to look at.

-- As for animation, it seems important not only how a story is expressed, but also how appealing it is, with visual metaphors, cognitive shortcuts, and actions aimed to compress time without telling stories in an ply-by-play manner. Every single frame in an abstract or a character-based animation should be a masterpiece. In interactive 3D interactive environments (a website, virtual reality environment, interactive publication, TV, animation) the recipient might feel encouraged to be an active part of the world and control how a story unfolds.

-- Visual learning is becoming a way of life for all of us. The Internet is a perfect vehicle for visual thinking, as it stimulates new art forms and visualization techniques, and intensifies collaboration between interested people such as artists, scientists, and engineers. It is becoming more demanding on everyone to grow in terms of the ability to think abstractly, compare/contrast and digest data quickly.

-- Many technical conferences include exploration of the relationship between visual arts, mathematics, and science, for example, the Symposium on Digital Art, and Online Gallery - CGIV05-Dart (http://www.graphicslink.demon.co.uk/cgiv05/DART.htm), the Art + Math = X Conference at the University of Colorado at Boulder (http://math.colorado.edu/Art&Math/revised_announcement.htm), the Bridges Conference Mathematical Connections in Art, Music and Science (http://www.sckans.edu/~bridges/) or the Mathematics and Design Conference (http://www.nexusjournal.com/CFP-MD2004.html). Organizations and journals, such as Art and Science Collaborations, Inc. (http://www.asci.org/), Leonardo, the Journal of the International Society of the Arts, Sciences and Technology and Leonardo On-Line: Art, Science and Technology (http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/), Wired Magazine (http://www.wired.com/wired/) or YLEM, Artists Using Science and Technology (http://www.ylem.org/), increase collaboration and communication between scientists and artists using science and technology.



About | Issues
© NMEDIAC & individual NMEDIAC authors, editors, and programmers.

About Winter 2005: Volume 3, Issue 1