Field Notes

Here are a few anecdotes about my early work with the digital medium and how it evolved over the course of time.

To set the stage: I grew up in South America and studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1973, when I was twenty-one, I set up my first studio in San Francisco.

It was there I became interested in digital art. Up to then, I’d never seen a computer. Personal computers didn’t exist yet. Neither did the internet. I had only the vaguest notion of what software was.

First I tried shaping electronic light with analog video synthesizers. The results were marvelously fluid, but not terribly precise. I started looking for something that offered greater control.

After an unlikely series of events, I wound up at the now legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center the evening of January 6, 1975, where a computer engineer named Dick Shoup showed me something he’d built he called a “frame buffer” that could display full-color smooth-shaded digital pictures on a screen. Dick and his collaborator Alvy Ray Smith had hooked his buffer up to a tablet and stylus and written some code to create a program called Superpaint that could precisely control every pixel on the screen. I produced my first digital images on that system.

After another unlikely series of events, the following year I joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s brand new “Graphics Lab”, in Pasadena as its Artist in Residence. The JPL Graphics Lab was the brainchild of Bob Holzman, a high-technology manager and art lover who had convinced the higher-ups at JPL they needed to start making digital pictures. There was nothing quite like it anywhere in the world.

It took a year and a half to get the JPL Lab up and running. During that time, I spent my evenings at Information International Incorporated (III) in Culver City, where Gary Demos and John Whitney Jr. had set up the first digital film studio. That’s where I started to rough in my first virtual worlds, on a DEC 10 the size of a room.

The JPL lab finally started humming around the middle of 1977. Bob hired a brilliant computer scientist named Jim Blinn, who wrote most of the lab’s imaging software from scratch. There was no such thing as commercial software back then.

Aku is the first image I created at JPL. Holzman loved it. He commissioned me to make a print of it, framed it, and hung it in the entrance to his home. That meant a lot to me, because at that time most people — especially in the art world — thought the idea of making art with computers was laughable.

The Graphics Lab’s funding was tied to producing computer-simulated films of the Voyager spacecraft planetary flybys of Jupiter and Saturn in advance of the actual flybys. But since the tools to do this didn’t exist and had to be created ad hoc on the spot, Jim’s software was in a constant state of flux. Occasionally images cratered while they were calculating and left surprising bits of bits  behind. That’s where Navajo came from.

In the late 1970s, very few people on the planet had conceived of, let alone seen, a computer-generated picture. In those days there was a general attitude of suspicion toward computers. Computers were usually viewed as cold, dehumanizing, and possibly malevolent machines.

Around 1980, a number of journalists became interested in what I was up to at JPL and made the trek to Pasadena to check it out. It took a while, but when the media finally went to press with the art-meets-science story, they did it in a big way. Almost overnight, my work appeared in books, magazines, television programs, museum exhibitions,  album covers, posters, calendars, and  and just about anywhere else you could possibly print or transmit an image.

For some reason, it was Transjovian Pipeline that affected people most. Although it wasn’t my intention when I created it, what the public got out of Pipeline was the sense that not only wasn’t digital technology scary, it was actually cool. Pipeline is one of the most reproduced art works of the 1980s. It’s the one picture I’ll always be associated with.

While the masses gradually warmed up to the idea of digital creation, the art world — for reasons still hard to understand today — remained staunchly resistant to it for another twenty years.

Also in 1980, I built an extensive 3D subterranean world. Previously in my art and films, I’d tended to think of composition in terms of a specific frame of reference. But once I was able to create and immerse myself in virtual worlds, I began to perceive of images as discrete points in an infinite continuum of visual information.

I often worked at the JPL graphics lab for weeks on end, usually late at night. The computers and peripherals in the space produced a resonance that became almost palpable in the wee hours. At those times I sometimes visualized the ambience in the room as a matrix of vibrating wavelengths. That’s where Suma came from.

Prior to 1985, I was able select colors from a total color space of 16.7 million colors, but I could only deploy 256 of them in a single picture. That setup changed when the lab got a major hardware upgrade that let me access all 16.7 million colors at once. I felt like I’d been released from prison.

During the 1980s, I spent a part of each year in northern New Mexico, where I maintained a studio. My experiences in the southwest led to a new immersive world. This one was aboveground with clouds and light effects in pictures like The Far Away that were impossible to achieve during the Transjovian Pipeline era.

Between the mid-seventies and the mid-eighties, my approach to digital imaging changed several times. At first I’d thought of the medium as a visual composition tool, later as an immersive medium. Somewhere along the line I’d begun to think of bits in terms of evolving data structures. By changing a number here and tweaking a parameter there, I could initiate processes that evolved over time. Sometimes these experiments yielded surprising results, as in Maithuna.

In 1988, JPL stopped supporting the graphics lab. Everyone who’d made the lab “the lab” had either left or been reassigned. The space rapidly devolved into an eerie ghost laboratory, full of machines with no one tend them. The only other human presence was the security guards who occasionally poked their heads in on their nightly rounds.

Polymorph is the last picture I made at JPL. I was attempting to integrate my morphing data structures into evolving simulated environments. This was way beyond what the sadly neglected system could handle. Almost every sequence I tried to render crashed. Then somewhere toward the end of the year, the JPL Graphics Lab gave up the ghost.

In 1991 I spent a season at Apple Computer in Cupertino, where I was a guest at Apple’s Evangelism lab. The Evangelism operation occupied an entire floor. I spent most of my time in a small room packed to the gills with one of everything that could make pictures with an Apple computer. This included commercial imaging programs, which were still pretty much a novelty. I was in awe that the software came with actual manuals.

Like my days at JPL and Information International Incorporated, I would show up at the Evangelism lab a little after 5:00 in the afternoon when everyone went home, and work feverishly until dawn. Most nights I had the place to myself.

I’d been messing around with personal computers for a few years and had integrated them into the business end of my operation, but so far they didn’t pack enough oomph to support the kind of art I was trying to produce. My experience at the Evangelism Lab convinced me this was about to change.

All the hardware in the Evangelism lab lived on a desktop instead of a high-tech facility manned by system programmers. All the software had graphical user interfaces instead of command-line prompts. I made The Green Mask the first night I was there.

By 1994 much had changed over the twenty years since I’d started creating electronic art. Powerful computer systems were now owned and operated by individuals instead of institutions. Systems that used to take up whole rooms fit in a backpack. New audiences had opened up. Computer games had 3D-rendered characters that walked and talked. The film world was edging closer and closer to the first feature-length computer-generated animation.

In 1995 I built a computer from scratch. It cost me over ten thousand dollars and took half a year to build. It had twenty separate components, each of which had to be individually configured, which in some cases took weeks. This included 32 megabytes of RAM (over $2,000 right there), a color cathode ray tube display (another $2,000), a four-gigabyte hard drive ($1,200), and a quarter-resolution video capture card. For a little while, it was probably the most powerful personal computer in the world.

I assembled the system in a spare room in the back of my house with Alex Pournelle, who built computers for a living. I’d met Alex through his father Jerry, who in addition to being a noted SciFi author, wrote a popular monthly column called Computing at Chaos Manor for Byte Magazine, which in those days was considered “The Bible of the Computer Industry”.

Jerry reported on the system Alex and I were putting together in one of his Chaos Manor columns, and the next thing we knew, marketing reps for just about any digital device or software program you could think of were express-mailing us their wares in the hopes Jerry might mention them in his next  column. By the time we’d tightened the box screws on the first machine, we had the parts for three more, and mountains of software to go with it.

Before long Alex and I set up a dedicated digital art studio in the village of Sierra Madre. With the support of Byte and our new best friends in the computer industry, I was able to keep pace — barely — with a creative medium that was changing faster than dreams. During this period, the cost of both hardware and software dropped by orders of magnitude and the world hooked up to the internet. This is when computing really went mainstream.

By the time the iPhone arrived in 2007, the “digital lifestyle” era was in full swing. Digital tools, gadgets, and media were now woven into virtually every aspect of contemporary life. Then came the Cloud, social media, neural networks, and all the rest.

But that’s another story for another time.