Here are some short stories about my early work with the digital medium and how it evolved over 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 1972, when I was twenty, I set up my first studio in San Francisco.
In those days, creating color pictures with a computer wasn’t possible without access to a high-tech laboratory. Personal computers didn’t exist yet. Neither did the internet. I’d never been in a room with a computer, and had only the vaguest notion of what software was.
In 1973 I saw some abstract films by Jordan Belson that got me interested in composing with light over time. My first experiments involved modulating color video signals. The results were marvelously fluid, but not very precise. I started looking for something that delivered greater control.
After an unlikely series of events, I wound up at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, aka PARC, on the evening of January 6, 1975. There, Dick Shoup showed me a digital device he’d built he called a “frame buffer” that precisely controlled the hue and intensity of every dot on a video screen. Here was exactly what I’d been looking for.
Shoup and his collaborator Alvy Ray Smith had hooked the frame buffer up to a tablet and stylus and written a program they called Superpaint that produced smooth-shaded full-color pictures. That night I created my first digital image.
After another unlikely series of events, the following year I joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s funded-but-not-yet-built graphics research lab in Pasadena as its Artist in Residence.
The JPL Graphics Lab, as it was known, was the brainchild of Bob Holzman, a high-tech visionary who loved art. In its prime, there was nothing quite like it anywhere in the world.
Bob worked out a unique situation for me at JPL. I had full access to the Graphic Lab’s computing facilities to do with as I pleased, as long as it was on my time and dime. JPL’s upper management was open to this arrangement, and the JPL Graphics Lab became my working studio for the next twelve years.
Getting the lab up and running turned out to be a difficult proposition. It took a full year and a half before it opened its doors. During that time, I spent many evenings at Information International Incorporated, aka Triple-I, in Culver City, where Gary Demos and John Whitney Jr. had set up the first digital film studio. I chained myself to a keyboard there and started roughing in my first virtual characters on a DEC 10 mainframe the size of a room.
When the JPL graphics Lab finally became operational around the middle of 1977, Bob hired Jim Blinn, a brilliant computer scientist who wrote most of the lab’s imaging software from scratch.
Aku is the first image I created at JPL. When Bob saw it, he commissioned me to make a print of it, which he framed and hung 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 JPL Graphics Lab’s funding was tied to producing 3D simulations of the Voyager spacecraft planetary flybys of Jupiter and Saturn in advance of the actual flybys. Since visualization programs to do this didn’t exist yet, Jim had to create them from the ground up. As a result, the lab’s software was in a constant state of flux.
Sometimes images cratered while they were calculating. Other times the bits became rearranged in unpredictable ways. That’s the atmosphere Navajo was created in.
In the 1970s, most people perceived computers as being cold and dehumanizing. Few people on the planet had conceived of, let alone seen, a computer-generated picture.
Somewhere in 1979, a number of journalists became interested in what I was up to at JPL. When they went to press with the Art-meets-Science story the following year, it ignited the public’s imagination in a big way.
Overnight, my work took off. It appeared in books, magazines, television programs, museum exhibitions, album covers, posters, calendars, and just about anywhere else you could possibly display or transmit an image.
For some reason, of all my pictures from that period, TransjovianPipeline had the greatest impact. 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 intimidating, it was actually cool. Pipeline is one of the most reproduced art works of the 1980s. It’s the one image I’ll always be associated with.
While the masses gradually warmed up to the idea of digital creation, the art world — for reasons I still find hard to understand today — remained staunchly resistant to it for another twenty years.
In 1980 I constructed an immersive subterranean world. Previously in my art, I’d tended to think of composition in terms of a specific frame of reference. But once I was able to erase the frame and cruise around inside a visual database, I began to perceive of images as discrete points in an infinite continuum of visual information.
I often worked at the JPL 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 Sumacame from.
In my early work at JPL, I was able select colors from a total color-space of 16.7 million colors, but I was limited by the hardware to working with only 256 of them at a time — which is a challenge when you’re trying to create believable shaded and textured pictures. That situation changed in 1985, when the lab got a major equipment upgrade that let me access the whole color spectrum at once, which opened the path to pictures like Mar.
During the 1980s, I spent part of each year in New Mexico. 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. These experiments often yielded surprising results, as in Maithuna.
In 1988, JPL cut back the graphics lab’s funding. Everyone who’d made the lab “the lab” either left or was reassigned to another group. The space rapidly devolved into an eerie ghost lab, full of machines with no to one tend them. The only human presence besides me was the security guards who occasionally poked their heads in on their nightly rounds.
Polymorphis the last picture I made at JPL. At this point, I was attempting to integrate my data structures into evolving simulated environments. This was way beyond what the system could handle. Almost every sequence I tried to render crashed. Then somewhere toward the end of the year, the JPL Graphics Lab faded to black.
In 1991 I spent a season at Apple Computer in Cupertino, where I was a guest first at Apple’s Advanced Technology Group and then at their Evangelism Lab. I spent most of my time at the Evangelism Lab in a small room packed to the gills with one of everything that could make pictures with an Apple computer. This included early versions of commercial imaging programs like Photoshop, which were still pretty much a novelty.
All the hardware in the Evangelism lab lived on a desktop instead of in a high-tech facility. All the software had graphical user interfaces instead of command-line prompts. I was in awe that the programs came with actual manuals. I made The Green Mask my first night there.
Like my days at JPL and Triple-I, I would show up at the Evangelism lab a little after five in the afternoon when everyone went home, and work until dawn. Most nights I had the place to myself.
I’d been messing around with personal computers for a few years, but so far they didn’t pack enough punch to produce the kind of art I was trying to make. My experience at the Evangelism Lab convinced me this was about to change.
In 1995 I built a personal computer from scratch. It cost me over ten thousand dollars and took half a year to assemble. The parts included 32 megabytes of RAM (over $2,000), a color cathode ray tube display (another $2,000), and a four-gigabyte hard drive ($1,200). For a little while, it was probably the most powerful personal computer in the world.
I put the system together 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 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 building over the course of a couple columns. That yielded an unexpected result. Computer companies started express-shipping us their wares in the hopes Jerry might shine a light on them in a future column. By the time we’d tightened the box screws on the first machine, we had the guts for two more.
Alex and I partnered up and established a digital art studio in the village of Sierra Madre in the foothills above Los Angeles. A few months later, Byte offered us a web column of our own to write about what we were up to.
With the ongoing support of our new best friends in the computer industry, we had a neverending stream of new devices and software to experiment with (and a good thing, too — high-end 3D imaging programs like Softimage still cost more than $30,000 a seat).
All sorts of possibilities now presented themselves. I could sculpt with three-dimensional pixels, incorporate real-world physics into my simulated worlds to create images like QED, and produce archival prints of my digital pictures.
Meanwhile, the medium continued to evolve. Costs plummeted, capabilities expanded 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 inextricably woven into virtually every aspect of contemporary life.
Nowadays I use a tablet, neural networks, and cloud computing to create images like Construct. But that’s another story for another day.