The Art of David Em

by David A. Ross

Director, Whitney Museum of American Art

For ten years, David Em has used some of the world’s most sophisti­cated computers and computer programs to create an imaginary uni­verse of stunning beauty. His electronic creations have redefined the territory of technological art.

In an extended series of remarkably origi­nal pictures, Em has developed a vocabulary that seems to combine ancient iconography with otherworldly landscapes. The resulting images evoke the feelings of surprise and excitement one develops upon meeting an absolute stranger who seems completely familiar. This is delightfully suspicious stuff.

Like the work of many innovative artists of his generation, Em uses a set of technologies that is alien to the established order of things. It seems, after all, quite reasonable for us to resist the further en­croachment of computers and electromechanical forces into our be­sieged modern lives. But do we want artists to lead that resistance, or should they offer us new inducements for further exploration? It is inevitable that a discussion of Em’s work must also include some consid­eration of these questions.

The recent history of art and technology engagements can be read as a commentary on the modern industrial state and its potential for humanistic conduct. Popular culture, for instance, reflects a wide-ranging suspicion of new technologies. One only need scan the literature of science fiction to see the very real and present fears that commingle with our desires for an idealized future. Indeed, the twin nightmares of technofascism and global extinction are frequently portrayed as the ultimate by-products of increased technological sophistication. They stand as extreme examples of the loss of individually controlled destiny.

Even before the dawn of the cybernetic age and the nuclear era, rapid advances in technology were globally recognized as harbingers of the end of innocence. Visual artists throughout the twentieth century have recognized this paradox and therefore approached the onslaught of new technologies with a curious mixture of antipathy and celebration. The Russian Constructivists saw the advance of technology as the release of scientific forces that would liberate the impoverished masses in a grand concert of spiritual and material progress. Throughout the period of the Russian Revolution the questions that confronted artists (but that remained unanswered) were: can revolution give anything to art, and can art give anything to the revolution? In fact, the mediums available to these revolutionary artists was no more technologically advanced than that of their predecessors, but their belief in the powers of technology inspired them to reevaluate the ways in which artists could contribute to modern society. This led to a unity of purpose between the artist and the state as well as to the eradication of traditional distinc­tions between various kinds of art making.

The Italian Futurists held a more romantic (and, in a sense, re­actionary) view of the changes technology promised. They embraced mechanization and the suprahuman mechanical sensibility of the twen­tieth-century city, ironically creating a sort of protofascist ideology. Marinetti’s Futurist manifestos contained the seeds of the very real and pernicious fascism that flowered in the Nazi period. Although the Futur­ists also worked in mediums not yet radically changed by new tech­nologies, they developed an iconography that celebrated the progress of science. Speed, continuous motion, unstoppable change—these were the elements that excited artists like Severini, Balla, and Boccioni. The development of powered flight had generated for them new visions of moving landscapes; similarly, the new machines of war—airplanes and long-distance artillery—led to profound changes in attitudes toward life and death. Killing became impersonal—the ultimate abstraction that remains with us in the nuclear age.

It was the artists of the German Bauhaus, however, who recog­nized that the new industrial tools could be used to create works that were not merely about an age but were of the age. Novel artistic pro­cesses were considered a logical extension of the century’s technolog­ical and humanistic revolutions. At the Bauhaus, new technology was incorporated with traditional craft values to create a modern visual aes­thetic for all fields of creative endeavor—from the ballet to urban design.

Thirty years later, during the period roughly synchronous with the emergence of Conceptual Art (the late 1960s through the mid-1970s), the rapid evolution of communications and information-processing technologies once again brought issues of art and technology into focus. On the one hand, artists were primarily interested in understanding the essential qualities of a work of art on a philosophical level; on the other hand, they were concerned with extending or changing the artist’s role in the society by developing an aesthetic that incorporated the tools of electronic communications. The common denominator of these goals was their emphasis on the value of the human presence in increasingly automated, abstract, and artificial environments. The Conceptualists embraced the ghost in the machine.

Computer art evolved in the late 1950s, receiving its first recognition in the late 1960s in the work of the artists involved with organiza­tions such as Experiments in Art and Technology CE.A.T), USCO, Zero, and others. Following a period when artists explored “new” technologies with abandon (a period perhaps best characterized by the spectacular yet fascinating failure of the mammoth Art and Technology exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971), it became evident that to engage advanced technologies artists had to recognize the values that the Bauhaus had introduced into technologically inspired art: they needed to focus on the aesthetic manipulation of the new tools, no longer merely exploring the metaphoric residuals of these technologies and declaring the results Art. By 1971, the era of the modern artist as the conspicuous consumer of advanced technologies was over.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, video, in its various forms, was the technological medium that emerged as the most concentrated focus of artistic attention. Much of the work revolved around the dominant video form — broadcast television — and centered on the production of an appropriate art vocabulary for this ubiquitous cultural force. This kind of video art, however, was a hybrid genre, situated somewhere between cinema and sculpture. It resulted in a dynamic and active new field, attracting artists who saw it as a way to escape the confines of the traditional art world and a new way to represent and enter a world dominated by mass communications.

During that same period, allied artists from diverse backgrounds, including painters, musicians, filmmakers, and even designers of computer hardware and software, recognized that the marriage of the computer and a video display monitor or cathode-ray tube (CRT) could be the basis for the creation of a purely electronic medium. Their new world would be the uncharted electronic universe that lay beneath and beyond the immediate scope of television.

It was the Korean-born video art pioneer Nam June Paik who first predicted the future for this medium in a discussion of the potential of the Paik-Abe video synthesizer, an early analog computer that was capable of distorting, reshaping, and recoloring Cor colorizing) video images. In a score to his 1969 Electronic Opera No. 2, Paik noted that the video synthesizer would:

enable us to shape the TV Screen canvas

as precisely                 as Leonardo

as freely                      as Picasso

as colorfully                 as Renoir

as profoundly              as Mondrian

as violently                  as Pollock and

as lyrically                   as Jasper Johns

What Paik was predicting, in an era before electronic video image making merged with digital technology, seemed like a pipe dream. But like so much else connected to the revolutionary impact of the semiconduc­tor and the microchip, this dream became a reality that quickly out­stripped even the most outrageous technofantasies of the 1960s.

In the early 1970s, David Em was one young artist who shared that dream. Em arrived in San Francisco during the heyday of its psychedelic romance with electronic video synesthesia. He had received traditional training as a painter at the staid Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and as early as 1971 he had produced some rather accomplished paintings. Dyan (fig. 2), for example, is an extremely well-painted picture in the somewhat conventional and provincial Abstract Expressionist style that was typical of Boston or London painters in the late 1950s. Em’s academic work evolved from paintings with thickly applied brush strokes into sculptures produced with highly textured, painterly sur­faces. For works such as Tom-Tom (fig. 3), Em had learned to use high-tech industrial fabrication equipment and (more significantly) to work and survive as an artist within the corporate environment of a factory. Em eventually left the Pennsylvania Academy as the result of a kind of frustration that was typical for the early 1970s. His professors were impressed with the sculptures he was fashioning out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyethylene, and Rhoplex (the base of acrylic paint), but at the same time they were highly critical and deeply concerned that he was too willing to embrace technological means. Like many painters from conservative academic institutions, Em’s teachers felt that it was impossible to make technological art. Technological art, they believed, lacked human presence, a critical flaw to those suspicious of the new tools.

Em’s concerns had little to do with that “critical flaw.” They had to do instead with a much more profound issue. Faced with a conundrum similar to that which concerned the late German critic Walter Benjamin in his consideration of whether or not photography might in fact be art, it became apparent to Em that the central question was not “is it art?” but whether the new technologies had so changed the world that the artist was forced to redefine the nature of art making itself.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Em decided to work in the field of electronic image making. Ironically, it was when he was working with the imprecise analog video synthesizers to produce pictures (such as his earliest electronically generated work, Mira: fig. 4) that he grew frustrated with both the late-hippy mentality of the Bay Area electronic video scene as well as the excruciatingly primitive nature of video technology. Although he had little desire to be an inventor, he found himself forced into that role in order to advance his profound interest in art and technology beyond the limited confines of video. Em worked with a group of engineers to devise a relatively sophisticated frame-buffer, an elec­tronic device that stores and displays a single frame of video information (the contents of one full video screen). It functions as the video counterpart to a blank canvas upon which an electronic painting can be created from scratch.

By 1975, Em began to compose still-frame electronic images for the electronic canvas. He produced one of his first digital pictures, Rasta (fig. 5), on what he termed a “homemade pixel packer.” This system (which would now be considered primitive) produced pictures with a distinctly blocky, “pixelated” look. Determined to retain the sense of touch he had as a painter and resisting the desire to evolve into a video/computer animator, Em insisted on both the primacy and the viability of composing electronic paintings. “I’ve always wanted the picture to remain still while the mind moves through it, rather than the opposite,” Em stated in a recent conversation. “It isn’t the notion of a still image that fascinates me, but rather the place the viewer occupies within the picture.”

Shortly before producing Rasta, Em was invited to the then highly secretive research laboratories of the Xerox Corporation located just south of San Francisco in Palo Alto. There, he was allowed to work with their pioneering Superpaint system. Most current computer graphics “paint” programs still use the basic structure of this program. Super-paint provided the artist with a menu of colors, an infinite number of shaped “brushes” or mark-makers, and the ability to store the resultant images on a frame-buffer, so that later they could be combined with any other video-generated imagery or simply printed out on a laser Xerox copier. Em, like others invited to the lab, was astounded by the possibilities. Later in 1975, he left the Bay Area and moved to Los Angeles, where he received access to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. With JPL’s sophisticated computers, Em had the opportunity to become one of a small number of artists working around the world involved in rapidly developing the medium.

JPL, formally a part of the California Institute of Technology, since the end of World War II had been intricately involved with the growth of American space exploration, both developing the rocketry itself and conducting critical research in astrophysics and the space sciences. It had been reasoned that NASA would need enhanced graphics capabilities not only to process video imagery beamed back to Earth from deep space but also to develop graphic simulation models to help tell the story of space exploration to a world hungry for information.

Brought to JPL to develop programs that would help create com­puter graphic simulations of the historic flyby missions within the solar system, Dr. James F. Blinn was already known as one of the true geniuses in the complex world of graphics software development. It was into Blinn’s laboratory that David Em found himself situated. A dream come true? Initially it might have seemed that way. In fact, if a judgment was to be made purely on the nature of the unique creative collaboration that ensued, the situation might be considered unbelievable. Em had unlimited access to a personable creative genius and to the most sophis­ticated hardware available. Things did not, however, come quite so easily.

It took JPL several years to finally acquire and develop the hardware and software necessary to produce the kind of advanced pictures Em has become identified with. During the intervening time, countless bureaucratic nightmares kept Em’s creative life in constant turmoil. It was 1978 before he created his first JPL works, and they radiate the raw energy that had been pent-up and finally released. The early group, including Aku, Navajo, and the whimsically titled Donuts in Space (figs. 6—8), were the first works to make purely creative use of the potential inherent in Blinn’s elegant programs. These works constitute important examples of the first discernible phase of Em’s work. In addition, they show off the nature of the medium in ways that immediately saw them used to illustrate the state of the art of computer graphics hardware and software.

Yet, understandably, the reality of working in an on-again/off-again fashion and trying to conform his creative activities to the available up-time on the JPL computer systems started to bother Em. Like his actor friends, he suffered the debilitating constraint of not being able to work when he felt a need to. While he longed for the painter’s life, Em developed a performer’s approach to working, preparing himself for nonstop, all-night sessions from which a new kind of art would emerge.

One thing that Em learned while still at school in Philadelphia was that his ability to survive the hostile environs of the corporate culture was an important component of his personality. It seemed to him that a primary factor limiting the growth of art produced with computers related directly to the isolated, discouraging, and generally alien high-tech corporate environment itself. But for some inexplicable reason Em has been able to glide through the acutely paranoid high-tech world relatively unscathed while remaining extremely productive.

One of the effects of his performance-like situation was a blurring of the notion of just where the work of art actually resided. Was the “finished” product the flickering electronic image itself, was it the photo­graph of the screen, or was the actual art his live interaction with the program and the hardware—the performance itself? Walter Benjamin, in his meditation on the idea of a work’s “aura” in the “age of mechanical reproduction,” would have been severely tested to designate the prime aesthetic event in relation to Em’s work. Or has the extension of art into this nonmaterial, electronic sphere—unforeseen when Benjamin was writing in 1929—delivered the blow that erases the concept of that most genuine trait which in theory distinguishes the experience of art from the experience of other kinds of information? It was obvious to Em during this period that he was working with a medium that was still not fully developed.

It is conceivable that the works illustrated in this book will some-day be “delivered” to an audience by direct electronic means. Perhaps the electronic forms that Em pulls from his mind are to be transmitted directly into our minds by some (yet undeveloped) direct biological image interface? Regardless, it seems possible that our current reception of the images is provisional. The viewer wants to be inside these illusory worlds, to travel through their gravity-free electronic spaces.

Em’s dreamspace began to crumble in late 1979. Machines broke, frustrations mounted, personal human relationships suffered, ~and he found himself in need of relief from the high-pressure world of JPL and the computer art scene. Em did not relish the idea of being typecast as a “computer artist.” He disappeared into the jungles of Mexico for several months, and when he emerged his work and his attitudes had changed markedly.

Suma, a picture he made on the computer in 1980, was the first work to show the effects of his changed perspective (fig. 9). Gone was the sense of movement and action, the technical fireworks that give life to the earlier works. In their place, we find more restricted spaces and a more limited palette. Focusing on resonating formal relationships, Em’s themes have shifted radically. We now see meditative, painterly spaces in his art—safe havens within electronic storms.

The space created by Em in the works of this period and in his more recent pictures has little to do with the space of science—fact or fiction—that characterized works like his tour-de-force, Transjovian Pipeline (fig. 10) The space in that picture, which emerged from the hyped-up, time-pressured condition of his picture-making approach at JPL, was an awesome space, whereas the space that we cohabit with the artist in works like Approach or South Temple is cold, clear, and silent—a contemplative void whose structure gives form to our disem­bodied experience of its essential emptiness (fig. 11 and plate 50). It is this refinement of his remarkable vision, which we see first indicated in his works of the early 1980s and can observe even more clearly in more recent pictures like Terryl and Chin Li (figs. 12 and 13), that serves as the key to Em’s emergence as the leading artist using this new technology. Em has moved beyond crude experimentation with new vocabularies and has emerged as a mature artist with a distinct voice. His latest works, which glow with a soft light redolent of nineteenth-century land­scape paintings, present an electronic space that, ironically, is as lux­urious and comfortable as Matisse’s fabled armchair for the weary businessman.

Do we need this computer art? Does it help us deal with our fear of the new? Does it empower us? I’m afraid these questions only serve as a frame and must remain unanswered.

Like all important art, Em’s work— for all its technological splendor and complexity—is economical. It is capable of transporting the viewer into a shared space within the artist’s mind. This capability, which in fact transcends the content of any particular picture or the nature of this advanced picture-making technol­ogy, is finally what informs Em’s work and forms the quite human matrix of intention that underlies his remarkable vision. His art defies a specific ideological reading, but like that of his Bauhaus predecessors it provides a powerful example of a new technology directed toward the essentially human longing for a language with which to explore the ineffable.

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