Interview with David Em
Los Angeles, 24th February 2009
Jeremy Gardiner, Seamus Malone and Nick Lambert
Jeremy: It’s the 24th of February, 2009, it’s great to be in your studio. Thank you for agreeing to the interview. What I’m going to do is just work through three areas: personal and creative background, artistic techniques and technologies, and computer art in the wider world. To help me are Seamus Malone and Nick Lambert who may well chip in. What I’m going to do is to stick to the framework and the questions so I’m not going to speak too much…. so ‘personal and creative background’, could you tell us about your art background, perhaps your college experience, your experience as a painter?
David: I started making art seriously when I was 14. I remember there was a summer when I started drawing. Oddly enough, before this I didn’t think of myself as an artist. I developed an interest in art, but I didn’t think I had the actual ability to do it. Something happened that summer. I started drawing, and then I was doing it 12 hours a day, and by the end of the summer I could draw anything. And that created a space for me, a personal identity space. It was also social space. Suddenly I had access to places and scenes I hadn’t before. And I was 14 or 15 years old. It was a pretty big deal.
I was living with my family in New Jersey in South Orange, outside of New York City, very close to New York City. And being close to New York was really great because — that’s where my real education happened. I suddenly was interested in going to the Museum of Modern Art every weekend. I would take the train in. I would walk to the Museum of Modern Art, I would walk to the Metropolitan, and then I would go downtown to the galleries. I would do that when I was 15, 16 years old. And that’s where I got my major hit on how to do this. Having access to all this original material was unbelievable.
And then, I got — I won– an award when I was 17 that was a scholarship award to go to any art school in the country, which was great, and I chose the Pennsylvania Academy. At that time I was thinking seriously about painting, and that was a serious paint school, and I did that for a couple years. You know, portraits, figures, all that kind of business, and I got good at that, but I got interested in — I got interested in texture– I got interested in textured paintings, and those textured paintings required materials that were not standard… and so I realized that you could fabricate very textured objects with plastics. And the Academy, which was in Philadelphia, and Philadelphia is across the border from a very industrial part of New Jersey that has a lot of fabrication. And so the paintings, as they got bigger and thicker, started to come off the wall and became sculptures, they became objects. And then I started to have an identity of myself, to perceive myself, as a sculptor. And in order to produce these sculptures, I needed to work with this industrial fabrication environment. And so I started renting time on industrial machines in New Jersey making the parts of these objects, and then welding them together. And the Academy had a problem with this. The Academy was a very, very conservative school and the idea of meshing together technology and art was absolutely antithetical to their belief system.
Jeremy: This was The Pennsylvania Academy?
David: The Pennsylvania Academy, yeah. And so in my third year… well, so basically there began this path, where for the first time I was told what I was doing was not art because it was made with the assistance, the intervention, of technological means. And I just couldn’t believe I was hearing this; because I was just putting one foot in front of the other, and thinking “Hey, new territory, this is great, I’ve never seen anything like this before, this is fantastic.” And instead of getting approval, which I had when I was doing the figures and portraits, suddenly that rug was pulled out from under me. And I was told not only “It isn’t very good,” but “it isn’t even art”.
So that was something I had to cope with, and at the same time there was this very positive side to it, which was that –I didn’t realize it then , but — I was laying the groundwork for what later, when I was in the hi-tech labs, was the nature of the institutional relationship in the early days of the medium, which was you had to get whoever was running this company or organization, in this case the plastics factory, to say, “Yeah you’re an artist, but come on in, even though you’re doing something a little non-traditional here.” Then you’d have to meet and work with whoever supervised the production runs, whoever was involved with getting the supplies, all the way down to the workers who fed the raw materials into the machines according to your plans. And so I was laying a blueprint for what would later become a very valuable skill set. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that in fact was what was actually going on. And then another thing happened that was kind of interesting around that time, which was that — I don’t know if I’m going into too granular detail?
Jeremy: Don’t worry I’m going to interrupt and pose other questions at the right moment…
David: OK, OK. but another really interesting thing happened, which was that the base material of acrylic paint, called Rhoplex, a liquid plastic, is made by a company called Rohm & Haas, and I started buying this stuff in bucket-fulls. And I was having problems with it. I had a studio, it was maybe a little bit smaller than this, and very quickly I was working with levels of thickness where things wouldn’t dry, things wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do at the rate that I wanted them to happen — so it was like coming into a log jam, where my head was out here, but the physical reality was several steps back. And by chance I was walking one night to a restaurant in Chinatown and I turned a corner and saw the Rohm & Haas corporate headquarters – right there. What are the chances of that?
The next day I went there, wearing paint spattered clothes, and I asked if there was someone I could talk to, that I had some questions about their materials. There was a receptionist there, and she said, “Well, there are some chemists up on the third floor, maybe they can answer your questions.” And so she beeped me through and I went up to the third floor, and sure enough there were these three guys with white lab coats — you know the whole thing, test tubes, all that. And they were very interested in talking to me, and not only did they answer my questions, they then turned around where there was this big shelf and they started pulling bottles off. And there were thickeners, and there were thinners, and retardants, and things to accelerate drying, all of this. I walked out with this armful of stuff and just mind-blown! But that also turned on the switch for me, you know, that these people are actually interested in where I’m coming from. I’m creating issues with their materials that they’re not used to running into, and there’s an interaction here. So the idea there was such a thing as a lab, that there were people involved in research, and their research related to my work. I started to perceive what I was doing as research for the first time, it was connected to something bigger. And so that sort of was where all of that started from. And then I left school.
Jeremy: What year would that be, David?
David: That would have been in ’72? ’72, yeah. And in ’73 I came to California and set up a studio in San Francisco… sort of doing the same kind of thing, building large sculptures, and I came down to LA for more of those fabrication houses, there were a bunch of them down in Orange County. And then — a funny series of events — I used to essentially dumpster dive, I used to go into their dumpsters and find these kind of Duchampian jewels. I would incorporate into the sculptures the detritus that came out of the fabrication process. And one day somebody confronted me about what I was doing, and it turned out to be the president of this company, and I told him what I was doing, and he said “You know, I always thought these things are kind of amazing too, and I always thought it would be great to have an artist use this as a tool!” And he and I became partners, and he funded my work. He paid me to make sculptures on his systems, and that was a great thing, and so I would divide my time between San Francisco and LA doing this.
Jeremy: You mentioned Duchamp a moment ago, I’m just wondering — you’ve been at the Pennsylvania Academy, you’ve left college, you’ve moved to California–which art theories or movements inspired your artistic development at that time?
David: Duchamp definitely had an effect because the idea that perceiving things around you in different ways empowers the art quality of it, that was a big deal to me. And one of the things that’s really hard when you’re a student, I think it’s harder today than ever before, is we’re so knowledgeable. I mean, I knew a lot about art, but that and finding your vision are two completely different things. It’s very difficult to find your identity as an artist, and the more we know about Eastern civilization and Western civilization, and the history of art, it actually winds up building barriers between you and blasting through all that to where you’re into some new valley where there aren’t any footprints. Duchamp, I think, encouraged me to look at the world, every object, every thing, in different ways, similar to a zen sensibility.
Jeremy: And that’s why you were dumpster diving, to find these…
David: Exactly, exactly, and I went to these factories to fabricate things, and in doing so would look around and I would go “Wow! Look at this weird shit, look at this stuff over here.” I remember going to a factory in Delaware that was by a river that would just dump this stuff into the river, and I remember putting on wading boots and going into the mud and pulling up these nuggets and looking at these things that came out of the fabrication process, and thinking “This is as beautiful as anything I ever saw in any museum in my life.” And that’s a very Duchampian point of view, so he was an influence, I would say. Surrealism in general was meaningful to me, working with the unconscious, that kind of flow. And not so much at the time, but probably later, the idea of creating a world that you could travel in, one that came from inside, rather than the physical material world.
Jeremy: You’re mentioning these other worlds. Perhaps now is the time to ask you about your initial involvement with the computer in your creative practice? How that happened… here you are in California, and exploring these found materials with found objects, working with industrial artifacts, and you’ve had the experience of building collaborative relationships with technological groups, as you mentioned with the Rhoplex company, how did you come to the computer in your creative practice?
David: Well one step leads to another, you’ve got to go down the path. What happened in my case was the sculptures led to… I went through… there was a lot of interest in light art at the time in California, and I’ve always loved that stuff… and I don’t know if I was influenced by that, or I came to it on my own, but that thinking certainly pervaded a lot of what was going on, and as I was working with the sculptures, I became really interested in the way light was moving on the surfaces. I started building lighting arrangements, so the sculptures became secondary, and instead of objects, they became surfaces for light to move across. I did a couple shows early on that way. And as I was doing that, I thought, “You know, you could film this, wouldn’t it make sense to make films of this kind of thing?” Which got me interested in what was going on with experimental film, and so Jordan Belson, he was an influence I think, and that probably brought me in contact with John Whitney and some of those filmmakers. It wasn’t a big pool at that time, you quickly found out what everyone was doing. I remember you could go the Berkeley Pacific Film Archive at that point, you could rent a room for fifteen bucks and they would pull anything out of their library, and so I started accumulating a list of films I wanted to see and I would go over there, I remember it was on Fridays they had some sort of special deal. And I watched movies for two or three hours until I’d watched everything that they had.
I got this Super8 camera and some rolls of film, those little cassettes they used to have, and I shot those. And while I was doing that, somebody said to me, “Well, have you ever thought about doing it with video?” and that seemed like an interesting idea. I had a friend that was a documentary filmmaker and he had a video camera, a Portapak, you know the early Portapak stuff? And he lent it to me for an afternoon — and that blew my mind. That completely blew my mind, because I was seeing on the screen in real-time what was going on, and I never even developed the Super8 film. That was out the door. Seeing the electronic image on the screen, and the real time aspect of it, even if it was black and white, coarse resolution, it didn’t matter. It was this idea that you were moving in real time, that you could see what you were doing, composing. It turned it into an act of composing, and that was just radical. And then I started really getting into video.
I did video for a year. This was ’74. That was an interesting year. And at that point… Expanded Cinema, you know Gene Youngblood’s book? That was out there, and so I read that. And that was very interesting. And Ted Nelson had a book called Dream Machines/Computer Lib. I didn’t entirely get what that was about, but that was there, it got me thinking. Parts and pieces were starting to come into my awareness, and I got… somebody was throwing out one of those big old round color tubes, remember those old, early color tubes? They were round, and they were beautiful, they were set in all this wood cabinetry, huge. I had a friend help me carry it over to the studio, and you could get into the guts of the thing, you could get into the RGB controls, the brightness and contrast, and it was very mottled, the color became very mottled, have you ever seen that on it? And it could just barely get signals, very rarely, transmission signals, and suddenly I had an electronic composition instrument. I started now seeing this as a synthesizer, and so I was going in and working with the actual signals… I had no way of recording it, so my original take on it was as a performance instrument.
There was an organization, called the National Center for Experiments in Television, do you know about them? They had this big grant money, Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation, and they had hired a few artists and they were working with Stephen Beck, who invented the Beck Synthesizer, and there had been a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where they had done a performance, right along the same lines as what I was doing. And so I was, “Oh yeah, look at this!” They were steps further along in terms of having tools to do this kind of thing. And that show had a big impact on me too… “I’ve never seen anything that looks like this before, and here it is.” And so I called up the NCET and asked if I could visit them and see some of their tapes. And they were very, very exclusionary, if that’s the right word. They were all “No, no, this is something very special, not for the likes of you.”
I read an article about them in the paper, and they were supposed to have this community aspect that was part of their grant, to give the community access. I called them again and said, “You guys are supposed to give access to artists who are interested in working with your system.” And so they said, “Yeah, actually, we’re supposed to give anyone who’s interested two hours of access.” So I said “I’d like my two hours!” And they finally said all right. So on a Friday afternoon I remember going there, and the place was kind of deserted, and everyone was gone except the secretary. She takes me into this room, this paneled room with book cases with 3/4-inch video cassettes, wall to wall. She says, “What do you want to see?” I say “I don’t know, what have you got? Could you suggest something?” And she pulls one out, puts it in a deck… and 3/4 inch cassette machines had only been around for less than a year, a new interesting object to me… I’d never seen one before. So the tape starts going, and it’s… its sort of this story about… about this guy’s relation to his father, and these slides are slowly fading into each other, and its going on an on — it’s an hour long tape. So I say “Can I see something else?” And she says, “No, our engineers have told us that if we remove a cassette from the machine while it’s playing, it will be ruined forever, and these are the masters you’re looking at, so we can’t possibly do that.” So I’m stuck now with this one tape for an hour. And then I saw another tape by this professor at UC Berkleley named Willard Rosenquist, he was using lights and reflecting them off sheets of mylar and composing with light. It wasn’t an hour’s worth of material for me, but it was interesting.
And then that was the end of my two hours, this was it, I was kind of being ushered out. So I asked her if she knew anybody else who was into this stuff. I think she was feeling guilty, feeling bad at this point, she said, “Well there’s this guy who built our video system. He built it originally for KQED, it was the size of this room and lifted in with a major winch of some sort, but now he’s miniaturized it, and maybe he’ll talk to you, but he’s very busy.” His name was Larry Templeton. And Larry was a satellite engineer at Philco Ford Aeroneutronics, and he was interested in art, and he had been contacted by the NCET, and he had built a video switching, screen colorization system that he had now made small, and started a little company to market these to TV stations. I called him up, and he said, “Oh, great, come on down, I’d love to talk to you.” So I went down, we had a lasagna dinner together, and he said, “You know, I made these tools for artists to work with, and the NCET’s not letting artists work with the stuff has been really upsetting to me, and so I’ve been hoping an artist would show up who wants to use it.” He said, “Why don’t you take it all back up to San Francisco with you?” And he had one of everything. He had his system, there was a 3/4-inch deck. His company had bought or built two of everything, there were a couple video cameras, and he said “Do you have a color TV monitor with a video input?” And I said “No, all I have is this hulk from the ancient past.” And he gave me his own pro TV set, put it in the car seat next to me, and I drove the gear back to my studio.
Then I had a system for the first time, and I worked with that for a year. I worked in a performance context, started doing performances, started a video group. Started working with electronic musicians. This was whole new world, a really interesting world, and there was… the San Francisco video scene was actually a really interesting scene at that time. There was a documentary contingent, a performance art contingent, and then there were people, coming out of an abstract, experimental film aesthetic. And that’s where I was coming from, and so we were doing shows, we had audiences, and we also thought we were going to be rock stars. We all thought this was going the direction of rock and roll.
Jeremy: David I’m wondering, we’re no longer in the swinging ’60s here, its the 1970s and listening to you talk about these incredible video devices these engineers and scientists were developing, were they part of that counterculture, and was that why they were pushing the technology in a particularly psychedelic direction?
David: Actually no, that’s an interesting thing. Especially about the Bay Area at that time, because certainly the Bay Area was the ground zero of that movement, I think that’s part of what attracted me to it, too. That whole 60s lifestyle, I’m very much a child of the 60s… I went through all that, psychedelics definitely informed my vision at that time, and that was of interest… but there was a bigger thing going on, and that was there was this other revolution, this high-tech revolution. That was also ground zero. And stuff was going on there that wasn’t happening anywhere else in the world, not like that. And that was coming from this very independent place, and as the 60s turned to the 70s, the 70s on that larger cultural level were much less interesting than the 60s to me. But the 70s digital revolution took place for me very quickly. I’m very conscious that I got inspiration from the energy of the 60s, but for me the energy of the 70s was definitely tapping into computers, so as the rest of the world was moving into disco and god knows what, I was seeing the keyboard as the creative extension that replaced the 60s for me, and It happened in this wonderful continuity.
Jeremy: You have answered my … in the early seventies, are your computer works related to your non-computer works? Moving on.. perhaps jumping the gun a bit, but we are looking at your personal and creative development. This is a big question. How has the computer influenced your work?
David: Well, It’s very straightforward really. I never would have made any of these pictures with any other medium. It’s just very simple.
Seamus: I’d like to hear where the transition comes between the video work and the computer work — I think we need to know that as well.
David: Yeah, well, let’s do that — go into high-gear here. I did this video stuff for a year. And so, getting into the idea of performance, I was bouncing stuff off of lights and mirrors, building assemblages of video screens, sounds. I guess this whole kind of thing that is now called New Media. And at the same time it was the analog world, and the analog world for me could only go so far. I was working with wavelengths, sine waves, all this business, but at a certain point, I just felt I’d taken it as far as I could go — it was turning into a special effects machine: this is the latitude, I’ve explored the latitude, now where do I go?
And I became aware that what I wanted to do was to control every dot on the screen. I consciously wanted to control the color and brightness of every dot on the screen, and there was no way to do it. This was at the end of ’74 — I realized I’d reached the end of this road, this is all there is to it, now what do I do? Then a strange sequence of events happened. I had a gallery at the time, down on Market Street, that was run by a guy who had been an electronic head-hunter — the money had come from head hunting. And he came by the studio one day in ’74 and I remember I thought I had a pretty hip studio — I had more wires and cables than anybody, and he said, “You know, in the future all of this will be obsolete. In the future everything will be digital.” And incredibly enough, I’d never heard the word “digital.” “Digital” was not part of my vocabulary. It meant absolutely nothing to me. And I said, “What do you mean?”
It was one of those “end of the road” moments. There have been so many of them. That was one. And so this guy says, “In the future, everything will be digital.” He says to me, “I just placed this guy down at the Xerox Research PARC, and they’ve got… they gave me a tour… and they’re doing this digital stuff, and this is it! This is the future.” And I said, “Wow, this is great. I’ve got to know about this, who do I talk to?” and he says “Oh, no, I couldn’t put you in touch with anyone there, it would be very inappropriate to have an artist talking to them.” I said “What are you talking about? You’re my representative, you’re supposed to be promoting my career, right? This is important, right?” and he said “No, I won’t do it. I won’t put you in touch with anyone.” And I threw him out of the studio, I just couldn’t believe that this person would do such a thing.
I remember I was just furious, steam coming out of my ears. And I remember coming out of the studio, down South of Market, and the fog rolls in, and it’s about 5:30. Fogginess and I’m just stomping around — and then it was just incredible what happened — I went to visit a friend who was another video artist who knew the people and the players, and she says “What are you so upset about?” And so I tell her the story, and then another friend of mine came over, she and her partner founded the Bay Area Video Coalition, is that what it’s called? Anyhow, she says “That’s the strangest thing, I just got a call this weekend from this guy I went to school with who has just moved to California, and he’s working at Xerox PARC, and it sounds like he’s doing exactly what you’re talking about, let me give you his number.” She gives me his number, I call him up, and it turns out he’s not exactly doing it, but he knows what I’m talking about — and over in the next cubicle — he says the guy you want to talk to is Alvy Ray Smith. So I called up Alvy — cold — and it’s like the last week of December now, and he says “Yeah, we’re building this paint system down here, it would be great to have an artist come down — how soon can you get down here?” I remember his girlfriend was visiting or something, so we scheduled it for first week of January 1975
I went down there in the evening, and Dick Shoup was there — who had built the world’s first frame buffer there — and what does a frame buffer do? It lets you control every dot on the screen, and it just stripped my gears! I was there until like five in the morning and I remember, I remember we talked about what kind of brushes you could make, and I said could we make an airbrush? And yeah, we could make an airbrush… it was kind of a small room, I might have a picture of it somewhere, and we had taken this little monitor they had, and put it up on top of a bunch of machines so we could all see it, and the room was black and we — we, not I — took a bunch of dots and made them small, and then a bunch more, and bunch more, until we had this really granular thing and made a big brush out of It, and then we drew in white across the black screen and there was this glowing brush stroke up there on this screen, and the room was dead black, so it was floating there in the air.
And this was what I was looking for, that was it. Boom! That was the answer to the question. The tool. Excellent! Unbelievable! And then in you know, something that’s now famous, you read about it in history books, two weeks later Xerox shuts down the whole operation. You know, “We see no real world application for color computer graphics.” — their reason. So I had found the door, it had been opened, and suddenly — nowhere to go with it. But that was — that was — the revelation moment, and I said “This is it. This is where I’m going.” Obviously, all steps had led to this particular place, and I went down there a few more times. Alvy left, but Shoup was still there. They still had the machine running there without official support. I remember we made a watercolor brush one evening, and kind of, you know, were able to do transparencies and fluid things like that.
I made my first picture that first night, and oddly enough they had a video output and a 3/4-inch deck, and because I was still doing video stuff, I had a 3/4-inch tape with me and I slapped it in. And I have a video I recently recovered I made that night of the first time I ever touched a computer. The first time I ever made a picture on a computer. That was amazing to pull out of the past — an archaeological dig — but, that was the first time. I didn’t realize where this was all going to lead, but I realized this was definitely the next step.
Jeremy: So where we are, on the threshold of some of the very first computer graphics, and there are other artists in different parts of the world beginning to explore this medium. And I just wanted to broach the question if any other computer artists have been influential in the development of your work, at that time or later?
David: I think John Whitney and James Whitney definitely were. Because I had seen their films and James Whitney’s stuff in particular had this poetic quality that showed where you could go, and John was very much into the whole relationship between the pixel and the sine wave, the electronic correspondence: the primal qualities of what is the digital image and the digital space. And so that influenced me. I saw what different people were doing, of course. Coming out of having spent so much time with experimental film and all that, I had seen pretty much everything that was out there. And a lot of people actually were influenced during that period — a lot of people went on and became, you know, the programmers who created all this stuff, many of whom are famous names — I remember talking to a bunch, and at one point there had been a film show that went around all the colleges, and everyone had been in college during the time, and it showed the early Whitney films, the early Schwartz Knowlton stuff, and a lot of people saw that film show, and “I was in physics and I went into graphics,” a lot of people were being turned on at that time. And then Nam June Paik was definitely an influence. Here’s somebody who’s dicking around with all this stuff and getting into the cables, creating a synthesizer. I saw what Sandin was doing in Chicago. It was kind of on the analog side, but they were messing with the electronic information. Bill Etra did things that were really pretty interesting. So yeah, those were definitely sources.
Jeremy: OK. We’re at that time there where a number of trade shows that were beginning to celebrate these developments, and sell the equipment, and I’m just wondering if you’ve been connected with major organizations like Siggraph, Electronica, the new digital salon over the years — and if so from what kind of date?
David: Yeah, that came later. Once I started working seriously in digital media, the tools became paramount. In fact, I think of those years as the “Access Years.” The pacing item for any artist was if you wanted to do anything, you had to get onto the keyboard — and the keyboards were in large institutions. So there was this whole set of skills we talked about before, with the sculpture factories, where you had to be able to talk to the people who could open the doors, who could give artists access to these tools. So I think very much of those as the “Access Years”, and the conferences and things were tied around them, were different stages of it. And in the early stages, Siggraph was clearly the prime organization, and that was the one I had the most to do with. And it served multiple purposes — but the biggest one was community.
I think the art of the digital era, or whatever we want to call it, is different from every other art movement that ever existed because there was a time when, you know, Rome let’s say, was the center of the creative universe, there was a time when Paris was the center of creative universe, there was a time when New York was the center of the creative universe… and so you lived in you know, SOHO or wherever. You ran into people, things happened, and things mushroomed out of that consciousness, whereas for the digital art movement, there never was a center. There really never was — there were things happening in Japan, things happening in Europe, there were things happening here — and the only place where everybody was in the same room at the same time was the Siggraph conference, one week out of the year. And that was a big deal. This is where you saw your peers, this is where you saw what was going on, this is where you saw where things were headed. This is where you traded tips and tricks and talked about the misery of what you were doing. All of this stuff. This is the only place where community was formed. So it was very important for several years in that way — and I think for a lot of people.
Jeremy: David, I’m going to move on to artistic techniques and technologies. You’ve touched on those already in some of your descriptions of working at JPL, but I’m still going to ask you the questions — there are perhaps some areas at which we can tease or tease out — or there might be other aspects you might want to reflect on, you might be thinking about at the moment. The question, the first question is: “do you work collaboratively?” Well clearly you have, and I’m going to give an example, with a specific programmer or research lab. You mentioned how you met Alvy Ray Smith previously, I just wondered if you wanted to explore one of those relationships a little bit more in depth.
Nick: Your conversion from Xerox Parc to JPL would fit very well with that since it seems that it was at JPL where these things ‘came together’
David: Well right, if we take these things in microcosm, and there have been a lot of stages to this, because I have always been an independent artist. I don’t know how many there are out there, but that’s been the way I’ve approached it. At the same time it’s been highly collaborative, even keeping this lab here — I have people who help me keep my network going — all kinds of people I’m involved with at all times. Yeah, the transition to JPL really puts it into high relief because there was a whole situation at Xerox PARC, where I got my feet wet with it. But I can’t honestly say that I was a part of the process there because the place really fell apart.
After that, I decided I was going to do this seriously, so I did all the research I possibly could. Now there wasn’t a lot of stuff then, but one thing I saw was a copy, I think it was of the IEEE Journal, had Ed Catmull’s graduate thesis in it. And in that, there was a picture of a 3D-generated hand, and I remember looking at it, saying, “What the hell am I looking at? What is this?” Because 3D hadn’t really been discussed much at this point, and certainly wasn’t in the public consciousness, and even in what literature there was, there was at most a passing reference to it. I decided I needed to see what was going on in the world, and so I went coast to coast and went to every lab — everybody doing anything I could find — and talked to everybody I could about the medium. And asking, “Is anyone doing anything back in California?” And a lot of people said, “Have you looked at JPL? They must be doing something.”
I met Fred Parke who was at Case Western at the time. The New York Institute had just set up; they had just bought a bunch of Evans and Sutherland frame buffers. I did call up JPL, this is another one of these bizarre stories — it’s hard to believe. I called JPL, knowing nobody, and I don’t know if you’ve been to JPL, but it’s like a university campus, it’s huge. And so, there’s like a front office secretary there — I told her what I was interested in, and she said she would ask around. And I figured that’s the end of that! But she did ask around, and she called me back and she said “There’s a mathematician (I think his name was Al Shepke), who understands — sorta, kinda — what I had asked him about on your behalf”. So I called him up and he wasn’t doing it, but he was involved in the visualization of mathematical properties, so he was hip to the whole idea of using digital devices to manifest the images. So he said, “Well no, it’s not what I’m doing, but there is this young guy here, Bob Holzman. He’s trying to get a graphics lab funded. And I called — Holzman was into art — he said “Yeah, I’m trying to get a graphics lab funded, and it would be great to have an artist in residence, let’s stay in touch.” So that was the beginning of the collaboration there. I went back to San Francisco and called Bob a couple weeks later, this was now in December of ’75 I think, to find out what was going on. And he said “Hey, we’ve just been funded, the lab is going to be up at the start of the year. If you want to come down, it would be great.”
I moved — I remember I drove to LA on New Year’s Day, 1976. The one thing that came out of my cross country trip was that you just couldn’t do this on your own. You had to have a facility if you wanted to do this kind of work seriously. In fact, I had started building machines — I built — backtrack for a second here to Larry Templeton, who had built all the analog video stuff. The day after I had been to Xerox, I called Larry. I said, “Larry — the frame buffer! We have to build a frame buffer. This is it!” And he said, “You don’t understand what you’re getting yourself into… see if you can squeeze more juice out of the analog tools …we — you — don’t want to get involved with building a frame buffer.” And I said, “No! We really have to do it!” And so I finally I got him to sit down with Alvy. There was a little burger joint there, in which Nolan Bushnell had set up the first video game machine in that famous story, and so we sat down at a little booth and Alvy explained the inner workings of the frame buffer to Larry.
It was the classic thing, you know, Larry pulled out a napkin, started sketching on it and suddenly — I remember this — he took his hand and started hitting his forehead with his hand. Bam, bam, bam! He said, “I got it!” And he sketched the whole thing down, and when we left, he said “Here’s a parts list. Go to this store in San Francisco and buy these things called breadboards. The parts go in the breadboards. Meet me over the weekend, and we’ll start putting them together. And that’s how we built a working frame buffer. Low-res. Memory was the big deal. Memory was the really big deal, 4K, 8K of memory cost serious money back then, it was impossible! But we did it, and then we got other people involved, that was major collaboration actually, because Larry and I were collaborating, and then a friend of mine who was an electrician with no electronics background, Gabriel Normandy, started working on the frame buffer with me, which led him to go to UC Berkeley, where he got a degree in electronics and took over designing the machine, and then ended up building the machine that Robert Abel used a couple years later. That’s how a lot of this stuff was happening then. We had an audio guy, George Ellis. There was a group of us building this machine and we spent a couple years at it –from ’75 through ’77.
At the same time I realized “Nah, we’re talking software, we’re talking serious machines, we’re talking big data here. There’s no way we can build this on our own. I’ve got to hook up with a serious facility.” And so Bob opened the door to JPL, but it took JPL a year and a half before they actually acquired all the hardware and made a space for the hardware to live in. All of the time going, like, “This will be running on Monday.” And “By Friday we’ll have this working.” And I’m thinking like, “My god, half a year has gone by! Time is moving here!”
There was a CalTech laser physicist I knew who was into art, who’d worked with the EAT and Rauschenberg and those people, Elsa Garmire, and she and I were friendly, and she said there’s a guy she knew who was involved in a company doing something along these lines. That turned out to be Gary Demos. Gary had started really the first digital film studio at a place called Triple-I (Information International, Incorporated) with John Whitney Jr., who was John Sr.’s son. So Triple-I by day was a company involved in pattern recognition for things like IRS forms, and things like that, but they agreed that by night their DEC-10 computers there could be used to generate pixels, and they created the first real digital film printer, the DFP, a high-res film recorder. And so I met Gary and John, and they had done like one gig, they had done Peter Fonda’s head for Futureworld. That was about the first 3D film work that was ever done — and they were hustling for other gigs, and they knew they would need people to work on them, and so Gary said, “Come by.” I started going there every night, and I would drive to Culver City, and that was an interesting environment because even though the place was very high tech, the system was still primitive as an art tool.
I mean, it I was lucky I cut on my teeth with this stuff at Xerox PARC, where there was a full color frame buffer and a tablet, they actually had a tablet. And I knew how to draw, paint, that kind of thing, and so even with the little blinking alphanumeric screen — that was alien to me — I was quickly making pictures. I made my first picture twenty minutes after I saw the system. I sat down, this is how it works, boom boom, there was a picture. Where at Triple-I the idea of realtime feedback hadn’t really gotten through to them, so their frame buffer was like 8 pixels by 8 pixels across — monochrome — if you can image that. But the digital film printer could do 4K resolution. You know, motion picture quality output. But on the input side, it was like traveling blind. When you chose colors, you had to go to a bookshelf of three-ring binders full of film strips of the colors the system could put out, and you would go in and there and jot down a color’s RGB numbers, and you would type your RGB numbers into a file, and attach them to your models, and get all these things going together by the numbers. You had no clear visual of how everything went together. The process was, you would drop the film shot off the DFP at the MGM film lab, and then two or three days later it would come back, and you would go “Uhm. Wrong colors.” So decisions that should have happened like that! [snaps] you know, in a fraction of a second, were taking place over seventy two hours. So that was the state of that particular art.
It was all advancing in fits and starts. People had different things going in different places, and New York Tech had certain things figured out, but not others, Triple-I had certain other things figured out, JPL was just trying to open its doors, and so I spent about a year at Triple-I. I made a creature, I made an insect that could jump, it could fly, it could flap its wings, it lived in its little virtual world. And so I don’t know if anybody else had — any artists had — created a virtual creature, but I made that in 1976 and ’77.
Jeremy: Anyway, I want to put up, put to you the comment you made about, “You didn’t know what was going to come out.” you were working with the RGB code component you mentioned a moment ago. Do you have a final outcome or artifact in mind when your work begins?
David: Yes and no. More often no than yes. Because there’s several steps. One is an absolute recognition of what makes this medium beautiful to me is — I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s wired into my personality, I get bored very easily, so something like painting, let’s say, where you always have the same paradigm, is not of interest to me. I like the fact that this is constantly evolving, whether you’re working with original software, programmers, doing it yourself, working with off-the-shelf stuff. It changes faster than dreams, and so there is always new stuff to explore and so you’re doing new stuff. You don’t know where you’re going to wind up, and that’s so much of the medium to me.
Jeremy: Thinking about what the author Henry James said, he posed three questions you could ask of art. I wonder if you could try and please answer these in relation to your own practice. So if I mention the first question, “What was the artist trying to achieve?” If you can put yourself in that context. what have you been trying to achieve with your art, with your artwork?
David: In my case it’s really a matter of finding new territory. I don’t have a statement, I don’t have a personal agenda of any kind. It’s about exploring places we haven’t been to before.
Jeremy: OK. Again, James then posed the question “Did they succeed? Do you think you’ve succeeded so far in that quest?”
David: In my own terms I have, because a lot of for me, the “Turing test” of sorts is, “Have I ever seen anything like this before?” And that is when I save a picture. It took me a long time to understand that one of the interesting things about this medium is that you can save every step along the way. I found I was losing things I realized in retrospect were the valuable work. You know, you make three hundred variations on a theme — but it was number two that was the good one. And so I’ve learned to just save everything, and this is the determining factor: “Is this something I’ve never seen before?” And if so, I instantly save it. The beauty is that it happens all the time. Whether it’s my process, the medium, or the interaction between the two I have no idea, but as long as I can keep that going, there’s always new territory.
Jeremy: And finally, “Was it worth doing?” do you think it was worth doing?
David: Well, it’s what I dedicated my life to, and I’m still standing.