f i e l d   n o t e s

In 1973 I was fresh out of art school and living in San Francisco.

Personal computers didn’t exist yet. Neither did the internet. I’d only the vaguest notion of what software was.

At the start of 1974, I started messing around with analog video synthesizers. By the end of the year, it seemed I’d gotten as far as I was going to get modulating frequencies with dials, knobs, and switches, so I started looking for a more precise instrument.


After an unlikely series of events, I wound up at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, aka PARC, on the evening of January 9, 1975. There, a computer scientist named Dick Shoup showed me a device he’d built he called a “framebuffer” that used computer memory to control the color of every dot on a video screen. This was my first encounter with pixels.

Dick had hooked an electronic tablet up to his frame buffer, and he and his colleague Alvy Ray Smith had written a program for it they called SuperPaint.

That night I created my first digital image.


After another unlikely series of events, in 1976 I joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s newly-funded computer graphics research lab in Pasadena as its Artist in Residence.

The JPL Graphics Lab was the brainchild of Bob Holzman, a high-tech visionary who loved art. Bob worked out a unique deal for me with JPL: I had 24/7 access to the Graphic Lab’s computing facilities and full ownership of my work as long as they didn’t have to pay me. That’s how JPL became my art studio for the next thirteen years. In its prime, there was nothing like it anywhere in the world.

Getting the lab up and running turned out to be more difficult than anyone had anticipated. It took a year and a half before I lit up my first pixels there.

When the JPL Graphics Lab finally came online around mid-1977, Bob hired Jim Blinn, a young computer scientist who wrote most of the lab’s software.

The JPL Graphics Lab’s NASA funding was tied to producing computer-generated 3D film simulations of the now-historic Voyager spacecrafts’ upcoming planetary flybys of Jupiter and Saturn before they actually flew by the planets. This kind of visualization software didn’t exist yet, so Jim coded it from the ground up.

As a result, the lab’s software was in a constant state of flux. Sometimes images cratered while they were rendering. Other times the bits became rearranged in unpredictable ways.


In the 1970s, most people perceived computers as being inherently cold and dehumanizing. Few people on the planet had conceived of, let alone seen, a digital image.

Somewhere in 1979, several journalists for major publications became aware of what I was doing at JPL. When they went to press with the Art-meets-Science story, 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.

Of all my pictures from that period, Transjovian Pipeline 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 digital technology not only wasn’t threatening — it was actually cool. Pipeline became one of the most reproduced art works of the 1980s. It’s the one picture I’ll always be associated with.

During the 1980s, I spent part of each year in New Mexico. My experiences there led to a very different immersive world focused on clouds and light.

Before I started building worlds, I’d thought of composing images in terms of a fixed frame of reference. But once I was able to erase the frame and wander around inside a visual database, I began to think in terms of dynamic structures that evolved over time.

In 1988, JPL cut the Graphics Lab’s funding. Everyone who’d made the lab “the lab” either left or was reassigned to another group. The place quickly devolved into the Flying Dutchman of the computer world, a ghost lab full of humming machines with no one to tend them. The only human presence there besides me was a security guard who occasionally poked his head in on his nightly rounds.

At this point, I was attempting to merge my evolving data structures with my simulated worlds. That was way beyond what the system could handle. Almost everything I tried to render crashed. Then somewhere toward the end of the year, the JPL Graphics Lab faded to black.


In 1990, I spent a season at Apple Computer in Cupertino, first working on an experimental film with their Advanced Technology Group, and then as a guest at their Evangelism Lab.

I’d been playing with personal computers for a few years, but so far they didn’t pack enough punch to produce the kinds of pictures I was trying to make. My experience at the Evangelism Lab convinced me that was about to change.

I spent most of my time there in a small room packed to the gills with every piece of hardware and software that could make pictures with an Apple computer. This included early versions of commercial programs like Photoshop, which were still pretty much a novelty.

All the hardware in the room lived on a tabletop instead of in a high-tech facility. The software had graphical user interfaces instead of command-line prompts. I was in awe the programs came with actual manuals.


In 1995 I cobbled together a one-of-a-kind personal computer from scratch. It cost over ten thousand bucks and took six months to assemble.

I built the beast in a spare room in the back of my house with Alex Pournelle, a computer systems builder whose father Jerry Pournelle wrote a highly influential column for Byte Magazine, which in those days was considered “The Bible of the Computer Industry”.

Jerry chronicled our ongoing traumas constructing the machine in several of his columns. That yielded an unexpected result: computer companies started bombarding us with mother boards, graphic cards, disk arrays, and software in the hopes Jerry might mention them in a future column. By the time we finally tightened the box screws on the machine, we had the guts for three more. So we kept going.

Soon after, Byte offered me and Alex a web column to report on what we were up to. We partnered up and leased the bottom floor of the historic Old City Hall in the village of Sierra Madre in the foothills above LA and christened it The Byte Media Lab, which doubled as my art studio for the next ten years.

With the support of our new best friends in the computer industry, the Media Lab was soon jam-packed with a never-ending flow of state-of-the-art workstations, printers, and all manner of high-end imaging software. The possibilities that presented themselves were endless.

I could sculpt with 3-D pixels.

I could incorporate gravity, wind, and rain into my simulated worlds.

I could produce archival prints of my digital pictures.

And so on.

Meanwhile, the whole world hooked up to the internet, hardware and software costs fell off a cliff, and millions of artists, designers, and filmmakers around the globe joined the digital revolution.

Then came the iPhone, Twitter, and TikTok, and now pixels are inextricably woven into every facet of our daily lives.

The rest is history.