1994, Interactive virtual sculpture.

Next Wave Festival Catalogue Essay
© Copyright 1994 JON McCORMACK


As the twentieth century draws to a close, we find ourselves at a curious point in our understanding and representation of ourselves and our environment. Science questions if we have learnt almost all there is to know about the world . Political empires dissolve, critical issues are marginalised. We fight to preserve traditional values in a world that can't sustain the effect of human development. There are simply too many of us.

The technologised world's reaction is to homogenise all forms of culture and human endeavour into a global first world sludge of largely meaningless endeavour. Economic and commercial interests are seen as the driving force to all aspects of culture and development. Ultimately, if an idea can't justify itself in financial terms then it has no right to exist in our society.

Have the myths and consequences of discovery forced us to this position?

I am one of the first of the computer generation. I have used a computer almost every day of my life since secondary school. I spend more time interacting with machines than I do with most of my friends. Many people consider the digital computer as a benign tool like a car, a hammer, a sewing machine or a word processor. I don't see things this way. The computer is a window. It opens onto many things, many places and many ideas. There is no reason to be constrained by the limitations of the physical world we inhabit. It is the medium for the realisation of ideas, objects and expressions with a corporeal fidelity that has never before been possible. It requires no financial justification, it passes no judgement, it has no point of view. I am the explorer and it is the ship I sail on to journey this new world. Perhaps it has the potential to be the ultimate creative medium.

You might expect that my ideas about the world are introverted around the machine, in fact the opposite is true. The computer has shown me things about the world that I could not have known, understood or seen any other way. I see and appreciate nature in a fundamentally different way than before. My perception and understanding are expressed through the machine: it is not about the machine (which is extensively inert). I use a computer for the simple reason that the work I create with it would not be possible in any other medium.

My computer was designed by a woman.2


The basic way in which computers operate has essentially been the same since the 1950's 3. This may seem a surprising statement in a world where one model becomes obsolete a few weeks after it is released, but as in so many other areas, it is easy to confuse science with technology. To my mind, one of the real advancements in computing (following its realisation in digital form) was the direct integration of interaction and visualisation as a central component of the computer itself. This began in universities in the 1960's and became a commercial reality in the early 1980's. Rather than looking at the results of a program as a string of numbers or a simple graph, changing the input and re-submitting the program, the new method provides an intellectual and visual fluid for us to swim in. Now we interact with the program, we respond to and explore the visualisation of an algorithmic process. The machine is the connecting glue that unites mind, eye and idea.

This idea of experimentation through interaction is extremely powerful when applied to visual computing. Interaction between mind, computer and (responsive) image is the inspirational process dubbed computational synergistics. 4 It allows people to discover new things about the world that would have been difficult or impossible to achieve without such a combination. This is the way I work. My work is not just of my design, implemented through a machine. It is the sum of the processes of interaction and experimentation between my mind, my eyes and the machine. This is not the same as processing a scanned image in `photoshop' or drawing with a paint program –these are conventional media and methods adapted to the computer; they are evolutionary. The synergetic process is the real revolutionary aspect of visual computing for both the artist and scientist.

Very little commercial software for computers supports or understands this way of working (why is it that so much 'computer art' looks and feels the same?). Inevitably, to really exploit and understand the process I am referring to, you must write your own software. This puts you on more basic terms with the machine, it allows the direct implementation of ideas, as opposed to interpretation through another's constraints. I don't wish to sound overtly didactic in this statement, it's simply a personal observation.

With the advent of mechanical reproduction the nature of the image changed. Digital images offer perfect reproduction and thus remove the notion of location and of the 'original', completely. With the possibilities of image synthesis (photorealism and beyond) the image looses all it's special qualities. This makes the image meaningless (already in our society, most images are meaningless). Computer synthesis means there is no reason for images to be some fixed static entity, based in terms of creator, creation time and location. Images will adapt and change based on direct or indirect interaction with the viewer. The future of computing (and of our society) is post-visual –it's based in experience.


"Much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question –whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art –was not raised. Soon the film theoreticians asked the same ill-considered questions with regard to the film. But the difficulties which photography caused traditional aesthetics were mere child's play as compared to those raised by the film."

–Walter Benjamin, from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction 5

When a work of computer generated art is presented, be it installation, a 2D or 3D visual, animation or some other medium, why do we seek to avoid the real issues that this new medium is raising? Perhaps it's because much computer art doesn't really present anything new, except in some superficial sense. This makes it easy to dismiss and ignore (as perhaps, ultimately it should be). The technology is still too primitive, too transient for its message to appear so that it is blatantly obvious, but the message is there. We are still lost in conventional paradigms; there are centuries of tradition, protocol and mystification to contend with (and of course, to be exploited). Myron Kruger, for example, observes that most interactive computer works are still only 'one-liners'. 6 Richard Wright argues that genuine computer art includes the concept, algorithm and any images or output that results in total, rather than considering any one of these in isolation. 7

To cover these real issues of which I speak would take many pages, but consider these two questions:

• Where is art left, if any medium can be simulated or manipulated beyond its physical incarnation with similar or better fidelity?

• How can we possibly apply current critical ideas to a work which embodies an autonomous system that responds to it's environment, and is not human?

To limit the focus of understanding applied only to fine art however, would be ignorant, for ithe computational machine is consequential to more than any one single discipline or endeavour.

To really understand this medium requires significant time and thought: it does not immediately reveal itself. It is complicated by the fact that it comes from a heritage that is largely alien to most people. But now, as we are being asked to accept and integrate it as an increasingly intimate aspect of our lives, there is a responsibility to understand and influence it's future development, if we are to be accountable.


"What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a red horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?"

–Jorge Luis Borges, From The Witness8

I think of Borges and his mahogany desk, his anguish over time, space, death and the infinite. My ultimate rational in using a computer to explore the world around me, is to better understand my own mortality. At one level, there is potential for a higher degree of immortality than was previously possible, especially if we are to believe in the artificial intelligence myth of the supra-human, self aware machine. However, (in these times at least) to accept this would be pretentious, arrogant and uninformed.

In a way, as an algorithm executes, it is an ultimate truth. It is free from indecision, mistakes, emotion and opinion. Of course, as a programmer I carry my bias into any program I write. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (or is it a type of creative enzyme?). Perhaps it's just a modern form of archetypal cushion –my way of coping with these enigmas. Like the red horse, these are personal memories and discoveries that I treasure. As with any system of beliefs, the world doesn't change because you describe it differently. It is oblivious to classification, theory and understanding.

Ultimately then, you don't have to be right, you just have to be sure.



Production of this project was assisted by the Australia Council, the Federal Government's Arts funding and Advisory body, the Australian Film Commission and the Victorian Centre for Image Processing and Graphics (CIPAG) at Monash University. I would like to express my thanks to Gary Warner for his ideas for this project and his continued support for my work. I would also like to thank the Next Wave festival (Linda Sproul and Zane Trow) for the opportunity to exhibit this work in Australia, and Silicon Graphics Australia for their generous sponsorship.