Thursday, February 02, 2006

Multimedia, the Blur Tool

As disciplines mingle, artist and geek become one

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MI, December 3, 1998 -- It's [Image]
human nature to classify, qualify, and quantify.
When strangers meet, their minds go through mental
gymnastics to try to fit each other into recognizable
boxes ("Hmmm ... opera fan, business major, likes
travel"). Many spend their lives honing their one-phrase
description to respond to the inevitable "What do you
do?" question: "I write about food trends." "I practice
family law." "I'm a botanist."

Technology is giving us a reason to beat around the bush
when describing ourselves. The availability of digital
tools is blurring the boundaries between disciplines,
allowing artists to learn more about technology and
engineers to build more creatively. Whereas a visual
artist once spent a lifetime collecting brushes and
paints, and a musician toiled over a piano keyboard,
computer software gives artists a palette on which to mix
many media. When you add file manipulation to your skill
set, you suddenly find that your computer is a canvas
onto which sights and sounds can be mixed. Plus, digital
artwork now affords the opportunity to add two new
elements: time and user control. In the end, whether it's
video, music, or graphics, it can all be stored on a
shiny little disc.

Within the art world, the effect has been dramatic,
exposing a need to break down an existing structure of
classifying disciplines. Many painters have used an
element of three-dimensionality through the texture of
the paint itself, but what's going on now is a radical
rethinking of graphic design, product design, sculpture,
printmaking, and painting. Three-dimensional modeling
software, which allows users to create realistic images
of three-dimensional forms (like the dinosaurs in
"Jurassic Park"), is changing the way designers present
images on a page. People who historically used flat
images are now experimenting with three-dimensional
letter forms, and sculptors and product designers are
doing more experimental CAD (computer-aided design) work.
Rumor has it that the metal-smith department of the
Savannah College of Art and Design, for example, is on
the verge of going entirely digital.

While digital arts allow sculptors and designers to make
fantasy objects that defy the laws of physics by
dissolving, floating, or otherwise morphing, it is also
allowing designers to reach a new level of physical
reality. That is, automatic fabrication techniques like
stereo lithography allow drawings to be turned into
objects without having anyone lift a finger. Kevin
Kelley, executive editor of Wired, explains it well in
the book "Out of Control": "First, an object is just
lines on a screen; then it's a solid thing you can hold
in your hand or walk around. Instead of printing a
picture of a gear, automatic fabrication technology
'prints' the actual gear itself."

So much for the arts -- this is the point at which the
techie enters into the picture. With so many creative
types embracing digital tools, a newfound respect for the
hardcore geek has emerged. What was once a mental block
about math and science is now an opportunity for another
branch of creative thinking. Just as the sculptor may
have obsessed over the smoothness of the clay, so, too a
programmer pores over the clean logic of newly created
code. In the end, the goal of both the ambitious artist
and/or the renegade scientist (a la MIT Media Lab) is the
same: to create new experiences.

In my most idealistic moments, I believe that computer
technology has brought a resurgence of the renaissance
man/woman. A more cynical read might predict that digital
tools put the artist/scientist at the mercy of the
software manufacturer and will lead to widespread,
uniform mediocrity. Either way, digital tools are giving
us more reason to break down stereotypes, and, if nothing
else, give a more interesting response to the age-old
cocktail party question, "What do you do?"

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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