The Big Bang of Electronic Art: Merging Abstraction and Representation in the Age of Digital Imaging

Is this merger the gateway to both a new aesthetic and a new public engagement, as we integrate documentation of experience, cultural heritage, and science into our work?
Sunday, 18 September, 2011 - 13:00 - 14:30
Chair Person: 
Cynthia-Beth Rubin
James Faure Walker
Anne Morgan Spalter
Murat Germen
Beth Warshafsky
Nettrice Gaskins
Orhan Cem Çetin
Malcolm Levy
Anat Pollack
Cynthia-Beth Rubin
Glen Memories: 40 Years of Wandering, State X, 2009
Rubicon 2006
Time Past and Time Future 7, 2011
The Visiting Tank 4, 2011
Aura #12 Bologna Italy, 2011
objet petit a” #15
Ramm 02
Digital Abstraction from the Sao Paulo series

Chair: Cynthia Beth Rubin

One of the most profound transformations of the electronic age is the changing relationship of representational imagery and abstraction. Once inexorably bound to painting, the advent of photography made it the medium of choice for documentation, a split which in turn freed painting to prioritize formal elements over representational content, creating a vocabulary of meaning derived from color, form, texture, and gesture, and setting artists down a path that eventually culminated in Abstract Expressionism.  When digital imaging developed, early commercial developers of software envisioned that this split would continue, but this was hardly the case for the early software artists, working in the days before easy scanning and digital photography.  As they “painted” into the computer, they found the same unique qualities of repetition and iterative transformations that their programming colleagues found just a few years earlier, as well as the ability to add gestural expression.  Over the slow decade in which scanning and digital photography gradually became available to artists, early digital artists took the next step of integrating photographic content, jumping seamlessly from PhotoMac to PixelPaint and back again, even if it took years for the software companies to catch on.

As digital imaging becomes the ultimate recombinant medium, artists are now digitally painting with photographs as another element in their work, just as they use color, form, and gesture.  Imagine the artist in the digital studio, being able to can pick up a flat red organic form or an image of a building.  In this context, the symbolism of the color “red” and symbolism of “the building” become similar elements - an artist chooses to use red because it causes spatial tension, or because it represents anger, or represents communism, just as the artist may use the building because it is a heavy rectangular form with pointy tops, or because it has a pattern of repetition, or because it references a known historic site or geographic location. Is this merger the gateway to both a new aesthetic and a new public engagement, as we integrate documentation of experience, cultural heritage, and science into our work?

Paper Abstracts

Digital Paint to Digital Photography: the long reach of Abstract Expressionism

by Cynthia Beth Rubin

Passionate experiments in the interaction of color gave rise to the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1960s, in which spatial ambiguity ruled above all else.  This movement still informs my own work.  I began my career as an abstract or nearly abstract painter, then moved into computer imaging in the mid-1980s, and grew with the technology of the medium.  My imagery has shifted from nearly abstract, with only the slightest reference to the sources of the forms in nature, to the integration of photographic elements, resulting in clearly representational work.  As the technology has evolved to make easy the facile manipulations of photographic imagery, my interest has grown to include a return to the unseen, be it in abstract form or in microscopic elements.  I still crave Hans Hoffman's "relations of relations", or the interaction of clusters of elements through color interaction. This is so pervasive in my thinking that nothing can purge it from my visual vocabulary, even when I move into uncharted territories of meaning.

Painting further along the River

by James Faure Walker

I came of age as a painter in the 1970’s, and was also for a while a critic, editing the magazine Artscribe in the UK. Exhibitions of what we now term ‘conceptual’ art claimed to go ‘beyond’ painting. There was talk of painting being ‘over’. By the eighties painting seemed to be resurgent. The militant styles of minimal art were challenged by free-form genres - new image, neo-expressionist, pattern painting. Disputes between figuration and abstraction were set aside. Whether you put a fish, a triangle or blob of orange in a composition did not really matter.

I came to computer graphics in the mid eighties, and was inspired by the freedom, the colour and the speed. I aimed to integrate all this with what engaged me in ‘regular’ painting, along with its developing culture. I still work in both modes most days. I think of it all as ‘just’ painting. A blue is blue, whatever the medium. I guard against the illusion that these wonderful new paints make you into an ‘advanced’ artist. Yes, we have the freedom to scan anything and throw it into a mix –I do this as irresponsibly as anyone else – but sometimes you just get Photoshop soup. I would like ‘digital’ painting to look unforced. It does not have to be photo-based, logical, weird, nocturnal, natural or unnatural. My own approach has been drawing-based and somewhat gestural. As for whether it is ‘representational’ or ‘abstract’, well I would prefer it to be just playful.

Creating with the Camera, Canvas, and Computation

by Anne Morgan Spalter

Visual computing has irrevocably blurred the lines between representation and abstraction. Just as photography with its innovative realism changed the nature of painting, so digital image capture and computational creative processes are changing the relationships between previous traditional art media and directly influence our frameworks for interpreting new media works. In my work, I begin by taking digital photographs, manipulate them on the computer, create traditional drawings based on these works, re-digitize the works, and then create geometric, computationally based compositions that could never have been drawn by hand but retain the hand-drawn marking of the original drawings. The works are often further developed by adding a time-based element to create computational video drawings. The final combinations of old and new media, representational elements and mathematically inspired abstraction, and still and time-based explorations take advantage of the new visual relationships and ways of thinking made possible by the computer.

Digital Photography: Expanded Creativity and Vision

by Murat Germen

Photography is one of the creative fields in which technological advances influence artistic expression the most. The ease of manipulation brought by software and extra features available in cameras made artists (using photography as an articulation tool) reconsider their visions, themes, narration, syntax and ways of sharing their artwork. Sharing sites like Flickr, which expedite encounters of various individuals from different cultures, help in changing the perception of the vital notion of time and enable artists to get faster feedback.

Digital tools allow photographically based artists to think in a more daring and free way. In addition to the regular montage and collage methods remaining from the analog days, digital imaging techniques allow artists to work with notions of augmented perception, chronophotography, subreal encounters, pictorialism, palimpsest-like superimposition, interlacing, simplification / minimization, creation of new worlds, delusion, synthetic realism / artificiality, appropriation.

Just as photography with its innovative realism changed the nature of painting, so digital image capture and computational creative processes are changing the relationships between previous traditional art media and directly influence our frameworks for interpreting new media works. In my work, I begin by taking digital photographs, manipulate them on the computer, create traditional drawings based on these works, re-digitize the works, and then create geometric, computationally based compositions that could never have been drawn by hand but retain the hand-drawn marking of the original drawings. The works are often further developed by adding a time-based element to create computational video drawings. The final combinations of old and new media, representational elements and mathematically inspired abstraction, and still and time-based explorations take advantage of the new visual relationships and ways of thinking made possible by the computer.

A Layered Process: Lyrical Improvisation

by Beth Warshafsky

As a young poet turned painter and printmaker, I learned to paint at a time when my teachers worried that "painting was dead." Digital media was not yet on my horizon, but I was surrounded by film-makers who were also grappling with the formal properties of their medium, including pictorial, abstract and conceptual form. While I never made films myself, by the time I started to work on the computer, I was already looking for something. I didn't know it was time, but there it was, creating a space for transformation and a structure for layering all kinds of content.   

Working in the mid 80's in the emerging world of cable and broadcast graphics, I was introduced to new set of tools which literally set my work in motion. It was an "aha" moment. I began to make what I called video/ computer tone poems. It felt right--, now I could paint, draw and work with photographic images as material, through many more layers of process. I was still feeling like a painter but thinking like a printmaker. Suddenly, I could incorporate images from my own life or the media, and combine it with abstract, painterly gestures. Sound became an essential part of my work, and I started a long collaboration with the composer Gerry Hemingway. This interplay between sound and image, texture and form, is a natural improvisation.

Visual Abstraction, Cultural and Artistic Production in Virtual 3D Space

by Nettrice R. Gaskins

Abstraction and the psychogeography of urban space fuel my interest in developing specialized forms of representation: alphabets, drawings, paintings (graffiti), sculpture and so on.  Much of my artworks in Second Life, a virtual 3D space, are based on a variety of subjects that visually appear simplified and rearranged – stripped down to expressive and communicative essentials.  The simplification that results from abstraction does not mean less than profound than representational works; instead, these simplifications allow deeper meanings to emerge.  I use in-world (Second Life) tools to construct virtual objects that are textured and assembled to simulate modern graffiti. I manipulate artistic elements (texture, color, etc.) using a three-dimensional modeling tool based around simple geometric shapes that allows for the creation of virtual art objects. In this process, all parts of the artwork become mutually interactive and interrelated – as a system.  Extruding two-dimensional forms and incorporating interactive elements reveal new ways to generate representations that break set rules and establish new practices that extend viewer/user participation.

Photography, Reality, and Digital Expression

by Orhan Cem Çetin

Photography, contrary to general belief, is in my opinion a superficial representation of the actual human experience of a particular moment, becoming even more superficial when considering a longer time span. In comparison to perceived reality, we experience photographic images as shocking and surreal. The power of photography as a medium, in fact, is derived from this distorted connection between reality and representation.  Taking this disconnect between reality and photographic representation a few steps further into abstraction and/or manipulation of the image is a natural extension of the medium, considering that even in its purest forms, photography remains a dramatic abstraction of reality.

I have been using digital media for creative photographic applications since 1993. Always interested in discovering new ways of exploring the expressionist possibilities of photography, by the 1990s I was already using alternative imaging, including printing and displaying techniques such as Polaroid image transferring, emulsion lifting, fax-prints, hand coloring paper negatives and shooting with homemade diffuse lenses. The new digital medium provided possibilities of full creativity and ways of integrating into the image further aspects of my personal human experience of the moment, but at the same time, the image was still a photograph with its strong ties with the real, physical world and a moment or moments which definitely happened in the past.  Beginning with early black and white scanning, I have developed a mode of working that expanded my creativity. In much the same way that painters are free to explore the expressionist qualities of imagery, I found that through digital manipulations the same freedom from the constraints of viewer expectations of depicting reality.

Other Frames

by Malcolm Levy

Other Frames’ investigates issues of representation in photography and video within a digital framework, and specifically the issue of formerly unseen work being exposed through a combination of digital and analog means.  In particular to my practice are the places where digital and analogue meet.  This is an area of photography which I have found to be lacking in research currently, but emerging in practice at this time. 

The specific area of research that I have focused on is in looking at Constructivist Conceptualizations around Abstraction using the digital camera and computer as the tools.  The focus of this has been on the computer chip within a digital camera, and how this can be manipulated with frames that are in between, or not really part of the actual logical frame rate pattern.  Through practicing techniques of movement with a digital camera, I have focused on investigating the place where the digital chip stops working properly, where it cannot handle the workload it is being given.  The importance of this issue is based on the current discourse around the photographic image, and post photographic context around the recording of memory.   I have looked at commentary and work of artists within both digital and analogue spaces around abstractive photographic practice, and analyzed how these two areas of practice sometimes actually find areas of similarity, both with regard to methodology as well as the final result.  In terms of the specific artistic practice related to this research, I have worked on creating pieces where the final outcome has been specifically focused on active work around a combined digital-analogue practice.

”objet petit a” The Changing Meaning of Abstraction and Representation in the Digital Age

by Anat Pollack

In the society of the spectacle, the art of the mass media changes the Modern relationship between art and its audience.   The art resides in the shaping of this unseen, diffuse spectatorship where the medium is the masses. In mass media, context transmutes image from scopic to semiotic. Abstraction and Representation are fungible within this context.  This paper brings attention to the work of artists whose process employs the appropriation, compression, and decontextualization of mass media imagery.  Resulting works reveal the flattening of the human soul caused by mass media.  The onslaught of media-images sublimates the image to the message, and renders it meaningless. These artists return the image back to a state of purity: open, and alive. 

As in JMW Turner’s famous painting Snow Storm: Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1844 (coll: Tate Modern) where the only sign of Modernity is blurred and thus reveals the luminous brilliance of Nature, contemporary artists resist cultural amnesia and objectification through deliberate attempts to fight the inversion of the human spirit. 

This process is one of utopian remediation towards memory instead of cultural amnesia and the objectification of the human to presence within the flesh.  The space provided by these contemporary artworks redeem the soul and offer a transcendent experience of the sublime.  All images end at the flesh.

Bios of the Participants

Cynthia Beth Rubin

Cynthia Beth Rubin is a new media artist whose imagery evokes memories of culture, place.   Digital for over 25 years, Rubin's prints, moving imagery, and inter-active installations  have been shown in the Jewish Museum in Prague, opening night of the both the San Francisco and the Boston Jewish Film Festivals, the Pandaemonium Festival in London, Lavall Gallery in Novosibirsk, and diverse venues around the world. Awards include  multiple Connecticut Commission fellowships, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the New England Foundation on the Arts, as well as a residency at Vidéochroniques in Marseilles and other international residencies, . Rubin works independently and in collaboration, and teaches part-time at the Rhode Island School of Design.

James Faure Walker

James Faure Walker studied at St Martins (1966-70) and the RCA (1970-72). He co-founded Artscribe magazine in 1976, and edited it for eight years. Recent one-person exhibitions include Galerie Wolf Lieser (2003); Galerie der Gegenwart, Wiesbaden (2000, 2001). Group exhibitions include Jerwood Drawing Prize (2010); ‘Digital Pioneers’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum (2009); ‘Imaging by Numbers’, Block Museum, Illinois, USA (2008); Siggraph, USA (eight times 1995 -2007); John Moores, Liverpool (1982, 2002); Bloomberg Space (2005); DAM Gallery, Berlin (2003, 2005, 2009). In 1998 he won the ‘Golden Plotter’ at Computerkunst, Gladbeck, Germany. His ‘Painting the Digital River: How an Artist Learned to Love the Computer’, (2006, Prentice Hall, USA), won a New England Book Show Award. He is Reader in Painting and the Computer at Camberwell.

Anne Morgan Spalter

Anne Morgan Spalter is a graduate of Brown University and The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and created and taught the first fine art digital media courses at both schools. Her book, The Computer in the Visual Arts, has become a standard reference text. Spalter has lectured around the world and in 2010 was invited to speak at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and at her alma mater, RISD. Spalter's traditional and digital work is included in leading contemporary collections in New York, Paris, Dubai, Geneva, Singapore, Boston and Providence, RI. Spalter is also a practicing martial artist and has a black belt in Kenpo Karate.

Murat Germen

Murat Germen is an artist / architect using photography as an expression / research tool. He holds the BS degree in city planning from Technical University of Istanbul and the MArch degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a Fulbright scholar and recipient of the  AIA Henry Adams Gold Medal for academic excellence.  Currently a professor of photography and multimedia design at Sabanci University in Istanbul, he previously worked for various state and private universities including Bilkent, Yeditepe, Istanbul Technical, Yildiz and Bilgi University. He has published articles and photo series on architecture / photography / art / digital design at various magazines and books, and has presented at several seminars, symposia and conferences including SIGGRAPH, ISEA2009, Mutamorphosis, Towards a Science of Consciousness, CAe 2008-9, CAC2, EVA-London’08-‘10, eCAADe, ASCAAD, and exhibited at over forty inter/national (Turkey, USA, Italy, Germany, UK, Mexico, Portugal, Uzbekistan, Greece, Japan, Russia, Iran, India, France, Canada, Bahrain) exhibitions. Germen's works are in the collections Istanbul Modern’s and  Proje4L Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art (Istanbul), in addition to numerous private collections.

Beth Warshafsky

Beth Warshafsky works across multiple media, synthesizing words, movement, photo-images, dance and sound. She is particularly interested the correspondences between visual and kinesthetic form, exploring the amorphous boundaries between physical and digital space; and still and moving mediums. Much of her work focuses on subjective experience, hybrid lyrical forms and visual music. Beth’s artwork has been shown at SIGGRAPH; Imagina, France; Follow the Sound Jazz Festival, Antwerp, Belgium; The Tricky Woman Animation Festival, Vienna, Australia; The BITT Festival, Seul Korea, The 9th Korea Experimental Arts Festival; Thee MadCat Film Festival; The 5th International Digital Art Exhibit and Colloquium in Havana Cuba; and in group shows in New York, ,Connecticut, London, Brazil, Israel, Korea, Ohio and Washington State. Beth teaches at Pratt Institute and NYU.

Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins’ work explores the intersection of art, technology, and community.  In both real and virtual worlds her work is about extending notions of the inter-medial by breaking down the boundaries between various art forms in radical ways. In fact she chooses not to distinguish her work in one area or space. In Second Life, as the avatar Nettrice Beattie, she has created several immersive and artistic installations including a recent one for IBM's Exhibition Space.  Nettrice received a BFA in Computer Graphics, with Honors, from Pratt Institute and an MFA in Art & Technology from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Last year she enrolled in the Digital Media PhD program at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Orhan Cem Çetin

Orhan Cem Çetin was born in Istanbul. A self taught photographer, in 1988, his first solo exhibition entitled Familiaria , consisting of hand colored paper negative prints, attracted considerable attention with its alternative approach to photography. He has participated in numerous solo and group shows ever since, with recognition for his focus on a conceptual and interdisciplinary approach. In 2000, Çetin released a mini-album, Renk’arnasyon, and his book, Bedava Gergedan (Rhino for Free), a “black humor” collection of photography and literature was published in 2004. He recently completed a bilingual photo diary TutKeep , soon to be published as a book. Çetin is also a consultant on photography and photographic technology, and is a faculty member of Istanbul Bilgi University Faculty of Communication as head of the Photography and Video Program. He graduated from the Department of Psychology at Bogazici University, Istanbul and received his MFA degree in Visual Communication Design from Istanbul Bilgi University.

Malcolm Levy

Malcolm Levy is an artist, curator and filmmaker living in Vancouver, Canada. He was the Curator of CODE Live at the 2010 Winter Olympics, where he oversaw the installation of over 40 interactive media artworks and 8 performances across the city. Working primarily in experimental film, new media and documentary, his projects include co-founding Capital Magazine (1999-2005) and the New Forms Festival (1999-present), undertaking projects for CBC Radio 3, and writing or curating for Mobile Muse, and Horizon Zero among others.  Levy’s curatorial, presentation, film and video installation works have been presented in India, Australia, China, Germany and Canada at such organizations and festivals as Sarai, Next Wavie, the INIAF, MUTEK, VIDFEST, the FCMM, Club Transmediale and the AND Festival.  Feature length documentaries include Shambhala (2001-2008) and Walking on Glass (2006-2010).  Current projects include pursuing an MA in Media Studies at the New School in New York, developing a media lab for the grunt gallery in Vancouver, the Goethe Satellite Project, and producing a series of commissioned artworks for urban screens in connection with Mcluhan in Europe 2011.  Malcolm is the co-Founder of the contemporary art group Revised Projects.

Anat Pollack

Anat Pollack is a convergent media artist. She is interested in interactivity through real-time digital processing in the installation setting. Combining old technologies with new, she is interested in engaging memory/nostalgia with the present. Memory in particular is a constant theme in her research as she works to simulate the human experience using digital and mechanical systems. She is specifically interested in the way that our memory functions, and the difference between human and machine information processing. In the past year,she has had a number of exhibitions including a solo show at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, and participated in the juried shows: the VII Salon de Arte Digital at the Centro Pablo de la Torriente Brau in Havana Cuba, and at the Catherine J. Smith Gallery in Boone NC, and presented her work at RSVP Words, Images and the Framing of Social Reality Conference at the New School in Manhattan, NY.