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The Treachery of Digital Art
JD Jarvis

In a 1929 painting entitled "The Treachery of Images", Rene Magritte wrote, in careful script, under his precise rendition of a gentleman's tobacco pipe the seemingly obvious yet deeply enigmatic message, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (this is not a pipe). Taken in context with the painting's title the message is clear; images, as well as words, are not the things they represent. On the surface this is a light-hearted reminder of the abstract nature of all artistic representation. At a deeper level we are also presented the opportunity to
consider the illusion behind the very process the human brain has evolved to extract our daily reality from the wordless and meaningless background of experience.

What we call reality is but a highly selected and filtered assortment of sensory
impressions gathered by our mind out of all the random electromagnetic or atmospheric pressure waves awash in an undifferentiated chemical soup. Our brain has evolved as a central processing unit designed to: first, differentiate the things we can sense from within a very narrow band of this vast random ocean of experience then; secondly, attach meaning to this sensory data so that we ultimately experience such everyday things as red or hydrogen sulfide or cold. This construct then provides the context for human experience that for the sake of having nothing else to compare it with becomes our reality. Rotten eggs smell bad to us not because there is such a thing as a bad smell, but rather because we have learned that a particular mixture of airborne chemicals is indicative of bad consequences should we try to ingest the source of the odor. As it turns out red and cold are the same things each resulting from various frequencies and wavelengths of electromagnetic energy. Red is seen in the visible light spectrum by receptors called eyes. Heat and its relativistic doppelganger cold are most often felt by other receptors distributed throughout our bodies. But, through the proper technology, our eyes can be augmented to see temperature gradients as well as so-called visible light. This is what technology does. It expands our senses or it extends our reach. In turn our brain is re-mapped to include the sphere of influence encompassed by the machines with which we interface.

Today it is quite feasible for a visual artist to extend and expand upon Magritte's
observations. With preparation and a bit of programming an electronic cursor can be brought to make appear upon a CRT screen a mark possessing the visual cues of a dark, inky-wet brushstroke. Likewise, a simulation of a calligraphy brush can be used to write below this mark the words, "This is not a brushstroke." Thus demonstrating that with digital tools the "treachery" goes deeper than the illusion of an image or a word, past the meaning of materials, right down to the individual marks that comprise an image itself. It is simply out of habit or expedience that we call this a brushstroke, at all. It is at best a smudge of light as free of material reality as a passing thought; a visual representation of some-thing that can not be seen without the proper technology.

Moreover, this smudge of light can appear simultaneously on screens throughout the
world. Turn any one of these monitors off and the mark still exists. But, where and in what physical form does this mark reside? When an art making system requires
reproduction and reconstruction across physical states in order to simply view the
changes the artist is making within an ongoing composition, then what constitutes the original work of art? If our daily reality is simply electrical impulses within our brain, then isn't a digital artist working with the same substrate as comprise our very dreams? When art dematerializes what is lost… what is gained?

As I write these thoughts I am listening to a large section of violins. But, I know from the composer's own working methods and a slightly airy quality that this sound is not actually violins. Do I mourn the loss of wood and catgut? Or, do I enjoy the music? Now there is a sound much like a cymbal, now that cymbal becomes the sound of oceans rushing upon a beach, and as it modulates into the sum of a myriad of phase differentials the ocean/cymbal seems to orbit around the room. Must I turn a deaf ear to this remarkable sound because a traditional musical instrument could not have produced it?

After a period of sampling and pasting over a hot Midi, the composer assigned this sound to one simple digital keystroke on his electronic keyboard. Was this marvelous sound accomplished with too much ease, so that I must not listen? Has the music been devalued by including sounds that nature itself had not yet fashioned? Fortunately for music, which has a long tradition of encompassing exotic instruments and sounds into compositions; the advent of digital production techniques is not a major issue. Perhaps, because music is so ethereal in the first place; the digitization, appropriation and synthesis of novel sounds are seen as artistry and not tomfoolery. So, why are the same techniques, when applied to visual art, viewed with a good deal more suspicion?

Perhaps this is because we still, even after recognizing the basic treachery of imagery as pointed out by Magritte, expect our artwork to be somewhat material. Seeing implies believing in, if nothing else, the object-hood of what our eyes tell us is there. But, what if it is not there? What if there is no it, at all? Is there still Art, there? This quandary lingers even after a digital file is materialized in a form we commonly call a print. And here again there is treachery as words fail to fully explain this digital artifact.

There was a time when a print was made by transferring an image from one surface to another through physical contact. This contact left an imprint of the matrix upon a substrate. Out of laziness or the desire to make photography less threatening and more acceptable to the art world the term print was stretched to cover a chemical process in which a precipitant is attracted to certain areas of a specifically prepared surface. Little or no physical contact was required and the artist worked through the proxy of a new and advancing technology to develop an image. The advent of digital tools stretches our understanding of the word print nearly to a breaking point. And, while the results are a repeatable physical manifestation of the encoded composition, there is, as with
photography, no imprint of a matrix, no physical contact of materials. There is only light which, while making everything visible, remains in itself invisible. And, there is electricity, which performs work in many of our contraptions but remains, in essence, immaterial. There are, however, the many necessary and specialized tools of a new, advancing technology and, on the materials side, unique substrates and inks.

An inkjet print can best be described as a micro-airbrush rendering wherein an image is misted onto a prepared surface through multiple nozzles that are often no larger in size than a human hair. Each linear pass of the airbrush module sprays ink onto the printable surface. The image being built up on a material substrate in this manner resides on the computer's hard drive and is actually serving as the coded source for instructions controlling the inkjet imaging mechanism. This binary file is also seen on computer monitors similarly controlled by encoded scanning instructions. The artist composes or shapes these instructions through the manipulation of various hardware tools which are interactive devices that feedback via a graphic representation in real-time the affect that these actions have toward changing the binary code.

Digital software are the instruction codes that control how the input of tools and artist's actions will structure and re-arrange the data of the file being created. Each input device or output mechanism is, in turn, controlled by an interface between raw digital data and its own operating parameters. This set of instructions is called a driver. And, despite all the control being exerted on the tools the artist never touches the material of which the art is made. Everything is executed through the proxy of technology. And yet, we call these actions brushstrokes, we cut & paste, we draw, bring things into composition and then print. Whether out of laziness or an attempt to garner some familiarity and ease with this advancing technology it is arguable if recycling old terminology to explain something totally new and different is of real service to art made digitally. The treachery the terminology we employ in our desire to cling to tradition may be hiding this new medium's true essence and obscuring a deeper appreciation of its power.

Along with many of the aesthetic experiences offered by digital tools the notion of virtual reality receives a lot of attention. Humans are intrigued by the realization that a high degree of simulated input fed into our senses results in a form of perceived reality. Studies show that often dreams or misperceptions can be confused with reality. But, in truth, art like everything else, like Magritte's non-pipe, like the color blue, like the smell
of roses is there because we think it there. From the first mark to the finished piece, digital art embraces illusion, simulation, mimicry, and facsimile. Thereby reframing the"treachery of imagery" into the broader context of the treachery through which our mind cobbles our everyday existence from limited perceptions and word associations.

Or, perhaps there is no treachery after all. Since art composed by digital means remains close to its elemental state of pure, non-material thought, the treachery is less pronounced because the notion of illusion is now totally embraced, evident and xposed. How can there be treachery where there is total transparency? If we understand and deeply appreciate that digital art begins with illusion and ends in facsimile where is Magritte's treachery?

A mark is a mark no matter how it is made. What that mark is made of… may be immaterial. With a full appreciation of our mind's ability and our own human illingness to accept a well-constructed fantasy for a reality, it makes little difference if that mark is on paper or suspended inside a dream or registered as a fluctuation in the magnetic field of a hard drive. Ultimately that mark is there because, like everything else, we think it there. Through its process and presentation, digital art simply does a better job of representing or reminding us of this ultimate treachery.

JD Jarvis


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