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  • The Prelude to the Millennium:The Backstory of Digital Aesthetics
  • Sherry Mayo (bio)

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Figure 1.

Google logo, Leonardo Da Vinci's birthday, digital jpg, April, 4, 2006,


The artist and scientist have been depicted as polar opposites since Michelangelo claimed that Leonardo da Vinci was wasting time with foolish inventions (see figure 1) while his art suffered. However, the artist taking on the role of the researcher has precedent. In the 1960s, Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), led by Bell Labs' engineer Billy Klüver, aided artists such as Robert Rauschenberg in pushing the avant-garde to utilize technology. Sullivan asserts that the time has come to examine art as data and artistic practice as research.1 The digital revolution produced a new artist model for today's avant-garde and has been described as a type of Merlin—a trickster magician.2 Perhaps a more plausible model is the artist-scientist who is creating a paradigmatic aesthetic shift. Digital art, new media, net-art, or computer art are new art forms that have arrived on the art scene. In order to make sense of digital-based artworks, it is necessary to understand both their predecessors and the technology that makes them possible. [End Page 100]

When New Media Was "New"

New media began in the late 1960s with computer-assisted design (CAD) programs that were implemented in building engineering (see figure 2). Computer imaging came from military research but later became a tool of expression in the hands of artists. Simulation and interaction are attributes that differentiate a digital experience from an analog one. The Sputnik (1957) space race and fascination with Star Wars (1977) infused the public imagination with technology as a possible solution to all societal problems.

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Figure 2.

1960s Spheres of Influence.

Reproduction and distribution of audiovisual data differentiated the latter half of the twentieth century from any other time. The advent of photography (see figure 3) and film made significant cultural impact. From the Moviola to cinema and video gaming, the development of image manipulation, real-time interactivity, 3D animation, and immersive simulation environments has been the focus of computer graphics for more than forty years. Since 1969 the Association for Computer Machinery Special Interest Group in Computer Graphics and Interactive Technology (ACM-SIGGRAPH) has held annual conferences focused on combining the research and development of both artists and scientists. These forums have successfully fused C. P. Snow's "two cultures" and fostered interdisciplinary collaborations.3 [End Page 101]

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Figure 3.

Man Running, Edward Muybridge, 1887, photography (public domain)

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Figure 4.

The first color TV by RCA, 1954 (public domain). Case # 27WDF and 28PYB.

E.A.T. began in 1966 when Klüver's passion for film drew him into the art scene.4 He befriended Jean Tinguely and built one of the first kinetic sculptures for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)—Homage, a self-combusting sculpture.5 Robert Rauschenberg met the engineer at the exhibit's opening and enticed him to work on Oracle, an environmental sound sculpture. The apex of these collaborations was 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering. This event was held at the historic 69th Regiment Armory, where Duchamp's futuristic nude once descended its staircase, shocking audiences in 1913. [End Page 102]

In addition to E.A.T., an important forum for arts-technology experimentation was the Howard Wise Gallery in New York City.6 This 57th Street space supported the kinetic art movement of the 1960s and followed its course through the birth of video art. Howard Wise exhibited Nam June Paik and other pioneers incorporating technology. Wise had mounted a 1969 exhibition entitled TV as a Creative Medium (see figure 4). Wise's exhibition was seminal and featured video works by Paik and Wipe-Cycle by Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider. This stack of nine TV monitors confronted the viewers coming into the gallery and repeated their image of surveillance. Marshall McLuhan contributed to the brochure for the show...


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pp. 100-113
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