ISSUE 21  News & opinion | May 2001 | updated 2/3/03   

  New! Font sale at P22

Just in via email: digital type foundry P22 is selling fonts on floppies (remember those?) for half-price. The limited selection includes fonts based on the handwriting of Cezanne, Escher, Frank Lloyd Wright, Josef Albers, and other oddities like insects & hieroglyphics. Take advantage of this deal before June 30.

Digital art: it's digital, but is it art?
There's a question that floats in and out of focus as I work with, teach, and write about computer-based digital design. Can it, or should it, be considered art?

Some designers bristle at the mere mention of art and design in the same sentence, but I'm not interested in that debate. There's no question in my mind that the distinction is often arbitrary, and depends on the quality of the work itself. Is architecture art? Most of the time we'd say no, but what about the Taj Mahal? The Parthenon? Frank Gehrey's Guggenheim Bilbao?

The fact that major museums (SF MoMA, Walker Center, Whitney) have staged exhibitions of online and/or digital art seem to make the answer obvious. There is already one physical (as opposed to online) museum dedicated to showcasing electronic work: the Beecher Center, part of the Butler Museum of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.

A recent article in the online magazine FEED even described "The beginning of the end of digital art." Maybe we've missed it already?

What makes it "digital", and what makes it "art"? The important distinction is not that a computer was used in the creation of a piece. Even though I create digital prints based on photos manipulated in Photoshop, these are simply existing techniques updated with new technology.

Digital art, in my view, exists first and foremost on the computer. Secondly, it uses the inherent abilities of the computer to involve the user/viewer/player in an interaction. This interaction between person and computer, or more accurately between person and artist through the medium of the computer, is what is unique about digital art. Not moving images (we already have movies and video) or moving images + sound (again, movies and video), or animation or layered images or any of the other things that fall into the broad category of multimedia but are simply computer-aided versions of existing techniques.

Art that is uniquely digital should be interactive: that's the door that the computer opens for us. Of course art that lives on the computer poses serious problems related to technology. What happens to the work when the current technology becomes obsolete? Anyone have a computer that will read 5-1/4" floppy disks?

[read more in "Bits as Art"]

The art/design boundary, if we want to define one, may develop when we discuss usability, or user interaction. Artists may not care, but designers can't afford to develop unusable websites. For example, the overuse of Flash for gratuitous animation on websites got so bad that Macromedia sponsored its own Flash usability competition, and offers usability guidelines on its website.

[Usability tips]

Yet nearly every interesting new development in visual art, music, movies, etc. came about after a few artists broke boundaries with work that was hard to understand, hard to appreciate at first. User-unfriendly, you might say.

So, though I've often complained about bad Flash websites, I have to admit that we'll probably all soon be using techniques developed through all this unrestrained exploration. Hillman Curtis make this point well in his rebuttal to Jakob Nielsen's "Flash is bad" statement.

[Nielsen: Flash is bad]   [Curtis: Nielsen is short-sighted]

So what's the point? I'd say that as designers we need to learn from artists, and when we do our job extremely well we ARE artists. The nature of digital art involves interaction among people using computers, not imitating print or video or movies. Once we figure out how to put these things together and we'll enjoy / participate in a new kind of art. Keep looking around — it's bound to happen.

In the meantime, there are more & more opportunities to showcase interactive work. See new listings under [EDUCATION-Competitions & on-line exhibitions].

Apple on the rise 
Back in January I announced my first-ever venture in the stock market: buying Apple Computer stock. Then, its value was nearly at an all-time low (below 17 per share), and I was counting on the introduction of OS X to boost the stock's value.

The good news is that, for whatever reason (OS X, beginner's luck?), Apple since then has defied the overall NASDAQ trend and risen steadily.

Spring flowersColor it Spring!
The new colors for these pages came from my backyard. Winters in Cleveland can be gray & dreary, but Spring is glorious. The first flowers were nearly all yellow: forsythia & tulips for the most part. They've been followed blues & purples plus a few more yellows. To my little Polaroid sticker camera they look something like this.

-Al Wasco, May 8, 2001


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