Archive for Sunday, March 17, 1991


March 17, 1991


Edward Mattila moves a cursor across a computer screen and makes music.

Cynthia Schira sets a program on a computerized loom that sews designs far more intricate than was once possible.

And Jeff and Colette Bangert write programs that send a pen off to do its own thing. They don't know quite how it will come out.

Since the 1960s, computers and the arts have intermingled, letting some people expand their abilities in their own media and sending others into a world of intelligent machines, allowing chance or broader programs do the art.

"The ways in which people store and retrieve information is at the heart of all that we call art," said James Gunn, a science fiction writer and professor of English at Kansas University. "Computers allow us to manipulate that information more and more efficiently.''

THE USES for computers in the arts varies between media and artists. But some users have pitched tents in one of two camps: those who use computers as a tool and those who let the computers do the art.

"In one (camp), the computer is being used simply as a tool a very elaborate palette and canvas on which the artist `Paints' by a variety of methods," write Donald Michie and Rory Johnston in the book "The Creative Computer.'' "In the other way of working, the artist supplies a program for the machine to follow, without himself necessarily having any idea what the end-result will be.''

In Lawrence, Schira has been using a computer-controlled loom for her work in fabric art and design. She creates the designs, sometimes using extremely detailed plans showing where each weave will go, then lets the computer guide the loom. The computer allows her far more flexibility in design than a foot-pedal loom.

"WHAT THE computer does is to allow me to have immediately many more combinations of raised and lowered threads," said Schira, a professor of design at KU, where the design department runs a computer lab for its students.

For Mary Anne Jordan, computers give the opportunity to mix, mingle and alter images she borrows from pop-culture magazines and design history.

In one large fabric, Jordan used a Macintosh program to read in images she took from some old magazines. Once the computer had stored them digitally, Jordan could use the program to alter them however she chose. In one, she took the image of a body-builder and covered him with drawings of models wearing wigs.

"I don't use it to disguise my using found images, but I can," she said. "I can superimpose one image on another, as in the tattooed man. That kind of pattern I find interesting.''

LIKE SCHIRA, Jordan said she uses the computer as a more efficient tool. Her work may be getting smaller, because the computer can produce smaller images, but she is still in control of the aesthetic.

"I use the computer as a sketch book," she said. "I keep some of the images stored on a disk, and sometimes I forget which images are in the computer and which aren't.''

In the other arts, computers have mechanized what was once done by hand. Many theaters use computerized lighting boards that store patterns for recall during a performance.

In the music studio, Mattila, a KU professor of music theory and composition, can play a tune on a synthesizer and record it digitally on a computer disk. He then can pop the disk back into the computer and have the synthesizer replay the tune exactly as he stored it.

"THE COMPOSER Milton Babbitt said that he could go around the world with a tape of his compositions under his arm, and everybody would get to hear exactly the same thing," Mattila said.

Mattila said he grew interested in computer-based music in the early 1970s, when the field began to advance under the leadership of Bell Labs. Previously, musicians such as Wendy Carlos had used a Moog analog synthesizer to create the modern, electronic-sounding tunes heard on such recordings as "Switched-on Bach" or the soundtrack to "A Clockwork Orange.''

But computer scientists also developed digital devices that store and reproduce music the same way as computers store data in a binary code. Now computers could duplicate the sounds of instruments and voices as well as a myriad of others.

"WITH THE digital synthesizer you can reproduce a world of sounds and hear them so incredibly fast," he said. "It sounds like it's being done in real time.''

For Mattila and other composers using electronic media, the wait between the composition and the performance is eliminated. They need not wait for Itzhak Perlman or the St. Louis Symphony to rehearse and perform the works; pop in the disk and it plays. Computers also assist students in learning about music; Mattila cited a new program that helps develop the student's musical ear.

Some composers, such as John Cage and Alan Sutcliffe have used random elements in their works that computers can produce. By calling on a computer to call up a random variable, the composer loses some control over how the composition will be performed. Cage also produced poetry using a random list of words that accompany his music.

BUT MATTILA insists he wants to keep hold of the sounds his computers generate, just as any composer using traditional instruments wants to bring some kind of aesthetic order to a composition.

"A lot of values don't change," he said. "The traditional compositional values don't change. The computer shouldn't take away from the traditional forms. A sonata still has three parts. A computer won't undo that form.'' But some artists have allowed computers to come up with their own form.

For example, Jeff and Colette Bangert for years have worked in computer art in ways that differ greatly from either Schira's or Jordan's art.

Jeff Bangert works with computers, and Colette is an artist. Beginning in the late 1960s, Bangert began to work with programs that move pens across paper. Basically, he says, he wanted to teach a computer to draw a line.

WORKING within the parameters of a program, the computer draws lines and shades until, according to its programmed aesthetic sense, the drawing is done. In early programs, Jeff Bangert said, he didn't even know if the pen would stay on the paper.

Neither he nor Colette know quite how it's going to come out, but when it does, it certainly looks like art.

"Sometimes I wonder where the images came from," Jeff Bangert said. "And that's when I'm the most successful.

Sometimes the images can look serene or sometimes they look intense, but often it's something I can't expect.''

Whether the products of the Bangerts' software are actually art is open to debate. According to Michie and Johnston, other artists who worked in a similar vein had their work dismissed as "pencil scratchings."

IS THE creative being the computer or the programmer? And is a person with little or no art training an artist if she or he runs a program and produces drawings?

And with the advent of artificial intelligence, or "intelligent machines," could computers make their own art and emulate human creativity?

Jeff Bangert, who did study art as well as mathematics, doesn't get into that discussion.

"We're not worried about the philosophical implications," he said. "We just do it.''

The computer has had an effect on Colette Bangert, who is an artist. Her most recent hand-made work, she says, has been heavily influenced by computer art.

"In my most recent work, I have a lot of diagonal, scratchy lines," she said. "They're similar to something the computer produced two years ago, and they showed up in my work.''

COMPUTER graphics also have intruded into the world of the arts: Animators used the computer to generate images in cartoons and live-action movies alike, including "Tron" and "The Last Starfighter.'' Jeff Bangert said after a burst of energy in the 1970s and early '80s, computer graphics have stalled over replicating images from reality, particularly in the moving human figure. Computers also can be used for three-dimensional imaging, simulating a real-world design in ways that would serve as a model, according to Michie and Johnston.

As computers come into greater and greater use in society, their influence on the arts is inevitable. But how they're used will ultimately depend on the user.

"Whether computers will ever create great works of art autonomously is hard to say," Johnston and Michie write. "But even if computers only provide a useful augmentation of the human artist's mind, they will have added in an important way to creativity.''

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