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From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics

  • Author(s): Hoy, Meredith Anne
  • Advisor(s): Davis, Whitney
  • Skoller, Jeffrey
  • et al.

From Point to Pixel:

A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics


Meredith Anne Hoy

Doctor of Philosophy in Rhetoric

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Whitney Davis, Co-chair

Professor Jeffrey Skoller, Co-chair

When we say, in response to a still or moving picture, that it has a digital "look" about it, what exactly do we mean? How can the slick, color-saturated photographs of Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky signal digitality, while the flattened, pixelated lanscapes of video games such as Super Mario Brothers convey ostensibly the same characteristic of "being digital," but in a completely different manner? In my dissertation, From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics, I argue for a definition of a "digital method" that can be articulated without reference to the technicalities of contemporary hardware and software. I allow, however, the possibility that this digital method can acquire new characteristics when it is performed by computational technology. I therefore treat the artworks covered in my dissertation as sensuous artifacts that are subject to change based on the constraints and affordances of the tools used in their making. But insofar as it describes a series of technological operations, the word digital often references the tool used to make the art but does not help a viewer/user relate to the art as a sensorially apprehensible artifact. Consequently, I gather together artworks that disclose visible evidence of their digital construction in order to identify the perceptible characteristics of digitally processed artifacts. I foreground not the hidden operations of computers--the intricacies of binary code and programming languages--but rather the surface qualities of digital graphics. While acknowledging that internal processes govern the aesthetic properties of these surfaces, I investigate the extent to which it is possible to encounter digitality at the level of the interface. Taking into account that the sensuous object will be informed by an underlying conceptual and technological framework or genotype, I set out to discover whether certain phenotypic aspects of digitality will be inherently accessible at a phenomenological level.

Much of the best scholarship in media studies has offered cogent analyses of the political, social, and economic formations that emerge alongside digital technologies. These readings of "networked culture" focus on the systems of power/knowledge that arise from the Web 2.0 and a globalized world economy. Although this research proves invaluable to the understanding of a culture shaped by ubiquitous computing, a well-developed methodology for interpreting the role of digital technology in art practice must also situate digital artifacts in a specifically art historical and theoretical context. When do digital artifacts overcome their dubious status as mere demonstrations of technical novelty, and become artworks worthy of serious consideration? What is the importance of digital technology as an artistic medium, and how do affordances and constraints and technical parameters of digital processing influence the sensible configurations of computationally generated artifacts?

Despite its foundation in immaterial electronic pulses, digital technology produces material effects on culture and communication. The assessment of digital images is often based on their "reality quotient"--the degree to which they accurately reproduce the optical and haptic conditions of external world. The fascination in digital cultural studies with virtual reality, second life, and other such practices supports this view, and also leans dangerously towards the notion that progress in art is achieved by producing ever more sophisticated techniques for rendering illusions of spatial depth. This concentration on the immersive capacities of digital graphics runs the risk of assuming a teleological progression in art towards "accurate" spatialization and virtualization. But this is not a tenable model for art historical investigation, given that the evaluation of art objects based on culturally determined signifiers of naturalism is exclusionary of alternate visual models and historical traditions. It is therefore imperative to consider depictions that exhibit visible evidence of digital construction--digital aesthetic characteristics--independently of the virtualizing capability of computational technology. My dissertation examines a subset of digital image-making practices that suppress virtualization in order to examine the structural principles undergirding digital graphics. In parsing these often abstract, highly formalized pictorial strategies, I conclude that they convey a different aesthetic and architectonic sensibility than analog depictions.

Over the course of five chapters, my argument moves between theoretical analysis and case studies of artworks produced both with and without the aid of computers. Chapter One outlines the theoretical models used to differentiate digital and analog properties, and illustrates how and why art historical discourse has accorded value to artworks based on analog principles, such as fineness of color, texture, and line. It argues that discrete, particulate digital artifacts are constructed according to different principles than analog artifacts, which are relatively smooth and continuous with no absolute division between parts. My review of the formal characteristics of digital systems sets the stage for my argument that an observable model of digital facture--a digital method--preexists electronic, binary computers and that this digital process results in a digital aesthetic. Understanding this aesthetic is useful for theorizing the genealogy of contemporary computational graphics. Additionally, it provides for alternate theorizations of artifacts that have not traditionally found a secure place in the artistic canon, and it affords a new interpretive schema with which to examine artists and artworks whose position in the art historical demands renegotiation. In my second chapter, I support the claims of the preceding chapter by evaluating the extent to which the work of several modernist painters, including Paul Cezanne, Georges Seurat, and Paul Klee, exhibits constitutive features of a digital system. I use my findings to argue that understanding these artists' roles as experimenters with a digital method adds a new dimension to the theoretical, aesthetic, and historical significance of their work.

The following two chapters provide comparisons between artists who apply a digital method without electronic computation and artists whose digital aesthetic is computationally driven. Chapter 3 attempts to recuperate the value and relevance of Op-Artist Victor Vasarely. Through an inspection of his writings and his algorithmic painting practices, I trace Vasarely's lifelong goal to develop a programmable visual language, and demonstrate how, without ever touching a computer, he was attempting in his practice to adopt a visual model of a digital system. In the second half of the chapter, I introduce the example of Marius Watz's computationally-generated homage to Vasarely's work in order to ascertain whether the use of a computer alters the visible qualities of Vasarely's plastic language. In Chapter 4, I examine Casey Reas's fraught and often contradictory response to the legacy of conceptual art in programming-based practices. Through a comparison between Reas and Sol LeWitt, I maintain that Reas occupies an oscillatory position with respect to the values traditionally attached to analog aesthetics, such as immediacy and uniqueness/irreproducibility. By mobilizing algorithmically encoded instructions to automate artistic production, Reas reinforces the turn away from the cult of the artist achieved in conceptual art. But at the same time, Reas's fascination with handmadeness and organicism preserves a link to analog aesthetic principles. Finally, my conclusion shifts away from direct comparison between computationally and non-computationally digital art, and instead assays the discursive resonances between Jason Salavon's software-based computational "paintings" and the increasingly widespread use of information visualization as primary mode of mapping the vast amounts of data produced by the mechanisms of the "culture industry".

The works under consideration in my dissertation cohere around questions and problems related to painting. Part of the difficulty in defining "digital art" as a singular medium or genre is that the range of artifacts potentially contained under the rubric of digital art is massive and therefore resistant to canonization. A concentration on painting initially allowed me to refine my analytic method. However, the broader rationale behind this constraint grows out of the fact that the screen-based computational pictorialization analogizes painting. I contend that painting, despite, or perhaps due to its status as a two-dimensional mode of depiction, is deeply concerned with spatial and material architectonics. Painting is invested not only in the problem of how to graphically render volume and depth, but also the dynamic spatial relationship between bodies and concrete objects. Similarly, digital rendering must cope with the question of how to present the relationship between objects and spaces in two, three, or multiple dimensions. My goal is to discover whether the technical parameters of computation affect the way pictures are constructed, the kinds of subjects for which computers have the greatest representational facility, and by extension, the way digital pictures--the graphical index of digital technesis--will ultimately look.

Overall, my dissertation offers a methodology for speaking about and contextualizing digital practices within the history of art and visual culture. While programming literacy is important for many scholars, producers, and users of digital hardware and software, if artifacts made using computational technology remain inaccessible to all viewers except those with a background in programming or engineering, we are faced with an art practice that is technically dexterous but phenomenologically bankrupt. Unless the possibility of translation between two languages is realized, a communicative gap will continue to yawn between art history and "media studies," which makes more urgent than ever the need to grant digital artifacts and processes the possibility of making a significant intervention into and contribution to the artistic canon.

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