Artists patch together a new vision on the web

April 30, 1999

Digital technology is remoulding the aesthetic process - but maybe not for the best. Kathryn Jackson reports

Think of quilt-making, and you think of a group of women sitting around a kitchen table, stitching together from humble scraps of cloth a single piece of fabric that is useful and often quite beautiful. Collaborative, democratic and shorn of high-art pretensions, quilt-making could be the very model of the digital art of the future.

At last week's event, "Beyond Art: Digital Culture in the 21st century", sponsored by the humanities computing unit at Oxford University, speakers agreed that digital technology is transforming and in some cases even replacing traditional forms of art.

Whether the artist takes this as a threat or a challenge, "art in the next century will be different from anything we have known before," said Roy Ascott, director of the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts at Gwent College, Newport.

Traditional quiltmaking is reformulated in the "Noon Quilt". Maintained as a website at Nottingham Trent University (http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/quilt/ info.htm), it is an assemblage of patches submitted by writers from all around the world. Together, they form a fabric of noon-time impressions.

The artist Teri Hoskin stitched the patches together. The end result is a collaborative effort that exists only on the computer screen.

"In this new art, the object has lost its supremacy," said Ascott. "The picture frame that contains a painting is replaced by the hyperlink that takes us into new areas. In this process artists simply initiate a process in which the audience participates in the creation of the work."

Poets need no longer work in isolation, with little hope that their poems will see the light of day. There are many websites where poetry is not only published but created, said Chris Meade of the Poetry Society. "With hypertext, one person starts a poem, but other poets add to it. As people link to one another they will link creatively in the writing of a poem."

Digital art does away with the distinction between the amateur and the professional, between the artist and the connoisseur. "Anyone can publish on the internet. There is no need to wait for a publishing house to give your work a stamp of approval," said Meade.

Sean Cubitt, lecturer in screen studies at University College London, said that the internet was a great force for democracy. "The right to be heard is a democratic right, and the right to be heard is nothing without the right to a technological voice."

The journalist Peter York felt that it is now almost too easy to be a designer: "New technology really does change things in the world of style and design. In the old days, a commercial designer working to a deadline had to compromise. He had to make choices up front and he had to have some idea of where he was going before he started." With computer programs that make every possible option immediately available, "there is too much choice. And too much choice leads to bad choice".

But Nigel Morgan, lecturer in creative music technology at Bretton Hall School of Music, complained that music composing programs offer too little choice. In his research on how students compose, he found that MIDI sequencing programs limit the composer's choices to the programmed options, and they force the composer to hear the music only in real time. He believes this inhibits creativity, imagination and reflection. "Composition is essentially an offline, non-real experience. We engage in a process of discovery and detection, trying to remember bits of creative moments."

With colleague John Cook, he has devised software which encourages composers to imagine music before they hear it. Instead of simply editing a sequence of notes, the composer creates a computer program to generate the music. "Programming then becomes part of the creative process itself."

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