Digital space, photography and aesthetics.

Werner Hammerstingl ©1999

This topic covers a very broad terrain and a fairly (by today's standards) long period of recent and contemporary history.

Precursory developments
In 1425, Filippo Brunelleschi revolutionised painting, developing a systematic process to construct images with three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional plane. Brunelleschi used mirrors and a caliper to measure the magnitudes of images to be represented on two-dimensional canvas.

Following his breakthrough, Leone Battista Alberti, Albrecht Duerer, and others developed different techniques that also enabled the systematic mapping of the three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional plane. The techniques used manual or optical methods to trace objects to points on a canvas while preserving the relationships that existed between them—distance, depth, and so on. These new techniques were rapidly embraced by Renaissance artists throughout Europe. They made possible a sense of depth and perspective that was startling at the time, though today we take it for granted. As a result of Brunelleschi's breakthrough, painting was able to reflect an entirely new sense of realism.

Two hundred years later, the French philosopher Rene Descartes, using algebra and a coordinate system, developed an abstract geometry that also enabled the description of three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional plane. With Descartes's geometry, there was no need for tools or, in fact, for reference to the real world. His method defined abstract objects in an imaginary world of a selected coordinate space, and gave equations to calculate points of intersection, perspective, and depth algebraically.

The key advantage of Descartes's system is that it deals with abstract constructions and requires no reference to the physical world.

In fact, his system can be applied equally to representations of the real world and imaginary worlds.

This abstract method for representing objects and their relationships in the three-dimensional world forms the foundation for graphics imaging on computers. And, as in the traditions that dominated for centuries following Brunelleschi's breakthrough, the goal of most graphics imaging on computers today is realism: generating what are described as "photorealistic" images, that is, images that appear as realistic as the highest - quality photographic representations of the world.

From analogue abstraction to digital simulation Computer scientists, engineers, and technicians are striving to create convincing simulations of our world. They use a variety of mathematical formulas and algorithms to describe the laws of physics and optics. They have also developed techniques for dealing with perspective, movement, the complex effects of the position of light sources, light reflections and shadows, and transparency. Classic examples of such systems are Photoshop or a 3d rendering system such as Infini-D.Despite the "user friendly qualities" that these software packages exude, behind this friendly facade is nothing but code and algorythms. What we see is the interface.

All of these digital tools and techniques can be used to create new visual and sonic worlds with computers. At the same time that computers have opened up explorations of new visual languages, computers have also created a new medium for creative expression: virtual worlds.

The interface and virtuality
The goal of being as realistic as the highest-quality photographic representations of the world is particularly interesting when the source of the image is not the real world, but rather a world synthesized by a computer. Computers can be used to create visual simulations that model reality. These are virtual worlds: worlds that appear like the real world, but which, in fact, are not based on anything that exists in the tangible, physical world. Objects in these worlds only exist within the computer and are viewed on a graphics display as three-dimensional simulations of real world objects. Objects in this virtual world are only surface; they have no weight or mass.

Computer graphics are being applied in many areas outside art - including engineering design , systems design , scientific and medical research and practice, flight simulation, and the study and observation of atmospheres, planetary systems, the weather and the evolution of solar systems.

Virtual Reality
A new area of research emerged in the 1980s: the development of virtual realities. The objective is to make the entire experience of a simulation of reality seem completely real. If the objective of much of today's work in graphics is to create images that appear to have a quality indistinguishable from a photograph of the real world, the objective of work in virtual reality is to create experiences that have a quality indistinguishable from an experience of the real world. Virtual reality is the ultimate simulation.

Again, virtual reality does not exist in three-dimensional space or physical form. "There's no there there." It only exists in some hard to-define place somewhere inside the computer — in what is called cyberspace, a term coined in 1983 by the science fiction writer William Gibson.
Gibson also wryly defines this Cyberspace as "the place where banks keep your money"

In the first experiments, a person wears a set of goggles that contain two tiny television sets, one for each eye. The goggles completely block any view other than the images on the television screens, presenting a wraparound, three-dimensional scene. The goggles have a magnetic sensor attached that is monitored by a small device tracking the precise position at all times. The goggles are attached by cables to a computer that creates the images projected on the two tiny televisions.

The images on the television screens are of a room. As you move forward, the images show that you are approaching the wall. You see a ball. You move your hand out to pick it up.

On your hand you have a black spandex glove that is attached by cables to a computer. The glove is covered with optic fibers equipped with sensors at each joint of each finger that can sense your hand and finger movements, including the bending of each joint of each finger. It sends this information back to the computer so that it can track precisely what your hand is doing. It's possible that you are wearing a complete body suit so that all of your movements can be monitored and tracked by the computer.

You grasp the ball. As you move your arm back, the ball moves with your hand. You pull your arm back behind your head and then throw the ball. You release the ball. It flies forward, hits the wall, and you hear a thwack sound.

You are completely immersed in another world. It is not a picture that is being viewed, but rather it is a place. This world is not being observed but experienced. You sense that you are in it.

Many people will be able to explore a virtual world together. William Gibson, in his science fiction thriller Neuromancer, has described a future in which people plug into a virtual world that networks people and computers across the universe:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation.... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights....

Cyberspace is a completely virtual world that is seen and experienced as if it were real. Individuals connect into this world with jacks that attach directly into the human neural system. They travel through this world and interact with other people in the form of virtual people, with computers that manifest themselves as virtual people, with data that take visual form in this virtual world.

In the prototype virtual reality systems of today, the images, sounds, and even tactile and other experiences are simulated and played for you so that your senses experience what would be experienced if what was before you were in fact real. This becomes a rather complicated and cumbersome process, especially when one considers touch, taste, and smell. In Gibson's future world of cyberspace, you connect your neural system into a system that bypasses your sense mechanisms—eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin—and directly stimulates your neural system to create an experience.

It is conceivable that, having developed the technology that enables you to plug into cyberspace and directly experience another reality, it will also be possible to record your experience. Given such a recording, someone else can later connect into the system, play it back, and experience your experience directly, as if it were their own. This idea was the subject of Brainstorm, a film from 1983, the same year Gibson completed Neuromancer. In Brainstorm, experiences of flying jets, riding a roller coaster, and viewing Rio de Janeiro from above are seen as marketable products with applications in entertainment, education, and travel.

The new aesthetic:
Cyberspace is full of retro references. Digital artists are drawn to the past in terms of their references, their palate. their mood etc. Discarded images and artefacts are re-invigorated after they're scanned, layered, re-colourised and combined in new ways. Scanning and sampling are the digital equivalents of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. No fixed address, hunting for and collecting resources during random explorations. Finding, liking (judging the usefulness) collecting/discarding fragments of memes, images, sounds from the previous times. Unlike the farmers who plant an idea and work it until it flowers to then harvest it and commodity it.

You can see these metaphors in practice. Digital artists who make work by sampling and re-quoting earlier visions build their images like visual shanty-towns. They bring together scraps of cultural debris and integrate these scraps in a form which accommodates a particular aesthetic desire or strategy. Most digital art is "bitsy" rather than "whole". Much, though not all digital art makes liberal use of metaphors which are antithetical to the digital environment. Stains, signs of wear insufficient light , patches and holes, torn edges and a predominance of grunge over gloss are key elements in much of today's digital art. There is a quality of nostalgia in cyberculture which is romantic in the extreme. As a culture it wants to make the future, but is locked into a repetition of metaphor from the past just like Ridley Scott's Bladerunner.

Digital imaging and digital photography
There are people who use these terms as if they were interchangeable. The structural differences between these two mediums become most apparent when we note that you do need a camera for digital photography whereas digital imaging has no such requirement.

the idea of Hypertext appears anarchistic in the sense of unstructured chaos, it appears as though there is no leadership, no structure to guide our experience. This is certainly a state that seems true on first experience. However, with familiarity, Hypertext is no longer a concept that symbolises total random as some structure is involved in all hypertextual experience.

Digital photography and digital imaging are entry level experiences and processes in an evolution which, in my opinion, is in the Palaeolithic stage of evolution. Some dinosaurs will soon become extinct, other species and survival mechanisms will triumph only so the, in some distant future will themselves become useless in a world where change is the only certainty.