Evanescent Realities: Works and Ideas on Electronic Art

			Carlos Fadon Vicente


The author introduces his production and practice in digital imaging, multimedia and telecommunications. He discusses the aesthetics and conceptual aspects of his work in relation to Brazilian cultural and historical contexts. The ideas that guide this work are exposed in terms of the relationship between production and reflection and the fusion between experimentation and expression.

Historical and Cultural Contexts

Electronic art, like any other art form, cannot be examined outside its historical and cultural context. This reality conditions not only the artist, the availability of resources and the impact of the work, but it is reflected, in the end, in the way the work also alters its own context. Even though electronic art is, in general, opposed to the machinations of the commercial art circ;uit, it risks, on the cusp of the twenty-first century, being swallowed up by the mega-communication industry, gradually losing its power of social and cultural transformation and eventually being converted into sheer spectacle.

The Brazilian cultural and historical panorama is particularly complex and marked by various fundamental contrasts [1]. Brazil is a relatively new country, with multifaceted traditions reflecting cultural processes of migration, miscegenation and acculturation [2]. Permeable to external influences and prone to syncretism, Brazilian society is, however, weakened by a deficient educational system, a poor notion of citizenship and a disregard for history and national memory. Viewed from the outside, Brazilian culture is often a victim of simplistic or ethnocentric points of view, which are distorted both because of their distance from the complexity of what they try to represent and because they focus attention on what is perceived as the "exotic." Accomplishments and inventions are downplayed or even ignored. Social and cultural aspects are often generalized and stereotyped with expressions such as "Brazil---country of the future" and "Banana Republic" or defined in terms of soccer, Carnaval and nature (the Amazon jungle, the rain forest) or even in terms of violence, corruption and misery. Obviously, it is difficult to touch upon, let alone analyze, a culture, and it is particularly difficult to describe the multiple and complex reality of Brazil. We can say, for example, that we are as far away from Europe as Europe is from us. This distance has shaped historical perspectives and cultural views on both sides of the Atlantic [3].

For some time in the Brazilian art world, there has been a certain discomfort with technically produced images, specifically with the electronic/digital image, which is in general segregated from other artistic expressions. For instance, the important inventions of Hercules Florence, a Franco-Brazilian pioneer in photography, are for the most part ignored both inside and outside the country [4]. Another example of this historical neglect is the inattention paid to the work of another pioneer, Waldemar Cordeiro [5]. The difficult absorption of video as a form of expression, or the false opposition between cinema and video, is also part of the same problem. Television has had a strong hegemonic and homogenizing presence upon Brazilian culture, which is also controversial. As in other countries, the acceptance of electronic media in the arts is slow among critics and historians [6]. Works of electronic art are viewed by most of them as less important or are presented as extensions of technical shows. They are often perceived as being geared to computer initiates and are covered in the computer or variety columns of newspapers. Two complementary views remain---the cult and the mystification of technology as an end in itself, and the technophobic demonization of technology.

In Brazil, the utilization of contemporary technological resources in the arts has suffered from ill-planned governmental directives that became industrial, technological and informational policies. The result of these combined policies---in general, the fruit of self-serving interests masquerading as "nationalism"---was the control of information to the detriment of society. This tendency (society's submission to ideological control) has indirectly affected the generation of knowledge and distribution of wealth [7]. Some examples follow.

  • In the early 1970s the authoritarian military government issued laws restricting importation of computer-related material (purportedly aimed at protecting the domestic computer industry). These trade restrictions lasted almost 20 years, sorely restricting access to software and hardware, limiting available options and, at great cost, causing consumers to rely upon the black market and smugglers. Furthermore, these trade restrictions hurt popular access to computers, the development of public and private education, work relations in general and public administration in particular.

  • Throughout recent decades the state telecommunications monopoly has found itself in crisis, unable to update its services and handle public demand. Expansion has become difficult, limiting democratization of the means of communication.

  • In the area of radio and television, channel concessions are controlled by the federal government under precarious conditions. Concessions are subject to bogus pressure by political, economic or religious groups, in detriment to the public interest.

  • The PAL-M (Phase Alternating Line-Modified) color television system adopted as the standard in Brazil is unique to the country. This reflects an insular vision and makes the emission and reception of programs more difficult while also increasing production costs.

Given the needs in basic sectors such as education, sanitation and public health, investment in electronic art research in Brazil has had a low priority. In spite of needs typical of developing nations, the production and growth of this field is justified not only for its use as personal expression. Beyond the use of new media in the communications industry, electronic art contributes to assert a minimum level of autonomy and cultural identity in the country.

Genesis of My Works

My work results from the merging of various interests and experiences, leaning toward the future through analysis and experimentation. I acquired degrees in both civil engineering (1968) and visual arts (1982) at the University of São Paulo, and I have been working as a self-taught photographer since 1975 [8]. From the beginning I have worked on projects developed in series, starting with photographic essays that expand the meanings of each individual photograph. I have established a methodology according to need, exploring relationships between form, image and expression. My photographic essays are founded on the notion of the image set, which goes beyond the individual and isolated photograph per se. Among these essays are TVe (1975) (Fig. 1), an exploration of the medium of television, Outdoor Mulher (Billboard Woman) [9] (1979-present), which studies another predominantly photographic medium: street posters; Refletir (Reflecting) [10] (1980), which explores visual relations; and Avenida Paulista (Paulista Avenue) [11] (1983--present), a work about urban scenes and their transformations.

My work in photography continues to be connected to my activities in electronic art as I explore the conceptual interrelations between photography and electronics [12]. An example of this interdependence is Medium (1991--present), a photographic essay that probes, in particular, the dialogues between chemistry and electronics as image matrices. The work incorporates an interpretation of a televised image, emphasizing its color, energy, structure and virtuality while simultaneously establishing a discourse on materiality and representation. The resulting images in Medium are photographic constructions made from multiple exposures in the same frame. The primary source of these images is unsynchronized television signals that incorporate randomness as a result of the different transmissions that might be present along with interference. A consequence of this process is that the photographs are marked by an unpredictability that connects to the Jungian concept of synchronicity [13] (Fig. 2).

(Fig. 2)

With the goal of systematizing my work in electronic art, which was poetically born of the synergy between art and technology, I established a long-term interdisciplinary project called ARTTE (from art and technology). This is a study of both aesthetic and conceptual issues relative to the planning, realization, perception and dissemination of electronic art. These issues have arisen in connection with my digital imaging, multimedia and telecommunications works since 1985. I understand the relationship between art and technique as complementary and interdependent, as opposed to exclusionary and oppositional.

Working as an artist and independent researcher with practically no technical means of my own (my first computer was acquired in 1996), I have been systematically going to a variety of sources to obtain the necessary technological resources. This has been done through the aid and assistance of professionals, companies, organizations, scholarships and research grants. As a consequence, I have been able to create works only intermittently, and have been occasionally forced to sacrifice resources such as two-dimensional (2D) animation, networking and open databases. In this scenario of scarcity, my priorities have been to keep my production cohesive. My strategy has been to match the resources to the ideas and the ideas to the resources. The use of relatively sophisticated resources, however, has always been less relevant than the emphasis on concepts.

My first line of work in electronic art was exploring new possibilities for image making with computer-generated images. The motivation for this work dates to the late 1970s, but I was unable to undertake it until 1985 through an association with the company Palette Imagem Eletrônica [14]. My second line of work---interactive experiments in communications---aimed at new cultural arrangements. It began in 1987 through the efforts of my friend and colleague Paulo Laurentiz [15]. A third line of work, geared towards the association of interactivity with dialogues and audiovisual material, began in 1994 with multimedia works for CD-ROM (compact disc--read-only memory). Although distinct, these directions are united by a personal mythology woven of creative thought and reality.

Works in Digital Imaging

Digital imaging can be defined as a system of construction and manipulation of images mediated by a specific technological apparatus. I prefer using the word "system" as opposed to "tool" so as to underline the many functions and hierarchies written into the means of production. The term "construction" encompasses the elaboration not only of the basic elements of design, such as line and color, but also of fragments taken from other visual sources. These operations are made manually in electronic/virtual space through particular interfaces and a number of procedures. "Manipulation" points toward more complex forms of construction such as re-creation, collage and montage. These operations emphasize the representation of representation frequent in my images (for instance, when I manipulate and combine scanned images of photographs or paintings).

Every combination of hardware and software defines the operational possibilities for the realization of images. These restrictions also hold from an aesthetic point of view, but in a more subtle manner, presenting boundaries for the creation of images at times borrowed from traditional media. In other words, a model is always present and, consequently, an ideology is present as well; or, rather, every way of doing something contains a way of thinking. I believe that the knowledge of these working conditions is a prerequisite for any creative attempt with digital imaging as visual expression. Therefore it is essential for one to adopt a speculative and nonconformist attitude.

My work emphasizes four aspects of digital imaging:

1. Images can be created with synthesized elements and/or elements appropriated from other media, especially photography, painting and drawing. Within the digital and algorithmic base of the system, a hybrid and mutant plasticity is incorporated.

2. The intrinsic nature of the medium, which lends itself to the creation of multiple variations, combinations and recombinations of images, defines the process of creation-production as a continuum.

3. The potential for recycling gives room for the configuration of images in open sets. This concept, borrowed from mathematics, permits at any moment a linking of microthemes---through addition or subtraction of images---while still maintaining the conceptual unity.

4. The incorporation of chance operations in the generation of images breaks away from the repetition and foreseeable results commonly attributed to and expected of machines. This method raises the computer to the position of co-author.

In most of my digital work, I have used systems for producing fixed, 2D images. Because of the difficulty museums and galleries have faced in acquiring computer equipment, the only possible means of presentation for these works has been in a non-electronic form. As a solution, I have utilized photographic reproduction---first straight from the monitor and later via film recorders. Another route I explored was the production of works on paper by means of a color printer. Only recently, with the popularization of the CD-ROM, has it been possible to conceive projects with the appropriate electronic display.

With the exception of a small three-dimensional (3D) modeling and animation piece (Rotator, 1992), my works are made up of fixed images. They have also been realized as essays, an approximation inherited from my photographic activity. In the following paragraphs I list and discuss these digital works.


(Fig. 3)

Passagem (Passage) (1986) was the electronic re-creation of selected images from my earlier photographic essay Avenida Paulista, based on visible and non-visible photographic elements (Fig. 3). By "non-visible elements" I mean subjective components of the photographic image that are not visually present in the picture but are created by the author or the viewer based on his or her own cultural references. This re-creation preserved some original photographic elements while simultaneously transforming, adding and erasing other visual elements. My first electronic work, Passagem had a dual objective: to study the nature and boundaries of the photographic image and to examine the possibilities and elements of digital imaging as a means of expression. It was produced with the collaboration of Palette Imagem Eletrônica and premiered at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 1986.


				(Fig. 4)

Alfa (1988) (Fig. 4) proposed a new plastic configuration having as a base the re-creation and combination of elements and ideas taken from pictorial and photographic representations. Using visual operations of quotation and collage, Alfa relied upon forms and meanings associated with the original images---photographs, drawings and paintings. This second essay was also completed with the collaboration of Palette Imagem Eletrônica. I utilized my own photographs as well as well-known works of artists such as Botticelli, Cézanne and da Vinci, among others.

These two inaugural essays---Passagem and Alfa---focused primarily on the establishment of a basic repertoire connected to the nature, plasticity and virtuality of digital imaging. The next three essays---Cahiers, Vectors and Scherzo---leaned more toward problems related to visual dialogues and interrelations among images. With the aid of a Brazilian government grant [16], they were done at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I studied in the late 1980s.

(Fig. 5)

Cahiers (1988--1989) (Fig. 5) is a collection of artist's books rendered directly on continuous-form computer printer paper, which itself became a constructive element of the work. This type of paper offers a book-like structure that can be read from left to right or from right to left, according to either Eastern or Western reading orientation. This work explored pixels and colors as the basic graphic elements of digital imaging. It utilized a system with low-resolution output capability and a reduced number of colors. Each book followed a distinct visual and narrative concept, utilizing elements synthesized and/or digitized via the video camera. For the production of more complex images, I printed multiple pictures on the same surface. Some elements were generated by chance, foreshadowing a pivotal point in my next development---Vectors.


				(Fig. 6)

Vectors (1989--1990) (Fig. 6) is a series of interactive images produced directly on paper, with the incorporation of random processes due to glitches in equipment and/or programs. As a consequence of the method, the images created were unique, contradicting all expectations of predictability and repetition normally associated with computers. Vectors placed the printer at the center of production. The printer was used less as a copying device and more as a collaborator, as I explored the translation of the electronic digital image---intangible by nature---to a tangible form. Symbologies of different origins constituted the images---a web of codes, lexicons, symbols and figures---creating visual dialogues between languages and relations between different systems of knowledge. Every work was the result of multiple printing runs. This process approximated the work to palimpsests and metaphorically echoed the production of microprocessors.


				(Fig. 7)

Scherzo (1989--1990) (Fig. 7) is a group of images emphasizing the combination and re-combination of elements from both the concrete and virtual worlds. These visual operations apply equally to the construction of the images and to the articulation of the images as a group, underlining circ;ularity as an important quality of this visual discourse. The references used in its production consist of synthesized elements, including fractals; photographs taken mostly from my essays Places and Placesx; and iconographic reproductions from both ancient and contemporary cultures [17].


	      (Fig. 8)

Vestiges (1993--present) (Fig. 8) recycles and expands conceptual issues and images from earlier essays such as Vectors and Scherzo. Among the ideas explored thus far are the apparent tridimensionality of flat images and the bidimensionality of volumes, as well as the establishment of groups of images organized according to a circ;ular narrative. While I was in the process of retrieving old digital files, some incidents occurred: effects of age and the environment on the diskettes storing the information, coupled with differences between versions of programs, altered the original images. I absorbed these changes into the creation-production continuum, incorporating the distorted fragments they produced into the new work.

The Opus project (1996--present) started in the beginning of 1996 and is still in progress at the time of writing. It aims at developing interactive digital imaging in partnership with a high-end computer. Guided by random processes, this participation has resulted thus far from the coupling of internal information with external information fed to the computer. No attempts have been made to exclude the presence of chance in the form of human, program or equipment error. The Opus project was conceived in 1990 as an offspring of Vectors, intended in essence to promote interaction between the intuitive and logical qualities of the human being and the logical parameters of the computer. The project resulted thus far in three operational variants: Opus (images on paper) and Hermes and Chaboo (electronic images). Opus was funded by a Vitae Art Fellowship (Vitae is a private Brazilian institution funding social, cultural and educational programs). Special programs were developed for this project under the direction of Carlos Freitas.

Multimedia Works

The concepts of interactivity and virtuality bring together new formulations for contemporary thought in terms of accessibility, time-space relations and the reorganization of cultural values. Multimedia works affect and modify not only the role of the spectator, changing it from that of "observer" to that of "navigator," but also the notion of the artwork itself. As an "open work," art becomes dependent upon viewer's attitudes and cultural references---their expectations, experiences and knowledge. The poetic quality of the work resides in the trajectories chosen and the perception of multiple links to a greater degree than it does in isolated elements, be they images or sounds.

In 1994, I created and directed my first body of interactive multimedia works, with music by Akira Ueno, Andre Marquetti and Paulo Tatit. Expanding on my previous experience with conventional audiovisuals, these works were later collectively entitled Conjunto Oito (Set of Eight) and included the following: Labirintosp, Medium, Passagem-Alfa, Passo Doble, São Polaroides, Scherzo-Vestiges, Trilhas and Urbi et Arti. Every one of these individual works followed an audiovisual concept and a distinct navigational solution. For instance, in Passo Doble the navigation was conducted by the movement of the image on the screen; in São Polaroides the navigation was conducted by the sound track; in Urbi et Arti a virtual typewriter served as a means of communication between navigators. Photographs, digital images and drawings borrowed from different contexts were used in the production of these works. Edited versions were first published on a CD-ROM, Arte Cidade/A Cidade e seus Fluxos (City Art/The City in Flux), which also included works by other Brazilian artists [18]
(Fig. 9).

(Fig. 9)

Telecommunications Works

Telearte (teleart) is a term I use to refer to artistic manifestations via telecommunications systems [19]. Characterized by interactivity, my projects in this area have aimed to explore intercommunication and cultural interrelations. Developed around the notion of experimentation as a form of expression, my telecommunications pieces have expanded on some of my previous works, establishing new cultural arrangements. They have assumed the form of events, existing as time-space telematic processes. These telematic events are different in nature from conventional works of art, installations or performances. They survive as fragments in the memory of their participants or in some form of documentation.

In teleart, traditional definitions of both artist and public take on new features. The artist's creation refers to the project's aesthetic conception and technical organization. The making of the work and the production of its meanings is a process often "distributed" [20] or shared by the project's participants, who work in a collaborative fashion. The traditional definition of the public becomes an empty concept when the emphasis is on interactivity, as viewers either become participants (teleart makers) or are already involved in the making of the work as special observers (critics, theoreticians, etc.) or technicians (hardware and/or software support). These concepts, when connected to others such as virtuality and telepresence, define works as adaptable, permeable and multifaceted creations that privilege process over product.

A teleart project defines the boundaries of the work prior to its production. The aesthetic conception, for instance, comprises definitions of the communication flux [21], the mode of operation and closure, the nature and quantity of the work, the number and sequence of the interactions and, naturally, the theme of the event. The technical organization encompasses the network definition, communication devices, equipment, programs, protocols, transmission standards, information formats, dates, times and test plans. The course of an event is, to a certain degree, unpredictable, absorbing both the playful behavior of the participants and the eventual technical glitches and delays, all of which contribute to the dynamic nature of teleart.

My telecommunications works can be organized according to different degrees of involvement, ranging from participation in events and group initiatives to the formulation of projects. In my experience, the most viable projects have generally been the ones using relatively simple, inexpensive operational systems: videotex [22], slow-scan television and fax. Only recently have I had access to telematic networks.


			  (Fig. 10)

One side of my work in telecommunications has involved participation in events organized in different parts of the world by either individuals or groups with diverse proposals. These include the fax-system projects Earth Summit Fax (U.S.A., 1992), F'AXis' 93, F'AXis '94 and Megaliths & Office Machines (1996), by Lilian A. Bell; Elasticfax (Brazil, 1991) and Elasticfax 2 (U.S.A., 1994), by Eduardo Kac; and City Portraits (France, 1990) and Patchwork (France, 1992), by Isabelle Millet and the Art Réseaux group, coordinated by Karen O'Rourke (Fig. 10). The other side involves the conception and organization of group telecommunications events. In 1989, the Three-City Link brought together artists in Boston (led by Dana Moser), Chicago (organized by Eduardo Kac and me) and Pittsburgh (the DAX [Digital Art Exchange] Group). A slow-scan television system connected to a three-way telephone conference call permitted the objectives of the project to be met. These were to share the exhibition and interaction of images, generating a visual reflection upon the relations between urban space and telematic space. EarthDay/Impromptu (1990) was an event organized collaboratively from Chicago. It included artists Irene Faiguenboim and Eduardo Kac (who were both in Chicago along with me) and Bruce Breland of the DAX Group of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, among other artists in different American cities and various countries (Australia, Austria, Brazil, Israel, Portugal, England, France and Canada). All participating artists worked together in an improvised creation and ecological celebration. In EarthDay/Impromptu, both fax machines and slow-scan television were used for the generation and transmission of images [23].

Some of my telecommunications projects were conceived to be transmitted and received as more finished products. In these cases, the interaction could unfold as a response to the work and not as its continuation or re-elaboration. These works provided room for new manifestations---such as another work created as response or commentary---that continued to be mediated by telecommunications systems. In this category, I will offer two examples. The first is SSTV 1 [24] (1987), which utilized slow-scan television. In this work, letters generated by means of a special feature of the video camera were superimposed upon the video image of a typewriter, creating an inter-apparatus dialogue. The second is Dupla Face (Double Face) (1988), which was generated in videotex. At the time, this work was available to the public via a videotex service of the local telephone company (Telecomunicações de São Paulo SA). Both works were done with the support of the then Instituto de Pesquisa em Arte e Tecnologia (Art and Technology Research Institute), a private association of artists and theoreticians founded in São Paulo in 1987, which closed a few years later.

(Fig. 11)

The continuity and fluidity of telematic space points to the notion of circ;ularity and to the concept of a loop. A work is born, circ;ulates, lives and is eventually closed, having been elaborated and re-elaborated in every node of the network. This concept was explored by two of my projects, the first geared toward cultural interrelations and the second toward cultural intercommunications. Natureza Morta---Ao Vivo/Still Life---Alive, one of my first works, occurred in 1988 as part of the event "Intercities: São Paulo/Pittsburgh" [25]. It readdressed the traditional artistic genre of the still life, employing a new medium: a slow-scan television system connected to regular telephone lines. Basically, an image (a still life) generated in São Paulo was transmitted to Pittsburgh, where it was used as a background for a new image (another still life), which was sent back to São Paulo, and so on (Fig. 11). The second project is Telage [26], one of my more recent works, which was presented in conjunction with the event "Arte Cidade/A Cidade e seus Fluxos" (City Art/The City in Flux). The project was about an urban concept of time beyond clock and calendar references. It dealt with images and sounds separately. It was a renewed reflection upon the relationship between urban space and telematic space. Telage combined the transmission of data via telephone with the manipulation of images and sounds in the computer. It explored problems related to long-distance interaction, the transposition of procedures and the ideas of collage/dé-collage and montage. Artists in four cities were circ;ularly linked via computers connected to normal telephone lines. Three artists coordinated the work of more than 30 artists in different Brazilian cities: I organized artists in São Paulo, Irene Faiguenboim worked out of Recife and Gilbertto Prado brought together the work of artists in Campinas; Eduardo Kac joined us in Lexington, Kentucky. Sounds and images were transmitted through this four-node network asynchronously, modified at each site and terminated at the end of a cycle. Telage unfolded in almost--real time (Fig. 12).

(Fig. 12)

About Experimentation and Expression

Throughout the aesthetic and conceptual issues addressed in my work there is a merging of practices of experimentation and expression, to the point of a complete fusion between the two. Collaborating toward this fusion are the iteration of concept and project; indeterminate thematics involving hybridization and the interrelation of elements; the connection between a technical repertoire and expressive potential; and an economy of means. The iteration of concept and project is guided by the unpredictable dynamic of visual thought. Often operating through ambivalence and change, my works develop by means of movement, building a subtle, interlaced and layered web of meanings. There is an acknowledged "thematic indeterminacy" in these works---or rather, there is no predetermined question to be discussed or thematic that must be addressed. There are, however, intentions, desires and ideas on different levels---aesthetic and conceptual---that crystallize and are often altered, under the influence of technological resources, in a dynamic complementarity.

In a process of hybridization rooted in the operations of collage and montage, the generation of visual and audiovisual elements in my work is based as much in the operation of synthesis as in that of appropriation. The unfolding of this elaboration incorporates both deterministic and aleatory processes. I understand interrelation as the articulation of these elements in a linear or non-linear mode and/or a direct or indirect manner. This articulation of elements also defines interactivity, taking in spectators and their cultural references [27].

The connection between technique and artistic expression is a challenge confronting each project. In the works described above, the coherent use of resources and their employment as an autonomous means of expression is maintained against the mannerisms of special effects and the mere emulation of traditional artistic forms. In the end, I intend to use technology, or rather borrowed technology [28], with a critical, exploratory attitude, rather than behaving simply as another passive user. The economy of means that also characterizes my work manifests itself in the identity of my production and in my cultural activity, both of which lean toward a reductive conceptual and aesthetic approach, which also typifies my use of technical resources. This orientation, in part, indicates an attitude inherited from Constructivist thought [29].

Intangibility and volatility are intrinsic to electronic media. In virtual forms, a world of images and sounds is transformed into a codified flux of signals that pulsate and resonate like reality itself does. Blended in the fusion of experimentation and expression, between evanescent creation and perception, the poetic quality of my electronic artworks proposes enigmatic and malleable realities.

References and Notes

This article is part of the Leonardo special project "A Radical Intervention: The Brazilian Contribution to the International Electronic Art Movement," guest edited by Eduardo Kac.

For the print version of this article, see Leonardo Volume 30, No. 4 (1997), available from the MIT Press.

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