CGT Created Real Film Progress

ccrfpThe room was part of the college’s Center for Graphic Technology (CGT), “an interdisciplinary space where you can try new things and compare notes with the person next to you,” as Squier describes it. The existence of the CGT, and the room (recently abandoned for a larger space), is an example of the focus on applied technology that has characterized the school since its founding as an agricultural college in 1865. (In fact, UIUC has been the birthplace of two landmarks of computer technology. In the ’70s, HAL, the computer in 2001, was created here; in the ’90s, it was Mosaic, the graphical “browser” that started the explosion of the World Wide Web.) Though the curriculum at the art and design college is still very much based in traditional media and tools, the members of ad319, each of them drawn to technology for distinct reasons, say they were attracted to the school in part because it offered strong technological support for its faculty.

“The CGT provided us with a room and threw us in there. It took us about a year to figure out what was going on and make something of that,” says Squier. What was going on, they decided, was a fascinating amalgam of personalities, skills, and artistic interests that could be strengthened by collaboration. While their bond was founded in their attraction to, and need for help with, the technology, it went beyond that. “I wasn’t interested in fetishizing the technology. I just wanted to use it to make art, which in my case means dealing with things on an emotional level,” Squier explains. “I found Nan and Kathleen to be interested in a similar use of the tools–in making artwork that was transformational and emotional.”

“We all found each other because we didn’t fit into any particular media,” Goggin says. Chmelewski speaks for the group when she describes the appetite for variety all the members seem to share. “I enjoy so many things. I’m very eclectic, and that can be a curse,” she says.

Chmelewski took B.A. and M.F.A. degrees in photography, then worked in graphic design offices in Maine and Chicago before joining the faculty in 1990. Her work with computers came about by accident, she says, when she developed a blood disease that her doctor thought might be related to the photography chemicals she was working with. “My images were very collage-oriented, and I had spent hours in the darkroom messing around with them. When I saw that computers could do what I’d been doing in the darkroom, I was very excited,” she remembers.

Goggin, who studied printmaking (M.F.A.) and art history (M.A.), also worked as a professional designer, and then in the design departments at universities in Mississippi and Florida, before joining the UIUC faculty in 1991. “I had to learn computers when I began teaching,” she says. “I became more interested in them when multimedia and time-based media came along.”

Squier majored in psychology as an undergrad, with a minor in computer science, then went to the San Francisco Art Institute to study fine art photography. He showed his work at galleries in the Ray Area and taught photography at San Jose State University before coming to UIUC in 1991. His interest in working with computers is hard to define, he says. “It was about the art establishment and problems I had personally with what I saw as an ossified, incestuous clique. I wasn’t sure what it was about computers that intrigued me, but it was something about hopes I had for wider distribution of art–hopes that were realized when I saw the World Wide Web.”

Springfield is the CGT’s interface guru and resident expert in Macromedia Director, the multimedia authoring tool the group often works with for CD-ROM projects. His interest in computers began when he-was an undergrad design major in the early ’80s, he says, and his class was offered Apple IIs just to play around with. “I didn’t know they would become standard design tools, but that really sparked my interest,” he remembers. When the Mac SE and HyperCard appeared, he found his niche in interactive design.

Looking at the work the artists have done separately and together, one is struck by the similarity of the individuals’ esthetics. The imagery is always evocative, emotional, and poetic. Unidealized yet empathetically depicted nudes are central in the photography and prints of Squier and Chmelewski. Texts talk of personal searches and identity. The surfaces of Squier’s images look as etched as Chmelewski’s prints; all are in black-and-white, and tend toward classic type in sparse layouts. When asked whether it was the recognition of such similarities that attracted them to one another as collaborators, each of the members seemed surprised. Squier alone says he saw the likenesses, but that he only noticed them after the artists collaborated on their first interactive piece, putting their separate pieces together in one interface. “That’s when I started to realize that there were shared sensibilities,” he says. “The common use of the body imagery seems obvious now, but at the beginning, none of us realized it.”

Sharing ideas through conversation and collaborative projects also helped the group members to crystallize ideas they had developed individually about the role of technology in art and education. It was the impulse to explore these ideas that led to the founding of ad319. Specifically, their collaborative projects are designed to explore what they had come to see, says the manifesto, as digital art’s defining characteristics: It exists only in a transitory, non-physical form; it can be distributed instantly and in multiple, identical copies; and it is collaborative by nature.

The need for collaboration is, of course, illustrated by ad319 itself. “We didn’t start out learning to collaborate. We started sharing information,” says Squier. “Each of us has pockets of knowledge. In photography, I was very independent. I have a lot of understanding of those materials under my belt; I don’t need to go to somebody else to say ‘How does this work?’ with electronic tools, it’s not as easy.” “Electronic technology is creating a fusion across the formerly discrete disciplines of still images, video, text, and sound. Creative production no longer relies on expertise in one single area, but rather,the successful integration of multiple skills,” reads the manifesto. In working on the Body, Space, Memory CD-ROM, Chmelewski remembers getting lots of help with sound, a medium–and technology–that was completely new to her. And “when you deal with the Net, you’ve got to work with other people. You couldn’t do it yourself,” says Goggin. Certainly, the need for collaboration between providers of image, design, and technological production skills, as represented by the members of ad319, is a clearly emerging model in professional design offices dealing with new media.

For these artists, collaboration has to a greater or lesser extent been a skill to learn, just like the computer tools they work with. “As a fine artist, you don’t talk about your work till you’re done. When you’re collaborating, the person next to you will say, Why do you want to do that?,’ and you just want to slap them,” jokes Squier. It seems to come easiest to Goggin, who says it may be because of her background in graphic design and printmaking, which are collaborative arts. It could also have something to do, she admits, with the fact that she has an identical twin sister. “I thrive on discussion, opinion, and social contact,” she says.

In keeping with the group’s intent, per the manifesto, to embrace these attributes of digital media and turn them to their advantage, much of the work the members do is in the form of challenges to themselves. Chmelewski talks about her latest project, a book of “pictorial poems” called West West, published on the Web, as an experiment. “In the end, I might not be satisfied with the experience”–the non-physicality of it, she says. That digital art exists only in conceptual space is one of the qualities several of the artists seem still to have a bit of trouble with, though it is one they say their students are rapidly embracing. Springfield claims his enthusiasm for CD-ROM over the Web as a medium has partly to do with his preference for creating something that can be held in his hand. “I guess having a physical object is still important to me,” he says. “It’s not a book anymore, it’s a CD. Someone can turn off their Web site, but I can always have the CD.” (In his off-hours, he sculpts and paints–the old-fashioned way. “It’s off computers altogether,” he says. “I like the tactile experience.”) Chmelewski shares some of the same values. “I like objects. I like having them in my home, having them in my space with me,” she says. “But I don’t think it has to be mutually exclusive. I also enjoy the electronic experience of art.” Goggin and a graduate student recently meditated on some of the psychological stresses of the move from mechanical to electronic tools in a letterpress book called Manual Labor. (“Maybe if I use Courier everything will be OK,” reads one page, illustrated by the keys of an old Smith-Corona.)

Squier, whose background in fine art photography trained him to put great store in the quality of the “print,” was at first dismayed by the low-quality of the images he could post on his own Web site, the place. Because images on the Web must be transferred over relatively slow connections to readers’ computers, designers are forced to reduce the file size of images by reducing the number of colors, using just a few bits of color information per pixel, or using tiny images. “One of the lessons I’ve learned, painfully, is that the Web isn’t about digital photography,” he says. Yet he swears that the compromises he has to make in his image quality are more than made up for by the satisfaction of broad distribution. “When I was making these photographic paintings, one of the things I was getting frustrated with was that they weren’t very portable. When I would exhibit, not very many people would come to see them. Now, every morning I get a statistical summary of the activity at the place, and I see that people were logging on from Finland and from Russia. There’s something about that that’s really exciting.” The idea, he says, is to accept each medium for what it is, and work within it. “For the Web, the solution I’ve found is to think of myself less as a photographer and to put less weight on the images. My formula has begun to balance out the interplay more between image and text. I’m still interested in the same content, but I’ve learned to build the content around what’s possible on the Web.” It works: Squier’s text and image pieces are among the most beautiful and satisfying content on the Internet.

Everyone has his sticking point, it seems. Springfield, whose preferred medium is CD-ROM, confesses some discomfort with the Web. “The CD form has the ability to create more of a mood. I can control what someone looks at, and the speed at which they look at it, much more than with the Internet. With the Web, the users can leave really quickly. With CD-ROM, you have more time to build the communication, as you do with a book or magazine.”

The capabilities of the new media clearly excite these artists much more than the problems dismay them. The tools they work with and the art they produce fulfill individual goals for new forms of expression, information design, and distribution that can’t be achieved with traditional media. The fact that they’re educators and researchers just adds an interesting self-consciousness to their practice. “The reason this group has a name comes from our instincts as educators,” says Squier. “Students watch you very closely and care about what you do. ad319 becomes a model.” What the members of the group are proving, both in their own work and in the art they collected for the “Art as Signal” show, is that computer-based art has come into its own. Now past what they call the first generation, when it was centered on “self-reflexive analysis of the process itself,” computer-based art has entered a second stage, when it can simply take advantage of the specific characteristics of its medium–whatever that may be–to convey the artist’s message.

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