Article: Digital artists owe much to forward-thinking pioneers


Digital artists owe much to forward-thinking pioneers

PAM DIXON 05-Dec-1999 Sunday

It’s a temptation to write about art and technology in terms of the gadgetry involved. After all, artists use the most fascinating tools of their time.

In past centuries, artists pioneered techniques for paints, stone, wood and glass. In this decade, digital artists experimented with such landmark tools as video, the Web browser, the World Wide Web and streaming technologies, and saw extraordinary advances in computer software and hardware.

As fascinating as the technologies are, the people pioneering and shaping them are more intriguing still. Here’s a look at some of the significant people shaping the digital arts today. They have already made their mark on the digital arts, and they are poised to make crucial contributions in the decades to come.

Harry S. Parker, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Parker has always been a delightful anachronism in the museum world. It’s fair to say he is a brave, populist museum director. Thanks to his being technically savvy and non-elitist, Parker was one of the world’s first directors to put a museum’s entire holdings online.

Lest this sound like a small feat, consider the sheer physical barriers. Only 2 percent to 10 percent of most museums’ holdings are on display at any given time due to space limitations. Parker proposed photographing and cataloging every item that the museum had tucked away in its massive storehouses, then putting the images and records of the treasures online for the public to access. This unprecedented, ongoing project began in 1993, culminated in the now-famous “The Thinker” Web site.

Thanks to Parker’s example, other major museums are digitizing all or part of their collections and putting the images online.

The result of Parker’s effort is that anyone who can get to the Web can view art that used to be accessible only in person, if at all.The next time you want to gaze on works by Leonardo da Vinci or Edward Hopper online, you can credit Parker with at least some of that. He is poised to accomplish even more as he begins to look at how museums can work ethically and fairly with living artists’ works in the online environment.

Suzanne Stefanac, interactive media pioneer and vice president, Creative Development, B3TV

If you see a sprite of a woman with a mop of short, white-blond hair speaking incredibly articulately about the future of technology and the visual world, there’s a good chance it’s Stefanac. She has had enormous influence over the look and content of Web sites and how they interface with broadcast television and cable news programs. She has been on the Internet scene since the ’70s, popularizing the Internet and its technology by writing thousands of trade-press articles about it.

Then as executive producer for MSNBC’s, she created one of the first major Web sites to be associated with a nationally broadcast show. Although it’s no longer airing, “The Site” and its corresponding Web site changed how television news reported and interacted with technology.

The show ran in 1996-97, during the key time that the Web was just spreading its tendrils into popular culture. Stefanac’s efforts helped elevate technology, particularly Internet technology, to something worth reporting.

After the show’s cancellation, Stefanac moved to the next horizon, which for her and many others is enhanced television. She is the creative idea-guru behind B3TV, a highly innovative company that is sending big waves through the inner circles of the techno-elite. B3TV, soon to be renamed and relaunched as RespondTV, has already broken important ground in interactive broadcast technology and interactive advertising.

Most recently, Stefanac helped invent and test a format for commercials where viewers can click and order a pizza while watching television. Entertainment-industry execs are looking at the new interactive-advertising format as a real possibility for how things will look in the very near future.

Stephen Johnson, digital fine-arts photographer

Johnson doesn’t travel lightly. When he goes off to shoot photographs — typically in the middle of nowhere — he carries along a Macintosh computer with plenty of digital photographic equipment. He’s always trying something new, continually tweaking the equipment to heighten the image quality.

Johnson is one of the first prominent fine-arts digital photographers, and he’s literally been inventing the field as he goes along. Understandably, his artistic contribution lies in the beauty of his photographs. But he’s also contributed significantly toward refining digital photographic equipment and techniques, passing those advances along to a new generation.

Digital photography hasn’t quite hit the mainstream. But when it does, know that the camera you hold, the lenses you use and how you store and print digital images have all been influenced by Johnson.

Nick DeMartino, director of strategic planning, American Film Institute

When Super-8 video appeared on the film scene decades ago, DeMartino was already shooting edgy documentaries with it. Later, when he was in a key administrative position at the American Film Institute (AFI), he had the film background and the right kind of mind to see the far-ranging implications of a then-unknown technology by Apple Computer called QuickTime, which brought video to the computer.

DeMartino moved quickly to champion QuickTime’s use at the influential AFI, which held the industry’s first classes and workshops using the new tool. It’s no secret among Apple insiders that the AFI is a big reason why the film industry adopted QuickTime technology as early as it did.

Now, DeMartino is ahead of the game again, this time shaping the future of enhanced television and other digital visual technologies. He hosts the influential AFI Computer Media salons, where digital artists of the first rank share their trade secrets and methods. Supported by a grant from Intel Corp., DeMartino founded one of the first and foremost workshops to train television producers to create quality content for a digital broadcast medium.

Enhanced television hasn’t taken root in pop culture yet. But it will. When it does, DeMartino’s foresight will help ensure that what is on the tube this time around is as good as or better than what came before.

Miller Puckette, creator of Max

If you listen closely when Puckette talks, you can hear the future. He is one of those people who lives 20 years ahead of his time. This soft-spoken man wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, but his contribution to music and technology has already landed him in the history books.

When Puckette was at the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Musique/Acoustique (IRCAM) in Paris, he created a breakthrough program called Max. The idea was to use something now known as object-oriented programming to simplify the process of writing and performing music via a computer platform.

The ideas Puckette put into the Max program in the late ’80s have seeped deeply into musical culture. Now, composers routinely use the Max system to create and produce music.

Puckette, who is the associate director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts at the University of California San Diego, is working ahead yet again. This time, he’s creating a real-time software system called Pure Data that can be used with live musical and multimedia performances. Pure Data links visuals, movement and music in completely new ways. Whatever Puckette develops will be well worth watching and well worth the wait.

Peter Clemente, Internet researcher and vice president, Cyber Dialogue

Clemente is an amazingly accurate Internet researcher who comes up with hard numbers that force technology speculators to face reality and lose the hype.

Formerly a rock musician, Clemente fell in love with technology in the ’80s, especially Internet-related technology. Through the Internet research firm Cyber Dialogue, Clemente has produced key industry reports documenting exactly what is happening with the digital arts as they relate to new technologies and the Internet.

He was one of the first researchers to predict the importance of MP3 and track its growth; he was also one of the first to look closely at streaming video technologies. Because of his uncanny accuracy, he is closely read by investment bankers. Although he set out to simply document the digital art and entertainment scene, Clemente surely has influenced it, and will likely continue to do so.

Other key players

Many others have influenced technology and the arts. Steve Dietz at the Walker Art Center shepherds the Shock of the View, one of the most intelligent forums and discussions of The new-media artists at Razorfish have created some of the freshest Web innovations. And bold traditional-medium artists such as rapper Chuck D are trying out the relatively untested digital medium.

Much like the brick and mortar museums that can display only a small percentage of their collections, this list is just the beginning of the many talented, dedicated people who have, and should continue to, shape arts and technology.

Pam Dixon’s column about arts and technology appears the first Sunday of each month.