A Periodic Commentary on Digital Art
by John Antoine Labadie

John Labadie is a digital artist and associate professor of art
at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke
and director of the Pembroke Digital Academy

The Digital Past Speaks to the Digital Present – and Future
October 4, 2004

If you are reading this I assume that you are making, teaching, or seeking to understand the who, what, where, how and why of new media art. In this context I want to share with you an electronic “blast from the past” about digital art and art making. A digital artist colleague at another university forwarded me this quote sent out in an email nearly ten years ago (in italics) and his remembrance of the impact of the statement (in quotes).

At 3:21 PM on Friday, January 19,1995, this message was posted on a university electronic media interest group listserve: Hello everyone ... here’s a question to ponder: as we merge more into the Digital Age, are "traditional materials" (chalks, oils, etc.) still relevant to teach or work with? Why, in the digital age of electronic media, would we want to use traditional materials? Are these traditional materials essential to learning about making art? Or are they simply a source of hazardous materials? Assume that you could put economics and art budgets aside, and everyone could be doing digital, why would we continue to use the traditional materials? Should we not be training students in the tool of the future -- in digital tools? Mind you, this is a devil's advocate type question..... Regards, Ron.

“Needless to say, Ron's posting sparked lively electronic discussions in universities across the United States. The responses ranged from 'How could we possibly consider NOT working with the traditional materials' to 'Traditional art can be transformed into digital art' to 'In some studio areas (graphic design, for example) electronic media could replace traditional media.' It is beyond debate that technology has provided artists with new tools throughout history. As new technologies have become available, artists have always learned to use them and traditional means of expression were then transformed or entirely new means of expression were developed. Artists using airbrushes, silkscreen, acrylic paints, and plastics are examples of this. In the last century the continued development of chemical photography and cinema are examples of new technologies that gave birth to new art forms that have since fed the development of digital technologies. But whatever the debate in that electronic forum nearly ten years ago the majority of us agreed that digital art was a cultural change agent and its impact would be both powerful and permanent.”

How does this email and my friend’s remembrance of it strike you near the end of 2004? Does the pro-digital perspective expressed and remembered seem oh-so-obvious today? In 1995 the debate about digital versus traditional artistic means and artistic education was one that did not make this kind of sense to the majority of art teachers, artists, museums, galleries, or art collectors. We all now recognize the world of the twenty-first century has dramatically evolved digitally. But perhaps few outside of the MIT New Media Center in the mid-1990’s could ever have dreamed how digital tools and digital art have become a part of the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Even though this is true, how has digital really changed art and art making? Has the nature, the reason for art being what it is, really changed? Has art making changed? I think the answer to these questions is “yes” in no uncertain terms. We have only to look at the voluminous (in the digital sense of course) holdings of the MOCA to understand how this is so. As one who works daily in the digital arts in a department where bronze is still cast and lithographs are still accomplished on stone I can easily say that all my colleagues, as well as their students, have been profoundly affected by digital means of working. In each and every classroom something digital is having an impact on the art and the professor teaching about making art. In some of our classroom situations there is debate about virtual versus actual sculpture, in others polyester printmaking plates and laser printers can be used instead of limestone blocks and litho crayons in order to make lithographs, in the painting studio the students often use Photoshop to compose and refine their ideas before painting begins. In my digital arts studio we now serve more studio majors than any other in the department. Furthermore, our students are demanding these new digital tools and many have replaced their pencils and paper with graphics tablets. Both professors and students have begun to think, and act, more in terms of digital possibilities and digital means applied toward their creative, expressive ends. Times have changed in art making and art teaching.

I would now ask you also to reflect on how you see digital at work in the art world you personally experience. Now fast forward and marvel what art media and techniques we will be experiencing digitally in another ten years. Now where did I put that crystal ball?