Sunday, April 15, 2007

Q&A George Fifield

"The church of art is very conservative," according to George Fifield, the founder and director of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, the showcase for computer-related art that opens its fifth season on Friday (see As for the Boston scene, Fifield, when I visited him at his Jamaica Plain home, summed it up thus: "Even now, you don't find digital art in the MFA."

Despite the city's prevailing high-art tastes, Fifield launched the festival here in 1999 because, he says, he had discovered another side to Boston, a "radical hidden history of artists coming here to work on new technology." Fifield is inspired, for example, by the close collaboration between the photographer Ansel Adams and Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid Corporation. Starting in 1948, Adams helped Land perfect the technology for instant photography, and, through his own much-admired Polaroid photographs, enabled Land, Fifield told me, "to make the case that the camera was a tool for art, as opposed to just a toy."

What "fascinates" Fifield, he said, "is what happens when a creative mind finds a new technology, and there's this moment of explosion." Whether through WGBH's New Television Workshop, which was seminal for the growth of video art in the 1970s, or MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, which from the late '60s to the present day has fostered digital art, Boston, in Fifield's view, has had a unique role in bringing art and technology togther for creative interplay.

Still, with regard to computer art, the situation is very different from what it was when Fifield set out to found the festival eight years ago. Now, no matter what the MFA chooses to display, the Internet overflows with digital video, and Hollywood films routinely boast high-end computer graphics. Given this ever-expanding digital milieu, I was curious to know how Fifield now defines the role of a Cyberarts Festival.

IDEAS: In 1999, just having a Cyberarts Festival was a sort of announcement. What is the point now?

FIFIELD: You can say that maybe there will come a day when there won't be a Cyberarts Festival, because you won't want to keep this work separate from other work. Of course, that day hasn't come yet. Technology is growing exponentially, so it's still important to talk about how it affects the arts. But you could argue that there will come a day when new technology is so embedded in the arts and in our lives that we won't need to talk about it.

But I'd say that even then we'd still want a Cyberarts Festival. The festival celebrates artists working with new technologies; that's the mission. So cyberarts festivals won't become any more obsolete than film or crafts festivals. If and when new media is as fully accepted by the art world as film and crafts are now, a celebration of artworks using new media will still have validity.

IDEAS: What do you make of Hollywood's use of computer graphics in "Toy Story," say, or "The Lord of the Rings." Is that art?

FIFIELD: I love that stuff! Sure it's art. Popular culture is always quicker to take on new technologies than the art world.

IDEAS: Is there a difference between computer art and cyberarts?

FIFIELD: Cyberart is just a big-tent term that lets me include other new technologies -- holography for example.

But let's focus on computer art for a minute. Computer art means the word "multimedia" is really a misnomer. There's only one medium, and it consists of zeros and ones. Everything goes into that. You have a variety of input devices -- digital cameras, microphones, 3D scanners. And you have a variety of output devices -- compact discs, 3D printing, and so on. In between, you can mix it all up. You can take a movie and turn it into a print. You can take data and turn it into a piece of music. You're not a visual artist or a sound artist. You're both, because you're a computer artist.

IDEAS: For example?

FIFIELD: For example, a musical composition where a guy took the entire history of IBM stock prices and turned it into music. [laughs] That was very uplifting.

IDEAS: Might have been less uplifting if it had been Digital Equipment Corporation's stock prices. Is there a dichotomy between new media and traditional art?

FIFIELD: Absolutely not. On our website we refer to the early 15th-century Florentine painter Masaccio as our patron saint. He took an understanding of perspective that architects had recently come up with and put it into paint. Then painters spread the new way of measuring and quantifying space through Western culture.

IDEAS: Name a truly great cyberartist who's emerged from the festival.

FIFIELD: Name a truly great non-cyberartist these days! It's not like the 1930s when you would look around and say: Oh, Picasso and Matisse! Things are more broken up. There are so many new kinds of media, which is a result of the technology itself.

But Michael Rees, for example, who showed in the first festival, is a really strong artist who makes sculpture using rapid prototyping -- a way of printing out in 3D -- and has been invited to show in two Whitney Biennials. And Camille Utterback, a member of Art Interactive in Cambridge, is doing completely new kinds of work that bring viewers into the process of shaping the image.

IDEAS: A lot of digital art seems lacking in sexuality and sensuality. Where does sensuality fit into cyberart?

FIFIELD: I agree. The technology can remove the body. But that's changing because of interactive installations that bring the body back into it, and depend on you moving around.

IDEAS: What is the difference between the upcoming festival and the first one? What has changed in the interim?

FIFIELD: For one thing, technology ages. Back then, we showed a lot of work done in Photoshop that wouldn't be included now. Now 2D work has to be really spectacular, or come out of computer animation, to make an impact.

One high point this year will be the Visual Music Marathon, including some very early films by people like Fernand Leger, which show how artists explore music visually. And we're holding a conference called "Ideas in Motion, the Body's Limit," which will include lots of performance and lots of dance. Boston is a very conservative dance town. We want to give people from the dance community a chance to know about dance and technology. And, as I've said, there's lots of accent on interactivity this year, lots of getting the body back into it.

IDEAS: How do you decide what is included in the festival?

FIFIELD: We have two basic criteria. Is it cyber enough? Does it show artists using technologies in innovative ways? Also, is it art enough? Or is it posing as an art project when it's really just a gee whiz for some piece of technology?

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. His interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail

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