The History of Everything

Mark Coniglio (
Mon, 16 Jun 1997 08:54:11 -0400

Dear List,

I have been participating a bit in another list concerned with all things
technical, as they relate to artworks anyway, called Northwest
CyberArtists. On that list, there has been an ongoing discussion of what
defines a "Cyber" artist. As part of this discussion a fellow called John
Beezer gave what I found to be an exceptionally clear historical
perspective of how digital means infiltrated the world of typography, and
used this to define a model of how digital tools come to be accepted in
other art forms as well.

In any case, it seemed that many here would appreciate it. So, with his
permission, here it is...

- MC

------ from John Beezer / --------


This thread has made me think about a lot of things--in particular, it
reminds me of the way desktop publishing affected the advertising industry.
The growth of "cybertypography" developed in four stages.

1) 1984-88. The work sucked. The medium was crude but there were people
using it for a variety of reasons. Some were too ignorant to notice the
difference between good typography and the unkerned helvetica coming out of
the laser printer--all they knew was that it was cheaper. Other users knew
the difference, but sensed that improvement was immanent and that someone
would have to learn the medium and push its development forward.

2) 1989-90. Digital typography improved dramatically and became a viable
alternative to traditional typography. Partly this was due to technological and hardware improved, prices came down. But also,
many of the early pioneers started to learn how to use the medium properly.

3) 1991-1994. Digital typography became trendy as new and highly expressive
forms of typography emerged.

4) 1995 to present. Digital typography became a necessity.

It's interesting to note the attitudes expressed by traditionalists at each
of these stages.

During stage one, when the work sucked, traditionalists rightly ridiculed
it. A small percentage recognized the potential and began to investigate it,
but no self-respecting typographer would defend the medium. The critcism,
though generally well-founded, had two interesting characteristics: it was
increasingly shrill, plus it refused to take into consideration that
improvement was likely. I think this was a defensive attitude on the part of
people who either didn't like computers or who had invested a large amount
of time and effort perfecting the skills of traditional typography.

The attitudes during stage two, when the medium achieved parity with
traditional forms, are the most interesting. The defensiveness of the
traditionalists increased and they tended to become quite bitter--digital
typography was no longer a subject of ridicule but was treated as a deadly
serious matter of professional credibility. By this point however, the basis
of their argument was weakening. Digital typography was no longer inferior.
I think what happened at this stage is that many of the traditionalists had
closed their minds to the digital form of their medium. In their perception,
it was permanently 1986 and digital typography was frozen in its embryonic
form. After all, by 1986, just about everyone interested in digital
typography knew better than to bring up the subject around a veteran--it was
a guaranteed career killer. People who worked in the medium had to commit to
it since they would never be accepted by the traditionalists. Those who
clearly did good work came to be regarded as technicians at best.

During stage three, when the medium pulled ahead, I don't think the original
pioneers were the ones who brought it to a higher level. These people were
either battle-scarred from the old days and burned out, or they had accepted
their role as mere technicians. However, there was a new generation that
came in fully competent in digital typography, who took it for granted and
had no holy wars to fight. They simply started wrapping type intricately
around photos and doing loops and multiple font sizes, or generating complex
images with it. The most important thing digital typography allowed them to
do was experiment freely and they did so with an artist's sense of
adventure. You may or may not notice the difference around you, but if you
look at a print advertising annual from 1987 and another from 1997, the
difference will jump out at you.

Today, during stage four, I think the revolution has been absorbed and it's
pretty much become the status quo. The once powerful typesetting houses in
town are gone and all the major ad agencies have highly advanced digital
production capabilities. The naysayers have all retired shaking their heads.

So, what stage of development are we in with cyber-fine-art? I think
unfortunately, we're in the worst stage right now--in the transition from
stage one to stage two. I would say that stage one had some
advantages...early adopters enjoy a certain smugness knowing that all their
failures are valient experiments and that the criticism they recieve is
generally valid and points the way toward improvement. The early part of
stage two is the most frustrating...the critcism gets more intense and less
well-founded. There have been enough successes in the medium that our
failures become more frustrating, and we start to grow tired of the battle.

I've never seen Osmose, but what I hear of it captures my imagination in a
purely aesthetic way. It may well be the first truly great piece of
cyberart. If not, the vision it attempts to capture has all the signs if
being an aesthetic breakthrough. I'd love to hear what others consider to be
100% aesthetically valid works of cyberart, I'm sure there are many more

If the analogy to digital typography as one of the earliest forms of
cyberart is valid then I guess this is a pessimistic analysis. In the
immediate future, we can all expect ignorance and criticism from the
traditional art world. Then, we can look forward to a new generation coming
in and effortlessly capitalizing on the media we've been struggling to

So I would say that we need to keep perspective. If our comittment is to the
art itself, then we should do our best to support and enjoy the work of the
next generation when it gets here. We should also guard against burn-out--if
we keep pounding our heads against the wall of traditionalism, then we'll
all be comatose when it finally comes down.

I guess the best implication of this analogy is that the transition from
stage two, easily the grimmest stage, to stage three, buy far the most
exhilerating, will be swift. Stage two is like water building up behind a
dam. Once it gets over the top, the dam comes down in a hurry.


Mark Coniglio, Artistic Co-Director |
Troika Ranch |