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Computerkunst 98, An essay on the art object in cyberspace culture.

The following essay was published in the 1998 Computerkunst catalogue in English. This essay was developed from an earlier version written for Ylem to focus more on the value of the art object. While I recognize the value of the high tech object including so-called cyberspace art, I believe the value of the art object has been relegated to a second class citizenship with the emerging digital culture. There are values associated with the object that are not present in cyberspace art. This essay attempted to focus on these values without diminishing the importance of alternative formats.

by Roman Verostko


With the monumental growth of  arts activities in cyberspace it is heartening to know the semi-annual  Computerkunst exhibition at Gladbeck  continues the tradition of showing  art objects.  Let me add a few brief thoughts to the importance of  cultivating the physical art object in today’s fast changing cyber culture.   

Just as electronic publication leaps forward, the printed word, as a tangible graphic object,  emerges with ever greater value as the preferred medium for recording our culture. Even those who boast the virtues of electronic communication seek to appear in print to document their work. It is noteworthy that “Wired “ magazine lavishes its resources  in the production  of  a printed  magazine. The graphics of this publication  exhibit  glaring design devices to suggest being “wired” but, in fact, the publication’s  seduction lies in the fact that it is a lavishly illustrated physical graphic object. How many of its readers have ever even looked at the publication’s URL?


Recently I have worked with my colleague, Jean Pierre Hebert, towards the realization of some of my work via a “virtual pen plotter”. This procedure allows us to create a cyberspace version of a “pen plot”. My art images can only exist as physical pen plots  without this “virtual” pen plotting procedure. But it is the “pen plot”, namely the physical object, that we value above all. The virtual plotter exists only to serve us in broadening the technology for “plotting” the object.


 “What features of  our experience compel us to embrace the “fine art object”?


From my earliest memories as an artist I had been drawn to feel a kind of spiritual kinship with the materials with which I worked. There are signposts that led me to an almost reverent awe for my studio materials and tools  (Note 1). In my 30 years of teaching I have shared this perspective with students.  But recently I have been disheartened by an emerging trend that seduces some artists to abandon the art object or to view its creation as an obsolete practice. There are "many mansions" in Art Heaven and surely digitized images in cyberspace occupy one of those mansions but they do not displace the venerable place occupied by the “fine art object.” While there may be information sites in cyberspace that exist as "art" we must be careful not to confuse an "art site" with a site that represents art objects that exist in the physical world.  Thousands of arts images on the internet are digitized reproductions from originals in other media. Copies, especially copies across media, are not equivalent to the originals. Cyberspace museums may have reference value, but their images, as art, can be more deceptive than slides.


Yes,  I would agree that cyberspace has brought new dimensions and possibilities to the creation of art. In this cyberspace culture a unique reality emerges and those who cultivate that space are evolving a culture whose art has qualities and a presence that differs from that of the “art object”. While I respect and support the work of colleagues who have been working towards a fine arts presence in this cyber garden I want to stress most emphatically that this does not mean that the value of the “art object” has been in any way diminished. On the contrary we are more in need of the art object today than we were before the advent of cyber culture.


Let me emphasize these two rather obvious facts which bear importantly on how we cultivate the arts in the emerging cyber culture:

  •  Internet arts sites that are presented as works of art in and of themselves must not be confused with those sites that represent or point to art objects that exist in a different medium elsewhere, such as in a museum or in a private collection. The Mona Lisa, as it appears at the Louvre’ web site, is not the same thing as the Mona Lisa you experience in the Louvre. The map and the territory are not one and the  same reality.

  • The fact that one may create art whose existence as art remains entirely within the sphere of cyberspace does not diminish the value of creating and experiencing art objects in three dimensional space.

Our respect and sensibility for the materials and things of the earth remains fundamental to the very ground of our “being” here on the earth. The relation of our body to the objects and “stuff” we encounter in our daily lives provides the essential ingredients for the quality of our lives and our spiritual well-being. By spiritual, I mean our state of consciousness and the wholeness of being that we experience. We are fortunate when we have learned to “see” the texture and inner beauty of the commonplace objects. A culturally rich society achieves this through its art objects – the treasures that embody  sensitivity to the qualities of materials, mass, and space in the visual arts.


The ability to contemplate the page of a manuscript, a crafted object, a tree, a flower, to my mind, cannot be separated from the art objects in our daily culture. And it is this reverence, or at least respect for the things of the earth, that I view as related to how our culture values the objects it creates.


The tradition of contemplating the fine art object has been threatened by the deadening effect of image-bombs. Relentlessly assaulted with swiftly changing arrays of sound and image our numbed senses become defensive. Cheap wasteful copies via ink jet printers, fax machines, and copiers abound. Desktop published flyers with trivialized hybrid images and clip art jam our mailboxes. Occasionally you get a "computer art" announcement or magazine feature with just about the same kind of aesthetic vacuity. In the current high tech milieu the contemplation of an original art object is becoming extinct - and in some instances unwelcome.  Cyberspace culture aggressively excludes quiet meditation, contemplation, and inward turning via our tangible physical environment. The touch or feel of the texture and presence of objects, the caressing sounds of nature, the voices of human presence, or the movement of bodies in physical space ­have been the spiritual triggers so celebrated in our great art and literature. How do these "spiritual triggers" fare in cyberspace culture? 


Even in our museums you have to be careful, else you end up interacting with screen presentations rather than the "real" art. Seduced by the "map" you never get to the territory.  A reproduction of an "other" reality is not the same as the "other" reality.  The original work of art is frequently a remarkable and exceptional "other".  Walking in the woods is different from seeing a video made by someone walking in the woods. The difference is indeed "remarkable"!




Let me point to some past experience that may help us adjust our bearings as we navigate cyberspace.  It would have been in 1939, at the age of ten, when I saved pennies and bought an oil painting set from a Montgomery Ward catalogue. To me the brushes, the paint, and the canvas were extremely valuable and you can imagine how I cared for every ounce of paint and cleaned each brush.  But my respect for the materials wasn't simply a consequence of frugality, although that was certainly a factor. Something much richer and something more profound was given to me.


Almost from the moment I began painting I became aware of the "magic" of the materials - the way they became transformed if you managed them right.  When things worked well the materials underwent a "magical" transformation. And, I quickly learned, this applied to other media like stone, paper, and wood.  Since then, I have had this same experience with works of art throughout the world - the transformed stone of the cave Buddhas in China; the paint in the "Mystic Lamb" at Ghent; the clay of a Hopewell pot; and the ink in a Carolingian manuscript.

Cultures throughout the world have an inner sense about the precious objects they create.  So certain art objects are handed down from generation to generation. Even when "meanings" of these objects have been lost they are still treasured. A Zhou Dynasty bronze and a Lindesfarne "carpet page" are both greatly admired even by those who know nothing of their motifs or content.




Over fifty five years later, as I reflect on those first "transforming" experiences, I wonder about our changing perception of the "art object" today. Those who have been deeply moved by the power of the art object recognize that a cultural renaissance today requires deep level transformation of our high tech experience. Although the computer provides form-generating power for the artist, the artist's task may not have changed much.

We have passed through the beginnings of cyberspace as a place for the artist. Those watching the scene know that the banal and the trivial abound. But we also see serious young artists whose work holds promise for the future. They may be tempted by the "barkers" and "side show artists" to stray from their course.


My concerns are somewhat related to the perennial problem of the emperor’s new clothes. Too frequently I see our younger generation of artists rushing headlong into the future without assimilating the beauty of the present. We have tended to replace the value of becoming a master with the value of embracing the new for the sake of the new.


While I recognize the value of embracing new technologies I do not see the technology itself as the goal or the object.  The technology has a value only in as much as it serves our goals as artists. Too frequently we are seduced by the technology and the goal of our work as artist is replaced by a fascination for the technology. At that point, I believe, the spiritual; value of our art is threatened.


Here are several brief notes for young artists entering today’s exciting high tech environment:


Master the medium. 

In my generation we tended to view art as a series of “movements” with no artist ever wanting to be caught anywhere except with the “avant-garde”. In this milieu the concept of “master” or “school” suffered. The artist was seen primarily as the prophet of the “new” and art was valued more for innovation than for the quality of its “art” (how well it was made).


I advocate that we awaken a search for today’s equivalent of the age old idea of the “master” as embodied in the Renaissance master (Massaccio), the medieval master (Ghiselbertus) or the Chinese Shufa master. Technologies change swiftly and artists get caught up in this frenzy.  How does one become a master in this context? Too often we expect results in terms of hundreds of hours. We too easily forget that the old apprentice method required thousands of hours which meant years rather than months. The quality of the work can then be measured and seen by one’s peers. 

Goals and purposes.  

I once asked Barney Newman “why do you create art”?  “To create a world to be in”, he responded.  This liberated me. From that moment on I knew that I would always work towards a body of work that would add something of value to my everyday world.  I would want to create work that lifted up the human spirit, work that would be beautiful and enjoyable to experience, like a well kept garden. In our art schools, in the past generation, we tended to diminish the value of creating and crafting something for its own sake, for its beauty, and for the integrity of its own existence.


Works that evoke a sense of the beautiful and wonderment of existence are in themselves sufficient . Can we not seek to create work splendidly!  Artists have a role in pointing to the beauty of the commonplace - in the grace of a beautiful vase, a flower, a rich fabric, the song of a bird.

So those who work in cyber space are challenged to create work to lift us up from the humdrum daily routine.  They are challenged to charm us by gaining a master’s skill in the use of cyberspace technology and to show us superb abilities that make us want to experience the work again and again. In this milieu we hope to have those who allow room for accepting mystery without any fear of  the unknown.


Gladbeck’s Computer Art exhibitions have been contributing to these ends and, in doing so, has been making a valuable contribution to the evolution of the “noosphere.” (Note 2).



Note 1. See R. Verostko, "Quelques remarques sur l'Art et le Religion le Sacre et le profane", Art D'Eglise, No.170, First Quarter 1975, Brughes, Belgium.

Note 2. Henri Bergson (1859-1941) published his Creative Evolution in 1907, a seminal work on evolution and human consciousness that had a profound influence on Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist. In 1925 Teilhard coined the word "noosphere" to describe the emerging "cephalization" of conscious life, the next stage of evolution to  follow, in his view, the stage of homogenesis. Teilhard viewed "noogenesis" as an ongoing process evolving a new organism enveloping the planet with "co-operative inter-thinking". Although Teilhard adapted his perspective of this emerging inter-thinking organism to suit his own theological convictions, the broader vision was assimilated into the schema of others who did not share Teilhard's religion.  A generation later the phenomena associated with evolving world wide networks may be viewed as a stage in the evolution of the "noosphere".  An English edition of Teilhard's "The Phenomenon of Man" was published by Pantheon in 1959 with an interesting introduction by Sir Julian Huxley.

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