Computer Studies within the INTERMEDIA department

We spent one semester of the past year learning about the handling and creation of images on a computer. Two and three dimensional animation was studied in the second semester. Students from all seven years participated in the classes, very few of these had any experience with computers. Considering that this was, for many of the students the last year at the school, I thought it would be better to (instead of systematic computer studies, thus solving the problem of lack of equipment) give a wide (as we lack time, not too deep) view into the possibilities of the visual uses of the computer. I simply outlined the characteristics of the display centric "digital image handling" in the form of questions. There were not many theoretical discussions during class. I wish to make some of this up, by the description of the pattern of thought going from theory to practice. (The text to follow is also the "work hypothesis" of my exhibition, Goethe Institute Budapest, 1993).

It is a boring cliché statement to say that the digital image is the foremost "truly immaterial" (more exactly independent of material) image of the technical images, and that the computer (as a machine suitable for the handling of images), by examining many different images from inside a system, opens never seen possibilities in researching the mysterious notion of the "image". Since, by digitising the images, all material characteristics can be removed and the image may be studied in a, till now inexperienced, ideally sterile and precise environment.

Let us ponder a moment upon, how we could start such an extremely exciting research. By simplifying somewhat, we can say that any material-type of image found in this world can be entered in to the machine: By directing an (analogue ) video camera on to the object and digitising the video signal thus produced. The method is not only used for paintings, graphics or photos, but can be used on any visual information that the camera can sense; according to this any part of the visual world may be digitised.

I am using the adjectives "analogue" and "digital" as the different modes of machines. The analogue machine (e.g. Television) continuously adds to the information, the changing physical quantities. The video camera, for example, produces electronic charge similar in strength to that of the light in the points of a grid screen, which are then in turn re transformed on the TV screen (in the points of a similar grid) into similar flashes of light. The quality of the signal probably deteriorates in the system, since every step produces an out going signal that is only similar to each in coming signal. The digital machine works with numbers, it calculates the values of a function in the chosen discrete points: so any calculation may be done with the thus produced data without the signals deteriorating. The limit of exactitude is simply the number of digits used in the calculations. But, the number of digits that may be used is a serious limit: for example the number of colours that can be used in computer graphics is at most as large as the "biggest number that can be represented on given number of digits: on an 8 byte machine 256 colours could be used. It is conceivable how much information is lost through the digitisation of an analogue video camera’s image, this can only be decreased (but never eliminated) by raising the number of digits.

Through the analogue-digital conversion the image becomes a congeries of numerical data, that is conserved by some data storage and can be manipulated without limit and duplicated, since the digital signal is not as vulnerable as the insubstantial "slovenly" (burdened by physical properties) analogue type information. No more, the difference in quality between the original and the reproduction, the pattern, the cherished original negatives, etc. will no longer be a problem. The question is only the following: what do we do with the series of numbers produced by the digitising (or inside the computer itself: 3D animation, virtual realities); in other words does this method have any other attributes to be mentioned besides the undeniable advantage of manageability?

There are many different possibilities for the display and study of the images: for example they may be retransformed (now maybe in a unified) object-like form with the help of a printer, or they may be shown (this may also be unified) on a depictive analogue video monitor (i.e. an analogue RGB monitor). Let us consider the latter possibility, the more so, because on one hand the "material unification" can also be done by i.e. photography (reproduction), and on the other hand with this we return to the image "encumbered by disturbing materialism".

That fact that, on the monitor we are dealing with a video signal transformed into analogue, is disturbing. For the study of the "original" computer image it would be natural to overrule the "sieve" that reforms into analogue. Insofar as this is not possible, we cannot get any experience about the object of our study, and we could very easily commit the mistake of studying the mediator medium ( in the transformation from digital to analogue it could be the glass of the monitor) instead of the legendary "computer image".

This is tragic, since the essence (though, simplified a bit) of digital image storing (or even of the computer in itself) is interpreting the image in the simple and fool-proof exact digital structure of storing in the form of electric-electromagnetic current in the duodecimal system (suggested by Leibnitz in 1703): "is there current at the end of the wire or isn’t there?". Nevertheless by gawking at the monitor we have come rather far from reflection on the condition of the electronic-electromagnetic "everything or nothing" symbol. That is, far from asking what consequences come with the limits of tolerance defining "everything", even further have we come from the thought pattern that could examine the consequences of entering the series of yes-no information taken to be the summit of formal logic and the complex (related to the visual and felt) notion of the image.

However if we do direct our thoughts in this direction, it can be proven that the answer can be sought after, most efficiently, by using the unavoidable "input" and "output" device -keeping in mind that the human constitution is not prepared for sensing the presently used integral electric circuits, the microprocessors, and the memory units. The blows inflicted on the tolerance of the mentioned "there is" sign become visible through investigating (modestly: probing) the transformation of the images into digital form (and back).

What’s more, additional (hopefully fruitful) questions arise: how can we find our way when searching for comprehensible clues leading to a specific detail stored in the linear binary stream of data, in so much as we try to employ the computer and the devices of logic instead of the practical (e.g. used in the everyday of graphical animation of advertisements) methods are used universally? And of course vice versa: how can we search for the place of the indicated "data" in the image, what lesson may be drawn from the induced (presumably existing) character of the new type of visual interpretation mechanism (seeing?) of the "medium", by realising the destructive quality of the digital form of representation?

Further proof of the importance of "representation" is the feature of digital image-processing that makes the data, representing the image in a mechanical-logical manner, continue to be misleading in a limitless mechanical-logical manner and way. The numbers may be interpreted as a colour code, a value representing the intensity of light or even as the vector of the third dimension in a virtual three dimensional relief. Anyway, there are not only problems with the size in the computer’s "dimensions" ("size" doesn’t even exist in the advertisement jargon, at most "resolution"). A further aspect to be meditated upon could be the representability of the one-dimensional data series that can be interpreted in any number of dimensions and viewed on a two dimensional monitor or print-out.

It seems that the computer -the experimental situation being created- mixes in, such precise mechanical method in the handling of complex (wanting in no way linear reading) image-like information that the thus handled, manipulated images bear a strong affect on the observation and interpretation by the human eye, and force us into developing new conventions in valuation.

Still, I think that it is not only this fact (it could be taken as a hazard) that accounts for the importance and attractiveness of the examination of the digital image handling artistic tools, but more so the (digital image handling among others) new way of thinking, that is the product of the complex, non-linear, image-like outlook and the formal computer logic living peacefully side by side. This rudimentary change of paradigm (it may be followed clearly in science, even in their” everyday history” they are closely connected to the computer: see fractions, chaos theory etc.) may become easier to follow, imaginable, even taken further in thought by studying images handled by computer, image-like or simply data taken as images.

(In order to be precise: not the computer, its parts (See for instance John Neumann: The Computer and the Brain (New Haven, 1958), The General and Logical Theory of Automata (Collected Works, Vol. V. pp. 288-328.)), nor the "digital processing of images" ( the image is usually viewed on an analogue monitor, "the computer image" means only, when viewing, a TV grid image) are free of analogue mechanisms- similar to the functioning of the human nervous system-, of course on a lower scale of complexity.)

It may impel us to meditate even further in this direction that the "digital image" is the first type of image that may be considered as a truly human invention: such a direction in thought that may realise the unification (digitisation) in the yes-no form of the infinitely compound "sight" and not only realise the technology.

Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák (1993)