When I showed this work to the late designer Paul Rand (a master best known for designing the IBM logo), his wise response was: “This is all quite beautiful work…but how are you ever going to make any money doing this?” I found this odd coming from a designer. In fact, I felt I was back to square one-my father’s earliest advice. But Rand wasn’t referring to an artistic career in general but specifically to the fact that there was no market for the kind of work I was doing. Nobody was about to buy a floppy or CD-ROM to look at one of my dynamic pieces because it was simply too inconvenient and expensive. The answer to this dilemma came with the birth of the World Wide Web and the emergence of the JAVA programming language. With those two developments, possessing a mixture of graphics and computational skills began to achieve commercial relevance. One client stepped forward before all others, an art director at Shiseido Cosmetics, Michio Iwaki. In the 1960s, Mr. Iwaki had experimented with computer art while he was in design school, but his fellow students made fun of him for “not being able to use a regular pen.” He gave up mixing design and computation, but swore to support the effort one day. Still images from my series of JAVA calendars for Shiseido is shown in.
This developing combination of graphic arts and engineering skills, along with my gratitude to teachers at MIT, brought me back to Cambridge two years ago to help instill these principles in a generation of young digital artists. I had been recruited to resurrect the Media Lab’s waning presence in computationally motivated graphic design, which only several years before achieved international recognition for ideas and practices initiated over decades at the lab’s Visible Language Workshop (VLW) by the late Professor Muriel Cooper. Today at the Media Lab, my research group is called the “Aesthetics and Computation Group,” and we are devoted to combining analytic and expressive skills in singular expressions of will and technology.
I very much enjoy what I am doing with my group of young artist-engineers. But I believe that these same principles must be applied much more widely, throughout MIT and indeed throughout our university system in general. At least at MIT, there has been for many years an awareness of the need for combining the humanities and sciences at the curriculum level. Despite the best of intentions, however, the model of training is this area remains some form of the humanities wrapped around technology, or vice-versa. But we must go far beyond this initial model. It is not enough for us simply to produce a technologist who is aware of the cultural context of technology or a humanities major who can talk fluently about technology. No. What is needed is a true melding of the artistic sensibility with that of the engineer in a single person.
Although this task will not be easy, I have an idea of how it could be done. What is needed is an initiative at MIT-and at other universities-that combines the skills imparted in basic engineering courses with those found in humanities classes. For example, here at MIT one of the largest undergraduate courses is the introduction to computer programming (known as 6.001, because it is the first step in “Course VI,” which is the electrical engineering and computer science major). The spirit of 6.001 needs to be combined with some of the basic humanities courses, such as art history or beginning photography. In this context, the prejudices of both sides-engineering and humanities-could be relaxed, and students would be able to begin to combine the core principles of both disciplines. This may seem like an abstract, even quixotic idea, but at the Media Laboratory, I have begun to teach courses in this manner-and it works. In these courses, gifted young engineers and scientists are beginning to stir their creative talents as the designers and artists of the next century. But we will see this next generation of art and artists only by gaining a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the medium of computing as a means of serving human expression.