I don’t remember the first time a digital artwork made me cry, but of the many times it has happened, I remember a few quite clearly. One of the most memorable was in 2018, when I was viewing Christiane Paul’s important historical survey at the Whitney Museum, Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018. I hadn’t seen the full checklist ahead of time, so I was surprised to find myself standing in front of Charles Csuri and James Shaffer’s 1967 composition Sine Curve Man—a digital image of a man’s face that has been widely reproduced as one of the most iconic examples of early “computer art.” The Whitney’s collection holds a rare print of this work, which was rendered by a plotter in precise, overlapping lines on now-yellowed paper. Arguably the first person trained as an artist to make artwork with a computer, Csuri generated this anonymized portrait by making a drawing of a man’s face on an IBM 7094 (with Shaffer’s assistance) and then applying a sine curve to only the Y-coordinates, resulting in a static image that nevertheless seems to be glitching. Three decades later, I wandered into my first online chatrooms, downloaded my first torrent clients, and published my first websites via FTP. Standing face-to-face with Sine Curve Man two decades after that, I saw a reflection of what it felt like to have the coordinates of my adolescent life viscerally shifted by the introduction of digital technologies—a transformation that in many ways is permanently registered on my own body. But the work also resonates with other experiences I’ve had that have nothing to do with technology, like the “convulsive beauty” described by the Surrealists and the existential nausea that accompanies our ceaseless struggle with existence. It remains one of my all-time favorite works of art.
Despite its formal resonance with modernist movements (particularly Expressionism) and its connection to the history of Western portraiture more broadly, Sine Curve Man is rarely discussed as if it belongs to the larger narrative of art history. Instead, it is situated at that “intersection of art and technology” that can seem like an unwanted child claimed by neither of its parents, failing to elicit interest as either art or technology. (I am excluding here those technological works that have been fully adopted as “art,” most of which take the form of fixed objects or files instead of distributed, interactive, or iterative projects.) Paradoxically, when members of the traditional “art world”—by which I mean the world of artists, dealers, collectors, critics, historians, and curators who define mainstream contemporary art—do look towards this intersection, they tend to see only its technological traits, like a father who sees only the mother’s face in the child he disowns. We become fixated on the affordances of a software program or the politics of a database; we even classify works according to the tools with which they were made (as in the case of “video art” or “internet art”), unintentionally reviving largely outmoded notions of medium-specificity.
I don’t want to dismiss the importance of framing “art and technology” as technology, but I do wonder if our focus on how these works are made tends to inhibit our ability to also fully experience them as art, pushing us away instead of drawing us closer. This is especially problematic if we consider that their aesthetics are also a source of both their meaning and their politics. The obvious retort is that many simply aren’t viable as aesthetic experiences. But the history of modern and contemporary art, at least, is a lineage of artists disrupting received notions of aesthetics. What might the future of art look like if we acknowledged the bastards of art and technology as heirs of this tradition, and accepted that even a plotter drawing rendered by a robot might make us cry?