conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 27.08.2023
VICTOR ACEVEDO: "THE WORLD BEGAN TO CHANGE"
DESKTOP COMPUTER ART AND GEOMETRY
Los Angeles-based artist Victor Acevedo is known as a desktop computer art pioneer. While life without computers is unimaginable for digital natives, life with computers was unimaginable and unfamiliar for past generations. The term computer art lasted until the 1990s, when it was replaced by the term digital art.
Acevedo first encountered computer graphics in the 1980s. Before that, he was a painter. He wanted to be an oil painter like Van Gogh and Salvador Dalí. But it quickly became clear to him that he wanted to create pictures with digital tools and that this would become the new form of painting. "My frame of reference in the 1980s was hearing that it took photography 150 years to be embraced as a viable collectible art form. But that was no reason to drop it or turn back," says Acevedo.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Acevedo remembers how he came to computer art from painting, how computers changed the world and art, and how he brought cubism and photography together in his art.
Anika Meier: Victor, you are a desktop computer art pioneer. What does being a pioneer mean to you?
Victor Acevedo: Hmm, that’s a question that I’ve never been asked before. Thanks for asking. Its meaning to me brings a sense of gratitude and vindication. I am grateful that after all these years, my early digital artwork created in the first full decade of desktop computing is beginning to be recognized and valued. And the feeling of vindication of knowing that my decision to step towards the future with digital in 1983 was the right move as I set the known and familiar analog media imaging tools aside.
AM: I think being a pioneer means that someone keeps exploring and / or creating out of an inner need and curiosity, regardless of approval or attention. What has kept you going?
VA: At a core, mind-body-spirit level, it’s a belief that I am answering a calling. I am expressing and manifesting my life’s purpose. In less lofty terms, it’s more of a vocation than an occupation. Perseverance is fundamental to the journey. It is exciting to carry on, as there are always new things to learn. For example, these can be ideas, concepts, hardware, or software. And I have to say there is excitement about connecting with new audiences. They may not have been there when I started, but they are of a generation that naturally understands and recognizes what I’ve done and what I’m doing.
Anika Meier: How do you explain what you do to people who are not familiar with the history of computer art?
VA: I usually start off by saying that I’m a digital artist or an artist working with digital media. Most people today are familiar with the word or the concept of digital art. But to further describe myself, I will use the term desktop computer art pioneer. Which is quite useful. I feel that my status as a pioneer in the field needs to be qualified out of acknowledgement and respect for the pioneering digital artists that came before me—up to 20 to 30 years before me. They are in another category of pioneers.
I always remember what you said to me in our very first conversation via WhatsApp: "Every generation has its pioneers." I immediately resonated with that. That statement was liberating and clarifying all at once. Today, for most people, a desktop computer is as natural a component of social reality as, say, a car or a television, for example. They just exist and are all around us. They are part of a universal frame of reference. In the phrase "desktop computer art pioneer," the word pioneer conjures an early adopter. And it brings forth the notion of history. Which is an idea people always get, as it’s a form of cultural storytelling. Which can also be understood consciously or unconsciously as a subset of the grand biological narrative for us all and our planet.
Of course, there is an aspect of nostalgia in the term desktop because we now live in a world of ubiquitous battery-powered laptops, tablets, and phones operating within a wireless world-wide web ecosystem. And finally, there is nostalgia in the term computer art itself. Which was the name given to the form in the early 1960s, building on its primal origins in the decade before. The term persisted as the default moniker into the very early 1990s, when it was superseded by the term digital art. Hebert W. Franke’s book COMPUTER GRAPHICS, COMPUTER ART was published in 1971. Grant D. Taylor, in his 2014 book WHEN THE MACHINE MADE ART, adroitly discusses the evolution of the term.
AM: Your path has led you from painting on the canvas to painting on the screen. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
VA: Well, some of my earliest memories are of drawing as a child, as early as 4 or 5 years old (1958–59). It was an activity that came quite naturally.
I trace my adult decision to pursue the visual arts to an epiphany in December 1975, at age 21. I was in Amsterdam at the Vincent van Gogh Museum. Being in a room with dozens of Van Gogh paintings and being able to walk up close to them and feel the incredible power and resonance of that material, oil paint on canvas, cut into my psyche and in effect re-connected me to my core being. At that moment, it popped into my mind to pursue the visual arts as a career.
Another reason I believe this event had such an impact was that I was in the process of a life transition. Nine years before, I had started guitar lessons, and that evolved into playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands, but that had run its course by early 1975. I felt like I had hit a dead end with that. Although I had gradually attained a level of proficiency on the instrument, I had come to realize and accept that music was not my prime talent. Soon after returning to Los Angeles from Europe in early 1976, I moved to Albuquerque. I started art classes at the University of New Mexico about a year later. In 1977, pursuing visual art meant mastering the skills of painting and drawing. I didn’t learn about computer graphics until 1980 or 1981.
AM: How did you get started as a painter?
VA: Well, that is tied to my majoring in art history and studio arts at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. I began my formal training there, and after a couple of years, I moved back to Los Angeles and transferred to ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. Before seriously making artwork myself, I had been drawn to the work of M.C. Escher and Salvador Dalí, as they were coming through to me via popular culture. Then later, from the available books, I followed their sensibilities and workflows. They were, in effect, my role models for "how to be an artist". I looked at their work, and I thought to myself, "I could do this. I just need time and training." At that early stage, the idea was to be an oil painter.
AM: I have just read your impressive book, ACEVEDO IN CONTEXT. ANALOG MEDIA 1977–1987 Digital Media 1983–2020 Readers learn not only about your work but also about your influences over the decades. Your early influences were Salvador Dalí and M.C. Escher, Cézanne, Picasso, and Cubism. In which ways have these artists and movements influenced you?
VA: My father was a civil engineer. He has a natural talent for mathematics and drawing. I believe I inherited those talents and interests from him, but the part of mathematics that was most accessible to me visually was geometry. Hence the art and geometry connection.
In varying degrees, all of these artists used geometry in their work. Dalí is more known for his Surrealism, but if you go deep into his oeuvre, one will find geometrical form and phenomena embedded in some of his imagery. For example, check out his 1955 painting entitled THE LAST SUPPER. Of course, M.C. Escher is the more prominent exponent of geometric work. His use of zoomorphic tessellation was wonderful and exciting to gaze at. I especially love his image called SMALLER AND SMALLER (1956). I wanted to emulate his pattern-making, but with my own approach.
But first, I had to learn how he did it. In 1979, I travelled to Den Hague, Holland, to visit the M.C. Escher foundation, which was then housed at the Gemeentemuseum. I was given permission to make hand transcriptions of his zoomorphic tessellation studies from his personal sketchbooks. This was before they were published. It was a life-changing and revelatory episode.
Picasso and Braque’s Cubism was heavily influenced by Cézanne’s late work, in which he began to geometricize natural forms. Cubism and the work of Cézanne presented a visual paradigm that suggested perception could be filtered through a lens of essential geometric form. This was, in their time, a way to extrapolate beyond the standard or widely accepted modes of depicting light falling on physical forms.
That proto-Cubist and Cubist "perceptual remixing on the fly," as it were, really appealed to me, perhaps because back in 1974–75, I had been heavily influenced by reading books by Carlos Castaneda such as his JOURNEY TO IXTALAN and TALES OF POWER. The aspirational notion of seeing the true structure of reality as a metaphysical and perceptual act was already instilled in my psyche.
Since we’re talking geometry, I’d like to add that my study of Escher’s tessellations using 2D polygons led me to explore 3D all-space-filling polyhedra. And this brought me to the study of the field-like geometrical structures which are detailed in R. Buckminster Fuller's book called SYNERGETICS: EXPLORATIONS IN THE GEOMETRY OF THINKING. The primary polyhedral field that he discusses is the isotropic vector matrix (IVM). It is an all-space-filling network made up of alternating octahedra and tetrahedra. You can see the abstracted application of this in my image called SUNBURST COUPLE (1998). And of course, the concept of polyhedral enclosures exemplified in Fuller’s geodesic domes inspired my use of polyhedra, which can enclose, connect, and vectorially re-route the traceries of a photographic space, as seen in many of my digital compositions, which are computer graphic/photography hybrids. You can see that in such images as TELL ME THE TRUTH (1990) and 188.8.131.52 (1991).
AM: What have you learned as a painter that was later helpful for you as a digital artist?
VA: On the level of craft, there was learning how to draw properly, and with painting, there was a 2D modeling of form and the use of color contrast phenomenology by way of manipulating brush strokes and pigments. It was a kind of general "eye training," perhaps analogous to exercises in ear training for music majors. The perceptual component of these skill sets always comes into play independent of media. Using one’s trained painterly eye is always part of the process of building, rendering, and refining a digital image or experience.
AM: You were an early adopter of pre-Windows personal computer software. It took you four years to switch from analog to digital. Why did you decide to focus on digital art?
VA: I first learned about computer graphics around 1980. It was in a survey class taught by media theorist Gene Youngblood. It was based on his seminal 1970 book called EXPANDED CINEMA. Among the many cutting-edge artworks he showed the class was Ed Emshwiller’s SUNSTONE. This was produced in 1979 at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Seeing this for the first time was another one of those epiphanous, life-changing moments. For me, Emshwiller’s hybrid media work with computer graphic imagery was the way forward. It was clear that it was the new painting, and it also added a time-based element to the medium. I decided soon after that I would have to start using these digital tools to make pictures.
But access to computers in those days was very limited. This was before personal computers with 2D or 3D graphics software were widely available. In the meantime, my trajectory in analog media continued at full speed. In 1983, I took my first exploratory steps in computer graphics via a weekend workshop and, in 1984, a semester-long class at a private college called West Coast University. Starting in 1985, I got more frequent access to a PC running a modeling and animation system called the Cubicomp. It wasn’t until 1987 that I felt that the images I was making were ready to be shown publicly. This started with the ECTOPLASMIC KITCHEN series.
One of the key reasons I decided to focus on digital art was because I had been involved with geometry in my analog media work. And I could see that the expanded set of digital tools presented an opportunity to explore and render this subject matter in more facile ways and in more depth.
From the first examples of digital work that I saw in Gene Youngblood’s EXPANDED CINEMA class, it was clear that the underlying domain of computer graphics (digital imaging) was mathematical modeling. In a sense, mathematics and geometry were its native languages. I saw it in the NYIT computer graphic simulations of light falling on synthetic forms within a 3-space Cartesian grid.
Within the non-objective realm, it was apparent in the electronic on/off graphical toggle of video noise tessellations found in some of Steina and Woody Vasulka’s experimental abstract videos.
In 1980, being in close proximity to the end of the 20th century, I felt like the conceptual range of analog media had run its course and this new media brought with it a wide-open frontier of possibilities. I suppose that by nature I am a kind of futurist, and the idea of art and technology was an exciting new proposition. There was no turning back or a desire to tread water in my artistic practice.
Other work that Youngblood showed included MEDIA BURN by Chip Lord and visual music films by John & James Whitney, Jordan Belson, and others. The video document of the incredible HOLE IN SPACE (1980) project by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz was also quite profound.
AM: As an artist, you are known for your digital work involving print-making and video.
VA: Yes, that is true. In regard to printmaking, in the 1980s and 1990s, the single static digital image, although akin to painting in nature or a painting/photography hybrid, had its presentation as an art object translated most directly into the realm of printmaking. An artwork could be offered as a one-of-one or in a signed limited edition of multiples. At first, it might be via photographic reproduction (in the earliest days, photographs were taken right off a computer monitor), and then later, the images would be printed directly from the computer file via ink jet printing or digital photo printers. This was the period following the days of plotter output of computer art imagery that was primarily linear in structure. In these late 20th century days, the digital artist’s way included surfing the progressive developments of software, computers, digital printers, and printmaking tech that included the need to invent archival, light-fast ink sets. Archival cotton rag paper substrates were already available, having been an integral part of analog media printmaking.
The video part of it manifested gradually as I maintained a love for or interest in time-based imagery from my earliest days. The idiom of visual music, which I was introduced to in Gene Youngblood’s EXPANDED CINEMA class in 1980, was the portal through which I formulated a personal approach to computer animation. In retrospect, video was and is the canvas for the digital renders of animated synthetic structures and their eventual pairing with live-action video in composite. I started working with digital video in earnest in 2007. In 2013, I coined the term Electronic Visual Music (EVM), which is the abstract cousin of EDM and was intended as an update to the storied and historic form called Visual Music.
AM: In an era before personal computing, you were part of a group of artists who imagined a future of ubiquitous connectivity. What did that future look like, as you had imagined?
VA: When I hear the term ubiquitous connectivity, I think of the internet or the World Wide Web, and that did not impact my digital art practice until the early 1990s. At first, the engagement and practice appeared local to a direct interface with a single computer. This was at first done algorithmically in the early hands-on experiences I had in 1983 and 1984. But even as I was taking these first tentative steps into the digital domain, the advent of personal computers equipped with graphic user interfaces altered the cultural landscape.
From my neophyte vantage point, the significance of this internet connectivity was not clear. But I was interested. For me, the first inkling of this transformative connective technology was the introduction of email to a wide swath of the public. This ontological transformation of the world via digital technologies was beyond what I could have imagined before that time.
AM: And what are your thoughts about this vision becoming reality decades later with the Internet, social media, and Web3? Are you surprised?
VA: I am surprised, yet not surprised. This and your previous question take me back to about 1991. It was a moment when I felt that I had attained a reasonable level of mastery of the computer to make pictures. But then, seemingly all of a sudden, all around me, the world began to change. The change was built on the developments of digital technology. Now available were interfaces that supported public interactivity and expanded modes of communication and connectedness. I remember the first Web 1.0 browsers rolling out. Just hearing about this new thing called the World Wide Web was profound. I found it fascinating, but I have to admit I didn’t understand its full significance at the time. Perhaps this is like the recent advent of the blockchain and how it interacts with or will interact with Web 3.0.
AM: What are some of the challenges you faced back then? About Lee Mullican I know that people thought he was wasting his time working with computers.
VA: I recall that period of time that Lee spoke about. He and I got involved with computers around the same time. The challenges fell into two main categories: One was learning the digital tools themselves (the software interfaces), which were unfamiliar to me. I had to develop new ways of thinking to assimilate the software logic that was built on the machine language and the layers of coding above it.
The other challenge was the fact that there was virtually no market for this new medium called computer art. It was clear that it was misunderstood and that it would take decades to be accepted and valued. My frame of reference in the 1980s was hearing that it took photography 150 years to be embraced as a viable collectible art form. But that was no reason to drop it or turn back.
Being that the world at large itself was becoming digital—that is, mediated by expanded interactive pathways and evolving into its foretold cybernetic future—I felt that it wouldn’t take that long. It’s interesting to think that from 1965 (the year of the first gallery computer art shows) through the advent of the early 2014 blockchain NFT experiments to its current operability in tandem with Web 3.0 and AI in 2023, that is 58 years. The pace is promising.
AM: Have you ever had the feeling that you have wasted your time?
VA: Not at all. It’s more the feeling that I have followed my destiny. I feel fortunate that being an artist is one of those careers in which you can hit your stride in middle age. As the I CHING (Book of Changes) says, "Perseverance furthers."