Anne Spalter is a mixed-media digital artist who creates perspective-bending, kaleidoscopic work using computer-enhanced images that she shoots herself, often from helicopters, airplane windows or moving cars and trains. Her ideas range from a series based on Wonder Woman’s Invisible Plane to a piece that New Yorkers may well have seen if they were passing through the downtown Fulton Center in the Fall of 2017. Entitled “New York Dreaming”, a pulsating set of distorted city images were beamed over the ceilings and walls, creating one of the most distinctive pieces of public art in recent years.
A pioneer in the field of digital fine arts, Anne founded classes both at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design as well as writing one of the first books on the subject, The Computer in Visual Arts (Addison-Wesley, 1999). We interviewed her at her home in Williamsburg which she shares with her husband, daughter, an elderly Basset hound named Carl, two cats and two elusive rabbits.
We once had an interview with [an artist], who only much later in our conversation, told us she uses a computer for some of her work … it was almost like it goes against the grain to use a computer to make art. Has that been any kind of problem for you?
That definitely has been the case for a long time with but fortunately people’s attitudes have begun to change. When we started the first fine art computer classes at both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, it certainly was something I had to deal with.
So is it the idea that it’s “cheating” in some way?
Yes. It’s as if you didn’t do it with your own hands so somehow it’s not really fine art. And there’s even something, like, really “wrong” with it. I also started out that way as an artist. I thought I would never use the computer and it took me a while. The hard part is making the artwork, the idea, and expressing it. Then making the imagery or video that you want is the challenge.
So without asking you to be defensive about it, how do you convey to people where the skill lies? What is difficult about it? What takes time?
I think like any medium, it’s just as if you were learning how to use a pencil or a paintbrush. What are the concepts? What’s a pixel? What’s a vector-based thing on the computer? How can you use that to bring forward your vision and your method as an artist?
But it just looks like you’re pressing buttons, right?
I think people felt [the same] about photography as well. When the camera was first invented and the photographic process, people said, “Oh it’s easy. Anyone can be a photographer.” And that after a while you realize that some people press the button and they get crap and Ansel Adams presses the button and he gets art. Critics begin to realize that there’s a difference—but it took a while. And it took a language, a critical language. I think that has occurred now with the field of computer or new media art.
In the sense of this being a relatively established form of art, can you say it’s “new” art? Is there such a thing? What are the historical precedents of what you do?
When I was writing this book [“The Computer in Visual Arts”], one of the things that I asked was, “Who are the people who pioneered this field and took advantage of the computer when the computer itself was first being invented?” I actually called up those artists who first worked this way and created art using punch cards. My husband, who studied art history, began to study early computer artwork and he said that these artists were like the Impressionists. No one will look at their artwork but they all know each other and they are working on something. Someone should be purchasing this work and acquiring it and understanding it better. We have begun to collect pieces here and there and we now have one of the largest collections of early computer work.
What were your first thoughts about their work?
It took a while to appreciate their work. When you first see it, you think it’s sort of like Modernism, black and white, very severe … kind of like a big Etch-a-Sketch. When you learn more about it, you go, wow, someone without even the relevant background built their own computers and stayed up for forty-eight hours to watch this machine draw this picture.
Why did they start doing this do you think?
They were able to pursue an aesthetic idea they had further than they could do it by hand.
Were they mostly like you with a kind of crossover math and art background?
Some are, yes. It was harder to understand now that you have a little paintbrush [icon] in the corner and you start to draw. [Back then] those people had to say, okay I want my line to go from a co-ordinate that I have to write down. It’s x-2y=4 to x+3y=10 and write that down for every line, give that to someone who makes a punch card and runs that stack of punch cards overnight when no one else wants to use the machines. It was so slow and not interactive. I would never have been an early adopter—I’m way too impatient! I’m too much of a slob to be a programmer—you have to be meticulous. You miss a semi-colon or a comma and that ruins everything.
I was going to ask you about that because it reminded me of Islamic geometrics in that kind of art, so it does look meticulous. I mean there are artists like Van Gogh where it seems to be about letting all your feelings through and then there’s an artist like Kandinsky—the Constructivists.
[This work] takes a certain mindset. It definitely appeals to people who love geometry and a certain type of order. I also enjoy bringing a kind of order to things even though my work is based on video. It takes the chaos of the real world and my work draws on patterning and Islamic art, bringing a kind of order to the universe.
It’s comforting when you make some kind of order out of it. I think that is a spiritual thing.
But doesn’t Islamic art reflect the order of the universe?
They did believe that geometry reflects a greater order. So I love mandalas, for example. I don’t think it has to be one specific religious belief that you believe in. And mathematics does reflect nature, so it’s spiritual without necessarily being religious.
Another thing I wanted to talk to you about is that most everybody who describes your work describes it as “trippy” or “psychedelic” … what do you think of those descriptions?
I don’t do any drugs! But people offer me drugs … “I can get you mushrooms for a great price!” I guess those drugs, because they release certain chemicals in your brain, let you see those things and bring that structure.
I took acid once and I didn’t see anything like that. I almost wonder if it isn’t almost a lazy description of your kind of work.
Well those drugs do tap into the organic structure of the brain. It does all go back to some organic visual thing. And there are the Jungian symbols, circles, spirals … I think we’re all drawn to those. A lot of drugs—I don’t know the exact word—but they suppress the higher levels of our brain function, or let some lower level thing come out, and a lot of art making does that.
What about the generational differences in terms of who appreciates your work? Do younger people “get” it more readily?
I can tell you that young kids really love my work. But I don’t think it’s age-specific.
At first I have to say [your work] didn’t appeal to me because I like paint and I like texture but I kept on looking at your website and it sort of grew on me. For an older person, I would say you have to keep looking. Why do you think that might be?
Well young people are looking at Instagram all day and art online all day long. I mean when I was an undergraduate, I was like, “I would never make art with a computer!” So I came around.
I think we 50-somethings are a bit unique in the sense that we are the last generation that grew up both without and with technology. I mean I had a typewriter, and not ironically or out of nostalgia.
I had this typewriter that I loved! An old Olivetti that was like, this turquoise color. I typed every paper on it until I got to my thesis, which was like over a hundred pages … I was like, “Oh my God, I could use this machine instead.” I had so much whiteout I was painting it on. My grandmother who [grew up] during the Depression, got me a computer in my senior year of college. She was very forward thinking.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Midwood. My grandmother came when she was very young from Poland and was one of nine children living in Brooklyn. She was the second law school graduate from St. John’s but she never worked [as a lawyer] because of the Depression. She never spent money on anything but in my senior year in college, she was like, “I hear computers are where it’s at.” And she spent two thousand some-odd dollars on this Mac 128K for me.
Do you have any ambivalence about technology, and if you do, what are you ambivalent about?
You know I still go back and forth … there’s some drawing and some analog ways of working. I have an iPad … the [iPad] pencil is really nice, a nice intermediate. You know what, I think technology just adds to things. I don’t think it supplants things. I keep using the cutting edge technology but I cleared out a room downstairs so that I could use charcoal.
Do you feel like the computer is your collaborator … and do you ever have a moment where it’s like Hal in 2001 Space Odyssey where it’s taking over?
The fun thing about it and doing the patterning that I do, especially with video and representational work, [your brain] eliminates a lot of stuff for you—if you had to think about everything, you wouldn’t get out the door. So when I work with the patterning and [the computer] gives me that kaleidoscopic view of everything, it doesn’t let me see it as an object anymore. I see different colors in the scene, colors that I hadn’t noticed or how they were working together or relationships between objects that I hadn’t seen. It is a fun voyage of discovery. It’s not like the computer is making it for me. It takes the same amount of time as doing a painting or making a sculpture.
And you shoot all your own footage, don’t you?
Yes. I’ve tried using other footage but it doesn’t work. I will shoot from helicopters, airplane windows or moving cars or trains. And I will go back at different times for different lights.
Your work is so kaleidoscopic. As I child I was given a kaleidoscope and I’ve never forgotten it.
It’s magical! There’s something truly magical about a kaleidoscope!
You sound like a workaholic.
I am. I mean … what else would I do all day? If you would do something else with your free time, then you probably shouldn’t be an artist.