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When Art Leads Science!

September 5, 2011

In a departure from the typical geopolitical commentaries about renewable energy, this artsy-fartsy discussion serves as a caesural pause while Capitol Hill decides the fate of America – job creation, balance budget, economic prosperity, health, education, welfare and energy policies, just to name a few. This piece is dedicated to a friend from France who showed that the meaning of life lies in its simplicity and patience.

This discussion is all about digital image processing, the process of converting analog information into digital format. With all that’s going on in the world, why select a topic as mundane as digitization. Interest in digital image processing (“DIP”) stems from two areas: a topic of fond memories dating back to the technology revolution of the mid 80’s when start-up funds were available, good ideas were funded, real advancements were made and my own personal involvement in creating the optical discs memory industry; and the need to improve the dissemination of pictorial information for human interpretation when “One picture is Worth a Thousand Words and Gigabytes of Data.”

Like any other nascent industry, the primordial days of computer imaging was hindered by sophisticated and affordable compression / interpolation software as well as processing, storage and retrieval hardware. These challenges served as the opportunity. Solutions were being developed to bring the 20 million “quality” pixels per frame of a top-quality 35mm picture to the desktop. At a bit precision of 48 bits per pixel for color files, one frame translates to 120 MB of information.

To put this into perspective, in the 80’s only a few owned the state-of-the-art and extremely expensive “Bernoulli Box” with capacities of 5, 10, and 20 MB (disk cartridges were 5.4” wide, 5.5” long and 0.4” thick). The cost of a 10 MB Bernoulli Box was $3,695 in July 1985 ($7,386 in 2010 dollars). There is a little know fact that while CD-ROM became commercially available in the early 90’s, in the mid to late 80’s my teams were producing ROM optical memory discs for major companies such as IBM and Eastman Kodak.

Historically, DIP is thought to have started in the 60s. At this time, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bell Laboratories, University of Maryland, and a few other research facilities, developed applications for satellite imagery, wire-photo standards conversion, medical imaging, videophone, character recognition, and photograph enhancement.

From a computer point of view, the 60’s was the launch of a new industry that has had a social and global impact possibly far greater than Gutenberg’s printing press. With the exception of the brain, only computers have the power to decode an analog image into bits-and-bytes and reconstruct it into a recognizable form. Nevertheless, in context to the thesis of this discussion, digital imaging has been around far longer than the computer. This claim becomes so obvious when it is understood that the aim of DIP is to convert the analog waveform of prints or images to a digital format in the form of pixels (picture elements), a single point in a graphic image.

The pixel is the smallest addressable screen element in a display device; it is the smallest unit of picture that can be represented or controlled. Graphics monitors display pictures by dividing the display screen into thousands (or millions) of pixels, arranged in rows and columns. The pixels are so close together that they appear continuous.

It is these very pixels that artists have used over the millenniums. Maybe for simplicity, maybe to dissect form from function, or maybe just to understand what lies within, pixelization of an image is an ancient technique. DIP is nothing more than a modern day variant of what early man discovered. True computer pixels are measured in microns. The artist’s pixel has been known to be measured in feet.  Regardless of size and refresh rate, art has led science in the discovery and use of DIP.

Case in point, a look at the awe inspiring Chauvet Cave  paintings dating back some 30,000 years to the Palaeolithic era reveals a series of digitized images (see picture above).  In the example shown below, a land animal is composed of nothing more than a uniform series of unconnected dots in columns and rows. Here stone rather than multilayer glass serves as the substrate. Similar to computer and TV screens, the closer one looks at the “painted” image, the less clear it becomes. At this distance, only the pixels are discernable. In both cases, from afar the image appears. Without exception and for whatever reason, the artist(s) unknown used DIP to store, access and share his/her environment.

Time warp to the Impressionistic art movement of the 19th-century, here we find the leading artists of the period struggling to free the form from itself. The closer they looked the simpler it became. Soon they saw the whole is nothing more than a compilation of a few simple elements. Alone, each element signifies very little. Collectively, the object they then became. Like DNA, where four nucleobases can be combined in various ways to create an infinite number of life forms, the image was nothing more than an assemblage of a few basic elements. The image itself became subordinate. Up close the picture was unrecognizable. From afar, the image was unmistakable. Claude Monet’s “Bridge over a Pond of Water” is a good representation of what can now be called “Impressionistic Digitization” (see painting on the right). No longer was the swopping continuous analog-like brush stroke the norm. Dot-like pixels ruled the day.

The quintessential manifestation of artistic digitization is seen in Piet Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, an art form consisting of white ground, upon which was painted a grid.  In an unrelenting search for simplicity and purity, his grid-based paintings on the canvas screen resemble to the truest sense the hidden matrix underpinning any conventional display screen. Piet’s elements become the image the focal point, lacking any intrinsic value to the larger unknown picture for which they may lie within.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, circa 1930, best exhibits this quantum leap of artistic form to pixel level (see painting on the right).  The microscope of the mind is now forced to focus down into the overlying backdrop of pure elements. The real image is far less important than that which makes it up. In contrast to today’s DIP where the goal is to make the pixel smaller and more discrete, Piet plays the reverse and hides the image in favor of the element. Seemingly far simpler than those painting of the earlier Impressionistic era, Mondrian catapults “art” into the unmistakable digital world.

In closing, the DNA of art has finally been revealed. Freed from the singularity of one static image, these discrete artistic building blocks can now form an infinite number of compositions. Again, the similarity with the digital arena becomes inseparable. In both cases, art and computers, brings images to us in the most efficient method possible. With computers it’s the pixel from digitization, with Art it’s the pixel from the artists’ hand. It’s not important what came first, but it is important to recognize the insight of early man in rendering our world to its purest form.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 7, 2011 7:57 AM

    This comment was received by personal email.

    ” Barry: I like your writing, very interesting. Pointillism, developed by Georges Seurat, which I studied in Europe, is very dramatic in it’s separation of dots, whereas divisionism, another form of pointillism was more concerned with the separation of colors. I recall having to paint some pictures utilizing these methods in school! I believe these methods too would be examples of how art influenced science?”

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