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Episode 53
Anne Spalter - Artist, Author and Collector

  • 19 min read

Episode Description

The first in a series of discussions that took place recently at and around the world’s largest NFT conference - NFT.NYC

A conversation with artist, author and collector Anne Spalter. Anne’s artwork combines traditional mark-making, digital tools and a collection of symbols to produce work that is highly collected. Her large-scale public art installations are in high demand, with one living in New York City’s busiest commuter hub for almost a year. Nearly three decades ago, Anne created the first digital art classes at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. That led to her writing the book “The Computer in the Visual Arts” which has become the go-to text for the instruction of the topic. In the process of writing that book, she and her husband Michael Spalter found a passion for collecting historically significant works of digital art. The Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection (AKA Spalter Digital), is now one of the world’s largest private collections of early computer art, comprising over 900 works from the second half of the twentieth century. That being said, no one can speak with more authority about the state of digital art than today’s guest.

https://annespalter.com/

https://spalterdigital.com/

Transcript

Craig: [00:00:10] This is Art Sense, a podcast focus on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. Over the next several weeks, I'll be featuring a range of conversations that took place recently at and around the world's largest NFT conference, NFT.NYC. On today's episode I speak with artist, author and collector Anne Spalter. Anne's artwork combines traditional mark making, digital tools and a collection of symbols to produce work that is highly collected. Her large-scale public art installations are in high demand, with one living in New York City's busiest commuter hub for almost a year. Nearly three decades ago, Anne created the first digital art classes at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design that led to her writing the book, "The Computer and the Visual Arts", which has become the go-to text for the instruction of the topic. In the process of writing that book, she and her husband, Michael Spalter, have found a passion for collecting historically significant works of digital art. The Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection, a.k.a. Spalter Digital, is now one of the world's largest private collections of early computer art, comprising over 900 works from the second half of the 20th century. That being said, no one can speak with more authority about the state of digital art than today's guest. And now, a conversation about digital pioneers and AI dreams with Anne Spalter.

Craig: [00:02:00] Anne Spalter, thank you so much for joining me this week on the Art Sense podcast. Anne, I know that you have been teaching, writing, collecting, making digital art for going on three decades. How did this become your passion?

Anne: [00:02:18] I love art, was creating art ended up going to art school. I was happy as a traditional artist and in fact, didn't like the idea of using a computer in the arts. So I was really kind of against it to begin with. I thought you had to be using your hand, interact with the physical medium, the idea that you would write some instructions and it would make something. I wasn't on board with that at all, but I graduated and it was the eighties. My parents stopped sending me a check. I actually had three majors at Brown Visual: Visual Art, Mathematics (but just pure math) and a sort of literature-based independent thing which you can do at Brown.

Craig: [00:03:10] Right.

Anne: [00:03:11] I thought I'd get some fantastic job, but it was like my majors were so abstract. The career office, I did a strange sort of test. They said, "Oh, you can be an actuary". I had to look that up because like you predict when people will die. I ended up going into banking because it was the eighties. Everyone was going into investment banking. I didn't really know what that was. It turns out to be very lucrative. So it was like I made money. But you work a million hours a week. I had no time to do art, but I had a computer, right? So because I'm actually an artist at heart, I began making art on the computer in my little cubicle.

Craig: [00:03:47] Right.

Anne: [00:03:47] And I began realizing how powerful a tool it is to make art with right at the beginning, realizing I was not a banker. Right. And that I should maybe go back and get MFA or leave banking. So I applied to RISD as a graduate student in painting and got accepted and went back and I thought, okay, I'm done with the computer again, I'm just going to make a painting. And and then I did something and I regretted it and I thought, undo, you know, in my mind, I'm so used to being there and nothing happened because I was back in the analog world and and I just realized it's such a powerful visual thinking tool. And I wanted to combine the power of the computer, but also the lovely feeling of analog media. So that sort of was my project as a graduate student, and I've been using the computer ever since in different ways.

Craig: [00:04:43] What's interesting in your story just just a few weeks ago, I had artist Sara morris on my podcast who also went to Brown, who also studied, didn't study art. And she she studied a philosophy degree, very akin to poly sci. Right. And so, you know, I think it's something really interesting about Brown that both of you went there. I think I already didn't necessarily study art, but.

Anne: [00:05:15] I did study I mean, I studied...I actually began at RISD, so I studied art at RISD, I transferred to Brown. Most of my classes were at RISD.

Craig: [00:05:23] Yeah, sure. 

Anne: [00:05:24] But I just didn't study the computer and art. And actually, as a graduate student, I wanted to take classes to learn more about the computer and art. And there weren't any. And I was asked to teach one to help everyone learn more about it. And so it was sort of the one eye leading the blind, but it's a great way to learn more about something. And because there weren't really the resources I needed to do that also led to my writing the book that I eventually published.

Craig: [00:05:52] So. So you so you went to sea to get your MFA. I got that right. Okay. And so then did you go from there to teaching at RISD and.

Anne: [00:06:06] Started teaching there first, fine art, digital computer course, and then Brown asked me to teach a version of it as well. And for a while I taught a joint Brown RISD, Digital Fine Art class. Then I was moved of into the computer science department at Brown, which was fantastic, and they have an amazing, internationally recognized computer science department. I got to work with Andy van Dam, who is a co-founder of the department and a huge figure in the computer science graphics field and work there in the computer graphics research group doing just like creative graphics research interface design and was an artist in residence with the computer graphics research group for over ten years.

Craig: [00:06:49] So you came to this space at a point where there there is no textbook, there's no curriculum, there is no there are no lesson plans or, you know, like you. You know, looking back, I feel like a lot of the instruction kind of started with you and your book, "The Computer and the Visual Arts".

Anne: [00:07:11] Well, I mean, there were schools that were...School of Visual Arts had started a program. So there were people doing things, but certainly not to the extent that there are today. And a lot of us were developing our own things.

Craig: [00:07:25] We're obviously sitting here in the world's largest NFT conference. Right. What is it about Nfts that pique your...Did NFTs pique your interest right away?

Anne: [00:07:37] I mean, yeah. So this is something I never would have predicted or anticipated. And when I began using the computer in my art, as many artists discovered, there was a lot of hostility and pushback. So when I told people, visiting critics, when I was a grad student, "Oh, I use the computer to make this", people literally refused to look at my work, not even like, "I saw it. And I don't like it", but ,"I won't look at it because he used a computer", and many of the pioneering artists who now are being asked to do museum shows and things could not get their work shown anywhere for decades because of the hostility from the traditional art world to anything using a computer. 

Craig: [00:08:23] So why is that? Why? Why is it that it was a medium that was overlooked by the art world?

Anne: [00:08:30] And it's still overlooked by the art world. I think like a lot of the reason that we began collecting. Michael Spalter was an art history major at Brown and when I was writing this book, it took me over six years to finish it. So he had to learn a lot about digital art, living with me and as an art history major, he said, "You know what, these people, they're like the Impressionists. They all know each other. They have bodies of amazing work. They show together. They've studied art. They're sophisticated people, you know, but they're really separate from the academy. And they're like they're like the Impressionists. They're like every art movement I've ever studied. So and we should help support them and champion this movement." And that's how we actually started collecting their work. So I think it's actually a kind of a common story in the art world and maybe it's even unfolding faster than other movements. We're just sort of accustomed with the Internet to things happening,you know, really quickly. But so some part of it is just that it's new. Other reasons are that the computer, when those artists started using it, you didn't have like the computer we have in our phone, which is more powerful than the one used to, you know, send men to the moon.

Craig: [00:09:45] Right.

Anne: [00:09:47] They could only use computers in big institutions like Bell Labs, the government, corporate computers. So it was like associated with things that many artists didn't vibe with and you had to learn how to program. They didn't have screens in the beginning. You had like a stack of punch cards. Someone would run them for you at two in the morning. You didn't know what you would get. It was extremely challenging and somewhat bizarre and also the hand wasn't involved. So similarly to photography, where in the beginning, you know, people said, "oh, it's not it's not an art form. Anyone can press a button and get a photo." And then after a while, people realize, like, you know, Ansel Adams presses the button and it's different than when you press the button.

Craig: [00:10:29] That was part of the comment I had made on the panel is that I feel like there's been a long history of the art world being tied up with craftsmanship and the number of hours. And a lot of that has changed since things have since we've gone through conceptualism and minimalism. And what's between an artist's ears is more important than, you know, how it's being executed. And that's the reason we're able to have teams in the studio execute an artist's vision. But, you know, in some way, I feel like part of the reason it was discounted is because they felt like the computer was somehow, you know, cutting corners. Or is that true?

Anne: [00:11:17] No, I think that is and that's still an issue that there's an assumption that the computer is sort of usurping the creativity of the artist and doing something that that it shouldn't be taking over some sort of role of creativity. And I think part of it has also been kind of C.P. Snow "The Two Cultures" problem. So you know he said that like artists aren't scientists and humanities people don't understand each other and don't speak the same languages. And the problem is often on the humanities side of things, if you ask a scientist about Shakespeare, they know about Shakespeare. But if you ask humanities people about the second law of thermodynamics, they often don't know what you're talking about, even though these things are equally important. So art critics often have no idea what a computer program is, what an algorithm is, how these artworks were made. So it's hard to to understand them and why they're important. So they looked at them and it just looked like people didn't understand that modernism had already happened and they were sort of revisiting it too late.

Anne: [00:12:21] When I go to your website and I look at your CV, you know, the oldest date there is your book, and then, you know, your history of exhibitions and media. Those dates start at like 2016.

Anne: [00:12:38] It got it got so long. I took all that off the web.

Craig: [00:12:41] I was trying to figure out, like, well, is it.

Anne: [00:12:43] Look ridiculous having this pages and pages?

Craig: [00:12:46] Has it been condensed or was there a point where you were just shot out of a cannon?

Anne: [00:12:53] No, no, no. I started showing things much earlier, but sure, mostly people want a CV that's like three or four pages. So I figured that...

Craig: [00:13:03] So what was what has been your artistic journey? Not. Not as a collector and not as as an instructor, but as an artist like, you know, climbing that hill yourself as a digital artist, what has that been like?

Anne: [00:13:20] It's been the same since I was an undergrad, and throughout all the different media that I've used, it's kind of been the same kind of imagery and symbols, and I think that is true for a lot of artists. You kind of find what you are fascinated by or you're working on, and you're kind of working on that sort of for the rest of your life. I don't know, like it's your thing and you can't really escape it. And you could be drawing about it or painting about it or using a supercomputer that's like your challenge. So all my work, it's got it's got highways and airplanes and lighthouses and it's all landscapes, not really people. It's that's the way it is. So it's that sort of independent of the media.

Craig: [00:14:07] Sure. And so modes of transportation.

Anne: [00:14:12] Yeah. Like modern landscape, say, is one way of describing it. And then like symbols, it's kind of from the collective unconscious but like updated for our time. So Jung wrote about the collective unconscious and he used things from his time, so he didn't have like spaceships or...actually he wrote an amazing book on spaceships, so that's a bad example. But yeah, trying to use contemporary things, but that resonate not just for me but for everyone.

Craig: [00:14:42] So yeah. So what is it about that theme? I mean, is it is it about the fact that it's ubiquitous and everybody engages or is there some underlying thing about transportation transforming us in your mind? What does it mean to you?

Anne: [00:15:02] I think often it's sort of like a freedom, escape, travel, trying to, you know, transcend and go somewhere new and break through to somewhere.

Craig: [00:15:13] Can you tell me about your recent work? You've started using more and more AI. For the listener, Anne's eyes just got really big and she smiled.

Anne: [00:15:28] I'm obsessed with AI now.

Craig: [00:15:30] Tell me. Tell me why. Why are you obsessed with AI? Tell me what its meaning to your body of work.

Anne: [00:15:36] Yeah. I think AI is going to change the art world and it's already enormously influencing the NFT world. It enables, I think, more people to create amazing artwork and amazing visual things and it's so bizarre. 

Craig: [00:15:56] Right

Anne: [00:15:56] So I started out doing GAN-based things, generative adversarial networks. You have sets of images and you kind of have two sets of images sort of pitted against one another, but you're essentially trying to make new elements of a set of images that are like the other elements of that set of images. So I did a whole series and I had some images of airplanes and it was trying to make new images of airplanes, but it didn't really succeed. And in that process made all kinds of bizarre compositions that looked like crashed planes and spaceships and fantastical things that had a weird perspective that AI makes. It's not, it's not 3D perspective, it's not flat. It's its own strange world.

Craig: [00:16:49] Yeah. I mean, that's the part I find exhilarating about it is that it seems to get closer to surrealism than a lot of the people that are intentionally trying to get to surrealism. There's like this juxtaposition and, you know, ephemeral feel that, you know, when I look at it, it almost feels like very dreamy. Right. Yeah. I mean, like, there's.

Anne: [00:17:16] Something that appeals to me because it is like it's dreaming. It's sort of like the machine is looking into its mind, especially when you use text to image AI, which is what I've been using recently. And that actually taps into these huge databases like ImageNet. So you have millions and millions of images scraped from the web, right? And it's looking into that whole kind of cultural image repository. So it is sort of a collective consciousness.

Craig: [00:17:44] It's like looking at the text descriptions on these images from across the web. And it's it's training itself and responding to your text input based on kind of meshing...

Anne: [00:17:57] Based on categorizations of those images. And the bizarre thing is that naming the objects of those images is done by hand by people.

Craig: [00:18:05] Right.

Anne: [00:18:06] So it really is sort of an interaction of of minds of all these different minds at once.

Craig: [00:18:12] Wow. This converging collective.

Anne: [00:18:15] Yeah. So it's kind of a strange group project and it brings up a lot of issues of authorship and originality. So although I think people's concerns about the early generative artwork were really misplaced, about whether the machine was really being creative or...now some of those actually are pretty valid. You know, where, where is the creativity?

Craig: [00:18:40] Right.

Anne: [00:18:40] If you type in a phrase of a few words and you get an amazing image of are you the author? Because you typed in three words, is the person who wrote the, you know, neural programing is like is the prompt writer? Yeah. Is it because you chose it and it fits your body of work?

Craig: [00:19:02] That's right.

Anne: [00:19:03] A lot of strange things.

Craig: [00:19:04] So you were mentioning earlier the I like airplanes. Right. And I saw a number of those on your site that were paintings.

Anne: [00:19:15] Yeah.

Craig: [00:19:15] And so, you know, and I guess using the AI to get there conceptually and then putting the craftsmanship back in there as a painting, I guess it kind of answers some of that, you know, skepticism from someone like, oh, well, where's your hand in here?

Anne: [00:19:36] Right. Yeah. And I have to say, I showed those at an art fair called Spring Break Art Show, which is an amazing art fair that everyone should attend. And I've been in it for many years in a row I thought I didn't apply. This year is the first year I haven't applied in forever, but usually I have some sort of digital, weird digital thing and maybe I sell like one or two pieces. That year I made oil paintings and I sold out my whole room. So, yeah, people like people like traditional artwork. It's still a much easier.

Craig: [00:20:11] And people keep saying, people keep on proclaiming that painting is dead.

Anne: [00:20:16] Right. No, I don't know. It's it's been around for hundreds of years. It doesn't seem to be. It's beautiful. I don't...oil paintings are beautiful. I have nothing against oil paintings.

Craig: [00:20:25] Right.

Anne: [00:20:25] But I made those because it was the earlier days of all of these processes and the output was very low resolution. So I actually couldn't show it the way that it was delivered to me. And I thought, how can I use this great composition? And I thought, I can blow it up and render it by painting it.

Craig: [00:20:44] So that brings up a great topic, which is scale. I see that some of your work may be as small as ten inches square and some of your work may be as large as 47,000 square feet. Tell me about the the role of scale in your artwork and how do you choose? And I guess the technology is catching up to the point where you can this can be as big as you want it to be. Right?

Anne: [00:21:14] It's still hard with AI because it's so computationally expensive that most of the output is pretty low resolution by the standards that people are used to working at. If it's a vector based thing, you know, which a lot of the algorithmic art is, you can be any scale. If you're working with a raster graphics, Photoshop, kind of photographic based thing, then you can be more limited. But I like things to be large scale because it is largely landscape artwork. So if it's at a scale where you're in the landscape, I think that does work well for a lot of my pieces. So I've done a lot of installation work and public artwork where you're immersed in some kind of space and the artwork's around you.

Craig: [00:21:59] Somebody that. Only knows about artwork online, maybe doesn't appreciate color field painting unless they go to a museum and they stand in front of a Rothko, for example, and are just enveloped in the art. Right? And so.

Anne: [00:22:19] Yeah, it's ironic that a lot of digital artwork doesn't look good just seeing it on a screen, you know, if it was created on a plotter.

Craig: [00:22:27] Right.

Anne: [00:22:28] It can be a lot of very fine lines and amazing detail that you just don't see if you're looking at a little image on your screen or on your phone. So it's actually wonderful to go to shows of early computer artwork and a lot of work looks better on a large monitor. Or it's actually created in some way that you need to see it in person.

Craig: [00:22:52] So now you're beginning to sound like a collector. And so that'd be a great transition. What do you look for when when you're collecting digital art? Like, what is it? Are there particular qualities or is it a gut feel, something that speaks to you? Or is it somehow tied to what your perception of like the historical significance of this work is going to be?

Anne: [00:23:22] The collection is very focused mostly on the early digital, you know, computer artwork, but we only collect things that we like.

Craig: [00:23:30] Right.

Anne: [00:23:30] So the theory from the beginning has been, if all of this turns out to be something that no one else appreciates, we love it. So it will be something amazing to have on the wall. Like you can't lose that way. So I think people that collect sort of more speculation, that's a different mindset. So we never sold anything. And I don't think I could acquire something that I don't think is a good piece of art. I don't know. It would be painful.

Craig: [00:24:01] So let me ask you, as as an artist, do you do you do much trading with the other artists?

Anne: [00:24:10] Yeah, especially with NFT. So one of the many things that I like about NFTs is it's really easy to trade work. So, I mean, I have a lot of artist friends and in the traditional art world we've often said, "Oh, we should trade work or collaborate", but the logistics of it, it's like, it's hard to do and does happen, but it's harder. But with NFTs, it's like, "Oh yeah, like, what's your wallet address?" And it's like a few clicks of the mouse and it's a much more frequent.

Craig: [00:24:40] I was having the conversation backstage with the other panel members here at NFT.NYC, and I was explaining that I was going to be talking with you and you know, your background as a collector of, you know, this historically significant digital artwork. And, you know, people were very interested to know where were the origins. Right. And, you know, you know, I have taught art history. And I, you know, just within my lifetime have seen such a drastic change in what we consider the canon of art. Right? My question to you is, is there someone in your collection in this digital art space that you foresee in 20-30 years that is going to be discovered and recognized to be on par in terms of significance as their traditional art world contemporaries of their generation.

Anne: [00:25:48] I think a whole bunch of them will be. And the one who I think even right now is becoming recognized that way is Vera Molnar...You can tell we are really here at NFT.NYC...Yeah, Vera Molnar, whose work is amazing, is really at the age of 98 becoming internationally recognized and shown and written about and collected by MoMA here in New York and other major museums. And I think rising right up to that level.

Craig: [00:26:27] Right. So a lot of that art based on you were discussing earlier how a lot of when we think about the early days of computer art, you know, we're talking about punch cards and mainframes that filled up entire basements. Was the lot of it was a lot of the output from those early pieces physical or were they using a plotter? Of the work that we have, what does it look like? What is it?

Anne: [00:27:00] Yes. It's India ink on paper drawn with a plotter. Some of the work is photographed from a screen. So we have actually some early work that's photographed from an oscilloscope. So that's even like pre digital.

Craig: [00:27:18] Sure

Anne: [00:27:19] But mostly plotter based because there were like raster based printers. They were impact printers later on, but artists like plotters and artists still use them. And if you see like portables and you know, people have the axis draw now it's beautiful plotter and unlike an inkjet printer that prints raster like line and line line, the plotter draws so the ink or whatever you're drawing with the lines go on top of each other. So you have the physics of light going through multiple layers of media.

Craig: [00:27:55] Sure.

Anne: [00:27:57] It's not one flat surface. All right.

Craig: [00:27:59] So let me ask you what your opinion like where where do you where do you think we are in terms of this space and where do you think we're headed?

Anne: [00:28:10] Well, that kind of ties back to you were asking me about NFTs. So when I saw Art Blocks and the on-chain generative art, I thought, this is sort of a direct descendant of what these pioneers were doing, sort of the long form generative art. I thought a lot of them would be really excited about it. Turned out not to be the case. Some were. Many not. But I think it's like genetically very related and very exciting. And I was excited that so many young artists were doing this and so enthusiastic about it. And it's also wonderful that now they're discovering these older artists and their work and they're actually becoming a real collector base for those artists work. So it's like a wonderful circle in history of artists and collectors.

Craig: [00:29:06] That's awesome.

Anne: [00:29:07] Yeah.

Craig: [00:29:08] So Anne, if somebody wanted to follow you and maybe see your collection, find out more about everything Anne Spalter, where's the best place to follow.

Anne: [00:29:22] You on social media? And my website is just Anne Spalter all one word, all lowercase. It's Anne with an "e" and s p like Peter a l t like Thomas e r and the collection is spalterdigital.com.

Craig: [00:29:39] And I cannot say thank you enough for you being generous with your time and talking with me and being willing to open up about your passion, so...

Anne: [00:29:50] Thank you.

Craig: [00:29:52] Yeah. It's my pleasure.

Craig: [00:29:58] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art since you can find the show on Apple Podcast, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to canvia.art and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at craig@canvia.art. Thanks for listening.

Show More >
Anne: [00:15:28] I'm obsessed with AI now.

Craig: [00:15:30] Tell me. Tell me why. Why are you obsessed with AI? Tell me what its meaning to your body of work.

Anne: [00:15:36] Yeah. I think AI is going to change the art world and it's already enormously influencing the NFT world. It enables, I think, more people to create amazing artwork and amazing visual things and it's so bizarre. 

Craig: [00:15:56] Right

Anne: [00:15:56] So I started out doing GAN-based things, generative adversarial networks. You have sets of images and you kind of have two sets of images sort of pitted against one another, but you're essentially trying to make new elements of a set of images that are like the other elements of that set of images. So I did a whole series and I had some images of airplanes and it was trying to make new images of airplanes, but it didn't really succeed. And in that process made all kinds of bizarre compositions that looked like crashed planes and spaceships and fantastical things that had a weird perspective that AI makes. It's not, it's not 3D perspective, it's not flat. It's its own strange world.

Craig: [00:16:49] Yeah. I mean, that's the part I find exhilarating about it is that it seems to get closer to surrealism than a lot of the people that are intentionally trying to get to surrealism. There's like this juxtaposition and, you know, ephemeral feel that, you know, when I look at it, it almost feels like very dreamy. Right. Yeah. I mean, like, there's.

Anne: [00:17:16] Something that appeals to me because it is like it's dreaming. It's sort of like the machine is looking into its mind, especially when you use text to image AI, which is what I've been using recently. And that actually taps into these huge databases like ImageNet. So you have millions and millions of images scraped from the web, right? And it's looking into that whole kind of cultural image repository. So it is sort of a collective consciousness.


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