Share With Us These Information Arts: Stephen Wilson 1944—2011
by Mike Mosher
I had just read a WIRED article on artificial intelligence when I learned of Stephen Wilson's death. Like so many manifestations of vision and aspiration, rigorous thought and research with great potential in the hands of artists, AI was one of Steve's many avowed interests. Stephen Wilson was the generous man who shared with us the splendors and surprises of Information Arts, an arena of art practice worthy of the complexity, contradictions and interconnectedness of our time.
I was Steve's student and MFA Advisee in the Conceptual Design (later Conceptual/Information Arts, smirkingly abbreviated CIA) program at San Francisco State University 1986-88, in a fine and challenging media-agnostic program that was nevertheless one of the first to demand computer literacy of artists it produced. A couple times in the 1990s Steve tipped me off to teaching opportunities at S.F. State when faculty chose at the last minute to go work in the coin-op games industry, or take a job in Germany. A decade later I could joke with him that I do well in my teaching job because I got to make all my mistakes on his dime. Just don't expect me to now be objective about the professional colleague (thanks to his support) and friend with whom I was always eager to catch up, when I'd see him at stimulating venues like a International Symposium of Electronic Art conference, or IBM Almaden Research Center's New Paradigms in Using Computers gathering.
What most impressed me about Steve was his breadth of interest. He expressed the conviction, in his work, his writing and his teaching, that not only the imagery of the sciences—compelling as so much of it is, even in ignorance of what it is or its function—but scientific processes of inquiry and research should be in the contemporary artist's toolbox. This maintained the Renaissance ideal, the skilled artist versed in other useful arts, able to converse knowledgeably with the Cathedral-builders, armorers and ballistics experts, on hydraulics and astronomy. Unlike the savant crying "Science!" caricatured in the 1980s Thomas Dolby video, Steve enthusiastically exhorted to his audience, readers and students to scientific attention in a soft and measured voice, warmly inviting yet tireless. In a eulogy published in Leonardo Electronic Almanac, his department colleague Paula Levine remembers his installation "Protozoa Games", where humans competed with live protozoans, and frequently lost.
Steve was also one of the first artists I knew comfortable with post-structuralist theory. His essay "Dark and Light Visions: the Relationship of Cultural Theory to Art That Uses Emerging Technologies" appeared in the catalog of the SIGGRAPH '93 art show, and was hopefully read by the hardware-, software- and systems engineers who attended the conference as well as the artists. He applied deconstruction as art practice, and theoretical practices derived from literary theory as a cache of yet more interesting directions of which the educated artist should remain informed. Yet Steve, unlike some artists ensconced in universities, never appeared to be captivated by any theory out of France or elsewhere, nor loading down his understandable, clear workmanlike prose with jargon. He was too rooted in the engineering processes of his artworks: you thought up and developed the idea, you made it work, you put it out into the world, and observed.
I have always valued his books. The first basically announced to the world that computers were a useful tool for creating art, however you chose to define the A-word. The second was about Apple's product HyperCard, appreciative and full of useful HyperTalk programming hacks. Like Steve, I was impressed by this expressive tool, introduced in 1987 and widely embraced by the Mac-using creative community. Popularity of the program was eclipsed after 1990 as people instead created full-color projects in Macromind (later Macromedia) Director, so the buzz artists and academics felt for HyperCard had diminished by the time his book appeared in 1993. His third book caught the general excitement for the World Wide Web in the mid--1990s, and the interconnectedness of ideas, images and thoughtful, visual people that it suddenly brought. His fourth book catalogued the broad and wide slice of nontraditional and high tech-dependent works, in multiple categories, that he called Information Arts. His last, Art+Science Now (2010), updated and further explored the realm.
Steve's breadth included an appreciation of San Francisco's community art, for he valued community in general and his city's in particular. One project automatically directed unexpected recorded messages to pay phones in various neighborhoods in San Francisco, pointedly chosen for their economic diversity. I always knew him to be politically progressive by inclination, and he once presented an essay "Interactive Art and Cultural Change". His was the kind of awareness brought from knowing the climate science and social science metrics that demand citizen vigor, activism and social change in democratic societies. But he also valued the inclusive process in development of the best Mission murals, the input of the streets shaping the finished work in the hands of a flexible and environment-attentive artist. Even paint on wooden fence becomes more interesting than mere fine art painting when sited in a rich urban context.
The worst one might say about Steve? Well, when I told my wife of his death she asked if I meant the guy whose art installations we went to see where the electronics never seemed to work. The kind of techie art Steve indefatigably practiced is fraught with factors that can go wrong, and—despite his testing and troubleshooting—its pingers, sensors (once imbedded in a children's placemat taped on the sidewalk) and circuits could go out or on the blink, to the consternation of members of the public arrived expecting an MTV- or sturm-und-drang experience. But Steve, an notably un-showy individual for a successful (respected, funded) artist, didn't prioritize visual fireworks. It was all about the idea, the concept and the raft of information it supported and bred. Look, look at the work, look around you, think about it. Pay attention. You should have then, and you doubly should now.
Mike Mosher is Professor, Art/Communication & Digital Media at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.
Photo from www.colloquebioart.org with color by Bad Subjects