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Q&A OCTOBER 17 , 2001
Digital Abstract Expressionism
A conversation with artist Jean Detheux

by David Nagel
Executive Producer
[email protected]

Somewhere in a small village on a small farm in a rather remote part of eastern Canada, there lives an artist with his family. I'm still not entirely clear on exactly where he lives—somewhere roughly between Montréal and Toronto—but I am sure that there isn't regular mail service and that when foul weather hits I don't hear from him for a week or so, as preparations have to be made for taking care of the food, most of which he and his family grow themselves. I also know that the wild animals in the area tend to help themselves to his food, and, despite my advice to the contrary, he refuses to eat them back in reprisal, as he is a vegetarian. The artist's farm is in the environs of McDonald's Corners, which is the nearest access point for sending mail. I also don't know exactly where this McDonald's Corners is; I only know the name because that's the return address on the packages he sends me.

It's an unlikely place for anybody to wind up, housing, as it does, a scant 0.000002 percent of the world's population. In fact, you're 100 times more likely to die in a plane crash each year than wind up moving into this particular portion of the world. Statistically speaking, of course. It's an even less likely place for a former captain of the Belgian National Ice Hockey Team (1963 through 1971) to wind up, let alone one who has also been an automobile racer in Tourism, GT and Formula Vee categories; the head cook at The Rochester Zen Center in New York; a graduate of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts et Institut Supérieur d'Architecture de Lège in Belgium; and a self-styled "digital abstract expressionist" who also happens to be a Macintosh fanatic.

I don't think I have the math to calculate the percentage chance of all of these things coming together. So let's just say the whole thing is unlikely.

The artist is Jean Detheux. He and his wife, Carol, moved to this wooded area soon after the birth of their daughter, Yolande (now 13), preferring the seclusion to the prospect of raising their first child in the "rough" and "selfish" conditions of Toronto. Since the move, they have added a second child to the family, Georges, age 4, who has recently begun corresponding with my 5-year-old daughter, Claire.


"Image 8" from "Group D." Click image to see the series.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

The artist's background reads like something of an impossibility. But you have to add to this the fact that he has been an assistant dean at The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture and an instructor at Parsons School of Design, as well as New York University, Algonquin College, Concordia University and the Alberta College of Art, where he was also chairman of the department of drawing.

It's an impressive resume, even a curious one, but it is just that—a resume. Lots of people have impressive and curious resumes. What drew me into this artist's life was his work. I was first introduced to it a little more than a year ago and immediately took to it. To put it concisely, it's "my kind of art."

Which is strange, since I've never seen anything like it.

Every piece he's produced since I first saw his work has drawn me in further. It's abstract, but it's also moving. There's something familiar about his work. Not that it resembles any other artist's work. But there's something traditional about the stroke and the composition, something rich about the color and texture. Although he himself protests this characterization, it is the work of a highly trained talent who is consciously breaking away from anything traditional—including Modernity itself.

What's more, Jean Detheux works exclusively in the digital medium via his aging—but upgraded to the teeth—Power Mac 8500. Why did an artist with Detheux's credentials suddenly toss away his oils and turpentine in favor of a Mac and pressure-sensitive tablet? Well, he had been working in natural media for quite some time and exhibiting it since 1971. And then, at some point in the last decade, he developed an allergy to the chemicals and simply couldn't work anymore. So he decided to go digital. It was a difficult choice, since back then (and even today) digital art in many circles didn't carry the same kind of prestige as natural media. It just wasn't considered "real" art.

Nevertheless, Jean (by all accounts a "real" artist) and his wife began researching their options. Carol went around to schools and studios asking which platform to go with. When the word "graphics" was mentioned, the answer came back "Macintosh." Then one of Jean's friends showed him Fractal Design Painter (now owned by Corel), and there was no issue left in his mind.


"Model," 1976, oil on paper. Click image for more of Detheux's
early natural media work. Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

The switch to digital may have been a difficult choice. But, having made it, Detheux says he couldn't go back, allergies or no allergies. Jean now works with Synthetik Studio Artist and Corel Painter on his Macintosh to produce his still images and animations. Both programs and the platform, he says, have helped him to move beyond the limitations of natural media and explore areas of art that had previously been unavailable to him (or to anybody else).

As I mentioned, he terms his work "digital abstract expressionism." It's difficult to characterize—certainly impossible in the few pages of this interview—but it's more of a working mode than a description of the end product. It is an exploration of the media available to him and the self, and it's an approach that shuns the "photo-representational" in favor more spontaneous expression. All of this tempered by years of study and a sophisticated palette for the visual, although, again, he would deny this.


Image 1 of a 29-image series called "Pandora. Click image to see
the series. Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

Jean speaks and writes on the topic of "digital abstract expressionism" and is a champion of the technology that has enabled this mode of exploration for him. The technology is limited by means and, somewhat, by location. As you might well imagine, there is no high-speed access in the environs of McDonald's Corners, and yet he's producing motion art that is often dependent upon the Internet for distribution. (Imagine uploading dozens of QuickTime files via a 56 Kbps modem and having to make the difficult choices between compression and dimension.)

The location, he says, does not impact his work so much as the "now"—even if the "now" is dictated by the fact that he has to go out and dig potatoes before the next rain.

"My work has always been, in one way or another, digital or not, about 'now,'" Detheux says, "and that means that I basically always do the same thing, no matter where (when?) I happen to be. Even though I have found ways of doing that in most circumstances, I nevertheless am very happy to live in an environment where the sound of a fridge compressor starting can be a major "noise," or where I have caught myself thinking "shut up!" to the birds living just below my studio window. Living in a lot of different places and doing many different things, I seem to have come to a connection with daily life that is at once a lot more 'involved' and a lot more 'fragmented.'"

Not that Jean doesn't get back to civilization occasionally. Next Sunday he will be presenting a workshop on the topic entitled "Animated Abstract Expressionism: A Digital Jam Session." He will demonstrate live animation, while his two co-presenters—Scott Lahteine and Sharon Katz—will compose music and edit the work they produce. All of it on three networked Macs. The presentation, part of SAFO 2001, will be held in Ottawa, Ontario. (More information can be found at http://www.awn.com/ottawa/safo01/index.html.)

Owing to his locale and my unwillingness to fly, Jean and I have never met in person. But we have been communicating for some time on the topics of technology and art, and I had the opportunity in the last week to conduct a more formal interview with him on the occasion of his upcoming workshop. We so often focus on commercial production and design in this publication that I thought we were due to discuss issues that are relevant to all creative professionals but that often get overlooked here—process versus product. It is the process, after all, that spurs all art. And while an artist might have a product in mind when he or she starts off on a project, it is usually fortuitous accidents of the process that result in the most appealing work for both the artist and the audience.

But where does digital fit into the process? All tools are technologies, to be sure, and digital is a powerful, expansive mix of media that can (and does) take art to places it has never been before. It's certainly no less "natural" than any "natural" media you might make or buy at the store. Paint and brushes are manufactured. Chemicals are synthesized. All tools are technologies, certainly, and digital is a powerful, expansive mix of media that can (and does) take art to places it has never been before. But where does it "fit?"


From the animation "Dilemma 1 Part 1." Click image
to see the animation. Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

This and other questions about digital media I put to Jean Detheux, whom I consider to be one of the leaders in advancing not only digital art, but art as a whole. By "advancing," I don't mean to imply any particular end, but opening up possibilities. This, to me, is what Detheux's work represents. Well, that and imagery I happen to enjoy viewing.

David Nagel You became involved in digital art as a result of chemical allergies resulting from years of exposure to traditional art media, correct?

Jean Detheux Yes, about 10 to 11 years ago, I began to show violent reactions to all sorts of "things," and it took a while before narrowing the cause to severe allergies to, amongst other things, many of the chemicals present in paints, thinners and the like. I must say I sort of asked for it; I used to work on large canvases (6' x 8' and larger) and regularly poured pure turpentine on them to wash out the image when it had become too defined. I often went through a gallon of turps per week.

Nagel Natural media chemicals can be rough—not just harsh, but highly carcinogenic as well. I don't think people realize the diversity of media used in art production.

Detheux I used natural media for well over 30 years and was only marginally aware of how toxic they are (most of them anyway).

I even lived under the delusion that acrylics were less toxic than oils, a far cry from the truth. (I don't like acrylics much anyway.)

I used lead white to prime my canvases; I even remember eating sandwiches while doing so, not cleaning my hands before eating! I have a friend who is a well known Canadian print maker (Jennifer Dickson), and she nearly died from what the acid bath fumes did to her lungs. Lots of dangerous substances used in making beautiful pictures!

Nagel Had you dabbled in digital before then?

Detheux Never. I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in "that stuff," even had a serious dislike of what I thought it was about. My first ever contact with a computer was a little over 5 years ago when a friend sat me down at a Mac and got me to try Painter. Within five minutes, I was in the "bubble" I knew so well when working with natural media. I vowed I would go home and get a Mac and Painter. The 7600/120 just came out that week, and we got one, along with Painter 4 (then by Fractal Design). We replaced the 7600/120 with the 8500/180 a year later. It since has been upgraded with a G3 card and much more.

For many years now, my work, both natural media and digital, has been a way to investigate the world of preverbal perception. One way to put it is to use the title I gave to one of my many lectures when I was still teaching: "What do I see before knowing what it is that I am looking at?" That means, amongst many things, that the work constantly feeds on something much closer to a "feeling" than a concept. In other words, and to be succinct, I need to draw/paint what I see in order to be able to see it. The work itself is necessary for the "comprehension" (if any) to take place.

By the way, I feel that much too much of present day art work, digital or not, is trapped in stating the already known, no longer being a tool of discovery and growth.


From the animation "Bénin." Click image
to see the animation. Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

With a bit of practice, Painter, and especially Studio Artist, are fabulous tools that can push one's imagination beyond the realm of the habitual, making the artist see things he/she has never seen before. This plays right into what makes me tick, to find the extraordinary in the heart of the most common, and art fulfilling what I think is its most important role, being "that which makes us see."

Painter was the application that made it possible for me to make a transition from natural media to the digital, and it still has an important place in my daily work environment, but Studio Artist is the most revolutionary tool I have ever set my hands on. Painter continued, in the digital world, what I had been doing for decades with natural media. It also added several important twists (from "save as" to being able to mix medium that could not live together if in the natural media limitations). Studio Artist introduces so many new parameters, it makes my head spin. From its "intelligent painting actions" to its remarkable animation tools, it is so vast and so relevant to what I feel art needs, if I am to continue the work that has been done by our predecessors and go to where natural media can't go. Studio Artist is the one tool that enabled me to venture beyond the "still picture" stage and into "painting in time." This "painting in time" had been on my mind even long before I had to go digital, but the way Studio Artist enables me to explore it is so very intuitive, so similar to what I would consider "normal" when working in my traditional way; it is really amazing. (I often hit moments working with it when I feel intense gratitude to its author, John Dalton.)

Nagel Did you instantly go out and get a tablet, or were you mouse painting back then?

Detheux For the first few months, we could not afford a tablet, so I drew with a mouse. I actually grew to like it; it was yet another way to remove immediate and obvious control from my grip (pun intended) so that I was forced a bit more to pay attention to what "it" was doing, rather than slavishly follow my original intention.

I think drawing with a mouse is a good exercise for learning to connect with what is beyond, or rather beneath, one's "skills."

Nagel Which tablet are you using now?

Detheux Wacom, two of them, an older 12" x 12" ArtZ II, which has served me so very well, and a newer Intuos (a gift from Wacom actually) which is obviously very superior to the ArtZ II (greater sensitivity, much greater).

Nagel What was the transition like? What were your reservations about moving into the digital realm?

Detheux I knew there was something for me in that, but at first I was a bit put off by the cleanliness of digital images, the juices and "dirt" of natural media were seriously missing. Also, being used to large canvas—I even once did a mural that was about 45' high and 150' long—working on a (then) 17" monitor did not look all that exciting.

I was wrong.


"Multi3" from "Group H." Click image to see Group H.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

Nagel What do you mean "I was wrong?"

Detheux I was still thinking "size" while everything really happens at the level of "relationships," something I actually knew very personally long before going digital: As a young boy, I was leisurely looking at pictures in a French dictionary, when I chanced on a small black and white reproduction of Breughel's "Tower of Babel." (One of them, I think he did several.) This small reproduction must not have been larger than one inch square, and yet I "fell" in it for what must have been hours!

I trace my wanting to become a painter very much to this experience, though not only.

Also, dealing with the same "thing," I was already an art student in Belgium when I became interested in Vermeer's paintings. Living next door to Holland, it was a short trip to go the The Hague and Amsterdam to see samples of his work. At the time I was studying "mural and decorative painting," which meant that I rarely worked on surfaces smaller than 8' x 8'.

Vermeer seemed, to me, a master of "monumental" art, and I was not ready for the shock I received when I first saw his paintings in the flesh, so large, so very large and spacious, and yet so small! Relationships and "scale," not size.

Nagel What did you find limiting about your early work in the digital medium? In other words, how did you have to adjust the way you worked? And how has this changed over the years?

Detheux At first, the tools were fairly foreign to me; both the computer controls and drawing/painting tools required a concentration on them I had long gone beyond when working with natural media. But this was a relearning to walk that also had many benefits for me, and in a real sense, this is still going on today after many, many [gigabytes] of images.

There are several aspects of the digital medium that set it apart from natural media, and one of them is, to me, a genuine revolution: Art is most often made by threading a very fine line between going too far (loss of the piece) and not going far enough (staying put with very pedestrian results). The artist used to have to live with the angst generated by the tension between these two extremes.

The digital medium, with its "save as" function, can completely do away with that dilemma. Now we can have our theme and variations too; going further is no longer done at the cost of losing the original piece. This is so potent for me that I feel I haven't quite caught on with the potential of this "revolution;" I am still too caught up in the many years of work with natural media, I still lack the proper "imagination" that would truly do justice tot he potential of this medium.

Nagel You chose the Macintosh as your platform. Why?

Detheux At first, by sheer luck. It was good fortune that the friend who introduced me to Painter did so on a Mac. (I believe it was a 7200.) Between the time I had this experience and we had the means to buy a machine, I did try many other boxes and was immediately put off by the Windows interface. While a Mac immediately made me feel "at home" and gave me (still does) the impression it is working with me, a PC made me remember constantly I was working on a machine, with no sense of cooperation from it whatsoever. Also, everywhere we asked—my wife Carol really got involved in researching this—we were told, as soon as "graphics" and "digital art" were mentioned, to "go with the Mac."

By the way, I presently teach computer art to 13 and 14 year old students in a French school ("J.L. Couroux" in Carleton Place, Ontario, Canada), and we are using PCs running Windows 98, so my exposure to that platform is a bit deeper now than it was when I was considering which machine to purchase. I still feel the same way today as I did then.


"G1" from "Group G." Click image to see the series.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

Nagel I don't want to interject my own approach to art too much into this discussion, but, for me, art has always been about the process—about exploring media, the model and, significantly, the surface. One of these three elements—the surface—simply doesn't exist in the creative process when you're working in digital. Is this the same with you? Do you miss the variety of surfaces that you would be able to work with in natural media?

Detheux Before staring to work full time with the digital medium, I would have totally agreed with you. But now I don't! There is a surface when one is working only as long as one has not reached that point of transcendence at which the image ceases to be an image, and becomes a totally credible world, a "space." It was for me a surprise (maybe) to realize, experientially, that the image we work on and towards is, above all, a "mental image." By that I don't mean that we have a clear mental image in our mind working to transpose it on canvas or screen, but instead, that we have this "feeling"—"intuition" may be a better term—which one needs to grope towards, by trial and error, until, through diligent work and seeing it for the first time, it is being "recognized" there on the screen or canvas/paper/whatever (though very often, it is simply abandoned, only to be recognized much later when one is free of the psychological tension present during the work).

What I meant when I talked about being in a familiar "bubble" when sitting for the very first time at a Mac, using Painter, is very much that: After a few short minutes on that first computer, I was again experiencing a credible world made of marks, strokes and colors, a credible world that would not exist without my being there painting, but yet that cannot be called "mine." I like Picasso's "what saved me is that I became much more interested in what I found than in what I was looking for."

What is really magical in art, and a real paradox, is to reach this point at which one "knows" one is in a totally fabricated universe, but nevertheless, this fabrication takes on a life of its own and attains total credibility, becoming "other."

A big dilemma again, to fall totally in the belief that the painting is "real" is akin to madness, but to remain strictly at the level of "surface and design elements" is meekness. This is a "space" that is available only to personal experience; we can't describe it too well with words, though the better writers can bring it to life as an experience, but not as an explanation.

Nagel That's true about the surface. Nevertheless, the surface is such an integral part of the process—the way the media works with the texture, the way it feels and the way it can dictate the application of stroke and pressure. You don't miss this at all?

Detheux I don't miss it at all because, at my "best" time with natural media, those things would vanish and I would be in presence of (or rather inside of) a totally "real" world, no longer made of strokes and colors, but a really real world that would rival "reality" and often become a lot more credible than "the world."

I think it is Giacometti who said something like: "When going into a gallery, don't just look at the paintings, look at the people looking at the paintings. If the paintings can't compete for reality status with the people looking at them, they're just mere images, not Art." (My paraphrasing here.)

Besides, with glorious applications like Painter and Studio Artist, one has immediate access to much of the best of what natural media can offer, and then some.

Nagel Have you ever thought of strapping canvas or burlap or something over your tablet? Even just too see what would happen?

Detheux At first, I found the tablet surface a bit too slippery, so I taped a piece of paper to it to slow down the stylus. Then, something changed in my way of working; I no longer feed directly from my physical, tactile sensations, but rather, I seem to have connected "directly" with what happens on the screen, and that totally dictates what my body does. It is no longer how it feels to do it, but rather it is now "what it does."

This is so very similar to my best moments with natural media, when there ware moments of grace during which all there was was the sound of the brush tip on the canvas, and I was there watching an image being born as if done by itself.

This is happening very often now with the digital media.

Philip Guston, one of my "heroes," once quoted John Cage: "When you start working, you are in your studio, along with all your ideas, and your friend's ideas, and the works you admire and the ones you don't like at all. They are all there with you. As you keep on working, and if you are lucky, they start leaving, one by one. Now, if you carry on, and if you are very lucky, even you leave!"

Nagel I've seen you refer to your art as "digital abstract expressionism." Can you tell me what this means to you?

Detheux I will first give a definition of an "abstract expressionist" offered to me many years ago by a NY painter friend: "We had this immigrant plasterer come on our house to fix some damaged walls. I noticed he was having problems with a particularly difficult corner, doing it carefully only to knock it down, redoing it again and again. Now I knew enough about plastering to ask him why he was not using a metal corner bead. He replied: 'That would be cheating!'"

That was an "abstract expressionist plasterer!"


"Painter 11" from "Group L." Click image to see the series.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

"Abstract expressionism" is to me an approach to painting that attempts to connect with what we are at our deepest core, without reverting to "good taste" or any other similarly limiting conceptual "filters." In that sense, either we believe that art is inherent or that it is acquired. Having been trained in art through many years in a very good European art school, I can tell from experience that what is available through acquired knowledge does not amount to much if one is looking for meaning, for "intrinsic worth." What I feel is needed comes from another direction; it comes from what is "always-already-there" (as Heidegger might have said). That requires one work much more by de-learning than by accumulating knowledge, something I was "familiar" with in my natural media days, and pleasantly surprised to see it could carry on also in the digital medium. This is akin to working on Being instead of Having, and is very much a process of attrition.

Nagel Explain the "Being" versus "Having."

Detheux I most certainly cannot do that, zillions of books on philosophy have tried to do it, and look at the world we live in now after all that effort! However, I can say this: either we are, as we are, whole and complete, or we have to fabricate our "self" by adding this and that.

I strongly suspect that the best of our being is there with us as we are when we are born, while we often cover that inherent state with a lot of acquired "stuff."

Much of our work, especially but not exclusively in Art, is to recover conscious contact with that initial state.

An apparent lack of Being cannot be compensated by an excess of Having; adding more cabbage to cabbage is hardly removing weight off of one's shoulders.

Nagel You're never going to have anything near a consensus on this concept. I think there's something Deconstructionist about it—at least if you stick to the principal Deconstructionists. And yet, "subversion is affirmation," right? Your work is not non-referential. There's geometry, color theory, a very well trained composition and stroke and even history. You're not going to convince me that simply getting in touch with your being is what's responsible for your work. There's training, talent and the evolution of several forms.

Detheux We so often give so little credit to our own perception, not suspecting that "perception is constitutive," as Merleau-Ponty said. I think modern art was able to point to the fact that "noticing" is akin to "creating," so that if we are willing (and I feel we have to, especially now) to acknowledge that life is above all, and starts as, a subjective act, we then can give the benefit of the doubt to what we are before we make anything (out) of it. ("Now" because our culture seems to become more and more alienated from its basic humanity, especially American culture has been accurately described as being "hooked on mediated experience.)

What "I" see before knowing what it is that I am looking at is possibly the closest to truly "objective reality" we can have access to because the moment we differentiate between this and that, we do so based on cultural priorities which are peculiar to this or that group, no longer "universal." Language is also a prison in which we lock ourselves, and Art can be a privileged means by which we can (re)connect with life before we make sense of it according to societal models.

Nagel You mention getting to the core of what we are. What is that to you?

Detheux It means being true to this hunger for meaning, for identity (in the sense of "Who am I?" or "What is reality?") that seems to animate us all, at least prior to our surrendering it on a vain search for possessions. Art is often misconstrued as being a means to "illustrate" or/and to "express," while to me, it is above all a means to a discovery, a necessary vehicle for an essential journey.

The "expression" in art is, to me, absolutely unavoidable, an automatic byproduct, something we need not "worry" about as it is always there. "You want to paint the perfect painting? That's easy, make yourself perfect, and just paint naturally."

The core of what we are is to me much more an open and ongoing quest(ion), rather than a "thing" one can corner.

Nagel Do you think this is something that can be accomplished through visual media alone?

Detheux Absolutely not, judging by the way I am moved by T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" or by the music of Mozart and others, the visual arts are "only" one of the many means we can do that (or attempt to anyway) with.

I don't think trading stock can do it though.

Nagel Now, in your work, you're not simply trying to emulate natural media. In fact, I think you don't look kindly upon "emulation." Can you talk about that?

Detheux You're right; simply emulating is similar to increasing the deceptions while hoping for truth! If indeed the work is about the transcendence from mere image to credible world, how could that be accomplished if one gets caught up in a tragic loop of trying to emulate natural media? That to me is similar to a snake trying to swallow itself tail first. Digital tools are so potentially helpful in helping us transcend the usual natural media limitations, it seems to me totally counterproductive to reintroduce those limitations in the space that has, as one of its main capabilities, the key to going beyond those limitations.

Nagel Yet you've mentioned a couple of the limitations of digital media as well. And, on your current system, you're very familiar with another one: processing power. Do you have an ideal vision for the future of digital art production?


"Painter 12" from "Group L." Click image to see the series.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

Detheux I can only assume that faster machines will make the work more immediate, the process even more transparent.

My hope is that I can have access to tools that will quickly vanish behind the experience that is available at the very best moments of 'creation," be it with digital or natural media, in all sorts of disciplines, not just in visual arts.

I also believe it is imperative we keep a direct connection with the input of the body, and in that respect Painter and Wacom were fabulous tools for me, and later Studio Artist opened an even wider horizon. Continuing to refine this physical connection with the "machine" will probably bring the work to higher levels of quality, possibly even closer to what we are, to what we have always been.

This is yet another paradox of "my understanding" of art, the more we progress, the more we uncover what was there already, in my opinion a far more important task than adding more layers of "stuff" to an already very overburdened field of experience. I still love that old cliché: "Less is more."

Nagel You've incorporated motion into all of your recent work—at least what I've seen of your recent work. Yet the stills that make up your animations, for me, are just beautiful on their own. Do you create all of your work with motion in mind? Or do you sometimes like to produce stills and leave them alone for a while?

Detheux The bulk of my work is made of still images, though as you noticed, motion is creeping in more and more. I am above all a painter, but I also see that motion or rather "painting that unfolds in time" is where I feel my work wants to go, and I even suspect it is where painting is to go if it is to reach beyond where it has been stuck for quite some time (endless repetition, with very minor variations, of the same boring stuff, stuff that was new and exciting many decades ago, but that is now mummified). I care very little about "animation" per se, and character animation and story telling does not do much for me, at least in most of the animation works I have seen (with remarkable exceptions like Michael Dudok de Wit's "The Monk and the Fish" or Yuri Norstein's "Hedgehog in The Fog" or, closer to us in time, Martine Chartrand's "Black Soul"). Yet, when an image moves to/with music and it is just right, it is absolute magic!

Painting that unfolds in time also has one dimension that is very important, but a dimension that was known only to painters: A painting goes through so many stages before its public can see it, I can safely say that in most cases, the best paintings have been seen only by the painter, only to be modified, even lost, before the painting was finally made public in a different form. Enters the computer, and all that is completely changed: I can now (and I do so) save my painting at any time I want and carry on with its development secure of never jeopardizing the fate of the painting for the sake of yet another variation! (By the way, I suspect I am still too shy when doing the variations, still caught in an imagination that has "natural media" limitations.)

Now, all those variations/saved moments placed side by side give me one super storyboard, an almost completed "animation." That by the way relies on what I call "inherent animation," the animation that is there whether we want it or not, whether we make it or not, simply by the very act of "doing." (One of my very favorite 20th Century painters, an abstract expressionist by the name of Philip Guston, coined the term "inherent composition," and I was absolutely delighted that this which I knew to be true in natural media appears to be true also in digital "animation.")

In that sense, the more "stills" I have, the closer I am to yet another "animation."


"SA/P 10" from "Group J." Click image to see the series.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

Nagel Multimedia is also important in your work. How are you working with audio in your presentations? Is it a part of your thinking when you first set out on a project, or do you sometimes think of it later?

Detheux Most of my animation work comes together totally fortuitously, so very little of it is ever planned. Even editing is something I almost never do. Some of the strongest moments in my animation are total "accidents," way better than anything I could plan and plot for!

Just as when I was painting with oils, my present digital work is one of trying to set up the proper conditions for those "accidents" to take place and, if possible (a necessary condition), to get out of the way. Being also a frustrated musician—I did not work on my music enough when I was a kid, and plan on doing a better job in that in my next lifetime—I find that here too the digital tools are quite the help; I can now create some of my own audio tracks, from scratch, using music fragments as easily as image fragments, and assemble collages that are even beginning to resemble music! I hope to get a decent keyboard soon so that I can take working with music/sound a bit further, I dream of being able to create both video and audio myself built on/by the same approach.

Nagel There's a problem with digital in terms of reception right now. I believe that even some of your former students reject the notion. Critics are certainly quick to qualify any art exhibit as "digital," automatically positioning it as something that has less value than work created in non-digital media. Can you discuss this?

Detheux There is a big prejudice against digital art, and that has me puzzled. I can't tell the difference between what I have to do when painting digitally and when I was painting with oils. If anything, I think the digital, being so much quicker at execution than natural media, leaves less room for "going to sleep at the switch," requiring a higher concentration than natural media.

I know that many of my former students think I have gone to the dogs, but I also know that the few who came to visit here and had a chance to experience the process for themselves now most have a Power Mac and Studio Artist on their Christmas shopping list!

Nagel Have you had a chance to try out the Tactex controller? [Editor's note: The Tactex controller is a touch-based input device that uses "Smart Fabric" designed primarily for audio control. It also works with Synthetik Studio Artist, which is one of Jean's primary tools.]

Detheux No, you must realize I operate with very limited financial means. I did try a second Intuos pen and a 4D mouse, but so far I have had very limited success with it.
I suspect that limited success comes from my 8500, [which], as souped up as it is, does not have native USB, and the demands of simultaneous pens and/or 4D mouse may just be too much for my USB PCI card.


"SA/P 2" from "Group J." Click image to see the series.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

Nagel What are some of the problems you have with digital media?

Detheux It's too easy to fall into slick! Also, I hate all the "plumbing" that comes with even a stable Mac, there are times when I feel like I am spending more work fixing the machine than making my work. (Mind you, I am still using an ancient 8500 upgraded to the hilt, and as an Apple Systems Engineer recently told me: "boosting an old Chevy trying to drive it like a Formula One!") I hope to be able to work on a recent G4 soon; native USB and FireWire, faster processors and bus speed would go a long way to make my life a lot easier!

Nagel I think you need a new G4. (Maybe a G5, if the rumors are true. I'm trying not to think about it.) When you say "slick," do you mean photorealistic? Do you mean overproduced?

Detheux Yes on all counts; the little bit of experience I have had with more recent machines have shown me how limited my current hardware is, though it has been one super machine, taking me from total computer illiteracy to the work I am doing today, and it is still capable of helping me do some more.

As for photorealism, here again Giacometti had the right angle: "The problem with 'realism' is that it has nothing to do with reality!" What and how we see is very very very remote from the deception of photorealism, I am constantly amazed at the vast amount of work that goes into trying to (re)create a whole by adding parts!

In that respect, I find the 3D animation software packages I have looked at completely lacking in what constitutes our connection with the world, with each other, even (especially?) with oneself. Kundera defines "Kitsch" as being "the denial of shit," and I can see a parallel between Kitsch and much of the current 3D animation production: It tends to negate what is possibly our "better" part (as humans), the ambiguous, the undefined, the "still in the making."

And yes, overproduced indeed! What's happened to all the ambiguous areas in our own make up, al the confusion we live in, all the hesitations, the trials and errors, the failures, the abandoned projects, and so on? I suspect overproducing, over "finishing" things, is just a childish compensation for what we know we are living and a vain attempt at covering up the dark whole that is staring at us.

Nagel This brings up the issue of "cheating." That is, if the focus is on output rather than the process, a computer can be a very convenient crutch. Do you think this makes critics wary? They're judging product, not process. After all, what if an image a critic likes turns out to be nothing more than a Photoshop filter over an abstract photo? Then the critic looks like an idiot.


"WG5" from "Group I." Click image to see the series.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

Detheux The critic that negates his emotional and intuitive response to an image (or anything else) because he feels it may have been produced "too easily" is indeed an idiot!

It works, or it doesn't!

So much inefficient garbage has been made by countless hours, days or years of labor, and some master pieces were made in an instant. A urinal placed upside down on a pedestal can trigger a "what is this?" response in its viewers, and that alone is priceless, for one moment the usual "habitual reality" has been suspended, and the viewer was once again "alive."

What more could we ask of Art? Isn't that already a momentous event? To get somebody to stop drowning in the usual brain chatter and notice, if only for a brief moment, that there are things in life we don't yet understand, that even we may be other than what we think we are!

If that is what Art can help do, long live Art!

Nagel Are you happy with the tools available to you now? How would you like to see them evolve?

Detheux One very important aspect of the work I am trying to do requires input from the body, and a Wacom tablet is a step in the right direction, but I still feel we are playing these fabulous machines using one finger at a time while they beg to be played with all fingers, with chords, even feet, like a church organ. I took to Studio Artist immediately because it was, and still is, the very first application that gave me the sense I could touch so much more at once, but I still feel, at times, so very limited. No doubt some of that comes from my fairly limited tools, but I do sense that more is needed, and hopefully more is on the way. Better integration between image creating, animation, sound creating, and the putting together of all of those. Even with a ton of RAM, it is a real pain at times to have to open so many applications in order to treat, more or less simultaneously, all the different elements that are, after all, parts of the one piece.

Jean Detheux's work appears in a number of private collections and the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts de Liège and can also be seen at his online gallery, which can be accessed at http://www.vudici.net. If you would like to experience more of Jean's ideas and artwork—and see his production process as it happens—be sure to attend his workshop at SAFO 2001 in Ottawa this Sunday. More information can be found at http://www.awn.com/ottawa/safo01/index.html.

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications.

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