In a print titled Games of Chance: Straight Flush by Deborah Cornell, artist and chair of printmaking at the College of Fine Arts, a satellite weather map is positioned next to an image of cellular organisms, with a row of transparent playing cards across the lower edge. “These are not images you would necessarily put together,” she says. “But their proximity in the work poses the question of how these different things affect one another.”
Central to Cornell’s art is a desire to make connections: between artist and observer, art and technology, and between people and the world they inhabit but don’t generally see. These explorations, like Straight Flush, have been enriched by the use of digital processes.
Cornell is in the vanguard of artists who have embraced digital technology in their work. “It’s a natural outgrowth of my interests and the content of my work,” she says. “I’ve been combining traditional and digital means for decades because I’m interested in how technology sees the world, the influence of technology on the environment, and how all this affects the way we filter reality. Using digital means that allow us to see tangentially or microscopically—photography from satellites, for instance, or microimaging—I can embed and juxtapose images, like cells and DNA, which would be technically impossible to do in tactile media. That enables me to be more specific regarding my ideas about interconnectivity, and to create situations that logically aren’t related but pose questions about reality.”
Digital technology also provides her with limitless choices in the creation and execution of an idea. In working with tactile material, a print is always a print. But in digital media, the file doesn’t have to dry like paint; it can always be changed. So there are more decisions to make, and the finished digital product can be expressed in many different forms: as a digital print, a sculptural object, a virtual world, or a web video. Cornell doesn’t always know at the outset what form a piece ultimately will take. “Sometimes I think I’m going to print something,” she says, “but I realize that it needs to be a moving image or a 3D image or an image rendered in light rather than pigment.”
The mutability of digital art made it possible for Cornell to craft an interactive virtual reality piece, Tracer, then reimagine it as a 25-foot video for a concert by Boston Musica Viva featuring a commissioned score by Professor of Composition Richard Cornell. That video was subsequently the basis of a dance piece by choreographer Judith Chaffee. The environment for the virtual reality piece was created and experienced in the Computer Graphics Lab, where it required 3D glasses and a navigation device. It was also streamed to locations in different time zones simultaneously, and viewers were able to use a wand to draw into the piece electronically. “Virtual reality is such a powerful communications tool,” Cornell says, “I felt like I was standing in front of a group of people who were all giving me different opinions about my work at the same time.”
She views her digital projects as both research and experimentation, and welcomes opportunities to try new things. For a 2011 solo exhibition at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art, she was asked to submit the digital files of her work and let the center do the printing. “I do my own printing, and I know what each piece should look like,” she says. “But I agreed to do it as a kind of a test, to see if it was artistically viable: Were my images clear and powerful? Did they need me to tweak them? It ended up being a wonderful experience, but I don’t think it would work in every situation. Things could easily have gone wrong. People think that with digital work all you need to do is push the print button, but printing is quite delicate. If something’s badly printed, it can misrepresent a file.”
There are many misconceptions about digital work, and there are artists who do not recognize it as a legitimate art form. “Unless you’ve tried it, you may not understand how difficult it is, or how challenging to your creativity,” says Cornell. “I teach a course at BU on digital printmaking because I’m interested in the digital print as a fine art print. There are a lot of digital prints that aren’t exciting because people don’t treat them as art objects; they ignore the subtleties and nuances, and refining and diffusing, the elements that make a digital image into art.”
For Cornell, digital art offers limitless possibilities; whether its impact is lasting or fleeting remains to be seen. “It’s a new field,” she says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s still resistance to it, and possibly in its present form it will vanish with the wind. Is it even worth it? Who knows—but that’s what exploration is all about.”