How digital graphics remade the material world


JURASSIC PARK, the 1993 blockbuster sensation, contains a sly, almost Velázquezian example of put in abyss. In the futuristic genomics lab and control room at the eponymous theme park, scientists craft the ultimate prehistoric spectacle using desktop computers, software applications and file systems made by Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI). These prominent SGI workstations not only play a vital role in the film’s narrative structure – enabling plot progression via on-screen graphical visualization – they actually reveal the very machinery used to produce the effects. digital specials from the film, including many of its towering dinosaurs. The diegetic embedding of this equipment displays an ironic fidelity to reality: the film’s characters parody the technological processes by which the film itself is made mimetically plausible for viewers.

This depiction of SGI workstations on set satirizes one of the cardinal rules of computer-generated images: that they must be realistic enough to erase their own medium-specific technical origins. Relatively successful in adhering to this rule, SGI computers were used in the production of every Academy Award nominee for Best Visual Effects between 1995 and 2002. jurassic parkThe company’s use of technology, imitated by a number of big-budget films of the time, helped usher in the rise of digital graphics in Hollywood. This rise has occurred alongside similar developments in the cultural vernacular, with graphic imagery appearing in television, video games, architectural design, and software. The widespread adoption of computer graphics in the cultural industries and their enthusiastic reception by audiences, critics and consumers mark a significant shift in popular visual aesthetics at the end of the 20th century.

Cover of Jacob Gaboury's Image Objects: An Archeology of Computer Graphics (MIT Press, 2021).

But the physical and intellectual infrastructure needed to effect this change took decades of work. It was not just a technical revolution, it was also a conceptual and, perhaps, phenomenological revolution. Jacob Gaboury locates the genesis of this revolution in the fertile period of research carried out at the College of Engineering at the University of Utah, funded by the United States Department of Defense, between 1965 and 1980. His new book, Image objects: an archeology of computer graphicsmaps the legacy of Utah faculty and its graduates, and their methods, as they migrated from academic research to commercial ventures, which included the creation of SGI in addition to Pixar, Adobe, Atari, Netscape , WordPerfect and a host of other companies.

Gaboury’s book paves the way for a discourse on computer graphics independent of the already solid literature on mid-century correspondences between art and engineering, such as those of the Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) group and the efforts of Bell Labs, the watershed of ICA London. 1968 “Cybernetic Serendipity”, the information aesthetics of Max Bense and the Stuttgart school, the critique of systems theory by Jack Burnham or the ecology-oriented design advocated by György Kepes, Charles Eames and the New Bauhaus. While the latter largely circumscribes computer-generated images to the lineage of artistic modernism, Image objects situates the domain’s idiosyncratic strategies within the realm of popular culture and everyday experience. Gaboury thus seeks to recover the history of computer graphics from the dominant disciplines of the history of art and technology, such as those of cinema and photography, which tend to subsume it, and in doing so, makes a series of bold claims, the main one being that graphics played a central role in reorienting the computer from a logical and mathematical tool to the graphical and interactive medium it is today. For this reason, the book is a unique questioning of the contemporary optical regime, structured as it is by black boxes and screens.

Facade of the headquarters of Silicon Graphics, Inc. in Mountain View, California, 1994 Photo: Paul Warchol.

Gaboury’s book can be considered “archaeology” for two reasons. First, Image objects ends, as the author notes, where most computer graphics histories begin – with the advent of the first mass-produced graphics processing unit (GPU) in the early 1980s – and thus constitutes a sort of prehistory. Second, each of its five chapters delves into a particular technical object, most of which form the conceptual basis for tools still in use today. These objects are not always material in the strict sense of the term: one chapter examines an algorithm called “Z-buffer”, used to represent depth values, while another relates the emergence of a computer programming model partially inspired by Sketchpad, the model of Ivan Sutherland. first computer-aided design (CAD) program. Each presents an opportunity for thematic exploration and conceptual recombination, revealing particular facets of the computer graphics medium – its genealogy, techniques, culture and influence.

Gaboury’s decision to orient the book around discrete but materially elusive objects is not simply a methodological preference; rather, it mimics the monadic object theory that underpins work done in computer graphics at that time, whereby everything in the world is conceived as an abstract entity available for modelling, simulation, and interaction. The author attributes this image of the world to computer graphics. He argues that the field’s preoccupation with accurately rendering surfaces, shapes, textures, and lighting resulted in a new conception of reality; every object in its environment has become qualitatively flattened in its construction, dissolving into a set of control points available for manipulation. From this point of view, objects were not appreciated for their functional or sensual specificities, but as vehicles for representing solutions to problems, neutral substitutes for any object at all.

A modern representation of the Utah teapot, 2009. Photo: Doug Hatfield.  CC BY-SA 3.0

Take the Utah teapot. This object, familiar to designers as a standard reference model in contemporary software suites such as Autodesk 3ds Max, LightWave 3D and AutoCAD, and which is the subject of an entire chapter in Image objects– is now a joke in the field, its appearance evoking an entire half-century of research, practice and industry. Based on a simple ceramic Melitta vessel and first modeled by Utah researcher Martin Newell in 1974, it initially served a practical purpose at a time when the department was tired of testing new algorithms on easily generated; the researchers wanted new, easily recognizable objects that synthesized then-recent mathematical solutions for analyzing complex and irregular curvatures, including Bézier curves, Coons patches, NURB surfaces, and b-splines. Newell’s teapot, once digitized and displayed in wireframe form, was instantly popularized by a set of academic papers and ultimately after a text file containing its patch settings was shared on the ARPANET network, the forerunner of today’s Internet.

The ubiquity of the Utah Teapot in infographics, then as now, is a testament to the University of Utah program’s vast network of influence. It also indexes a time when, through formalized methods of translation between tangible and virtual objects, standards for rendering digital images began to refract on the design of the physical goods that now populate our perceptual field. What Gaboury calls “the aesthetic of the wake”—initially attributable to engineering the smooth, aerodynamic curves and arcs of the World War II era found in airplanes, automobiles, and ships— has spread into all manner of consumables intended to be grasped by the human hand: “The blob-like appearance of your water bottle or video game controller” are two reflections of this, informed in large part by the mediation of graphic techniques. By pushing computing into closer intimacy with the physical world – away from performing procedural calculations over time, towards assembling relational objects over space – computer graphics have changed the general conceptualization of functioning of the modern computer, or even its purpose. This intimacy has always carried with it a deep ambivalence: the simultaneous anticipation and anxiety evoked once by the society of the simulacrum of postmodern theory and today by virtual reality and the metaverse are its expression. But this new computer-shaped world was implicit in jurassic parkthe control room of: where a perfected language for describing reality was endowed with the ability to fabricate it.