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PERCEPTIONS OF SYNERGY
William Fetter
Head, Computer Graphics Laboratory, Department of Design,
Southern Illinois University at
Carbondale.
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The Fauves were not instantly
acceptable. Even O ldenbe rg took
some time getting used to. And the
current art/technology communications explosion in computing, video
and other techniques again forces
us to redefine art to encompass
concepts and techniques not
previously admitted to the term.
The work of the current wave of
innovative artists/technologists
creates a degree of cognitive dissonance by wo rking in unfamiliar
contexts. Afte r-the-fact rationales
will emerge, at times from the
innovators themselves. Such writings have appeared in j ournals,
news media o r even court proceedings where creative innovations
motivated the artist to assume roles
not yet sanctioned by his conte mporary society. The rate of prolifer-

ation of new art fo rms suggests
that today new work will yield new
grist taster than the verbal m i lis
can turn to explain it.
The new definitions a re urgent,
however, for our true growth. In
recent conferences on one aspect
of the communications explosion,
Computer Graphics, attempts at
value judgments of the works prior
to a new context of understand ing
proved unproductive. A short
reflection on the growing number
of wo rke rs in this new fie ld, the
variety of their background,
amount, variety and type of computing equipment at their disposal and
the em bryonic nature of concepts
in this field makes it too early if not
unnecessarily difficult to develop
valuab le c ritical appraisals without
new contexts. For example, my

263

work in Computer Graphics has
sought to keep a close coupling
between innovation and reduction
to practice as well as fusion of
aesthetics and function . In accounts of several European and
American travelling exhibits which
contain my work, this dual purpose
is at times understood but usually
the writers search in the distant
past for concepts to deal with new
forms. Future work in Computer
Graphics centered systems aimed
at graded interactive challenges to
assist the participant' s growth may
require a further redefinition of art.
While I prefer innovation in Computer Graphics to writing, I am
sufficiently fascinated by the degree
of unity between art work and art
criticism as a design problem in
its own right to attempt to comment
on it. In trying to come to terms
with this matching process personally, I feel that systems theory suggests notions that yield satisfying
and not necessarily mechanical
insights about important aspects of
defining art.
Synergy is the unexpected performance of a whole, not predictable by
the sum of its parts.
I believe beauty can be considered
as perceived synergy, that art can
be viewed as construction s toward
that perception of synergy.
I believe Erwin Panovsky's assertion
that anything can be perceived
aestheticall y is possible because
synergy can occur at a given time
among the levels between pure perceptions and pure stimulus material. At one end of this spectrum,
operating in a relatively deprived
stimulus environmen t, we call up
264 prior stimulus material: the "man"

who appeared for conversatio n
after months at sea to the lone
transatlanti c small craft sailor, or
the sounds that occur to the individual in an anechoic chamber.
At the other end of the spectrum,
stimulus material reaches us far
more rapidly than we can assimilate it: the sudden bad news that
causes unconsciou sness, or the
astronaut on the moon asking for
" five minutes of nothing" after prolonged incoming radio communica tion. Deprived stimulus or overloaded stimulus can fall outside the
range necessary for sufficient pattern, beauty and utility to exist
between the stimulus and our consciousness for us to function .
It seems our human system requires
the continuing challenge of new
forms of stimuli within a certain
range for us to survive.
Already the new art with its constantly changing constructio n techniques and scope produces work
outside the usual comfortable range
between deprivation and overload.
With such techniques, the artifacts
become clearly less and less important than the perceptions
formed. The artifacts gradually
converge with the experiences of
life itself.
The important experience s of
choosing a mate in part involves
what we describe as aesthetic considerations and has direct bearing
on the way in which the species
continues. I believe what we call
beauty is the vital outward evidence
of a healthy system with which the
highest orders of synergy can
occur. We apparently perceive a
potential mate as beautiful when
our. senses
detect a suitably bal.
anced, healthy human being func-

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William Fetter, Seven Systems Man . These plots
of a human figure were produced by computer.
The intent of developing this capability is to
provide a precise anthropometric tool for human
factors engineers and others in the study of and
design for man/machine interaction. Another
intent is to simultaneously create images which
have aesthetic merit in their own right. The work

was conceived by William A. Fetter at the Boeing
Company and developed under his direction.
Currently he is adapting these aerospace
developed tools to broader design purposes as
Head of the Computer Graphics Laboratory,
Department of Design, Southern Illinois University
at Carbondale.

265

tioning well on many levels. We
can perceive a painting or photograph of a beautiful individual because a certain collection of sensory evidence of a viable system
has been faithfully captured to
synthesize synergy. When the artwork becomes more abstracted,
then there is a transfer of the beauty of the system described to the
synergy of the media's plastic elements themselves. Artistic construction then, at its best, creates
the opportunity for perceptions of
synergy as a selected mix between
our perceptions , the media, and
stimulus material. I believe that
what we call art is not the pleasant
icing on the cake of our existence
but is an imperative to the development of our species.
A recent patent case before the
Court of Customs and Patent Appeals dealt with the question of
whether computer programmin g
when stored in a computer technically reconfigured the computer
apparatus. In my view, art helps to
directly reconfigure the way in
which our neurons functi on and,
ultimately, we may find that our
collected experiences more directly
affect the expected perceptions
within our offspring. "Art is life"
may not be a complete statement
but the two appear to be con•
vergmg.
Significant new trends in art are
often associated with a new generation. I believe such new contextual frameworks are exactly the
kind of challenge needed for the
entire culture 's intellectual /
aesthetic system. This is precisely
why new forms are critical to us
although they first appear ugly and
266 fall outside the conventional wis-

dom as found in previously accepted definitions of art.
The hazards in the communications
explosion have been present in the
past. The proportion of hazards to
opportunitie s remains approximately the same; they are simply both
becoming more intense with the
higher rates of change. Among the
significant opportunitie s in the
trend are the decentraliz ation of
communica tion system control and
a consequent democratiz ation of
decision making.
Within the context of perceived
synergy, I believe that the emerging
technologie s of computer systems,
both analog and digital, video systems and other systems which yield
quantum jumps in manipulatio n
and ease of access offer the greatest hope for both creating and understanding information and art.
This is so important that in the
future we may see a time in which
the tokens of exchange transfer
from money to other forms. In the
tutu re the tokens may move from
money to information , to a wholeness of information which we may
by then call art, or ultimately to
possessors of the most vital forms
of information and art which we
may by then call seeds.
We must pursue the integration of
the elements of the communica tion
explosion with the needs of individuals in society. Thus the opportunities for unexpected individual
growth through graded challenges
to each intellectual / aesthetic
human system can yield an unexpected societal synergy until the
highest form of art becomes literally the design of one's own life
experience.