One by one, instructor David Em holds up several examples of his students' artwork from his Art 56 course. "Aren't these great?" he says proudly. The enjoyment Em gets from teaching PCC's digital drawing and painting class is obvious, perhaps because the ability to teach such a class was a hard-earned pleasure for David Em.


One by one, instructor David Em holds up several examples of his students’ artwork from his Art 56 course. “Aren’t these great?” he says proudly. The enjoyment Em gets from teaching PCC’s digital drawing and painting class is obvious, perhaps because the ability to teach such a class was a hard-earned pleasure for David Em.

Roughly 35 years ago, Em was a pioneer in the unchartered territory of digital art, far before any art institution considered digital art making a legitimate method of artistic expression, he said.

“The idea that I would want to make art with computers was inconceivable,” said Em.

So it seemed appropriate that Em recently announced he was the first digital artist to sign a contract with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, to archive the personal papers and materials he accrued on his journey.

As Em’s digital paintings challenged the art world in the past, storing his work in the Smithsonian archives creates a challenge for the present.

“It turns out,” said Em, “there’s a huge interest in this in the archiving community [so] other institutions are getting involved.”

According to the Berkeley Art Museum, determining how to archive digital and internet art is a hot item on the to do list of most archivists and museums.

As technology continues to develop at warp speed, many forms of storing digital information have, or will soon, become obsolete, according to Wired magazine.

Like finding a computer that reads old floppy discs or a machine that plays beta videotapes, so too is the challenge to find a long-term solution to archiving the remarkably temporary storage of all kinds of digital information.

According to Em, he began with an education in traditional painting and later moved over to filmmaking.

It was then that “I became aware that there was something. called digital,” said Em.

“At that time, I’d never been in a room with a computer,” he said.

It was in the 1970’s, Em said, that he first really got turned on to [making digital images] at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center where the first paint software was created.

“It was called Super Paint [and] it was a life-changer when I saw it,” he said.

After Xerox, he was hired as an artist-in-residence at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and given access to its imaging applications for ten years.

It was at JPL that Em really began to develop his style of digital painting.

“When I was a kid it was called finding your voice,” said Em, “and because I was suddenly working in a medium where there were really no examples, I found my voice very quickly.”

Digital art existed in “a world where there were no rules, no right, no wrong. and no footsteps in the valley,” said Em.

However, “people were suspicious [of computers] at that time. [They] represented big brother, mind control, the loss of individuality,” he said.

“There was no institutional support of any kind,” said Em.

Em said the situation was very disconcerting on a professional level.

“On the creative level, it was tremendously liberating,” he said.

Thirty years later, Em said of the art world, “it’s only now that they’ve come around to all of this.

PCC professor David Em showing digital artworks make by his students. (Louis Cheung)

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