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Is there a "French Touch" in digital art?

Cecile Welker, secretary of Paris ACM Siggraph : "Is there a French touch?".

Provisional version, probably marked by chauvinism. To be revised with hopefully a better balance.

Briefly: France is strong on the digital art field. But, until further studies, we do not see a "touch" emerge.

Let's retain some partial certainties:
- Many French animation films are accepted each year in Siggraph festival, and rather frequently awarded. In 2013, France wins once more the most prestigious award, the "Best of show", for the film A la Française.
- Among some 1600 artists quoted by diccan (see our indexes, and analyses below), nearly 500 are French, as many as North Americans. This figure is certainly biased by our Parisian location and education, but how much?
- On Spring 2013, Paris, Brussels and Basel art shows give for the first time a meaningful place to digital art. The French galleries play the major part. See our posts: The Paris Digital Spring keeps going,
Denise René: the digital spring keeps on , Digital Spring in Brussels, Basel: bridging the digital divide... and welcoming China.

Renault : a slogan for international competition.

* * * *

1. An expression forged for music

At the "Selected French contributions to Siggraph 2013", Cécile Welker asked to herself (and the audience) the question "Is there really a French touch?

In some words: the expression has been crafted for music, see Wikipedia about French House Music. It is also the name of a collective of architects. And Renault recently (2013) made much of it in a commercial clip answering to the "German touch" of Audi for instance (the site shows also with interesting comments) (2013). It digs strong roots in French cultural context. It has brought, from start, the ambiguous combination of a generous universalism with selfish chauvinism.

In the digital arts world, these words may express the actual dynamism of French artists. We dared to write in We Demain n°4 that "Paris is the capital of generative art". It may stir our competitivity, but symmetrically raise anger if not smirk. Then let's be cautious, and try to get more objective, using the Diccan's "data base".

Daft Punk, a major bearer of the French flag.

3. Do figures let emerge a "touch"?

Let's come now to Diccan's domain of competence, digital arts and digital creation. Here, we have tried, and still try, to get solid bases to our ideas and reach objectivity as far as possible (but be cannot change the fact that we are French a Parisian).

The first step is to apply the Cartesian principle "Make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I was assured of having omitted nothing". It's one of the basic roles of Diccan. Two parts of this site bring specific information about France and the different nations: the index of artists and the geographical guide.

As for artists diccan lists (on 6/6/2013) some 1603 artists (see our index, which is permanently enhanced). They are distributed as follows:
- Europe 961, among which 488 are French, 114 English, 89 German, 42 Italian; 35 Belgian and Swiss, 32 Dutch.
- Americas 522, among which 48 from Central and South America.
- Asia and other countries 122.

Due to national pride, the relative place of France is certainly overestimated. But how much?

France is certainly over-represented for reasons in spite of our efforts. With English speaking countries, the bias is perhaps not too high, since Internet is a major information source, and not particularly French fan. It is probably higher with countries like Japan, Korea and China, hidden from us by ideographic languages. Another bias comes of who we count as "digital artists". We cover all types of art, from painting to transmedia. But the count of identified individuals lets out the armies of artists who work anonymously for film and game producers.

In our geographical guide, France takes nearly half the pages, and Europe one third. Here the bias is certainly more important than with artists, since a lot of data come from travels and journeys, ncessarily less systematic than visits in my home town. But, for instance, we have paid two visits to New-York, we have friends there, and they did not find more than what we have, and which is clearly less than for Paris.

Siggraph 2013 Best of Show award goes to A la Française, a film by Supinfocom Arles.

Another strong point of France is the number of its papers and films selected each year by the Siggraph and the success of our animation films. You can find a confirmation in the Wikipedia history of French animation and recently in an article Animation, la France cartonne, in Télérama.

Here we have at least the beginning of an explanation. In 2008, Anne Brotot (then manager of Sup Infocom Arles) explained these successes by the pedagogic methods of the French graphic schools: they focus on projects, their concretization and their collective nature. They offer to students a robust environment and seasoned teachers. In the US, graphic educations remains purely technical (in art schools) of basically academic: students have to make do alone with an individual project; Brotot notes that, to reach their present practice, they have had to go beyond the romantic model of the artist seen as a solitary genius, and to play the game of a creation associating different types of competences.

Let's now drill a little deeper into our figures.

Types of media, of arts

Our indexes use a larger number of categories. For easier use here, we have the following merges:
- Text, Literature: Writing
- Image (still): Photography, painting, calligraphy.
- Image (moving): Animation, cinema, video.
- Physical objects: Fabrics, lights, moves, objects, robotics.
- Performance: Dance, performance, VJ.
- Multimedia, web: Games, multimedia, tools, w

  France Europe N. America L. America MEA Asia-Oceania  
Text, Literature 43 44 26 5   1 92
Image (still) 66 91 87 13 4 25 314
Music 58 61 26 3 2 3 144
Image (moving) 73 87 64 6   14 196
Physical objects 53 74 87 5 5 21 269
Performance 37 44 24 2   7 93
Multimedia, Web 158 191 160 14 4 36 497
  488 595 474 48 15 107 1605
The curve is similar for all countries, but for the first years, where the US are lagging behind.

The distribution into the different medias is quite regular. This lets think that our selection is not too biased. The proportions in France and Europe differ slightly from the general ones, with:
- a stronger position of text, which could be due partly to the methodical explorations of Bootz; Asia, of course, is practically absent, though there are very probably haiku generators.
- a stronger position in music; would the "French touch" play its role here?


Periods are assigned to artists in reference to their first known (by us) digital world. Since the discipline is quite young and active life duration of more than 30 years, to get the number of active artists you have to add the two or three precedent ones. The figures for the present decade (2010-2020) are evidently lower. The high number of French artists is probably due to the fact that we cannot easily detect foreign newcomers. We call "predigital" the artists who, before the computer advent, made use of various digital techniques or principles.

  France Europe N.America L. America MEA Asia-Oceania  
Predigital 21 38 5 1     65
1950 6 20 15 2   1 44
1960 13 23 13 6 1 3 59
1970 20 23 29 3 1 5 81
1980 47 30 42 2   4 125
1990 77 112 128 9 1 23 350
2000 205 193 220 21 9 58 706
2010 99 34 22 4 3 13 175

An analysis by periods brings no more specific patterns for France. In the predigital period, France and Europe come before America, of course. Europe keeps a lead in the 1950 and 1960's, and then the progression follows very similar curves. For the 2010 decade, we have sensibly higher figures for France, which is very probably due to the information processes delays. That may be a weakness of diccan's updating process. It may be due also to the abundance of French institutions (public or private, including diccan) who give visibility even to beginners. An effect of the "exception culturelle" which protects more efficiently the young creators from the commercial domination of the mainstream?

Degree of generativity

  France Europe North America Latin America MEA Asia-Oceania  
Not generative 296 249 283 23 8 64 923
Weakly generative 125 137 113 15 5 27 422
Generative 43 63 56 6 1 10 179
Strongly generative 24 24 22 4 1 6 81

An analysis by degree of generativity (quite subjectively assigned, then we feared to be chauvinist here) does not give any more a leading advantage to France.

Conclusion: these figures (as far as they are correct) prove the strength of France, but nowher let appear the pattern of a specific "touch". Then let's try a more literary method, first for France then for the other major countries on the field. And let's dare to qualify each country in two words, would it be only to provoke and then learn from complementary or contradictory sources.


La Sainte Chapelle. Photo from the Hipparis site.

3. France: the cock's pride

From Saint-Louis to François Hollande, French politics has always been both generous and self-interests conscious, and has always considered culture as an important domain. For the former one, "The fever for decoration which seizes the early 13th century comes in direct line from the sacking of Constantinople" writes Georges Duby (our translation from Le temps des cathédrales). After him, François I, Louis XIV, Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis-Philippe, Jules Ferry or François Mitterrand play the same score. Between the two world wars, Friedrich Sieburg, a German friend of France told about this irritating contradiction in his book Dieu est-il français? (Grasset 1930). The 2013 intervention of France in Mali goes along with this tradition: a generous (and quite solitary) action for peace and for precious manuscripts, not forgetting that France has material interests in the region.

André Malraux : Protect the French culture (here, preparing iconography for his book The Musée Imaginaire).

Development and protection of arts in France are also a constant. De Gaulle and Malraux gave it structure and visibility with the creation of a Ministry of Culture in 1959, and a constant care to protect the "exception culturelle" from assimilation of cultural assets to trade commodities and their subjection to free trade and capitalist logic. Some consequences are clearly visible and positive:

- French towns have by all periods be subject to strong public planning. That's particularly stunning in Paris, with its strong structure: from the Roman centre with its main streets crossing, a series of circular protecting walls has marked the successive layers of growth. From the Louvre's pyramid, a modern construct in a nearly sacred place, the sight extends to the Defense Grand Arch. That's rather unique, but we must remember that the not so glorious collaborationism in WW2 as well as the very "French touch" of De Gaulle politics spared to Paris the fate of London as well as of Berlin or Tokyo. Today, a major part of intra muros Paris, from Trocadéro to Bercy and from Montmartre to Port-Royal has become a vast cultural park, attracting each year some 60 millions of tourists. To the point that native Parisians feel sometimes dispossessed of their homeland, lost in crowds of foreigners.

Cannes's festival, the annual French feast for worldwide cinema.

- French cinema (and other performance arts) is strongly aided by several financial and legal dispositions. India and its Bollywood is with us one of the rare countries with important production. But up to now and probably for a long time, Hollywood keeps the control of the "mainstream".

- French publishing and specially bookshops have been legally protected, with impressive results. The comparison with New York, for instance, is stunning. Very few bookshops are to day open in New-York. The grand science and culture library of McGraw-Hill closed some ten years ago. Barnes & Noble has still some shops, but loses ground. In Paris and French towns in general, every district has many active bookshops. You can find books as well as a large variety of magazines in the many Maisons de la Presse and general shops. On this last point, Tokyo is one of the rare cities with such a luxury. But will these cultural flowers resist the rise of e-books? (See our notice).

"Bouquinists" on Paris Seine banks. Will they survive ? This picture, "Le bouquiniste au tabouret", has got an award by the AACCEA association in Saclay (Ile-de France).

- By contrast, French literature has no strong presence on the international market. We are proud of our high number of new titles and glorious Goncourt or Femina awards. But the best-sellers, even in French bookshops, are translations of Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, E.L. James or Murakami. That could be at least partly due to a French culture feature: writing is supposed to be a natural gift and not a matter for education. For the first time in 2013 (see Le Monde, April 26), our universities are opening masters in literary creation. Comic books are highly prized in France, but this field has for long dominated by Belgian authors... now challenged, with a new kind of style and format, by the Japanese mangas.

- For painting and plastic arts New-York has taken the leading role during WW1 and WW2, due to the many expatriated artists and the proactive efforts like the Armory Show (1913) and the critic stimulation of Clement Greenberg . The production is more distributed today, with active production and/or markets in London, Berlin or Hong-Kong.

In a post (July 2013), Eric Leguay, tries to define the French touch, using in particular his experience with students at Gobelins graphics school. In short: a rich knowledge of cultural topics, an immediate understanding of issues and of possible answers, a permanent questioning of accepted ideas.

Debatable perhaps, the post-modernist "French Theory" has brought a French touch to thinkers like the Japanese Azuma about otaku or the American Jenkins about transmedia.

- For music, in spite of highly specialized research at Ircam, England, Germany and the US keep the lead. With the quite non-typical case of the French touch in music, with for instance the Daft Punk group, which has just published its Random Access Memory CD. . Here the success did not come from public support, but from private, even popular, initiative, as explains a note by Les arts décoratifs.

- Lets conclude with the philosophical background, which underlies art from all sides, it's sometimes surprising to discover the influence of the "French theory " in thinkers of other cultures, specially about new media. The Japanese Azuma quotes Deleuze and Lyotard. And Jenkins, about transmedia, refers several times to Pierre Lévy. But we should remain prudent, since this fad for French post-modernism has been ridiculed by the Sokal affair. (See Wikipedia, Impostures intellectuelles, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (Odile Jacob 1997) and: French theory. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis. by François Cusset. La Découverte 2003.

4. The other "touches"

"It is good to know something of the customs of various peoples, so as to judge our own more soundly and so as not to think that everything that is contrary to our ways is ridiculous or against reason, as those who have seen nothing have a habit of doing" (Descartes, Discourse on Method). And to be as neutral as possible, let's follow the alphabetical order.

Australia: the generative island

Sydney and Melbourne have institutions virtual and electronic arts. The philosopher Hugo de_Garis is famed for his forecastings (rather pessimistic). Linda Dement, a film maker, with a film like Cyberflesh girlmonster, will not soothe your anxieties. Alan Dorin and Jon McCormack are positively creative. Gaffney Nick offers you the tools to make it concrete. Troy Innocent will immerge you into highly generative universes.

Imal arts center in Brussels : ascetic, but high spirited.

Austria: violent waltzes

Forget Mozart and the Blue Danube! Klimt and Schonberg have broken the sweet mirror and to day Kur Hentschlager and Ulf Langheinrich Ulf will use any means to destabilize you.

Belgium: small but ambitious

Liege has demolished its famed tower due to Nicolas Schöfer. But Brussels has its part in the 2013 digital spring, with the Imal research center, the LKFF gallery and Villa Empain, with an annual rendezvous at Art Brussels and Slick. Dance is not forgotten with Florence Corin and the journal Nouvelles de Danse, strongly oriented towards digital interaction.
Among the most famed Belgian artists, we can quote Peter Beyls, Thom Demeyer, Thomas Israel and Van-Tongerloo.

Canada : the Northern interactor

Beijing: the China museum of digital art (Cmoda).

Vancouver has hosted the Siggraph in 2012 , and the satisfaction of participants (and a substantial public support) led to do it again in 2014. This part of Canada, anyway, is not too far from the Californian film Mecca and from Redmond, headquarters of Microsoft. In such a Northern country, art has to be lively. No wonder then if San Base plays the "dynamic painting" and two other famed artists, Char Davies and David Rokeby are interaction specialists.

China: taking-off?

We write this post just before taking our train for Basel, where China presents digital art at Art Basel. China's momentum on all planes will certainly project strong lines in the digital art space. Is there a Chinese touch? After its destructive cultural revolution and its turn to state capitalism, Beijing seems aiming more to power than to cultural originality. But why not hope for good surprises?

Wagner (here Fafner in the Tetralogy) is perhaps the one only artist who dared to write an "Art of the future" essay.

Germany: the heavy digits

. Music is the domain where Germany has played the major role in the predigital era. The well-tempered harpsichord of J.S. Bach and the Gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner are major forerunners of digital art, transmedia included. Herbert Von Karajan is also deemed to have been the first to foresee the power of CD-Roms. Today, Henke Robert breaks new ground in generative music.

For painting, among digital German artists, we can quote Hans Dehlinger, Frieder Nake and Georg Nees. Robotics is used by Matthias Gommel and multimedia by Knowbotic Research. Advanced interactive dance is developed by the Palindrome_Inter-media_Performance_Group . In movies, German students have frequently awards in Siggraph.

ZKM in Karlsruhe, a huge data center with a strong digital orientation.

One may ask why such a great nation, with its traditional strong engagement in art as well as in science and logic, does not do more in digital art. There are historical reasons. Up to the 1930's, Germany was an important leader, not only in music but also in plastic arts with the multi-talented Bauhaus. The Nazi regime made many artist flee off, and notably contributing to the rise of American art. After the war, reconstruction, economic development, cold war then re-unification were more important aims than art development. Would it be only because Germany is not easily attracting tourists.

Today, the forces seem concentrated on two regions : Berlin and the Rhine valley, with for instance Kassel (Documenta, annual show), Karslruhe (ZKM vast center of arts and Art Karlsruhe), Stuggart (FMX conference and show, State Academy of Art ). For the scientific aspects (computer graphics) Fraunhofer Institute has its headquarters in Munich.

Japan: smiling robots

French observers, even having lived in Japan for decades, do not pretend to understand this fascinating civilization. It's depicted by a lot of books (see our geographical guide). Many of them, like Arthur Koestler or Hermann von Keyserling, express contradictory feelings of love and hate. Japanese are at the same time free-minded and strongly socially formatted.

Do it with your... (The ass-ball interface, shown at Siggraph Asia Singapore). Very "Japanese touch".

In sex matters, for instance, their open attitude contrasts with the prudish America, but falls nearly at the same time in sado-masochistic themes. That is both a result and a cause of a particularly dramatic history. Twice raped by the US marines, but unforgivably remorseless invaders. It is now stunned by Fukushima, a natural disaster in the tradition of the land, but amplified by nuclear breakdowns...

Robots hold also a very specific status in Japan. In nearly all other countries, robots fascinate but with a strong negative drive (see our notes about robots in art). Here they are mostly seen as friendly partners, as well in industry (for instance, in the Glory society, see an article in Challenges (5/24/2013, in French) as life companions, let alone sex partners. If the singularity is to happen anywhere, it will be in Japan since this country, at the same time, makes very few children and does not favor immigration. Then its population is ageing, and robots more and more necessary in production as well as entertainment.


Astro Boy, typical of the "Robots save the World" Japanese mind. Here an image from Siggraph Yokohama, where Osamu Tezuka explains the problems he had to solve when transferring Astro from handmade to computer animation.

In digital arts, Japan is strongly present. Yoichiro Kawaguchi for instance, is nearly every year in Siggraph, with its warm smile and indefinite, frequently humorous, creativity. In Laval Virtual, Japanese srudent teams bring each year the core of the "emerging techologies" session. But less than 50 Japanese artists are listed by diccan.

Switzerland: arts of the clock

Famed for its precision mechanics, Switzerland has not failed to transfer its speciality into arts. In the predigital era, the Jacquet-Droz automata and Jean Tinguely derisive (and sometimes generative) contraptions remain historical stages. Today, Zimoun uses "prepared motors" for many different effects, and Hanspeter Kyburz builds generative music.

Tinguely's Metamatic (1959) by Jean Tinguely : generative art prior to computers.

In Zurich, Markus Gross and teams at ETH push solid research in digital arts in a very open way, as has shown the conference they organized in 2007: Transdisciplinary Digital Art (in cooperation with Victoria, Canada; proceedings edited by Randy Adams, Steve Gibson and Stefan Müller).

United Kingdom: Turing and markets

In 2013, nearly 70 years after the birth of first computers, it is difficult to imagine that, on that time, English, German and (a little less) French engineers laid the bases of computer science and industry. The war, then the aggressive marketing of American firms (IBM, mainly) with European divisions and errors to oust of the game major players like ICL (UK), Bull (France), Siemens (Germany), Philips (Netherlands) and Olivetti (Italy). That has not been without consequence on art, as appears in our historical figures (see below).

Brian Eno, deeply "techno"...

Nowadays, the UK has strong positions, and a generative orientation:
- in music, The-Beatles played a major role in the use of new technologies; hen Brian Eno or the Archive group have the ship going,
- in painting, Sue Gollifer, in games of light Helen Evans;
- in cinema, Peter G reenaway;
- in animation, William Latham in the 1980's and later Geoff Cox give life to generative techniques;
- in robotics, Rob Myers or Patrick Tresset;
- important tools have been offered by Frédéric-Fol Leymarie then by Simon Colton, Karsten Schmidt.

London, with the auctioneer Christies, the Tate Modern gallery is then an important hub for digital art.

The US: maintstream and "tactical"

Seen from Paris, the US is synonym with mainstream: enormous budgets, industrial production, aggressive marketing. See Mainstream. Enquête sur cette culture qui plaît à tout le monde (by Frédéric Martel. Flammarion 2010). The work has been criticized, notably for a lack of up to date information. But it remains, as far as we know, the only one on this subject, and a fascinating trip.

Hollywod, spring and core of the "mainstream".

The US is, with France, the only nation to combine a concern for worldwide peace and order with national interest. But their views are not universalist in the same sense are the French ones. Compare the human rights declaraions of the French revolution with the American independence, the contrast is clear. Nowadays, France constantly calls to international organizations (UNO, International Criminal Court, ecological agreements) and contests for instance the American control of the addresses on Internet. The US asserts shamelessly that they have won the World Wars, including the cold one, and that their independance and leadership is the best solution, since they are a peaceful and democratic country. Many French people wouldn't say the contrary, remembering the GI landing in 1944 and the fact that SDN as well as UNO were at birth strongly supported by the American presidents Wilson and F.D. Roosevelt.

In digital arts, the annual show, conference and festival of Siggraph remain a basically American event. It belongs to the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), which is far from closed to international participation at its highest level (The French Alain Chesnais chaired it in 2011-2012). ACM and Siggraph have local chapters in nearly all countries of graphic importance. But the practical power lies in the New-York headquarters, and Siggraph has never left the US soil, with the exception of the nearby Vancouver in 2011 (and 2014). That's quite logical, since Hollywood remains by far the leader in production, and American corporations the leaders in graphic software (with the exception of the French Dassault).

Not everybody in the US follows the mainstream, and digital art may be an instrument of action as well as expression.

One third of digital artists are American, and as we have said, our figure understates the importance of salaried artists in the production corporations.

But not all American artists play the mainstream game. Some even turn the digital tools against the dominant clouds. They are the tactical media, with a major representative group, the Critical Art Ensemble. Is it art ? Duchamp like, at least.


4. Analysts and critics wanted

The question of a "French touch", as well as an "American touch" or "Japanese touch" remains a terra incognita beyond commercial slogans and nationalist pride. It could help to preserve, and even better to develop the cultural diversity of our hyper-connected world. It could help artists to cooperate locally and stir creativity by a combination of specific cultures with new technologies. Remember, for example the role played by Emile Zola for Impressionism, or of Clement Greenberg for American painting!

Critics wanted... (Daumier, L'amateur de gravures).

But that would require a serious analysis and critical effort. And critic is the soft spot of contemporary art, digital or not. Most comments in press, general or specialized, limit themselves to biographical data or practical information. As said already Valéry in the 1930's, to study and critic of the works are more difficult than to tell stories about people.

That was the main reason of creating diccan. But solid results will require work on a larger scale. Will there be a spring here also? The communication of Cécile at Siggraph is at least a positive mark.

Pierre Berger
6/9/2013. Revised on 10/10/2013.






Paris ACM Siggraph, the French chapter of ACM Siggraph, worldwide non-profit organization of computer graphics.




Les Algoristes, an association of artists using their own algorithms in their work.





Galerie Charlot An important supporter of digital art.