Saul Bernstein: Pixel Picasso. John J. Anderson.
Saul Bernstein is without a doubt the top microcomputer artist in the country today. He has gained nationwide notoriety and acclaim, and won an Emmy for his efforts in microcomputerized animation. Though it is less well known, he is also one of the most eloquent voices speaking for microcomputers in education that you are apt to hear.
When the Royal Family visited Silicon Valley a few months ago, it was Saul who was commissioned by Hewlett-Packard to do portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. They were so striking that the Queen thought the computer images had somehow been produced photographically, until she was told Bernstein works using a stylus on a graphics tablet. Some of his results grace our cover this month, through his unbridled generosity.
I managed to catch Bernstein between a speech in Chicago and a flight to Comdex in Atlanta, and got him to talk about what he does, and why and how he does it. I found him an extremely engaging subject.
Creative Computing: How did you get started with microcomputer art, and what equipment did you have?
Bernstein: I got started with an Apple II back around Christmas of '78. The desire was simply to be able to paint into a television set.
Creative: You had been painting in conventional media.
Bernstein: Right. In the early '60s I had what you might call a normal fine arts career, but got tired of the--what would you call it--the elitism of the so-called fine arts. I wanted to communicate more strongly with a larger piece of society. So, after a long discussion with my wife, I decided the illustration field was the place to go. So I began doing straight illustration: oil painting, watercolors, and the like for the NFL, Westway magazine, and stuff like that. And I liked it; the money was good, but what was even better were the phone calls I received from people I knew and people I didn't know--people who saw the stuff after it was printed. I thought, "gee this is wonderful, because it gives me real feedback."
Creative: You developed a forum.
Bernstein: Yes, and beyond that of the fine arts college professor.
Creative: Were had you been teaching?
Bernstein: I teach at California State university of Northridge.
Creative: Then what?
Bernstein: Then I managed to get involved in video--I guess because I wanted to be a better teacher. This was around the time of the campus riots in the late '60s. I remember one woman carrying a placard that said "Make our educations relevant." I thought that made some sense. I had some introspective moments--I realized that the content of what I was saying was good, but I was nevertheless teaching it the same way it had been taught in the 17th century. So I thought about new ways to teach art, and of course television presented itself. I proceeded to build a black and white TV studio in my art studio, and went out and interviewed people in the field. All of a sudden my enrollment grew. The administration of the college was happy with it and supported me.
I became fairly comfortable with electronics over this time. I was the engineer, I was the writer, I was the director, I was the interviewer: this gave me valuable experience. I found that industry was largely supportive as well. They were trying to make the bridge to education at that time, which was pretty hard to do, as no ties existed back then. So we got our cameras in there.
You know our society is more or less a vertical one. Everyone is concerned with their own homes and their own jobs, and there's very little lateral communication. That's what I was trying to do, but it was hard to find a vehicle. The video thing, I think, led me to that fateful night I dreamt I could paint into a television set.
Creative: You literally dreamt that you were painting with light on a TV.
Bernstein: Yes. And of course I didn't know how to do it, but from that moment on I wanted to. I talked to people with greater knowledge about those things, and they told me I needed a computer. They also told me I'd have to learn to program. I said "no, I don't think I want to do that." I was too old to go back to college as a freshman in computer science. But it did get me thinking about computers.
I went into a couple of stores to see the TRS-80 (Model I) machine in '76 and '77, but nobody could ever get the damned thing to work. I remained suspicious.
Then I saw the Apple. All the fellow could do at that particular store was run the color bar demo and a primitive version of Breakout. But when I saw the color bars on the screen, I said "if he can do that, I can paint." And that was how it all started.
To show you how good I am, it took me three months after getting the thing home to get it to save a sentence, and the manual was gibberish to me.
Creative: It was 20 mimeographed pages back then.
Bernstein: It was for programmers. I couldn't understand a word of it. It was tough enough trying to save to cassette, which was the only means of storage back then. I'd hear that "beep beep beep" and I wouldn't know what in the world was going on.
But I kept working at it, almost as an obsession. Then I met a fellow named Rod Mansfield, who has turned out to be one of my best friends in the industry. The first night we met, I asked him how I could paint on an Apple computer. He introduced me to the then-prototype of the graphics tablet. He wrote some primitive software for me, something on a par with an Etch-a-Sketch--no fills, no vector capability. But I was painting on the screen. He also introduced me to the disk drive. I was still working on a television set, too. Color monitors came later.
After about a week, I had a bunch of pictures, including the one of Einstein, which became so popular. Rod came over, and just stood there with his mouth open. "You think I could have copies of these," he asked? I said, "if you know how to make copies, be my guest." I was still quite a novice.
I had no idea what he meant to do with the disk. But I soon found out. I got a call from Mike Markkula at Apple, asking me to come up for a visit, so I did. They asked me if I wanted to visit New York in June (for the NCC). I said "well sure," not knowing what for. I didn't quite know it then, but I had become a part of Apple's marketing. As they say, fools go where angels fear to tread. But I had a great time in New York, despite the fact I knew nothing about conventions or graphics tablets or software. I did have suggestions, and have always enjoyed talking to people, and i had a wonderful time.
Creative: That probably made you the perfect person for Apple to wheel around back then--the fact that you were an artist as opposed to a programmer, nor were you much interested in the hacker aspects.
Bernstein: I've worked on many machines, some of them very sophisticated. Yet I have never cared much about what's in the box. I would rather discover the limitations for myself, in my own way.
Creative: The less you know the better?
Bernstein: Something like that. Show me how to boot it up, then leave me alone to play. You might call it "disciplined play." I really believe in the power of play. Can you imagine the fun the person had, who invented the bathtub? I would like to have seen that first automobile get rolling. What did Orville Wright really feel when the wheels left the ground?
Creative: Or the astronauts appreciating the view from the Columbia.
Bernstein: No one has bothered to ask Shepard or Glenn how it really felt to be up there for the first time. And here I was with wonderful brand new boxes and the time to explore. Give me the box, and I'll draw some pictures. That's my mode of operation. And people have turned around and liked the pictures.
Creative: Somehow the Einstein thing really seemed to touch people.
It was so fitting, you know.
Bernstein: Well I thank you. I'm just so pleased. You know I really don't look at graphics computers as something frivolous--as merely games machines. They are a modern indicator that conventional forms of education have become outmoded and antique.
Creative: Can you elaborate on that point?
Bernstein: Yes. America started out as an agrarian society, then became an industrial one, and now is being transformed into a technological one. And yet our schools are still being run as if we lived in an agrarian society! That's why they let the kids out at 3:00--to tend the farm.
Creative: Why are we still following such antiquated schedules?
Bernstein: Well school boards will tell you first off that it's budgetary. They just can't afford to keep the business of education up any longer. I don't know about that. I think the (micro)computer industry owuld be more than happy to donate machines to schools, which could really help the situation.
Creative: In fact some companies, like Apple, have already offered to do so.
Bernstein: And they are having a hard time. Education is frightened to death that industry will make money from that kind of proposition. Well, I want them to make money. I want Apple to make millions of dollars. I want IBM to make millions of dollars. I want all of them to make billions of dollars, if they get our kids interested in learning.
Right now this country is turning out 11,000 engineering students a year. In the soviet Union, the number is closer to 50,000 a year. Now it doesn't take much to realize that even though we'll soon have a battleship in every backyard to protect us, we're going to be a third-rate power in short order. The only answer to that kind of problem is an investment in youth.
The President says that our Social Security problems are solved until the year 2000. That's wonderful. That's great. But what about underwriting education? I'm old enough to remember the GI bill for education. It made the difference for kids who went into the service as meat-packers in '41 and became doctors after they got out. The difference in their taxes was enough to make it a winning investment.
Creative: And you see computers as a means to this end in education today.
Bernstein: As a splendid means.
Creative: Let me go back to a point you touched on earlier: you talked about a vertical trend in today's society. Many people see computers as contributive to that very problem. Parents worry about the kids sitting in their little cocoons, playing Pac-Man instead of learning to relate with others, or even programming as opposed to interacting with other students in a classroom.
Bernstein: What I'm talking about is computers as a supplement to transactive education--not a substitute for it. I'm not saying that you can educate a kid solely wint a computer. But from 3:00 until 5:00 in the afternoon, give him a room with a computer and let him learn about solitary meditation. He'll still have plenty of time to interact.
In the future America will resemble its old agrarian self once again. Both parents will stay home with the kids. It will have a positive impact on the concept of the family--we could create a kind of tightknit family that would be the envy of the world.
Creative: What about the concept of "community"?
Bernstein: The first thing many Americans do when they have a bit of money is head out to the suburbs, buy a plot of land, and put a fence around it. They don't want to talk to their neighbors. Well today I think we can use technology to help us interact. We're all going to have dishes on our roofs, and interactive cable TV, and intelligent phone systems.
Creative: In an electronic community there is a sort of democracy--only my thoughts are transmitted--not my religion or my race or my speech patterns or anything else that may affect your opinion of me unduly.
Bernstein: I think what you are really bringing up is a kind of new equality. What better way to break down all the "isms" that we have so we can treat each other as human beings. It could change the world. If form really does follow function, then if a function in our society is to become more equal, then our form will follow. Tht would be great, huh?
Have you ever been to a user's group meeting?
Creative: Talk about community.
Bernstein: There's proof enough: these people may live in the suburbs, they may be from the inner city, minority group members, kids, whatever. And all the barriers are gone once they start talking about applesoft or some new program. I believe in that kind of power. That may very well be the reason why Pac-Man lives, so to speak.
As I've said over and over again, there have been only two art forms in the whole history of man in which color is on the attack: stained glass windows and television--everything else is ambient light. The subliminal attraction of video games is akin to that of the windows in a cathedral.
Creative: Let's talk just a little bit about the hardware. What are the tools you have been working with lately?
Bernstein: Well I started with the Apple II, and now I have an Apple III. Then I have an Intelligence Graphics System with one of the most marvellous color terminals around. Then the HP-2700 from Hewlett-Packard--boy that's a nice machine. It has a resolution of 512 x 512 in 16 colors, but what they do is allow you primary, secondary, and terciary colors, and you can actually mix them on an electronic pallette.
Creative: All these machines use a tablet for input.
Bernstein: Yes, though I find myself using the keyboard more and more often with the IGS for total control of each dot.
Creative: The HP-2700 was the machine you used to draw the Queen?
Bernstein: Yes. And I really must give Hewlett-Packard an immense amount of credit for a wonderful system. They created a superb piece of hardware and a superb piece of software to drive it.
I have an animation videodeck, which allows me to create moving images on videotape. I also have several different kinds of cameras: among them is one called a "kinecamera," which hooks up to the Apple III directly. I have a batch of printers, too--black and white and color.
Creative: Haven't Abel Associates or III or MAGI or NYIT tried to snap you up?
Bernstein: Nope. I have a friend who is a banker, and oversees a prestigious committee of financial advisors. Each, over a period of years, has had about 85% success in predicting economic trends. But when you put them together, their combined success rate is something in the low '30s. You just can't do much in a committee.
If I have an idea, I'll be up at 3:00 in the morning doing it. I want to contribute to society, but I want that contribution to be wholly mine. And that may mean holding on to something for a long time, until I am pleased with it. I couldn't do that if I was working for a large company. The other thing with large organizations is that they don't afford you the opportunity to fail. And I put much stock in the word "failure."
Creative: Certainly it is something an artist must be free to do.
Bernstein: Success is not a great learning experience, but failure is. You have to take the chance: to dare, to go beyond, to push the outer limits--until you get that error message. Then you can go back and do something productive.