Chapter 3

from Bill Ritchie's unfinished manuscript:†Women Who Fell to Earth

MacRitchie's Fast Free Fine Art

A huge black cat loomed above, bristling, and fearsome, its muscular right front limb raised, claws out like white daggers. An encircling belt snaked around behind, with the words, Touch Not the Cat Bot A Glove! it in Celtic characters. The belt snaked around a mysterious wooden triangle, wending through and behind and coming back around each side of the triangle. The triangle was not of ordinary geometry, but topology, a conundrum - geometric figure on a flat, two-dimensional paper fooling one's eye. The entire design - cat, belt, triangle - was puzzlement. You turn your attention back to your guide.

Teamwork, she tells you, is the basis of MacRitchie's FFFA (the FFA stands for Fast Free Fine Art). At MacRitchie's they train people who want to use new technologies to produce works of art in a variety of media and combinations of media--communications technologies known as multimedia. You may be thinking, "Why does this seem familiar to me?" Considering that you are not young and naive about art and technology, you then begin to worry this place is going to be boring, too elementary for your advanced needs. The island of convergence, in the domain of expertise, called "MacRitchie's FFFA", is a training and education center, and the guide is telling you teamwork is everything. You've heard this before--however, teamwork is not taught in the fine arts school you attended.

Techne, the guide, likes to walk around as she welcomes her visitors to MacRitchie's FFFA. She likes to get close to you as if to emphasize her words, looking into your eyes. She seems to know where the guests are arriving from and what customs prevail in the areas of their origin. If she knows touching is permitted, she touches you. If formal stiffness is the rule, she respects that, too. As she talks, you find you are as interested in the way she handles people. Itís obvious she has a lot of knowledge about the technology to which MacRitchie's is dedicated--the techniques of fast, cheap graphics, 3-D animation, real-time audio and full-motion, full-screen video. What is this about Empowerment of people?

"You cannot build a road without a team. The team must have the same goal to build the road while it is traveling that road," she says, and thus concludes her welcome speech. You hate lectures, and hers was not much different from others you've been to. Now, you will see the teams in action, she says, as everyone in your tour group gets ready to go ashore. This island represents the convergence of two very unlike features of western culture. One--the fast food industry--seems to have nothing to do with technology or art; and the other--fast digital media--seems to have nothing to do with the other. The island of convergence known as MacRitchie's got its name from the fact its inventor, Bill MacRitchie, wanted to restore his family's Scottish name to its original spelling. Also, he wanted to make his mark on history, as his forebears did hundreds of years ago, by publishing.

According to the story she tells, in 1966 he was sitting at a Macdonald's in California located near the campus. He was a student in fine arts, the college's first print making graduate student. It was a new enterprise for the college since printmaking had only recently emerged as a fine art form. As he tells it, hel looked up at the Macdonald's sign that read, "Over 54 million sold" and a queer idea came over him, like an epiphany: Fast Free Fine Art. Fast food was the name of the industry sector of McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

College campuses were hotbeds of new ideas ranging from politics to architecture. Engineering a hamburger was considered as important as engineering a new car model or rocket. Ritchie wondered, Why not in the arts? If a specially-designed cast-aluminum griddle was a key invention that helped sell 54 million hamburgers and generate millions in revenues, why not an art machine that would do this for artists and provide a living--which always seemed to be a big problem for artists. Economics and art seemed to exist on two different planets in the universe of arts, crafts and design. The disadvantage for the artist became the disadvantage for the culture; it resulted in art becoming elitist, a luxury for the wealthy.

Populism was strong in the nineteen-sixties, and so the popular culture--including fast food chains--made an impression on this fine arts student, Bill, busy mastering the fundamentals of what would become the "holy griddle" of the art studios of the third millennium. Thirty-five years in the future, MacRitchie's FFFA was the result.

You walk into the room. On the screens overhead, set in walls, hanging from the ceiling--everywhere you look--are brilliantly colored images. As you went into the room it felt like there was a party was going on. This was the most popular room in the tour. Techne, the guide, is talking to you over the headsets that you received at the door. Her voice lilts in and out of other voices, punctuated with a soft bell like those you hear on elevators. "Going to the next screen, on your left . . ." she intones, "is the museum bank."

She explains how the convergence idea had its origins fifty years ago when painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, photography--all the "flat-land arts" as she refers to them--converged in the US', European and some Asian art museums. The artists had broken through false barriers that separated arts, and the people who made them, from one another. Some people say it was the result of filmmaking that was virtually reinvented after the Second World War. No doubt the boom in art school enrollments contributed to the revolution. By 1975, according to historians, the new road map of the art world was drawn, and no one could ever go back to traditional fine arts as separate from the social, political and technological domains.

The clarion call was, "Artists--especially printmakers--need to focus on their community skills, redefining the ideology of success, and search for other models by which to participate in culture." Thus began the notion of success based on economic models instead of egotism, ethnocentricity and power. The museum bank Techne was describing showed "old masters", an expression that made people smile. These were not like the grand old master paintings from past centuries, but images made in the last twenty-five years. Academic art historians still laugh at the idea of calling them masterworks; indeed, most historians avoid such young, upstart topics as video art and computer graphics, preferring to wait and see how they shake out. "Give it at least two, preferably three generations--sixty years--then come back and see us!" they say.

Three flat screens, side-by-side, show variations on the masterworks. Somewhere, in a room where we are informed we cannot go, there is an artist at work. What we are watching, as a small group of tourists, is a work-in-progress. Techne is explaining how the artist/student is given a rather nice computer system with which to train and practice while he or she is in residence at MacRitchie's FFFA. Such a system would cost tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would also present maintenance problems beyond any one individual's financial and technical capacity to maintain.

Such a system, would--in a few years' time--become affordable to more artists, crafts people and designers; and they would be able to own them. Something like this occurs in music, when an instrument (such as a concert grand piano, for example) was too expensive for a student, perhaps a young person, to own and use privately. The dilemma becomes how is artistry to be gained without the tools with which to practice? The result is that only business and industry, profitable enterprises that can rapidly create consumer items and food for mass popular enjoyment, has the tools. "When fine art tools become outlandish," goes the saying, "Only outlanders will have tools!"

Bill "MacRitchie" had fallen off the edge of the art world when he started working on MacRitchie's FFFA in the 'seventies. Free fine arts (those that are free of commercial or industrial motives) would now compete on the same playing field with industrial, commerce-driven arts. Now, thanks to the age of electronic communications, more people could exercise their imagination and creativity in the mediums-of-origination. These new arts and crafts would have a positive influence on society. People who are trained and educated in the mediums of the past assuredly have a good foundation, but useful accomplishments and solutions to the world's problems would more likely be the domain of experts using new technologies--not only the technologies of antiquity.

Techne leads us out of the center of attraction, the main gallery of MacRitchie's FFFA. We are told that it was the MacRitchie dream that these galleries would someday be everywhere, just like McDonald's. He dropped that idea in favor of keeping the site to the Great Lake of the Domain of Expertise. History may show the vision was correct but that it would take generations before people consumed fine fast art the way they did fast food. Besides, the fast food phenomenon seemed to be due to change, and the metaphor--like the art forms MacRitchie's FFA helped replace with new artistic mediums--of fast food itself becoming outmoded.

Techne wanted to end the tour now. She made a little speech about teamwork and the blending of artists, scientists, technicians and people from the social and health sciences. The group of visitors was not attentive and she knew her time was up. She wanted to get back to her own work. Different guides would be coming to take the group to the individual units where they were training people to use multimedia. There was an experimental "kitchen", too, she said, which she said might be open later on. She closed with the same words she had started with: "You cannot build a road without a team. The team must have the same goal in order to build the road while the team is traveling that road," and then she was gone.