Arie Altena


Lucas van der Velden & Arie Altena

This is the English text of the Editorial for the book The Anthology of Computer Art, edited on occasion of the Sonic Acts festival 2006.

This book was put together on the occasion of Sonic Acts XI (Amsterdam, 23 - 26 February 2006), and bears the same title, The Anthology of Computer Art.

Sonic Acts XI itself owes its origin to the observation that autonomous computer art has enjoyed a comeback in recent years. Due in part to rapid developments in hardware and software, both applied and autonomous computer art have come to blossom over the last fifteen years in the fields of both the visual arts and electronic music, and the worlds of film, video, and computer games. As hardware and software became more accessible and more user-friendly, so a large group of artists took possession of this new domain, and has produced a considerable body of new work. It is striking that increasing numbers of artists are currently designing their own hardware, and developing their own software, a process which once again constitutes an essential part of contemporary computer art.

I say ‘once again’, because the pioneers in computer art, those technicians and artists who first made use of the computer to create art, did exactly this. They were forced to develop their own software, or even, in some cases, to build their own hardware out of, for example, disused military equipment. These technicians and artists were the first to make artistic use of the new technology, developing in the 1960’s their own, largely ‘abstract’, form of autonomous computer art. They developed theories on the use of algorithms, and on the concept of computer-generated art – for which the artists would write the rules, that the computer would execute. Their ideas not infrequently formed an integral part of an ongoing debate on the nature of the links between art, technology and science, a debate which was strongly influenced by the contemporary popularity of cybernetics, and informational esthetics, and also, a little later, by semiotics. There were parallels between the conceptions these pioneers had of computer art, and tendencies within conceptual art, just as there were parallels with the work of experimental artists who saw their work in terms of visual exploration.

At the end of the 1960's, three now legendary exhibitions took place, at which computer art was displayed together with many different types of interactive art, technological developments, and conceptual art: Cybernetic Serendipity, curated by Jasia Reichardt in London, Tendencies 4 in Zagreb, and finally Software, organised by Jack Burnham in the Jewish Museum in New York. After this, the ways of conceptual and computer art seem to have parted. At the beginning of the 1970’s a number of books on computer art appeared, and it seemed as if a breakthrough into the mainstream arts world was about to be made. During the 1970’s and 80’s however, the focus moved more onto the development of (industrial) computer graphics and of applied computer art; as an autonomous art-form, computer art ceased to enjoy the attention it had once had, and it passed into oblivion, the work of the pioneers being largely forgotten.

It is however precisely this early work in the field that has recently attracted a renewed interest, of which the Leonardo conference Refresh! in 2005, and the exhibition, The Algorithmic Revolution at the ZKM (Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Germany, also in 2005, are just two examples. Perhaps the early computer art now lies sufficiently far away in the past to enable us to look back on it with a historical perspective. Curious as it may seem, it is perhaps also the case that the pioneers owe their rediscovery to the fact that, as we saw above, to-day’s practitioners of autonomous computer art themselves realise the importance of making their own developments in hardware and software, and can therefore empathise with an earlier generation.

It does seem however – as is often the case – that it is in the byways and those other areas generally neglected by art history that there are to be found all those interesting and intriguing bits and pieces which enable us to see autonomous computer art in its proper perspective.

This anthology begins with an account by the young American computer artist Casey Reas, of how he presented a number of younger computer artists with two lists of names, the first, those of pioneers in the field, artists, technologists, and scientists who had hands-on experience with computers; and the second, of well-known names from, for example, conceptual art. It will cause little surprise to learn that while artists belonging to the second list were often cited as having had a profound influence on our younger artists, only a few of them, and even these rather hesitantly, picked anyone from the first list. It is this fact which forms the framework of, and provides the motivation for, this short book.

It seemed to us in the first instance to be of interest to place the history of computer art, for once, centre stage, since it is the story of how software and art first came together. Whoever looks at the work of that time, who follows its development, who reads what the artists themselves wrote at the time, and what the critics wrote then and later, meets with all sorts of intriguing questions. In regard, for example, to the explanation that the disappearance of computer art from the field of ‘visual arts’ came about because it was an art being made by technicians with the eyes of technicians. Did they indeed retreat behind the walls of the universities and research laboratories, and therefore fail to connect with art? What part was played here by the embedding of computer art in the formation of theories relating to cybernetics and informational esthetics, with their bias towards pure science?

A number of texts are collected here which taken together give a tentative and very incomplete overview of the work and thought of the first generation of computer artists, one that is focussed furthermore chiefly on the period between 1965 and the beginning of the 1970’s. The choice we have made is necessarily limited, a consequence as much of questions of content as of practical issues.

The selections written by Lejaren Hiller (1924-1994) and Iannis Xenakis (1922) illustrate how the computer came to be used earlier in the composition of music than in the visual arts. Hiller, originally a chemist, was one of the very first to use a computer to make music, in the composition of his ILLIAC Suite for string quartet. The guiding principles of Iannis Xenakis’ compositions have nearly always been based on mathematical rules, and for this reason he made very early use of mainframe computers in developing his compositions.

While it is true that the history of cybernetics and its influence on the 'digital domain' and the discourse surrounding it, have been thoroughly researched in recent years, it cannot be said to the same degree about the informational esthetics of Abraham Moles and Max Bense, who nevertheless had a major influence on early computer art. The philosopher, writer and theorist, Max Bense (1910-1990) was in the 1950’s and 60’s a central figure in experimental art in Germany. (In some respects he can be compared with Umberto Eco, whose interest in cybernetics and experimental art he shared – both men were to develop extensive theories of semiotics). He was one of the first, if not the first, to examine the theory behind the generation of computer art. His brief essay Projects of Generative Aesthetics appeared in 1965 in a booklet, with computer graphics by Georg Nees, and has served since as a manifesto for generative computer art. His Small Abstract Aesthetics explains at greater length how these ideas were implicit in a theory of semiotics, and also in a desire to place on a scientific basis the way in which art was viewed at that time. We include a short statement by Georg Nees (1926) on the subject of computer art, written in 1969.

Jasia Reichardt curated the 1968 exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity and has since then published a number of articles and books, some of which have been devoted to computer art. Those chosen here illustrate well the way in which computer art was regarded at the end of the 1960’s.

Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood is a classic. The book, which presents as full an overview as possible of all the alternative forms of 'cinema', appeared in 1970, but remains an enduring monument. The excerpt chosen here deals with the work of two pioneers of the computer film, the first of whom is John Whitney Sr. (1918-1996), who in the course of his quest to find the visual counterpart of musical composition, himself created a fabulous body of computer films, single-handed, other than for the help of his brother and his two sons. The second is Stan Vanderbeek (1927-1984) who together with Ken Knowlton made a number of different computer films.

Frieder Nake (1938), together with Georg Nees and A. Michael Noll, was one of the first (in 1965) to exhibit computer-generated graphics as an art-form. In the two pieces chosen here from the English PAGE, the Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, he explains why he no longer wishes to exhibit on the ‘art circuit’. In keeping with the radical, revolutionary philosophy of the early 1970’s, he wants to have nothing to do with the bourgeois art world. Nake's position illustrates that computer art had links with the utopian radicalism of those days. This is surprising given that the ‘disappearance’ of the first generation of computer artists from art history is largely ascribed to the fact that they were too wrapped-up in technology, and military/scientific institutions.

In the next group of texts, Manfred Mohr (1938) and Vera Molnar (1928) set out – we are speaking here of the mid-1970’s – their thoughts on the relationship between algorithms and art, and how they made use of the computer in the creation of their work. Mohr and Molnar, who began as abstract painters, have both won their own place in the art world, and still regularly exhibit.

Kenneth Knowlton is a central figure in – among other things – computer art and computer film. While at Bell Laboratories he developed several systems for use with computer films and computer art, and worked closely with a number of different artists, among them Lillian Schwartz and Stan Vanderbeek. In this book he perhaps represents the archetype of the engineer who comes straight into art, and develops his own characteristic relationship with it, one that is primarily directed at working together with artists whose ideas he makes technically possible; he has therefore had a deep and long-lasting influence on the development of computer art. Following an essay of his dating from 1976, we publish here his retrospective view from 2004 on the development of computer art and the part he has played in it.

The book closes with three contemporary views. The musician Kim Cascone is also a frequently-quoted theorist on the subject of the development of microsound and laptop music. In the piece we include here, he goes into the way in which computer-generated music may be performed, something which has always been a problem, one which has still not been fully resolved by today’s generation of laptop musicians. Greg Kurcewicz traces the reasons for the growing interest in the idea of visual music, and Wolf Lieser closes with an article on the exhibition of computer art from the stand-point of the art dealer and gallery-owner.

Naturally, what we have here is a choice that is in many ways open to criticism. In the first place, our choice of texts deals almost exclusively with German, and American developments in computer art, on the one hand, with the circle that lay strongly under the influence of Max Bense, and on the other, with that centred around Bell Laboratories. The criticism that we are therefore subscribing to the existing view held of computer art, is a valid one, and we have indeed given scarcely any attention to the contribution made to the genre by Japan, Brazil, Mexico, England, Sweden, The Netherlands, Eastern Europe or Yugoslavia.

We have also explicitly concentrated on the period between roughly 1965 and 1975, whilst accepting that there is much to be said for going further back in the history of the subject in order to trace lines of development and thereby present a fuller account of the genealogy of computer art. To give four examples, from the very general to the narrowly specific: the use of mathematics in art; the desire by constructivist artists to eliminate the personal and the physical from their work; the use of Lissajous figures; and oscillography.

What we are also doing here is dealing with autonomous computer art in isolation from other developments in technological art, interactive art, popular culture, and as mentioned previously, conceptual art. All the criticisms that may potentially be made are however, equally valid as motives for supplementary research.

A final mention must be made of those articles that we wished, but were unable, for practical reasons, to include. Not everyone responded to the enquiries that we made, nor were we always able to find the right person in time (even in this age of e-mail and the internet). Fortunately, in most cases we did receive prompt and enthusiastic responses. In the case of all the texts that we republish here, we have done everything possible to trace those holding the rights to them, and in every case the author, or the author’s beneficiary, has given permission for their inclusion.

Absent, unfortunately, are essays by Herbert Franke, for example, who, like the American Ben Laposky, experimented with voltages and mathematical linkages as early as the 1950’s, work which resulted in the creation of electronic graphics. In 1971 he published what was the first general review of computer art, the Computer Graphics. Another important omission is the work of the French theorist Abraham Moles (1920-1992), a kindred spirit – and friend – of Max Bense, with whom he is considered to be the founder of informational esthetics. In contrast to Bense, Moles paid considerable attention to the sociological aspects of his field, and his work has a clarity that remains attractive. His book Art et Ordinateur, although published as long ago as 1973, is still fresh and intriguing.

The purpose of this book is to portray the history of computer art, and implicitly to relate it to practice today. It has perhaps, in the end, become a book in which we share our enthusiasm (but not to such an extent as to obstruct a critical viewpoint) for the work and the esthetic positions of the pioneers; enthusiasm for and interest in, a period when, for a short time, the worlds of technology, science (cybernetics and informational esthetics) and experimental and conceptual art, came together.

It goes without saying that this publication could never have been produced in the short time available without the help of the authors and artists here represented, and of others with whom we have liaised; nor would it have been possible without the efforts of all those people and institutions who have, over the past years, placed on line countless papers, scans, PDFs and even films – as part of a research project into the history of computer art, or as part of a syllabus for a university seminar. Without this help, some texts would undoubtedly have remained inaccessible.

This little book is not the result of a research project, but rather the by-product of the preparations for a conference; and is intended as a first step towards further research, discussion, and perhaps reassessment and inspiration.

PDF p. 3 - 9
Includes the table of contents and the Dutch (!) text of the Editorial.

This text was published in The Anthology of Computer Art, 2004

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Arie Altena