Arie Altena

Computer art
Lemma for an exhibition catalogue

Arie Altena

Keywords Computer art
Generative art
Algorithmic art
Software art
Digital art
Computer music

What can you call art that has been made on a computer? When can you rightly say 'this has been made on a computer, it's been made with software, this matters, and that's why we call it computer art.' This is not the same as art for which a computer and software were used, but without being an essential part of the production. For example, we rarely call digital photography computer art: we just call it photography.

The first computer music was created by Lejaren Hiller at the end of the 1950s -- music generated by computers in which the sound was processed and performed. Some time earlier, this was preceded by Iannis Xenakis' compositions, in which a good calculator was a necessary tool for working out the equations which would determine which notes had to be played. We call the former computer music, and sometimes the latter, too, even when it is played on 'real' or electronically. Do we call contemporary laptop music computer music? Not always, but sometimes we do: when, for example the sound is produced by software-interactions on the basis of small custom-made software-machines.

The first visual computer art -- images generated by software -- was made in the 1960s, in various places in Europe and America, often in scientific and technical laboratories, as these were the only places where there were computers. The output was provided by plotters and calculators. A lot of such computer art was based on research into automatic image-generation and visual compositio. The artist provided the rules, and the art itself was produced automatically by the computer.

What did this mean for the concept of art? And how can the artist's role be defined? Just like early computer music, visual computer art was very much part of the digitally based aesthetic and cybernetics that were then in full development. Even if most pioneers of computer art made 'finishedd' objects (the output medium was the plotter, monitors not yet being a standard part of the computer set-up), their poetics stressed a process-based aesthetic.

Algorithmic art and generative art -- where art-works evolve or come about through the application of rules -- existed before the genesis of computers as we know them today. Generative and algorithmic art are connected to the idea of an art work which grows and evolves, changing over time as it interacts with its environment. No single performance is identical to another.

These days, computers are everywhere, and not all the art in which they play a role is necessarily computer art. If we bear the twentieth century conception of art in mind, we might say that computer art includes a type of art that investigates its own medium -- the computer, the software-instructions . It is an art that is about the preconditions for its own production.

Terms are subject to fashion. In the 1980s and early 1990s, digital art was very fashionable. When I think of digital art, I think of colourful computer-generated images that express being in love with a future in which we can fly through virtual realities. Cyberspace! The final frontier. Or -- transposed to 2007 -- the hyper-capitalism of Second Life.

I like the word computer art. I also like computer art itself, the raw images and sometimes surprisingly subtle plotter prints of the pioneers (who have recently been able to count on renewed interest from the youngest generation of artists), the conceptualists, the generative school of software artists with their politico-cultural approach. But most of all I love it when something is 'made', when computer, software, electricity are the building materials with which an artist plays, makes knots, links, scripts and programmes. That's a kind of art that is as much about the world as it is about computers.

Published in the catalogue of Genesis Het leven aan het eind van het informatietijdperk
curated by Emilie Gomart, Centraal Museum Utrecht, 1404 - 1208 2007
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Arie Altena