Arie Altena

Between technology and conceptual art
An attempt at contextualising early computer art

Arie Altena

This text was written in Dutch in January/February 2006 for the 2006 graduation catalogue of the Frank Mohr Institute. I do not have an edited or sufficiently clean version of the Dutch text. I only present the English translation that I found amongst my archived e-mails, though I am sure that some editorial changes were made afterwards by me or and others.

The history of early computer art is full of nice anecdotes, like this one by A. Michael Noll: 'I still remember the day when a fellow summer intern [...] came down the hallway with a computer-generated plot of data that had gone astray because of some programming error. Lines went every which way all over his plots. We joked about abstract art that he had inadvertently generated. It then occurred to me to use the computer, an IBM 7090, and the Stromberg Carlson plotter to create computer art deliberately.'1

At that time - we're talking about the early Sixties - Noll was a researcher at the famous Bell Laboratories, the breeding ground of a lot of technological 'inventions' that permanently changed the way we see the world. He was working with colossal, room-sized computers fed with punch cards. The output of the programmes were plotter drawings, for example, as part of scientific or technological research. Noll was not originally an artist and if you visit his 2006 website then you'll see that the navigation button for 'patents' is above that for 'computer art'. But in 1965 he was one of the first to show computer-generated images in an art context. In the early Sixties he realised that, thanks to this software bug, it was possible to employ a computer for making art; he understood that art could be generated on the basis of instructions - algorithms expressed in a programming language.2

He was not the only one. In Germany, Max Bense (1910-1990) had already theorised the possibility of programming beauty much earlier. Bense, an indefatigable theorist, essayist, organiser (and much more besides), was a central figure within German experimental art since the Fifties and Sixties, particularly in the fields of experimental literature, radiophony and concrete poetry. He laid the basis for generative aesthetics and injected into German art discourse a mixture, characteristic of those times, of semiotics and cybernetics. In this sense Bense is somewhat comparable with Umberto Eco, who also partly developed his semiotics from cybernetics, was close to the experimental poets of Gruppo 63 (including Nanni Balestrini) and was familiar with the new music and compositional procedures of Pierre Boulez.3

Within the framework of the very first exhibition of computer art, which took place in early 1965 in Stuttgart, Max Bense wrote the short text projekte generativer Ősthetik (the omission of capital letters was a sign of Bense's modernity). Referring to information theory, Chomsky's generative grammar and Peirce's semiotics, he proposes that 'aesthetic structures' can be generated methodically. Accompanied by a stochastic graphic by Georg Nees and an explanation of the algorithms used for it, the text was published in the famous 'rot' series printed by Hansjörg Mayer, in which a lot of concrete poetry also appeared.

The artists in this exhibition of computer graphics were A. Michael Noll, Frieder Nake and Georg Nees. Shortly afterwards there followed an exhibition in New York, with work by Noll and Bela Julesz.4 Both Nake and Nees had a background in mathematics and were - to a certain extent - followers of Max Bense. Nake was already experimenting since 1963 at the Technical High School in Stuttgart with the legendary Graphomat Z64, a computer designed by Konrad Zuse. The graphic work that Nees, Noll and Nake showed in 1965 was abstract. They were plotter drawings generated by computer algorithms. By contemporary standards it all looks rather primitive. Sometimes you hear the 'devastating' criticism that it's the sort of thing that nowadays you can make with the computing power of the cheapest mobile telephone, while at the time they had to labour for weeks writing code for immense machines. Anyone sensitive to such criticism will rightly conclude that it's better not to devote too much attention to this primitive, early stage of computer art. But, even though the observation is correct, the conclusion is not justified. It was here, after all, that computer-generated art was born, and one was confronted with machines that actually generated art on the basis of procedures - not just with the idea that art could be programmed. It was a first step in the digital era. What's more, the pioneers were formulating extremely clear ideas about the relationship between algorithm and art, fostered by the fact that they themselves were all doing programming, initially in machine language, later in ALGOL or FORTRAN, for example. In the late Sixties there arose a brief but close connection between this computer art and conceptual art. The connection is extremely intriguing, all the more so since it seems to have been 'erased' from the history of conceptual art. Conceptual art has indeed left profound traces and its influence continues to be felt in contemporary art. An investigation of early computer art can thus make a contribution, albeit a small one perhaps, to a genealogy of conceptual art.5

Cybernetic Serendipity, New Tendencies, Software
In the late Sixties computer art seemed to be entering a fruitful relation with other experiments going on at the time in art. It was the period of what would become the legendary E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), in which technicians such as Billy Klčver - again from Bell Labs - collaborated with the cream of experimental art, including John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. There are three dates that are crucial here and which can be seen not only as a culmination but also as a turning point in the merging of (computer) technology, science and contemporary art.

In 1968 Jasia Reichardt, spurred on by Max Bense, organised Cybernetic Serendipity in London. It was the first major show devoted to the role of the computer in art. Reichardt saw Cybernetic Serendipity not so much as an art exhibition, nor as a technological funfair (a reproach from the art world) or a programmatic manifesto. It was a demonstration of current ideas, actions and objects, linking together cybernetics and the creative process.6 Just as with Bense, there is a close fit with Reichardt between contemporary theories (cybernetics) and ideas about art, with computer art being advanced as a possible new paradigm.

This became even clearer with the realisation in 1968/1969 of (New) Tendencies 4 in Zagreb.7 Previous editions of New Tendencies has conceived of visual research as avant-garde practice and had shown work by the Zero group, Francois Morellet, kinetic art and Op Art, for example, but the use of the computer signified a crisis. Certainly when the computer was linked to the formulation of generative aesthetics by Max Bense and the French theoretician Abraham Moles, who had taken part in seminars in Zagreb.8 After all, generative aesthetics created a purely scientific basis for the idea that art has to do with innovation - namely the generation of new information through unexpected links in given material. Compared with these scientific insights and the field opened up conceptually and practically by the computer, the line of visual research that Tendencies had been following until then seemed of little importance. The result was that New Tendencies 4 in 1969 focussed on computer art, thus revealing an important link between the ideas expressed in conceptual art and computer art.

The third exhibition, and perhaps the most influential, was Software, Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, curated by Jack Burnham for the Jewish Museum in New York. Just as Reichardt had done in Cybernetic Serendipity, Burnham showed the most advanced computer experiments; Nicholas Negroponte and Ted Nelson were among the participants. It ended up a fiasco, however, since, if we are to believe the reports, the equipment failed to work most of the time.9 But, unlike Reichardt, Burnham was mainly concerned with 'software' as a metaphor for a contemporary, dematerialised form of art. Software has thus gone down in history as the moment that conceptual art revealed its link with cybernetics and systems theory, picking up the metaphor with software so as to show its solidarity with a framework that also represents 'technological' computer art. And yet this solidarity largely emerged purely on a metaphorical level.

Technicians, not artists?
Theorists like Burnham recognised that there was an analogy between the interest in systems, procedural methods and protocols shared by both Neo-Constructivists and artists like Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt and Hans Haacke, and experiments in generating art by means of computers. They identified the analogy between the dematerialisaton of art, as aspired to by the conceptualists, and the relationship between algorithm and output that emerges in computer art. But then their ways seem to part.10 One explanation for this is the story that the world of technicians, who were working in laboratories that were part of the military-industrial complex, and who were contributing to its development, is incompatible with that of artists aiming at a reflective and radical critique of social structures. In other words, and to put it more bluntly, some conceptual artists got the fright of their lives when they found out what some of 'these technicians' were involved in and the world view that their work implied, namely their complicity in the capitalist system. This sort of thing nourished the over-simplified idea that technology is inexplicably bound up with the machinery of capitalism, a machinery that a 'pure' artist should not associate with. The result of this is that artistic experiments emerging from the technology labs have difficulty fitting into an art world that is 'marked' by its conceptual history.11

The anecdote that I began this essay with in fact illustrates an essential characteristic of early computer art: it is created not within the institutional frameworks of art, but within the walls of a high-tech physics laboratory (Noll) or a university of technology (Nake). The pioneers had no reputation as artists, they had not studied art and they were not operating in the field of art. The pioneers were technicians, researchers and physicists who discovered, by chance as it were, that what they were doing could also be thought of as art. Computer-generated art has never been able to shake off the suspicion that, according to the rules of twentieth century western culture, it's not quite 'real' art, more technical tricks than strong concepts. After all, we're dealing with technicians making work that, by chance, can be art.12

It is too easy, though extremely tempting, to 'kill' the explanation for this sometimes difficult relationship by arguing that the pioneers of computer art were just technicians and researchers. It is too easy, since what exactly is the difference between an artist and a technician? When are you an artist? For many pioneers this was a pertinent question, one that they were forced to answer for themselves. We have to bear in mind here that in the late Sixties ideas about what it meant to be an artist were continuously being subjected to a radical examination within art itself. Sixties art was becoming dematerialised, was entering into relations with popular culture and criticising its own institutional rootedness. Are you an artist if you hang your work in a gallery? If the (art) world regards you as an artist? If you regard yourself as an artist? The pioneers came up with a variety of answers, which, while they may not always have been that sophisticated, were more complex and more radical than one would expect.

Not all the pioneers saw their 'creative' work immediately as art. Kenneth Knowlton, for example, also a researcher at Bell Labs, looking back at the Sixties relates how his now famous Nude in fact started as a joke.13 Knowlton was involved in research on perception and image recognition and in the first experiments with computer film. The research group was making images that could not be recognised at close quarters, but assumed a form at a distance. The crude office joke of making an image that is unrecognisable from close up, but which is clearly a naked woman when viewed from a distance, is too obvious not to carry out and that is what happened. Knowlton was extremely surprised when the press got hold of the joke and took it as an example of the glorious future of computer graphics; later it was even placed in the context of serious computer art. The Nude thus secured a place in the history of computer art, alongside, for example, Noll's experiment where he used computer algorithms to generate 'Mondriaans' and showed them next to a real Mondriaan to test subjects: 72% thought that the real Mondriaan was a computer painting. Knowlton went on to collaborate very intensively with various artists and contributed to an important degree to the development of serious computer art. He continued to see himself, however, as a technician who realised ideas in collaboration with artists.

Knowlton hence represents one side of the spectrum: the technician who discovers that what he is doing can pass for art, reluctantly accepts that this is the case, but - perhaps because of an old-fashioned idea about what it means to be an artist - decides that he is not really an artist and does not attempt to make connections with the art world. In the middle of the spectrum are the pioneers who were starting to create a distinct profile for themselves as artists (whether or not besides their work as researcher or technician) and to achieve a place in the art world. Here are also to be found the pioneers who approached the computer from the beginning as artists and within the context of art (examples are Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar - co-founder of the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel (GRAV) - and, in the Netherlands, Peter Struyken). They were closely linked to the Minimal, Neo-Constructivist and Conceptual art of the late Sixties. Some of them are still active today and their relation to the art world is less problematic, even though most of them never made a name for themselves.14 On the other side of the spectrum are the pioneers who initially sought to link up with the art world, but then, influenced in part by the radical and revolutionary ideas of the late Sixties and in common with many other radical artists, turned their backs on 'art' and its commercial market and bourgeois institutions. Yes, such computer artists did exist, although one would not expect it, given that art history has let most of the computer art pioneers 'vanish' into the world of technology.

There Should Be No Computer Art
In 1972, Frieder Nake, having already stopped showing in the art circuit, published an essay titled There Should Be No Computer Art.15 He notes disappointedly that 'the repertoire of results of aesthetic behaviour has not been changed by the use of computers'. Nake observes that computer art has become a fashion that even the art market is now interested in. Then comes the crux: 'At the same time, artists become aware of the role they play in providing an aesthetic justification of and for bourgeois society. Some reject the system of prizes and awards, disrupt big international exhibitions, organize themselves in cooperatives in order to be independent of the galleries, contribute to the building of an environment that people can live in. I find it very strange that, in this situation, outsiders from technology should begin to move into the world of art and try to save it with new methods of creation, old results, and by surrendering to the given "laws of the market" in a naive and ignorant manner. The fact that they use new methods makes them blind to notice that they actually perpetuate a situation which has become unbearable for many artists'.

Can it be any clearer than this? Nake rejects computer art that adopts the rules of 'old' art. His aim is to contribute to a better, more democratic society: 'Thus the interest in computers and art should be the investigation of aesthetic information as part of the investigation of communication. This investigation should be directed by the needs of the people'. Completely in accordance with the revolutionary spirit of the time, Nake thinks that a political film about the distribution of wealth is more important than 'beautiful pictures'. He writes, 'I don't see a task for the computer as source for pictures for the galleries. I do see a task for the computer as a convenient and important tool in the investigation of visual (and other) aesthetic phenomena as part of our daily experience'. Nake thus represents a position that corresponds to that of radical, activist artists, whose art makes direct contact with, or is absorbed into, daily life.

Nake is more specific in another essay titled Technocratic Dadaists, in which he writes about the artist, 'I would like to see him give up his role as a servant to the bourgeoisie and begin working on meaningful projects again.'16 Nake does not want to become a 'technocratic dadaist' by exchanging traditional artistic production for computer art and to regard that as a revolutionary step, while in fact all it amounts to is creating a new artistic style which, like Dada, is incorporated into bourgeois art history. Nake again: 'I do not wish that aesthetic use of computers contributes to art history by enlarging its repertoire. Such use should contribute to art history by bringing art back into the working world'. For Nake, this literally meant that he disappeared from the view of the art world and 'went to earth' in socially relevant research at the university.

The prevailing image of early computer artists is, as already mentioned, that of technicians who ultimately continue working in their laboratories on such things as the commercial development of as realistic as possible computer graphics. Technicians were complying with the world of technology, with the military-industrial complex and its capitalist conditions of production. Nake seems at first sight to be one of these, but his essays and his departure from art reveal a very different, much more radical intention. The 'case of Nake' (to make a case of it) proves that the history of computer art and its relationship to the radical, experimental art of the Sixties cannot simply be described as a short-lived love story of technicians which turned out to be a mistake owing to these technicians' alignment with technology and its complicity in the 'capitalist system'. The artist Frieder Nake may well not be comparable in 'greatness' (but what is that?) to Hans Haacke or Sol LeWitt or Joseph Kosuth - in any case his influence on art is insignificant compared to these three - but his case does at least challenge us to reread the relationship between computer art and conceptual art.

From a contemporary point of view you could also argue that there is a crucial difference between computer artists who generate 'images' as technocratic dadaists and exhibit plotter drawings - that is, objects - and conceptual artists who are really striving for a dematerialisation of art. But if one reads the artist statements in a book like Artist and Computer (1976)17, or the articles by Frieder Nake, one will find that the artists in question not infrequently regarded the algorithmic process itself, with its infinity of possible expressions, as the actual work of art - not the printouts. It is also clear that from the very beginning they were extremely conscious of the fact that it is not the computer itself that is important as image-maker, but that computer art sets up a totally new relationship between maker and work of art; art becomes the making of a model for art.

Young computer artists and the pioneers in 2006
My ultimate aim in this essay is to provide a partial answer to questions thrown up by the interviews conducted this year with young colleagues by the computer artist Casey Reas.18 He presented them, very simply, with two lists of names and asked them which ones they were inspired by in their work. Figuring on the first list were the names of computer art pioneers, the first to use software to generate images: Steven Beck, Harold Cohen, Charles Csuri, Kenneth Knowlton, Ben Lapofsky, Manfred Mohr, Frieder Nake, Georg Nees, A. Michael Noll, Manfred R. Schroeder, Lillian Schwartz, Stan Vanderbeek, John Whitney Sr. In the second list we find the names of Yaacov Agam, Mel Bochner, Hans Haacke, On Kawara, Les Levine, Sol LeWitt, George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Bridget Riley, Dieter Roth, Victor Vasarely, La Monte Young, in other words, the conceptualists - if we are to indiscriminately lump together all these arists coming from Minimalism, Fluxus, Op Art and Conceptual Art - that is, those who did not use computers but did deal with ideas from the world of software. Not so very surprisingly, more than half of the young generation indicated that they were extremely influenced by artists from the second list, the names of Sol LeWitt and Hans Haacke being frequently mentioned. Only a minority admitted, almost reluctantly, an affinity with the first list. (The real exceptions are the artists who emphasise their affinity with Classicism and Romanticism, like Michael Samyn & Auriea Harvey).

I find this fascinating. In the late Sixties the worlds of conceptual art and computer art (and other 'technological' art) touched one another and there would appear to be an analogy between their two undertakings, a coming together that was also structured by a shared theoretical background of cybernetics and generative aesthetics. Then it stopped, the ways parted, computer art largely disappeared into labs and research institutions and conceptual art made a lasting mark on art.

There was a lot going on at the time of Cybernetic Serendipity, Tendencies 4 and Software - technicians becoming (or not becoming) artists, a utopian convergence of science, technology and art, and a radical shift in the definition of art. The positions were more complex than the progress of art history would have us believe. Frieder Nake's development, as sketched above, is an example of this. The result of this convergence seems to have exercised a major influence on art and its sometimes difficult relation to technology. We are now engaged in the (re-)discovery of a rich and forgotten prehistory, but the distance in time makes it difficult to reinterpret Moles and Bense, for example, and to bring them up to date. All we can do is look at the abstract plotter drawings of the pioneers and think admiringly: man, this is so 'brute'.


1. A. Michael Noll, 'The beginnings of Computer Art in the United States, A Memoir', in: Leonardo, 1, 1994, 39 - 44 (p. 39).

2. Digitally generated computer art was anyway preceded by an analogue history. Ben Lapofsky and Herbert Franke were working in the Fifties with oscillography. More importantly, John Whitney Sr. was adapting army surplus equipment in order to make computer animations in the Fifties, later with the assistance of his sons James, Michael and John Whitney Jr.

3. Bense continued to pursue a much stricter scientific method and his position consequently lost importance after the Seventies with the rise of poststructuralism.

4. The sources are not consistent about the exact details. The website of the Digital Art Museum mentions in its timeline for 1965 that there were two exhibitions (the first in Stuttgart with Nees, Nake and Noll; the second in New York) as well as the possibility that there were three exhibitions (the first in Stuttgart with Nees only, the second in New York, and the third in Stuttgart again with Nees and Nake). Not that it makes much difference. See (January 2006).

5. This would explain the renewed interest in recent years in early computer art. The Leonardo conference Refresh! in 2005 and the exhibition The Algorithmic Revolution in ZKM in Germany, also in 2005, are merely two examples. See (January 2006) and (January 2006)

6. Paraphrase of Jasia Reichardt in Jasia Reichardt (ed.), Cybernetics, Art and Ideas, Studio Vista London 1971.

7. See (January 2006)

8. Boris Kelemen, Computers and Visual Research (1970), included in: Ästhetik als Programm, Max Bense, Daten und Streuungen, Kaleidoskopien 5, 2004, 274-281. For Abraham Moles, see Information Theory and Aesthetic Perception, University of Illinois Press, 1971 (1958).

9. See Noah Wardrip-Fruin & Nick Montfort, The New Media Reader, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 2003, 247-258.

10. See Edward A. Shanken,' The House That Jack Built: Jack Burnham's Concept of "Software" as a Metaphor for Art', (January 2006) and Johanna Drucker, 'Interactive, Algorithmic, Networked: Aesthetics of New Media Art', in Chandler, Annmarie and Norie Neumark (eds.), At a Distance, Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 2005, 35 - 59.

11. Theoretically - in a different parallel science fiction universe - it might have been possible that the conceptualists had discovered that what remained a concept in art at that time is both concept and realisation in computer art.

12. In music the situation is different. There is a much stronger awareness that composing has to do with establishing rules. The possibility of inventing rules for generating compositions is a less strange idea, so the leap to using the computer for composing is much less great. Indeed, the pioneers in this, such as Lejaren Hiller and Max Matthews, can perhaps be seen as technicians rather than composers, in the sense that their research in the Sixties was more focussed on exploring (technical) possibilities than on making good compositions (in the classical sense). But we should not forget the influential Iannis Xenakis who was developing ideas about stochastic compositions in the late Fifties and was also using computers.

13. Kenneth Knowlton, 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Scientist Knowlton's metamorphosis: Bell Labs in 60s & 70s, and beyond', in Arie Altena & Lucas van der Velden (eds.) Anthology of Computer Art, Amsterdam, Sonic Acts Press, 2006.

14. Struycken's work was shown in 2005 in the Stedelijk Museum; Manfred Mohr had a solo exhibition with new work in the currently hip New York gallery Bitforms in January 2006.

15. Frieder Nake, 'There Should Be No Computer Art', in PAGE 18, Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, October 1971. Included in Arie Altena & Lucas van der Velden (eds.) Anthology of Computer Art, Amsterdam, Sonic Acts Press, 2006. See

16. Frieder Nake,'Technocratic Dadaists', in PAGE 21, Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, March 1972. Included in Arie Altena & Lucas van der Velden (eds.) Anthology of Computer Art, Amsterdam, Sonic Acts Press, 2006. See

17. Ruth Leavitt (ed.), Artist and Computer, Harmony Books, New York, 1976. See

18. C.E.B. Reas, 'Who are the progenitors of the contemporary synthesis of software and art?', in Arie Altena & Lucas van der Velden (eds.) Anthology of Computer Art, Amsterdam, Sonic Acts Press, 2006. For the work of Reas see (January 2006). Reas interviewed Mogens Jacobsen, Auriea Harvey & Michael Samyn, Driessens & Verstappen, Golan Levin, Lia, Tiffany Holmes, Hans Bernhard, Jason Salavon, Osman Kahn, John Simon Jr., Lisa Jevbratt, Marius Watz, Alex McLean, and Jčrg Lehni.

Published in =More, graduation catalogue of the Frank Mohr Institute, 2006.
Translation Michael Gibbs.
some rights reserved
Arie Altena