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Was ‘Computer Art’ an inevitable consequence of its time and technology?

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Early Computer Art took its inspiration from a variety of artistic precursors: this is why Reichardt saw it as “the last stand of abstract art”. Other technological artforms played a role, and I also think the general current of Art/technology experiments such as EAT provided a cultural climate in which Computer Art could flourish and develop.

Studies in Perception I, 1966, Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon (Bell Labs)

Was there a degree of historical inevitability to the computer’s utilisation in art? It would seem that it fulfilled the expectations of several very different groups, from abstract artists with mathematical leanings, to the Abstract Animators who were looking for ways to systematise form and colour. Perhaps its own characteristics could only become apparent once these early expectations were taken on board and modified through experience with the computer.

Artists not only had to be aware of the existence and potentials of the computer (and of course be sympathetic towards them), but also had to have access to computer facilities – a huge problem when computer time was strictly allocated because of limited resources – and then either be able to control the machines themselves or find computer operators willing to assist them. The requirements were so complex that it is unsurprising that few artists before 1960 were involved with computers.

When one sees the interfaces of early computer systems, one appreciates the huge leap of imagination and intellect that was needed to convince an artist of the computer’s graphics potential: it is an intimidating bank of switches and panels that had to be controlled with punchcards; and you might also note the lack of any sort of screen. Prior to the early Sixties, all computer output was either in the form of printed sheets or images recorded onto film, for there was no way of interacting with it in real time. That is the challenge which faced early computer artists: to get any sort of image created with a machine whose primary function was to deal with numbers and characters, rather than the elements of a picture.

The artistic ideas of postwar America seemed favourable to the concept of machine-generated art. In part, the strong influence of abstract art and especially two-dimensional geometric art proved decisive; also, the connections between computers and university research institutes were fruitful, as was the amount of open-ended research (funded by the US military) that went on in the 1960s and 70s. Several Computer Art pioneers came from within universities and research facilities: two American examples are Charles Csuri, long associated with the University of Ohio, and Michael Noll, an engineer at Bell Labs. Noll’s case is especially interesting, since unlike Csuri he did not have a background in art. Rather, it was a chance association of a faulty plotter output with contemporary abstract art that made Noll grasp the potential for computers to make art.

In this, he had no obvious antecedents, though idea had occurred simultaneously to Herbert Franke and others in Germany, and others in the same field. Even though no unbroken evolutionary line can be traced to specific pre-Computer Artforms, it seems that the conceptual association of computer image output with contemporary art was more important than existing mechanical art – at least for those engineers who were to style themselves “artists” in the decade leading up to the seminal exhibition “Cybernetic Serendipity” in 1968. However, the computer’s use in art was prefigured by a variety of technological artforms and by a number of recurrent artistic interests in art machines.

A key question for my own research is whether the artists consciously adopted a form that was appropriate for the computer systems of their day, or whether their art was realised through the computer because it presented itself as the best way of doing so. If the former is true, then the resultant art could be described as a “native” form of Computer Art, because its visual realisation is somehow inherent in its computer-based conception.