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Linking historic Computer Art to previous artforms

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Computer Art was preceded by a variety of artforms that subsequently found expression on the computer. Constructivism and Kinetic Art were already technologically-based, incorporating machines or mechanical forms, and could be readily adapted to the new format; Abstract Animation was influential because several pioneering computer artists transferred its style to the computer; and various mathematical artforms took advantage of the computer’s processing and symbolic power.

Several artists near-simultaneously began to utilise the computer for artistic ends: Ben Laposky and John Whitney in the USA and Herbert Franke in West Germany, all between 1950 and 1956. At this stage, “the computer” denoted a range of devices, some analogue, some mechanical and some digital; the latter were huge and expensive installations, the former often cobbled together by artists themselves. The most intriguing aspect of all this was that the primitive graphical capabilities of the computer coincided with the linear qualities of abstract art.

This should not detract from the entirely new aspects of computer graphics that attracted artists in the 1960s. However, these features were comprehended by reference to previous technologies and were often adapted to imitate them. In some cases the resemblances were entirely visual, such as the adoption of geometric and repeat patterns by certain artists.

There are also polemical connections, such as the widespread references to the Constructivists and other early 20th century proponents of machines in art. In a slightly different way, the use of projective geometry as the basis of 3D graphics was a structural resemblance with earlier artforms that led to visual resemblances through the pursuit of photo-realistic graphics. The concepts used by GUI-based graphics packages, including their mimicking of tools like airbrushes and pens, are metaphorical resemblances.

To understand the trajectory of computer-based art from the early 1950s until the mid-1970s, one has to appreciate its position in the current of art/science interchange which was prevalent throughout the 1960s. Another important factor is the isolation of the earliest pioneers such as Laposky and Franke; yet their perception of the computer’s potentials in visual art seems remarkably close. Also of interest are the continuities that computer artists drew between themselves and movements such as the Constructivists and the Bauhaus; they were often aware of their artistic forebears, or would stretch the polemical connection to cover Computer Art. Some theorists attacked computer artists who simply imitated previous artforms instead of developing something computer-specific. The pioneering, or experimental, period drew to a close in the early 1970s for a variety of reasons, which I will explore at the end of this chapter.

The visual arts have historically been less receptive to the use of machines than music. Mechanical instruments like the organ, wholly mechanised devices such as the player piano and even electric instruments like the theremin were all incorporated into the range of musical practice. This is probably because music, or at least tonal value, is easier to define in absolute terms than colour or form.

Since Pythagoras, the notes of the scale have been linked with numbers and could be expressed in numerical form. Music-playing machines, such as fairground organs and music boxes were made possible because music is performed either from a score or, in the case of mechanisms like the player piano, a perforated strip that instructs the keys to play. Music, unlike visual art, could be transcribed into notation and then executed by human or mechanical performers. Indeed, computer music can claim a pedigre

The Difference Engine (credit: The Guardian)

e as far back as Babbage’s Analytical Engine, when Lady Ada Lovelace conjectured:

[..] that if it were possible to define “the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition … [then] … the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”[1]

By contrast, it was not until the twentieth century that the independent creation of images by machine was even proposed. An early proponent of mechanical devices in visual art was the theorist Joseph Schillinger, who connected mathematics with musical composition and visual form. Basing his system on principles of engineering and design, Schillinger foresaw a time when machines might be able to create art independently and invented several categories in which they could function:

Mechanical realization of this method is a natural consequence. Various instruments may be constructed for the automatic production, reproduction, and variation of works of art. Instruments of the analyser type may also be constructed for the automatic testing of the esthetic quality of works of art […][2]

He proposed, amongst other instruments, a device called the “Artomaton”, which could produce linear designs (“graphomaton”) or designs using projected light (“Luminaton”), and others for kinetic displays and theatrical productions. Like Vannevar Bush’s Memex (“As We May Think” – find ref), which prefigured the computer’s database and hyperlinking capabilities in analogue form, Schillinger’s concepts seem to articulate many functions that were first built into analogue, then digital, sound and visual machinery. The fact that these ideas are now implemented by a general-purpose computer should not obscure their various origins in a host of different artistic impulses and needs.

Schillinger’s attempt to codify art was supported by graphs and diagrams bearing a strong resemblance to early Computer Art, creating the abstract mathematical forms that were so influential for Mary Ellen Bute. His thoughts on the development of a point into a line are almost a description of an early computer animation, or the process of drawing vector graphics on a screen:

A geometric point has no physical extension. An artistic point is the physical expression of a geometric point in a given material medium. This medium renders it visible. […] A point moving uniformly on a plane produces a visible trajectory. This trajectory is a linear design. The time required to evolve such a trajectory and the speed of movement determine its linear dimensions. […] When the time of the movement of a point under 180° is limited, the resulting trajectory is a rectilinear segment of a definite extension. This extension can be measured in terms of linear measurement.[3]

Schillinger goes on to describe other shapes in terms of directional movement, and then the functions of rhythmic design. It would seem that his rule-based drawings, produced at least five years before the first computer graphics, share with them certain characteristics, such as a very linear aesthetic like that of much oscilloscope art. However, as often proves the case with Computer Art, it is unknown whether he exercised much influence on the pioneers or whether they discovered their forms independently. After all, D’Arcy Thompson also had ideas of shape harmonics, canons and distortions with real-world graphical applications.[4]

Schillinger's notation of Beethoven's Pathetique Symphony

Schillinger was primarily a musical theorist who saw some application for his system in the visual arts, and for that reason his occasionally clumsy assumptions may be considered in the light of his background. After all, as Cuba pointed out, the holy grail of many composer/artists was to derive music and images from the same code. Cuba believes that music and imagery might derive from the same source but had to be treated differently and were not instantly exchangeable, at least not in an aesthetically pleasing form.[5] In William Moritz’s opinion, Mary Ellen Bute’s later pieces suffered from being too faithful to the Schillinger system.

Although Schillinger only exercised an indirect influence on Computer Art via his pupil his systematisation of mechanised art prefigured many of its concerns. Bute made animations connecting music with visual form. Her treatment of abstract imagery, and its overtly mathematical basis, was almost contemporaneous with Ben Laposky’s experiments with Lissajous figures on the oscilloscope.

[Plate X: Mary Ellen Bute, worked with an oscilloscope in 1954, producing the film Mood Contrasts.]

Bute herself made animations with the oscilloscope, though there is no evidence that she used it as anything more than a device for making linear images. She seems to have approached it as an adjunct to her earlier animations, rather than an entirely new medium as Laposky did.  The oscilloscope remained subordinate to her chosen system of image creation.

For Laposky it represented a new way of generating formalised images, one for which the CRT screen was crucial because it allowed them to develop in a non-physical space. Superficially at least, it would seem that Bute’s aesthetic, influenced by Schillinger, was very important for the computer artists who followed in the 1960s, but her use of the oscilloscope was more of an extension of her existing ideas. Also, her oscilloscope pieces date from 1954; her collaborator Norman McLaren had experimented with oscilloscope animations in 1950. [6]

[1] Holtzman, Steven R, Digital Mantras: The Language of Abstract and Virtual Worlds (Cambridge, Mass. 1994), p159.

[2] Schillinger, Joseph The Mathematical Basis of the Arts (New York, 1948)

[3] The Mathematical Basis of the Arts Joseph Schillinger (1948, New York), p363

[4] On Growth and Form, D’Arcy Thompson (1942?)

[5] Interview with Larry Cuba, August 2001 Los Angeles

[6] William Moritz, “Mary Ellen Bute: Seeing Sound” from Animation World Magazine, May 1996
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