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Abstract Animation

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Mention of Mary Ellen Bute raises the subject of Abstract Animation and its influence on Computer Art. The term “abstract animation” is somewhat like “Computer Art” in that it stretches to cover a variety of artforms linked more by technology and medium than by content or approach. Many of the concerns of the abstract animators prefigured those of computer artists, and they were amongst the first to realise the potential of the computer for creating graphical form. Another connection with Computer Art is that “almost everyone who develops a color-organ is under the misapprehension that he, or she, is the first mortal to attempt to do so”, as Adrian Bernard Klein wrote in 1927.

In spite of sporadic interest from mainstream cinema (especially in Mary Ellen Bute’s short films), abstract animation remains a specialised area. Its history is being archived in detail at the iotaCenter, Los Angeles, run by computer abstract artist Larry Cuba. In its aim of unifying dynamic art and music by identifying similar rhythmic structures in images and sounds, abstract animation hovers uneasily between cinema and painting. Like Computer Art, it suffers from not being immediately classifiable:

The form of ‘abstract’ animation has kept up with the technical advances made by cinema in general, but after more than sixty years it is still floundering for its aesthetic identity. It has usually been treated as something of an illegitimate child of painting, long-lost cousin of [cinema], or a hybrid of both. It is, however, a form of its own […] its potential to translate the spatiality of “abstract” painting into a temporal expression is unique to its nature.[1]

Abstract animation itself sprang from earlier experimentation with colour and light machines, many of which had attempted to link the musical scale with a corresponding scale of colour and light. The first known colour organ was the “Ocular Harpsichord” of the Jesuit Father Loise-Bertrand Castel in 1734, which “embodied his own theories of sound/color correspondence in an instrument”.[2] Abstract animation, meanwhile, was a twentieth century development pioneered by the German animators Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger.[3]

[Oskar Fischinger excerpt from Fantasia, Disney, 1940]

Historians of Abstract Animation (also known as “Visual Music”, “Absolute Film” and “Visual Music”, amongst other appellations) see its origins in attempts to link colour and music, usually by means of elaborate mechanical apparatus. This may have had its roots in the psychological condition of synasthesia, defined as:

(Greek, syn = together + aisthesis = perception) is the involuntary physical experience of a cross-modal association. That is, the stimulation of one sensory modality reliably causes a perception in one or more different senses.[4]

Although the artistic attempts to induce it must necessarily be distinguished from the condition, it is interesting that the two were combined in the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). Scriabin increasingly sought to fuse image and sound towards the end of his life, scoring the symphony Prometheus for orchestra and colour organs, and including a variety of visual effects and lights.[5] It is quite probable that, had Scriabin survived longer and escaped the Russian Revolution, the emerging art form of Abstract Animation would have had a distinguished representative. Alas, he died too early.

From the late nineteenth century onwards, inventor/performers such as Thomas Wilfrid, designed increasingly complex “colour organs” to connect specific colours with corresponding pitches on the keyboard.[6] Through this they hoped to create a synaesthetic art that encompassed both vision and sound, but since the linking of colours with sounds was always done on a subjective level, no single system could achieve widespread success: no universal colour/music system arose.[7] However, these experiments did introduce an element of mechanisation into art, as evinced by this description of a colour organ designed by Czech kinetic artist Zdenek Pešánek:

[…] he had installed […] his third version of a kinetic electric light keyboard instrument which he called a kinetic light piano. It consisted of a sculptured object within which were placed coloured electric lamps and which was provided with a viewing screen of translucent, white material. The lamps were activated by a manually operated keyboard device […] The lamps, several tens of them, were of 12 colours […Pešánek] gave considerable thought to the possibility of correlating the 12 colours to the 12 tones of the musical scale.[8]

In the early 1920s, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack constructed an apparatus which could project a variety of shapes and colours using reflected light. This was controlled by performers using a score, and specially-written music played as the images changed.[9] Similarly, in Britain, Adrian Bernard Klein built and performed on a number of colour organs, using his own colour systems developed during the 1920s-30s. They assigned positions and tonal value to colour on the model of the musical keyboard. The project was quite extensive, using firms of cinema organ builders to construct the machines and connect the consoles to banks of coloured lights and projectors.[10] Mary Ellen Bute also experimented with theatre lights and switchboards in the 1930s before moving into animations.

[Short documentary on Mary Ellen Bute]

The mutable geometric forms generated by Hirschfeld-Mack and his collaborators resemble those of later Computer Art, and were perhaps driven by a similar desire to introduce rhythmic patterns into abstract forms. The images were “played” from a score and projected on a screen, at least in the case of the colour organs.

These early technological artforms expressed the potential for linking abstract displays of images with music through a variety of apparatuses. Yet each system was unique to the artist who conceived it – for the simple reason that there was no way of unifying colour and sound beyond a subjective linking of various harmonies and colours. The crucial advantage the digital computer had in this area was its reduction of all data into digital form; yet even the analogue computer, operating on waveforms instead of numbers, provided an element of equivalence between different data. For instance, John Whitney was principally interested in the relation of abstract animations to musical harmonies, and conceived that the computer could assist in their production. As he said in Artist and Computer:

The computer is the coequal of the entire repertoire of musical instrumentation and heir to that domain of musical sound. At the same time, the computer is the ultimate kinetic image generative instrument. The kinetic image is in truth the creation of computer graphics since the cine or television camera is but a recording device and the hand-drawn image of motion is but a cartoon of motion.[11]

[John Whitney Catalog 1961]

With the advent of the computer, the cumbersome and specialised colour organs were superseded by a programmable machine. Transformations of light and sound could be both generated and minutely controlled on the computer; most importantly, sounds could be translated directly into a graphical trace. Abstract Animation also pointed towards the dynamic manipulation of immaterial form. It is in the work of the abstract animators that one first encounters the transformation of shapes over time, the play of light and colour and, especially, the linkage of image and sound that forms the basis for much multimedia work.

The joint heritage of Abstract Animation and early Computer Art is embodied in the iotaCenter, founded by computer artist Larry Cuba who places himself firmly in the tradition which the Center was founded to archive. Its extensive racks of film cans, beta videos and discs hold the physical form of Abstract Animation, but only when their contents are set in motion does the art begin to live. Traditionally, the work of Fischinger, Whitney et al has been categorised as “experimental film”, but in intent and results it is quite different from the work usually associated with this area. It forms its own genre – exemplified by the iotaCenter’s holdings – which transcends film, video and all other modes of production, for the animated content is the key to its artistic identity. Indeed, the highly abstract style of John and his brother James Whitney, was influential to succeeding computer animators.

[Plate XI: James Whitney, Lapis, 1962]

Larry Cuba came to the computer through his interest in Abstract Animation. After college in the 1960s, he programmed for John Whitney Sr, helping him facilitate his computer-based animations. Over the following decades, Cuba has produced his own series of distinctive animations and is also a link back to the pioneers of animation and Computer Art. His archive holds most of the physical media and documentation for the Abstract Animators and allied artforms.[12]

[1] “Motion Painting: ‘Abstract’ Animation as an Art Form” Lorettann Devlin Gascard, Leonardo, Vol.16, No.4 1983, p296

[2] Scott Sona Snibbe and Golan Levin, “Interactive Dynamic Abstraction”, Proceedings of the ACM symposium on Virtual reality software and technology, September 15 -- 17, 1997, Lausanne Switzerland

[3] “The Avant-garde Cinema of the 1920s: Connections to Futurism, Precisionism and Sprematism.” Martin F. Norden, Leonardo, Vol.17, No.2, 1984, pp108-112

[4] Richard E. Cytowic, “Synesthesia: Phenomenology And Neuropsychology -- A Review of Current Knowledge” Psyche 2(10), July 1995. Online at

[5] Richard E. Cytowic, op. cit.

[6] Karen Sullivan, “Abstraction, Animation, Music”, Computer Graphics, Volume 35, No.3, August 2001, p3.

[7] Refer to John Gauge here??

[8] “On my work with the pioneer of Kinetic Electric Light Art, Zdenĕk Pešánek (1896-1965): A Memoire”, Jaromir Fiala, Leonardo Vol.13 p183, 1980.

[9] The Utopian Vision of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, p63.

[10] Adrian Bernard Klein, Coloured Light: An Art Medium (London, 1937)

[11] Artist and Computer (find pg ref)

[12] From interview with Larry Cuba at the iotaCenter, Los Angeles, 21-08-01