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The Influence of Kinetic Art

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Frank Malina paints the rotors of Paths in Space 1963, one of his Lumidynes

Frank Malina considered that “Computer Art” would only ever rehearse ideas found in its precursors. When Malina founded Leonardo in 1968 to explore the links between art and science, considerable space was devoted to kinetic artforms. A kinetic artist himself in addition to his scientific work with rockets[1], Malina evinced some interest toward computers but concluded that many of their functions were already matched by other artistic techniques. He thought that computer artists were simply reapplying many of the discoveries of kinetic art – particularly animation – to the new technology. Malina believed this made computer artists more dependent upon preceding forms of art:

By the time computers became available to them, artists had already used other means to make static and kinetic, two- and three-dimensional visual art, including audio-visual kinetic art. Since a computer must be told what to do in detail, artists are forced to fall back on images with visual conceptions of content that have already existed before – the computer then makes imitations of them [italics mine].[2]

Certainly, Malina’s description of Kinetic Art in the mid-1960s not only drew on the same cultural interface of Art and Technology, but also proposed it as an artform of the future which would demand a new approach from galleries and critics. Its technological affinities made it eminently suitable for contemporary society, and beneath this wide-ranging title, Malina gathered a great variety of technological and experimental art. He listed these as:

1. Pictorial and sculptural objects incoporating motion and changes of colors with time, brought about by:

(a) optical, mechanical, magnetic, electro-mechanical and electronic systems;

(b) chemical reactions and the flow of liquids.

2. Objects in which changes with time are random, programmed or responsive to the intensity or the frequency of a sound input or even to the characteristics of alpha brain waves.

3. Visual experiences provided by slide projection, cinema and television techniques.

Malina also realised, crucially, that kinetic art had special requirements in terms of preservation and propagation, for which contemporary museums had little expertise. He also observed the uses of kinetic in applied contexts, but contented that it should still be viewed as a form of fine art:

[The] fact that ‘kinetics’ has been applied in advertising, discotheques and pop concerts leads many people to conclude that kinetic art is suitable only for decorative purposes. They forget that there has long been an interplay between the fine and applied arts.[3]

Here again, one may sense a similarity to the issues surrounding Computer Art. However, Malina was somewhat dismissive of Computer Art during the 1960s, at least to the extent that it only seemed to recapitulate other forms of art. There were definite similarities in the type of experiences that both Kinetic Art and Computer Art were trying to encapsulate at this time. Frank Popper saw Kinetic Art as the continuation of the need to express dynamic, often mechanical, forms in art through the animation of physical objects:

[…] If art in this century reveals a trend toward the evocation of the image of dynamism as exemplified by such movements as the Futurists, then we searched for a genuine art of movement[…] The tradition of fluid dynamic time, which is second nature to the music composer, finds almost a mirrored reverse polarity within the tradition of the visual artist. Time and space, the talisman of this century for both the arts and the sciences, have actually received less than lip service from the plastic artist. [4]

Kinetic art shares this dynamic aspect with abstract animation. Underpinning both art forms is the inherent fascination of seeing a mechanism working apparently unaided to produce images that seem to be the product of another mind, or at least spring from an independent process.

The computer’s introduction enabled artists to internalise the mechanical spirit of the age in their art, in a way that was previously unavailable; it was a very direct link between art and science. Yet Malina’s observation that computer artists are “forced to fall back” on previous “visual conceptions” is interesting, because it implies that the computer has no inherent visual form of its own. Insofar as all images on the computer are just sets of instructions which can be freely altered and transformed, this is true. But Popper noted that abstract forms seemed appropriate to a dynamic medium, at least in the context of kinetic art, so this may have influenced the uptake of abstract art on the computer (as with Abstract Animation):

The purely geometric side of abstract art had a very strong kinetic element from the start, and is itself related to developments in the previous history of painting. […] Mondrian’s balance of dynamic and static potentialities depends principally on colour, while in many of Malevitch’s suprematist pictures the accent is on coloured forms whirling around an axis. The use of line to create movement, perceptible in the arabesques of Art Nouveau, and later in Matisse and Klee, belongs to another category, the intellectual trend.[5]

View of Cybernetic Serendipity with SAM in foreground

At Jasia Reichardt’s 1968 exhibition “Cybernetic Serendipity”, in the ICA, kinetic art proper intermingled with mechanical “computers”, drawing machines, and the earliest uses of electronic computers for visual art. The range of devices and this exhibition’s openness to both artists and engineers underscores the expectations that underpinned the first phase of Computer Art development, because they were part of a wider culture of interchange between the arts and technology. The wider interest in systems and cybernetics naturally linked with computer-based art. Even before he began working on computers, Harold Cohen had recommended cybernetic books to his students[6], and there was an awareness of systems amongst British artists of the time. For instance, Roy Ascott represented various systems of notation, including the hexagrams of the I Ching, binary dots and waveforms in an untitled drawing of 1963; the interest in the I Ching’s mathematical and predictive system prefigured its use in his later communications art.[7] The importance of “Cybernetic Serendipity” is that it was a watershed, the culmination of the many strands of art and technology that were gathered under the umbrella term “cybernetics”.

Prior to “Cybernetic Serendipity, the most notable collaborations between artists and engineers happened in the USA, under the aegis of Bell Labs and Billy Klüver; the group “Experiments in Art and Technology”.

[1] “Frank Malina” by Frank Popper,

[2] “Comments on Visual Fine Art produced by Digital Computers” Frank J Malina LEONARDO (Vol.4, pp263-265, 1971) pp90-92, from Visual Art, Mathematics and Computers: Selections from the Journal LEONARDO ed. Frank J. Malina (Oxford 1979)

[3] Kinetic Art: Theory and Practice Selections from the Journal Leonardo
ed. Frank J. Malina (1974, New York)

[4] Frank Popper: “Kinetic Art – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” Four Essays in Kinetic Art (1966 ?New York) Stephen Bann, Reg Gadney, Frank Popper, Philip Steadman, p6.

[5] Frank Popper: “Kinetic Art – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, from Stephen Bann, Reg Gadney, Frank Popper, Philip Steadman, Four Essays in Kinetic Art (1966? New York), p6.

[6] McCorduck, Pamela, AARON’s Code (1991)

[7] “Technology and Intuition: A Love Story? Roy Ascott’s Telematic Embrace” Edward A. Shanken – find web ref