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Art and technology in the 1960s: early Computer Art in context

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These developments encountered the much wider phenomenon of Art and Technology, which started bringing artists into contact with engineers and computer scientists. A major factor here was the group Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), founded by Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg in 1966, which seemed to encapsulate much of that era’s enthusiasm for joint ventures between engineers and artists. During this golden age of large budgets and experimental research, Bell Labs seemed consistently involved with efforts to bring science and art together. As Noll noted of the time he joined Bell Labs in 1962:

Much was happening at Bell Labs in the early 1960s involving art, music and animation. Bela Julesz was using the computer and plotter to produce random-dot stereograms […] Kenneth Knowlton was working with the famed animator Stanley Van Der Beek […] Frank W. Sinden and Edward E. Zajec were creating computer-animated movies.[1]

Ed Zajec - Diagonal White 13685

Of the many endeavours to link artistic and scientific currents, perhaps the most infamous was EAT’s first performance, 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering at the Armory, New York, in 1966. This was organised on a grand scale, which alas was reflected in the opprobrium heaped upon it following its failure.

The show had tremendous technical and organizational difficulties to overcome, and perhaps these were a result of Klüver and Rauschenberg’s concept of collaboration in art. For Klüver believed not only that artists must gain access to technology, but that the engineer should be subordinate to the artist’s approach, which proved problematic in 9 Evenings:

The artist cannot master technology and the engineer cannot become a full-time artist; but through their human interaction, new possibilities evolve. Not only may the artist’s project evolve into more complicated uses of technology with the engineer develops but also the engineer may be pushed farther or in different directions because of the artist’s needs.[2]

Thus the artist is automatically privileged, making the collaboration unequal and reducing the engineer to a technician at best. In the most successful Computer Art projects, the software engineer’s contribution has been acknowledged, as with William Latham and Steven Todd. Yet, as Harold Cohen pointed out, in other cases (such as Jeffery Shaw’s Legible City), the programming team gets little credit for the overall work. Perhaps the viewpoint here is that the engineer is needed only for the execution, not the conceptual work; and, as such, is regarded as another component of the computer.

The reports and interviews from 9 Evenings suggest that numerous artists were moving in technological directions, of which computers were still only a small part at this point (1966). There was a general interest in technologically-based artforms. Columnist John Brockman mentioned this in his report on 9 Evenings:

The potential of a marriage between art and technology is one of the most exciting notions in the air these days. […] at least a score of artists have already been involved with this process. […][3]

Unfortunately, the Armory show proved a disappointment largely because the technology failed to function; and also because the artistic concepts were either too simplistic or too hard to achieve with the equipment. Brockman noted the one-sided nature of the supposed “collaboration”:

It is in the [area of collaboration between artists and scientists] where [9 Evenings] seems to have run into trouble, as evidenced by the superficial and “effects”-oriented utilization of some of the equipment. [The problem may be] that the scientists had been limited by their instructions to stay in the background and just give the artists what they wanted. In this way, perhaps Billy Klüver’s rather worshipful attitudes towards artists resulted in an illusory collaboration rather than a real one.[4]

There was general dismay from art critics following the collapse of the technical side of the exhibition, not to mention the problem of maintaining the audience’s interest during long-winded conceptual pieces. Whether it was, as Klüver later claimed, generally successful from a technical viewpoint; or whether Klüver was too much in awe of the artists, the event generated much bad publicity for large-scale collaborations of this type. Computer artist Robert Mallary, meanwhile, believed their exhibitions had prejudiced the art world against the collaboration of art and technology, making life harder for computer artists:

[…] The year 1967 was crucial for me […] it was also about that time that art-and-technology shook the art world – thanks mainly to Robert Rauchenberg and his friends in the Experiments in Art and Technology Group (E.A.T). Unfortunately, this high-octane group, after launching art-and-technology in this country, promptly sank it with a series of amateurish and Pop-ridden exhibitions which were not long in giving art-and-technology a bad name.[5]

All these problems would arise once again in collaborations between artists and programmers. In the early phase of Computer Art, artists needed technical expertise to use the machine and thus collaboration was an absolute necessity. Moreover, some programmers working on graphics wanted to call their work “art”, which became one of the main areas of contention. Computer artist Lillian Schwartz notes that scientists appeared to be trespassing on artists’ turf – and vice-versa:

E.A.T promised the incorporation of sophisticated circuitry into artwork. But I discovered at E.A.T that scientists often wanted to be considered artists. […] Conflicts arose between the artists and the scientists, and just as some of the scientists declared that they were artists, some of the artists claimed substantial scientific knowledge.[6]

This last statement is perhaps most revealing of the conflicting mindsets at work here – and the fruitless dualism of setting “art” against “science”.

It was precisely this dualism that these collaborations were supposed to overcome. There was also a considerable overlap between artists and computer scientists – at this stage, computer “art” was often contiguous with advances in computer graphics as a whole, leading some to question the artistic status of much Computer artwork. Many artists needed to collaborate with technicians in order to use the computer, a situation prefigured by EAT.

Another group that encapsulated the interactions between art and technology in the 1960s was the London-based Computer Arts Society. Not only did it demonstrate this interchange, but it also shows the importance of institutional backing for computer arts experiments. Bell Labs was the locus for much American digital art; but in Britain the arrangements were much more informal. The fact that a founding member of CAS, Alan Sutcliffe was manager of a research group at the computer firm ICL meant that computer time was available for processing digital art. Similarly, his presence at the 1968 International Federation of Information Processing (IFIP) conference in Edinburgh meant that he was able to connect with other interested members to found CAS. By October of 1968, the group was meeting under the aegis of John Lansodwn, an architect who pioneered the development of computer graphics in Britain; they decided to do a weekend show at the RCA in March 1969.

Undoubtedly, the resulting show received much impetus from the success of “Cybernetic Serendipity” the previous year. However, Event One was somewhat different in that it heralded the launch of a society dedicated to the new artforms. It was also centred on computers in art: the show included a DEC PDP-7 from Imperial College, teletype terminals and graph plotters, a link to Peter Zinovieff’s PDP-8 and displays provided by ICL. As outlined in the first issue of PAGE, the CAS magazine, this equipment working in the context of fine art was intended to make technology the centrepiece of visual art, and to provide a collective focus for such efforts which had previously been isolated and theoretical. As PAGE also acknowledged: “the men who […] engineered this are primarily professionals in the field of computing and architecture.” [7]

This was a somewhat different model than the artist/engineer collaborations foreseen by Klüver. However, these were running into difficulties. The Bell Labs programmer who did most to foster such partnerships, Ken Knowlton, eventually became very dispirited by the unequal divisions of creative input and artistic acclaim. Indeed, Harold Cohen mentioned to me that he considered Knowlton an artist in his own right who became overshadowed by his collaborators. Yet these collaborations were necessary to acquaint interested artists with contemporary computers.

At this point, you either had to learn to program or live with the consequences of another programmer’s decisions as to what they could or could not do. This could also work the other way: for example, Ken Knowlton never had the confidence to see that he was doing the art in his collaborations with Lillian Schwartz and others. Ken got upset when I suggested that he was the artist. In fact, his need for other artists was not useful to his concepts, and he must have become disenchanted because at one point he offered to clear out all his computer-related art.[8]

Cohen realises that artists, when guiding programmers, will inevitably have to accept the modification of their concepts by that programmer in order to realise them on the computer.  The partnership will always be unequal in creative terms, belittling any creative input from the supposedly rigid and rational programmer. This seemed to inform Klüver’s approach, which invested the artist with sole creative guidance and the cast the engineer as the conduit through which this vision would be realised. He believed that artists would always require engineers or technicians in order to realise technological art:

The contemporary artist wants to use contemporary technology as a material. And today technology needs the artist just as much as the artist wants technology. It seems clear that the perceptual approach of the artist to the world, his sensual response, his autonomy and his assuming full responsibility for his work is essential to the development of technology. […] But it is not because technology lacks beauty that it needs the artist. […] The artist is a new form of stimulation.[9]

The last two lines express Klüver’s vision of the artist stimulating technology with the collaborations. In this, it is fair to call him a visionary, even if he did not anticipate the problems involved in bringing artists and engineers together. Although 9 Evenings was widely judged to be a failure, Klüver contended that it had fulfilled its experimental brief; and he perceptively identified several issues that might apply to artists who work with computers:

There are three elements fighting. The artists, the engineers and the audience. These three will have to come to some resolution.

This recognition of the elements working within technological art is also valid for art created on the computer. It is always operating within the restrictions imposed by technology, within the boundless vistas of the artist’s imagination and the prior expectations of the audience. In this, perhaps, it differs little from any previous artform. But a crucial departure is the technical complexity of the machinery, and the specialist knowledge required to make it work. Either the artist immerses himself in this technological environment, or employs experts to execute his ideas. It is at this point that the collaboration develops or collapses. Computer artist Leslie Mezei, surveying the results of 1960s Computer Art, considered that many of these partnerships had actually retarded the artists’ understanding of the computer; all they did was “[prettify] the output of their technical collaborator, without any real understanding of the processes involved”. Meanwhile, other artists stayed within the boundaries of existing programs and merely repeated the technician’s work.[10]

Perhaps the resolution reached in contemporary Computer Art is that the artist assumes the role of computer expert, at least in a limited sense with regard to his own program. Yet Klüver saw a degree of inevitability in the artistic use of technology, whatever its aim:

It is not a question of what the artist should do, but what he will do with technology. Whether technology is good or bad, threatening or friendly, beautiful or ugly is irrelevant. The qualities and shapes of technology are not the proper concern of the artist.[11]

Thus in Klüver’s experiment, the artist directs and the engineer performs, or gets technology to perform. Once again, Moholy-Nagy’s concept of “art at a distance” appears. If one aspect is not “the proper concern” of the artist, then it should be handled by someone else. This point still concerns for computer artists, even now that programming is no longer necessary for creating computer images: should the artist learn to program, or employ existing software to realise their ideas? Klüver hints that the artist must perforce operate in a very different way to the engineer:

[…] Art allows for discontinuities that science cannot tolerate. History must have presented us with the separateness of art and science for a reason.[12]

And Klüver’s attempt to bridge the gap certainly acknowledged this “separateness”; yet by privileging the artist, he seemingly ignored the creative input from the engineer. This attitude certainly permeated other attempts at bringing Art and Technology together. For instance, Los Angeles County Museum of Art launched an Art and Technology program in the late 1960s, which involved giving established artists access to technological resources. It saw this as preferable to the efforts of engineers at producing “art”:

Seen against most recent efforts in the area of technological art, which are generally identified with electronic light and sound media, the results of [LACMA’s] Art and Technology are unlike anything we could have predicted. They far transcend the genre of work ordinarily called to mind by “tech art”.[13]

These questions are important, partly because many pioneer computer artists came from this art-technology milieu, and partly because the graphics engineer has always been the poor relation in Computer Art. Critics such as Delle Maxwell have bemoaned the way that almost any early computer graphics was seized upon as ‘art’, and have tended to blame programmers’ enthusiasm for the low artistic content.[14] Yet Cohen’s views on Knowlton suggest a different dynamic, one where the programmer’s aspirations were defeated by this assumption that only recognised “artists” could produce “art”. And in many ways, this is at the heart of the discussion of what exactly constitutes “Computer Art”.

Knowlton was a computer engineer who did artwork, a position often regarded scornfully by “real” artists who felt that engineering involvement in Computer Art held back its recognition as an artform. Cuba counters this attitude with his observation that people educated as scientists are often more rounded than pure artists, especially in their artistic interests. Despite the supposedly generalist nature of the artist’s profession, mainstream artists are often negative about scientific developments – often for no reason other than fashionable prejudice. Cuba speculates that some of Computer Art’s problems of acceptance may stem from this antipathy.

Knowlton is evidently jaundiced by his experiences with artists in collaborations; his recent renaming of his own activities as ‘art’ would seem to indicate this, as does his description of himself as a “former programmer”. Yet what he says does seem to ring true in the light of EAT’s work and other art/tech groups. I would go so far as to say that it has little to do with technological limitations and far more to do with the friction of two people with very different approaches working together. Following his work at Bell Labs, collaborating with artists including Stan VanDerBeek and Lillian Schwartz, Knowlton concluded that “Computer Art would come from artists, or from artists working with programmers, not from programmers working alone”. It was not from any lack of creativity, intelligence or imagination on the programmer’s part, but rather because of their often “painstaking, logical, inhibited, cautious, restrained” nature.[15]

Knowlton also concurred with Calvin Tomkins, who noted a prevailing attitude of artists towards engineers at EAT involved the engineer: “reduced to being a kind of source material, a mere cog in an art machine whose value seems dubious at best.[16] Indeed, as Knowlton notes, perhaps the best outcome of all this was that eventually some computer artists began to learn the fundamentals of programming instead of relying on the technical skills of others:

An art-technology collaboration, presumably of peers, should be thought of as an early stage – a training period. The things that participants learn to do can be exhilarating, puzzling, enjoyable and a good background for future work.[17]

A. Michael Noll’s experience as a researcher and artist can be compared to Knowlton’s as facilitator and engineer for artists. Both men seemingly reached a similar conclusion: that artists should eventually come to comprehend the computer and such collaborations were unsatisfactory. He speculated that Computer Art would emerge from non-professional artists experimenting with computers in other capacities; he did not foresee the widespread adoption of the desktop computer. Perhaps this underpinned his pessimism (and that of his contemporaries): the computer seemed doomed to remain the province of the specialist. At this point, in the early 1970s, the future of Computer Art comes to be shaped by technological and cultural forces rather than purely artistic ones; it ceases to be the province of a particular type of aesthetic experimenter (typified by Max Bense) who has to rely on institutional backing.

The later generations of computer artists tend to be those who gain sufficient technical knowledge for their own artistic development, but are less concerned (or absorbed) by the computer’s wider role in art or philosophy. Combined with increased graphical power, the net result is that their art is extended by the computer; but they are not part of the interconnected aesthetic concerns that motivated many 1960s computer artists. The implication here is not of their inferiority, but rather of a different approach to computer usage in the arts. Indeed, the decrease in computer-specific theorising might have proved the computer’s entrée into a wider artistic context.

Also, Kluver claimed that EAT was more interested in “technology” in the widest sense, and computers were only one instrument in a much greater technological spectrum. This being so, it was EAT’s mission to provide artists with access to technological resources, for specific projects. This specificity is key: what differentiates Computer Art from other forms of tech art is its open-endedness and the sense of ongoing exploration. By contrast, most “tech-art” projects (and kinetic art especially) were quite limited in their scope and result. Perhaps this has been the biggest factor in the expansion of Computer Art whilst many of its contemporaries remain 1960s curiosities. However, one should also consider the problems faced by artist-technologists such as Edward Ihnatowicz, who failed to find backing for many of their hardware-based projects. Had this been forthcoming, Ihnatowicz would doubtless have produced more machines like the Senster; instead, he worked mainly with robotics at UCL.

[1] A. Michael Noll, “The Beginnings of Computer Art in the United States: A Memoir” Leonardo Vol. 27, No1, pp. 39-44, 1994.

See also interview with Ed Zajec in Leavitt, Artist and Computer

[2] pp4-5 EAT Brochure, June 1967

[3] John Brockman, “Theatre, Engineering: All the Fun was Backstage”, The Village Voice, Oct 27th 1966.

[4] John Brockman, “Theatre, Engineering: All the Fun was Backstage”, The Village Voice, Oct 27th 1966.

[5] Leavitt, ibid, interview with Robert Mallary, p5

[6] Schwartz, Lillian & Laurens F., The Computer artist’s Handbook, (New York, 1992) p9

[7] PAGE 1, Journal of the Computer Arts Society, April 1969

[8] Conversation with Harold Cohen, transcribed as notes, 22nd August 2001

[9] EAT Brochure, June 1967, pp4-5

[10] Leslie Mezei, interviewed by Ruth Leavitt in Artist and Computer, 1976, p23

[11] Artforum Feb 1967, “Theater and Engineering – An Experiment”, pp30-31

[12] Artforum Feb 1967, “Theater and Engineering – An Experiment”, pp30-31

[13] A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 1967-1971, ed. Maurice Tuchman (1971, Los Angeles)

[14] Relevant comments from Maxwell.

[15] Knowlton, Ken, “On Frustrations of Collaborating with Artists” ACM SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics Vol.35 No.3, August 2001, p20

[16] Pavilion by Experiments in Art and Technology, Ed. Billy Klüver, Julie Martin and Barbara Rose (New York, 1972) Calvin Tomkins, “Outside Art”, p127

[17] Knowlton, ibid, p23.