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Expectations of Computer Art in the 1960s

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In the early phase of Computer Art (1950-1972), hardware and software limitations imposed some unity on the art produced through computers. The pioneering computer artists came closest to qualifying as an art movement, since many practitioners shared similar goals and a similar conception of the computer. For this reason, contemporary commentators such as Herbert Franke and Jasia Reichardt anticipated the rise of a Computer Art movement connected by visual and philosophical concerns, similar to earlier 20th century art movements.

Reichardt, curator of the groundbreaking ICA exhibition “Cybernetic Serendipity” in 1968, considered Computer Art to be a movement in her 1971 book The Computer in Art. She compared it with Concrete Poetry in that it was international and motivated by the use of media, technique and method rather than ideology.[1] However, she had to acknowledge that it had produced no great masterpieces; instead she saw its importance as “the means of reformulating the boundaries and definitions of creative activity as a whole”.[2] As with the exhibition, her book examines the many flowerings of experimental Computer artwork that took place throughout the 1960s. In her introduction to the Computer Section of the Cybernetic Serendipity catalogue, Reichardt stated that:

[…] one cannot deny that the computer demonstrates a radical extension in art media and techniques. The possibilities inherent in the in the computer will do little to change those idioms of art which rely primarily on the dialogue between the artist, his ideas and the canvas. They will, however, increase the scope of art and contribute to its diversity.[3]

“Increasing the scope of art” is a theme that runs through most commentary on Computer Art. Because the computer cannot fit into the traditional schema of artist’s tools, the concept of “art” must be enlarged to accommodate computer-based works. There is less of a problem with computer-mediated art, where the computer is subordinate to the conventions of a pre-digital artform and the work often appears as a printout. Such works can be displayed as “prints” and exhibited as any previous piece of two-dimensional art. They do not involve any great conceptual reorientation in their finished form, only in their production. Reichardt refers to this when she considers the computer’s possibilities relative to older “idioms of art”.  She is aware of the disjunct and innovative possibilities that occur when the computer’s inherent abilities are employed.

The anticipatory tone of Reichardt’s 1968 article was amplified by early Computer Art’s primary theorist, H.W. Franke. In his seminal book Computer Graphics, Computer Art, he asserted that works of “Computer Art” were “among the most remarkable products of our time” and expressed the conviction that Computer Art “can place the whole field of aesthetics as well as artistic practice onto new foundations” [4]

Herbert Franke's seminal book from 1971

Throughout his text he emphasised the radical and disjunct nature of computer usage in the arts, following the ideas of the philosopher Max Bense concerning the creation of a work of art. Bense saw art as the conveying of signs in two phases: the preparation of sign carriers, i.e. the physical form of the art; and the conception behind them.[5] Franke was convinced that computer involvement in art represented “the first time it has become possible to insert a mechanical aid into the creative phase of artistic production.”[6]

Franke decided that the computer’s most distinctive qualities were those of programming and formalism, and that the computer’s position in art was of technical, rather than stylistic, importance:

[…] Computer Art must be differentiated from the many artistic styles and fashions that have come about in the past millennia, centuries or decades […] the practice of art in future cannot escape the influence of computer-generated art.[7]

Where I believe Franke misunderstood computer-based art is that he put it forward as a movement, as something comparable to previous artistic movements. From his perspective in the 1960s, Computer Art would not only revolutionise artistic practice but also democratise it as well, meaning that the non-artists would have a chance to express themselves visually. Yet he thought this would happen within the linear visual framework of current computer graphics and the (somewhat dry) Semiotic philosophy of Max Bense.

The other major factor was a hiatus in computer development, as smaller computers – minicomputers and workstations – only became widely available during the mid-1970s. Until then, computer artists were constrained by issues of access on the large time-sharing mainframes that were found only in universities and large businesses. For instance, Alan Sutcliffe of the Computer Arts Society was able to process Computer artworks because he used spare computer time at ICT, where he was a departmental manager in the late 1960s. In fact, Sutcliffe’s department was the only pure research group at ICT; the rest were tied to applied research. Sutcliffe was lucky enough to have private access to a computer when Peter Zinovieff purchased a DEC PDP-8 for his music business in 1969, but most computer artists had to maintain associations with computing research groups to produce their art.[8] Only when the first mass-market personal computers appeared at the end of the 1970s did Computer Art begin to widen its appeal, as artists who previously lacked any way of using a computer could now investigate it in their own time. Of course, had Xerox realised the potential of their Alto system five years earlier, the history of personal computers would be very different.

Herbert Freeman also identified three barriers to the swift realisation of computer graphics’ potential, on which Computer Art was dependent. Firstly, graphics have always been processor-intensive, and this was costly at a time when computer power was rationed out amongst users. Also, graphics required faster processors and more memory, again making graphics systems expensive. Secondly, the complexity of representing objects in two and three dimensions was not fully appreciated; it soon became apparent that “[algorithms] for hidden-line removal, shading, and scan conversion […] generally proved far more complex than was first anticipated”. This in turn made graphics programs more intricate and slowed down computers further. Thirdly, system and application software also proved much more challenging, especially for “real world” situations where graphics would ostensibly be used. As Freeman states bluntly: “Many of the early graphics achievements were in fact mere ‘toys’ “. It is unsurprising that artists found the computer forbidding and that its early promise waned.[9]

The non-emergence of a unified movement called “Computer Art” confounded early predictions of its success and future ubiquity. Because the new “Computer Art” was so eagerly anticipated, its often crude manifestations were excused as necessary steps towards a more refined future. As Leslie Metzei said in 1976:

Computer Art, as many new endeavours, has reached a plateau of stagnation after an exhilarating start full of promise. [10]

Mezei claims this was due to an exhaustion of ideas on the part of the pioneering artists and computer scientists. Rather damningly, Mezei attributes this decline to the nature of their Computer artwork:

They merely did what was easy and obvious with their hardware and their even more limited software. Since they were the first the results were quite unique and interesting, but generally ‘artless’ and not very innovative.[11]

On the other hand, there were also pressures from the art world and from the graphics industry itself. ; Jasia Reichardt’s experience of artworld suspicion and the lack of any follow-up to “Cybernetic Serendipity”; the perceived failure of EAT and the problems therein; and the fact that, of all the members of CAS, only Edward Ihnatowicz was employed in his “field” in the 1970s, and that applied arts only.

Another factor, exemplified by the Computer Arts Society, was that the encouragement given to programmers, engineers and others without artistic training led to a blurring of the lines between “art” and “graphics”. Regarding “Cybernetic Serendipity”, Alan said “Who are the artists?” Jasia Reichardt had bravely invited a mixture of full-time artsts and experimenters in other fields. As her susequent experiences proved, this broad-ranging interest was frowned upon by the mainstream art critics. Paul Brown used to think the arts were revolutionary and the sciences staid and boring; but now he realises it is quite the reverse. Alan Sutcliffe held that “Computer Art” brings in the ideas of non-artists when they make images and create “art” by some definition. The slowness of art catching on is surprising: only in the 1960s did contemporary art start appearing in museum and gallery collections. And today, much is still frozen in the mode of the 60s; hence the negativity still surrounding technology and art.

Sutcliffe never believed C.P. Snow’s idea of the “Two Cultures”; from his point of view as a programmer he didn’t see any boundaries between science and art. As Sutcliffe later realised, from the arts side there is a very high boundary, partly stemming from a love of categorisation. Indeed, he had an argument with art critic Jonathan Benthall when he suggested that the normal methods of art criticism should not be applied to Computer Art in its early experimental stages. Rather, all its manifestations were interesting and should be given an airing. Indeed, CAS decided not apply heavy criticism because this would discourage potential artists.

Benthall took the opposing view, that it should be held up to art-critical scrutiny because this would encourage higher standards in the artists. Benthall was the one British critic who fully supported these new forms of Art & Technology, though the art establishment was far less interested in them. Jasia Reichardt’s career seemingly stalled after her involvement with computer artists, and in her earlier interveiws with Patric Prince it seemed she was bitter about her treatment following “Cybernetic Serendipity”.[12]

In line with Sutcliffe’s view that CAS would not apply “art” critieria to its members’ work, some words were not used in CAS meetings: “aesthetics” for instance. The consensus amongst the members was that if art was only considered in terms of aesthetics, it resulted in overly refined and “arty” pieces, not meaningful artworks. Instead, CAS looked at the techniques and inspirations for making Computer Art, and the diversity of its members’ activities. In a sense, this encouragement for engineers and technicians to produce works of “art” was the polar opposite of EAT’s attempts to make engineers subordinate to artists in the production of their art.

The finest example of work related to CAS was undoubtedly Edward Ihnatowicz’s Senster which, although it developed from his earlier sculpture SAM, seems to encapsulate everything that CAS tried to achieve. Unlike most of CAS’s work it was not a print or animation, but a giant robotic sculpture directed by sound and controlled by a computer, from a remarkably simple program.

Edward Ihnatowicz - Sound Activated Mobile. Image courtesy of Alex Zivanovic

Edward Ihnatowicz - Sound Activated Mobile. Image courtesy of Alex Zivanovic

In the person of Edward Ihnatowicz, then, it would seem the contradictory strands of Art & Technology, of CAS’s aspirations and EAT’s potentials, were resolved in one artist who was simultaneously an engineer. In this, he fulfilled Knowlton’s prediction that the most meaningful technological artworks would come from artists fully acquainted with technology, not from art-engineer partnerships. Although the Senster was constructed by the robotics team at UCL, it was induibitably the outcome of Ihnatowicz’s vision.

The problem with the CAS line that both artists and non-artists should be included because all their work was interesting, is perhaps that there was a tendency to treat everything claimed as “Computer Art” too reverentially, for fear of dissuading further experiments with adverse criticism. Mediocre pieces of graphical work, some of it purely for technical demonstrations, were often been promoted as art regardless of the implications of this word.

For this reason, Gary William Smith questioned the validity of “Computer Art” in PAGE, the CAS magazine, in 1972. Did this term protect certain of its manifestations from proper criticism? The weight of expectation deflected attention from the intrinsic qualities of existing Computer artwork, which he felt were lacking. Indeed, Smith considered that putting the word “computer” in front of “art” gave the artwork a special significance it did not deserve – he called it a “crutch”. It also implied that works of “Computer Art” were only relevant in relation to each other, and if so they did not succeed as “art”.[13] More recently, Mark Millmore neatly skewered the fractal patterns promoted as “Computer Art” at a show in the early 1990s:

I inadvertently upset a few people by describing the show as gorgeous wrapping paper framed and presented with clinical precision.[14]

This is not to say that technically accomplished but shallow art is exclusive to the computer. A glance at Jim Shaw’s Paintings Found in Thrift Stores displays the hilarious and grotesque effusions of spirited but artless Sunday painters. As Harold Cohen said: “How many people who bought a box of paints ever produced good art?”[15] Undoubtedly the digital toolbox can add facility to bad aesthetic judgement, but it is not the cause.

Was CAS’s attitude towards art aesthetics part of the problem, or was it the art world’s attitude? Whilst accepting Smith’s criticisms, it seems the artworld’s refusal to countenance Computer Art was based more on ignorance and conservatism, ironic in such a self-consciously “revolutionary” body of thought. But as Paul Brown said, the surface dynamism masks a deeper stasis, a reluctance to investigate anything beyond the dictates of a small band of critics.[16]

Another problem with the technology, besides the slow pace of advances in computer graphics, was the change in institutional attitudes during the 1970s. At Bell Labs, Ken Knowlton’s wide-ranging approach was challenged by new managers, who steered him away from artistic collaborations him into applied research that would bring obvious results. Similarly, Alan Sutcliffe, who had previously used free computer time at ICT to process artworks whilst he managed a research group, was threatened with investigation by his successor for supposedly “misusing” his position. This paralleled the wider situation in computer graphics as the “blue-sky” military programs that supported basic research were cut during the budgetary crises of the early 1970s. However, Sutcliffe acknowledged the role played by research institutions in Computer Art, using the considerable freedom granted by their access to advanced technology and computers.

[1] Jasia Reichardt, The Computer in Art (Studio Vista/Van Nostrand Reinhold, London, 1971), p7

[2] Reichardt, ibid, p8

[3] “Computer Art”, Jascia Reichardt, Cybernetic Serendipity catalogue, Reichardt et al (London 1969)

[4] Computer Graphics, Computer Art, HW Franke, (1971, London), p8.

[5] Franke, ibid, p9

[6] Franke, ibid, p9

[7] Franke, ibid, p112

[8] Conversation with Alan Sutcliffe, 17th January 2003

[9] “Introduction”, from Interactive Computer Graphics Herbert Freeman, IEEE Computer Society Press ©1980; quoted by Wayne Carlson on his website

[10] Artist and Computer, Ruth Leavitt (1976) Interview with Leslie Mezei, p23.

[11] Artist and Computer, Ruth Leavitt (1976) Interview with Leslie Mezei, p23.

[12] Conversation with Alan Sutcliffe, 17th January 2003.

[13] Page 22 April 1972

[14] “From Paint to Pixels”, Mark Millmore, find web ref.

[15] Conversation with Harold Cohen, Solana Beach, August 2001

[16] Comment during conversation with Alan Sutcliffe, 17th January 2003