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Conclusion to Historical Section

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In its earliest years, then, Computer Art was part of a wider technological-artistic culture; yet it managed to outlive its contemporaries that had flourished in the late-60s climate then withered away as interest waned. This is most important when considering current approaches to Computer Art: it began in an environment that was conducive to technological artforms, but survived through their decline and re-emerged in the 1980s.

Although Computer Art also suffered from a decline in the mid-1970s, it recovered when the technology of computer graphics made spectacular advances. Just as importantly, the computer itself became widely available. The resurgence of Computer Art in the early- to mid-1980s is partly a consequence of the Graphical User Interface, which opened up the machine to artists who preferred to adapt their skills rather than learn a programming language.

This may point to a deeper reason why the computer, as a polymorphous tool, remains current in art whilst many 1960s interests are now period-pieces. It is fundamentally open-ended; it can be utilised in a variety of ways, unlike the limited drawing-machine or the cumberous kinetic sculpture. This in itself may point to the development of computer-specific artforms which owe little to historical art movements. However, Computer Art sprang from a confluence of art and technology that owed much to the general culture of postwar America.

The most interesting aspect of Computer Art is that unlike almost all of the other technological artforms mentioned above, it has proved to be more than a passing fad. Perhaps it is because all these artforms have been unable to expand beyond their inherent physical boundaries or limitations of their processes. So drawing machines, holograms and myriad mechanical devices have had short vogues, then vanished again.

Computer Art – in the broadest sense of art produced with the computer – has already outlived the first flush of modernist-inspired art/technology collaborations and will undoubtedly survive the current climate of post-modern fragmentation and visual diaspora. That it has continued whilst previous forms of technological art, exemplified by those gathered together by Frank Malina in Kinetic Art, have faded into the shadows, is a testament to the computer’s increasing attraction for, and relevance to, the artist.

Whilst each piece of software and hardware is limited, if only by the artist’s ingenuity, taken as whole, the computer is fundamentally open-ended in such a way that any limitations are not so much inherent in the medium as in the artist’s approach and understanding. Its interactions with, and realisation through, physical materials are only just beginning to be explored; and its own digital space, existing somewhere between mental image and reality, is the focus of great expectation. Even as specific areas of Computer Art have fallen by the wayside, they have contributed both forms and practices to the overall collection of Computer Arts imagery. Indeed, even some very early paths of Computer Art practice remain open for further exploration, and those which are currently closed by fashionable prejudice may yet appear as possibilities in the future.

Computer Art’s inherent flexibility stems from the basic nature of computer programs: their existence as information processes that are executed and stored on the computer, which is a physical platform for these non-physical entities. Crucially, computers have developed standard hardware, unlike the many custom-built machines that preceded them (including Whitney’s early analogue rigs) yet they run many different programs. The hardware and software develop at different rates and spur each other to new innovations.

For all that some styles of art seem better suited to the mechanical forms, this is more about cultural conditioning and association of hard-edged geometric images with mechanical (not necessarily computational) power. As I have tried to show, this is an artistic legacy of the early 20th century rather than an inherent computer-based visual form.

Preserving early Computer Art

Computer Art designed on, or for, the ancient mainframes of the 1960s and 70s can only be seen in its intended environment on very rare occasions. Redistribution in printed form, on video or via the Web ensures the wider dissemination of the early examples of Computer Art. However, unless they are preserved in digital formats where the original presentation can be recreated (for example, a virtual environment in which the user moves around) then their true qualities can never again be experienced. Frames of animation printed as a sequence can give an inkling of the experience, and video footage conveys it directly provided that it is amenable to being captured in this linear format. But interactivity with or through the artwork can only be hinted at by any linear presentation.[1]

[1] See,1284,53712,00.html for thoughts on digital preservation