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Computer art at the V&A

Honor Beddard
Curator, Word and Image Department, V&A


The Victoria and Albert Museum has been collecting computer art since the 1960s. In recent times, it has acquired two significant collections of computer-generated art and design, which form the basis of the UK's national collection. This article considers the collection within the context of the V&A, as well as its wider cultural and ideological context.

Hommage à Paul Klee, Frieder Nake, 13/9/65 Nr.2, 1965. Museum no. E.951-2008

Figure 1 - Frieder Nake, 'Hommage à Paul Klee, 13/9/65 Nr.2', 1965. Screenprint after a plotter drawing. Museum no. E.951-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince.

The arrival of the computer into both the creative process and the creative industries is perhaps one of the most culturally significant developments of the last century. Yet until recently, few, if any, UK museums have collected material that comprehensively illustrates and charts this change. The donation of two substantial collections of computer-generated art and design to the Word and Image Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum offers the opportunity to redress this. The donations have considerably strengthened our holdings in this area and the museum is now home to the national collection of computer-generated art and design. These acquisitions will allow the museum to re-assess the impact of the computer's arrival and to attempt to position these works within an art historical context for the first time.

The importance of such an endeavour has been recognised by the awarding of  a substantial Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant to the V&A  and Birkbeck College, University of London. Since 2007, research has focused  on investigating the origins of computer-generated art from the 1950s, and its development through subsequent decades. As well as full documentation and cataloguing  of the collections, the V&A is organising a temporary display entitled 'Digital  Pioneers', opening in December 2009, which will draw almost entirely from the  newly acquired collections and recent acquisitions. This will coincide with  a larger V&A exhibition, 'Decode: Digital Design Sensations', which will  include important international loans of contemporary digital art and design,  alongside new commissions. (1) 'Digital Pioneers' will present a historical  counterpart to the contemporary exhibition, encouraging comparisons that, until  now, have been drawn far less frequently. A conference covering the subject  matter of both exhibitions will take place in early spring 2010 and will create  an academic forum in which these comparisons can be examined more fully. We  hope it will also allow for an opportunity to further the process of documenting  and recording the history of this field.

The intention of this article is to give a broad introduction to the area of  computer-generated art and design within the V&A, as well as considering  its wider art historical context, both in Britain and abroad. Intended as a  starting point for those who find themselves interested in the topic, a reading  list on this area is available on the V&A's webpages at www.vam.ac.uk/computerart.

The Word and Image Department and the new computer art collections

The Word and Image Department of the V&A encompasses prints, drawings,  paintings, photographs, designs and the National Art Library. It holds approximately  two million objects ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day. The V&A  has always relied on the generosity of donations to continue to expand and strengthen  its holdings. The new acquisitions from the Computer Arts Society, London, and  American art historian and collector, Patric Prince, provide an extraordinarily  broad range of computer-generated art and design that complements many other  areas of collecting within the department, such as graphic design. (2) The Department  was particularly well placed to accept this material, embracing in its collecting  policy those works or creative endeavours that fall between fine art and design,  such as early computer-generated work, including animation and graphics. The  Department also places significant emphasis on process and technique alongside  the finished product, actively collecting objects such as printing tools and  equipment, for example, as well as documentary material that demonstrates work  in progress.

At present, the V&A's computer art collections consist predominately of  works on paper, including early plotter drawings by important pioneers such  as Manfred Mohr, and examples of early animation stills and negatives. Holdings  range from screenprints, lithographs and photographs of early analogue computer-generated  images from the mid 1950s, to digital images from the 1960s onwards. Together,  the two founding collections contain around 350 art works. In addition, the  V&A has made significant acquisitions since the beginning of the research  project, which include works by key computer art pioneers such as Paul Brown,  Harold Cohen, James Faure Walker, Desmond Paul Henry, Roman Verostko and Mark  Wilson. (3)

The Patric Prince collection was accompanied by a substantial archive of material  charting the development of computer-generated art. Prince's husband, Robert  Holzman, worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in America and encouraged artists  to use the Lab's powerful equipment out of hours. As a result, she had access  to early practitioners as and when they were experimenting with this equipment  for the first time. Gaining a reputation as an important curator and collector of computer art, artists corresponded regularly with Prince and the archive  includes this correspondence, as well as exhibition cards and literature for  computer related exhibitions in the US, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, from  the 1980s onwards. Press cuttings from mainstream newspapers provide illuminating  evidence about prevailing attitudes to the use of computers in art during this  time. A substantial library of books now listed on the National Art Library's  catalogue offers a virtually unparalleled reading list for this field, and includes important early and rare texts. (4)

Defining computer art

Quadrate (Squares), Herbert W. Franke, 1969/70. Museum no. E.113-2008

Figure 5 - Herbert W. Franke, 'Quadrate (Squares)', 1969/70. Screenprint after a plotter drawing. Museum no. E.113-2008. Given by the Computer Arts Society, supported by System Simulation Ltd, London

The arrival of a complex field of art and design into a national museum has  intensified a need to further define and record the history of this area. Computer art's development across the fields of mathematics, engineering, computer science  and industry, as well as the fine and applied arts, means that its history is  a shared one, with the term 'computer art' meaning different things to different  people at different times. Within the context of the V&A's collection, computer  art can be understood as a historical term that relates to artists using the  computer as a tool or a medium from around the 1960s until the early 1980s. At this point, the appearance of off-the-shelf software and the widespread adoption  of personal computers meant that more people were able to use the computer as  a graphical tool without needing a background in programming. Simultaneously,  the nature of computer-generated art changed irretrievably. As the sector widened, more artists began to work with digital technologies in increasingly open and  interchangeable ways. The intense focus of early practitioners on basic hardware  and the very building blocks of the computer - something which stills drives  them today, even in the face of more sophisticated technology - is particular  to that first generation of computer artists.

Early beginnings

Figure 6 - Manfred Mohr, 'P-021', 1970, Edition 51/80, from the portfolio Scratch Code: 1970-1975, published by Editions Média, Manfred Mohr, 1976. Screenprint after a plotter drawing. Museum no.E.977:6-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince

Some of the earliest practitioners were scientists and mathematicians, since  mainframe computers could only be found in large industrial or university laboratories.  Equally, a scientific or mathematical training offered the expertise necessary  to program the cumbersome and complicated early computers that offered no visual  interface - something that would have been virtually impossible for the 'lay  person'. The involvement of scientists and mathematicians, some of whom went  on to adopt the role of 'artist', is one reason why many in the mainstream art  world had difficulty in accepting computer-generated art, both at the time and  for years to come. Until recently it was extremely rare to find any mention  of computer-generated art in accounts of modern and contemporary art history  from the 1960s onwards. Yet an analysis of this type of work reveals many similarities  with other better known movements of the same era, some of which are touched on below. (5)

Conversely, at the time of its production, computer art was widely written  about and documented - more so, in fact, than other movements from a similar  period, such as Conceptual Art. (6) Early computer art shared its origins with  scientific visualisation techniques and much of its development continued to  be charted through science or mathematics journals, with the imagery produced  being regarded as merely a by-product of the more serious scientific pursuits.  This situation, and computer art's inextricable relationship with the technology  on which it relied, has meant that until recently, most texts on computer art  have tended to be structured around a techno-centric narrative. Other technology-focused  art forms that emerged alongside computer art, such as kinetic art and video  art, have fared better and kept their place in the history books. The constantly  changing technology on which computer art relied, and the speed at which it  developed, meant that recording it was difficult and accounts were frequently  out of date. Computer art did find fame, however, in the more mainstream press  of its day. The mechanical drawings of Desmond Paul Henry, of which the V&A  hold three early examples, were created using an analogue bombsight computer  adapted by the artist into a drawing machine. They were reported in 'The Guardian',  the BBC's 'North at Six' series, and, had it not been for the assassination  of John F. Kennedy, 'Time Magazine'. 'The Guardian' article of 1962 described  Henry's images as, 'quite out of this world' and, 'almost impossible to produce  by human hands'. (7) The sensationalist tone sets it apart from more scholarly  art criticism and suggests the novelty of this new type of art, as well as a  sense of the utopianism surrounding the new technology that was still felt by  many at this time. (8)

Influences and interests

Letters from my Mother, Vera Molnar, Screenprint after a plotter drawing, 1988. Museum no. E.1079-2008

Figure 7 - Vera Molnar, 'Letters from my Mother', 1988. Screenprint after a plotter drawing, Artists Proof. Museum no. E.1079-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince

The influences on early computer artists are varied, but the increasing interest  in and application of cybernetic theories, which followed heavy military investment  in computing during World War II, encouraged a new way of thinking and working  that permeated the arts as well as other elements of culture and society. C.P.  Snow's influential Cambridge Rede lecture of 1959, 'The Two Cultures and the  Scientific Revolution', (9) in which he argued for the uniting of the humanities  and the natural sciences, did much to foster a supportive atmosphere for such  work. (10) The application of cybernetic theories in the field of aesthetics  was developed by a number of theorists working at this time, amongst them Max  Bense. Bense's influence has been acknowledged by several early pioneers in  the field of computer art and design, most particularly, within the context  of the V&A's collection, the Germany-based practitioners Frieder Nake and  Georg Nees. (11)

Max Bense and information aesthetics

Studies in Perception I, Screenprint after a computer-generated print , Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton, 1997. Museum no. E.963-2008

Figure 8 - Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton, 'Studies in Perception I', 1997. Screenprint after a computer-generated print. Museum no. E.963-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince

Between the years 1954 and 1965, Bense developed his theories of information  aesthetics, through which he attempted to establish a scientific model for creating,  or understanding, successful aesthetics. Bense argued for an objective, rational  approach that included 'breaking down' images into their mathematical values  and using theories examining the relationship between order and chaos in the  composition. Bense was a key figure of the Stuttgart school, an intellectual  movement that incorporated theories of information aesthetics into its thinking.  He was also professor of the philosophy of technology, scientific theory, and  mathematical logic at the Technical University of Stuttgart, from 1949 to 1976.  Computer art pioneer Frieder Nake was studying mathematics at the Technical  University during this time and has acknowledged the influence of Bense's lectures.  From 1961 to 1964, Nake worked as an assistant in the University's computer  centre. Whilst there, he wrote software that enabled him to use the centre's  ZUSE Z64 'Graphomat' - an early computer-driven drawing machine - as an output  device for the centre's computer (an SEL ER65).

Dating from 1965, Nake's 'Hommage à Paul Klee, 13/9/65 Nr.2', of which  the V&A holds a screenprint after the original plotter drawing, is an excellent  example of Nake's early exploration of Bense's theories (Fig 1) . The plotter  drawing is a literal analysis of an oil painting by Paul Klee, entitled 'Highroads  and Byroads', from 1929 (Fig.2 ). Klee's painting consists predominantly of  a series of horizontal and vertical lines which Nake used as the basis for writing  a computer program, or algorithm. Creating set parameters for the drawing, such  as the square frame, Nake deliberately wrote random variables into the program  to explore different visual effects, based on Klee's 'repertoire' of imagery.  Nake allowed the computer to make choices from a limited bank of options based  on the outcome of the previous decision, thus introducing an element of chance,  albeit a controlled one. The program itself was written in machine code and  input directly into the computer, which would have had no interface or operating  system at this time. The process of creating the drawing involved a series of  formulae developed away from the computer. Nake has written that, 'I was thinking  the drawing. But thinking the drawing never meant to think one particular drawing.  It meant a class of drawings, an infinite set, described by many parameters  that would usually be selected at runtime by series of random numbers'. (12)  There was no screen or monitor available on which to preview the drawing, and  the final result would only have been apparent when the machine had finished.  The final image we see here was just one of many possible variations from a  wider series, the most successful of which was determined by the artist.

This literal analysis of aesthetic objects was very much a part of Bense's  theories, and can also be found in the work of other early practitioners of  computer art. A. Michael Noll used the computer to simulate Piet Mondrian's  'Composition in Line', 1916-1917 Like Klee's 'Highroads and Byroads', Mondrian's  painting is an exploration of the relationship between vertical and horizontal  lines. Noll analysed the painting and deduced three main determining factors  regarding the outline of the design and the length and width of the painted  lines, or bars, particularly with relation to their position within the overall  composition. Each line provided Noll with two points (the beginning and end  of the line) that could be plotted on x and y axes as numerical values. Like  Nake, Noll introduced random variables into the computer program he wrote to  emulate the painting, so that the placement of each line and its size and orientation  were randomly determined within a set number of options. Noll produced his version  in 1964, using a microfilm plotter that controlled a 35mm camera. He called  it 'Computer Composition with Lines', and a photographic reproduction now sits  in the V&A's collection (fig.3) . Noll displayed his version alongside images  of the original in order to conduct a series of experiments using questionnaires,  the results of which he hoped would, 'determine what aesthetic factors are involved  in abstract art'. (13)

Noll's attempt to underpin the creative process with a logical procedure is  typical of the work of early computer art practitioners. His search for objective  rationality was the very antithesis of much of the subjective, gestural, expressionist  art that had preceded it, and which art movements, such as 'Neue Sachlichkeit'  that had arisen in Germany in the 1920s, had also done much to oppose. Reading  Noll's description of his experiment in an article written in 1966, it is not  difficult to see why many in the mainstream art world resented this new art.  Noll wrote that, 'the experiment compared the results of an intellectual, non-emotional  endeavour involving a computer with the pattern produced by a painter whose  work has been characterised as expressing the emotions and mysticism of its  author. The results of this experiment would seem to raise doubts about the  importance of the artist's milieu and emotional behaviour in communicating through  the art object'. (14)

Noll's choice of Mondrian painting was, unsurprisingly, one that lent itself  well to his particular argument, rather than perhaps being truly representative  of Mondrian's larger body of work. The use of a decorative scheme by a fine  artist at this time can be seen as part of a wider move away from subjective,  emotional content, but its adoption by Noll reminds us that any useful consideration  of computer art should also include the wider context of the applied arts and  crafts, rather than the fine arts alone. Computer art's emphasis on form and  pattern as opposed to content, the notion of art as applied to a practical end  (or at least the possibility of), the application of a mechanical skill, and  the importance of materials and tools make an interesting case for considering  the computer artist as artisan. Rather than continuous recourse to inspiration,  once a computer artist had decided upon their decorative scheme and written  their algorithm, the objects could be 'run out' mechanically with little involvement  of the artist, short of adjusting malfunctioning equipment. The workshop type  origination and collaborative nature of much computer-generated art also suggests  similarities with craft based arts. Whilst it would be simplistic to imply that  the expression of an idea was not important for computer artists, although it  was rarely, if ever, of a subjective nature, certainly the sheer creation and  crafting of an object - something which was not a natural outcome for the computer  - seems to have been at the forefront of many practitioners intentions, at least  in the early years.

Noll's experiments were arguably as much about showcasing the capabilities  of this new technology, but there is a clear affinity with the earlier work  of the Bauhaus, as reflected in the careful crafting of design, and the belief  in a refined beauty as a natural outcome of precise engineering. Max Bense had taught at the 'Hochschule für Gestaltung' (School of Design) in Ulm, Germany,  alongside Max Bill, and it was there that he had developed some of his early  theories. Equally, Gyorgy Kepes moved from the New Bauhaus in Chicago to Massachusetts  Institute of Technology, an institution that, alongside others such as Harvard,  had begun adopting Snow's theories regarding the humanities-sciences divide  into its education policies. Josef Albers, whose rigorous colour studies and  interest in perception proved to be highly influential on early computer art  and systems art, moved in 1933 from the Bauhaus to teach at Black Mountain College,  where he joined Merce Cunningham and John Cage, both of whom also exerted a  strong influence on the emerging scene.

Computer art's modernist tendencies

Photographic stills from the computer animation Pixillation, Lillian Schwartz and Ken Knowlton, 1970. Museum no. E.184-2008

Figure 9 - Lillian Schwartz and Ken Knowlton, Photographic stills from the computer animation 'Pixillation', 1970. Museum no. E.184-2008. Given by the Computer Arts Society, supported by System Simulation Ltd, London.

In appearance, early computer art tended to be linear, geometric and abstract,  and although, in part, this was a direct result of the limited output devices  of the period, it is also possible to see it as part of the Modernist culture  out of which it arose. Shared concerns with formalism, lack of ornamentation,  rationality and aesthetic autonomy demonstrate that computer art was very much  an art of its time. It is perhaps ambitious to draw parallels with Modernism's  belief in the power of the machine and the potential of mass production, but  computer art certainly presented a similar interdisciplinary approach that took  little notice of traditional boundaries and hierarchies. Instead, it seemed  to offer a more democratic approach to art making (at least in later years),  that appealed to many budding computer artists. Herbert W. Franke's 'Quadrate  (Squares)', dating from 1969/70, is a good example of computer art's reductionist  approach to visual content (fig.4) . Early works frequently consisted of lines  or geometric shapes that were positioned, repeated, rotated and rescaled by  the computer, in a manner that echoed the Constructivist principles of several  decades earlier.

Early practitioners of computer art tended to avoid content in order to focus  on the effects of their visual experiments. The collaborative relationship between  the artist and the computer, or the artist and computer programmer, and the  shared environment of the laboratory as opposed to the solitary artist's studio,  rejected Romantic notions of the 'artist-genius'. Equally, in its generative  nature, the new computer art threatened the idea of the unique, singular masterpiece,  a move in line with Conceptual art's de-emphasis on the importance of the art  object and increased emphasis on process.

Artists as programmers

Human Figure, Lithograph, William Fetter, 1968. Museum no. Circ.773-1969

Figure 10 - William Fetter, 'Human Figure', 1968. Lithograph. Museum no. Circ.773-1969. From the Cybernetic Serendipity collectors' set, published by Motif Editions, 1968

Many of the practitioners who began working with the computer in the late 1960s  and 70s were, by this time, artists with traditional fine art training. What  unites many of them is that they were already working in a systematic manner  that anticipated the arrival of the new technology. Rules-based creative processes  or practice and the setting of constraints or parameters were not new concepts  in the arts, even if some of the previous examples had focused more on a personal  logic than on the scientific approach of computer artists. By the 1960s and  1970s, many artists were applying a computational methodology to their work  whether or not they worked with computers directly, for example Bridget Riley  and other exponents of Op-Art.

Manfred Mohr, a German artist who began his artistic career as an action painter  and jazz musician, moved to Paris in 1963 and a year later began restricting  his palette to black and white. Influenced by the hard-edged painting that he  found in geometric abstraction and Op-Art, and which presented an alternative  to abstract expressionism, Mohr began experimenting with geometric imagery.  He was drawn to the computer because of its ability to process large quantities  of information very quickly, but also because of the notion of a repertoire  that was at the core of its construction. In a method not unlike that of jazz  improvisation, Mohr took the signs and symbols from his earlier paintings and  used them as the basis of a graphical vocabulary for his computer-generated  drawings. Using programs that he wrote himself, Mohr produced works that explored  the relationships of these signs and symbols, mostly linear constructions, to  one another, in a style that demonstrated a strong link to Constructivist exploration  of spatial relations. The title for Mohr's screenprint, 'P-021', taken from  a portfolio of screenprints, 'Scratch Code: 1970-1975', refers to the program  used to create this work, which was capable of generating a large number of  related, yet unique, drawings (fig.5) .

Vera Molnar was living in Paris around the same time as Mohr and was also working  in a systematic fashion, using repeating geometric forms and employing small  step-by-step changes to explore their visual effects. In 1968, she began working  with the computer, also realising its potential for faster information processing  and a more objective approach. 'Letters from my Mother', a series of works from  which the V&A holds a 1988 screenprint after two plotter drawings, attempts  to simulate her mother's handwriting and to chart its degeneration as her mother  aged and her health declined (fig.6) . The computer program used by Molnar created  a method for accurately simulating the glyphs whilst not formally depicting  actual letters or words. The imagery echoes Bense's theories on the relationship  of order to chaos, but with distinctly human overtones. The work is also a compositional  study in which Molnar sets the increasingly chaotic nature of the 'writing'  against classic compositional strategies such as symmetry and counter composition.  This piece illustrates well the relationship between artistic intuition and  a more objective control, which Molnar felt made an equal contribution to the  process of creating art using the computer.

Computer art in America

Random War, Lithograph, Charles Csuri, 1967. Museum no. Circ.773-1969

Figure 11 - Charles Csuri, 'Random War', 1967. Lithograph. Museum no. Circ.773-1969. From the Cybernetic Serendipity collectors' set, published by Motif Editions, 1968

A. Michael Noll had exhibited his computer art in New York in 1965, the same  year as Nake and Nees were, independently of one other, also exhibiting their  own work in Germany. It is believed that Noll was not aware of the European  developments. In fact, communication between computer artists in North America  and Europe was not strong in the early years and the two scenes appear to have  developed relatively independently of one another. America was particularly  strong in the field of computing technology, following heavy military investment  during WWII. Bell Labs (originally Bell Telephone Laboratories) was founded  in 1925 and was home to many of the key American computer art pioneers. These  included A. Michael Noll, whose first computer art experiments were carried  out under its roof, as well as others such as Ken Knowlton, Leon  Harmon and Edward Zajac, all of whom were particularly instrumental in developing  early programming languages and computer animation. The Patric Prince and Computer  Arts Society collections both hold excellent examples of many of these early  developments.

Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton were responsible for developing automatic methods  for producing digital images. Whilst at the labs, they created a twelve foot  long digital print of a female nude by scanning a photograph and converting  the grey scale values into computer symbols. (15) The image, entitled 'Studies  in Perception I' (1967), was so large that its subject matter was only apparent  at a distance. What began life as a work prank to be hung in the office of a  senior colleague found fame when it featured in the background of a press conference  held in the loft of Robert Rauschenberg. As a direct result, the piece was reproduced  in 'The New York Times'. The legacy of the work led to the creation of a much  smaller, limited edition print produced in 1997 and collected by Patric Prince  (fig.7) . A rare example of the commercial potential of early computer art,  its late reproduction is also indicative of the renewed interest in this field  in more recent times.

Knowlton was also responsible for developing some of the earliest computer  animation languages, such as BEFLIX (from Bell Flicks) created in 1963. He collaborated  with artists such as Stan Vanderbeek and Lillian Schwartz, for whom he adapted  his programming languages. The Computer Arts Society collection holds a number  of examples of Knowlton's collaborations with Schwartz, including stills which  were taken from their computer animation, 'Pixillation', produced in 1970 (fig.8)  .

Bell Labs was also home to Billy Klüver who collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg  to form EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) following a series of performances  that took place in New York in 1966. The events were entitled 9 Evenings: Theatre  and Engineering, and engineers from Bell Labs collaborated with 10 artists to  help them realise the technical aspects of their performances. Klüver encouraged  artists and musicians to use the facilities at Bell Labs out of hours. EAT did  much to increase interest in the relationship between art and technology in  the mainstream art world. In 1966 Maurice Tuchman introduced the Art and Technology  program into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which saw him emulate the  collaborative approach of EAT by placing artists in US corporations to realise  artistic projects. For example, Richard Serra worked with Kaiser Steel, R. B.  Kitaj joined the American aerospace company, Lockheed, and Claes Oldenburg went  to Disney. Exhibitions such as 'The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical  Age', at MOMA, New York, followed shortly afterwards, in 1968.

'Cybernetic Serendipity' and the role of the British art education system

Untitled, Computer print-out with coloured pen and ink, Harold Cohen, 1969. Museum no. E.319-2009

Figure 12 - Harold Cohen, Untitled, 1969. Computer print-out with coloured pen and ink. Museum no. E.319-2009. Given by Harold Cohen.

In Britain, 1968 had already seen the opening of 'Cybernetic Serendipity'  at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and, just months later, the founding  of the Computer Arts Society. 'Cybernetic Serendipity' was a showcase for the  use of technology in the arts - the first of its kind in Britain - and incorporated  both computer-aided and computer-inspired art. The exhibition covered many different  art forms, including music, film, kinetic art, robotics, dance, poetry and sculpture.  It featured the work of both artists and scientists, as well as displays by  corporations such as IBM. There were 325 contributors in total. Interest in  the show was high, with visitor numbers between 45,000 and 60,000. (16) The  exhibition also had a profound impact on many artists who went on to use computers  or technology in their work.

The success of 'Cybernetic Serendipity' implies that there was still some sense  of the previously felt utopianism and optimism surrounding computers and technology.  This, it seems, was to be short lived and the emerging dystopian vision of computing  technology that followed soon after contributed much to computer art's retreat  and relative obscurity in the following decades. Gustav Metzger, who went on  to edit the Computer Arts Society's journal 'PAGE', criticised the exhibition,  writing that there was, 'no hint that computers dominate modern war; that they  are becoming the most totalitarian tools ever used on society'. (17) A collector's  set of prints published by Motif Editions as part of the exhibition, and acquired  by the V&A in 1969, seems to offer examples of both viewpoints. William  Fetter's 'Human Figure' (1968), depicts a line drawing of a male figure repeated  twelve times, in which, step by step, he extends his left arm out to the side  and back across himself (fig.9) . The computer drawing was an ergonomic study  conducted for Boeing, where Fetter worked as Art Director, to test the movement  of an aeroplane pilot in a cockpit. The original version of this image was produced  in the early 1960s and is said to be the first drawing of a human made using  a computer. It contributed directly towards designs for the Boeing 747. Although  the figure is known as the 'Boeing Man', Fetter apparently referred to him as  the 'First Man', an indication perhaps of the scientific potential of the new  computer graphics. (18)

In contrast to this, Charles Csuri's 'Random War' examines the use of systems  as an organisational metaphor for society (fig.10) . Csuri used a random number  generator to distribute and position images of toy soldiers. The print is derived  from a much larger work in which the computer program designated each soldier  a status of killed, wounded, missing, awarded a medal or survived. Each soldier  was named, and they included, amongst others, Charles Csuri himself, but also  Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. Csuri had witnessed the effects of war first  hand, serving with the US army in Europe during World War II. The work is undoubtedly  a comment on the Vietnam War and was made in 1967-68, when anti-Vietnam War  sentiment was at its height.

'Cybernetic Serendipity' revealed the extent of the impact that cybernetic  thinking had had across a broad range of disciplines, and the exhibition did  much to cement these ideas into the British Arts scene. Art historian, Catherine  Mason has argued that it encouraged the adoption of creative computing into  the art curriculum, particularly in Britain's polytechnics, where computing  equipment was more common because of their emphasis on vocational training. (19) For example, in 1971, Lanchester Polytechnic (now part of Coventry University),  was one of the earliest institutions formally to introduce computer drawing  into its graphic design course. Middlesex University was another key institution,  becoming in 1984 the UK's National Centre for Computer Aided Art and Design.  In the early 1970s, the Slade School of Art, University of London, founded what  came to be known as the Experimental and Computing Department, which actively  encouraged the use of computers in art.

The Slade's adoption of technology at a time when this was rare amongst other,  more traditional, art schools can be explained via the influence of a number  of key students and staff, not least several members of the Independent Group,  such as Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. They had been quick to adopt  ideas around cybernetics and demonstrated an early fascination with technology  as subject matter. William Coldstream was Slade Professor from 1950 to 1975,  and his active support of the establishment of the Experimental and Computing  Department has been attibuted, in part, to his having worked at the General  Post Office Film Unit in the mid-1930s, which was an important European centre  for the production of experimental film. Teaching staff also included Harold  Cohen, who was a successful painter before he turned to the computer in the  late 1960s. Although Cohen began teaching in 1962, several years before he started  working with the computer, his early artworks demonstrate an interest in systems  and information, as applied through logical processes. In a computer print-out  with hand drawn coloured pen and ink, dating from 1969, now in the V&A's  collection, Cohen used a coloured pen to identify and group computer printed  numbers to form a type of contour map (fig.11) . It antipates Cohen's later  work in developing a computer programme, AARON, that aims to draw independently  and which is yet another example of early computer artists' attempts to rationalise,  and here codify, the creative process. The instigator of the new Slade department  was Malcolm Hughes, who had been a co-founder of the Systems Group in 1969 and  whose work reflected Constructivist concerns with structural relationships,  rhythm and order. Alumni of the department include, amongst others, Paul Brown,  a British artist whose work is held in the V&A's collection, and who, like  many of his peers, demonstrated an early interest in cellular automata and artificial  life.

In the UK, increased access to computers and their integration into art education  did much to advance the field of computer art. Towards the end of the 1970s,  however, government investment in educational institutions was reduced. This  co-incided with a recognition in the worlds of advertising and television that  the polytechnics held the skills needed to take on the demand for commercial  work in this area. (20) It was the beginning of computer graphics as a commercial  enterprise that was to expand rapidly in the 1980s and which signalled the end  of an era for computer art. The impact that the work of the last two decades  would have on generations of artists and designers to come could not have been  truly predicted at the time. The collection of computer art at the V&A and  the allocation of AHRC funding allows for a long overdue reappraisal of this  field of art and design and an opportunity finally to place it on the art historical  map.


Arts & Humanities Research Council logo

This article has been produced as part of the AHRC funded research project,  'Computer Art and Technocultures', at the V&A and Birkbeck College, University  of London. I am particularly grateful to Douglas Dodds, Senior Curator, Word  and Image Department, V&A, and Nick Lambert, Researcher in Digital Media  Arts, Birkbeck College, University of London, for their assistance.


(1) 'Decode: Digital Design Sensations' is co-curated with digital arts organisation  onedotzero. More information on the exhibition can be found here https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/future_exhibs/Decode/index.html

(2) The Computer Arts Society was founded in 1969 to promote the creative use  of computers in the arts. More information can be found here http://www.computer-arts-society.org  (site accessed 19 October 2009).

(3) Patric Prince is an American art historian and collector of computer art. She taught at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, California State University,  Los Angeles, and West Coast University, Los Angeles. In addition, she curated  many significant exhibitions of new media art since the early 1980s, including  several for SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group for Computer Graphics), and was co-director and founder of CyberSpace Gallery in West Hollywood.

(4) Further information on these artists can be found in the following publications and online resources:

  • Harold Cohen: Exhibition catalogue, Michael Compton, ed. (London, 1983)
  • James Faure Walker: James Faure Walker, Painting the Digital River: How an Artist  Learned to Love the Computer (New Jersey and London, 2006)
  • Desmond Paul Henry: http://www.desmondhenry.com
  • Roman Verostko: http://verostko.com
  • Mark Wilson: http://mgwilson.com

(5) See http://catalogue.nal.vam.ac.uk (site accessed 20 October 2009). The entire collection of bibliographic material can be found by searching under 'Patric Prince Archive'.

(6) It is interesting to note that a selection of computer-generated art featured  in the Venice Biennale in 1970. These included works by Herbert W. Franke, Frieder  Nake, Georg Nees and the Computer Technique Group (CTG), all of whom are represented in the V&A's collections. Although this offers some indication of the extent  to which computer art had begun to enter the more mainstream art world, art  historian Francesca Franco has argued that the exhibition can be considered  to be something of an 'anomaly' and its presence partly explained by an increased  pressure on the Biennale 'for the "democratisation of art"' that led  to a more experimental approach to its curation. Franco, Francesca. 'The First Computer Art Show at the 1970 Venice Biennale. An Experiment or Product of the  Bourgeois Culture?' Unpublished conference paper presented at Re:live, Third International  Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology, Melbourne 26-29 November 2009. (Forthcoming publication in Leonardo).

(7) Taylor, Grant. 'The Machine that Made Science Art: The troubled history  of computer art 1963-1989'. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Australia, 2004: 4. Available online http://theses.library.uwa.edu.au/adt-WU2005.0114  (site accessed 20 October 2009).

(8) 'Computer Does Drawings: Thousands of lines in each'. The Guardian, 17 September, 1962. Article reproduced in O'Hanrahan, Elaine. Drawing Machines: The machine-produced drawings of Dr D. P. Henry in relation to Conceptual and Technological developments in machine-generated art, UK, 1960-1968: appendix  13 - copies of newspaper reviews relating to Henry's artwork. Unpublished, 2005: 217.

(9) Although the social consequences of technology would have been highlighted through the use of computers in the Cold War and again in the Vietnam War, theorist Charlie Gere has suggested that artists and musicians from this period, such as John Cage, 'offered a framework in which the technologies of Cold War paranoia could be translated into tools for realizing utopian ideals of interconnectivity and self-realization. (Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture. 2nd. ed., London, 2008: 116). Gere suggests that from the late 1960s until the mid 1970s, the use  of computers by artists was part of a larger realisation that technology offered a push towards a 'post-industrial society' that would bring with it "new  forms of social organization'. (Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture. 2nd. ed., London, 2008: 116). This meant less focus on the service  sectors and greater emphasis on information and knowledge exchange - something  which was felt to be a positive, natural development. (Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture. 2nd. ed., London, 2008: 116). Technology  was recognised as a positive force in the work of theorist Marshall McLuhan  and the architect Buckminster Fuller both working at this time. Gere goes on  to note that similar views were also to be found within the avant garde. (Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture. 2nd. ed., London, 2008: 118).

(10) Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, The Rede Lecture 1959. London and New York, 1959.

(11) Guy Ortolano examines what he describes as 'the runaway success of the  two cultures', as well as the resulting conflict that arose between Snow and  F.R. Leavis, in his article Leavis, F. R.. 'Science, and the Abiding Crisis of  Modern Civilisation'. History of Science vol.43, 2005: 161-185. He notes that the success of the lecture was in part explained by 'enabl[ing]  commentators to pursue an extraordinary range of concerns' from 'the importance  of education to Britain's future, and the industrialization of the developing  world' through to such substantial issues as the space race. (Leavis, F. R.. 'Science, and the Abiding Crisis of  Modern Civilisation'. History of Science vol.43, 2005: 164-5.

(12) The relationship between aesthetic theory and artistic practice with relation to the Stuttgart School and Max Bense has been covered extensively by Christoph Klütsch in his PhD thesis, Computergrafik - Aesthetische Experimente zwischen  zwei Kulturen (Computer Graphics - Aesthetic Experiments between Two Cultures). University of Bremen, 2006.

(13) Nake, Frieder. 'Without a Screen: A remark on technical conditions of digital art in 1965'. A statement sent in an email to the author, 06 July 2009.

(14) Noll, A. Michael. 'Human or Machine: A subjective comparison of Piet Mondrian's "Composition with Lines"(1917) and a computer-generated picture'. The Psychological  Record 16 (1966): 1-10. Available online: http://noll.uscannenberg.org/Art%20Papers/Mondrian.pdf (site accessed 20 October 2009).

(15) Noll, A. Michael. 'Human or Machine: A subjective comparison of Piet Mondrian's "Composition with Lines"(1917) and a computer-generated picture'. The Psychological  Record 16 (1966): 9-10. Available online: http://noll.uscannenberg.org/Art%20Papers/Mondrian.pdf (site accessed 20 October 2009).

(16) The subject of the photograph was Deborah Hay, an important experimental choreographer of the time whose influences include both John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

(17) Mason, Catherine. A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts, 1950-1980. Norfolk, 2008: 101. Mason draws comparison with the exhibition of Matisse paintings that opened at the Hayward Gallery in July of the same year which attracted 114, 214 visitors.

(18) Metzger, Gustav. 'Automata in History'. Studio International. New York, 1969: 107-9.

(19) Carlson, Wayne. A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation, Section 2: The emergence of computer graphics technology. http://design.osu.edu/carlson/history/lessons.html (site accessed 20 October  2009).

(20) Mason, Catherine. A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts, 1950-1980. Norfolk, 2008.

(21) Mason, Catherine. A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts, 1950-1980. Norfolk, 2008. 169.

This journal article was updated in October 2016.