Digital art

'Digital art' describes the use of technology in creative thinking and art making. Ranging across a wide variety of mediums, digital art spans from computer, generative, robotic, kinetic, and net art, through to post-internet, virtual reality, and augmented reality art.

Conceptually, the origins of digital art can be traced back to ideologies present in the avant-garde art movements of the first half of the 20th century. Movements such as Modernism, Futurism, Abstraction and Op art responded to the rapid evolution of transport and communications systems, and to new scientific discoveries made as a consequence of war. World conflict too led to the unprecedented movement of people and exchange of ideas and set in motion conditions for what was to become an increasingly globalised society. While artists were keenly interested in innovations such as radars, microwaves and computers, the rich potential of modern technologies as tools in art only began to be explored as access increased in the 1950s and beyond.

Typically identified as a close collaboration between computer and artist, digital art, in fact, grew out of partnerships between scientific labs and artists eager to gain access to new technological mediums. These collective efforts contributed to shaping today's technologies and their aesthetic qualities.

Creative partnerships with technology (1950s to 1970s)

1950s: Exploring art as a technological tool

The first works recognised as digital art have their origins in experimental approaches to photographic mediums inspired by American artist Man Ray's rayographs – a type of cameraless photography first employed in 1921 (also known as a photogram). Following in this line, artists working in the 1950s used photography as a medium to expose processes that were otherwise imperceptible to the human eye. For example, the earliest 'digital' artwork in the V&A collection, Oscillon 40 (1952), was created by American mathematician Ben Laposky, using an oscilloscope to manipulate electronic signals and photograph them in the shape of waves. Oscilloscopes, commonly used in medicine, engineering and telecommunications, were not intended as an artistic medium and Laposky's unexpected use anticipates later fusions of art and computing.

Oscillon 40, C-type photographic print, by Ben Laposky, 1952, United States. Museum no. E.958-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum

1960s: Collaborating with scientific labs

In the 1960s, computers were inaccessible to most, confined to university and corporate laboratories. As a result, artists keen to work with such new technologies needed to seek out collaborative relationships with mathematicians and programmers to begin producing new genres of work. Computers of this era occupied whole rooms and required users to understand programming languages to operate them. Pioneering artists Vera Molnár and Manfred Mohr established their creative practices while working in computer labs in France. Now standing as early examples of computational art, this type of work is today identified as either algorithmic or generative art.

In a period when screens were yet to be incorporated into a computer set up, both Molnár and Mohr were reliant on using plotters to generate their computational works. These early types of printer, characterised by an armature that moved across a surface as it was fed with data, contributed heavily to the aesthetic characteristics of early computational art, often resulting in complex geometric linework.

'Interruptions', plotter drawing, by Vera Molnar, 1969, Paris, France. Museum no. E.269-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hungarian artist Vera Molnár started her career at the Budapest College of Fine Arts. After moving to Paris in 1947, she met Op artists including Jesus Rafael Soto and Victor Vasarely. These initial encounters with Op art had a deep influence on the composition and geometric aesthetic of Molnár's work. In 1960, she co-founded the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel to investigate collaborative approaches to mechanical and kinetic art alongside artists such as Julio Le Parc. In work pre-dating the computer, she used analogue algorithms or 'machine imaginaire' to create colourful abstract geometric images by following a set of pre-determined compositional rules. In 1968, she gained access to a university research lab at the Sorbonne where she taught herself the FORTRAN programming language, a type of coding particularly used in scientific and engineering contexts. Armed with this knowledge, Molnár went on to create pieces including Interruptions (1969) and Structures of Squares (1974) which were later acquired by the V&A, making her the first female computational artist in the collection.

'Structure of Squares', plotter drawing, by Vera Molnar, 1974, Paris, France. Museum no. E.270-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1970s: Programming the interface

German painter Manfred Mohr's career shifted from abstract expressionism to computer generated algorithmic geometry after he discovered German philosopher Max Bense's theories of Information Aesthetics, which sought to establish mathematically rigorous aesthetic principles. In 1969, a year after Molnár gained access to the Sorbonne, Mohr programmed his first generative drawings using a vast CDC 6400 computer at the Meteorological Institute in Paris. At the Paris lab, he learned to use keypunch Hollerith cards and to programme using the computer language FORTRAN. He deployed these skills to create a body of work which includes P-62 (1970) held in the V&A collection. Throughout the 1970s, computer artists were influenced by the legacies of conceptual art, in particular Fluxus, a movement that sought to break down barriers between art and life, and the genre of performance art loosely known as Happenings. Artists working in this mode at the time include Analivia Cordeiro, who, at only 19 years old, presented M3X3 at the Computer Arts Society's Interact exhibition at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival .

'P-62 (floating points)', black and white offset lithograph, by Manfred Mohr, 1970, Paris, France. Museum no. E.186-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For M3X3, Analivia Cordeiro created an analogue algorithm sequence that generated precise instructions to coordinate the performance of nine dancers to directly respond to the gaze of a television camera. Resulting from a combination of Cordeiro's professional dance education and an interest in mathematics which she had inherited from her father, the Italian-born Brazilian art critic and artist Waldemar Codeiro, M3X3 explores ideas of predetermined movement dictated by algorithmic precision, reflecting how machines have gained influence over the human body, for example in industrial production lines.

Notation p.1 for M3x3 computer dance film
Notation p.1 for M3x3 computer dance film, by Analivia Cordeiro, 1973, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Museum no. E.695:3-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Similar to Manfred Mohr, Harold Cohen approached computational art from the perspective of painting. A graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art in London interested in abstraction, his practice shifted in 1968 following his relocation to California and the start of a collaboration with the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University. Here Cohen began work on AARON, a computer-programmed drawing machine through which he explored notions of independent artificial creative decision making. To develop his machine, Cohen combined research on children's drawing processes with a study of Native American iconography, in addition to different approaches to abstract painting. The result was an algorithm that allowed a computer to draw lines with the irregular organic trace of freehand writing. Cohen first exhibited AARON at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1972.

Computer-generated drawing (with hand colouring), by Harold Cohen, 1974, United States. Museum no. E.326-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At around the same time, American artist David Em began experimenting with the electronic manipulation of television images, which led him to join the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. On arriving in 1975, he collaborated with Dick Shoup, a computer scientist whose work in the field of video processing contributed to Em's interest in computer graphics.

Two years later, Em joined NASA's Pasadena Jet Propulsion Graphic Lab as their first artist in residence. The new programme was dedicated to exploring the emerging field of 3D computer graphics and applying this knowledge to applicable areas of NASA spaceflight operations. In this year, Em created the first tri-dimensional character when he developed an animated digital model of an insect. During this residency, he supported the creation of simulated worlds for the spatial exploration of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. He also created the first navigable virtual world in 1978 and went on to develop virtual worlds that simulated natural conditions of gravity, wind and rain. Even though Em's work had scientific foundations, these examples contain references to artistic movements such as surrealism, abstract painting and experimental film.

'Approach', computer-generated colour photograph, by David Em, 1975, Sierra Madre, United States. Museum no. E.952-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Key to artistic practices in the early days of digital art was an ability for artists to form relationships with scientific institutions open to sharing access to their computational technologies. In each case, the combination of technology and artistic vision contributed to the development of important artistic practices. At the same time, the role of the artist was increasingly recognised as an important driver of innovation, and with this, residency opportunities became more formalised.

1980s: Access and the rise of personal computing

By the mid-1980s, considerable decreases in the size and cost of computers, matched with advances in programming software, led to their increasing availability for use both in the office and at home. In 1991, the introduction of the World Wide Web further added to the growing accessibility of personal computing, allowing users to be interconnected and exchange information within a global network. Hacker and gaming cultures flourished during this period as communities rapidly formed to share resources and discuss more publicly collective concerns on technological infrastructures and tools. The fact that technology became more accessible from that period onwards marked a new era for digital art with practitioners relying less on previous institutional relations.

Photographic still from the video game 'Cube Quest', by Paul Allen Newell, about 1984, United States. Museum no. E.986-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Header image:

'Return to Square', lithograph after a computer-generated drawing, by the Computer Technique Group, 1967/68, Japan. Museum no. CIRC.771-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London