info I contact
advertising
editorial schedule
acknowledgements
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter
donate

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive

contents

  

british computer art 1960-1980

stephen jones: review, white heat cold logic


REVOLUTIONS HAPPENED IN 1968, STUDENTS IN PARIS AND ELSEWHERE AND IN COMPUTING EVERYWHERE. BUT THE COMPUTING REVOLUTION WAS BOTH PRO AND ANTI. FOR MANY IT MEANT AUTOMATION AND THE LOSS OF EMPLOYMENT, FOR SOME PROFESSIONALS IT CREATED NEW WAYS OF WORKING AND FOR ARTISTS IT INTRODUCED A FORM THAT HAD NO KNOWN ANTECEDENTS, “EXPAND[ING] OUR SENSE OF WHAT WE MIGHT BE ABLE TO DO WITH SUCH TECHNOLOGIES”, WRITES CHARLIE GERE IN WHITE HEAT COLD LOGIC, BRITISH COMPUTER ART 1960-1980.

Of course now computers have become ubiquitous to the point of invisibility but they began in an age when electronics were big and took up whole rooms—requiring their own air-conditioning and acolytes to see to their every need. Between 1960 and 1968 they began to be more compact and by 1968 the desk-sized (not yet desk-top) computer was available. For some this meant that computers became available and for a very adventurous few they appeared in several British art schools.

Although the artworld didn’t really notice, it was leapfrogged by the digital world late in ‘68. Two things happened. One was a conference at which computer graphics packages were proposed and a society was formed. The other was the single most important exhibition in the field of computers and the arts. The society was the Computer Arts Society and the exhibition was Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in London, both of which were of extraordinary importance and continue to be relevant throughout the period and the book.

With the evolution of kinetic art into interactivity and conceptualism computers became accessible at the right moment. This book covers many aspects of that story, bringing us accounts from the pioneers of computer art in Britain of their personal encounters with computers through happenstance or in the process of work or study, and sometimes of art.

The chapters in White Heat Cold Logic, although they show a wide range of detail, introduce the developments of individual artists, the role of cybernetic notions and interactivity in computing, Jasia Reichardt’s especially significant exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity and the importance of the computer arts society.

British artists’ engagement with the computer was tightly linked to the development of cybernetics in Britain, after its initialisation in the US by Norbert Wiener in 1948, with Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask being the leading figures. Of these Pask was the one who made the main representation of notions of cybernetics in artistic forms. Several chapters discuss aspects of his work as it impacted on the work of visual artists, architects and teachers.

After a cursory introduction the real story begins with the artist and teacher Roy Ascott, who realised that as a system of relationships between an artist, an artwork and the audience, the work of art could develop to the point where it might actively engage members of the viewing public, thus introducing the notions of an art that behaves (ie interactive art). Pask had helped Ascott navigate the biological and mathematical literature of cybernetics, revealing its simplicity. Ascott then introduced these notions in understanding the experience of art and in its teaching and later, using telecommunications networks, extended them to the telematic or art that is an active partner in communications.

Pask’s work in art is detailed by Maria Fernandez in her chapter, in which she considers his “understanding of the work of art as a system that evolved independently or in interaction with a participant.” This appears particularly in his The Colloquy of Mobiles installation that featured in Cybernetic Serendipity, and the realisation that the self-organisation of the artwork required the audience to be able “to make sense of it.”

Pask also influenced Stephen Willats, another cybernetic artist working with feedback systems, who was also a colleague of Ascott’s in the mid-1960s. He began by studying the changing relationships the audience had with artworks when they moved around them while he was working in several London art galleries. From his observations he constructed a series of artworks that the audience could manipulate. Other early chapters introduce Cedric Price’s proposals—again guided by Pask’s ideas—for an interactive architecture “driven by social idealism” in which buildings would organise themselves around the needs and behaviours of their inhabitants.

Cybernetic Serendipity is discussed by several authors, including its original curator Jasia Reichardt, and Brent MacGregor’s later revisiting of the exhibition through the archives. Reichardt covers the experimental foundations of what led to this seminal computer art exhibition and she also introduces some useful pointers to ways in which one might make aesthetic judgements about computer art. Cybernetic Serendipity included computer graphics, music and poetry, cybernetic devices and installations such as Pask’s Colloquy and robots like Paik’s K456. It also included a history of cybernetics and provided opportunities to experience the uses of the computer.

Of the historical surveys Richard Wright’s chapter provides an important reminder of the role of the Constructivists and the British Systems Group as precursors. Two other important occurrences also receive mention. One is the establishment and growth of the Computer Arts Society, ably supported by Gustav Metzger, Alan Sutcliffe and the late John Lansdown. The CAS became a meeting place, exhibition organiser, a lobby group and the publishing arm for computer artists from 1968. The other is Edward Ihnatowicz’s two interactive sculptures. His first was SAM (Sound Activated Module) shown at Cybernetic Serendipity, which listened to and appeared to attend to the source of any sounds in its locale. The other was the truly significant demonstration of the principles of artificial intelligence he incorporated into the Senster. This very large robotic system was built for the Philips Industries Evoluon in Eindhoven, Holland, where it entertained audiences for several years. Both SAM and the Senster are discussed in Aleksander Zivanovic’s chapter and Richard Ihnatowicz’s memoir of his father.

Essays and memoirs by many other computer artists are included, among them Alan Sutcliffe, Harold Cohen, George Mallen, Stephen Willats and Ernest Edmonds, all of whom held a variety of roles including programming, engineering, teaching and all important—creating the extraordinary range of artworks that might be assembled under the rubric of computer art.

The role of institutions is covered through essays such as Doron Swade’s chapter on computer art in the science museum and Catherine Mason’s chapter on the role of academic institutions in providing access to and teaching of computing to students in the fine arts as well as engineering. More detailed discussions of some of the art schools are included in Stephen Bury’s memoir of his time at the Chelsea School of Art, Paul Brown’s discussion of generative art at the Slade School and John Vince’s chapter on the development of PICASO, one of the most successful early British computer graphic and animation applications, at Middlesex Polytechnic.

This is a generally interesting and well-written though lightly edited book that provides a valuable look at a sadly neglected but very important aspect of art history. The main problem with a book of this kind, made up of essays by a large number of people, is that the construction of an overview is difficult. Each time an event is mentioned one can hopefully remember that so-and-so and she and he all made contributions to this event. But there is very little that actually points out the relations that operated between many of the artists unless a particular author discusses the collaborations they had or members of the class they attended, even if only through a coincidental presence at an exhibition or an art school. There is an extensive index but the absence of a comprehensive bibliography is unfortunate, though this can be redressed by a trawl through the endnotes for each chapter.

While the book introduces us to many of the individuals, artists and computer scientists who made a contribution to digital art in the UK from 1960 to 1980, it does not do the complementary task which is to introduce us to the systems and machines on which that art was made, to the displays and plotters, to why computer art is so dependent on its hardware, to what was possible, to computer music making and especially to the technical people who helped make the systems. One of the editors and contributors Catherine Mason has her own book, A Computer in the Art Room: The Origins of British Computer Arts 1950-80, which I rather hope does some of that, but I have yet to see it.


White Heat Cold Logic, British Computer Art 1960-1980, edited by Paul Brown, Charlie Gere, Nicholas Lambert and Catherine Mason. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, Leonardo imprint, 2009

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 34

© Stephen Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Back to top