Apr/May 2009

Creative Processing

A new anthology examines a crucial period in the history of computer art

Erkki Huhtamo

Not only are computer-based works largely missing from histories of twentieth-century art, it is often hard to avoid the impression that blatant ignorance (as well as, sometimes, nonchalance) about the past reigns even among the artists, gallerists, and critics promoting such art today. One may always claim, of course, that digital art is still a newcomer yet to be embraced by the art world, but there is a considerable body of works, ideas, and theories that has been largely neglected by art curricula, critical discourses, and dominant institutions alike. As a consequence, contemporary digital artworks that manage to make their way into museums and galleries often ring, in spite of their apparent novelty, an uncannily familiar bell—that is, for those who know the history.

It is a truism to say that every new cultural phenomenon must rewrite the past in its own image. And yet no matter how clichéd, it is very much the case when it comes to digital art. Penetrating into the past, one discovers that “new” creations often prove to be little more than unknowingly recycled versions of earlier innovations; their novelty lies perhaps in their more smoothly running apparatuses and more sophisticated (read: slicker) packaging. In other words, the mythological wheel is reinvented, over and over again. Indeed, there are scores of forgotten pioneers who toiled not only to realize their own aesthetics and to fight a prejudice against the medium but also to find ways to access the computers themselves and even to write their own software. Their struggles and triumphs are well worth unearthing; studying them provides a lesson that will hopefully make the spaces beyond the glossy surfaces of contemporary digital artworks sound a little less hollow.

Against this background, White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960 –1980 is most welcome. The book could be characterized as a media-archaeological undertaking. Originating from a research project by Paul Brown, Charlie Gere, Nicholas Lambert, and Catherine Mason at Birkbeck College, University of London, it excavates a certain terrain where technological, artistic, institutional, social, and other trajectories came together, sometimes colliding, sometimes merging into surprising hybrids. What is at stake here are the reactions toward computers by British artists, technologists, intellectuals, and educators over a period of more than twenty years, extending roughly from the early activities of the Independent Group in the mid-1950s to the breakthrough of the personal computer around 1980, which signaled the “end of the early, heroic, pioneering period of computer art.”

What happened in between represents a surprising variety of approaches. There are efforts to use the computer as a tool to create poetry, music, and moving images, to engage the audience interactively, to teach the software itself to be an artist (in particular, Harold Cohen’s groundbreaking aaron of 1973), and to harness computing power in the service of both actual and metaphoric autodestruction. The majority of the book’s thirty contributors were themselves protagonists of the developments they describe, which makes the volume a kind of chronicle. There are also essays by a few younger scholars, who observe the field from a more distanced vantage and through quite different spectacles. In some cases, this creates conflicting assessments of the same phenomena, though not as often as one might have hoped.

White Heat Cold Logic brings forth a host of intriguing personalities, each of whom might warrant more extensive treatment. María Fernández, an art historian at Cornell University, provides a concise, well-researched glimpse into the colorful career of Gordon Pask, whose life and works could easily provide the subject for a monograph. Pask was a cyberneticist, scientist, and technologist who refused such clear-cut roles, making frequent forays into the arts. His most important artwork was The Colloquy of Mobiles, 1968, which was shown at Jasia Reichardt’s major exhibition “Cybernetic Serendipity” that year. (This was the first large-scale gallery show devoted to the creative potential of computers.) Colloquy was a “socially oriented, reactive and adaptive environment,” in which five large, suspended cybernetic mobiles tried to communicate with one another. The hanging shapes evoked gender issues (the three fiberglass “female” mobiles glowed, and the two “males” emitted rays of light), which, one could argue, links the work to the tradition of “bachelor machines,” drawing a lineage from Duchamp’s “Large Glass,” 1915–23.

Another interesting personality was Edward Ihnatowicz, a Polish refugee and an eccentric “cybernetic sculptor” who created some of the most original and ambitious technology-powered artworks to date. Ihnatowicz’s chef d’oeuvre was the enormous Senster, 1970, a reactive technological sculpture produced for the Evoluon, the showroom of the Philips company in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Senster was a huge skeletal creature that uncannily recalled a living organism. The first robotic sculpture to be controlled by a digital computer, it could react to sounds and movement and turn its body to face the source of a noise. Although impressive by any standard, it fell victim to corporate politics and was dismantled by Philips early in 1974 for reasons that remain unclear, although the difficulty of maintaining it may have been one of them—a common issue in technology-based art. Some years ago, a group of students discovered the lifeless skeleton of Senster rusting in the Dutch countryside. Since then, it has undergone a small-scale comeback in the form of an Internet video of a virtual simulation, as well as through recent artworks it has inspired, for example Ken Rinaldo’s celebrated Autopoiesis, 2000, a robot that explores group consciousness.

Another Polish refugee, Gustav Metzger, developed quite a different attitude toward computers. For Metzger, a child refugee of the Holocaust who had lost most of his relatives to it, modern technology possessed an ambiguous nature: It could be developed and harnessed by forces that threatened to cause universal destruction; it could also serve artists as a kind of metaphoric counterweapon. As part of his idea of “auto-destructive art”—which took the form mostly of manifestos and events, such as the legendary Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966—Metzger envisioned the computer-powered monument Five Screens with Computer. Never realized, it was meant to be a large public sculpture that would over time spit out the ten thousand stainless-steel, glass, and plastic elements it had comprised, until it eventually destroyed itself. The process of destruction would not be random but would be controlled by a computer program. Metzger’s work provided a counterpoint to the rather naive technological optimism that permeated large parts of ’60s culture and that led to dreams about the harmonious coexistence of scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs. Five Screens offered a reminder that computers were a by-product of military development and could not be so easily separated from this relationship.

These are only some examples of what’s contained in White Heat Cold Logic. The book can also be read as an account of art education in an era when traditional tools were challenged by new ones. Several articles also raise the question of the relationship between media. Filmmaker and theorist Malcolm Le Grice provides an interesting peek into the link between the experimental-film community and the computer enthusiasts grouped under the aegis of the Computer Arts Society. While there are many such discoveries to be made, White Heat Cold Logic does not reveal them easily. Like many other titles in the MIT Press’s Leonardo series, this volume does little to make its material user-friendly. The font is small, and there are relatively few illustrations. The reader needs real determination to wade through the mass of text to find the treasures.

The book would also have profited from a more substantial theoretical and historical summary. Beryl Graham’s concluding article, which traces some of the post-1980 developments, is useful but hardly enough. The narratives by the “historical” protagonists are fascinating, and no doubt will provide material for more overarching critical assessments in the future. Indeed, one can imagine these being written by a younger generation of scholars, like Fernández and media artist Richard Wright, whose critical voices are here somewhat submerged in the chorus of reminiscences. Nevertheless, this massive volume provides numerous possible strands to follow and to integrate with other histories, perspectives, and trajectories.

Erkki Huhtamo is a professor of media history and theory at UCLA.