A History of Computer Art
Ben Laposky, ‘Oscillon 40’, 1952. Museum no. E.958-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince
In the 1950s, many artists and designers were working with mechanical devices and analogue computers in a way that can be seen as a precursor to the work of the early digital pioneers who followed.
One of the earliest electronic works in the V&A’s collection is ‘Oscillon 40’ dating from 1952. The artist, Ben Laposky, used an oscilloscope to manipulate electronic waves that appeared on the small fluorescent screen. An oscilloscope is a device for displaying the wave shape of an electric signal, commonly used for electrical testing purposes. The waves would have been constantly moving and undulating on the display, and there would have been no way of recording these movements on paper at this time. It was only through long exposure photography that the artist was able to record these fleeting moments, allowing us to see them decades later.
Laposky photographed numerous different combinations of these waves and called his images ‘Oscillons’. The earliest photographs were black and white, but in later years the artist used filters in order to produce striking colour images such as ‘Oscillon 520’.
‘Oscillon 520’, by Ben Laposky, US, 1960. Museum no. E.1096-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince
In the early 1960s computers were still in their infancy, and access to them was very limited. Computing technology was heavy and cumbersome, as well as extremely expensive. Only research laboratories, universities and large corporations could afford such equipment. As a result, some of the first people to use computers creatively were computer scientists or mathematicians.
Many of the earliest practitioners programmed the computer themselves. At this time, there was no ‘user interface’, such as icons or a mouse, and little pre-existing software. By writing their own programs, artists and computer scientists were able to experiment more freely with the creative potential of the computer.
Early output devices were also limited. One of the main sources of output in the 1960s was the plotter, a mechanical device that holds a pen or brush and is linked to a computer that controls its movements. The computer would guide the pen or brush across the drawing surface, or, alternatively, could move the paper underneath the pen, according to instructions given by the computer program.
Another early output device was the impact printer, where ink was applied by force onto the paper, much like a typewriter.
John Lansdown using a Teletype (an electro-mechanical typewriter), about 1969-1970. Courtesy the estate of John Lansdown
Much of the early work focused on geometric forms and on structure, as opposed to content. This was, in part, due to the restrictive nature of the available output devices, for example, pen plotter drawings tended to be linear, with shading only possible through cross hatching. Some early practitioners deliberately avoided recognisable content in order to concentrate on pure visual form. They considered the computer an autonomous machine that would enable them to carry out visual experiments in an objective manner.
Both plotter drawings and early print-outs were mostly black and white, although some artists, such as computer pioneer Frieder Nake, did produce plotter drawings in colour. Early computer artists experimented with the possibilities of arranging both form and, occasionally, colour in a logical fashion.
‘Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr.2’, a screenprint of a plotter drawing created by Frieder Nake in 1965, was one of the most complex algorithmic works of its day. An algorithmic work is one that is generated through a set of instructions written by the artist. Nake took his inspiration from an oil- painting by Paul Klee, entitled ‘Highroads and Byroads’ (1929), now in the collection of the Ludwig Museum, Cologne.
Frieder Nake, ‘Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr.2’, 1965. Museum no. E.951-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince
Nake had trained originally in mathematics and was interested in the relationship between the vertical and the horizontal elements of Klee’s painting. When writing the computer program to create his own drawing ‘Hommage à Klee’, Nake defined the parameters for the computer and the pen plotter to draw, such as the overall square form of the drawing. He then deliberately wrote random variables into the program which allowed the computer to make choices of its own, based on probability theory. In this way, Nake was able to explore how logic could be used to create visually exciting structures and to explore the relationship between forms. The artist could not have predicted the exact appearance of the drawing until the plotter had finished.
Bell Labs, now based in New Jersey, was hugely influential in initiating and supporting the early American computer-art scene and produced perhaps the greatest number of key early pioneers. Artists and computer scientists who worked there include Claude Shannon, Ken Knowlton, Leon Harmon, Lillian Schwartz, Charles Csuri, A. Michael Noll, Edward Zajec, and Billy Klüver, an engineer who also collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg to form Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT). The Laboratory began life as Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. in 1925 and went on to become the leading authority in the field of new technologies.
Bell Labs was heavily involved in the emerging art and technology scene, in particular it contributed to a series of performances entitled ‘9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering’ organised by EAT in 1966. The performances saw 10 contemporary artists join forces with 30 engineers and scientists from Bell Labs to host a series of performances using new technologies. Events such as these represent important early recognition by the mainstream art world of the burgeoning relationship between art and technology. The executive director of Bell Labs was employed as an ‘agent’ for EAT, his task to spread the word about the organisation in the right circles, namely industry. As a result, many artists and musicians used the equipment at Bell Labs out of hours.
Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton, ‘Studies in Perception’, 1997 (original image 1967). Museum no. E.963-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince
Amongst many things, Bell Labs was particularly influential in the development of early computer-generated animation. In the 1960s, the laboratories housed an early microfilm printer that was able to expose letters and shapes onto 35mm film. Artists such as Edward Zajec began to use the equipment to make moving films. Whilst working at Bell Labs, computer scientist and artist Ken Knowlton developed the programming language BEFLIX- the name stands for Bell Flicks – that could be used for bitmap film making.
One of the most famous works to come out of Bell Labs was Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton’s Studies in Perception, 1967, also known as Nude.
Harmon and Knowlton decided to cover the entire wall of a senior colleague’s office with a large print, the image of which was made up of small electronic symbols that replaced the grey scale in a scanned photograph. Only by stepping back from the image (which was 12 feet wide), did the symbols merge to form the figure of a reclining nude. Although the image was hastily removed after their colleague returned, and even more hastily dismissed by the institution’s PR department, it was leaked into the public realm, first by appearing at a press conference in the loft of Robert Rauschenberg, and later emblazoned across the New York Times. What had started life as a work-place prank became an overnight sensation.
The Slade Computer System, about 1977. Courtesy of Paul Brown
By the 1970s, a number of artists had begun to teach themselves to program, rather than relying on collaborations with computer programmers. Many of these artists came to the computer from a traditional fine art background, as opposed to the scientific or mathematical background of the earliest practitioners. Artists were attracted to the logical nature of the computer and the processes involved.
In the early 1970s the Slade School of Art, University of London, established what was later called the ‘Experimental and Computing Department’. The Slade was one of the few institutions that attempted to fully integrate the use of computers in art into its teaching curriculum during the 1970s. The department offered unparalleled resources with its in-house computer system.
Paul Brown studied at the Slade from 1977 to 1979. His computer-generated drawings, use individual elements that evolve or propagate in accordance with a set of simple rules. Brown developed a tile-based image generating system. Despite using relatively simple forms, it would have taken a long time to write a program to produce a work such as this.
Paul Brown, ‘Untitled Computer Assisted Drawing’, 1975. Museum no. E.961-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince
Manuel Barbadillo, ‘Untitled’, about 1972. Museum no. E.158-2008. Given by the Computer Arts Society, supported by System Simulation Ltd, London
Kenneth Snelson, ‘Forest Devils’ MoonNight’ (detail), 1989, Museum no. E.1046-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince
The 1980s saw digital technologies reach into everyday life, with the widespread adoption of computers for both business and personal use. Computer graphics and special effects began to be used in films such as ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ and ‘Tron’, both 1982, as well as in television programmes. Combined with the popularity of video and computer games, computing technology began to be a much more familiar sight at home, as well as at work.
The late 1970s had seen the births of both Apple and Microsoft and the appearance of some of the first personal computers. PCs were now available that were affordable and compact, and ideal for household use. Alongside this, inkjet printers developed to become the cheapest method of printing in colour. The development of off-the-shelf paint software packages meant it was much simpler to create images using the computer. As this new medium entered popular culture, the type of art being produced changed. Much of the new work of this period demonstrated a clear ‘computer aesthetic’, seemingly more computer-generated in its appearance.
This image by Kenneth Snelson was created using a 3D computer animation program. The image forms the left side of a stereoscopic image. Accompanied by a near identical image placed to its right and viewed simultaneously, the two images would have created the illusion of a 3D environment.
James Faure Walker, ‘Dark Filament’ (detail), 2007. Museum no. E.147-2009. Given by James Faure Walker
The term ‘Computer Art’ is used less frequently to describe artists and designers working with the computer today. Many artists who now work with computers incorporate this technology into their practice as just one tool amongst many that they may use interchangeably. This is part of a more general shift towards artists and designers working in an increasingly interdisciplinary manner. Many no longer define themselves as practitioners of a specific media.James Faure Walker can be described as both a digital artist and a painter. Since the late 1980s Faure Walker has been integrating the computer into his practice as a painter, incorporating computer-generated images into his paintings, as well as painterly devices into his digital prints. He moves between the tools of drawing, painting, photography and computer software, blending and exploiting the different characteristics of each. His work frequently plays on the contrast between physical paint and digital paint, and sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between the two.
Faure Walker aims to complete at least one drawing each day, either in pencil, pen or watercolour. These drawings are always abstract, and have their roots in gestural mark making, rather than being figurative drawings of objects. In the same way, the artist uses software packages such as Illustrator and Photoshop to explore digital motifs, or linear marks and patterns. A motif that has been created digitally might then be projected onto a canvas using a digital projector, where the artist can begin experimenting with the pattern or motif in the physical medium of paint. Faure Walker creates digital photographs of his paintings in progress, so that he can try out changes and additions on the computer before adding them to the canvas. He applies this same method to his production of large digital prints such as ‘Dark Filament’, incorporating found imagery such as a botanical illustration.