The rise and fall of computer art -1965- 1975

Frieder Nake. Image:

‘Although the cultural and social developments of the postwar to 1970s period have been well documented, analysis of the historic relationship between art and new technologies has generally been overlooked and the history is not well known. It is ironic then that early computer art, its origins in cybernetics and relationships with the avant-garde, is very much part of the history of the current way we use and understand digital media within our culture and society’. (Mason: 2008: 10).

Computer art emerged amid the social and cultural backdrop of the Cold War era in Britain, America and Europe. In the art world the idea of post-modernism began to emerge with Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism and performance. However, as the quote above suggests the history of computer art and its importance in our developing digital culture has been ironically overlooked. This essay will critically analyse four instances in the relationship between art and technology, which took place in New York, Stuttgart, London and Zagreb between 1965 and 1968. It will argue that the conflation of these events led to the development of Computer Art and a wider digital culture. However, the computer art movement was short-lived, residing on the fringe of contemporary fine art practice and appreciation. This essay will therefore assess the reasons for the movement’s demise and in doing so it will demonstrate that computer art became a victim of the success of its founding technology.


IAS with John von Neumann. Image:

Computer art emerged from early developments in computer technologies and cybernetics. In an interview in April’s Wired magazine this year, science historian George Dyson believes that mathematician John von Neumann’s 1952 project to build the first computer possessing the capability to store and run programs, called IAS, was in fact funded to carry out H-bomb calculations. Dyson claims that the project was ‘a deal with the devil: if they designed this ultimate weapon, they could have this great machine’ (Kelly: 2012: 51). Julian Bigelow, the IAS machine engineer, and MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener collaborated on an interdisciplinary analysis of cybernetics, titled ‘Behavior, Purpose and Teleology’. The paper studied the structure of regulatory systems, control theory, information theory, Artificial Intelligence and systems theory, and investigated the way mechanical, biological and electronic systems could interact and communicate with each other. The IAS machine, coupled with the development in cybernetic theory laid the foundations for computer art and sparked a new relationship between the artist and technology.

The cost of American computer art

‘The major domestic challenge of the Sixties is to maintain full employment at a time when automation is replacing men. It is a fact that we have to find over a ten-year period 25,000 new jobs every week to take care of those displaced by machines and those who are coming to the labor market’. (President Kennedy: 1961 in Lee: 2004: 110)

The first exhibitions of computer art ran concurrently during 1965, in New York and Stuttgart, four years after Clement Greenberg’s essay ‘Modernist Painting’, in which he argued that a work of art’s identity is guaranteed by its medium specific purity. Cold war America was in the middle of a technological boom at the start of the 1960’s, celebrating automation with industry and military funded research programs such as those at Bell Laboratories, and previously with the H-bomb funded IAS machine at Princeton. The irony was that increasing use of technology, a sure sign of cold war progress, was also blamed for the rapid burgeoning of the unemployment lines. Sponsored by Bell Telephone, Micheal Noll and Bela Julez showed the results of their computer based visual research undertaken at the laboratories, in an exhibition at the Howard Gallery in New York. Although the researchers at Bell mostly made animations for education, Noll and Julez, with Leon Harmon, Ken Knowlton, Manfred Schroeder, Frank Sinden and E. E. Zajac all experimented with computer art. The artists at Bell worked on stereoscopic display, 3d tactile input devices and projections, and their experiments were closely monitored by their corporate sponsor.


EAT. Image:

Elsewhere in America, two other groups also pioneered the development of computer-mediated art: the Centre for Advanced visual Studies at MIT – headed by Gyorgy Keps from the Bauhaus, arguably the first movement to merge technology, research and aesthetics; and Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), which under the guidance of Billy Kluver, was founded to enable artists and engineers to work effectively together with industrial sponsorship. Kluver argued that the work should not be: ‘the preconception of the engineer, the artist or industry, but the result of exploration of human interaction between these three areas’ (Brown et al: 2008: 75). Within a year EAT had attracted a board of directors and members that included John Cage, Lucina Childs and Alex Hay. Buckminster Fuller was a director and Robert Rauschenberg became chairman. EAT was the first to suggest that computer art would remain on the fringe of contemporary art practice. Despite its successes and a roster of internationally successful artists, it flickered out as technology caught up with it in the early 1970’s. Arguably as technology was becoming easier to use without the help of engineers, artists at EAT had little need for collaborations.

European connections

In 1965 Cold War Germany, the philosopher Max Bense held an exhibition of art at the University of Stuttgart, in the Studiengalerie. Bense was well known within art and academic culture for his work on information aesthetics. It is important to note that, unlike his American contemporaries, Bense was not sponsored by industry, but by the university where he was employed. Bense and his students had been working to invent quantitative measures of the aesthetics of objects based on Shannon and Weavers concept of information. In a personal recollection by Frieder Nake, the Studiegalerie had ‘become a place for all those that shared the view that generating works of art (aesthetic objects) was as rational an activity as anything in the natural sciences’ (Candy et all: 2002:7). In the exhibition, Bense had invited Georg Nees, a mathematician at Siemens in Erlangen to show something that was rarely heard of before – 10 line drawings that had been made by a digital computer controlling a flat bed drawing machine – the Zuse Z64 Graphomat. Accompanying the drawings was a text by Bense, entitled, Projects of generative aesthetics. The drawings proved controversial and attracted widespread criticism. Nake recalls artists from the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Art: ‘became nervous, hostile, furious.’ (Nake: 1965 in Candy et al: 2002: 6).

The academy was resistant to let go of the artist as genius, and embrace authorship by autonomy. The fury of the Stuttgart academicians is perhaps the first and most important clue in the demise of the movement less than a decade later. By definition, generative aesthetics represents the irony of computer art. Self-automation brings the machine like realisation of a work full-circle to the organic, creating feedback, like all cybernetic systems. The results were that computer art shifted away from the traditional realm of classical autonomous representation, challenging the concepts of ‘artist’ and ‘art work’, and moved towards a ‘systemic’ aesthetic.

In the UK, amid a backdrop of escalating welfare costs, increasing public unrest and student protests, Jasia Reichardt was inspired by the work of her Stuttgart colleague, Max Bense. Lacking money, staff and space, she managed to curate the first of five exhibitions celebrating computer art in 1968. The first of these was Cybernetic Serendipity, which opened at the ICA, in London. The second was Computer and Visual Research in Zagreb. The Machine as seen at the end of the Mechanical Age at the New York MOMA was the third, and the fourth was Some More Beginnings, an EAT collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum and the MOMA (Reichardt in Brown et al: 2008: 76). Grounded in cultural, socio-political, and a technological post-war climate, advancing technologies in the UK were associated with a great technological future, fuelled by wartime research and development. Computers were being rapidly deployed in both industry and in education (funded by the University Grants Commission) by a generation experienced in using rapidly developing technologies. Artists, many of whom were sited in technology colleges, universities and art schools had the unique opportunity to consider, and practice an evolving new paradigm in British art – the use computers in art.


Cybernetic Serendipity Promo Poster. Image:

Cybernetics provided artists with a radically new way of formulating and considering art conception and production. As expected, artists encountered resistance to their work by those espousing the prevailing art world norms, which were commonly unsuccessful in relating art practices to the tremendous technological advancement of the first half of the twentieth century. The surprise then was the run-away success of Cybernetic Serendipity, which was kept open longer until October 20th due to popular demand. 60,000 visitors saw 325 participants during its short run.

Other notable artists attending Cybernetic Serendipity were Bruce Lacey, Nam June Paik with his Robot K-456, Edward Ihnatowicz with SAM (Sound Activated Mobile).  Six IBM machines demonstrated the use of computers and a visual display provided information on the history of cybernetics (Reichardt: 1971: 11). Cybernetic Serendipity created its own future world of peaceful spaces occupied with fiberglass spheres where one could listen to computer composed music for example. Other spaces were a cacophony of sound and movement with interactive sculptures drawing, painting and responding to motion and noise to create visual patterns, that we might call today, data, or audio visualisation. Perhaps it was these sculptures that inspired the American, Jack Bunham to write his book, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century, where he proposes a bold teleology of sculpture leading towards the cybernetic. However, not everyone could see the merits of the show that Reichardt could. The German artist Gustav Metzger wrote:

At a time when there is widespread concern about computers, the advertising and presentation of the ICAs Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition as a technological fun fair is a perfectly adequate demonstration of the reactionary potential of art and technology. No endof information on computers composing haiku – no hint that computers dominate modern war; that they are becoming the most totalitarian tool tolls ever used in society.’  (in Automata in History: Metzger: 1969: 107)

Jasia Reinhardt rebutted, stating that the exhibition was neither an art exhibition nor a fun fair, nor a programmatic manifest – it was primarily a demonstration of contemporary ideas, acts and objects, linking cybernetics and the creative process. (Reichardt: 1971: 14) At the time of Cybernetic Serendipity, several British pioneers were forging an important contribution to art pedagogy, interactivity and participation and authorship. Importantly, Roy Ascott was a student of Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore at Newcastle where he developed an interest in cybernetics and constructivism. Working initially in paint, Ascott attempted to reach the ‘seed’ of an image. Experimenting with squares of canvas, he painted gestures then fixed them to the corner of the painting. Developing the Change Paintings idea, Ascott realised:

‘If you got 6 of these basic seeds and painted them on transparent sheets and put them in a runner so they could slide back and forth, one behind the other – that’s really what you are doing in painting, except you aren’t doing it – get the viewer to do it, they could make the picture’. (Mason: 2008: 54)


Roy Ascott, Change Painting. Image:

Acott asked the viewer to become complicit with the artist. The artwork is mediated through the viewer, and the viewer becomes the ‘decision maker in the symbolic world that confronts him’ (Mason: 2008: 54). Here he draws on the theories of the philosopher Henri Bergson, in particular his ‘concern with the temporal aspects of art as a durational process’ (Mason: 2008: 54). Ascott believed that his Change Paintings took on an organic evolution, changing much in the way an organism grows, believing that the artwork become a cybernetic system, receiving and changing according to input from the now active viewer. The work could feedback, a necessary condition for a cybernetic system, linking the artist, artwork and audience.

Informed by his experiences in Newcastle and his subsequent research, Ascott developed the Groundwork course at Ealing College of Art, which was fully realised later at City of Leicester Polytechnic, Ipswich Civic College and Trent Polytechnic Nottingham. The provincial locations (other than Ealing where Ascott spent less than a year) of these courses developing relationships with cybernetics, systems and art are important. The ‘metrocentric view of art at that time, one that no art of any worth could exist outside London, marginalised Ascott’s work from the start with the realist painter Jack Smith calling the provinces, ‘a desolate and lonely wilderness.’ (Harrison: 2002: 12) In addition, the British art establishment was still operating on two parallel strands: the crafts aesthetic was a hangover of the arts and crafts movement spearheaded by William Morris et al. Slade school of art seemed to represent the British avant-garde. The origins of computer art then in Britain can in part be examined in relation to this dichotomy of craft versus fine art. The early computer artists certainly saw themselves walking the path of the craft and technology tradition, taking place largely in the provincial polytechnics, which ironically grew out of public art schools.

Cybernetic Serendipity sought to gather all the artists and engineers working with cybernetics in the UK together, but it failed to do so. And as the community dispersed through out the 70’s, the task became impossible as the early 1980s took their hold. During that decade the use of computers became too commonplace to be remarkable. On the day after Cybernetic Serendipity opened, another exhibition exploring the potential of computer mediated art opened in Zagreb. Called Computers and Visual Research, the exhibition presented only computer-generated art, with a prize for the best work. The exhibition was rooted in a history that began in 1961 with the first New Tendancy show curated by Matko Mestrovic and referred to the 1960 French collective, ‘Groupe de Recherche d’Art visuel’. The group published a regular magazine form 1961 – 1973 called BIT International. The regular contributor, Aldo Pellegrini characterised the Tendencies exhibitions in his 1966 book as:

‘A new group of artists who were working along the line of pure visuality, all of them with an experiment bent. It is the experimental character and the lack of constructive or compositive intentions that sets them apart, in spite of their having the same principles of clarity and rationality, from the concrete artists and the neoconcretists (Pellegrini: 1966: 188).

The group realised the closeness of artistic and scientific processes through experimentation, in contrast with traditional art, which they see as following the concept of “trial and error” (Rosin, 2011, 263). Abrahm Moles realised that computers were algorithmic machines. By his logic, the artist is a programmer and has the role of researcher in the field of potential computer applications. The artist becomes involved in defining the objects that can be created for the new global society:

An artist does not any more touch and handle directly the colour, the matter, objects, s/he handles algorithms, more or less abstract, it must be necessarily formed at this level of abstraction’ (Rosin, 2011, 263)


Ivan Picelj.New Tendancies 2 Poster. Image:

It was at this point that the cracks began to appear within the field of computer art. Marc Adrian saw the New Tendencies as part of a spiritual movement working on a reconstruction and secularisation of the humanistic world view, and asked if after 6 years, the movement was dead. And architect Vjenceslav Richter wondered if there was a “dilemma” in working with a computer. He considered the Psychological interpretation of an authors mind, a misappropriation (Richter: 1968: 28). Next up to the critical plate was engineer Vladimimir Muljevic who asked, ‘What are the points of contact between the computer and the artist’? [1] He suggested that algorithmic chance should not be allowed to play the essential role in computer application in artistic research. With Flagging support, and its funding and financial support denied, Tendencies mounted their fourth and final exhibition in 1969, Tendencies #4. The exhibition drew little attention from the outside world, and Otto Beckman declared that: ‘the colloquy clearly shows that the pioneering stage in computer art ends.’ [2]

In 1967 the interdisciplinary art, science and technology journal Leonardo was founded. Subsequently, the Computer Arts Society formed in London in 1969 to promote the creative use of computers in the arts (Page: 1969). The society published a bulletin for debate and news named PAGE, which continued to the 1980’s. It is with a certain amount of irony that further to Tendencies #4, Freider Nake, the Stuttgart School pioneer, wrote in PAGE #18 that there should be no computer art:

‘I find it easy to admit that computer art did not contribute to the advancement of art, if we judge ‘advancement’ by comparing the computer products to all existing works of art. I other words, the repertoire of results of aesthetic behavior has not been changed by the use of computers. There is no doubt in my mind, on the other hand, that interesting ne w methods have been found which can be of some significance for the creative artist. And beyond methodology, but certainly influenced by it, we find that a thorough understanding of computer art includes an entirely new relationship between the creator and the creation.’ (Nake: in PAGE #18: 1971)

At the time, Nake could not have known how prophetic this statement was. As computers took hold, numerous digital art events, associations, college courses and groups have come in to being allowing computer art and its subsequent digital aesthetic to become an ever-present part of our every day language.

In conclusion, this essay has critically analysed the four key events that formed the basis of the development of computer art. As such, it has demonstrated that the ubiquity and success of computer technologies ironically sounded the death knell for computer art in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently the Internet has taken digital art to the virtual and augmented world where the creation of virtual and cyber spaces have a far-reaching social and political consequences. Despite this wide-ranging application of computerisation across all areas of our culture, the discussion of art, aesthetics and technology still wages on. This essay has shown that computer art of the 1960’s regrettably failed to bridge the divide between technology and art. Technical ideas and developments have always underpinned fine art production, yet computer produced art may forever be dismissed as an artifact with dubious notions of originality and authenticity.


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(Ed) BROWN, P, GERE, C, LAMBERT, N, MASON, C, White Heat Cold Logic, USA, MIT Press, 2008

DIETRICH F, ‘Visual Intelligence: The First Decade of Computer Art (1965 – 1975)’, Leonardo, Vol 19, No. 2, UK, 1986, Pergamon Journals Ltd

KLUTSCH C, ‘The summer 1968 in London and Zagreb’, Germany,2005, International University of Bremen, (02/04/2012)

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PAGE #18 Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, October 1971, London, CASh

PAGE #19 Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, December 1971, London, CASh

PAGE #21 Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, March 1972, London, CASh

NAKE F, ‘There should be No Computer Art’, Page #18 Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, UK, 1971, CASh

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(Ed) ROSIN M, A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961–1973, USA, 2011, MIT Press

TURNER F, ‘Romantic Automatism: Art, Technology, and Collaborative Labor in Cold War America’, Journal of Visual Culture, 2008, (08/04/2012)

[1] Muljevic, Vladimir. ‘What are the points of contact between computer and scientist’ This quote first appeared in the No3 issue of BIT International, 1968. [(Ed) Kelemen, B; Putar, R] In this instance the quote appeared in, Klutch C, The Summer 1968 in London and Zagreb, 2005.

[2] Beckman, Otto. ‘the colloquy clearly shows that the pioneering stage in computer art ends.’ This quote first appeared in the No6 issue of BIT International, 1968. [(Ed) Kelemen, B; Putar, R] In this instance the quote appeared in, Klutch C, The Summer 1968 in London and Zagreb, 2005.

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