In what ways can ideology be viewed as a factor in the mounting and reception of Jack Burnham’s Software in New York, and Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity in London?


The following is, more or less, the dissertation submission I made for my Masters In Art History, 2018-2020 and finally awarded in early 2021. The dissertation compares two seminal Computer Art exhibitions and how they were positioned in relation to the art and the curatorial choices. The first exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity (1968) was curated by the British art critic and specialist in digital art, Jasia Reichardt (born 1933) at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London. This will be contrasted with Software, curated by the American academic and art and technology writer, Jack Burnham (1931-2019) at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1970, and the Smithsonian Institute from 1970-1971. These two shows have been selected because firstly, Cybernetic Serendipity was the first international exhibition of computer art with an emphasis on systems that was  held in a national institution. Secondly, Software was the last comprehensive international exhibition that included computer systems until the re-emergence of computer art discourses in the 1990s. It should be noted that other exhibitions of systems art have taken place since then, for example Information by the Trinidadian curator, Kynaston L. McShine (1935-2018). This show exemplifies subsequent exhibitions of systems art in so far as it did not include any computer systems whatsoever. 

             This dissertation considers the extent to which ideology is a factor in the mounting of these exhibitions, and the selection of artists by the curators and organisers. Chapter 1 orientates the reader to both shows, offering a description of selected exhibits and the curatorial choices. Chapter 2 examines the ideological context of the shows in order to demonstrate their similarities and their uses in supporting British and American technological and economic ambitions. The autonomous motivations of the curators and artists will be balanced with a critique of the strategies used to persuade the wider public of the possibilities of computer technology. It will be shown that the computer did not emerge in isolation, unshaped by social and political realities.  Lastly, Chapter 3 will evaluate and suggest the reasons why computer art discourse was so fleeting, asking why this discourse failed to enter the canon. The reception of both shows by the art world will be used to demonstrate hostility and suspicion towards computer art at the time. Austrian artist and historian Herbert W. Franke (born 1927) is believed to be the first to write a history of computer art and is viewed as a key contributor to computer art discourse. Yet he believed that its history lay firmly within the realm of computer science,   and was directly linked to the evolution of computers.[1] However this history fails to acknowledge the cultural and ideological contexts for the emergence of computer art.[2]

            The research for this dissertation is based upon an analysis of relevant primary and secondary sources, including the catalogues for both shows. In addition, interviews were conducted with a range of people associated with the computer art world, including an interview with the curator of Cybernetic Serendipity, Jasia Reichardt who discussed her motivations for hosting the show. Interviews with computer art pioneers Frieder Nake and Ernest Edmonds also inform the research by providing first-hand accounts of their visits to the show. Perspectives on computer art’s position in the canon were provided by interviews with Computer art and media historian Charlie Gere, and also Wolf Leiser, the curator and owner of the Digital Art Museum in Berlin.

Exhibitions of computer art gathered pace throughout the 1960s. New Tendencies held five exhibitions between 1961 and 1973 in Zagreb. The artists were dedicated to visual research and consciously decided to use the computer as an artistic medium. In 1965, early computer artists were influenced by the writings of German philosopher Max Bense (1910-1990). His ideas of information aesthetics attempted to create a rational and objective theory of aesthetics by combining information theory, semiotics and communication theory.[3]  Excited by the provocative, rationalist and objective theory of evaluating aesthetics, young artists such as George Nees (1926-2016) and Frieder Nake exhibited computer plotter drawings in Stuttgart at the Niedlichs Galeries, while Nam June Paik: Electronic Art was shown at Galerie Bonino in New York[4]. This is the same year the World Exhibition of Computer Graphics was shown at the Howard Wise Gallery, also in New York.[5] 1966 saw the emergence of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) established by engineers Billy Klüver (1927-2004) and Fred Waldhaur  (1927-1993) who worked at Bell Labs, and artists Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Robert Whitman (born 1935). Their large-scale event which E.A.T. emerged from, 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering was arguably the first collaboration between artists, engineers and scientists. 1968 saw On the Path to Computer Art at the Technical University, Berlin; Some More Beginnings: Experiments in Art and Technology at the Brooklyn Museum (25 November 1968 – 5 January 1969), and The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age at the Museum of Modern Art 925 November 1968 – 59 February 1969), also in New York. A number of publications emerged in 1968 that began to theorise and provide a history and context for this new work: Origins and Development of Kinetic Art by Frank Popper; Beyond Modern Sculpture by Jack Burnham; and the journal Leonardo, founded by Frank Malina. But arguably what sets Cybernetic Serendipity [1] apart was that it was the first comprehensive international exhibition that explored computing’s relationship to the arts.[6]

Reichardt conceived of this international event as interactive, thereby requiring public participation. The spirit of collaboration also extended to the organisation and development of the show. At their own expense, artists brought work from abroad, without any expectation of payment.[7] The show was supported by the donation of material and electronics by Bell Telephone Labs, Boeing, General Motors, IBM and Westinghouse.[8] Despite this industrial support, the show made little distinction between art, engineering and science, and had an educational element which questioned the nature of the digital computer, and the history of cybernetics. 

Cybernetic systems maintain stability through ‘interactive processes determined by its own organisation’ and its application was felt widely through many industries.[9] But as the 1950s progressed, interest in cybernetics began to wane. Secondary sources reveal that the cybernetics theories of American Norbert Weiner and British mathematician W. Ross Ashby, which related largely to mathematics and engineering, placed the observer outside the system to be observed. This mode of thinking lost popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Second-order cybernetic theory, championed by British cyberneticists Gordon Pask, Stafford Beer, and the American Greg Bateson, positioned the observer at the heart of the system. These thinkers applied the study of self-organising systems (feedback and control) to social and biological systems. This type of cybernetics was embraced by both curators Reichardt and Burnham, as well as artists working with interactivity to create art as an active, participatory experience.

Jack Burnham’s Software, [2] was organised by Swedish art collector and Museum director Pontus Hultén (1924-2006), Software and Cybernetic Serendipity both concerned the influence cybernetics had on the emergence of computer art. Burnham’s curation of Software began in 1969 when the director of the Jewish Museum, Karl Katz asked him to curate an exhibition based on computing and technology. Software was inspired by Cybernetic Serendipity and acted as a follow-up to The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age (25th November, 1968 – 9th February, 1969) curated by Hultén at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.[10] However Burnham’s show made a significant conceptual leap by linking computers with conceptual artists. The computers, or audience members, carried out a range of processes or instructions established by the artists, and these instructions were the software. Like Reichardt, Burnham presented works by artists from the conceptual movement. However Burnham’s show was much smaller showing experiments and research projects by scientists and engineers with 26 artists exhibiting: Vito Acconci, David Antin, The Architecture Machine Group, John Baldessari, Robert Barry, Scott Bradner, Paul F. Conly, Agnes Denes, Robert Duncan Enzmann, Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim, Giorno Poetry Systems, John Goodyear, Hans Haacke, Douglas Huebler, Allan Kaprow, Joseph Kosuth, Les Levine, Theodor H. Nelson, Jack Nolan, R.E.S.I.S.T.O.R.S, Allen Razdow, Evander D. Schley, Sonia Sheridan, Theodosius W. Victoria, Lawrence Weiner and Ned Woodman. Also, like Reichardt, Burnham, to some extent  endeavoured to educate the viewing public about the capabilities and possibilities of computers. In an interview, Reichardt stated that her show had no ideological underpinning, however Burnham was clear about his intention for the show.[11] Robert Mallary, who visited the show quotes Burnham as saying: ‘we are moving from an art centred upon objects to one focused upon systems, thus implying that sculptured objects are in eclipse.’[12]

To conclude, this chapter contextualised both exhibitions within a series of computer art exhibitions that took place between 1961 and 1973. The rationale for choosing these two shows for analysis is in part temporal, because Cybernetic Serendipity was the first international show of computer art and Software was the last. It has been shown that one of the research aims is to assess why computer art’s discourse was so short, ranging from 1968-1970, and consider the reception of both shows by the art world establishment. This introduction has made clear the additional research aim which is to balance the curatorial motivations with an examination of the extent to which ideology can be viewed as a factor in the mounting of the shows. 



This chapter will reconstruct for the reader how the visitor moved through Cybernetic Serendipity and Software and the degree of interaction present at both exhibitions. The chapter will firstly describe Cybernetic Serendipity by situating it within a short timeline of computer art exhibitions. Cybernetics and its use in both exhibitions will be explained before demonstrating why Cybernetic Serendipity was different from the other shows, suggesting a far reaching influence. Next, by extending the timeline of computer art exhibitions beyond 1968, the chapter will introduce Jack Burnham’s show Software by detailing a selection of the exhibits and describing the ways in which the layout differed from traditional art exhibitions. 

Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts was held at The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London during the summer of 1968, running from 2nd August until 20th October. It displayed the work of over 130 participants who were artists, engineers, scientists and mathematicians. The aim was to showcase the potential and scope of artists’ collaborations with technology, and in turn, technologies’ partnership with the arts. Primarily, it sought to show the possibilities, rather that the achievements of the arts involvement with the computer.[13] The exhibition opened one year after the so-called ‘summer of love’ in a time that was ‘diversified, split and factionalised’ to a backdrop of peace protests, student riots, the Vietnam war, and political unrest.[14] The show was curated by British art critic, the then assistant director of the ICA, Jasia Reichardt (born 1933), and designed by British-Polish artist and stage designer, Franciszka Themerson (1907-1988). The floor space given to the show was 6500 square feet (604 square meters), and was seen by 60,000 visitors.[15] In an interview, German pioneering computer artist Frieder Nake (born 1938) claims the inspiration for Cybernetic Serendipity came from a conversation Reichardt had with German philosopher Max Bense (1910-1990) after a show Reichardt had curated on concrete poetry at the ICA in 1965.[16] Bense was impressed with the show and recommended that Reichardt should consider an exhibition of computer based art for her next show. Reichardt had seen computer graphics in an American magazine, Computers and Automation, which had sponsored a yearly computer art competition and was inspired enough to familiarise herself with the practitioners in the field.

According to Frieder Nake, who visited Cybernetic Serendipity, cybernetics was at its centre.[17] Coming from the Greek word kybernetics meaning steersman or governor, a cybernetic device responds to outside interaction, altering itself towards a goal-based output through feedback. Examples include a central heating thermostat or the visual presentation of mouse movement on a computer screen. Nake argues cybernetics was strong in the UK with British scientists helping establish cybernetic theory in the 1940s and 1950s.[18] Indeed, celebrated British mathematician W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was a pioneer of the theory in the 1950s. His theory of the feedback loop added a new kind of thinking to science and engineering.[19] Nake explains: ‘When you do something, your first results and steps have an influence on your further decisions and continued actions.’[20] The second part of the show title, Serendipity, indicated playfulness, ‘happy chance discoveries’ and randomness.[21] Therefore when combined, Cybernetic Serendipity is an oxymoron, meaning controlled randomness.

Given its gallery setting, Cybernetic Serendipity was unique in the UK. The ICA can be viewed as the perfect setting for this endeavour as it has a history of supporting radical art and culture and challenging traditional notions of art and its display, thereby stimulating experimentation and debate amongst its exhibitors and visitors alike.[22] In an interview for this dissertation, British media historian Charlie Gere (born 1961) claims the ICA and Reichardt were working in a semi-counter cultural context and the ICA was on the fringes of that world.[23] The show’s success was partly due to the ICA’s publicity, and the agreement with Studio International to publish the catalogue. American art historian Maria Fernández sourced an anonymous press release distributed by the ICA, petitioning families concerned with entertaining children: 

Cybernetic Serendipity is far from child’s play-from an adult point of view. Needless to say, the kids adore it. From their ecstatic reaction to the automated lit-up-computers, free-ranging robots, painting machines, sound domes, a complete electronic recording studio and a glorious Emmet parody of the transistorised world, tomorrow is already with us. One can foresee the day when computers will replace railway trains and airliners as the cult symbols of the under-twelves and it will become as vital to know the difference between a Honeywell Mark IV and an IBM 800 as it is to distinguish between a Boeing and a Viscount. Meanwhile take the family to the ICA where they can push, pull, whistle, blow and yell at a gallery full of tame wonders which look as if they’ve come straight out of a Science Museum of the year 2000.[24]

This endorsement of the exhibition as a family-friendly venue described the exhibits as ‘tame wonders’, perhaps suggesting that the computers posed no threat to playful children. Reichardt positioned the machines alongside artworks and aimed to show how computers can be used to ‘extend creativity and inventiveness’.[25] As viewers walked through the show they would have been guided by large, bright exhibition boards with prints and artworks mounted with accompanying information cards, typed on a manual typewriter with a carbon ribbon. The viewer was guided through three sections, ‘works that are produced with a cybernetic device, with a computer’, which the catalogue, containing laymen’s accounts,  listed as: computer generated graphics, films, music and poetry such as Running Cola is Africa (1967) by Computer Technique Group from Tokyo.[26] In a second section, ‘cybernetic devices as works of art’ were displayed, such as cybernetic environments, drawing machines and robots like Sound Activated Mobile (1968) [3] by Edward Inhatovicz.[27] The last section was a learning zone that detailed the various uses of computers.[28] The viewer saw machines that demonstrated the  uses of computers alongside exhibition boards centred on education, namely the history of cybernetics.[29] Without reading the information cards, the visitor would not know whether the works they encountered were made by an artist, architect, engineer or mathematician.[30] This was purposeful, with Reichardt claiming that it was not ‘particularly important to know the background of the makers of the various robots, machines or graphics – it will not alter their impact, although it might make us see them differently.’[31]

Punctuating the large exhibition boards were physical installations and demonstrations. A sound studio assembled by Peter Zinovieff comprised of five, human sized cabinets containing electronics and reel to reel tape recorders. When the computer was given a sound source, for example a viewer whistling a tune in to a microphone, it was left to compose its own music based on the input from the mic, playing the resulting composition out to the exhibition hall. Close by was a work by the Computer Technique Group from Japan. Mounted on the exhibition boards were six manipulated images of President Kennedy. Their computer drew the face as a series of lines emerging from varying points on the face conveying tone and depth.

Sound Activated Mobile (1968) was an electro-hydraulic robotic sculpture by Polish-British artist Edward Ihnatowicz (1929-1988). It was articulated by electronic systems that was sensitive to sound. In 2008 his son Richard explained it was programmed to ‘hear’ the voices of its viewers.[32] Four microphones were mounted on fiberglass parabolic reflectors (reminiscent of a flower)  atop a spine-like structure of aluminium castings.[33] Movement in the vertebrae stack was restricted, protecting internal pipes from buckling and twisting, pointing to the source of the sound.[34] The work was described in The Kensington Post as ‘a giant plastic flower follows your voice and starts when you clap. All reminiscent of those jungle plants that feed on people.’[35]

CYSP 1 (1956) [4] by French-Hungarian artist Nicolas Schöffer (1912-1992) was a kinetic, autonomous work influenced by the writings of W. Ross Ashby.[36] The name was formed from CYbernetic SPatiodynamism and is widely recognised as the first cybernetic sculpture, and was consequently the oldest work in the show. Controlled by an analogue circuit made by Philips, the sculpture was mounted in a circular base containing servos and actuators.[37] Extending from the base, black steel and aluminium perpendicular brackets held four extended supports. On top were coloured aluminium plates that reacted by revolving to viewers interaction using photo-electric cells and a microphone. The catalogue states that these ‘catch all the variations of fields of colour, light intensity and sound intensity’.[38] When presented with the colour blue, the sculpture became ‘excited’ and moved forward, the plates turned, or the whole sculpture rotated on rollers. Red light  calmed CYSP 1, as did intense light and noise.[39]

As with CYSP 1 there was an overall feeling of playfulness, and immersion. But the design of the exhibition with its guiding exhibition boards, punctuated with direction arrows to guide the viewers, and its bays of machines, plotters, robots and computers, complete with large beanbags and scatter cushions belied its conventionality. The format of the show was surprisingly normal despite the display of new technologies and new media. German curator and academic Dorothee Richter suggests that positioning the works in the gallery space in much the same way as paintings are hung and exhibited, ‘transmits the pretension of increasing value and status’ of the works as an attempt to reconcile traditional, modernist displays with strange and alien cybernetic works.[40] Richter argued that it is customary when new genres are introduced to the canon, that they are presented as high art, to claim the accolade for itself.  Moreover, the safety of conventional curating may also be viewed as a method to dissolve the threatening, and dangerous strangeness of cybernetic art for other ideological reasons. These will be explored in the next chapter.

In 1970 the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan (15 March – 13 September) was produced by Billy Klüver and E.A.T., exploring feedback systems and audience participation in live performances and interaction. The same year also saw Information, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern art in New York (2 July – 20 September). This show removed computation from conceptualism, and it will be argued in Chapter 3, marked the beginning of the marginalisation of computer art. Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art was curated by Jack Burnham and was shown firstly at the Jewish Museum, and then at the Smithsonian Institute in 1971, both in New York. 

The introduction in the Software catalogue explained the selection criteria for inclusion in the show. Exhibits at Cybernetic Serendipity typically mimicked or duplicated the effects of other art forms with the focus being on finished objects or works that so happened to be made by a computer. Instead, Burnham demanded an investigation of the consequences and effects computation had on culture, and particularly art. He readily acknowledged that many of the works in the show were not computers or machines, instead the exhibits ‘deal with conceptual and process relationships’.[41] In other words, the artists exhibited their programs which were the systems they had devised to either make art, or their systems as art. The term software is a conceptual underpinning where art is freed from the restraints of ‘hardware props’ in favour of emphasising systems. Painting and sculpture are supplanted by ‘radio, telephone, photocopying, television, microcard library information systems, teletype and teaching machines.’[42] Information is software, and art is hardware.

Given this conceptual leap, the show did not appear to the viewer in a layout the viewer would normally understand. It purposefully attempted to ‘undermine normal perceptual expectations and habits which viewers bring to an art exhibition’.[43] The exhibition designer, James A. Mahoney aimed to minimise the museum atmosphere by mixing light and dark spaces. Some rooms had open windows allowing viewers to look outside, unlike conventional exhibition design that relies on a timelessness of sealed space. The noise of the equipment working was in some spaces overpowering and no attempt had been made to minimise this with Mahoney arguing that viewers have to live with noise as part of their everyday lived experience.[44] The noise, and the works were not isolated, save for the divisions of the rooms in the gallery; doors were open, works were visible beyond the space the viewer inhabited at any point.[45]

The mental prompts of art history were distorted as the viewer entered the space which was not recognisable as a conventional art exhibition. Communication and information equipment, and their outputs littered the rooms of the space. In Visitors Profile (1969) by Hans Haacke, a teletype terminal unloaded paper printouts of processed information gleaned from the visitors’ answers to questions which were typed in to a computer. Questions took two forms: demographic information about the visitor, such as age, sex, education, income etc are stored; opinions from the visitors on a range of subjects were also stored, then retrieved and correlated resulting in a statistical breakdown which was printed in a continuous paper stream that landed on the floor of the space. News (1969) [5] by Haacke similarly printed steams of data it had received from foreign news services. The room was dark, contrasted with the brightness of the white teletype printouts.

            Another darkened room, with clean black diagonal tiles on the floor housed Seek (1970) [6] by The Architecture Design Group (which would go on to become MIT Media Lab) headed by Nicholas Negroponte. A photograph of Seekappeared on the cover to the catalogue for the show. Set within a large metal frame, a glass box, or superstructure was mounted at waist height. In it were small metal blocks, polished and shiny under spotlights directed at the glass, contrasting the mottled fur of gerbils that ‘roved within the box, clumsily knocking and displacing the polished blocks.’ Which were light enough to be moved by the rodent co-occupiers.[46] A large robotic arm with an electro-magnet attached at the end, linked to a computer contained within a rack to the side of the case, attempted to create order in the urban space from the displaced cubes by stacking them in neat rows and columns creating a grid based on the position of displaced blocks. On one hand, the computer acted as an assistant, making  sense of the ‘citizen gerbils’ movements to create new formalised structures. On the other the computer is viewed as oppressive in a sort of miniaturised embodiment of Foucault’s biopolitics.[47] Technical consultant for Software and American pioneer of information technology Theodore (Ted) Nelson (born 1937) commented: 

‘I remember watching one gerbil who stood motionless … watching the Great Grappler rearranging his world. Gerbils are somewhat inscrutable, but I had a sense that he was worshiping it. He did not move until the block started coming down on top of him.’[48]

To conclude, this chapter has detailed a selection of the works in both shows, orientating the reader to give a sense of the viewer experience, and how visitors would move around the shows. The chapter has shown that the curatorial decisions for Cybernetic Serendipity followed a plan remarkably similar to traditional art exhibitions despite the unusual nature of the exhibits. In contrast Software embraced change by purposefully designing the show to be unlike conventions exhibitions of art. This effort reflected the autonomy and experimental nature of the art systems while being sympathetic to the flow and use of information which was the guiding tenet of Burnham’s show.



In 1971 Jasia Riechardt described computer art as a  ‘movement that is international, motivated by the use of media, technique and method, rather than ideology’.[49] This chapter will argue that both Cybernetic Serendipity and Software, like all exhibitions, can be viewed as ideological, while acknowledging that the curatorial motivations and expectations for the shows may have been different. The aim of this chapter is not to render the curation invisible, hidden by ideology.[50] Instead it will draw a balance between the explicit intentions of the organisers, and the distant lens of historicism. When set within the context of the Cold War period, both exhibitions can be framed as technological drivers of political and economic progress in both the United Kingdom and America. 

This dissertation will draw upon the theoretical framework of French philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) who claims that political hegemony is ‘indispensable to the reproduction of capitalist relations of production.’[51]Arguably, authorities and institutions are charged with the power to persuade society, in this case, of the right and just adoption of technology as a social necessity. Given the commercial hopes for the use of new technologies, the exhibitions can be viewed as a validation of technology. The aims of both shows can be seen as a complex sets of persuasions and schemes  to construct and establish values and social connections for the viewers, in line with Althusser’s description of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs).[52] Althusser argues that culture and art can be used as an ISA to construct a viewer’s self-image as a subject.

This chapter will describe the key concerns shared by both exhibitions which encompass the dematerialisation of art, and challenges to the traditional modes of reception which were central to both shows. It will be shown that capitalist progress could have been thwarted somewhat by a fear and suspicion of new technology. The chapter will reflect upon computer art’s influences, specifically the technologies bequeathed to computer art by the military. Art historiography may normally use military factors to help contextualise the art that is being examined. In this dissertation though, it will be shown that the military connections to early computer art were vital in its development because artists used repurposed military equipment to make their own art-making computers. 

As both shows were group exhibitions, they brought together a wider public, unlike canonical monograph shows which serve specific interests.[53] This provided a space for curatorial experimentation and an opportunity to engage with a variety of viewers with varied identities. As such these temporary exhibitions make private intentions public to a wide audience, where bourgeoise intentions are exercised as their authority.[54] The exhibitions therefore become the principle medium through which computer art was disseminated, debated and criticised.[55]

Key to both exhibitions were concerns about the position that art holds in the traditional canon. Consequently, the central function of art ceased to be the fabrication of material objects, and instead was to show the relation of people to their environment.[56] This motivation became the central tenet guiding his curatorial choices for Software and Cybernetic Serendipity. Jasia Reichardt expressed clearly that the computer and the works derived from it challenge traditional ideas of art and its reception, and are instruments of democracy, ‘amplifying happiness and promoting pleasure, as a means of democratising art’.[57] Jack Burnham’s concerns were centred on the dematerialisation of art. The devalorisation of, and autonomy from, classical art practices and crafts was central to Burnham’s exhibition and instrumental in his politics of resistance.[58] Information and robotics were the main media of the show. Labyrinth: An Interactive Catalogue (1970) by Ned Woodman and Theodor H. Nelson allowed users to interactively navigate through a hypertext catalogue.[59] Interactive Paper System (1969-70) by Sonia Sheridan used a 3M Thermofax machine to create colour copies of 2D or 3D objects that users positioned in its 10”x8” copier.[60] Arguably the copies make art of the users own belongings, whilst simultaneously refuting the uniqueness, or authenticity of an art work by creating it as a copy. The authority of the art object then is challenged, reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s (1892-1940) 1936 critique, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

American curator Charissa Terranova claims that older ontological art-making paradigms were no longer sufficient as author-artist centered works gave way to the distance-making mediation of machines.[61] The ‘polarity developing between the finite, works of high art, i.e., painting, sculpture,’  and developing computer art, or what Burnham calls ‘unobjects’ was partly based on cybernetics’ principle of feedback loops.[62] The American digital counter-cultures involvement with ecology and kinesthetics were explored in Burnham’s treatise System Esthetics.[63] For Burnham, art should be understood as codes and information rather than in medium specific, material terms, believing in the dissolution of the material object  so that the traditional art object would be replaced by an aesthetic system.[64] Burnham deployed a post-formalist attitude already evident in the art world at the time to further steer discourse towards systems theory.[65] In 1968 he wrote: ‘The post-formalist sensibility naturally responds to stimuli both within and outside the proposed art format … [but] the term ‘systems esthetic’ seems to encompass the present situation more fully.’[66] This ‘situation’ meant that Software framed conceptual art in terms of technology, cybernetics and systems, revealing the decline of traditional medium-specific practice, denying the linking of art objects with the culture industry. 

From the catalogue Burnham writes: ‘Software is about experiencing without mental cues of art history.’[67]A.I.R. (1968-70) [7] was shown by Les Levine. The artist at work in his studio was recorded and played back on television sets as part of the Software show. His intention was to ‘make a closer connection between art and general culture’, presumably by using TV sets.[68] Levine explains:

The experience of seeing something first-hand is no longer of value in a software-controlled society, as anything seen through the media carries just as much energy as first-hand experience.[69]

Burnham argues that the viewer should, ‘sense your responses when you perceive in a new way or interact with something or someone in an unusual way.’[70] Burnham and Reichardt both drew upon the theories of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972), an Austrian biologist who identified organisation as the primary problem of his era, and American cybernetician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964). Burnham and Reichardt believed these ideas liberated artists to reconsider the art object, but some academics now believe it thwarted late 1960s and early 1970s art practice. [71]American literary critic, N. Katherine Hayles believed ‘an ideology of which reified a concept of information is treated as if it were fully commensurate with the complexities of human thought’.[72] While American architectural historian, Reinhold Martin claims post-war technologies will be integrated to form new social systems very much apart from what is known as Gemeinschaft, where social relations are governed by social rules.[73] Potentially, both Burnham’s and Reichardt’s shows are sites of special power that Mitchell claims can be either ‘contained or exploited’.[74]

Althusser argued that art can define knowledge of both the past and the present. [75] Although Reichardt and Burnham vehemently deny their shows were the cultural arm of the state, the shows can nevertheless be studied as a tool of bourgeois authority. Art’s institutions such as galleries, museums, and institutes function well as ISAs. Exhibitions can potentially reinforce sexual, social or racial othering of the viewers, resulting in shows functioning as signs, recognised by these attendees, cementing their place in the social order.[76] As Martin suggests, new social systems are a conscious motivation of both exhibitions, made visible in their didactic nature, upholding Althusser’s assertion that art can dominate social persuasion, through the reproduction of the viewers social position.

The social, creative and technological positions that drive political and economic progress must be brought to bear if Cybernetic Serendipity and Software are to be understood as ideological. In Britain, the standard of living was beginning to rise in the 1960s. The new Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (1916-1995) stated in 1964 after his election victory, that his vision for a modern Britain should be ‘forged in the white heat’ of modernisation.[77] The happiness and pleasure of Cybernetic Serendipity created a vision of technology aligned with Wilson’s hopes for a technological future. Museums, and by extension the ICA and the Jewish Museum, accommodated the major social narratives of an era.[78] The social stories they convey are generally held to be authoritative and definitive. While Reichardt and Burnham would both deny being the cultural arm of their governments, the works on display can be viewed as ideological symbols displayed as ‘emblematic of normative culture’ while denoting cultural value, permanence and established realisms.[79] In an interview with curator Jasia Reichardt, she states that, ‘Cybernetic Serendipity was not shaped by ideology – it was shaped by chance, hence serendipity.’[80] And yet the oxymoron in the title of the show, which suggests controlled chance, perhaps belies the unintended ideological context. Irish art critic Brian O’Doherty (born 1928) aligns with Althusser’s arguments to claim that galleries uphold social, financial and intellectual barriers that assign value and social status, and can arguably be used as a form of governance.[81] When viewed within the social, economic and political context, Cybernetic Serendipity functioned to disseminate technological advances in computing through public engagement. Whether intentional or not, this aligns with a key function of the state to regulate and control the population through the use of persuasion and education. 

Althusser argues that education ensures and reinforces the ideology necessary to support the reproduction of socio-economic contexts.[82] At Cybernetic Serendipity facilities for play and interaction were available throughout. British cybernetician and educational theorist Gordon Pask (1928-1996) contributed A Colloquy of Mobiles (1968) [3] to Cybernetic Serendipity. It was a group of objects that ‘engage in discourse, that compete, cooperate and learn about one another’.[83] Five large mobiles hung from the ceiling rotating, lights blinked on and off, and noises squawked from them. The reactive mobiles communicated with each other to synchronise their sound and lights, and visitors could interrupt or take part using torches and mirrors to attract the mobiles’ attention. Pask expected viewers to interact with the mobiles to bring their ‘influence to bear by participating with what goes on’.[84] The key aspect for Pask was to initiate a cooperation through a system of communications formed in a language of sound and light. Although the work was playful, it drew on theories of ‘self-organising systems, communication, learning and evolution’, theories Pask had been developing for over fifteen years.[85] For Danish art historian Lars Bang Larson, children’s early association form the adult individual. Experiences, knowledge and creativity invoked at Cybernetic Serendipity through participation, play and a connected community of creators are useful for assigning ‘new priorities to human needs and acknowledging the qualitative human being as an individual in society.’[86] This way of working collectively for both children and adults, positioned the technology, not as authoritarian, but instead as inclusive and even democratic, ‘where information and knowledge would be the dominant focus of production.’[87] However, the suggested agency that visitors had is a slight-of-hand where, as Althusser argues:

‘it is by an apprenticeship in a variety of know-how wrapped up in massive inculcation of the ideology of the ruling class that the relations of production in a capitalist social formation, i.e. the relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited, are largely reproduced.’[88]

The didactic nature of the exhibition can therefore be viewed as a persuasive attempt to redefine the relations of production by guiding public opinion of computing from one of suspicion to one of acceptance, thereby supporting Wilson’s White Heat project.[89]

Acceptance of another kind can also be identified with the benefit of the historical gaze. What is not mentioned in either of the exhibition catalogues is the widespread use of computers by the military. This is incompatible with the traditional study of art historiography where normally a range of analyses are leveraged, for example, provenance and lineage, style, and the social and economic situations around the object of study. While remote from the art world, varying military cultures drew from engineering, systems theory and control theory that were generated from a significant amount of experimentation in the WWII, Vietnam and the Cold War. 

The origins of computer art are unusually not with ‘normative art histories or modes of development’, but instead this thinking lay with the use of feedback systems to guide fire control and ballistic missiles.[90] The trade journal that inspired Reichardt, Computers and Automation which was published by Edmond C. Berkeley between 1950 and 1972 promoted the inception of computer art with a contest in 1963 which gave a prize to the best images made by computer. The winners of both first and second prize were the U.S. Army Ballistic Research Labs.[91]  The same lab had developed the computer industry  during WWII, producing a range of now infamous computers, the iterations of which would produce the first examples of machine mediated art in the early 1960s. Splatter Diagram won the Computers and Automation prize, and was a visual analogue of ricocheting projectiles. Computer art’s ancestry was an uncomfortable genealogical link for which many commentators and artists in the field effectively bypassed when discussing their influences.[92]

One such artist was the British academic and computer artist, Desmond Paul Henry (1921-2004) who constructed three drawing machines (1960, 1963 and 1967), the second of which was included in Cybernetic Serendipity. Henry encapsulated the main aim of Reichardt’s show which was to ‘deal with the possibilities rather than achievements’.[93]Indeed, in an interview with Wolf Lieser, owner of curator of the Digital Art Museum in Berlin, Lieser argued that there was an ‘early fascination with the infinite possibilities of working with the computer, motivated by the hope of discovering something new that they couldn’t imagine or think of before.’[94] An analogue computer was repurposed with added servo motors and pens on a moveable table-top.[95] The paper shifts, and elliptical distortions of the pen movement are both random ensuring a unique output with each iteration, making serendipity a key feature of the works produced.[96] The work was positioned amongst a number of others that employed ‘random systems’ and shared authorship .[97]

However, Henry’s drawing machines were repurposed from computers that were used originally for ballistic research and calculating bombsights to accurately guide the release of bombs during World War II.[98] Both exhibitions could have been used as political tools to transform the fears of the public who knew computers as part of the militaries armoury. In America the Art and Technology program matched artists with scientists and engineers representing commercial interests such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Lockheed Aircraft. But as Charlie Gere commented:

 ‘a lot of artists were asked to engage with  technology, and some artists said ‘I can’t’. I’m not digging this. You know it’s just technology, it’s technocratic, it’s engineering, it’s  military and all these things.’[99]

Indeed computer scientist and 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. In an interview for Wired, George Dyson, American hacker historian claims that the practice of computer art was ‘a deal with the devil: if they designed this ultimate weapon, they could have this great machine’.[100] He goes on to confirm that computer ‘hardware came out of the mud of World war II’.[101]

But for Prime Minister Wilson there was ‘no place for restrictive practices of or outdated methods’.[102] His aim was to protect Britain from the possibility that it could become a ‘stagnant backwater, pitied and condemned by the rest of the world’.[103] Technology, and specifically computing was seen as the powerhouse that would steer the UK to a time of innovation and economic prosperity.[104] Half of the government expenditure during 1962-63 was on technology which was ten times the spend in 1945-46 with the budget spent on technology that had not existed before World War II.[105]The family-centric celebration of the burgeoning area of computer art at the centre of Cybernetic Serendipity, was light-hearted  with animations, hoots and whistles, and robots and VDU’s.[106] As Frieder Nake points out, as Cybernetic Serendipity opened, The Warsaw Pact had just invaded Czechoslovakia, demonstrating the threat of the Cold War.[107]The ICA’s information officer at the time, Leslie Stack said: 

‘We want people to lose their fear of computers by playing with them and asking them simple questions. So many people are afraid that computers will take over, but in this show they will see these machines will only do what we want them to. Happy accidents can happen between art and technology.’[108]

It should be remembered that the Cybernetic Serendipity was tremendously popular, seen by 60,000 people.[109] Afterall, as the Evening Standard claimed (2 August, 1968), where else ‘could you take a hippy, a computer programmer, a ten-year-old schoolboy and guarantee that each would be perfectly happy for an hour without you having to lift a finger to entertain them?’[110] Arguably, consumers of culture become passive, and the ideology communicated to viewers through cultural commodities upholds existing models of power and domination.[111] Cybernetic Serendipity enforces the forward march of technology, camouflaging its military past with enough fun for a hippie and school child, to be captivated and persuaded of the value of the objects on show.[112] As museum theorist Donald Preziosi claims, museums frame our value systems and our basic assumptions about identities and legitimatise social groups.[113]

Cybernetic Serendipity introduced computers to the public, and a younger generation of artists who arguably laid the foundations for digital culture, and the digital economy evident today. The Evening Telegraph in 1968, described Cybernetic Serendipity as amusing and fascinating, while suggesting the show might combat irrational fears people have of modern technology.[114] Frieder Nake says of the show: ‘We here do things that are strange, alien, but if you listen to us, we’ll help. It’s playful.’[115] The British media and technology historian Brian Wilson argues that the acceptance of technology is never straightforward.[116] Society had to be convinced of technology’s inevitability, whilst it also has to fit existing social behaviours.[117] In a world threatened by atomic destruction and the dramatic change technology would bring, Software and Cybernetic Serendipity softened the culture shock of the new in both defending the role of technology and convincing future users of its benign, but beneficial nature.[118]

To summarise, it is too reductive to conclude that these exhibitions are simply the cultural arm of the state. This chapter has explored the voice of the curators to make clear their motivations and hopes for each of their shows. It has been shown that autonomy within the art world and autonomy as a means to experiment with new aesthetic systems, modes of delivery and reception were at the heart of the shows. However, this has been balanced with an examination of the extent to which, with a historical eye, ideology can be viewed as a factor in the mounting and reception of the shows.   The chapter has shown that the reception of artworks is governed by ideology where it is a ‘representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real condition of existence’.[119] Agency therefore is imagined by the viewer when they involve themselves with the art ISA. However, agency is illusory and the art ISA actually reinforces the capitalist agenda, which in this case is to convince society of the necessity of computer technology as a progressive industrial tool. [120]



The late 1960s and early 1970s spawned massive technical innovation. Despite the intelligent design and use of technology in the post-industrial culture that emerged at this time, today’s art history offers precious little reflection on the visual artists at the time who pioneered the consolidation of art and technology. This is not to claim that the history is ignored. Amongst the specialists, afficionados and academics of computer culture, computer art’s history is known and documented. For others in the canon, the history of computer art, until recently, was marginalised, and for some, completely unknown. Wolf Leiser, digital art curator and gallerist in Berlin commented that it would have taken until the year 2000 before any major institutional shows happened.[121] In another interview, Charlie Gere argued that at one time ‘computer and art couldn’t possibly be in the same sentence together. We thought it had no history.’[122] This chapter will ask firstly each of show was received in the art world. It will reply to Burnham’s assertion that ‘the art world has been consistently unanimous in its refusal to recognise or in any way support computer based art.’[123] It will contrast the popular media’s reception of the shows with that of the art press and academic journals and show that the association of computers with the military negatively affected the reception of computer art. It will then assess the critical discourse around the history of computer art to ascertain the extent to which this discourse was marginalised. The chapter will finish by examining the reasons why computer art was largely ignored. 

Overall the media’s reception of Cybernetic Serendipity was very good. Reviewers remarked that audiences who might not otherwise attend an art exhibition were drawn to the ICA, fascinated by the world of computer art. The exhibition was covered in the local London press and nationally during August 1968 in The Daily Mirror, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Sunday Telegraph and The New Statesman.[124] Reviewers of Cybernetic Serendipity were aware that the main concern of the show was to demonstrate the disappearance of the artist.  ‘What have they learned from this exhibition with such a curious title? That machines too can produce Art.’[125] However for others this was viewed as the problem with not just Cybernetic Serendipity, but all art. For Michael Shepherd of the Sunday Telegraph, the exhibition exemplifies the desolation seen elsewhere in art. He complains that he doesn’t have the ‘faintest idea these days what art is for or about’.[126] One article alludes to the ideological motivation detailed in Chapter 2: 

‘Collectively, it is hoped, they may help to combat the irrational fear many people have of machines and modern technology. Cybernetic Serendipity could even, it is stated, herald a revolution in the arts comparable to that caused by the computer in the realm of science.’[127]

In contrast Software was reviewed less favourably. For example, one review in the New York Times claimed that the show was ‘confusing’ and lacked an identity, with some works being ‘jokey while other works are serious endeavours that escape the viewer.’[128] The reviewer was able to communicate the themes of the show explaining that the term software came from computer terminology. It goes on to explain this ‘refers to the programming material used by hardware systems, and by extension, also means communication’, and information.[129] It continues to highlight some works that scarcely conceal their functions as publicity displays, promoting corporate interests.[130] The inescapable criticism is that some of the works were broken, or inoperable at the time of the show with the reviewer finally commenting: ‘But then if Software were a better conceived show, its missing components might be more missed.’[131]

            Burnham’s continuing assertion is that some of the works were sabotaged.[132] Hans Haacke’s Visitor’s Profile initially didn’t work, ironically due to a software fault in the DEC PDP 9 computer that the Jewish Museum had borrowed for the show. The exhibit that viewers encountered when entering Software, a ‘darkened pentagon of five video loops showing the artists working and explaining their conception of Software,’ was destroyed by the artists over a dispute with financing and titling. Technical problems had plagued many technology shows, to the delight of the press. The Smithsonian had cancelled any plan to relocate Cybernetic Serendipity, which was already on its way to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., which Reichardt publicly disowned after a considerable portion of the show was destroyed due to poor packaging and handling. Technical, financial and logistical problems fuelled animosity around computer art and Burnham argues this stemmed from the growth of technology and its influence over cultural life, with some ‘humanist’ critics concerned about the intrusion of technology on nature and cultural traditions.[133] Critics, it would seem, were highly aware of the damage to their credibility if they were viewed to be championing ‘hard technology as an aesthetic life style.’[134] Humanism in the critics world was conservative and their opposition in the shape of [hu]man versus machine rhetoric would have negative consequences for the reception and appreciation of computer art.  The fear was that computers would corrupt human creativity and aesthetics to mere automation, treading on human artistry and genius. 

            For many in the art world, computers had only been used to copy existing styles and aesthetics, creating a cultural tension between the logic of computation and the trivial novelty of the partnership between science and technology. French philosopher and electronics engineer Abraham Moles (1920-1992) comments in PAGE 28 that the look of computer art is akin to the ‘emergence of a Neomannerism of the computer, in as much as the manner, or the procedure is more important than the form’[135] The form therefore is simply the proof of existence of the programmatic procedure that created it which for computer artists, curators and critics like Reichardt and Burnham, was central to their thesis. The humanist reception of computer aesthetics from the traditional art world is therefore a restrictive one that seeks to assimilate the computer artist and sustain the modernist discourse. Central to Burnham’s theories, exemplified in Software, is the systematic relationship between technology and art which can be thought of as a hypertext system allowing discourse to emerge from the associative linking of ideas, emancipating the artist from the artefact based discourse central to Modernism’s art project.[136] But for many critics, artists and the wider public, the image of the computer was one without emotion, cold, with no personality and therefore no cultural baggage from which to draw. In the public imagination, computers were programmed by operators dressed in black or army fatigues, risking creativity at best, or something much worse.

The reception of computer art was in part, guided by this association with the military and especially the Cold War. Anti-war rhetoric circulated amongst many quarters and for those who despaired over the destructive forces of the atomic age, art made from its technologies was particularly distasteful and offensive. Australian art historian Grant Taylor agrees adding that the notion of art made by computer ‘aroused a surprising degree of hostility, usually on the part of people who found twentieth-century art dehumanised and mechanical.’[137] The critique of computers and technology mirrored the expansion and escalation of the Cold War and the consequential worsening of the war in Vietnam. Charlie Gere notes that the use of cybernetic bombing systems in Vietnam completely failed.[138] The computer became a symbol of threat and dehumanisation that could dismantle the cornerstones of social and political order. 

Gere claims that people working with computers at the time of the Vietnam war purposefully operated against the notion of threat and dehumanisation to ‘arrest the tools for the master.’[139] Meeting in Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s, a digital counter culture saw the computer as liberatory, to be repurposed for social good. Despite the counter-culture evolving to become Silicon Valley, its project ultimately failing as technology became the new mastery, the message from the fringe undoubtedly informed the ethos that produced both Cybernetic Serendipity and Software.[140]

However, for some computer artists, the perception of computers as a Cold War technology continued to be problematic. Writing in 1971 in PAGE 18: The Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, Frieder Nake complains that the computer is becoming increasingly associated with the Cold War. He would later abandon computer art altogether citing, among other reasons, that the computer has contributed very little to aesthetic behaviour. One vocal critic of the time, Jonathan Benthall who was born in Kolkata (1941), comments on the longevity of the computer as a tool of producing art. He claims the skills that define the computer artist quickly became redundant as the form of the computer changes. He points specifically to the ‘operating system’ that reorientates the skills needed to operate a computer.[141] As a consequence, Benthall argues that the ‘artistic imagination is unlikely to be satisfied for long.’ Charlie Gere agrees adding that artists were really seeing what the technology was doing, more akin to a technological investigation.[142] He claims artists were feeling their way, observing the possibilities, adding: ‘And so much of it was just finding out what it can do. Which isn’t very interesting once you can do it.’[143] Benthall asks whether the principles of computing have been learnt, and if the artist will move beyond the computer to apply this thinking to other practices.

Arguably an example of such a premise is the relationship between Software and the co-emerging movement of Conceptualism. Systems thinking became evident in the first conceptual art exhibitions like Information curated by Kynaston McShine (New York, MOMA: 1970) and to a good degree the works are indistinguishable. Artists like Hans Haacke who exhibited work at Software also showed at Information. Haacke contributed two works to SoftwareNewsand Visitors Profile were part of his Real Time Systems works, which were inspired by a conversation with Burnham. As such his work was distinctively cybernetic, but becomes political at the same time, moving ultimately to become highly political, turning to institutional critique.

A problem for critics of early computer art was issues of definition. As shown by the myriad forms of work at both Software and Cybernetic Serendipity, computer art has denoted a variety of practices including poetry, graphics, music and literature. Similarly, those who practice computer art defied traditional classification because they were scientists, engineers, mathematicians as well as artists. The rapidly expanding growth and evolution of computing technology meant that disciplinary norms were difficult to grasp making it ‘impossible to take in the whole picture.’[144] Unlike traditional tools where function and form can remain unchanged over extended periods, the computer changed, and arguably improved exponentially, meaning critics and practitioners found it difficult to seize the medium. The redundancy of techniques and practices means that the art historian finds it difficult to track and historicise the dizzying iterations of the practice.[145] Grant Taylor argues that art historians ‘traditionally preferred subjects that evolved at a manageable pace’ that align to national, social or other demographic groupings.[146]

Yet computer art emerged from a global community, albeit in so-called advanced nations. In contrast to other metropolitan movements, computer art’s decentralised location resulted in the lack of a unified voice that spoke of unity around a social or political ideal, and also the lack of an organising body, save for the emergence of the British Computer Arts Society in 1969 (it should be noted that a number of organisational bodies have emerged since the 1970s for example, The Association of Computing Machines’ SIGGRAPH, Art-Basel, Ars Electronica etc). 

Despite the reception of computer art in the popular consciousness, and more specifically Cybernetic Serendipity, being excitable and one of fun and exploration, the very depth of computer art beguiled the art world. Its complexity of layered and overlapping theories such as cybernetics, systems theory, information theory alongside other new terms like software and hardware, Systems Art, Computer Art or systems aesthetics meant its reception and criticism was subdued and ambivalent at best.[147] Made worse still by Burnham’s rejection of systems aesthetics given its complicity with commerce and the military. Hardly useful for an art opposed to industry and war.[148] At worst, the art world rejected its ontological claim as art at all, with some, including mainstream artists describing computer art shows as ‘science fiction masquerading as art.’[149] Arguably, these early criticisms of computer art missed the point, partly due to the complexity of theories and the absence of a unified manifesto. Computer art resisted the ‘formalism that had become institutionalised by the 1960s.’[150] Instead it sought to analyse the potential of information structures, in a self-reflective process to interrogate the interstice between art and technology.[151]

For many the art derived from this space between art and technology was bleak and soulless.[152] American artist and writer Robert E. Mueller (born 1925) attributed the alleged boredom of computer art results were ‘due to a basic lack of understanding of the nature of art.’[153] Seemingly, Mueller was alluding to the collaboration between computer scientists and artists, and consequently their inability to create an art that might have an aura, or perhaps the works were viewed in terms of their inability to prop up the traditional art market. By considering artworks catalysed by cybernetics and systems theory separated it further from market based hierarchies of value.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) argues that during the era of capitalist development in the 1920-60s, the management of consumption, commodities and their value as signs of taste became increasingly important. The art world seeks power by selling the sign-value of the artwork, which relies on prestige and status. Unsurprisingly, because capitalist relations are made through the exchange of commodities, value for the critic lies in the provenance of the work, despite the tendencies that sought to negate the commodity value in art through dematerialisation made explicit in both Software and Cybernetic Serendipity. In some instances, computer art was received on its aesthetic merits, then rejected when it was discovered that it was firstly, made by a computer, and secondly, that the artists may have been engineers or scientists. Taylor writes that the use of a computer was ‘the kiss of death’ for many computer artists when approaching gallery directors.[154] Indeed, some artists experienced significant harassment. Additional to Burnham’ allegation of sabotage, German computer art pioneer Manfred Mohr (born 1938) recollects in an interview for The White Review:

It’s not something you can understand now but people were aggressive towards me. People threw eggs at me. They said I was destroying art, that I was using military equipment to make art, that I was corrupting art. It was such a strange world. Now no one gives a damn; you have five computers on you and you don’t even know it. At that time the computer was like pornography or something, it was bad. If I went into a gallery and said my work was done with a computer they’d say; ‘there’s the door.’[155]

Burnham’s testing ground, Software, and Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity are  relatively obscure and sit on the margins of art history. This historical occlusion is despite Burnham’s System Esthetics appearing in the catalogue for American curator Donna De Salvo’s show, Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970. Interestingly, this exhibition showed no computer art whatsoever. Charlie Gere remarks: 

And when we went to the Open Systems: Art c.1970, it was if real systems art hadn’t existed, it was all conceptual art. And when we asked Donna De Salvo, where’s all the art that was actually using systems, she said she didn’t know about it![156]

The fear and suspicion of the computer and its art has resulted in an art history and discourse that renders it largely ignored. Despite its co-emergence with conceptual art, it was habitually overlooked, associated with the ‘dead eye of science.’[157] For many critics, computer art had an unhealthy reliance on engineering and maths resulting in a mechanistic view of nature divorced from moral, social and creative life; or what it means to be human. However, in 1970, Burnham wrote:

‘Information processing technology influences our notions about creativity, perception and the limits of art. It is probably not the province of computers and other telecommunication devices to produce works of art as we know it; but they will in fact be instrumental in redefining the entire area of aesthetic awareness.’[158]

The rapid expansion of the digital world and the arguably inconsequential influence of the computer artist meant that digital technologies were leveraged elsewhere. Video art, installation, and sound art all emerged from the interests in code, language and systems, fragmenting computer art until the 1990s when computer art became algorithmic art, netart, generative art and bioart. These new conceptual paths, which incorporate multidisciplinary approaches, do not talk of the expiration of computer art. Instead they are its legacy. 


This dissertation has provided a comparative analysis of two exhibitions which for a brief time connected computer art, a fringe movement of the late 1960s, with the traditional art world. It has shown that while these exhibitions were quite different in terms of their setup and staging, they share a similar ideological context.

It has been shown that Cybernetic Serendipity differed from Software in that it employed a more conventional exhibition design not unlike a canonical show. As such, it guided viewers through the exhibits, demonstrating the uses of technology using a variety of media that viewers would recognise: sound, graphic design, poetry, sculpture and some less familiar exhibits like robotics and interactive systems. In contrast, Software appeared to the viewer, in a non-linear way, as a series of systems, often occupying an entire room in the Jewish Museum, that significantly challenged the viewers notion of an art object. However, these differences notwithstanding, the intensions of each show were broadly similar. 

Both curators purposefully challenged the reception of art. For Burnham, the dematerialisation of the art work, using the term software as a metaphor which alluded to the systems conceived by the artists, withdrew art form the finite art object associated with formalism and the art market. Similarly, Reichardt wanted to democratise art and present her show as something to be enjoyed, attempting to remove the prevalent elitist stereotype. With 60,000 people visiting her show, it can be viewed as a success in terms of popular reception. National and local press celebrated the show, while the ICA press department petitioned families and children to visit. Unfortunately, Software was not as popular. The confusing nature of the exhibits and the occasional failure of the technology meant that the show was received with suspicion. What connects both shows however is their lack of longevity in the prevailing critical discourse emerging at the time. The association of computers with the military has been detailed, and in the feel-good time of the late 60s, when art championed the rights of women, the poor and the minority ethnic groups, art made from parts of missiles was, as Charlie Gere argues, a turn-off.[159] As a consequence, the reception of computer art by the canon became problematic in comparison to conceptualism which also emerged at that time.

The dissertation has not attempted to track the lineage of computer art with others in the systems art and the politics of the conceptual movement. It has instead examined the shows through the lens of ideology to historicise and make connections between the socio-economic turn to a more technology driven capitalist economy. One important conclusion from the research is drawn from the writings of Louis Althusser.  Writing at the time of the show, his 1970 works on ideology have been useful in analysing the ways in which the shows guided, or indeed reproduced the relations of production. Both shows offered glimpses of a technologically advanced future society, in part utopic and free from the threat of nuclear annihilation but also one where the use of robots could alter the relations of production in a capitalist society.[160] In this sense, the shows presented viewers with an ideological representation of their present social relations and of their future relationship and connection to art and technology.[161]

This leads to the question of why this imaginary representation was given to the viewers? Both shows are premised upon creating an ideal. For Software, this ideal is to move away from the material artefact rendering art as a democratic, interactive system which could be potentially ubiquitous, in the hands of the many, not the few. Similarly, Cybernetic Serendipity points to an ideal future where computers and art conjoin in a wave of empowerment for the viewer. However, these answers can be arguably viewed as distortions  where the real answer is that the art persuades the viewer to believe what they ought to believe, of their own free will and then to act upon these decisions. Technology is no longer something to be feared and the viewer need not be cynical or inconsistent with their ideas of the ideal. But of course, this is a method to simply prop-up the relations of production; the worker feels confident about a reconfigured future with technology at its heart, transformed in to a subject who is recruited to serve the means of production.

The research did reveal other areas of interest beyond the scope of the dissertation. In both shows spectators participated in experiences of shared authorship.  By interacting with the machines and systems on display ‘in varying degrees with the systems at hand’ the viewer participated in an exchange of relations with the artist.[162] This bolstered the illusion of social partnership where the spectator as producer and the artist share the labour. This viewer/artist relationship may inform the subject of further study to investigate the labour aggregate of viewers attending the shows.  Arguably, the resulting artwork establishes a direct exchange connecting the labour of one with the labour of many resulting in an exclusive social space distinct from the usefulness of the technology.[163] Irish artist and curator Paul O’Neill (born 1970) argues however that this produces a hierarchical role for the viewers by alluding to the division of labour.[164] Labour also forms a point of interest when considering the nature of the machine itself. Who or what is working, and for whom?

Although the fear of computers is explored in this dissertation, the explicit interrogation concerns the computers use as a military device. It has been shown that the public viewed new technologies with trepidation and suspicion given associations with the Cold War and its proxies, and with the technologies used in WWII. The research points to a paradox; computer art, at times made with repurposed military devices, can be viewed as being used to allay the social fear and the encroachment of new technology. Although Althusser’s theory of the ideology of the ruling class explicitly reveals how social formation is reproduced and reinforced, this dissertation has not focused on the fear of the worker explicitly. The reproduction of labour power is reproduced itself by wages.[165] In what ways were the specific fears of workers who believed their labour could be supplanted with technology ameliorated or suppressed by Software and Cybernetic Serendipity?   

Artistic authorship is also challenged when considering that the artist may not make any art or purposefully position any marks or materials. Art made by algorithm raises several questions: who makes the work and therefore who is attributed to the work; in what ways is the computer simply relaying human expectations of art through a programmed set of instructions? Authenticity, autonomy and intention have been critiqued by many, such as Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, and it should be acknowledged the author function and the construction of the genius myth is challenged by computer art. 

A study of early computer art’s reception and criticism reveals interesting paradoxes. The merging of art and technology, shunned by the art world, would go on to become part of the toolkit of many current artists. Those lambasted computer technologies are now universally agreed to be crucial to our everyday modern life, and to the practice of not just computer art, but all art. 


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Image 1.

Franciszka Themerson, Cybernetic Serendipity Exhibition Poster,1968, lithographic print on paper, various dimensions, Institute of Contemporary Art, London (Accessed 2 September 2020).

Image 2.

Shunk-Kender, Software Catalogue Cover, 1970, printed catalogue on paper, 8.5 inches x 11 inches, Jewish Museum, New York (Accessed 14 September 2020).

Image 3.

Edward Ihnatowicz, SAM Sound Activated Sculpture, 1968, mixed media, approx. 3 feet x 2 feet, replica at V&A, London. Photo: Edward Ihnatowicz,-installation-view-at-CS-1968.jpg (Accessed 13 September 2020).

Image 4.

Nicolas Schöffer, CYSP 1, 1956, steel and durable aluminium, mixed media, electronics, 2 metres x 1.18 meters x 1.3 meters, Villa des Arts, Paris. Photo: Edward A. Shanken (Accessed 12 September 2020).

Image 5.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969, Mixed media, varying dimensions, San Francisco Gallery of Modern Art, San Francisco, USA. Photo: unknown / Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kust, Bonn (Accessed 13 September 2020).

Image 6.

Nicholas Negroponte, SEEK, 1970, Mixed media. 5 feet x 8 feet x 4 feet, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum, USA. Photo: Shunk-Kender / The Jewish Museum, New York (Accessed 14 September 2020).

Image 7.

Les Levine, A.I.R., 1968-1970, Mixed media. Dimensions unknown, The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo: Shunk-Kender / The Jewish Museum, New York (Accessed 20 August 2020).

Image 8.

Gordon Pask, The Colloquy of Mobiles, mixed media, Varying dimensions, Replica at College of Creative studies, Detroit, USA. Photo:  Margit Rosen (Accessed 13 September 2020).

[1] Taylor, 2014: p. 21.

[2] Taylor, 2014: p. 21. 

[3] Nake, 2020.

[4] Giloth and Pocock-Williams, 1990: p. 284.

[5] Giloth and Pocock-Williams, 1990: p. 284. 

[6] Mason, 2018.

[7] Fernández, 2008.

[8] Fernández, 2008.

[9] Gere, 2008: p. 125.

[10] Burnham, 1970: p. 11.

[11] Interview with Reichardt, 3 September 2020. 

[12] Mallary, 1970: p. 189.

[13] Unknown, 2015: p. 7.

[14] Krauss, 1977: p. 68.

[15] Reichardt, 1971: p. 11.

[16] Interview with Nake, 20 August 2020.

[17] Interview with Nake, 20 August 2020.

[18] Interview with Nake, 20 August 2020.

[19] Interview with Nake, 20 August 2020.

[20] Interview with Nake, 20 August 2020.

[21] Reichardt, 2014.

[22] Unknown, 2015: p. 5

[23] Gere, 2020. 

[24] Fernández, 2008.

[25] Reichardt, 1971: p. 11.

[26] johnwilliamturneriii, 2013.

[27] johnwilliamturneriii, 2013.???

[28] Usselmann, 2003: p. 390. 

[29] Reichardt, 1968: p. 5.

[30] Reichardt, 1968: p. 5.

[31] Reichardt, 1968: p. 5.

[32] Ihnatowicz, 2008: p. 113.

[33] Monoskop, 2019.

[34] Zivanovic, 2008: p. 97. 

[35] Gander, 1968.

[36] Brown, 2008: p. 8.

[37] Brown, 2008: p. 8.

[38] Reichardt, 1968: p. 44.

[39] Reichardt, 1968: p. 44.

[40] Richter, 2020: p. 14.

[41] Nelson et al, 2003: p. 248.

[42] Mallary, 1970: p. 189.

[43] Burnham, 1970: p. 12.

[44] Mahoney, 1970: p. 15.

[45] Mahoney, 1970: p. 15.

[46] Terranova, 2014: p. 61.

[47] Nelson et al, 1970: p. 247.

[48] Nelson et al, 1970: p. 247.

[49] Reichardt, 1971: p. 7.

[50] Basualdo, 2008. 

[51] Althusser, 1970: p. 22.

[52] O’Neill, 2007: p. 16.

[53] O’Neill, 2007: p. 14

[54] Althusser, 1970: p. 15.

[55] O’Neill, 2007: p. 15.

[56] Burnham, 1974: p. 17.

[57] Reichardt, 1971: p. 17. 

[58] Terranova, 2014: p. 60.

[59] Nelson and Woodman, 1970: p. 18.

[60] Sheridan, 1970, p. 24.

[61] Terranova, 2014: p. 57.

[62] Burnham, 1968: p. 31.

[63] Burnham, 1968: p. 31.

[64] Halsall, 2008.

[65] Halsall, 2008

[66] Burnham, 1968: p. 31.

[67] Burnham, 1970: p. 17.

[68] Levine, 1970: p. 62.

[69] Levine, 1970: p. 61.

[70] Burnham, 1968: p. 10.

[71] Fernández, 2008: p. 164.

[72] Hayles, 1999: p. 54.1st Aug

[73] Terranova, 2014: p. 57.

[74] Mitchell, 1986: p. 151.

[75] Moxey, 2013: p. 139.

[76] Mitchell, 1986: p. 151.

[77] Francis, 2013.

[78] Coffee, 2006: p. 435.

[79] Coffee, 2006: p. 435.

[80] Interview with Reichardt, 20 August 2020.

[81] O’Doherty, 1999: p. 76. 

[82] Felluga, 2002.

[83] Pask, 1968: p. 35.

[84] Pask, 1968:p. 35.

[85] Fernández, 2008: p. 166.

[86] Larsen, 1999: p. 174.

[87] Gere, 2008: p. 177.

[88] Althusser, 19070: p. 25.

[89] Usselmann, 2003: p. 390.

[90] Taylor, 2014, p. 133.

[91] Grant, 2013.

[92] Grant, 2013.

[93] Reichardt, 1968: p. 5.

[94] Interview with Lieser,  13 August 2020.

[95] Henry, 1968: p. 50.

[96] Henry, 1968: p. 50.

[97] Reichardt, 1968: p. 5.

[98] O’Hanrahan: 2018: p. 7.

[99] Interview with Gere, 17 August 2020.

[100] Kelly, 2012.

[101] Kelly, 2012.

[102] Wilson, 1963: p. 3.

[103] Wilson, 1963: p. 2.

[104] Mason, 2018.

[105] Mason, 2008: p. 246.

[106] Mason, 2018

[107] Interview with Nake, 20 August 2020.

[108] Ussellman, 2003: p. 391

[109] Reichardt, 1971: p. 11.

[110] Unknown, 2015: p. 7.

[111] Richter, 2020: p. 10.

[112] Adorno & Horkheimer, 2000: p. 4.

[113] Marstine, 2005: p. 2.

[114] Evening Telegraph, 1968.

[115] Interview with Nake, 20 August 2020.

[116] Wilson, 1998: p. 11.

[117] Wilson, 1998: p. 11.

[118] Gere, 2006: p. 90.

[119] Althusser, 1992: p. 957.

[121] Interview with Leiser, 13 August 2020. 

[122] Interview with Gere, 20 August 2020.

[123] Burnham, 1980.

[124] Usselmann, 2003: p. 391.

[125] Unknown (The Daily Mirror), 1968: p. 15.

[126] Shepherd, 1968: p. 12.

[127] Unknown (The Evening Telegraph), : p. 16.

[128] Glueck, 1970: p. 17.

[129] Glueck, 1970: p. 17.

[130] Glueck, 1970: p. 17.

[131] Glueck, 1970: p. 17.

[132] Burnham, 1980.

[133] Burnham, 1980.

[134] Burnham, 1980.

[135] Moles, 1973.

[136] Shankin, 2002.

[137] Taylor, 2013. 

[138] Interview with Gere, 20 August 2020.

[139] Interview with Gere, 20 August 2020.

[140] Interview with Gere, 20 August 2020.

[141] Benthall, 1971.

[142] Gere, 2020.

[143] Gere, 2020. 

[144] Daniels, 1997: p. 564.

[145] Taylor, 2014: p. 12.

[146] Taylor, 2014: p. 12. 

[147] Taylor, 2014: p. 6.

[148] Skrebowski, 2008. 

[149] Maxwell, 1991.

[150] Shankin, 2002: p. 433.

[151] Shankin, 2002: p. 434. 

[152] Taylor, 2014: p. 4.

[153] Mohr, 1973.

[154] Taylor, 2014: p. 4.

[155] Hattrick, 2012.

[156] Interview with Gere, 20 August 2020.

[157] Taylor, 2014: p. 147.

[158] Burnham, 1970: p. 11.

[159] Interview with Gere, 20 August 2020.

[160] Althusser, 1970: p. 32.

[161] Althusser, 1970: p. 32.

[162] Burnham, 1970: p. 12.

[163] Welsby, 2020.

[164] Welsby, 2020.

[165] Althusser, 1970:p. 4.

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