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Beginnings | The First Computer Art | Uk in the 1960s | CAS | Slade | etc


Computer-based art dates back to around 1950 when Ben Laposky, an abstract animator, used a sine-wave generator to produce complex waveforms on an oscilloscope. These Lissajous figures had a quasi-3D appearance and he termed them "Oscillons". Unlike other contemporary animators who also used oscilloscopes, Laposky developed a new conceptual approach to these virtual images, anticipating later ideas about computer graphics. Although he was not using a digital computer, he found ways to "program" his image generator. By the mid-1950s, German computer art pioneer Herbert W Franke was also making images on analogue computers and the American animator John Whitney had built his own mechanical image generator.

Both Whitney and Laposky inherited a tradition of optical experimentation from the Abstract Animators, a diffuse and diverse group who had worked since the earliest days of cinema to create a musically-inspired graphical language on film. Famous exponents included Oskar Fischinger, Mary Ellen Bute and Norman McLaren.

However the work of the Constructivists and the Bauhaus was also influential on artists who chose to use the computer from an early stage: many looked to Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee and Max Bill. Naum Gabo's kinetic art was also recognised as an antecedent of later cybernetic work.

From the early 1960s there was a growing interest in joining the arts with the latest developments in technology. The French sculptor Nicolas Schoeffer produced CYSP 1, a computer-controlled cybernetic sculpture for Philips in 1956, and there was much activity in kinetic sculpture. The space exploration pioneer and kinetic artist Frank Malina founded the magazine Leonardo in 1967 in response to this community of experimenters who were as much engineers as artists.

Though often regarded as a "fringe" of the contemporary art scene, their activities were brought into public consciousness by the work of the American group Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), founded by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and the Bell Labs engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer. At their inaugural exhibition 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering in 1966 they brought together around 40 engineers and 10 artists for performative works with a strong technological component. EAT continued with further exhibitions and collaborations around the world, with a number of subsidiary groups in other countries.

The term "computer graphics" had recently been coined by Boeing designer William Fetter in 1960 for his 3D renditions of aircraft cockpits and pilots. This reflected the development of CAD systems in the engineering industry and the emergence of dedicated computer graphics hardware and software. In 1961, Ivan Sutherland laid out the fundamentals of a realtime image creation package, Sketchpad [pdf] , that provided the basis for mouse-based interaction with "live" displays. However, most computer images were generated by programming on time-sharing terminals until the late 1970s.

At this time, Computer Art was but one aspect of the more general artistic interest in the potentials for technology. Artists had to either learn to program computers - as did the German pioneers including Georg Nees and Frieder Nake who developed an algorithmic aesthetic - or else find a suitable mainframe site and persuade programmers to implement their ideas. Ken Knowlton pioneered the latter approach at Bell Labs when he worked with artists including Lillian Schwartz and Stan Van Der Beek.

In the UK, a number of scientific groups and animators began using computers for generating images. Due to the rarity of powerful graphically-capable computers at this time, research in computer images was concentrated around institutions with mainframes, such as the ATLAS series. On the University of London ATLAS, Tony Pritchett created the first UK computer animation The Flexipede [pdf download] . Later, pioneer animator Stan Hayward developed a number of films with this system. Similarly, at the ATLAS Laboratory at Chilton, plotters and animation equipment normally used for scientific visualisation were also made available to a few artists in the late 1960s. This resulted in Malcolm LeGrice's initial work for Your Lips, and later a complete animation system, ANTICS, developed by Alan Kitching. This was later used for the entry sequence in the first Alien film.

Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in 1968 ofered the British public a wide range of computer-based art and thereafter the UK computer arts scene began to follow distinctive new directions.

The Computer Arts Society was one of the most influential British computer art groups. It was founded in 1968, followed by an inaugural exhibition, Event One, in March 1969 at the RCA. George Mallen, Alan Sutcliffe and Lansdown set up CAS as an offshoot of the British Computer Society, to further the use of computers by artists. CAS flourished through the 1970s and early 80s. Its magazine PAGE featured major British and international computer artists, and hosted some fundamental discussions as to the aims and nature of Computer Art.

CAS encouraged artists to see the computer as a format for experimentation. Rather than simply reproducing other styles of art, wholly new artforms could be created. A wide range of images and approaches is evident in the CAS archive, which preserves many original pieces of computer art.

Other avenues were explored by Edward Ihnatowicz, a pioneer of computer- operated sculpture who not only exhibited at Cybernetic Serendipity, but developed the Senster, a much larger piece, for Philips' ongoing exhibition Evoluon in 1971. Ihnatowicz demonstrated that 'computer art' need not be limited to productions on paper or animations: he animated materials through computer control, producing very striking results.

The major feature of computer art was that it involved artists working with engineers (or learning to comprehend the computer) at a time when computer graphics was itself at a formative stage. Moreover, the complexity and rarity of computers at that time meant that any artform based around them was bound to be a specialised branch of art; yet one with very open-ended possibilities.

Much of this work did not take place in traditional art spaces; indeed, these artists tended to be associated with new groups such as the Slade School's Department of Experimental and Electronic Art. Others moved forward on their own; in the face of much official disinterest, these artists tried to develop a computer-specific aesthetic.

The surviving artwork from this time falls into three main categories: works on paper; film and photographic records of demonstrations; and surviving code which, as the 'material' component of the artwork should be regarded as a record in its own right. Additionally there are a few surviving sculptures (the giant Senster, alas, is rusting quietly in a Dutch field) and paintings. There are also archives of many contemporary publications, much ephemera including letters; and of course much surviving artwork.

Other organisations and individual artists were working with computers at this time, and we hope to draw on the wealth of personal and often unrecorded knowledge that these sources can contribute. We are very fortunate in having access to all these resources.

CACHe's work includes tracing and contacting the pioneers from this time, or their families. In all cases, we are trying to build up a comprehensive picture of 1960s and 1970s computer art in the UK. One of our main aims is to show how closely Computer Art was connected to the major cultural and artistic currents of its time. Our principal goal is to recover these interesting artforms and demonstrate their historical and aesthetic value.