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Computer Soul

Long before PhotoShop became a verb, RS saw the future of digital illustration

A visitor at an exhibition entitled 'Cybernetic Serendipity' looking at the Honeywell-Emmet computer 'Forget-me-not', in England. Circa 1968. Credit: Fox Photos/Getty

The subject of this piece is computer art, and I wish I could say nothing but nasty things about it. The impulse is almost irresistible to put down cybernetic art as so much mathematical doodling, engineering's fun and games. At best, it is an "interesting experiment," at worst, the product of some evil, science-fiction, anti-humanist conspiracy. It might have worthwhile surface qualities, but how could it possibly have "soul"?

This attitude is, of course, a hangover from the machine age. Machines are supposed to be extensions of man, but they have a habit of turning into Frankenstein monsters that turn against him. The computer, moreover, is the first extension of man that has threatened to put him completely out of business.

However, we no longer live in the machine age. One of the basic facts of the electronic age is the disappearance of this sense of threat on the part of a significant number of artists, and there is a corollary change in the attitude of scientists and engineers. The change is documented dramatically in a current show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called "The Machine As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age."

Most of the show is an historic survey of homages to the machine, caricatures of the machine and criticism of the machine. But its chronological end is a series of electronic mechanisms and works generated by electronic mechanisms created under the auspices of Experiments in Art and Technology. They are, quite simply, independent and self-contained objects, as much so as any primary sculpture, and they are a complete synthesis resulting from unique collaborative equality between art and engineering. Another fact of contemporary aesthetics is that art need not be an individualized illustration of an artist's "soul," but that "soul" can reside within the work itself, much as it does in a piece of African sculpture. The culmination of the former attitude was reached with the soulbaring aesthetic of abstract expressionism, which also represented a high point in the artist's reaction against the rationale of the machine.

Today the pendulum swing has produced an art largely dedicated to objectively conceived, precision shaped, and sometimes impersonally created "minimal" forms, seen both as irreducible objects and as Platonic reflections of universal energies and ideal forms. One does not have to adopt an "any-computer-can-do-that" attitude toward contemporary art styles to recognize that they do offer all kinds of possibilities for the computer, things the computer in some ways is better equipped to do. It can have just as much "soul" as any minimal sculpture designed by an artist and farmed out to workmen for manufacture.

The largest show of computer art thus far was an exhibition called "Cybernetic Serendipity" held last fall at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I didn't get to see it, but a comprehensive catalogue makes up a special issue of Studio International magazine. In may ways, it is the ideas that count.

The most formidable idea is stated by Mark Dowson in an essay on digital computers: "It is merely an historical accident that computers are largely used for mathematical calculations. Computers manipulate symbols which can represent words, shapes or musical notes as easily as numbers."

The show contained three basic categories of things: Cybernetic devices as works of art; works of art produced by cybernetic devices; and demonstration machines, paintings of machines, and so on. The latter was mainly historical and trade-fair stuff, but the pieces in the former two categories must be rated among the major turn-ons of the year.

Cybernetic devices as works of art include, of course, robots and other contraptions designed to behave like human beings. There is a fantastic "Colloquy of Mobiles," consisting of pieces that engage in discourse, compete, cooperate and learn about each other. It includes male and female mobiles, each programmed so that there is competition among the sexes and cooperation between them, since "one possesses programmes that are not in the repertoire of the other and jointly a male and female pair can achieve more than both individuals in isolation."

There are mobiles activated by sounds in the environment, and machines that translate sounds into images. There is a robot who played the Queen of France along with live performers in a 1966 production of "Three Musketeers." There is the Honeywell-Emett "Forget-me-not," a caricature of both computers and people. Its parts include a mass-memory, where a number of miniature minds can think instantly in a clock-wise direction (influenced by even tinier minds which only oscillate); a Brain Drain for washing away wrong numbers and unworthy thoughts; and a Memory Lane programmed with such memorabilia as Mother and First Love.

There is a model for a grandiose "Cybernetic Light Tower," 307 meters tall, its various arms, mirrors and electric motors controlled by a central computer whose activities would be affected by sound, temperature, traffic flow and humidity; it would announce bad weather, heavy traffic, and stock market reports.

A number of things bridge the gap between the two categories, objects of art which also generate art works or experiences. The "Cybernetic Introspective Pattern-Classifier" is an innocent-looking box with a peep-hole; people looking inside receive a brief, bright flash of a pattern which plants an image on the retina of the eye in such a way it can be seen, with eyes closed, for one or two minutes. "The pattern can be seen to fragment and change its form, and these forms are probably the basic perceptual units used by the brain in recognizing the pattern," writes its maker, Christopher Evans. "This exhibit therefore allows people to watch their own cerebral processes actually in action ... by means of this device the human brain can be turned into its own exhibit."

A computer project by Gustav Metzger is an elaborate scheme calling for construction of five huge screens, each containing 10,000 uniform stainless steel elements. The elements are programmed to be randomly ejected, one by one, creating sculptural forms that would constantly change until, "after a ten-year period, only the empty site remains to be turned over to another use."

Some of the simplest, yet wildest, "devices" are the transformed television images of Nam June Paik. Paik uses huge electromagnets, placed over a standard TV tube, which put the images on the screen through all the contortions of fun house mirrors. He also rewires the sweep controls to achieve double images and abstract color patterns, and he has created bis own more complex machines which you can play yourself.

The computer-generated art in the exhibition included musical compositions, dance choreographies, poetry and prose, animated film and computer graphics. In the literary department, there is some passable haiku achieved by a program combining a few basic words with a semantic schema. There are some "high entropy" essays — children's stories and technical pieces on physics. They suggest that, programmed with the right cliches, a computer could also turn out a respectable piece of art criticism.

The computer graphics are created by two basic methods: Drawing machines, consisting of still or moving papers and computer-driven ink pens controlled in a variety of ways — pendulum action, oscillators — and graphics created on cathode ray tubes with an electron beam exactly like a TV image; this is photographed in various stages by a camera, and an electronic console is used to control the picture and advance the film. Static graphics are made by enlarging film stills.

Whatever the art form, almost all of the examples in the show exploit three properties in which the computer's superiority to man is unquestionable: Its capacity to produce virtually absolute redundancy, absolute randomness and its super-high speed. A computerized drawing machine can produce a work with redundancy beyond the breaking point of the most patient and painstaking draftsman, endlessly repeating precisely identical patterns, even merely placing one' line exactly on top of another.

On the other hand, computers can be programmed to form random structures and aleatory improvisations beyond the wildest dreams of John Cage in his pre-computer years or Gertrude Stein, precisely because they are machines, subject to no other limitations than they are programmed with. Every program, of course, ultimately combines varying proportions of structure and chance. The computer's speed factor has advantages that are obvious in such areas as film animation, but are equally important in creating still graphics. Jasia Reichardt, organizer of the exhibition, points out that "one can programme the computer to produce patterns based on ... any specific premise, defining a set of parameters and leaving the various possibilities within them to chance. In this way certain limitations are provided within which the computer can 'improvise1 and in the space of 20 minutes race through the entire visual potential inherent in the particular scheme."

The computer graphics in the catalogue are essentially geometric, but a much more varied lot than one would ever suppose. There are profiles of human heads, surrounded by echoing and expanding lines, in psychedelic poster fashion. There are crystal forms, shell forms, a random distribution of "Flies in a circle." There are animated drawings of pilots produced by computers at Boeing for the purpose of aeronautic studies. One interesting experiment compares a 1917 black and white, plus and minus Mondrian painting with a series of random computer graphics that distribute the same elements within the same area. The Mondrian actually looks more like a computer product than the computerized version. In a test covering 100 people, 28 per cent were able to identify the computer picture. Fifty-nine per cent preferred it.

Many, in fact most, of the computer graphics are by "non-artists" — in Reichardt's words, "people who would never have put pencil to paper, or brush to canvas."

"New media, or new systems, inevitably alter the shape of art. New possibilities extend the range of expression of those creative people whom we identify as painters, film makers, composers and poets. It is very rare, however, that new media and new systems should bring in their wake new people to become involved in creative activity. (They) have started making images, both still and animated, which approximate and often look identical to what we call 'art' and put in public galleries. This is the most important single revelation of this exhibition."

Is their work "art" or simply design? Is a mandala art or design? There is no general answer to either question, but if computer graphics share any common quality, it is a sense of a kind of universal energy, structure and form. Computers are "designed as closely as possible to duplicate the processes of the human mind, and this parallels the processes of Pythagorean harmony and order. Some computer technicians have achieved interesting effects by concentrating on "bugs," but the strongest computer-generated art suggests a process in which psychic energy and the energies of physics are precisely harmonized and synthesized.

In his introduction to the catalogue, Reichardt notes that "Cybernetic Serendipity deals with possibilities rather than achievement. There are no heroic claims to be made because computers have so far neither revolutionized music, nor art, nor poetry, in the same way that they have revolutionized science."

But the catalogue contains one extraordinary piece of writing which might be considered a lyric prophecy of revolution to come. It is called SAM, by Stafford Beer:

Patterns — rigid or chaotic —are the stuff of the universe ...

Therefore of both art and artifacts ...

The rigid patterns do not change at all.

Wallpaper patterns, the triangle of the Sistine Madonna,

The proportions of the Parthenon,

The shape of a fugue —

Of a ballade —

Are like the pattern of an engine,

Of a computer,

Of an aircraft.

Chaotic patterns change eternally:

A waterfall or a thunderhead,

The scurrying of ants,

Clouds, wind and sea —

Atonal music and action painting,

Mobiles and the Aeolian harp

Are matched in science

By the alpha-particle,

The collision of gas molecules,

The noise of the radio star.

What lies between rigidity and chaos —

Which both have their art and their science?

It is change within order

Which perhaps defines design

Variations on a theme for art —

And for science the stochastic process.

A stochastic process generates a pattern

Which is almost rigid in the long run

Through a long series of apparently random events.

It is defined by mathematical statistics.

Will the next toss yield heads or tails?

Nobody knows.

But in a long enough series of tosses

Half will be heads, half tails

It is possible to generate a rigid pattern

By a random series of events ...

The computer says something, in physical form andmechanism,

About the chaotic fufillment of rigid patterns —

About Design.