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Ideas Before Their Time:
Connecting the past and the Present in Computer Art

“There is a mine, a treasure trove, a hoard – I cannot emphasize this too strongly – of art ideas that emerged in the early decades of computer that still have not remotely been explored. We know how this happens. The next big thing comes along and the Zeitgeist has its demands: things get left behind…“

- Brian Reffin-Smith, “From 0 to 1”, White Heat Cold Logic, p388

The Symposium

Taking Brian Reffin-Smith’s quote as an inspiration, we aim to explore the ideas that have arisen over the lifetime of “computer art” since the 1960s. Over the past four decades, computer artists have innovated in significant ways but many of the concepts they explored were never taken to their conclusion. Primitive technologies and changing art practices consigned many of these ideas to obscurity. It was for this reason that we invited Brian to give the Keynote and happily he has obliged, taking an overview of the situation of computer art and arguing that “Perhaps we should at least mentally redefine computer arts as being made by, with, or because or in spite of the computer.” Brian insists that the digital arts should explore entirely new areas rather than revisiting what other art-forms have already done: “It is the difficult, the problematic in computer-based arts that we should keep, rediscover, re-explore. I think we often misunderstood what art was.”

This gets close to the core of what “computer art” might actually be, a question that has had a central place in the research of the CACHe and CAT AHRC Projects. The questions surrounding the idea of a specific “computer art” include the following:

1. What is the computer medium? Is it the partly illusory, partly real space conjured from mathematical coordinates as depicted on the monitor? Is it the process-based dynamic “operational space” evoked by writing and running software? Or perhaps the conceptual and informational space entered by the artist working with the computer?

2. What is the computer’s most important contribution to visual art? Does it come from the synaesthetic potential of combining the tools for 2D and 3D imagery, movies and sound in one interactive package? Does it derive from the promises of artificial intelligence with the computer functioning as a semi-intelligent assistant, if not a full-blown creative agent in its own right? Is it the interconnectivity of practitioners and public achieved through the Net and Web 2.0? Or is it rather the conceptual aspects of computation and information that caused the pioneers to explore early computers for art?

3. Why did the first generation of computer art pioneers turn to the computer? Was it an inevitable development and if so does it demonstrate an urge to “colonise” new spaces with creative activity, in a manner similar to our forebears working on cave walls and sheets of bark to make symbolic and depictive imagery? Did it all derive from the same source or were there a number of routes into early computer art? And could “computer art” be described as an art movement per se, or was this only a feature of the early days when numerous practitioners subscribed to a similar set of values?

4. The repertoire of computer output has steadily increased from plotter drawings to screen-based imagery, to large-scale projections and most recently to 3D printing, not forgetting computer-controlled audio-visual installations and robots. How are these new forms of output impacting the form of computer art, not to mention its perception and reception? As we have discovered during our documentary projects such as CACHe and CAT, computer art that most closely approximates traditional paper-based art is most easily conserved. Yet even these prints are the result of dynamic software processes.

5. Computer art was one of the earliest manifestations of digital imagery and many pioneers were instrumental in developing modern computer graphics. The computer has now become the primary image-creation tool across a broad swathe of industries, from film to television to graphic design to architecture. Peoples’ daily engagement with digital imagery (and sound) in the context of digital devices has risen exponentially over the past decade. With the rise of augmented reality delivered via mobile phones, the digital now has a direct relation to our physical spaces as well. This entire structure of personal engagement with data might be termed “technoculture” as it has a definite cultural impact. Where then does “computer art” sit with regard to this emerging area, to which it contributes but still sits somewhat apart as “art”?

To explore these ideas further, the Birkbeck team of the Computer Art and Technocultures AHRC Project have organised the Symposium into five areas. Each of these includes practitioners, curators, theorists, archivists and historians examining the concepts of Computer Art in relation to the questions posed above:

Computer Art & Cybernetics
Before Computer Art even emerged, artists were engaging with the concept of Cybernetics and discovering how to view and depict systems. Shows such as ‘This is Tomorrow’ (1956) formed part of the background to the adoption of computers into art. There was a significant overlap between early Computer Art and researchers in Cybernetics, leading to seminal exhibitions in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the UK, Europe and USA. Later, Computer Art engaged with Artificial Intelligence which subsumed some of the concepts of Cybernetics, and now that area is being rediscovered by historians and artists. This cyclical nature of Cybernetics, and its particular concerns with feedback and interactivity, make it a good starting point for our conference.

Computer Art & Time
Computer Art unifies process, time and information through the use of code. Early Computer Art developed an information-based aesthetic proposed by Herbert Franke and Max Bense to account for its changeability over time. Later, computer animation emerged as a field in itself and has gone on to dominate the animation industry. In another time-based role, computers have long been deployed to control kinetic sculptures and responsive media. Even in terms of image and video editing, the computer provides a non-linear approach to time that is fundamentally connected to its software.

Computer Art & Space
Virtual space is one of the most interesting aspects of the computer's contribution to human perception, because it is both intangible and yet externalised and relates to humans’ visual imagination. The development of networked online environments like Second Life is a further stage in the investigation of this virtual space. Early computer art theorists like Herbert Franke and Roy Ascott foresaw what networked computers might achieve for art. Equally, the computer can manifest itself in physical space through various tangible interfaces and installations, which enable group interactions. “Computer Art & Space” will cover virtual and real space, and consider how computer art has colonised previously inconceivable spaces that are generated purely through software processes.

Computer Art & Output
Digital technologies continue to penetrate every level of our culture and new technologies call forth responses from artists who choose to work in the digital domain. Output looks at digital artists who have used advanced digital design methods and fabrication processes over the last four decades to make physical things from virtual data. These artists from Robert Mallary to Julian Opie are creative individuals who engage the pragmatics of technology and the free invention of art and bring them to a successful synthesis. Their work has enabled research that encompasses scientific exploration of materials the cross fertilization of old and new technologies and the possibilities of new forms.

Computer Art & Technocultures
"Technocultures" refers to the interface between computer art and the wider sphere of technologically-mediated social experiences, and the way that computer technologies permeate our society. The technological and cultural sphere that sustains Computer Art in the broadest sense might be termed a "technoculture". Now that our society is integrally based upon advanced technologies, the notion of deploying them for art is no longer as alien as it seemed in the 1950s and 60s. In this respect, an important shift has taken place and a wide range of artists are using digital procedures in their work. The question now arises whether "Computer Art" as such has any distinction from the use of digital tools by artists, and to what extent it is useful to continue using this term alongside "New Media" and other umbrella categories that arose from 1990 onwards.

We anticipate an intriguing meeting of minds, concepts and artworks at the Symposium.

The Editors – Nick Lambert, Jeremy Gardiner & Francesca Franco