If you’re in New York this fall, check out Scratch Code at the Bitforms Gallery. The show looks at the origins of computer-based art, pulling together some of the earliest artists who used software to create their works. It’s amazing ---and unexpected----to see what was being done in the late 40’s through the mid 70’s.
By late 1970’s computer graphics and painting systems became widely available--- dealing a terrific setback to the possibility of computer art. The paint brush, an old medium, had been replicated on computers, a new medium. The brush had been replaced…with the brush. Not a breakthrough. Marshall McLuhan often observed that old media are the content of new media until we get around to figuring out the real meaning of a new medium. Early movies were often theatrical plays caught on film (complete with proscenium), until directors like D.W. Griffith came along and invented the language of film. The only thing "on" early radio was ship-to-shore communication (the telegraph, but this time with speech) until Sarnoff conceived of the radio music box and helped give birth to broadcasting. And early computer graphics systems made it too easy for computers to serve as an electronic brush…with largely predictable results. (This was good news for the crafts of design, illustration and industrial art. But not a breakthrough in art-as-expression.)
By 2001, authentic code-based art had give birth to itself. Two big museum shows that year put computer art on the map: 01010 at SFMOMA art and Bitstreams at the Whitney were exciting, groundbreaking, and popular. By then enough kids who were bound to become artists had grown up with computers and gone to places like MIT that they were inventing new artistic forms. And by 2001 the public had sufficient personal knowledge of issues like privacy and information overload that art that dealt with these themes resonated with audiences. Artists were doing innovative things: Mark Napier built network based art and works that deconstructed the web. Golan Levin built interactive pieces---for cell phones as well as screens. (Full disclosure: I collect these guys. Their stuff is cool!)
So I kinda figured the good stuff was fairly recent and the stuff from the late 70’s on was mostly technicians playing with computer graphics systems. It didn't occur to me that there’s an amazing prehistory to computer art, which is what’s on display in this show. Before we all lived with computers, before there was the crutch of computer graphic systems, an artists who wanted to create in the computing medium had to invent something entirely original---a bona fide new idea--- and then build it from scratch with code and hardware. Here’s Ben Laposky using an analog computer in 1948 creating patterns on an oscilloscope display with the energy of a dancer in motion. Or Manfred Mohr (from who’s 1970-1975 portfolio Scratch Code lends the show its name) writing code based on geometric rules to create amazing patterns in software. Several of the featured artists exhibited in a landmark 1967 computer art show in London called "Cybernetic Serendipity” that drew about 60,000 people and was considered one of the major events in the institutionalization of media art. We in the tech business are famous for remarkably short institutional memories. That’s why this show is so unexpected and so satisfying; it’s a bit of artistic archeology revealing the creative energy and artistic thinking that burst forth at the dawn of the computer age and has been largely forgotten. Bitforms is at 529 West 20th Street in Chelsea. The show closes on January 6th.
Postscript: Of course there are other early computer artists who are not in the show. One of the best is my friend Harold Cohen who began teaching his computer about his personal aesthetics in the 1970’s and has spent the last 30’s years developing AARON, a program which has learned to paint autonomously. Cohen pioneered the application of artificial intelligence to artistic creativity. Watching the program become a better and better painter over the years is kind of like watching a kid grow up and develop new talents.